Category Archives: Hills

Binsar: A burst of buransh


ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY base themselves at Club Mahindra Binsar Valley to explore the Kumaoni mountain retreat and wildlife sanctuary


From Kathgodam railway station, the winding mountain road took us via the pristine lakeside retreat of Bhimtal and further onto Kainchi Dham and Almora to the pine-scented air of Binsar. A heavy drizzle cleaned up the tarmac and the feathery branches of conifers shivered in the breeze, infusing a piney aroma with hints of earthy dampness. At Club Mahindra Binsar Valley Resort, a traditional welcome awaited us along with a cool glass of buransh or rhododendron juice!

General Manager Himanshu Mathpal led us to the cottages explaining how “The design is based on Katyuri architecture with two-levels, the upper level being a little inset.” In the garden stood beautiful aadu (apricot) and badam (almond) trees laden with pale white blossoms. After high tea and snacks on a grassy perch, we hiked 20 minutes to Club Mahindra’s annexe Manipur Villa, a cluster of wooden cottages on stilts set on a hilltop. It was the mystical night of the Super Moon perfect for a lavish dinner by a blazing bonfire, sharing stories about leopard encounters around Binsar wildlife sanctuary. Thankfully, we opted out of trudging back in the dark and hopped into a jeep instead.


We set off early next morning to catch the sunrise at Zero Point on the summit of Jhandi Dhar hills. Entering through the forest department checkpost, we noticed that buransh (rhododendron) – Uttarakhand’s state flower – was in full bloom. Soon, the entire hillside would be carpeted in a lusty explosion of red. Parking near the KMVN guesthouse, we hiked along a 2km trail to Zero Point past patches of snow, where a stone watchtower offered an uninterrupted view of Himalayan peaks. Stretching over a 300 km range stood Kedarnath, Chaukhamba, Shivling, Trisul, Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot and Panchachuli. Some movement in the bushes alarmed a group of Bengali tourists but disappointingly it turned out to be a furtive troupe of macaques.

As strips of mist rose and sunrays slowly gilded the panorama of distant peaks, it was easy to see why the Katyuri and Chand kings of Kumaon chose Binsar as their summer capital. Drawn by its exquisite beauty, Sir Henry Ramsay, the commissioner of Kumaon (1856-1884) based in Almora, moved the administration 23 km to the cooler climes of Binsar during summer. Binsar’s bracing climate and green forests attracted colonial officers to establish retreats in these hills; many are run as private resorts today.


The name ‘Binsar’ was a British corruption of its older name Bineshwar, a manifestation of Lord Shiva. These forests have been sacred since the time of the Saptarishis (seven great sages) who meditated here, hence its ancient name Satkhol. Even today, pilgrims trek through the forest to pay homage to Bineshwar Mahadev, whose temple is located at the exact centre of a mystical cross, with Shiva and Shakti shrines 14 km north, south, east and west of it.

We returned for a leisurely breakfast at the restaurant Bird Song, aptly named, as we dined to a chatter of Oriental White-eyes, tits and thrushes. It was a short drive to the temple town of Jageshwar, 34 km from Almora, considered as one of the twelve Jyotirlingas. Nestled in a beautiful valley ringed by lofty deodars or Himalayan cedar (from deo-daru, literally ‘wood of the gods’), the dense thicket cut off the sun as we tiptoed across the cold stone floor of the temple complex.


There are nearly 125 shrines big and small, built by the Katyuri (7-10th century AD) and Chand (11-18th century AD) dynasties, dedicated to Lord Shiva’s various forms – Baleshwar, Kedareshwar, Mrityunjaya, Lakulish and Yogeshwar, which got corrupted to Jageshwar. Priests sat on mats chanting or conversing while newly married Kumaoni couples came for darshan and selfies.

In a shaded grove by a stream we enjoyed our packed Gourmet Express lunch of kati rolls and sandwiches. On our return we stopped at another ancient shrine Chitai Golu Devta temple, believed to be over a thousand years old. Revered as ‘nyay ka devta’ or the arbiter of justice, ‘Golu devta’ was allegedly a fair Katyuri king of Kumaon who was venerated as a deity. We entered what seemed like a long tunnel of bells of every size tacked with heaps of paper sheets. Devotees scribble prayers on notes, even stamp papers and agreements to seek divine assistance in court cases and offer bells when their wish comes true. The priest smiled before adding “This is nothing, there’s much more in the godown!”


At Almora, we stopped to pick up some singaudi (khoa in cones made of screwpine leaves) and the legendary ‘bal mithai’ – a sticky caramel sweet studded with tiny sugar balls. A quick halt at organic store with a fabulous array of Kumaoni produce had us walking out with a big haul of flavoured honey, homemade pickles, exotic rhododendron juice and nettle salad dressing besides deliciously packaged nature-based cosmetics, soaps and handcrafted woollens.

Back at the resort, the information panel at the reception caught our eye. It flashed a list of ‘must try’ menu specialties at Club Mahindra’s various other properties in the region – steamed chicken roll at Kanatal, kapa ka tandoori chicken at Naukuchiatal, Murg Ghunghat at Mussoorie and chaandi bater musallam in Corbett – slow cooked quail spiced with cardamom, saffron and dry fruits! Interestingly, Binsar had Bhaang Murg and we couldn’t wait to try it out…


A lovely surprise awaited us that evening as we were led to an elevated patch. ‘Gaon ka chulha’ was a special theme dinner with a traditional Kumaoni meal prepared on wood fire. Seated on stools hand-painted by the talented staff and snug inside a kitchen-in-a-tent setting, the show began. Out came the much anticipated bhang murg – chicken marinated with hemp seed paste (looked like pudina chicken, but tasted more herby and nutty) and bichhu booti ki chutney made of tender leaves of stinging nettle.

On a traditional kansa platter that was differently shaped for men and women, was a royal feast – gahat ki dal (horsegram), arbi ke gutke (colocasia wedges), bhang ki jholi (kadhi), bhat ka jola (black soya bean), palak ka kaapa (smoked spinach gravy), jangora (unpolished red rice), madua ki roti (ragi or finger millet), bhaang ki chutney and lapsi (flour porridge).


Stuffed to the point of imbalance, we heaved ourselves out of the rustic feasting chamber, aware of the danger of rolling down the hillside and stopping only at Kathgodam! Binsar’s charms lie in its hospitable warm hearted pahadi folk and its bountiful nature.

Every season ushers something new – March to May the forests are aflame with buransh, in summers the cool mountain air brings respite from the heat of the plains, the monsoon months are misty with dramatic sunsets, autumn promises crisp air and unparalleled views while in winters, the slopes are carpeted with snow. We were indeed lucky to get all of Binsar’s shades in one trip…



Getting there
Binsar is 33 km north of Almora town in Uttarakhand. From Delhi, take a train to Kathgodam, from where it’s a 120km/3½ hr drive to Binsar via Kainchi Dham, Bhimtal and Almora.

Where to stay
Club Mahindra Binsar Valley
Almora-Takula-Bageshwar Road, Bhainsori Post, Almora Dist
Ph 083929 10583

What to Eat
Almora’s famous bal mithai and singauri (khoa wrapped in leaf cones), besides bichchu booti ki chutney, bhaang murg and Kumaoni delicacies at Club Mahindra Binsar Valley

For more info, visit

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article was published in the April 2019 issue of Travel 360, the in-flight magazine of Air Asia.   

Nainital: Through new eyes


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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



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

Where to Stay
Shervani Hilltop Nainital
Ph 05942 233800

Manu Maharani
Ph 05942 237342

The Naini Retreat/The Earl’s Court
Ph 011-46520000, 9555088000

WelcomHeritage Ashdale
Ph 011-46035500

Balrampur House
Ph 05942 236236, 231058

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

Gulmarg: Enchanted Meadow


An all-year round destination, Gulmarg has much to offer – hikes, gondola rides, horse trails, excursions to Baba Reshi and Buta Pathri, besides winter sports, discover ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY

Skiing in Gulmarg - Winter landscape

Every winter, Gulmarg’s snowy slopes transform into a world-class skiing destination boasting the highest ski slopes in Asia. In spring the frozen landscape thaws in preparation for the summer splendor of daisies, forget-me-nots, buttercups, lupins and wild flowers dotting the grassy knolls.

Unlike other tourist spots in the Kashmir Valley, Gulmarg remains open all year round. Immortalized by Bollywood, it was on these pastures that Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz crooned ‘Jai Jai Shiv Shankar’ while Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia sang ‘Hum tum ek kamre mein band hon’ in the film ‘Bobby’. Yet Gulmarg’s romantic tryst was not new…


Local shepherds called it Gaurimarg, the enchanted meadow of Gauri or goddess Parvati, Lord Shiva’s consort. In 16th century Sultan Yousuf Shah of the Chak Dynasty who frequented the heavenly hill resort with his queen Habba Khatoon fondly renamed it Gulmarg (Meadow of Flowers).

Mughal emperor Jehangir collected 21 varieties of wild flowers from here for his gardens. A temple dedicated to the divine pair Shiva-Parvati was built in 1915 by Mohini Bai Sishodia, wife of Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir.


The drive from Srinagar was short as we climbed from Tangmarg through alpine forests. Located in a cup-shaped valley in the Pir Panjal range of the Western Himalayas, Gulmarg was perched at 8,694 ft. The undulating meadow loosely ringed by hotels, shrines and colonial edifices formed the heart of Gulmarg. Pink and blue flowers rebelled against the blanket of green as horses grazed unfettered in the meadows.

Oddly, the credit of ‘discovering’ Gulmarg goes to a Croat architect! Around the mid 1800’s, Michael Adam Nedou sailed to Lahore from the port city of Ragusa (Dubrovnik) to construct a palace for a maharaja in Gujarat. While traveling from Murree (in present-day Pakistan) to Kashmir in 1880, he stumbled upon Gulmarg.


Nedou introduced it as a holiday destination to British aristocrats, civil servants and royalty who would spend the summer fishing, hunting and hiking here. After building his first hotel in Lahore, Michael set up Nedou’s Hotel in Gulmarg in 1888.

However, we were headed not to the oldest but the best address in town – The Khyber. The five star resort with stunning wooden architecture has been voted India’s Favourite Boutique Hotel for the fifth year running at the 2017 Condé Nast Traveller India’s Readers’ Travel Awards!


A whiff of pine welcomed us at the foyer dominated by large Moroccan lamps, plush seating and painted papier-mâché wall panels. Delicious steaming kahwa (Kashmiri tea) awaited us at Chaikash, the tea lounge, before we were ushered to our room.

The balcony opened to a view of the snowy peaks of Apharwat and gabled cottages with green roofs strung with chinar leaf designs. At Cloves restaurant, we savoured a Kashmiri Traami (platter) – a hearty fixed meal of rogan josh (mutton curry), tsaman kalia (paneer in yellow gravy), rista (meat balls in red gravy), tabakmaaz (fried lamb ribs), seekh kebab and haak (greens), served over rice.


The radial road encircles Gulmarg’s central green, part of which forms the world’s highest golf course at 8,690 ft. Gulmarg Golf Club was conceived as a 6-hole course in 1890-91 by Colonel Neville Chamberlain, the man who invented snooker in Ooty! Three golf courses were established in Gulmarg including one exclusively for women. Golfing was so hectic that all three courses had to be used simultaneously – Upper course, Lower course and Rabbit’s course. Only the first of these survives.

Abutting the course was the 1890s Anglican St Mary’s Church surrounded by clumps of wild flowers. Made of austere grey stone, the green-roofed Victorian edifice had beautiful stained glass windows. On the other end atop a grassy bank, Shree Mohineshwar Shivalaya or Maharani temple’s red roof could be spotted from afar. Ironically and in a disarming display of communal harmony, both the Christian and Hindu shrines had Muslim keepers!


A signboard proudly announced ‘Gondola, masterpiece of French technology’. Built by the French company Pomagalski, the Gulmarg Gondola is indeed an engineering marvel. One of the highest in the world, the two-stage ropeway ferries 600 people an hour from Gulmarg to Mary’s Shoulder (3,979 m) on Apharwat Peak (13,800 ft) via Kongdoori.

After stupendous views of the Nanga Parbat and Harmukh mountains, we returned to Khyber to relax with almond detoxifying massages at L’Occitane spa and apple-flavoured sheeshas at the Hookah Lounge.


The next day, we set out to the Shire-like setting of Highland Parks Hotel. Walking past pretty flowerbeds, we reached the famous ‘Bobby’ cottage, where a still from the movie graced the wooden wall. “Six of Rishi Kapoor’s films have been shot here,” the manager drawled, “Shah Rukh Khan, Anushka Sharma and Yash Chopra stayed here in 2012 during Jab Tak Hai Jaan.”

Gulmarg’s brush with Bollywood continues as Haider and Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani too were filmed here. We padded across to the upholstered lounge lined with old lanterns, colonial era paintings, hunting trophies and funny ‘Rules of Golf’ illustrations. The brandy toddy and chili chicken seemed perfect for the chilly weather.


We drove 12km to Baba Reshi, the venerable shrine of Baba Payamuddin, a courtier of 15th century Kashmir King Zain-ul-Abedin. Renouncing his worldly possessions to serve the people, the Sufi saint lived and meditated here. A three-storey monument with lofty minarets was built in 1480 in Mughal and Persian style with the devout flocking to the Noor Khwan (holy grave) for blessings.

Gulmarg has no dearth of adventures. Enjoy mule rides to the meadows of Khilanmarg, bite into freshly plucked Kashmiri apples inside an orchard in Tangmarg, go on an excursion to the Pandav Pathri ruins at eco village Drung or try fishing in wild mountain streams.


At remote Buta Pathri or Nagin Valley near the international border we were warmly welcomed into hutments of nomadic Gujjars and Bakkarwals. Men with flowing beards smoked hookahs sending up smoke trails that diffused into the mist.

An unending procession of sheep posed a roadblock as we patiently allowed them to pass. The mist stirred ever so gently…


Fact File

Getting there:
Fly to Srinagar from Delhi (1 hr 20 min) or Mumbai (2 hr 45 min) and drive 56 km to Gulmarg (90 min).


The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa
Ph 9906603272


Hotel Highlands Park
Ph 01954-254491, 254430, 9419413355

Nedous Hotel
Ph 0195-4254428

Book Gondola ticket online

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in HT City, Mumbai on 4 Jun 2018. 

The Ibnii Coorg: Do the Dew


When it comes to Coorg, most people have ‘Been there, done that.’ ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go offtrack and discover a delicious secret amid the lush green hills

The Ibnii Coorg-Kaadu

For a region often described by locals as ‘60X40’ (measuring 60 miles by 40 miles), understandably there are few secrets in Kodagu (Coorg). Yet, tucked around a bend just off the Sunticoppa-Madikeri Road, the gates of The Ibnii Coorg open into a hidden world of its own. For a project that was ten years in the making and formally opened this February, the eco resort was truly a well kept secret. Literally ‘Dew’, The Ibnii comes as a breath of fresh air in Coorg’s hospitality scene.

A tree-lined cobbled driveway ends at The Kaadu, a scenic viewpoint overlooking the valley that cradles the resort. Welcomed by lovely hostesses draped in local Coorg style saris, we are ushered down a small wooden bridge to a lookout. The check-in is paperless and we savour the view over some bellath (jaggery) coffee, traditionally served to guests in Coorg in the old days. In the distance, the four-tiered Cascade swimming pool breaks the expanse of dense green in a striking splash of turquoise blue.

The Ibnii Coorg-Kaadu reception viewing deck

We linger over another cuppa and only the promise of greater comfort makes us move! A golf cart transports us to our spacious, private pool villa. Each of the 22 Pool Villas, called Kopi Luwak after the Indonesian civet cat coffee, comes with an indoor Jacuzzi and an outdoor pool. Ten Balinese Wooden Cottages on stilts, named Arnetta, overlook a lake – they are open only to couples. Kids are not allowed here due to safety reasons, but safety be damned, kids could surely be made in here…

In a fragile region globally recognized as an ecological hotspot, everything about the resort is eco sensitive. The architecture and landscape was designed without damaging local flora – all the villas and structures are built around existing vegetation and no trees were cut except dead and decaying ones. Three lakes were created on the 120-acre property for rainwater harvesting.

The Ibnii Coorg-Rainwater harvesting lake

Other green practices include a stringent ‘No plastic’ policy, vermi-composting and waste recycling and fresh bottled water. The resort prides itself in having no room service or phone network (though wi-fi is available), encouraging guests to explore the outdoors with true-to-nature holidays that promise fresh air, fresh living and fresh food.

We get a first hand experience on our ‘Bean to Cup’ coffee tour on the process of making coffee and grading of beans. The venue is Kaldi Kaapee, a tranquil lakeside coffee house named after the Ethiopian shepherd who discovered the rejuvenative properties of coffee after he found his goats prance about after feeding on some wild berries. On display are assorted coffee grinding machines, filters and presses as well as single origin coffee from an all-woman village co-operative in Chikmagalur. Yep, it’s called Halli Berri!

The Ibnii Coorg-Kaldi Kaapee coffee shop

The Boulangerie, tucked behind the coffee counter reveals a hi-tech interactive kitchen where baking classes are conducted for kids and adults. Our impromptu session sharpened our blunt baking skills and soon we are sipping cappuccinos outside, nibbling on warm oven fresh crispy puffs we had kneaded and rolled only minutes earlier! The boulangerie also serves delicious biscuits, cookies and cakes.

Walking to the Greenhouse, an in-house garden where fresh veggies and herbs are grown, we learn that the Ibnii kitchen only uses fresh hand-pounded masalas. Packaged products are discouraged and the stress is on food without preservatives. We are pleasantly informed that the resort also makes its own bread, butter, jams, pickles, ketchup, chicken sausage, baked beans, pastas and cakes… and fresh orange juice using Australian oranges.


Taking cues from local Kodava culture are the resort’s themed dining spaces with a traditional touch. Set in a single complex called Pattola Palame (‘collection of silk strands’ and also the title of a cultural tome on Coorg) are Ballele (veg restaurant with meals served on ‘banana leaf’), Masikande (literally ‘charcoal’, a covered outdoor barbecue & grill), The Fig (multi-cuisine restaurant serving Kodava, South Indian & Continental fare) and Bendhoota (a banquet hall named after ‘traditional post-wedding family feast’).

The next morning, following the medley of bird calls, we set off on a Nature Walk & Birdwatching tour with our able guide who helps us spot 45 species of birds besides sharing fascinating stories on flora like Gloriosa superba, locally called tok-poo meaning ‘gun-flower’ and tracking the hoof prints of wild deer that had wandered into the property at night. Our trail ends with duck feeding, though the round of fishing at the pond (as per catch and release) is thwarted by rain.

The Ibnii Coorg-Manja Spa

The evening uncoils itself with a relaxing spa session at Manja Spa named after the ‘turmeric’ herb, used in the Ayurvedic and Western spa treatments. The treatments are designed using locally sourced ingredients (including a Coffee scrub) while the techniques adopt Balinese, Swedish and traditional Ayurvedic styles.

With a lakeside Yoga pavilion on the anvil, The Ibnii takes its eco luxe tag seriously. No wonder it has already won accolades – the best eco luxury resort in the country and the first resort in India to acquire IGBC’s (Indian Green Building Council) Green Homes Platinum Award 2017.



Getting There
The Ibnii Coorg is at Ibnivalvadi village, 4.5 km short of Madikeri town and around 250 km from Bengaluru. Take State Highway 17 (Bengaluru-Mysuru highway) and turn off before Srirangapatna onto State Highway 88 towards Madikeri.

What to See/Do
Besides local birdwatching trails, responsible fishing and a bean to cup coffee tour, the Tibetan monasteries at Bylakuppe near Kushalnagar, the Elephant training camp at Dubare and sights like Raja’s Seat, Mercara Fort, Gaddige and Abbi Falls in Madikeri are close at hand.


The Ibnii Coorg
123, Ibnivalvadi village, Boikeri, Madikeri
Ph +91 88849 90000 Email
Tariff Rs.35,000, meals included

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the August 2017 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

Landour: Writer’s Bloc


Expansive view of the Himalayas, shaded wooded glens and quaint colonial bungalows have made Landour a writers’ getaway for ages, discovers ANURAG MALLICK

Landour-Rokeby Manor Log Cabin

As I set off from Rokeby Manor along the old bridle trail called the ‘Chukkar’ encircling the three summits of Landour ridge, the pre-dawn mountain air was crisp and invigorating. The pretty forested hillside was dotted with gabled bungalows with names like Kenilworth, Ivanhoe, Waverly and Woodstock, echoing themes from Sir Walter Scott’s novels.

Some of the colonial era cottages mirrored their Scottish and Irish heritage – Scottsburn, Wolfsburn, Redburn, Shamrock Cottage, Tipperary, Killarney. It was hard to understand why the British-era cantonment of Landour, 6km uphill from Mussoorie, was named after Llanddowror, a village thousands of miles away in southwest Wales!

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The story goes back to early 19th century, when the British halted the Gurkha conquest of Kumaon–Garhwal and moved from the plains of Dehradun to create a military sanatorium in the hills. In 1825, Captain Young, the ‘discoverer’ of Mussoorie and commandant of the first Gurkha battalion raised after the Gurkha War, built the first permanent home in Landour. His house, Mullingar, was named after his county town in Ireland. By early 20th century, Mullingar became a hotel, and during World War II, was leased to the army to accommodate the spillover of wounded soldiers from the sanatorium.

I followed the path to Lal Tibba or Depot Hill, referring to the convalescent ‘depot’ that stretched around Landour’s highest point Childer’s Lodge. It was the best spot in town to catch a glimpse of a 200km long stretch of the Himalayas. And I was just in time for the spectacle. As dawn broke, the first rays of the sun fell on Himalayan peaks like Swargarohini, Bandarpunch, Chaukhamba and Nanda Devi, turning them pink, red and then a dazzling golden yellow. The telescope on top of the double-storey viewing platform offered a closer look at the ranges.

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Though the Chukkar became motorable in the late 1950s, a leisurely stroll is the best way of enjoying Landour’s few sights strewn along the  circular route – Landour cemetery, Kellogg’s Memorial Church and St. Paul’s Church. I reached Char Dukan, a cluster of Indian-run establishments since colonial times at the site of the old parade ground. Being a Convalescent Depot, correspondence was critical for those recuperating here so Capt Young started the Landour Cantonment Post Office in 1827, which still stood at the chowk.

Locals and tourists flock to Anil’s Café for his chai, parathas, bun-omelette and Maggi. Sachin Tendulkar, who came on a holiday to Mussoorie, made a stopover here and his Twitter endorsement graces the wall. After a large glass of the famous Ginger Lemon Honey Tea, I walked back to Rokeby in time for a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and delicious Mustard Chicken.

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Rokeby Manor, a colonial bungalow painstakingly revamped into a boutique hotel, was built in 1840 by Captain GN Cauthy. Like many of the bungalows, it took its name from the writings of Sir Walter Scott, whose epic poem describes battles fought near Rokeby Castle in England. “I saw his melancholy smile, Where full opposed in front he knew, Where Rokeby’s kindred banner flew…” Rokeby’s restaurant Emily’s was named after British author Emily Eden who stayed in Landour and chronicled the highs and lows of colonial life. Literature runs deep in Landour…

If you turn back the pages of history, Landour’s literary affair is not new. The British cemetery on Camel Back Road is the resting place of John Lang, dubbed as the ‘first Australian novelist’, who lived in Landour between 1850–60s. His grave dating back to 1864 was rediscovered by Ruskin Bond. This quiet nook in the Himalayas is home to leading writers such as Ruskin Bond, Bill Aitken, Allan Sealy, travel writers Hugh and Colleen Gantzer, and film personalities Tom Alter, Victor Banerjee and Vishal Bhardwaj.


Rokeby Manor changed hands from a British soldier to adventurer Pahari Wilson to Reverend Woodside, one of the founders of Woodstock School, set up in 1854 for American children. After it was acquired by the Methodist Episcopal Church, Rokeby was converted into a boarding house for missionary ladies studying Urdu and Hindi at the Landour Language School nearby. And that’s how its brush with hospitality began…

Away from the clamour of Mussoorie, Rokeby is a welcome patch of serenity. The lovingly renovated rooms with stone walls, quaint arches and parquet floors open out to a Tea Garden overlooking the Doon valley. After soaking in the scenery over a steaming cuppa, it was time to set out again.

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Strewn across the hillside are a cluster of 19th century colonial cottages called Rokeby Residences, each offering stand-alone experiences. Staying at Rokeby gave me a chance to pop by for a look. The three-bedroom Bothwell Bank was a stone-clad log cabin with pine wood décor, fireplaces, a well-stocked kitchen, barbecue area and an outdoor jacuzzi! Shamrock Cottage, built in the 1800’s, came with a spacious garden.

The two-storied Tabor Lodge had a private deck with a tree house sit out lined with herbs in outsized cups. Pine Tree Lodge was inspired by Scandinavian architecture, with colourful patchwork stools, vintage lamps and traditional Finnish artwork. Each residence was unique! The Stubli Café serves Swiss and European cuisine while Ale House was styled like an ‘Olde English Pub’. After a nice relaxing massage at Rokeby’s Little Salon & Spa Shed, I was ready to take on Landour again!

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It is a great base for nature walks to Jabarkhet nature reserve, Kulti village or a more rigorous trek to the nearby hills of Nag Tibba. I was happy to restrict myself to less strenuous perambulations like Sisters Bazaar. Nursing sisters had their barracks near the market and visited it often, hence the name. Since Landour became home to American missionaries as early as the 1830s, it was the first place in India where the peanut butter was made commercially!

When India gained freedom in 1946, most European settlers disposed their properties and left Landour. And that’s how the peanut butter and food-processing machines ended up in the hands of Anil Prakash’s family. Prakash’s Store is famous for its chunky or smooth peanut butter, home-made cheese, jams and preserves, though it stocks pretty much everything. There’s a local saying, “If they don’t have it, you don’t need it.”

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Emily’s sister establishment Clocktower Café in Landour Bazaar, stands at the exact spot of an old clock tower. With funky decor and music posters, it is a great place for pizzas, pastas, burgers and Chinese fare. Back in the day, while Landour largely remained a British preserve, Indians were restricted to Mussoorie. From the Nawabs of Oudh to the princely states of Katesar, Kuchesar, Rajpipla, Alwar, Jind and Baroda, the who’s who of Indian royalty built opulent summer homes and made Mussoorie their retreat.

Hotel Padmini Nivas, set up by a British colonel in the 1840s, became home to a queen from Gujarat. The Nabha Palace is run as a hotel by The Claridges. The Maharaja of Kapurthala’s chateau occupies a lofty perch above The Savoy. However, one of the oldest buildings in Mussoorie is Kasmanda Palace, built above The Mall in 1836, now a WelcomHeritage hotel.

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Since colonial times, the main hub of activity has been the 1.5km long pedestrian avenue The Mall. Once out of bound for natives, ironically, the same stretch is now overrun by Indian tourists who throng its cafes and shops. A ropeway from the Mall takes tourists up to the second highest peak Gun Hill, where a gun used to be fired at noon to tell locals the time. After a series of accidents, the practice was abandoned in 1919, but the name stuck… Camel Back Road, named after a distinctive camel-shaped rocky outcrop, is a loop trail leading off The Mall with an old British cemetery, where several local luminaries have been laid to rest.

Mussoorie was home to Sir George Everest, Surveyor General of India between 1830–43 and the man behind the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. Tasked with measuring the world’s highest peaks, it was in his memory that Mount Everest was named. The ruins of Sir Everest’s whitewashed home stands at the edge of a cliff west of town beyond Hathipaon, whose three ridges resemble the foot of an elephant when seen from a vantage.


Just 3km from Hathipaon overlooking Benog Wildlife Sanctuary, Cloud End is one of the four original houses in Mussoorie. As per legend, when Major Swetenham came hunting from Landour, he heard a Pahari woman singing in the forest. The officer fell in love with Gulabo and followed her home. Her father, a local landlord, presented the estate as dowry in 1838. The house was named Clouds End after a peak opposite Major Swetenham’s home in Edmontia in Wales. Home to four generations till 1965, it is now run as a heritage hotel and the restaurant is named Rose after Gulabo’s baptised name.

I slowly trudged back to the Mall, bowled over by Landour’s wealth of stories. When famous American writer and traveler Lowell Thomas visited Mussoorie in 1926, he wrote about The Savoy: “There is a hotel in Mussoorie where they ring a bell just before dawn so that the pious may say their prayers and the impious get back to their beds.” Today, Landour depends on more conventional ways of telling the time, though the pace is still languorous and time does stop once in a while to pause and enjoy the view.

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Discover This: Seven Years in Tibet, via Landour
Famous Austrian mountaineer, geographer and writer Heinrich Harrer, part of the four-member team that scaled the Swiss peak Eiger’s legendary ‘North Face’, is best known for his 1952 book Seven Years in Tibet (made into a movie). He was on an expedition to Nanga Parbat when World War II broke out and he was taken prisoner. Harrer was moved to the internment camp in Dehradun, where several failed attempts later, he and his associates finally broke out and escaped to Tibet via Landour.

At its closest point, Tibet is just 70 miles away. In 1959, when the Chinese forcibly occupied Tibet, the Dalai Lama made the epic crossing from Lhasa to Landour. He and his band of followers walked for 15 days and reached Mussoorie on 20 April 1959. Happy Valley, a scenic corner beyond the polo ground, became the first Tibetan settlement in India, before the seat was shifted to Dharamsala.

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Getting there
Landour is 37.5 km from Dehradun by road (1 hr 30 min) and 7km from Mussoorie. The nearest airport is Jolly Grant, Dehradun. Jet Airways, Indigo, Spice Jet & Air India fly from Delhi to Dehradun.

Where to Stay

Rokeby Manor
Rajamandi, Landour Cantonment
Ph 0135 2631093
Tariff ₹7000-12000

Cloud End
Near Hathipaon
Ph 9634096861
Tariff ₹5700-7500

Kasmanda Palace
The Mall, Mussoorie
Ph 0135 2632424
Tariff ₹7000

Padmini Nivas
The Mall, Mussoorie
Ph 0135 2631093
Tariff ₹3500-7000


Where to Eat 

Anil’s Café
Pancakes, waffles, sandwiches, parathas, Maggi & ginger honey lemon tea
Ph 0135-2633783, 9259572558

Dev Dar Woods
12 rooms with terrific Himalayan views and wood-fired pizzas
Ph 0135-2632544

Doma’s Inn
Ivy Cottage, Landour
Tibetan run inn with rooms and a lovely restaurant serving great thukpa and momos
Ph 0135-2634873/4, 9259740461

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the June-July 2017 issue of Discover India magazine. 

Garli: Mansions in the Mountains


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Where to Stay

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

Naurang Yatri Nivas
Opp Senior Secondary School, Village Nahan Nagrota, VPO Garli, Tehsil Rakkar, Dist Kangra
Ph 01970-245096

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

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

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

Landour’s literary trail


ANURAG MALLICK goes on a literary trail across Landour, an erstwhile British sanatorium in the Himalayan foothills and uncovers little known gems of its past

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Isn’t it odd that the old British era cantonment of Landour, nearly a 1000 ft uphill of Mussoorie 6km away, is named after Llanddowror, a faraway village in southwest Wales? The story goes back to early 19th century when the Gurkha conquest of Kumaon-Garhwal led to the intervention of the British who moved from the plains of Dehradun to create a military sanatorium in the hills.

Today, with its crisp mountain air, charming walks and hillsides covered with gabled bungalows and churches, this quiet nook in the Himalayas is home to leading writers like Ruskin Bond, Bill Aitken, Allan Sealy, Hugh & Colleen Gantzer and film personalities Tom Alter, Victor Banerjee and Vishal Bhardwaj. If you turn back the pages of history, Landour’s literary affair is not new…

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Of braes and burns
Many houses in Landour echo themes from Sir Walter Scott’s novels, with names like Kenilworth, Ivanhoe, Waverly and Woodstock, now a famous school. The Scots identified the Himalayan hills and meadows with their glens (valleys), braes (slopes) and burns (streams) and named their houses Scottsburn, Wolfsburn and Redburn. Barring Kempty Falls 13 km away, there are no mountain streams here, so the nomenclature might have been purely sentimental. The Irish touch is also visible in homes called Shamrock Cottage, Tipperary and Killarney. Charleville Hotel however, was named after the owner’s sons Charley-Billy!


Mullingar, the oldest house
The first permanent home in Landour was built in 1825 by Captain Young, the ‘discoverer’ of Mussoorie and Commandant of the first Gurkha battalion raised by the British after the Gurkha War. His house, Mullingar, was named after his county town in Ireland. By early 20th century Mullingar became a hotel and during World War II, it was leased by the army to house the overflow of convalescing soldiers from the sanatorium.

In its early years, Mullingar received distinguished guests like author Emily Eden, sister of the Governor-General Lord George Eden. After spending considerable time in Landour, Shimla and Ooty in the late 1830s, Emily wrote incisively on the prevalent racism of Britons towards Indians.

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Haunt of the Maharajas
While Landour remained an exclusively British preserve, Indians were kept off limits at Mussoorie. Indian maharajas were encouraged to build grand summer homes here, many of which have been converted into heritage hotels. From Katesar to Kuchesar and Rajpipla, Alwar, Jind and Baroda, several princely states made Mussoorie their retreat. Hotel Padmini Nivas, set up by a British colonel in the 1840s, became home to a queen from Gujarat. The Nabha Palace is run as a hotel by The Claridges.

The Maharaja of Kapurthala’s chateau occupies a lofty perch above The Savoy. However, one of the oldest buildings in Mussoorie is Kasmanda Palace. Built in 1836 by Captain Rennie Tailour, it was originally part of Christ Church and site of one of the first schools in Mussoorie. In 1915, it became the summer retreat of the royal family of Kasmanda (a taluq in Awadh) and the main building was converted into a boutique heritage hotel in 1992, currently run by WelcomHeritage. 

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Rokeby Manor
Built in 1840 by Captain GN Cauthy, Rokeby is one of Landour’s landmarks. Perched above St. Paul’s Church, its name is taken from the writings of Sir Walter Scott, whose book-length poem describes heroic battles near Rokeby Castle in England. The house changed hands from a British soldier to controversial adventurer Pahari Wilson to Rev Woodside, one of the founders of Woodstock School to the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Rokeby was converted into a boarding house for missionary ladies studying Urdu and Hindi at the Landour Language School near Kellogg Memorial Church. With a restaurant named after Emily Eden, and lovingly renovated rooms with stone walls and wooden floors, it was in Rokeby’s DNA to be run as a hotel! Together with Rokeby Residences – a cluster of colonial cottages nearby, Bothwell Bank, Shamrock Cottage, Tabor Lodge and Pine Tree Lodge – it’s the most exclusive stay in Landour.

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Pahari Wilson and the British Cemetery on Camel Back Road
The British cemetery on Camel Back Road, a loop trail off The Mall named after the camel shaped rocky outcrop, is the resting place of key figures. John Lang, dubbed as the ‘first Australian novelist’ made Landour his home in the 1850-60s and his 1864 grave was rediscovered by Ruskin Bond. Giving him company is British adventurer Frederick ‘Pahari’ Wilson.

Based in Harsil near Gangotri, Wilson married a local lady, illegally harvested timber by floating them down the Ganga, sold it to the East India Company to make railway sleepers, made a big fortune and even minted his own gold coins. He picked up properties like Rokeby and Ralston, introduced apples to the Himalayas and was the inspiration behind Rudyard Kipling’s tale, ‘The Man Who Would Be King’.

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Sir George Everest’s House
Mussoorie was also home to Sir George Everest, Surveyor General of India between 1830-43. He is largely responsible for the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India covering a 2400 km stretch from South India to the Himalayas, including the measurement of the world’s highest peaks.

Colonel Everest came to Mussoorie in 1832, bought an estate called The Park, making it his home and laboratory, where most of the mapping of the Garhwal mountains took place. Just 6 km west of town beyond Hathipaon (when seen from a vantage, its three ridges look like the foot of an elephant), his whitewashed home at the edge of a cliff is in ruins and barricaded but the view of the Doon Valley is stupendous.

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Cloud End
Just 3km from Hathipaon towards Benog Wildlife Sanctuary, is one of the first four finest houses in Mussoorie. Story goes, one day when Major Swetenham came hunting from Landour, he heard Gulabo, a Pahari woman singing in the forest. The charmed officer fell in love instantly and followed her home. Her father happened to be the landlord of Kandi village and after a match was arranged, the present estate was given as dowry in 1838. The house was named after a peak opposite his home in Edmontia in Wales.

Four generations of the Swetenhams stayed here until 1965. The original homestead is run as a heritage hotel and the restaurant is named Rose (after Gulabo’s baptized name). Because of the surrounding forest, it is usually 10 degrees lower than Mussoorie. The northern portion, with cemented floors, was the summer retreat while the south face, with wooden floors, was where the family stayed in winter.

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Entertainment at The Mall
The 1.5km stretch of The Mall, once out of bound for natives, is bookended by the beautiful Library (Gandhi Chowk) on the western end and Picture Palace on the eastern edge. Besides being the first cinema hall to open in town in 1912, Picture Palace was also the first cinema hall in north India to run on electricity. The Mall was once lined by seven cinema halls – Rialto, Capital, Jubilee, Majestic.

Today, one of the old projectors has been displayed by The Mall and the pedestrian-only avenue is lined with hotels, shops and iconic restaurants like Kelsang Friend’s Corner for momos and Chick Chocolate (named after an American musician friend of the owner). A ropeway takes tourists up to the second highest peak Gun Hill, where a gun used to be fired at noon to tell locals the time. After the gunshots triggered a string of accidents, the practice was abandoned in 1919, though the name stuck…

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Seven years in Tibet, and a few in Uttarakhand
Austrian mountaineer, geographer and writer Heinrich Harrer was one of the four-member team which scaled the legendary ‘North Face’ of the Eiger peak in Switzerland. Best known for his 1952 book Seven Years in Tibet (later made into a movie), he was on an expedition to Nanga Parbat when World War II broke out. Because of his German ancestry, Harrer was interned in Karachi, brought to Bombay and kept in captivity at Dehradun for a few years.

After several failed attempts, Harrer and his associates broke out of the internment camp in Dehradun impersonating British officers, and escaped to Tibet via Landour. At its closest point, Tibet is just 70 miles away. And the best place to catch a glimpse of the Himalayas is Lal Tibba or Depot Hill, once the convalescent depot that stretched around the highest point Childer’s Lodge. From here, one gets a striking 200km view of peaks like Swargarohini, Bandarpunch, Chaukhamba and Nanda Devi.

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Happy Valley, the first Tibetan settlement in India
If Harrer crossed the high Himalayan passes from Landour to Lhasa, the 14th Dalai Lama did the same from the other side. In 1959, when the Chinese occupied Tibet, the Dalai Lama and his followers walked for 15 days to cross over to India. He reached Mussoorie on 20 April 1959 and Happy Valley, a scenic corner beyond the polo ground, became the first Tibetan settlement in India, before the seat was shifted to Dharamsala. A Tibetan school was set up here in 1960 and the serene Shedup Choephelling monastery was built on a quiet hillside where prayer flags flutter in the breeze.


Anil Prakash’s store at Sister’s Bazaar
The nurses working at the military sanatorium had their barracks near the market and frequented it quite often, hence its name Sister’s Bazaar. American missionaries came here in the 1830s and soon Landour became one of the first places in India where peanut butter, the American classic, was made commercially. Many settlers sold off their equipment and possessions and left Landour after India gained Independence. That’s how their peanut butter and food processing machines ended up in the hands of Anil Prakash’s family.

Catering to European tastes for decades, Prakash’s Store is famous for its peanut butter (chunky or smooth), home-made cheese, jams and preserves, though it stocks pretty much everything. There’s a local saying, “If they don’t have it, you don’t need it.” Anil runs the 12-room Dev Dar Woods with terrific Himalayan views and wood-fired pizzas. Ph 0135-2632544 Email


Char Dukan
During colonial times, Char Dukan was a cluster of four Indian-run shops on the parade ground. Contrary to its name, now there are six establishments but the first one is the standout joint. Locals and tourists flock to the 60-year-old Anil’s Café, legendary for its delicious Ginger Lemon Honey Tea, bun-omelette and Maggi. Sachin Tendulkar, who came on a holiday to Mussoorie, made a stopover here; his twitter endorsement hangs proudly on the wall.

Authors: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 29 December, 2016 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at


Holiday on Ice: Ladakh in winter


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


Fact File

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

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

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

Facade-The Grand Dragon Hotel Ladakh

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

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

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

Enter the Dragon: The Drukpa Trail in Ladakh


ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY follow Drukpa’s Dragon Trail from Hemis to Shey and uncover Ladakh’s tryst with movies at Rancho’s School & Pangong Tso

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Every precious spot of shade and vantage point at Hemis gompa (monastery) was taken while the not so lucky sat patiently in the sun. Whenever a masked performer came too close, old women touched their foreheads in reverence while wide-eyed kids cowered in terror. A large thangka of the Drukpa sect’s founder Tsangpa Gyare unfurled on a wall loomed over the proceedings. We were at the annual Hemis Festival in Ladakh on invitation by the Drukpas for the birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Padmasambhava who introduced Buddhism to the Tibetan region. Crowds milled about for a glimpse of his large statue in an antechamber.

For 350 years, the courtyard of the largest monastery in Ladakh has resonated with the clang and drone of gongs, horns, pipes and drums. We watched an endless procession of 400 monks twirl and dance wearing centuries-old costumes. The masked chham dances were based on the eight manifestations of Padmasambhava – wrathful, benign, feminine, royal, saintly, leonine – that he assumed at different times for the benefit of mankind. His Eminence Drukpa Thuksey Rinpoche, spiritual son of present monastic head HH Gyalwang Drukpa, along with learned scholar Khanchan Tsewang Rigzin traced the origins of their sect.

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The Drukpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism was founded in western Tibet by Tsangpa Gyare (1161–1211). On a pilgrimage, he and his disciples witnessed nine dragons roar out of the earth into the skies as flowers rained from the heavens. They named their sect Drukpa (druk in Tibetan means dragon) after this divine incident. To be honest, the only time we had heard of Druk was while devouring Druk jam as kids and Druk Air, both originating in Bhutan, where the sect prospered and Mahayana Buddhism continues to be the state religion.

Lynne Chain, a donor-volunteer from Malaysia known by her adopted name Deepam, outlined Drukpa’s big plans for next year. Every 12 years a four-storeyed thangka of Padmasambhava is unfurled at Hemis. Next year, the event coincides with the millennial anniversary of Buddhist maha-siddha Naropa. A disciple of Tilopa, Naropa was the gatekeeper of Nalanda University and posed questions on theology and philosophy to people who came for admission and decided whether they were fit to enter or not. Later, he came to Ladakh and meditated in caves near Lamayuru and Zanskar.

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Naropa 2016, a month-long event slated for 1-31 July will take place on a 300-acre tented zone near Hemis. Besides the Hemis Festival, the relics of Naropa (six bone ornaments) will be displayed for a few days, with teachings by masters, Himalayan cultural performances, free eye camps and tree planting. With half a million visitors expected to attend, it is billed as the ‘Maha Kumbh of the Himalayas’. Drukpa’s charity organization Live to Love will attempt to break its own Guinness record of a million trees planted simultaneously. HH Gyalwang Drukpa will address the audience seated at the centre of a giant mandala shaped like the 9th century Borobodur temple complex in Java. After the event a statue of Naropa would be installed and consecrated as a monument.

Kargyud Homestay, a new family-run hotel in the quieter part of Leh overlooking the Tsemo Gompa, Leh Palace and the Stok range, served as the perfect base. The owner Phuntsog Wangchuk Goba also ran the famous restaurant Tibetan Kitchen, so food was delicious. Our next stop was the old summer capital Shey on the Leh-Thikse road lined with poplar and Ladakhi willow trees. Located in the lofty palace complex next to the Namgyal Victory Stupa was a chamber with a 39 ft high copper statue of Shakyamuni Buddha gilded in 5 kg gold. The seated statue towered above us, spanning three storeys. From the citadel, a stupendous view fanned out of the Indus valley dotted by Stok, Stakna and Leh in the distance. A 4km trekking path connects Shey to Thikse Monastery, past the largest chorten fields in Ladakh with hundreds of whitewashed stupas strewn across a lunar landscape.

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Signboards along the way announced ‘Rancho’s School’ or the Druk Padma Karpo (White Lotus) School, propelled to fame by Aamir Khan’s 3 Idiots. Before the movie released in 2009, the school had no visitors; today it averages 200 a day! They had to set up Rancho’s Cafeteria and gift shop to cater to the rush. The dynamic principal Stanzin Kunzang and His Eminence Drukpa Thuksey Rinpoche, the school’s guiding light, took us around the campus.

It wasn’t just the dramatic backdrop and its philanthropic mission that made the school special; the institution itself was unique. Designed by London-based Arup Associates, its award-winning eco-friendly architecture used passive solar heating, ventilated pit toilets that didn’t require water and interlocking timber frames to withstand earthquakes! The dorms, named after Ladakh’s high passes, housed local and underprivileged kids who learnt Bothi (the Ladakhi script), art, music, martial training besides regular subjects. Nearly half of the 726 students came from remote areas like Dah Hanu and Zanskar and were sponsored.

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In August 2010, after Ladakh was struck by cloudbursts and mudslides, the school suffered serious damage. Aamir visited Ladakh for disaster relief and the following month, gracefully accepted the appointment as ‘Live to Love’ Global Ambassador at a convention in London along with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Michelle Yeoh. After her recent relief work during the devastating Nepal earthquake, Michelle visited Ladakh for the first time this July and spent an evening at the school. “This is the most beautiful place on earth and the most beautiful school. We pledge our commitment that we will make your school bigger, better and stronger,” she exclaimed, floored by the entertainment program and enthusiasm of the students.

Speaking on her association, she mentioned that she first met HH Gyalwang Drukpa in New York and learnt about his Himalayan trek with 700 Live to Love volunteers for ecological awareness. Roped in as Executive Producer for Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey, Michelle chronicled the epic journey with producer-director Wendy Lee. The Himalayas, a fragile glacial region being devastated by global warming, was described as the planet’s ‘3rd Pole’. Michelle elaborated, “One of the things I love about the pad yatra is that you connect with Mother Nature… Your feet always have to be on the ground. The environment issue is very close to my heart. It is about being responsible – making people living in this region believe that they are custodians of the natural resources and how we have to be good tourists when we visit.”

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She had joined the Peace Pad Yatra in Sri Lanka at the tail end and hoped to do a complete journey. Being an outdoors person who liked to trek and camp, she wished to join the upcoming Eco Pad Yatra to Myanmar in December… In Ladakh, she looked forward to visiting Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake. Seeing the ‘Rancho’ name plastered everywhere she reiterated the impact of movies. “Well, if it helps tourism, why not?”

It was local tour operator George Odpal who put Ladakh on the Bollywood map. Far from the chaos of Leh, we met him at his beautiful resort in Saboo 7km away, a lovely showcase of Ladakhi architecture and cuisine. George recalls, “It all started with LOC Kargil in 2001. JP Dutta was planning to shoot in Ladakh and all enterprising locals were aflutter about how to get in touch with him. I had just started my company Himalayan Safaris. I had no idea about Bollywood so I just Googled him and caught the next train to Mumbai! I bumped into a friend on his production team and my knowledge of the region and tour expertise got me the project. LOC was shot around Leh besides the army area at Karu. At that point, it was the toughest thing we ever pulled off.”

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As queries trickled in, George expanded from location hunts to logistics, transportation, stay, permissions, recce and even equipment for film shoots. He has co-ordinated the filming of over 20 movies in Ladakh, including Shyam Benegal’s Bose: The Forgotten Hero and critically acclaimed Hollywood docu-film Samsara, featuring monks of Thikse Monastery making mandalas. Shot in 25 countries, it was the only location chosen from India. However, it was 3 Idiots that spurred the tourism boom in Ladakh. Interestingly, the original location for the movie’s climax was not Pangong Lake but Tso Mo Riri, but wildlife permissions and snowfall made the production team look for an alternative in Europe, until they finally returned to Ladakh for Pangong. The rest is screen history. Today, tented camps dot the lake at Spangmik with carloads of tourists and biker groups stopping at the ‘3 Idiots’ restaurant and shooting point.

After featuring Nubra Valley in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, filmmaker Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra recently returned to Ladakh to shoot his next film Mirziya, based on Mirza-Sahiban, a classic love story from Punjab. Shot in Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake, the movie will feature Ladakh on a dramatic scale. Few days later, as we cooled our heels in the blue waters of Pangong, we spied ‘three idiots’ mimicking the famous ‘bum scratch’ on the banks. We wondered what Bollywood poses would make it to people’s selfies in a few years. Sigh… Cut!

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Fact File

Getting there
It’s a linear route down Leh-Manali highway to Mahabodhi Society at Choglamsar 9km away, Shey Palace 6km further and another 4km to Thikse Gompa. The road continues to Karu check-post, 35km from Leh, where it forks – a diversion on the right crosses the bridge over the Indus River and goes to Hemis 7km away while the left turn goes via Chang La to Spangmik (125 km) on Pangong Tso.

When to go
Ladakh is accessible all year round with direct flights from Delhi though road access from Manali or Srinagar is generally between May-October. The 2-day Hemis Festival takes place in June-July. Next year, it kicks off the mega-event Naropa 2016, held between 1-31 July.

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Where to Stay
Kargyud Homestay, Chubi, Leh
Ph +91 9419178630

The Grand Dragon Hotel, Leh
Ph +91-1982-255266

Saboo Resort, Saboo
Ph +91 94191 79742, 94192 31374

Camp Redstart, Spangmik, Pangong Tso
Ph +91 94191 77245

Hemis Monastery
Drukpa White Lotus School, Shey
Live to Love International
For more info, visit or

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 23 August 2015 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Panchgani: Beyond the Five Hills


ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY drive from Mumbai to the erstwhile British escape and favoured Bollywood locale of Panchgani, with colonial homes, breathtaking views, farmers’ markets and strawberry fields

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As we checked into the swanky Ravine Hotel, the staff reverentially ushered us into a room as if it were a shrine. “Sir, this is the room Salman Khan prefers to stay in when he comes to Panchgani”, he whispered. Not exactly diehard Sallu fans sporting Being Human t-shirts, we preferred the campy appeal of the cliffside tented cottage with a private open-air fireplace instead.

Tucked away behind the main building, the camping section was formerly a quarry and offered unexpected seclusion. Landscaped around a waterfall, a fish pool with silken koi gliding in its depths and a sandy beach around a salt-water body were a few scattered tents. A little stroll took us to the edge where the hill plummeted into a wide ravine, dense with foliage. Like the pioneering duo John Chesson and Rustomji Dubash, who came to this region in mid 19th century, we stood there and regarded the scenic Dhom Valley below.

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Like most hill stations in India, Panchgani too, is an outcome of British intent to escape warmer climes. While nearby Mahabaleshwar was their first choice, they were forced to find an alternative to get away from the torrential downpour during the monsoons. Warrant Officer Wilson was the first Englishman to come here in 1850 to carry out a meteorological survey and recommended Panchgani as a suitable place for a military sanatorium. However, it was on a survey of the Sahyadris or Western Ghats that Chesson and Dubash recognized the potential of this nameless empty tract and its year-round appeal.

The place came to be known as Panchgani, because of its five (panch) adjoining villages – Dhandegar, Godavli, Amral, Khingar and Taighat. Some claim ‘gani’ means ‘hill’ or is derived from ‘gaon’ (village). Yet others suggest in this region of high seismic activity, it could be a corruption of ‘agni’, the volcanic fire that created the magnificent rock formations 63-66 million years ago. Thrust up from tectonic pressure of the earth’s plates, the high tablelands form part of the Deccan Traps, one of the largest volcanic flood basalt provinces on earth.

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Superintendent Chesson took charge of the hill station in 1863 and transformed its landscape and demography. Improbable as it may sound, back then this was a treeless zone. Chesson’s greening endeavor covered the hills with groves of silver oak, fiery poinsettia and other plants of the western world. He also helped populate the place with local labour to enable ease of living for the British. Tailors, butchers, washermen, vendors, building contractors; he encouraged all to settle here, reserving a gaothan (village site) below the bazaar.

Panchgani’s healthy climate prompted a Bombay doctor Rustomji Bomanji Billimoria to establish a tuberculosis sanatorium in 1912! The century old institution is still in existence as Bel Air Hospital at Dalkeith, managed by the Indian Red Cross Society. Blending the charm of colonial bungalows, old churches and elite residential schools with strawberry farms, fruit orchards, hiking trails, viewpoints and adventure; Panchgani is an ideal short break.

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We trudged up to Sydney Point, a small hillock near the hotel, taking a tricky shortcut to catch the sunset. A pony nibbled away in a wayside meadow. Beyond the railing at the top we caught sight of the sweeping Krishna Valley where the river curved around the hill to fill the reservoir of Dhom Dam at Wai. The site was named in honour of Sir Sydney Beckwith, former Commander in Chief of the Bombay Army in 1829. We rounded off the day with a delicious dinner by the fireside, under a blanket of stars.

The following morning we drove around town to discover institutions like St Joseph’s Convent School and Kimmins High School, established in the 1890s. Initially they catered only to European children with privileges extended to Indian royalty. Later, schools were established for specific communities but after Independence, they became more inclusive. The European Boys School became St Peter’s Boys School with late rockstar and Queen frontman Freddie Mercury (then Farrokh Balsara), among its famous alumni! Parsi High School became Billimoria High School, Hindu High School changed to Sanjeevan Vidyalaya, Muslim High School became Anjuman-i-Islam High School while Baha’i School became the New Era High School. The film Taare Zameen Par was shot here and boosted Panchgani’s image as an educational hub of international standard.

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Beyond a tree-lined driveway, the brick red wall of St Peter’s Church lured us for a quick peek. There was no one around and we walked around its arched corridor. A nudge to the door and we were in the quiet hall. Chesson’s final resting place is a grassy patch in the church’s cemetery. His death centenary in 1971 witnessed an exceptional gathering of townsfolk to honour their founder.

A quick breakfast of cream rolls and buns from Roach, one of the oldest family-run bakeries and a cup of chai at a local café fired us up. The weekly Budh Bazaar (Wednesday Market) was on, where locals sold organic produce, leather goods, provisions, utensils and other wares. Farm fresh vegetables and fruits brightened up the stalls as vendors tempted us with boxes of glossy red strawberries. The old Beatles ode to innocence, Strawberry Fields Forever could very well be a theme song for this lovely town.

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During the annual Strawberry Festival, tourists can pick and eat berries to their heart’s content. After generous scoops of fresh strawberries in ice cream at the Mapro Garden café, we slipped the bottled goodness of squashes, jams and preserves – mulberries, strawberries, raspberries and gooseberries into our bags before taking an excursion to Mahabaleshwar. En route we halted for a bite of delicious wood-fired pizzas and sandwiches at Mapro’s Food Court.

At Mahabaleshwar, the colonnaded ancient Mahadev or Panchganga Mandir teemed with people. At the edge of the tank, a relentless stream emerged from a cow-shaped stone spout that watered the valleys on its onward journey as the mighty river Krishna. The site is also the source of four other rivers – Koyna, Venna, Savitri and Gayatri. Most tourists flock to Venna Lake for boating while grabbing juicy steamed corn from the stalls.

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But we chose a hardier option – a trek to Arthur’s Seat. This picturesque highpoint encompassing gigantic masses of stratified rocks is dedicated to Sir Arthur Malet, who often sat here brooding over the death of his wife and child in a ferry accident along the Savitri river. The route had several scenic lookouts.

At Monkey Point the three natural rock formations hailed as Gandhiji’s famous apes that spoke no evil, saw no evil or heard no evil, sat motionless amidst a landscape of craggy mountain folds. At Tiger Springs, a favourite watering hole of big cats in the past, tourists collected spring water in bottles. Kate’s Point, overlooking Savitri Point and Castle Rock, is also known as ‘Echo Point’. Some hooted, shrieked names or made movie-style proclamations of love thrilled that the mountains bounced them back manifold. Hunting Point served as the hunting grounds for British officers.

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We drove to New Mahabaleshwar to reach Needle-hole Point, named after an intriguing rock formation. Near a precipitous escarpment we sat on a grassy meadow, gazing at the uninterrupted stretch of the Deccan Traps, wrinkled and furrowed like an elephant’s trunk. Sindola Hill, rechristened as Wilson Point after Sir Leslie Wilson, former Governor of Bombay, is Mahabaleshwar’s highest point. At 4710 ft, it presented panoramic views all around. The trekking trails were well marked with signboards noting historical highlights.

By evening, we were back in Panchgani atop Parsi Point. In its heyday, it was the chosen picnic spot for the elite. We zipped to Tableland, the town’s most popular hangout. Being the second largest volcanic plateau in Asia and the highest after the Tibetan plateau, it spans a 4.5 km stretch that has turned into a hub of activity. Like a chameleon, Tableland transforms into a cricket ground for youngsters, walking track for citizens, a magnificent lookout, filming locale, trekking terrain and a playground for horse-rides, mela-like stalls and eateries!

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Yawning caverns and caves like Devil’s Kitchen on the southern side of Tableland held mythological links, claiming to be the site where the Pandavas camped during the days of the Mahabharata. A few indentations in the ground marked by a rock circle were tagged ‘Pandava’s footprints’ and the Pandavgad caves in nearby Wai lent credence to this legend. Time flew by and we were soon enveloped in darkness under a canopy of stars. A horse nickered restlessly from afar. We steered towards the Ravine where dinner simmered at the Melting Pot.

On our way out, we stopped at Wai, a little hamlet that became Charanpur in Shah Rukh Khan’s Swades. Regarded as Dakshin Kashi of Maharashtra, the town has several beautiful temples and ghats. A rusty sign near Dhom Dam lured us down a small lane that ended at the exquisite doorway of Shri Narasimha temple. In the courtyard, a carved Nandi squatted in a pavilion set in a lotus-shaped tank, guarding Lord Shiva’s shrine. With arches, stunning carvings and a river flowing outside, this offbeat temple complex left us awestruck. We hiked up the bund to see the sparkling reservoir and temple of Dholya Ganapati, built in 1762 in the distance. Up in the hills, the mist rolled in. It was time to head back…

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Getting there: Panchgani is 285km from Mumbai and 100km from Pune via NH-4. Local attractions nearby include Mahabaleshwar (18 km) and Wai (10 km).

Where to stay: Ravine Hotel, Wai-Panchgani Road, Sydney Point, Panchgani. Ph 02168 241060

Tours: Guides offer sightseeing packages covering Old & New Mahabaleshwar, Panchgani and Wilson Point, charging Rs.450 for 2½ hours per tour.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 19 July 2015 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.