Category Archives: Hills

Garli: Mansions in the Mountains

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

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

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

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 The mint had been replaced by hops but we swear the surreal setting made Yatish seem like a character in a Quentin Tarantino flick narrating a fantastic tale.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NAVIGATOR

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

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

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

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Where to Stay

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

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

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

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

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

Landour’s literary trail

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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!

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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. http://www.rokebymanor.com

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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. http://www.cloudend.com

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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.

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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 anilprakash56@yahoo.com

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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 http://www.cntraveller.in/story/a-to-do-list-for-landour/

 

Holiday on Ice: Ladakh in winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fact File

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

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

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

Facade-The Grand Dragon Hotel Ladakh

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

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

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

Enter the Dragon: The Drukpa Trail in Ladakh

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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. www.naropa2016.com

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

The Grand Dragon Hotel, Leh
Ph +91-1982-255266 www.thegranddragonladakh.com

Saboo Resort, Saboo
Ph +91 94191 79742, 94192 31374 www.sabooresorts.com

Camp Redstart, Spangmik, Pangong Tso
Ph +91 94191 77245 www.campredstart.com

Contacts
Hemis Monastery www.drukpa.org
Drukpa White Lotus School, Shey www.dwls.org
Live to Love International www.livetolove.org
For more info, visit www.padyatra.org or www.padyatrathefilm.com

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

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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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FACT FILE

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 http://www.ravinehotel.com

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.

Berry to brew: The Story of Coffee

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY spill the beans on the story of coffee, the world’s most popular brew

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It was Napolean Bonaparte who once grandly announced, “I would rather suffer with coffee than be senseless.” Sir James MacKintosh, 18th century philosopher famously said, “The powers of a man’s mind are directly proportional to the quantity of coffee he drank.” In The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, when TS Eliot revealed, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” he hinted at the monotony of socializing and the coffee mania of the 1900s.

German musical genius JS Bach composed the Coffee Cantata celebrating the delights of coffee at a time when the brew was prohibited for women. “If I couldn’t, three times a day, be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee, in my anguish I will turn into a shriveled-up roast goat,” cried the female protagonist! French author Honoré de Balzac wrote the essay The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee to explain his obsession, before dying of caffeine poisoning at 51. Like Voltaire, he supposedly drank 50 cups a day! So what was it about coffee that inspired poets, musicians and statesmen alike?

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Out of Africa

Long before coffee houses around the world resounded with intellectual debate, business deals and schmoozing, the ancestors of the nomadic Galla warrior tribes of Ethiopia had been gathering ripe coffee berries, grinding them into a pulp, mixing it with animal fat and rolling them into small balls that were stored in leather bags and consumed during war parties as a convenient solution to hunger and exhaustion! Wine merchant and scientific explorer James Bruce wrote in his book “Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile” that ‘One of these balls they (the Gallas) claim will support them for a whole day… better than a loaf of bread or a meal of meat, because it cheers their spirits as well as feeds them’. Other African tribes cooked the berries as porridge or drank a wine prepared from the fermented fruit and skin blended in cold water.

Historically, the origins of the coffee bean though undated, lie in the indigenous trees that once grew wild in the Ethiopian highlands of East Africa. Stories of its invigorating qualities began to waft in the winds of trade towards Egypt, North Africa, the Middle East, Persia and Turkey by the 16th Century. The chronicles of Venetian traveler Gianfrancesco Morosini at the coffee houses of Constantinople in 1585 provided Europeans with one of the foremost written records of coffee drinking. He noted how the people ‘are in the habit of drinking in public in shops and in the streets – a black liquid, boiling as they can stand it, which is extracted from a seed they call Caveè… and is said to have the property of keeping a man awake.’

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It was only a matter of time before the exotic flavours of this intoxicating beverage captured the imagination of Europe, prompting colonial powers like the Dutch, French and the British to spread its cultivation in the East Indies and the Americas. Enterprising Dutch traders explored coffee cultivation and trading way back in 1614 and two year later, a coffee plant was smuggled from Mocha to Holland. By 1658 the Dutch commenced coffee cultivation in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The word ‘coffee’ is apparently derived from qahwah (or kahveh in Turkish), the Arabic term for wine. Both the terms bear uncanny similarity to present day expressions – French café, Italian caffè, English coffee, Dutch koffie or even our very own South Indian kaapi. A few scholars attribute ‘coffee’ to its African origins and the town of Kaffa in Ethiopia, formerly known as Abyssinia. However the plant owes its name “Coffea Arabica” to Arabia, for it was the Arabs who introduced it to the rest of the world via trade.

As all stories of good brews go, coffee too was discovered by accident. Legends recount how sometime around the sixth or seventh century, Kaldi, an Ethiopian goatherd observed that his goats became rather spirited and pranced after they chewed on some red berries growing in wild bushes. He tried a few berries and felt a similar euphoria. Excited by its effects, Kaldi clutched a handful of berries and ran to a nearby monastery to share his discovery with a monk. When the monk pooh-poohed its benefits and flung the berries into the fire, an irresistible intense aroma rose from the flames. The roasted beans were quickly salvaged from the embers, powdered and stirred in hot water to yield the first cup of pure coffee! This story finds mention in what is considered to be one of the earliest treatises on coffee, De Saluberrima Cahue seu Café nuncupata Discurscus written by Antoine Faustus Nairon, a Roman professor of Oriental languages, published in 1671.

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Flavours from Arabia

Coffee drinking has also been documented in the Sufi monasteries of Yemen in South Arabia. Arabic manuscripts dating back to the 10th Century mention the use of coffee. Mocha, the main port city of Yemen was a major marketplace for coffee in the 15th century. Even today, the term ‘mocha’ is synonymous with good coffee. Like tea and cocoa, coffee was a precious commodity that brought in plenty of revenue. Hence, it remained a closely guarded secret in the Arab world. The berries were forbidden to leave the country unless they had been steeped in boiling water or scorched to prevent its germination on other lands.

In 1453, the Ottoman Turks brought coffee to Constantinople and the world’s first coffee shop Kiva Han opened for business. As its popularity grew, coffee also faced other threats. The psychoactive and intoxicating effects of caffeine lured menfolk to spend hours at public coffee houses drinking the brew and smoking hookahs, which incited the wrath of orthodox imams of Mecca and Cairo. As per sharia law a ban was imposed on coffee consumption in 1511. The Grand Mufti Mehmet Ebussuud el Imadi was hailed when he issued a fatwa allowing the consumption of coffee, by order of the Ottoman Turkish Sultan Selim I in 1524.

Though subsequent bans were re-imposed and lifted at various points of time according to the whims of religious politics and power, coffee pots managed to stay constantly on the boil in secret or in the open for those desirous of its potent influence. Given the fact that Sufi saints advocated its uses in nighttime devotions and dervishes and Pope Clement VIII even baptized the bean to ward off the ill effects of what was regarded by the Vatican as ‘Satan’s drink’ and the ‘Devil’s Mixture of the Islamic Infidels’ till the 1500s, it is easy to see why coffee is nothing short of a religion to some people.

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Coffee enters India and beyond

Surprisingly, India’s saga with coffee began in 1670 when a Muslim mystic, Hazrat Dada Hyat Mir Qalandar, popularly known as Baba Budan, smuggled seven beans from Arabia and planted them on a hillock in Chikmagalur district of Karnataka. The hills were later named Baba Budan Giri in his memory. From here, coffee spread like bushfire across the hilly tracts of South India.

In 1696 Adrian van Ommen, the Commander at Malabar followed orders from Amsterdam and sent off a shipment of coffee plants from Kannur to the island of Java. The plants did not survive due to an earthquake and flood but the Dutch pursued their dream of growing coffee in the East Indies with another import from Malabar. In 1706, the Dutch succeeded and sent the first samples of Java coffee to Amsterdam’s botanical gardens from where it made further inroads into private conservatories across Europe. Not wishing to be left behind, the French began negotiating with Amsterdam to lay their hands on a coffee tree that could change their fortunes. In 1714, a plant was sent to Louis XIV who gave it promptly to the Jardin des Plantes at Paris for experimentation. The same tree became the propagator of most of the coffees in the French colonies including those of South America, Central America and Mexico.

The importance of coffee in everyday life can be gauged by the fact that its yield forms the economic mainstay of several countries across the world; its monetary worth among natural commodities beaten only by oil! It was only in 1840 that the British got into coffee cultivation in India and spread it beyond the domain of the Baba Budan hills.

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Arabica vs Robusta

Kodagu and Chikmagalur are undoubtedly the best places to know your Arabica from your Robusta and any planter worth his beans will trace coffee’s glorious history with pride. The strain that Baba Budan got was Coffea Arabica and because of its arid origins, it thrived on late rainfall. Despite its rich taste and pleasing aroma, the effort required to cultivate it dented its popularity. The high-altitude shrub required a lot of tending, was susceptible to pests and ripe Arabica cherries tended to fall off and rot. Careful monitoring at regular intervals affected production cost and profitability.

Till 1850, Arabica was the most sought-after coffee bean in the world and the discovery of Robusta in Belgian Congo did little to change that. Robusta (Coffea Canephora), recognized as a species of coffee only as recently as 1897, lived up to its name. Its broad leaves handled heavy rainfall much better and the robust plant was more disease-resistant. The cherries required less care as they remained on the tree even after ripening. Its beans had twice the caffeine of Arabica, though less flavour, which was no match for the intense Arabica. It was perceived as so bland that the New York Coffee Exchange banned Robusta trade in 1912, calling it ‘a practically worthless bean’!

Narasu's Coffee popular brand in Tamil Nadu IMG_9634_Anurag Priya

But in today’s new market economy, the inexpensive Robusta makes more commercial sense and is favoured for its good blending quality. Chicory, a root extract, was an additive that was introduced during the Great Depression to combat economic crisis that affected coffee. It added more body to the coffee grounds and enhanced the taste of coffee with a dash of bitterness. Though over 30 species of coffee are found in the world, Arabica and Robusta constitute the major chunk of commercial beans in the world. ‘Filter kaapi’ or coffee blended with chicory holds a huge chunk of the Indian market. Plantations started with Arabica, toyed with Liberica, experimented with monkey parchment and even Civet Cat coffee (like the Indonesian Luwak Kopi –the finest berries eaten by the civet cat that acquire a unique flavour after passing through its intestinal tract), but the bulk of India’s coffee is Robusta.

As the coffee beans found their way from the hilly slopes of the Western Ghats to the ports on India’s Western Coast to be shipped to Europe, a strange thing happened. While being transported by sea during the monsoon months, the humidity and winds caused the green coffee beans to ripen to a pale yellow. The beans would swell up and lose the original acidity, resulting in a smooth brew that was milder. This characteristic mellowing was called ‘monsooning’. And thus was born Monsooned Malabar Coffee.

Colonial touch at Lake Forest Yercaud 008_Anurag Priya

Kodagu, India’s Coffee County

Currently, Coorg is the largest coffee-growing district in India and contributes 80% of Karnataka’s coffee export. It was Captain Lehardy, first Superintendent of Kodagu, who was responsible for promoting coffee cultivation in Coorg. Jungles were cleared and coffee plantations were started in almost every nad. In 1854, Mr. Fowler, the first European planter to set foot in Coorg opened the first estate in Madikeri followed by Mr Fennel’s Wooligoly Estate near Sunticoppa. The next year one more estate in Madikeri was set up by Mr Mann (after whom the Mann’s Compound is named). In 1856, Mr Maxwell and Mcpherson followed, with the Balecadoo estate. Soon, 70,000 acres of land had been planted with coffee. A Planters Association came into existence as early as 1863, which even proposed starting a Tonga Dak Company for communication. By 1870, there were 134 British-owned estates in Kodagu.

Braving ghat roads, torrid monsoons, wild elephants, bloodthirsty leeches, hard plantation life and diseases like malaria, many English planters made Coorg their temporary home. Perhaps no account of Coorg can be complete without mentioning Ivor Bull. Along with District Magistrate Dewan Bahadur Ketolira Chengappa (later, Chief Commissioner of Coorg), the enterprising English planter helped set up the Indian Coffee Cess Committee in 1920s and enabled all British-run estates to form a private consortium called Consolidated Coffee. In 1936, the Indian Cess Committee aided the creation of the Indian Coffee Board and sparked the birth of the celebrated India Coffee House chain, later run by worker co-operatives. With its liveried staff and old world charm, it spawned a coffee revolution across the subcontinent that has lasted for decades.

Indian Coffee House Kannur IMG_9668_Anurag Priya

Connoisseurs say Coorg’s shade grown coffee has the perfect aroma; others ascribe its unique taste to the climatic conditions and a phenomenon called Blossom Showers, the light rain in April that triggers the flowering of plants. The burst of snowy white coffee blossoms rends the air thick with a sensual jasmine-like fragrance. Soon, they sprout into green berries that turn ruby red and finally dark maroon when fully ripe.

This is followed by the coffee-picking season where farm hands pluck the berries, sort them and measure the sacks at the end of the day under the watchful eye of the estate manager. The berries are dried in the sun till their outer layers wither away; coffee in this form is called ‘native’ or parchment. The red berries are taken to a Pulp House, usually near a water source, where they are pulped. After the curing process, the coffee bean is roasted and ground and eventually makes its journey to its final destination – a steaming cup of bittersweet brew that you hold in your hands.

South Indian filter kaapi served in a dabrah 309_Anurag Priya

The Kaapi Trail

In India, coffee cultivation is concentrated around the Western Ghats, which forms the lifeline for this shrub. The districts of Kodagu (Coorg), Chikmagalur and Hassan in Karnataka, the Malabar region of Kerala and the hill slopes of Nilgiris, Yercaud, Valparai and Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu account for the bulk of India’s coffee produce. With 320,000 MT each year, India is the 6th largest coffee producer in the world.

Recent initiatives to increase coffee consumption in the international and domestic market prompted the Coffee Board, the Bangalore International Airport and tour operator Thomas Cook to come together and organize coffee festivals and unique holiday packages like The Kaapi Trail to showcase premium coffees of South India. Coffee growing regions like Coorg, Chikmagalur, Bababudangiri, BR Hills, Araku Valley, Nilgiris, Shevaroy Hills, Travancore, Nelliyampathy and Palani Hills are involved in a tourism project that blends leisure, adventure, heritage and plantation life. At the Coffee Museum in Chikmagalur, visitors can trace the entire lifecycle of coffee from berry to cup. In Coorg and Malnad, besides homestays, go on Coffee Estate holidays with Tata’s Plantation Trails at lovely bungalows like Arabidacool, Woshully and Thaneerhulla…

Doorbeen Road at Tata Woshully Bungalow DSC05846_Anurag Priya

The perfect cuppa

Making a good cup of filter coffee traditionally involves loading freshly ground coffee in the upper perforated section of a coffee filter. About 2 tbs heaps can serve 6 cups. Hot water is poured over the stemmed disc and the lid is covered and left to stand. The decoction collected through a natural dripping process takes about 45minutes and gradually releases the coffee oils and soluble coffe compounds. South Indian brews are stronger than the Western drip-style coffee because of the chicory content. Mix 2-3tbs of decoction with sugar, add hot milk to the whole mixture and blend it by pouring it back and forth between two containers to aerate the brew.

Some places and brands of coffee have etched a name for themselves in the world of coffee for the manner in which coffee is made. The strength of South Indian Filter coffee or kaapi (traditionally served in a tumbler and dabrah or bowl to cool it down), the purity of Kumbakonam Degree Coffee, the skill of local baristas in preparing Ribbon or Metre coffee by the stretching the stream of coffee between two containers without spilling a drop… have all contributed to the evolution of coffee preparation into an art form.

Meter coffee IMG_0722_Anurag Priya

With coffee bars and cafes flooding the market and big names like Starbucks, Costa, Barista, Gloria Jean’s, The Coffee Bean, Tim Horton’s and Café Coffee Day filling the lanes and malls in India along with local coffee joints like Hatti Kaapi jostling for space, it’s hard to the escape the tantalizing aroma of freshly brewed coffee. And to add more drama to the complexities of coffee, you can choose from a host of specialty coffees from your backyard – Indian Kathlekhan Superior and Mysore Nuggets Extra Bold, or faraway lands – Irish coffee and cappuccino (from the colour of the cloaks of the Capuchin monks in Italy) or Costa Rican Tarrazu, Colombian Supremo, Ethiopian Sidamo and Guatemala Antigua. And you can customize it as espresso, latte, mocha, mochachino, macchiato, decaf… Coffee is just not the same simple thing that the dancing goats of Ethiopia once enjoyed.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as Cover Story on 21 Sep 2014 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald.

Naldehra: Curzon’s retreat

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Golf, river rafting, hot water springs, heritage walks, local cuisine… there’s a lot to do around Lord Curzon’s favourite haunt Naldehra, as ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY find out

IMG_6519 Shimla Heritage Walk - Dusk_Anurag Priya

The clouds hung low over Shimla, where houses perched on the mountains like mushrooms on a giant dunghill. At least, that’s how it looked after 200 years of unbridled development. Drawn by its cool weather and pleasant surroundings, the British elite trickled into Shimla between 1813 and the early 1830s, helping it evolve as a centre of education, entertainment and high life. Viceroy John Lawrence shifted India’s summer capital to Shimla in 1864 and it remained so till 1947. In the pre-independence years between April and October, the British Empire – stretching from Aden to Myanmar, nearly a fifth of the human race – was governed from these heights.

Today, the bustling capital of Himachal Pradesh seemed to split at its seams, as we turned left from the only traffic light in town and continued 22km north to the laidback retreat of Naldehra. Smitten by the undulating grassy meadows fringed by tall cedar trees, Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India (1899-1905) devoted much of his time here. This scenic spot was Curzon’s favourite campsite and he even renamed his youngest daughter Alexandra as Naldehra – a rare departure from the norm of naming places and sightseeing spots after British officers and their families. Curzon set up India’s oldest golf course here, also one of the highest 18-hole golf links in the world. Its undulating terrain made the Par 68 course one of the most challenging in the country.

IMG_5884 Chalets Naldehra revolving restaurant_Anurag Priya

We swung up the slope of the Chalets Naldehra driveway and a lift transported us to the upper level. Beyond the manicured lawn and a pretty garden, Finnish log cabins stood at multiple levels, each unique in design. Set on a 2-acre property owned by the enterprising father-son duo Yatish and Amish Sud, it was originally a personal holiday home close to the golf course that had now become a resort. Every chalet, named after historic people from the region, sported nameplates – F Younghusband Chalet was named after explorer, adventurer and friend of Lord Curzon Sir Francis Younghusband. The Gerard Chalet celebrated brothers Patrick and James Gerard, early explorers who mapped the hills. Captain Kennedy Chalet was dedicated to Charles Pratt Kennedy, the first Political Officer to the Hill States, a Scotsman who built the first pucca house in Shimla – Kennedy House. Sir Henry Collet Chalet hailed British botanist and army officer who authored ‘Simla Simlensis’, a handbook on the flowering plants of Shimla. Local historian Raja Bhasin, who authored the fascinating book ‘10 Heritage Walks in Shimla’ was responsible for the nomenclature and we hoped to go on a heritage walk with him.

Our room was scented with pinewood and the balcony offered a view of cedar forests and troops of curious monkeys. We really needed the nature hike after devouring all the food! The snowy peaks stood in a ragged line like tardy students at the morning assembly. We could have sat at the viewpoint for hours but chose to take a diversion and trudge up to the Naldehra golf course. There, the old temple of Nanahal Dev (or Mahu Nag), the paramount deity of the region, stood by the greens. Tourists rode horses to the sightseeing points while the adventurous tried the zipline. Some were content to pose in Himachali costumes. Even the zipline gear was up for a photo-op! By evening, we were back at Chalets Naldehra perched on the revolving restaurant, 360˚ Top of the World, the first and only one of its kind in Himachal Pradesh! Like Piz Gloria atop Swiss peak Schilthorn, made famous by James Bond, the small octagonal restaurant seated 20 and was a great place to unwind and enjoy a delicious meal with laser lights, sunset views and starry nights.

IMG_6210  Naldehra Golf Course_Anurag Priya

Chalets Naldehra was also perfectly placed for excursions. A long winding 25km downhill drive past rolling countryside took us to the River Sutlej cutting swiftly through gorges. White water rafting was conducted along a tame 5km section of the river. However, the rapids were so mild, they didn’t even merit having names! Starting near Sunni, the biggest thrill was a customary dip at the waterfall gushing down from the pumphouse. Serious rafting enthusiasts undertook daytrips to tackle Grade II-III rapids that began further upstream. The trip culminated at the hot water springs of Tattapani.

Tourists had circled out the therapeutic sulphur springs with stones and pebbles. Hot water bubbled forth on the right riverbank, prompting people to cool or warm their heels, take dips, mineral baths and even indulge in mud slinging! Sadly, Tattapani faced imminent threat of being submerged by reservoir waters of the Kol Dam by the end of the year. The historic Shiva Gufa (cave) was just 5km away at Saraur but we continued 40km to Mahunag instead.

IMG_6712 Hike to Kogi village_Anurag Priya

The temple of Mahunag, amid forests of pine and deodar, was believed to be the embodiment of Raja Karna. As per legend, during the Mahabharata war, as Karna lay bloodied on the battlefield, Krishna lamented that the sun of magnanimity was setting. Arjuna was amazed that Krishna was praising Karna before Dharmraj Yudhishthir, the epitome of justice. To prove his point, Krishna disguised himself as an old Brahmin and went to Karna. Claiming to have heard of his large-heartedness, Krishna asked for alms. Having nothing on him, Karna slammed his jaw on his shield, dislodged his gold tooth and offered it to him. When the Brahmin rejected his bloodied offering, Karna summoned his last ounce of strength, shot a varunastra arrow into the earth, cleaned his gold tooth in the fountain and offered it anew to the Brahmin. Pleased, Krishna revealed his true form and Karna lay down his life at his feet. We marveled at the legend as much as the ornate wooden door, silver-plated entrance and the strange stone idol of the guardian deity Jallah Maharaj.

There were several Mahunag shrines dotting the region, as we discovered on our leisurely morning hike to the charming 500-year-old village of Kogi. As the sun lit up the village, the beauty of Naldehra’s surroundings came alive. The ancient temple of Nanahal Devta (Mahunag Mandir) with beautiful woodcarvings lay in the heart of the village. Despite the garish renovation job in 1994, the tower shrine retained a rustic charm. The typical Himachali village had homes covered by slate roofs and horses tied in open sheds below.

IMG_6778 Himachali cuisine-Siddu_Anurag Priya

For a taste of typical pahadi cuisine we dropped by at the Grameen Bhandhar Naldehra, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it eatery cum store. Run by local women who man the adjacent Himachali Craft Centre, the intriguing menu sported items like Babru, Khairu and Siddu. They sounded more like thugs rather than dishes! Siddu, a steamed dumpling was eaten with spicy, mint-chili chutney and hot ghee. Curries like khatta (tangy) and meetha (sweet) paired well with rice.

Just 11 km from Naldehra was the country’s first private apple orchard set up by Alexander Coutts, tailor to former Viceroy of India Lord Dufferin. Established in 1887 as Hillock’s Head in Mashobra, the farm generated 90 English varieties of apples, pear, plum and ornamental plants. It gained fame as Coutts Garden and new apple varieties like Yellow Newton, King of Pippin and Granny Smith were introduced. Raised as a Research Station by ICAR in 1953, it served as the Regional Horticultural Research & Training Station and Centre for Excellence for sustainable apple farming since 1985. The station helped Himachal Pradesh become the ‘Apple State of India’ with over 238 varieties of apples. Spread over 64 acres at a height of 2286m, it housed rare trees and flowering plants with an uninterrupted view of the Himalayas.

IMG_6484 Shimla Heritage Walk - Dusk_Anurag Priya

Equally nice was the drive along meandering mountain roads and swathes of forest towards the Himalayan National Park at Mahasu massif. The snowy slopes of Kufri (16 km from Naldehra), a winter sports capital in its heyday lured skiers to carve the snow. Today, it bore the brunt of mass tourism as scabs of shanties dotted the hill. A steady line of mules, yaks and horses wound up the slushy narrow roads bearing tourists who thronged the little hamlet for resplendent Himalayan views. Few visited the high altitude zoo at Kufri, home to rare antelopes, wild cats and Himalayan birds.

Since Raja Bhasin was out of town leading a tour, we grudgingly returned to Shimla for a heritage walk, albeit with Amish Sud in tow. A quick cuppa at Wake & Bake Café on the Mall and we were good to go. Walk No.1 from Scandal Point to Viceregal Lodge took us past several colonial and historic landmarks – the 1883 built General Post Office Building, St Andrew’s Church that was now a library and college, Bantony Castle, residence of the Maharaja of Sirmour slated to be a museum, the Railway Board Building, Gorton Castle (currently AG Office) whose upper storey burnt down recently, the 1862 building Knockdrin or the Chief of Staffs’ residence and the Central Telegraph Office.

IMG_6372 Shimla Heritage Walk - Nagar Nigam_Anurag Priya

All around us there was a buzz in the air. Locals thronged Lakkad Bazaar for provisions. Rosy-cheeked schoolgirls chatted animatedly in chorus. Nostalgic old men ambled down Mall Road recounting the years of their youth. And the words of F. Beresford Harrop from his 1925 ‘New Guide to Simla’ rang true, “The transmitters of gossip are ever at work and savory and unsavory secrets of our society are flashed to the uttermost limits of Simla with all the speed of wireless.”

FACT FILE

Getting there: Take the Kalka Shatabdi train from Delhi to Kalka (4 hrs) and take the narrow gauge Kalka Shimla Heritage train (5 hrs). If you’re in a hurry, drive 99km from Kalka to Shimla (3 hrs), from where Naldehra is another 22 km.

Stay at Chalets Naldehra http://www.chaletsnaldehra.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 9 August 2014 in the Sunday magazine of The Hindu.