Category Archives: Culture & Heritage

India’s Hottest Destinations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offbeat Heritage: It’s Monumental

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On the occasion of The International Day for Monuments and Sites (18 April) or World Heritage Day, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY uncover lesser known places of heritage in India

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We stared wide-eyed at Mahabat Maqbara. Never in our wildest dreams had we imagined stumbling upon a monument as grand as this in dusty Junagadh. Built in 1892 for Nawab Mahabat Khan II (1851-1882), the mausoleum was a unique blend of European and Indo-Islamic architecture.

French windows stretched from floor to lintel and Gothic columns shared space alongside Islamic arches and ornate flourishes. Adjacent, and similar in grandeur, stood the florid mausoleum of the Vizier Sheikh Mohamed Bahauddinbhai Hasambhai surrounded by four minarets with elaborate spiral stairways.

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The historic town in southern Gujarat had its share of monuments – from Ashokan edicts to Buddhist caves of Uperkot Fort, the sacred Girnar Hill dotted with shrines and mind numbing murals of the Darbargadh at the old capital of Sihor. It’s hard to stand out in a country with a plethora of UNESCO World Heritage heavyweights…

The Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri, the monuments of Delhi, forts and palaces of Rajasthan, the temples of Khajuraho-Orchha, Buddhist caves of Ajanta-Ellora and the Kailasanatha temple, the Sanchi stupa, churches of Old Goa, ruins of the Vijayanagara Empire at Hampi, stunning Hoysala temples at Belur-Halebid to Chalukyan architecture at Badami-Aihole-Pattadakal and the Great Living Chola temples of Thanjavur, Darasuram and Gangaikondacholapuram…

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Yet, on our journeys through Gujarat, we came across a wealth of lesser-known treasures – from stepwells, gateways to monuments. UNESCO World Heritage site Champaner-Pavagadh is a vast archeological park near Baroda spread over 2500 acres with monuments stretching from Pavagadh Hill, an early Hindu citadel extending to Champaner, the 15th century capital of Sultan Mahmud Begda (1458-1511) of Gujarat.

Now reclaimed by bramble, the old mosques flanked by minarets with arched entrances and jharokhas take the breath away of any visitor. Shaher ki Masjid was built for the royal family and nobles, the Nagina, Khajuri and Kevda Masjids were named after the shape of the dome and the Jami Masjid was counted among the finest mosques in Gujarat.

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A drive to the Statue of Unity from Baroda, passes through Dabhoi, an ancient fortified town known for its old fort and exquisitely carved gateways. The main entrance is the intricate Hira Bhagol (Gate), extending to the Gadh Bhavani Kalika Mandir. The spectacular gateway harks to the legend of its architect Hiradhar, who was buried here alive because the king feared that he would replicate a similar masterpiece for someone else. Some say Hira ran short of stones, thereby incurring the king’s wrath.

A hidden gem and one of Surat’s most important historical monuments are the European tombs of merchants and functionaries of the East India Company who worked in the factories at Surat. The English Cemetery has the impressive grave of the Oxenden brothers while the most majestic structure in the Dutch cemetery is the octagonal tomb of Baron Hendrik Adrian van Rheede. The adjacent Armenian cemetery has no superstructure, only elaborately inscribed tombstones.

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In neighbouring Rajasthan, an oft-overlooked destination is Bikaner, with its Rampuria havelis, Junagadh Fort, Laxmi Niwas Palace and Narendra Bhawan, the erstwhile residence of Bikaner’s last maharaja which has been recently renovated with rooms and décor inspired by his life and times.

Stay at Bhanwar Nivas or Gaj Kesri while going on tonga rides through the Old City or do the specially curated Merchants Trail. Mandawa in Shekhawati used to be an important stopover en route to Bikaner but the region is worthy of deeper exploration.

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In 15th century, Rao Shekhaji (1433-88), scion of the Shekhawat clan of the Kachhwaha dynasty conquered a vast area north of Amber. Over time, his descendants set up smaller thikanas (fiefdoms), raising new villages, forts and palaces, which attracted Marwari traders.

Using riches amassed through trade, the merchants built flamboyant painted havelis, often vying to outdo the other. Located at the junction of Churu, Sikar and Jhunjhunu the 13,784 sq km area called Shekhawati is thus described as ‘the largest open-air gallery in Rajasthan’.

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Nawalgarh, founded by Thakur Nawal Singh, has stunning mansions like the late 18th century Morarka Haveli and Dr Ramnath A Podar Haveli Museum. The Narain Niwas Castle in Mahansar was built in 1768 by Nawal Singh ji for his second son Thakur Nahar Singh. Nearby, is one of the best painted havelis in Shekhawati – Sone Chandi ki Dukan or Golden Room built in 1846 inside a Podar haveli. Ramgarh holds the largest number of frescoes in Shekhawati with the biggest mansion being Sawalka Haveli. The Khandelwal family renovated the century old Khemka Haveli into the Ramgarh Fresco Hotel and organizes walking tours around the painted town.

In Himachal, we found another heritage town called Garli. It is said that the 52 clans of the hill Sood community were driven out of Rajasthan by marauding Mughals and came to the Kangra Valley. Here, they became treasurers of the Kangra royals and as contractors, helped the British built Shimla. Settled around the hamlets of Garli and its twin town Pragpur 4km away, they used their riches to set up palatial homes showcasing jaw-dropping architectural styles. Many are crumbling but few like Chateau Garli and Naurang Yatri Nivas have been painstakingly restored and thrown open to visitors.

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A heritage walk through the cobbled meandering alleys is the best way to explore the town. The Spiti Left Bank Trek takes you to high altitude villages like Komic, the highest in Asia with a stunning old monastery, and Dhankar, the site of a crumbling gompa that was the first to be built in Spiti and as per legend will be the last to fall.

Another relatively undiscovered architectural treasure is Burhanpur in Central India. Between 1600 and 1720, it served as a secondary Mughal capital and finishing centre where princes and princesses were groomed. Akbar, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb, Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana all served as governors for over three decades each. Burhanpur has a staggering 126 monuments – the most after Delhi – including 35 key sights. Here, Sanskrit shared space alongside Arabic in Adil Shah’s two mosques Jama Masjid in Burhanpur and the lofty citadel of Asirgarh.

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The riverside palace complex Shahi Kila was expanded into Mughalbagh by the Mughals who overthrew the Farookis. Here, Shah Jahan built a grand hamam for Mumtaz Mahal suffused with paintings and inlaid with precious stones to reflect the lamp light. The entire ceiling is redolent with intricate paintings and a closer look reveals how some of the iconic motifs seem to be inspired by royal turbans and accessories worn by Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Begum.

Not many know that Mumtaz died in Burhanpur while giving birth to her fourteenth child and was laid to rest at her beloved Ahukhana, a hunting ground turned rose garden. Jehangir built a dar-ul-shifa (hospital) and a mardana underground Turkish bath where 125 men could bathe at a time; it lay hidden under a mound of earth until excavated 25 years ago.

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There’s no dearth of architectural wonders in Burhanpur. The Black Taj Mahal is the tomb of warrior Shah Nawaz Khan, Khan-i-khana’s son murdered by Aurangzeb. Begum Shah Shuja ka Makbara (tomb of Bilkis Jahan), wife of Shah Jahan’s fourth son Shah Shuja, is a simple yet marvelous monument with exquisite murals that is kept under lock and key to prevent vandalism. The caretaker will happily open it for visitors who wish to see the interior wall niches that are studded with jewel-like paintings, thankfully still intact in portions.

Some sites remain imprinted in our minds vividly because of the sheer impact, be it the massive rock cut Jain statues on Gopachal Parvat while climbing up to Gwalior Fort or the gigantic Buddhist figurines of Kanheri caves in Borivali, Mumbai. From the blue and gold motifs of Raja Man Singh’s fort in Gwalior to the sight of the tomb of Bahmani sultans at Ashtur struck by lightning or the soaring madrasa of Mahmud Gawan in Gulbarga (now Kalaburagi)…

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Be it the glazed finesse of the pillars and carvings at the Madhukeshwara temple in Banavasi, the old capital of the Kadambas or the symmetry of the twin temples of Mosale near Hassan; we tried to go beyond the known to the lesser known. If the terracotta temples of Bishnupur and West Bengal are overdone, try the terracotta temple complex of Maluti in Jharkhand.

In Chhattisgarh, the ruins at Tala on the banks of the Maniari river is a fascinating site. Built out of red sandstone by two Sarabhpuriya queens in the 6th century, the twin Shiva shrines of Devrani (Young Sister-in-law)-Jethani (Elder Sister-in-law). Exquisite carvings lie strewn like a jigsaw puzzle – remains of an elephant-drawn chariot, majestic pillars with four lion heads and outré bharvahak ganas (weight-bearing gargoyles).

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Beside an ornate doorway, the 8.8 ft tall sculpture of Rudra Shiva glared in stony silence from a grilled enclosure, with the goat-headed figure of Daksha bowed in reverence. The statue of Mahakal Rudra weighs 9 tonnes and is intriguing as it’s believed to represent the signs of the zodiac – coiled snakes for matted locks, two fish instead of a moustache, round chin shaped like a crab, stomach in the form of a kumbh (pot), two lion heads for knee caps and waist marked by the faces of four maidens. In the past, Tala was a prominent seat of Tantric worship.

There are many places in India that bear traces of colonial trade. While Pondicherry (Puducherry) is well known for its French heritage, Chandannagar further up the East coast 37km from Kolkata is relatively undiscovered French outpost. Taking the Grand Trunk Road to the Liberty gate emblazoned with the French motto, you are drawn into an old world of French colonialism and Bengali aristocracy.

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Mansions like Nundy-bari, Kanhai Seth’er Bari, Nritya Gopal Smriti Mandir, Patal Bari and Sri Nandadulal temple coexist alongside St Joseph’s Convent, the 1878 Hotel de Paris (now Sub-divisional court), 1887 Thai Shola hotel (presently Chandannagar college) and erstwhile residence of Governor Francois Dupleix, now the Institut de Chandernagor museum.

‘Trankebar’ on the Coromandel Coast was the only Danish outpost in India. The Danes leased the coastal village of Tharangambadi (literally, Land of the Dancing Waves) from the Maharaja of Thanjavur, fortified it and after 250 years of trade, eventually sold it to the British. The arched Landsporten or Town Gate beckons you in like a portal as you walk down Kongensgade or King’s Street lined by stately buildings.

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Zion Church, the oldest Protestant Church in India, consecrated in 1701, New Jerusalem Church of 1718, a fusion of Indo-German architecture, the Governor’s Bungalow, now a museum, Commander’s House and Neemrana’s Bungalow on the Beach – it’s like a walk through time as you reach Dansborg Fort, a rare specimen of Scandinavian defense architecture in India.

While in Tamil Nadu, a state weighed down by enviable temples and the architectural treasure of Chettinad, lesser known sights still manage to startle you. Narthamalai is a cluster of nine hills with the longest edicts and oldest rock-cut cave temples in South India. At the hillock of Melamalai, we were drawn by the spire of the Vijayalayacholeswaran Temple.

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

Built by Vijayalaya Chola, it served as a prototype for the Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur. Much smaller, the likeness was uncanny! Thirumerkoil, a cave temple on a platform decorated with elephants, makaras and yalis, held a dozen bas-relief sculptures of Vishnu standing on lotus pedestals. In the adjacent cave shrine of Pazhiyileeswaram, a nandi and dwarapalas (gatekeepers) guarded a massive linga.

At the quiet hillock of Kadambarmalai, rainwater had collected in natural stone cavities and the 1400-year-old temple hewn into the hillock had inscriptions of Rajaraja I and Rajendra II etched on the hillside. There was not a soul in sight as we watched wild birds hop around, sipping and bathing undisturbed in the natural tank, where ancient boulders scripted stories of a past we knew little about. No matter how far or offbeat we ventured into this vast country of ours, we were humbly reminded how we were only scratching the surface…

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 21 April 2019 as the cover story in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper. 

The Colossus: Statue of Unity

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A trip to Gujarat is now incomplete without seeing the world’s tallest statue, say ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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Fine. The Diwali weekend may not have been the best time to set out to see the Statue of Unity. We left Baroda on a Saturday morning, naively calculating that we’d drive two hours to the statue, spend an hour or two there and head to Surat. The roads were lined with congratulatory signboards – ‘the world’s tallest statue, built by L&T in just 33 months, a world record’.

Comparative posters showed how other iconic statues measured up… or didn’t. Christ the Redeemer in Brazil 38m, Statue of Liberty 93m, Ushiku Daibutsu in Japan 120m, Spring Temple Buddha in China 153 m; the 182m tall statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel dwarfed them all.

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Thinking we had left early, we turned off the highway into Dabhoi to check out its old southern gateway Nandodi Gate. The once fortified town had four gateways and the main one Hira Bhagol (Gate) was suffused with intricate carvings and pillared arches. One side extended as the Gadh Bhavani Kalika Mandir. Local legends recount how Hiradhar, the architect was buried here alive!

Some claim it was because the king did not want him to replicate a similar masterpiece for anyone else. Others say Hira ran short of stones as he pilfered them to create a tank for his lover, thereby incurring the king’s wrath. Whatever the story, death was a heavy price to pay for a skilled architect. Yet, Hira’s name lives on…

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Soon, we were back on the highway towards Kevadiya. We had a sinking feeling as every vehicle seemed headed that way, but it was too late to turn back. Whenever any car halted for tea or snacks, we rejoiced as it meant lesser people to deal with. Eventually, we joined a slow moving traffic jam.

After an eternity we were directed to a massive makeshift parking lot. We shuffled out and joined a large mass of people on the road. It seemed like we were trapped in the Maha Kumbh mela or the mass migration of wildebeests.

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Ten minutes later, we noticed people cross to the left and join a serpentine queue leading to the ticket area. To our horror, the counter was like an octopus with multiple queues. Further away, a long line of buses trailed with more queues. Every face was writ with grim determination – “I am going to see this statue today, no matter what!”

Ashen, we approached some security personnel who directed us to an office. We were told, “It is an impossible situation. Such crowds had not been anticipated. One lift has packed up. Those waiting might get a chance in a few hours, maybe evening…” There was no shame in cutting losses; we would live to fight another day.

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One of Sardar Patel’s lasting legacies was the peaceful accession of over 560 princely states into the Union of India. We dropped by at one such erstwhile kingdom nearby – Rajpipla. Some unsuccessful castaways from the statue expedition were trying to derive some pleasure or meaning from the dreary museum at Rajvant Palace, which had clearly seen better days. Kids ran with glee in the odd shaped dry swimming pool at the back. We returned for another attempt after our weeklong south Gujarat tour.

The long drive from the Dangs of Saputara back to Baroda barely left us enough time to cover the statue en route before we flew out the next morning. It was now or never. How could we possibly go back not having seen “The Statue”? The one the whole world was talking about – of how much it cost (2,989 crore rupees) and whether it was needed? We imagined the incredulous inquisition that would follow. “You couldn’t see it?” “What do you mean there was a crowd?” Fearing public ridicule, we drove into Kevadiya by late afternoon with iron will and steely resolve to meet India’s Iron Man.

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It wasn’t as bad as Diwali but crowds were still lining up. Luckily, a chance to check out the new Tent City on the banks of the Sardar Sarovar Dam gave us a back-route access in our own vehicle rather than the public shuttle. Driving past Zero Point to the main canal of the Narmada, we stopped at Dyke IV, where 55 tents of Tent City 1 overlooked the scenic backwaters.

Further along the reservoir at Dyke III, Tent City 2’s 188 tents stretched out like a mini city. Gujarat Tourism offered all-inclusive multi-day packages with excursions to the dam-site, Valley of Flowers, Shoolpaneshwar Temple and Rajvant Palace & Museum at Rajpipla.

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Our heart skipped a beat when we finally saw the statue outlined in the afternoon haze. Constructed on Sadhu Bet, a river island, it was accessible by a wide walkway lined with travelators on either side. On the opposite side of the river, the words ‘Statue of Unity’ screamed from the hillside in Hollywood-esque fashion. Looming high, Sardar seemed to watch the people scurrying below.

A series of escalators transported visitors up to his feet. We seemed like two stitches in his sandal strap! Built out of steel framing, reinforced concrete and bronze cladding (incidentally, made in China), the statue was designed to withstand earthquakes and wind velocities of 60 m/s.

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The mandatory selfie over, we ambled down to the hi-tech Exhibition Hall and Gallery below. As part of an outreach drive and a symbolic gesture, farmers across India had donated their old farming implements. By 2016, 135 metric tonnes of scrap iron had been collected as part of the Loha and Mitti campaigns. After due processing, 109 tonnes was used for the foundation. One section of the gallery was devoted to the making of the statue and how 3500 workmen toiled night and day for three years. The statue was finally unveiled on Sardar Patel’s 143rd birth anniversary.

Dominating the hall was the face of Sardar Patel, an exact replica of the main statue in a proportion of 1:5. It was designed by Padma Bhushan awardee Shri Ram V Sutar. Similar scale models of the statue have been installed elsewhere – a 30 ft statue in Gandhinagar and a 21 ft statue at Bardoli, where Patel led a satyagraha and gained the title ‘Sardar’. The museum catalogued his life and contribution while an adjoining audio-visual gallery screened a 15-minute show on Patel and the state’s tribal culture.

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Two high-speed elevators zipped up and down the concrete towers that form the statue’s legs. In just 30 seconds, 26 visitors are transported to the 153 m (502 ft) high viewing gallery, which can accommodate 200 people. As luck would have it, one of the lifts had conked. The security guys looked dazed like club bouncers at dawn after a Saturday night party. Irate people hung around the elevator doors in uncertainty, as we wondered if the maintenance guy would suffer the fate of Hira the architect at the hands of the king.

Surely, logistics and infrastructure issues will be smoothened out. Meanwhile, the food court is being populated, the sound and light show is getting its final touches and the road to Kevadiya has been made into a four-lane highway. With direct flights to Baroda and Surat, tourism is all set to prosper in a quiet nook that was not even a destination. Ironically (no pun intended), the Sardar Patel statue has been as controversial as the Sardar Sarovar Dam it calmly surveys. But TV debates aside, by sheer numbers it was turning out to be the hottest tourist attraction of the year.

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Fact File 

Getting there
Fly to Baroda and drive 95km/2 hrs to the Statue of Unity at Kevadiya. It is 154km/3 hr 30 min from Surat and 200km/4 hrs from Ahmedabad. Visitors must leave all private vehicles at the parking lot from where buses ferry you to/from the statue.

Entry
Statue of Unity Ticket Centres at Kevadiya: Shrestha Bharat Bhavan, Swagat Sthal, Hotel Pratima
Timings: 9am-5pm, closed on Monday for maintenance.
Viewing Gallery: Adults Rs.350, Children Rs.200, Bus Rs.30.
Book tickets for a 2-hr slot online at www.soutickets.in

Where to Eat
There’s a food court at the Statue of Unity, though Hotel Narmada on the highway at Rajpipla is a good place for a bite.

Also visit
Crocodile spotting at Sardar Sarovar Dam
Shoolpaneshwar Mahadev Temple (13km)
Rajvant Palace & Museum, Rajpipla (28km)
Nilakanth Dham, Swami Narayan Temple, Poicha (45km)
Kalika temple & Hira Gate, Dabhoi (56km)

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Where to Stay

Narmada Tent City 1 & 2
Sardar Sarovar dam site, Kevadiya
Ph 079-27454646, 9797949494
www.tentcitynarmada.com
Tariff 1 night/2 day package Rs.6,000 per person + GST for Luxury tent, Rs.4500 deluxe AC, Rs.3000 standard non AC, 2 night/3 day package Rs.10,500 per person + GST for Luxury tent, Rs.9000 deluxe AC, Rs.6000 standard non AC

Rajvant Palace Resort
Vijay Palace, Palace Road, Rajpipla
Ph 8469137327
www.rajvantpalace.com

Grand Mercure Vadodara Surya Palace
Sayajigunj, Opp Parsi Agiary, Baroda
Ph 0265-2363265
www.accorhotels.com

Four Points by Sheraton Baroda 
1275 Ward, No. 7, Fatehgunj, Baroda
Ph 0265-6160000
www.marriott.com

Arudh Mahal homestay
B/S Shree Residency Apartments, Lulla Classes lane, Piramittar Road, Dandia Bazaar, Baroda
Ph 9998034545
Email arudhmahal@gmail.com
Tariff Rs.1700

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the Jan 2019 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

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/