Category Archives: Nature & Ecology

Lofty heights: Tree houses in India

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY lead an arboreal existence as they pick out the best tree houses in the country

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We remember the first time we got onto a treehouse was sometime in 2001 when Green Magic in Wayanad had pioneered the concept of treehouses in Kerala. It was like a childhood fantasy come true as we imagined we’d be ushered like Phantom and Diana by Bandar into a counter-weighted basket that would magically zoom up in the air. We wondered if the jungle vine would snap or was it a ladder we had to climb? Walking through the lush plantation, we reached the edge of a ravine from where a gently sloping wooden ramp led to the thatched hut.

Gingerly walking up the ramp we reached the rustic hut with a small balcony and a low bed made of bamboo. We were above the tree line and the aerial perch afforded a birds’ eye view, literally. The sight of bright orange and black scarlet minivets flitting about the dense shrubbery was magical. The thrill of being up there and spending a night as the wind creaked the tree can never be forgotten.

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That was 16 years ago, when the concept of a tree house was quite novel and still taking root. Today, every nature resort or plantation stay worth its salt prides in having at least one tree house or machan. But gone are the days of rustic simplicity; today’s treehouses come equipped with all kinds of creature comforts.

The best place to experience tree houses in India is undoubtedly Wayanad. It is no coincidence that the hilly district, with its abundant nature, mountainous terrain and rich tribal knowledge, is a stronghold for tree houses. Many resorts have relied on the traditional knowhow of local tribes.

Tranquil Wayanad

Tranquil Resort at Kolagapara near Ambalavayal used to have a treehouse with an actual basket that transported you to the top. However, they have renovated their old perches into the Tranquilitree tree house, perched at 45 feet on a gulmohar tree. The rustic 572 sq ft living space comes with an en-suite bathroom, verandah, mini-fridge, LCD TV and coffee maker. However, kids below 8 are not allowed due to safety concerns.

High above the rainforest canopy, Vythiri Resort has five tree houses ranging from 35 ft to 80 ft off the ground, including a child friendly one! Natural spring water has been channeled from a high source so gravity takes care of water supply without using a motor for pumping water. The quaint thatch roof and bamboo walls have been built by members of the local tribal community using locally sourced materials. Plenty of precautions are taken – guests are asked to pack light with heavy luggage kept in a locker room and no food, liquor or smoking is allowed up there. It’s the perfect escape for couples or honeymooners.

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The newest entrant into Wayanad’s extended treehouse family is Pepper Trail near Sulthan Bathery. Lined by cheery orange and red heliconia, the driveway sliced through the expansive Mangalam Carp Estate, set up by pioneering planter Scotsman Colin Auley Mackenzie in the 1800s. At the tiled roof Pavilion deck, a refreshing drink of lime was served overlooking coffee shrubs interspersed with tall silver oak and 1,200 jackfruit trees.

On a sturdy jackfruit tree, a wooden walkway rose over the coffee bushes in a gentle ascent to a treehouse 40ft off the ground. The Woodpecker Treehouse was fitted with wood-panelled walls, fine décor and linen, a country style four-poster bed, dressing area, luxurious bathroom and a wide balcony with plantation chairs. Its counterpart, the Hornbill Treehouse was further away. Every morning or evening, we’d eyeball barbets, sunbirds, drongos and raucous Malabar Grey hornbills, sipping our cuppa.

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Lost in the cacophonic din of urban life, we discovered that silence in the remote rainforests sits on an underlay of crooning cicadas. Our arboreal existence drew the attention of a boisterous troop of macaques, who peered through our windows in the hope of some generosity of spirit. With no biscuits or bananas going their way, they’d romp on the railings in wild tantrum displays. Monkeys can be a menace, so catapults are kept handy with air guns to scare them away. We felt mildly annoyed about their infringement when ironically we had invaded their leafy domain!

With a live feed of Animal Planet outdoors, who would miss TV! Pepper Trail maintains a “No kids under 12” policy. While this may seem tough for families with kids, it underlines the resort’s stress on safety and concern for a guest’s need for peace and quiet. The sprawling estate is great for birding besides leisurely walks to see how coffee and tea are cultivated. Take a drive around the plantation in the open top jeep or go on short highway jaunts around Bandipur and Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuaries!

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At Rainforest Boutique Resort in Athirapally, as if the charm of viewing Kerala’s most magnificent waterfall from your room wasn’t enough, a Swiss architect was roped in to design a treehouse as dramatic as the view. Overlooking the Sholayar rainforests, the tree house is the ideal vantage point to gaze at the thundering Athirapally waterfalls. Equally dramatic is the Shola Periyar Tree House perched atop a banyan tree. Another region making a name for its treehouses is the wildlife zone of Masinagudi near Mudumalai with rustic perches at Safari Land, Forest Hills and The Wilds. However, the trend is not restricted to South India.

Tree House Hideaway is set in 21 acres of woodland adjacent to Bandhavgarh National Park. Combine the joy of staying in a tree house with the thrill of spotting tigers in the wild on jeep safaris through Bandhavgarh. Five exclusive tree houses are built on stilts on five different trees – Mahua, Tendu, Peepal, Banyan and Palash. Though grungy and wild from the outside, the rooms are posh. The dining hall is built across two levels around a century old Mahua tree with a dining hall on the ground level and The Watering Hole, a bar cum lounge on the upper floor.

Treehouse Hideaway Bandhavgarh

Pugdundee Safaris, the folks behind Treehouse Hideaway in Bandhavgarh, also run other treehouse getaways in the lesser known parks of Central India. They have six fabulous perches at Pench Tree Lodge at Pench National Park and two at Denwa Backwater Escape near Satpura Tiger Reserve.

Yet another luxurious romantic hideaway is The Machan near Lonavala. Perched at 3300 feet, the 25-acre patch is part of a tropical cloud forest with a choice of treehouses! The Heritage Machan is built across four levels around a wild fig tree, a spiral staircase leads up to the glass encased Canopy Machan, a wooden bridge connects up to the Forest Machan, the Jungle Machans are set amid a thicket of trees while an elevated wooden walkway through thick vegetation leads to the towering Sunset Machans, known for their magical sunset views. The Machan is completely off grid and generates all energy from renewable sources (solar and wind). There’s trekking, birding and local explorations to forts like Lohagad and Koraigad, besides Karla and Bhaja caves.

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Further north, 30 min from Jaipur at Nature Farms in Syari Valley is Tree House Resort. Perched atop keekar trees, the nests have several branches running through the rooms, blending nature with creature comforts. Each Tree House nest is named after a bird found in the area and the 5-room tree houses are counted among the largest in the world.

In Himachal too, the trend has caught on. At Manali Tree house cottages near Katrain, perch on an oak tree while at Himalayan Village Kasol, the tree houses are actually wooden structures called bhandars, representative of typical Himachali architecture. Gone are those days when you just thought of surviving the night on a rickety perch, here you can get out of the rain shower, grab a drink from the mini bar and plonk yourself on the sofa as if it were your own living room… there’s a whole new world up there!

Vythiri Tree House Interior

FACT FILE

Pepper Trail, Chulliyode
Ph +91 9562277000 www.peppertrail.in
Getting there: At Mangalam Carp Estate, Chulliyode, 10 km from Sulthan Bathery in Wayanad, 100 km from Calicut International Airport and 250 km from Bangalore.

Tranquil Resort, Kolagapara
Ph +91 7053126407 www.tranquilresort.com
Getting there: At Kuppamudi Estate on Kolagappara-Ambalavayal Road, 7km from Sulthan Bathery and 105km from Calicut International Airport

Vythiri Resort, Lakkidi
Ph 0484 4055250 www.vythiriresort.com
Getting there: At Lakkidi, 18km from Kalpetta, district headquarters of Wayanad and 85km from Calicut International Airport

Rainforest Boutique Resort, Athirapally
Ph + 91 9995358888, 9539058888 www.avenuehotels.in
Getting there: 30km from Chalakudy, 55km from Cochin International Airport and 63km from Thrissur railway station.

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Treehouse Hideaway, Bandhavgarh
Ph +91 8800637711 www.treehousehideaway.com
Getting there: Bandhavgarh is 34 km/1 hr from Umaria, the nearest railhead and 22km/4hrs from Jabalpur, the nearest airport

Tree House Resort, Syari Valley
Ph +91 9001797422, 9799490390 www.treehouseresort.in
Getting there: Nature Farms, Syari vallry is 35km from Jaipur opposite Amity University on NH-8.

The Machan, Lonavala
Ph +91 7666622426 www.themachan.com
Getting there: Located at Atvan, 17km south of Lonavala and 100km from Mumbai.

Himalayan Village, Kasol
Ph 01902 276266, +91 9805072712 www.thehimalayanvillage.in
Getting there: Located between Jari and Kasol, 25 km from Kullu Airport Bhuntar and 10km before Manikaran.

Treehouse Cottages, Katrain
Ph 01902-240365, +91-98160-78765 www.manalitreehousecottages.com
Getting there: At Katrain, between Kullu and Manali, 32 km north of Kullu Airport Bhuntar

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 17 March 2017 in Indulge, the Friday magazine supplement of The New Indian Express. Here’s the link: http://www.indulgexpress.com/culture/cover-story/2017/mar/17/sample-a-slice-of-the-arboreal-life-at-some-of-the-best-tree-houses-across-india-387.html

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Life on the Farm: India’s best farm stays

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From milking cows, feeding chickens, rounding up horses to planting paddy and plucking oranges or tea leaves, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY showcase India’s top farmstays where one can enjoy nature at its best 

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While many dream of retiring early, giving up the mad rush of city life and heading to the hills or remote villages to relax in a ranch or run a farm, some are actually living that dream. But life on a farm is no cakewalk. It’s a demanding full-time occupation that starts at the crack of dawn and wraps up at dusk with no letting up through rain or shine. Yet, there is something fulfilling about being amidst nature, growing and enjoying the fruits of one’s labour.

Today, the growing trend of farm tourism in India offers city dwellers a chance to savour country life at its best – milking cows, feeding chickens, rounding up horses, planting paddy, plucking tea leaves, coffee berries or oranges, driving a tractor, riding on bullock carts, taking guided spice tours and plantation walks and wolfing down hearty farm fresh organic meals! So roll up your sleeves for a hands-on experience at over 20 handpicked farm stays across the country.

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Rainforest Retreat, Coorg (Karnataka)
A certified organic farm in the tropical rainforests of Coorg (Kodagu) in Karnataka’s Western Ghats, Rainforest Retreat at Mojo Plantation is a unique blend of eco-tourism, sustainable agriculture and environmental education. Run by a botanist-microbiologist couple Dr Sujata and Anurag (Doc) Goel and their daughter Maya, the 20-acre farm grows cardamom and coffee in the shade of rainforest trees. Go on a guided plantation walk, learn how to hand-pollinate vanilla flowers, pick coffee and follow its journey from bean to cup.

Ripe red berries are handpicked, sundried, hulled, ‘monsooned’ to impart a unique flavour, graded, roasted and ground, all on the farm. The award-winning eco lodge offers a two-room Drongo Cottage and tents deep inside the plantation. The deluxe Atlas Cottages by the stream – named after the world’s largest moth species found here – are more suited for older guests and children. There’s no TV in the rooms, but enough nature TV outside with Wi-Fi near the streamside pavilion. Delicious, wholesome meals are prepared using fuel from the biogas plant.

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Farm produce like cardamom, civet cat coffee, gourmet filter coffee, pepper and vanilla are sold under the label ‘Don’t Panic, It’s Organic’ and proceeds go towards the Goels’ biodiversity research foundation WAPRED (Worldwide Association for Preservation and Restoration of Ecological Diversity). Every season has its appeal – coffee harvesting in Jan-Feb, coffee blossoms in Feb-March, vanilla flowering and pollination in March-April, fireflies by mid-April, frog mating in monsoons and cardamom harvest and blooming of ground orchids between Sep-Dec.

Animal Farm
Besides Moonshine, Starlight and Survivor, the trio of geese by the pond, 6 dogs Stella, Venus, Leo, Luna, Aquarius, Kiri, war-hero Billy the goat, cows and cats, there’s plenty of flora and fauna – Malabar Gliding Tree-frogs, Atlas Moth, Ahaetulla vine snake, arachnids, 40 species of endemic orchids, over 100 birds and occasional wildlife like wild boar, jackal, civet cats, Malabar giant squirrel, mongoose, porcupine, slender loris and barking deer. Doc has recently published a coffee table book on the biodiversity of Mojo called Life Organic.

Getting there: 10 km north west of Madikeri and 250 km from Bangalore. Head past Club Mahindra towards Galibeedu and turn right at the signboards for Kaloor village

Tariff: Rs.2,000-4,000 (includes bed and breakfast, half-day trek and/or plantation tour, lunch and dinner available at extra cost)

Contact: Ph +91-8272 265638/6, 201428, 9480104640 Email rainforestours@gmail.com www.rainforestours.com

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No Man’s Land, near Sirsi (Karnataka)
Nearly a decade ago George and Susheela Varghese left their city jobs and decided to go ‘as far away from Bangalore as possible’. They ended up 400 km north near Sirsi in the forested tracts of the Western Ghats and hoped that the city wouldn’t reach that far, at least in their lifetime! However, it isn’t the remoteness that gives the 8.5-acre farm its name. George believes that we are just caretakers of the land and no one can really ‘own’ it. However, the joke at home is that with three home-schooled daughters aged 8, 7 and 4 and his wife, he’s the only guy in the house; hence No Man’s Land!

They host one family at a time in a cottage, with a tent for a second on the anvil. Besides the original cash crop areca, there’s paddy, sugarcane, pepper, banana, ginger and turmeric. The main homestead is perched on a 3-acre hillside with 30 mangos, 40 cashew, 40 amla trees and fruits like guava, chikkoo, pomelo, avocado and lychee. It’s not exactly an orchard with neat rows of trees, but more a ‘food forest’. They shun pesticides and fertilizers, focusing on alternate energy like biogas, composting, solar cooking and baking in summer using solar boxes. To enrich the soil and increase microbial activity, they use jivamrit, a mix of cow urine, cowdung, jaggery (for a sweet environment) and horsegram flour (food for microbes) that is fermented for 3 days before being added to the soil.

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Being a working organic farm, there’s never a dull moment with lots of seasonal activity – planting paddy saplings in monsoon, harvesting in early Nov-Dec and sugarcane harvest and jaggery-making in early March, celebrated as a local festival called aalemane. The small stream on the property has flowing water till Jan-Feb. Besides an organic harvest, the farm also makes ginger chutney, guava jam and banana savouries!

Animal Farm
All the farm animals are named after infamous people – from the dogs Veeru (after Veerappan), Ozzy (after Osama) and Silky (short for Silk Smitha) to the 3 cows, buffaloes, 20 free range country hen, 5 ducks to Sheru the kitten (after the Jungle Book baddie Sher Khan) and ‘The cat with no name’ – its gender was unknown for the longest time and hence escaped nomenclature!

Getting there: Danandi village is 16 km from Sirsi off the Hubli-Belgaum road in northwest Karnataka with the nearest airport at Hubli 110 km away.

Tariff: Rs.1,500/person, Rs.750 for kids between 6-16, below 6 free

Contact: Ph +91 9481278348 http://www.nomanslandfarm.in

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The Hermitage Guest House, Nersa (Karnataka)
When David and Morvarid Fernandez started their farm south of Belgaum in 1981, it was pretty much a wild tract. The isolated sanctuary seemed ideal for quiet contemplation, so they called it The Hermitage. In 2004 they established an eco lodge for guests and even after all these years, the soul remains intact. The 45-acre farm is 100% organic and grows seasonal vegetables, rice, wheat, turmeric, ginger, sweet potato, onions, chikkoo, mango, coconut, pepper, coffee, tea, cocoa and medicinal plants. Twelve acres have been left underdeveloped for wild animals.

Stay in The Machan, a bamboo and wood home on stilts 11 feet off the ground, or The Kadaba, a typical village home of wood and mud plaster or The Gota, a rural cottage with locally made red clay floor tiles. With no electricity, the farm is solar-powered with hot water available from a bhum (wood fire stove). The kitchen offers excellent Parsi and Anglo Indian cuisine incorporating unusual indigenous fruits, nuts, berries and vegetables grown locally or growing wild in the Western Ghats. Try homemade jam made from wild jamun, free range eggs, besides breadfruit, Bull’s Heart, Custard Apple and Cherimoya.

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Get cooking lessons, drive a John Deere 5045, attend the local jathre (village fair) and santhe (weekly market) at Khanapur (Sun), Alnavar (Tues) and Nangad (Wed), learn pottery from Shambaji or Shankar using Khanapur’s famous red clay or relax in the perennial stream. Watch the jungles come alive with Flame of the Forest in summer and enjoy birding and stargazing in winter; the stillness broken by the call of jungle fowls or the howl of a jackal.

Animal Farm
With an environment hostile to agriculture, farming is a challenge with monkeys, bears and fruit bats making a beeline for chikkoo. Bulbuls and barbets peck at guavas, parakeets feast on sunflower while woodpeckers target the coconut trees! Spotted deer enjoy resting in the shade of the eucalyptus, acacia and silver oak trees and pairs of peacocks nest here every season. Besides butterflies, bats, snakes, gaur and other animals that pass through the farm, there are resident geese, hens, ducks and the adorable dog Bahadur (Badmash and Scully passed away recently after a full life on the farm, as did Apache the ‘loafer cat’).

Getting there: The Hermitage is near Nersa Village, 18 km from the nearest town Khanapur and 45 km from Belgaum.

Tariff: Rs.2,500/person, including all meals

Contact: Ph +91 9341998610, 9880757075, 9341692211, 9242623020, 9480235842
Email info@thehermitageguesthouse.com http://www.thehermitageguesthouse.com

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Off the Grid Farm, Castle Rock (Goa-Karnataka border)
After running rivers in Dandeli, Coorg and Goa, white water rafting specialist John Pollard and his wife Sylvia, a pottery artist, chose a quiet nook in the hills close to the rafting action. Not too far from Castle Rock near Doodhsagar waterfalls on the Goa-Karnataka border, their 5-acre patch at Poppalwadi can be summed up as ‘extreme farming’. In a place too remote for mobile networks, tar roads or even electricity, solar powered LED lights, well-ventilated rooms and freshly prepared food requiring no refrigeration do the trick.

Off The Grid employs organic farming and composting to grow its own rice. Besides fruit trees like mango, chikkoo, guava, banana and jackfruit, the kitchen garden supplies enough corn, brinjal, spinach, beans, pumpkin and rocket leaves to be self-sufficient. The food is eclectic with a fusion of European, Asian and Anglo-Indian dishes – oriental noodles, Thai curry, salads, smoked meats, tandoori, tuna and as per John ‘wood-fired anything’.

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With just two cabins, two rooftop rooms and a tent, the set-up is eco-friendly, small, rustic and ultra low impact. Guests are welcome to lend a hand in farm work, weeding and picking vegetables. Choose from 2 hr trails to full day treks with picnic hampers to explore hidden waterfalls, swim in empty pools and village walks through Kunbi tribal hamlets.

Animal Farm
Contiguous to the Anshi-Dandeli tiger reserve, this is a wild tract inhabited by sambhar, deer, bear, porcupines, gaur (Indian bison) and leopards. Birding is rich though forest birds are not easy to sight. Noisy dogs don’t last very long here and may get picked up by leopards along with livestock, but Kukri the smart mongrel seems to be holding out.

Getting there: Drive 85km from Panjim on NH-4A via Velha Goa, Ponda, Mollem and Anmod Ghat to Castle Rock on the Karnataka border, from where it’s a 10 km/30 min offroad drive to the farm

Tariff: 3,500/person, all meals included

Contact: Ph +91 9049081097, 9623451758, 8805727230 Email info@kalirafting.com http://www.offthegrid.in

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Maachli Farmstay, Parule (Maharashtra)
Tucked away in the lush hinterland off Maharashtra’s Malvan Coast, Maachli is aptly named after the temporary machaans constructed in fields where farmers camp overnight to protect the crops during harvest season. Run by Pravin and Priya Samant and their son Prathamesh, the 10-acre farm is bordered by a perennial stream, which doubles up as a natural fish spa! The five rustic themed cottages have sit-outs overlooking the plantation and acute conical thatched roofs to prevent monkey menace.

Take a plantation tour to see how coconut, betelnut, spices, banana and mangoes are grown. For a more hands-on experience, milk a cow, draw water from the well, visit a potters’ village or learn to use a laath, the traditional way of tapping water from the stream for irrigation. Catch a cooking demo at the interactive kitchen Randhap (Konkani for ‘cooking’) where farm-fresh organic vegetables are chopped on traditional cutters called adalho and food is prepared on a chool (mud stove). Meals are served in earthen pots and patravali (leaf plates) or areca fronds.

Konkan farmstays_Local cuisine at Maachli IMG_2194_Anurag Mallick

The Morning Nature Trail to the Bandheshvaray temple of the gurakhi (shepherd) community takes visitors to the local avath (village society) and offers glimpses into rural life. The 2½-hour Sunset Trek to the coast meanders through coconut groves, mango orchards, small jungles, plateaus and an ancient devrai (sacred grove).

Getting there: 494 km from Mumbai, Parule is 21km south of Malvan and a 22km drive via SH-119 from Kudal (20km north of Sawantwadi) on the Mumbai-Goa highway.

Tariff: Rs.5,400, including all meals, nature trail & plantation tour, activities extra

Contact: Ph +91 9637333284, 9423879865 Email prathameshsawant@maachli.in http://www.maachli.in

Konkan_Stay in a mango orchard at Dwarka Farmstay_Anurag Mallick

Dwarka Farms Homestay, Talavade (Maharashtra)
Lush with mango, cashew, timber, coconut, banana and pineapple, Dwarka Farms is an organic farmstay managed by Dilip Aklekar on his 15-acre property near Sawantwadi. With a vermi-compost plant, biogas for cooking, milk from the farm’s cows and fresh fruits, pulses and vegetables grown on campus, Dwarka follows a ‘plant to plate’ philosophy. A wide range of vegetables, fruits and spices are grown organically, contributing to nearly 80% of ingredients used in the kitchen.

The rambling farmhouse has rooftop dorms and 9 rooms with large balconies opening into the mango orchard with 230 alphonso trees. Dilip’s affable nature allows guests to enjoy free access to his lounge and kitchen where one can learn to cook typical Malvani fare, sip sweet chikoo shira or savour fresh seafood delicacies. Besides excursions to beaches and local sights, he’ll happily accompany you to a potter’s village, bamboo workshops and mat weaving at George Joel’s Greenearth Culture and KONBAC (Konkan Bamboo and Cane Development Centre) in Kudal.

Getting there: Talavade is 14km from Sawantwadi and 11km from Vengurla on the Vengurla-Sawantwadi Road.

Tariff: Rs.2,800-3,600, meals extra Rs.250-300/person

Contact: Ph 02363 266267, 9167231351, 9422541168 Email dilip@dwarkahomestay.com http://www.dwarkahomestay.com

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Acres Wild, Coonoor (Tamil Nadu)
Located on a quiet hillside of Coonoor in the Nilgiris is Mansoor Khan’s 22-acre organic cheese making farmstay. After writing and directing iconic movies like Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1986), Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1991), Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995) and Josh (2000), he abandoned Mumbai’s glitz in dramatic filmy style and moved to the Nilgiris in 2004, a stunning region where he had shot some of his films. Mansoor and his wife Tina found their calling in organic gourmet cheese.

Sitting pretty at 6000 ft, the farm grows vegetables, fruits and herbs like fennel, rosemary, thyme, parsley, sage, oregano and chives, used to flavour their cheese in delectable flavours – soft cheese like Herb & Garlic, Pepper Top, Celery, Caraway Seed and the garlic-infused Indian Summer. Guests can opt for a basic 2-day cheese-making course for Rs.8000 and learn to make hard cheese like Gouda, Cheddar, Gruyere and Parmesan or Advanced Cheese like Mozarella, Camembert and Haloumi. The 14 beehives in the garden produce honey, which is sold in local markets as well. The three farmstay cottages with five rooms are named Haloumi, Cheddar and Colby – cheesy, eh?

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Animal Farm
Besides hens, ducks, geese, turkey, guinea fowl and Rhea the doggy, the farm has two main breeds of cows – Jersey hybrid and Holstein-Friesian hybrid. You might find yourself petting Lazy, the jersey calf or Elizabeth.

Getting there: Coonoor is 21 km south of Ooty in the Nilgiris, 36 km from the nearest railhead Mettupalayam, 70 km from the nearest airport Coimbatore and 300 km from Bangalore. The farm is in Upper Meanjee Estate in Coonoor, reachable via Kannimariamman Kovil Street.

Tariff: Rs.3,500-4,500, plus taxes

Contact: Ph +91 9443232621, 0423-2232621 Email acreswildfarm@gmail.com http://www.acres-wild.com

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Destiny Farmstay, Avalanche (Tamil Nadu)
As the mist slowly rises above the lake and forested slopes of Avalanche, you get a wispy image of how beautiful the Nilgiris would have been nearly a century ago. Cut off from the mass tourism of Ooty, Destiny Farmstay is a throwback to colonial times when the hills were not overrun with human habitation. Spread over 180-acres and surrounded by the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, Destiny was started nearly a decade ago by Vijay and Neeta Prabhu.

There’s no TV or mobile connectivity and an old army pick-up truck ferries guests across the last 3 km off-road stretch. The organic farm grows radish, cabbage and other vegetables, besides herbs, strawberries, plums and carnations. A private garden supplies the kitchen with farm fresh produce served at the Wishbone Restaurant. 35 rooms furnished with parquetry, country furniture and fireplaces, open to a stupendous view. Wake up to the neigh of horses or take a ride around the track after an introductory riding lesson.

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Visit a cattle farm to catch the dairy in action, get the lowdown on farming practises in an educational agri-tour or plant farm herbs and vegetables. Stroll down to the lake, hike to a nearby Toda village, try your hand at fishing in a little pond or go overnight camping on a nearby hill.

Animal Farm
A stable of 20 horses, a dairy full of 60 cows, 6 sheep, rabbits, geese, a couple of dogs and Jimmy the cat.

Getting there: Avalanche is 25 km from Ooty via Good Shepherd International School and Emerald Dam.

Tariff: Rs.7,500-10,000/couple, including breakfast, meals

Contact: Ph 0423 2244000 Email holiday@littlearth.in http://www.littlearth.in

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Organic Farms, Auroville (Pondicherry)
Long before ‘organic farming’ became a buzzword, the Auroville community has been involved in sustainable farming practices and holistic living since the 60s. Grappling with poor soil, difficult climate and a short growing season from December to March, Auroville today has nearly 320 acres of farmland and over two dozen farms, each unique in activity and character. Employing eco-friendly technologies such as windmills, solar energy, micro-sprinklers, biogas, permaculture and biodynamics, they blend modern agriculture with traditional farming techniques. Many of these farms with orchards, fields, vegetable gardens and dairies are open to serious volunteers.

The 35-acre Aurogreen, started in 1975, is one of the oldest farms in Auroville while the 135-acre Annapurna the largest. A ‘Certified Organic’ farm, Annapurna grows 30 acres of food crops like rice, millets and oilseeds, with the remainder dedicated to firewood trees, fodder and forest. Pebble Garden, home to 100 endangered traditional vegetable varieties, runs the outreach initiative ‘A Garden for Everyone’ and is open to visitors for a guided walk every Fri 4 pm.

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The 6-acre Solitude Farm with an in-house rock band Emergence and an organic restaurant, grows indigenous millets, rice, oil seeds, grams, pulses, vegetables and 16 varieties of fruits. They aim to create a dynamic integrated lifestyle, leaving space for music and arts with farming as the foundation of the community.

TerraSoul, a holistic farm project on a 4.5 acre patch in the 22-acre Windarra Farm, employs Permadynamics and has a mushroom and spirulina farming unit, besides workshops and classes on Thai yoga massage, martial arts and tango. Most farms have acco for volunteers, who are expected to stay at least a month and take part in farming and community activities.

Getting there: Auroville is 10 km north of Pondicherry and about 150 km south of Chennai

Tariff: TerraSoul charges volunteers Rs.4,000-7,000 per month

Contact: Email farmgroup@auroville.org.in http://www.auroville.org

Kerala-Oyster Opera

Oyster Opera, Padanna (Kerala)
Surrounded by fish farming ponds and coconut-fringed backwaters, Oyster Opera in Kerala’s Kasaragod district is an unusual farm. Its treasures are not found in the soil, but in water. One of the few farmstays devoted to green mussel and oyster farming, it was conceived by Gul Mohammed in 2007, who cultured kallumakai (green mussels) on locally available coir. Recipient of the Karshaka Shiromani, a national award from the Agriculture Ministry for his innovative farming technique, he shared his knowhow with poor coastal folk, transforming the lives of nearly 6000 farmers.

In this community-run enterprise, local women handle cooking and housekeeping at the rustic themed resort. Spread over 6-acres, Oyster Opera has traditional huts built on land, water and treetop using locally available materials. The eco-friendly laterite stone cottages with open air baths are named Mussel, Oyster, Clam, Shrimp, Crab, Pearl Oyster, Lobster and Snail with a houseboat called Sara’s Float.

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Besides picking oysters and fishing, enjoy swimming, canoeing, coracle jaunts, houseboat rides in the pristine Valiyaparamba backwaters and island hopping to uninhabited islets, estuaries, mangroves and beaches nearby.

Getting there: Oyster Opera is located at Padanna, 7km from the nearest bus and railway station at Cheruvathur in Kasaragod district. It is 120km from Mangalore Airport and 180km from Kozhikode Airport.

Tariff: Rs.3,800-5,500, includes breakfast

Contact: Ph +91 9447176465, 0467-2278101 Email oystergul@rediffmail.com http://www.oysteropera.in

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Spice Village, Thekkady (Kerala)
CGH Earth’s Spice Village is a farm disguised as a plush Kerala resort. Poised on a 2,000ft high ridge near Periyar around a ranger’s forested home, the 12-acre resort is built like a mountain village based on the ancient tribal wisdom of the Cardamom Hills. Spice Village won Wild Asia’s annual Responsible Tourism Awards in the ‘boutique hotel’ category in 2007 and it’s easy to see why.

A tea counter dispensing herbal brews of your choice supplants a formal reception. The nature-cooled cottages wear thatched roofs made of locally sourced elephant grass and stone floors with coir mats. The whole campus is a chemical-free zone – the sprayer uses biodegradable pesticides like neem and lemon grass oils, little clay pots provide natural mosquito control and the incenser burns Black Damur, an insect-repelling tree resin. Strings of aloe vera plants suspended in the verandah ward off pesky flying pests around the dining areas. Over 200 kg of daily organic waste is recycled in the vermicompost plant to fertilize the farm.

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Every tree is neatly labeled and the Pepper Vine Tour, an hour-long walk through the property, is a good introduction to spices. Nearly 140 species of native plants have been conserved. Organic vegetables and spices are grown in-house at the 1.75-acre organic farm, the fish comes fresh from the river and a specialty outdoor restaurant called the ‘50 mile diet’ sources all the ingredients with a 50 mile radius to reduce carbon footprint and benefit local communities! Get an Introduction to Spices every evening and learn how to use them during the Kerala Cuisine cookery classes at The Tiffin Room.

Animal Farm
Besides guinea fowl and numerous squirrels, birds and butterflies on the property, neighbouring Periyar Tiger Reserve is ideal for jungle walks and boat rides to spot elephants, gaur, deer, otters, foxes and other wildlife.

Getting there: Spice Village is on Kumily Road at Thekkady, 190 km from Cochin International Airport and 145 km from Madurai Airport

Tariff: Rs.18,700-24,000

Contact: Ph 04869–224514, 222315 Email spicevillage@cghearth.com http://www.cghearth.com/spice-village

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Punjabiyat, Saidowal-Gunopur (Punjab)
Perhaps no place in India captures the imagination of a farming holiday the way Punjab does with visions of mustard fields, tractors tilling the fields and robust cuisine. Punjabiyat, an hour’s drive from Amritsar, provides all that and more. Built amidst green fields of wheat and mustard crisscrossed by canals, with pathways lit hurricane lamps, its four mud-plastered cottages downplay the luxuries within.

High ceilings, four-poster beds, tasteful interiors, a covered front deck and private terrace with meals served in different settings as per your convenience. Enjoy parathas, aloo sabzi fresh from the potato fields, local curd, fruit platters and mango-mint smoothies, with a light continental lunch and open-air tandoori barbecues for dinner. The hosts insist you cannot have two Punjabi meals a day!

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Burn off calories with a 20-min cycle ride to a dairy farm where you can milk cows and learn about rural dairy farming. The famous Sikh temple, Ghallughara Saheb, is a 20 min walk away. Drive a tractor, go on a tonga (traditional horse carriage) ride and take an invigorating dip in the tube-well tank.

Getting there: Saidowal-Gunopur is 70 km and an hour’s drive northwest of Amritsar via NH-15 towards Gurdaspur. It is 100 km from Jalandhar via the diversion from Beas.

Tariff: Rs.7,600, includes breakfast, meals Rs.610/head

Contact: Ph +91 9818705508 Email info@itmenaanlodges.com http://www.itmenaanlodges.com

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Jor ki Dhani Godham, Katrathal (Rajasthan)
Set in the historic village of Katrathal that dates back to Mahabharata times, this unassuming farm will blow you away with its simplicity and charm. Located near Nawalgarh in Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region, the 15-acre farmstay is run by the gracious Kan Singh Nirwan. Recognizing the science hidden in old practices linked with faith, the farmstay is a wonderful way to reconnect with nature.

Stay in rustic air-cooled huts made of mud bricks with a wash of cowdung and walls lined with medicinal plants. Rotis made of bajra (pearl millet), jau (barley) and genhu (wheat) are served with pulses, vegetables and jaggery on a bajot (low stool). The focal point is the country cow, which provides farm-fresh milk, curd, buttermilk, makkhan (white butter) and ghee (clarified butter). The farm uses jivamrit (organic nectar), a concoction of cow dung and urine, known for its germicidal properties. Instead of fertilizers, seeds washed in jivamrit mixed with chuna (lime) sprout easily, are disease-resistant and require less irrigation.

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In the small garden patch, rose bushes, papaya and musambi prosper without being watered! Scoffing at drip irrigation and the obsession with watering plants, Kan Singh counters that plants derive 98.5% nourishment from the atmosphere, not the roots. Moisture is provided by a small pit of organic waste nearby. Guests on a short stay often linger for weeks and go back with a deep sense of gratitude. Visit lac bangle workshops and pottery kilns nearby as you explore the charming village known as India’s largest producer of clay chillums, besides Harsh Pahadi, the historic site of Lohargal and ruins of Buddhist temples.

Animal Farm
The farm has 25 country cows belonging to three main breeds – Tharparkar, Rathi and Sahiwal, besides Marwari horses – Badshah, Roopal and Momal and the three dogs Tommy, Tiger and Sheru.

Getting there: Located on the Katrathal-Hardyalpura Road, the farm is 24km from Nawalgarh and 15km from Sikar

Tariff: 1,200/person, food included

Contact: Ph +91 9875039977, Email nirwankansingh@rediffmail.com

Spiti Ecosphere-Volunteering along the trail_Anurag Mallick

Spiti Ecosphere (Himachal Pradesh)
Run by Ishita Khanna, Spiti Ecosphere’s community-based eco-tourism initiative helps visitors gain an insight into local agricultural practices, the intricacies of water management and farming feats at 4400 m. Being a high altitude cold desert, agriculture in Spiti is solely dependent on winter snow melt, which is transported over long distances through small channels called kuhls. Stay in some of the highest homestays in the Trans-Himalayan region at Langza, Demul and Komic, Asia’s highest inhabited village, as you learn to farm sweet pea, kala matar (black pea), sattu (barley) and the wild tsirku (seabuckthorn).

Hailed as a ‘Wonder Berry’, seabuckthorn (Hippophae Rhammonides) is packed with Vitamin C and also contains trace elements, mineral compounds, amino acids, proteins and omega oils. Be a farmhand, help in voluntourism projects and take home an array of wild herbs and agro products sold under the brand name Tsering (literally ‘blessings for a long life’) – seabuckthorn jam, tea and fruit drink concentrate to wild garlic, onion, mint, black peas, thyme and oregano.

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Animal Farm
Yak safaris give a chance to interact with these sturdy mountain beasts. The wild tracts of Spiti are also home to Shan (snow leopard) and Tibetan wolf.

Getting there: Kaza is 213 km from Manali. Take the Leh-Manali highway and take the diversion at Gramphoo onto SH-505 via Chhatru and Losar to Kaza. The villages of Langza, Demul and Komic come on the Spiti Left Bank trek.

Tariff: Rs.700/head, including meals

Contact: Ph +91 9418860099, 9418439294, 01906-222652 Email info@spitiecosphere.com http://www.spitiecosphere.com

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Emerald Trail, Jangaliya Gaon, Bhimtal (Uttarakhand)
Started six years ago by Sumith Dutta, who chucked his corporate job to move to the quiet hills of Bhimtal, the 3-acre patch was mostly barren, until planted with pomegranate, grapes, lime and assorted fruit trees. A 1000 sq ft greenhouse and open fields grow tomato, brinjal, potato, capsicum and other vegetables.

Sumith’s philosophy is simple – ‘What you see is what you eat’ with excellent home cooked Indian and Pahari meals. Guests are welcome to help out with the farm activities. The cows produce enough milk to meet the daily needs and the manure goes straight into the fields. It’s a neat self-sustaining habitat.

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One large bungalow with four rooms and the garden lights are powered by solar energy. A wood and brick cottage and two cottages built of local stone and mud flooring are ideal for independent travellers. A great base to cover the lakes of Nainital, Naukuchiatal, Bhimtal and Sat Tal with lovely walks and Himalayan views, the biggest plus is that it is pet friendly.

Animal Farm
Four Bhotiya dogs Rusi, Ringo, Piya and Mini, besides the cows Bachhri and Bela.

Getting there: 9 km uphill from Bhimtal off Naukuchiatal Road, it is just 20 km from Kathgodam railway station

Tariff: Rs.4,000-5,000, includes breakfast, meals 250-350

Contact: Sumith Dutta Ph + 91 9833949954, 7830025532 Email emeraldtrail.bhimtal@gmail.com www.emeraldtrail.in

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Makaibari Tea Estates, Kurseong (West Bengal)
Despite the universal popularity of tea, the environmental impact of growing it as a monocrop, the use of pesticides and soil degradation have always been contentious issues. So it is quite amazing for a tea estate to show the way in conservation. Makaibari, a corn field that evolved into a tea estate, was started by GC Banerjee in 1859 and is run by fourth-gen owner Rajah Banerjee.

Touted as the first tea factory in the world, it follows an integrated forest management approach where the tea bush is part of a multi-tier system of trees typical of a sub tropical rainforest. Nearly 70% of the estate is under tree cover and employs an advanced mulching system through a six-tier permaculture. Its guiding philosophy is to maintain a harmonious co-existence between soil, microorganisms, plants, animals and man. The estate nurtures local communities in seven adjoining villages of Makaibari (Corn Fields), Kodobari (Millet Fields), Fulbari (Flower Garden), Koilapani (Black Water), Thapathali (Thapa Village), Cheptey and Chungey.

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As part of the Homestay Program, 17 homes of local tea pickers have been identified where guests can stay, take part in voluntourism projects or live out a farmer’s life. Go tea plucking, learn how tea is made, understand the nuances of tea tasting with the Tea Master or participate in the magical harvesting of Silver Tips on full moon nights. Makaibari is the most expensive tea in India and sold last year at USD 1,850 (around Rs 1.2 lakh) per kg. Thankfully, its signature Tea Treasures are a lot more affordable.

Animal Farm
The area harbours tigers, leopards, deer, boar, monkeys, reptiles, over 300 bird species and the mimetic insect Tea Deva that looks like a tea leaf, first sighted on the estate in 1990.

Getting there: Located at Kurseong, 40 km from Bagdogra Airport, 38 km from New Jalpaiguri station and 37 km from Darjeeling

Tariff: Rs.800/person, including meals

Contact: Ph +91-9832447774, 8906515888 (Nayan Lama) Email volunteerinmakaibari@gmail.com http://www.makaibari.com

Sikkim Bon Farmhouse

Sikkim Bon Farmhouse, Kewzing (Sikkim)
Surrounded by lush green cardamom fields and forested tracts teeming with birds, Bon Farmhouse is the ideal base for birdwatchers and nature lovers. Placed at 1700m overlooking snow capped peaks of the Eastern Himalayas, the 6-acre family-run farm at Kewzing is helmed by brothers Chewang and Sonam R Bonpo. Guests can help on the farm depending on the seasonality. Most of the produce like maize, buckwheat, finger millet, green peas, rice, wheat, potato, pumpkin, beans and lettuce is stirred up into delicious home-cooked meals.

Farm-fresh eggs and milk, butter, cottage cheese, curd and butter milk from the resident Jersey cows also end up at the table. The forest abounds with wild edible foods and the monsoon adds seasonal delights like tusa (bamboo shoots), ningro (wild ferns) and kew (mushrooms). Discover local flora-fauna and learn how to cook Sikkimese cuisine with local delicacies like gundruk (fermented spinach), kinama (fermented soyabean) and fisnu (stinking nettles).

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Enjoy a hot stone herbal steam bath in a dotho, infused with wild medicinal plants collected from the forest. Hike to the three hot water springs in the area or head on walking trails to Doling, Barfung, Bakhim and Mambru villages, besides birdwatching trips to Maenam and the monastery trail to Kewzing and Ravangla.

Animal Farm
Four Jersey cows, 4 goats and 50 poultry keep you company, while the altitudinal variation of the adjoining area between the Rangit river valleys at 350m and the highest hill Maenam at 3500m harbours nearly 200 bird species. Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary is famous for the Satyr Tragopan and Fire-tailed Myzornis.

Getting there: Located at Kewzing, 127 km from Bagdogra Airport

Tariff: Rs.4,200-5,250, including all meals

Contact: Ph +91 9735900165, 9547667788, 9434318496 E-mail bonfarmhouse@gmail.com, info@sikkimbonfarmhouse.com http://www.sikkimbonfarmhouse.com

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Yangsum Heritage Farm, Rinchenpong (Sikkim)
Run by Thendup Tashi and his wife Pema, the beautiful heritage farmhouse was built in 1833 and remodeled in 1966. Five rustic Tibetan style wood-paneled rooms with spacious verandahs present a stunning view of the Singalila Range and the Khangchendzonga peak. Set at 1500 m in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas, the 44-acre mountain farm is fully organic and grows cardamom, avocados, oranges, bananas, pears, apricots and mangoes, besides crops like maize, paddy, millet, potatoes, ginger, turmeric and sweet potatoes.

Seasonal vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, tomatoes and peas are also grown. Go on gentle nature walks in groves of bamboo and a mixed forest of pine, alder, chestnut, magnolia, cherry and rhododendrons. Take cooking lessons in Sikkimese cuisine and gain an insight into local Buddhist culture.

Getting there: Located in West Sikkim, the farm is 2 km from the small bazaar village of Rinchenpong, 40 km west of Gangtok, 66 km from Darjeeling (3 hrs), 92 km (3½ hrs) from Kalimpong and 153 km (5 hrs) from the nearest airport at Bagdogra.

Tariff: Rs.6,250, including all meals

Contact: Ph 03595-245322, 94341 79029 Email yangsumfarm@yahoo.com http://www.yangsumheritagefarm.com

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Abasa Homestay, Siiro (Arunachal Pradesh)
Run by Kago Kampu and Kago Habung, Abasa is an organic farmstay near Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh. Staying with an Apatani family gives visitors the perfect opportunity to learn about centuries-old techniques of paddy cultivation of the fascinating tribe, discernible from their facial tattoos and cane nose plugs. Spread over a patchwork of agricultural lands, the 10-hectare farm grows kiwi, tomato, cabbage, seasonable vegetables, cash crops and emo, the traditional rice.

Visit nearby fields for a crash course on the paddy-cum-fish farming and water management skills of the Apatanis. Paddy fields are maintained at various split levels separated by bunds where excess water drains off through channels to adjoining terraces. A 2 ft deep nala (drain) running through the fields is replete with fish. Fish and rice form the staple with a plethora of unique dishes stirred up by Kago Kampu – suddu yo, a mixture of chicken mince and egg yolk cooked on fire in tender bamboo stems, dani apu komoh or kormo pila, a chutney made of roasted sunflower seeds, yokhung chutney made of Xanthallum berries, peeke, a dish of bamboo shoots and pork.

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Try tapiyo (local vegetarian salt made from charred lai or maize leaf) and apong, a local brew made of fermented millet and rice. Help out in the kitchen garden where lettuce, chilli, tomato and baby corn are grown or work on the farm – preparing seedlings in Jan-Feb, planting in April-May and paddy harvest in October.

Getting there: Siiro is 3 km from the old town of Hapoli near Ziro, district headquarters of Lower Subansiri, 118 km from the capital Itanagar via NH-229.

Tariff: Rs.1,000/person, including breakfast and dinner

Contact: Ph 03788-225561, 94024 60483 Email abasahomestay@gmail.com

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The Konyak Tea Retreat, Shiyong (Nagaland)
Ever dreamed of feasting on fruits straight off the trees? At Konyak Tea Retreat near Mon in Nagaland, guests can pick oranges (and eat to their heart’s content) during picking season from mid-November to December. Last year’s harvest yielded 5 lakh oranges! Set in a 250-hectare private tea plantation, Phejin Konyak’s family-run orchard and farm grows tea, ginger, pumpkin, squash, chilis, guava, lime and seasonal vegetables.

A stone walled farmhouse with two bedrooms, an open kitchen, living and dining space, and its own flower and vegetable garden has just been opened to guests. Pick tea at the family owned tea estate, milk cows and goats at the dairy farm, work with locals in their paddy fields, hike to waterfalls and forests or plant trees, flowers and vegetables at the farm. Learn how to smoke meat in the time-honoured traditions of the Konyak tribe and visit traditional villages nearby.

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Hostess Phejin is researching and documenting the vanishing tattoo traditions of her tribe for her book ‘The Last of the Tattooed Headhunters’ with Dutch photographer Peter Bos.

Animal Farm
80 cows, 20 goats, free range country hens, Pete the dog and a cat named Kali.

Getting there: Shiyong nearest town Mon is 32 km away and is a 1½ hours drive.

Tariff: Rs.2500 per night, includes meals and tour of the tea estate

Contact: Email phejin@gmail.com

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Heritage tea estates (Assam)
Relive the life of a colonial tea planter at Heritage North East’s century-old bungalows near Jorhat (doubles from Rs6,500). Banyan Grove, the renovated bungalow of the Estate Manager or Mistry Sahib, serves as the perfect base to explore Gatoonga Tea Factory nearby (pictured). Trace the journey of the famed Assam tea from bush to brew as you help local women pick tea leaves and learn the subtle art of tea-tasting. Burra Sahib’s Bungalow at Sangsua, 5km away, has a private lake and golf course and has been recently revamped into the Kaziranga Golf Resort.

The luxurious Thengal Manor at Jalukonibari, is a great countryside retreat. Across the Brahmaputra, in Balipara, is the Wild Mahseer Lodge (pictured; doubles from Rs8,500), part of the Addabarrie Tea Estate. The gorgeous 1853 angling lodge consists of tea-themed bungalows such as Golden Tips, Silver Tips and Second Flush. An elephant ride transports you to a tea party, complete with tasting sessions at the First Flush dining pavilion and a visit to the organic experimental cultivation station.

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Animal Farm
The tea plantations are great for birdwatching with wildlife trips to Kaziranga National Park to spot rhinos, elephants and water buffalo. At Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary near Jorhat, see India’s only ape, the Hoolock Gibbon.

Getting there: There are airports at Jorhat and Guwahati. Banyan Grove is 16 km west of Jorhat and Thengal Manor is 15 km from Jorhat towards Titabor. Balipara is 26 km north of Tezpur.

Tariff Rs.6,500-8,600

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Contact
Heritage North East
Ph 033-22657389, 94355 14177 Email heritagenortheast@gmail.com
http://www.heritagetourismindia.com

Wild Mahseer Lodge
Ph 02267 060881, 91670 38491 Email daniel.dsouza@wildmahseer.com
http://www.wildmahseer.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unabridged version of the article that appeared in the Feb-Mar 2016 issue of Conde Nast Traveller magazine and on 2 March, 2016 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Here’s the link on CNT: http://www.cntraveller.in/story/indias-top-farmstays/

Seychelles on the sea shore: 10 wonderful ways to discover Seychelles

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PRIYA GANAPATHY falls in love with the vibrant beautiful island life of the Seychelles and picks out enriching holiday experiences covering history, culture and cuisine

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Nearly a thousand miles off the east coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean lies a cluster of 115 islands that make the Seychelles an unblemished paradise. Apart from lolling in its blissful sun-kissed beaches, here are 10 ways to experience Seychelles’ unique native culture and cuisine.

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1) Eat an octopus and pin your visiting card at Marie-Antoinette
Surrounded by a gigantic ocean teeming with aquatic life, Seychelles offers a generous platter of seafood. At weekly night markets like Bazar Labrin, sample Creole specialities like kari zouri (octopus curry) and sosouri (fruit bat). Pizzerias like La Fontaine at Beau Vallon in Mahe draw beachcombers to feast on salade de pieuvre (octopus salad), Assiette de fruit de mer (ocean platters), cigalle grille (grilled slipper lobster) and crispy calamari served on vibrant wooden fish placemats. At Bravo! on Eden Island Marina dig into crunchy octopus salad or grilled octopus with a fabulous view of docked yachts. Beryl and Brian of Glacis Heights Villa, a boutique homestay, consider kordonye as Seychelles’ favourite dish. The small fish makes ladies tipsy as it has an intoxicant tucked in its glands. For time-honoured Creole recipes, there’s no better place than Le Grand Trianon-Marie Antoinette Restaurant at St Louis Hill. Since 1972, thousands of travellers and celebrities have savoured a meal in this historic restaurant and guesthouse owned by Kathleen Fonseca, the grand lady of Creole cuisine. Declared a national monument in 2011, its high red roof, wood interiors, wide verandahs and white louvered windows wear a definitive stamp of tradition and taste. From the very first bite of mango salad and crunch of batter-fried Parrot fish, down to the last spoon of Coconut Nougat; the multi-course meal is divine. The colonial restaurant played home to journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley for a month after he tracked down missing explorer David Livingstone in Africa and uttered the famous words ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume’. Henry renamed Marie Antoinette ‘Livingstone Cottage’ as tribute. Before you leave, do the local thing and pin your visiting card at the notice board!

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2) Learn to dance the sega
Another conspicuous facet of Seychellois island life is their love for music and dance. At night markets or by the beach catch locals singing or performing traditional dances like mutzya or moutia and sega around a bonfire. The moutia was an ancient form of protest music and dance of African origin that involves shuffling one’s feet to a rhythm. They say that when the Europeans brought the slaves here, they bound their feet with big chains causing them to drag their feet while they danced their pain away. Some say that the séance-like moutia is almost extinct as it was banned by the colonial rulers. But the sega continues to delight audiences with its irresistible charm. Holding up their flared skirts, ladies gyrate their hips rhythmically, moving their shoulders teasingly, prompting everyone around to join in.

IMG_1747 The endemic coco de mer fruits_Priya Ganapathy

3) Hold the largest seed in the plant kingdom at Vallee de Mai
If you ever wondered what the primeval garden of Eden looked like, drop by at Vallee de Mai Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Praslin. It is a protected haven for the primitive coco de mer palm and the rare endemic Seychelles black parrot. The coco de mer’s erotic shape led people to believe it was aphrodisiacal and Arab traders of yore made a killing by encrusting the giant seed with gemstones and marketing them as prized collectibles. The guided walk is an eye-opener on the treasured palm which holds two botanical records as the world’s largest and heaviest seed and the largest male flower of any palm! The Morne Seychellois National Park at Sans Souci in Mahe is another invigorating hike that unravels many biodiversity secrets – critically endangered species like the strange jellyfish tree (Medusa tree), evergreen cloud forests atop Morne Blanc filled with mosses and giant ferns and endemic birds like Seychelles bulbul and White-tailed Tropicbirds, their dainty tails trailing like kites freed in the wind. Several nature trails across different islands are just a ferry or chopper ride away.

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4) Travel in an oxcart at La Digue
La Digue Island offers a true taste of tradition and a chance to slow down. Barring a few motorised vehicles, only quaint oxcarts, bicycles and walking are the main modes of travel here. Designed by explorer Dr Lyall Watson and one of La Digue’s most influential personalities Ton Karl, the oxcart is emblematic of the island. The contraption has since evolved into a hooded vehicle, adorned with coconut leaves and flowers, making it a well-loved mode of commuting for visitors. Visit L’Union Estate for a peek into the heritage bungalow and copra kiln, discover the antiquated oil extraction technique at an ox-drawn mill and the process of cultivating vanilla in its sprawling plantation. Interestingly, each vanilla stick is etched with UE (Union Estate)!

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5) Go on a scented spice trail
No trip to the ‘Vanilla Islands’ is complete without a spice trail. Le Jardin du Roi, the spice plantation at Anse Royale in Mahe provides the perfect DIY experience. Spread across 25 hectares of lush vegetation, the privately owned property dates back to 1854 and is a nature reserve, botanical garden and heritage museum cum restaurant rolled into one. Grab a map and checklist and head down any of the designated trails. The easy Rainforest Trail winds through a coffee estate in the shade of the mystical coco de mer trees, cinnamon and clove plantations, patchouli and ylang ylang valley and giant bamboo groves. The Garden Walk weaves past vanilla and pepper vines, shrubs of allspice and nutmeg, citronella bushes, stunning wild ginger, orchids and exotic fruit orchards. The Ridge Trail and the Gratte Fesses, both steep treks to the estate’s highest points present brilliant views of the island and bay. Dotted with peace gardens, an old cemetery, a distillery and souvenir shop, one can spend hours here.

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6) Get curious on Curieuse Island
Just 1km off the coast of Praslin lies Curieuse Island, an erstwhile leper colony that now offers hiking, birdwatching, snorkelling and swimming opportunities. Go on a 1-hr guided trail past the tortoise sanctuary, climb stunning granite boulders hewn by wind and water, and trudge down boardwalks past mangrove swamps crawling with giant crabs, newts, salamander and shellfish twirling in the tangle of submerged roots. Doctor’s house, home of late Dr William MacGregror, a Scotsman who treated lepers at Anse Jose has been converted into a national museum showcasing the island’s fascinating history. For 136 years this quarantined island remained cut away from human influence, which helped protect its natural ecosystem. En route, see the remains of Curieuse Causeway, a seawall built in 1910, that blocked off the mangroves and created a pond for breeding Hawksbill turtles for shell trade. Struck by disease, the turtles died, but the wall served as a walkway for visitors until the 2004 tsunami almost wiped it out! Currently a Marine National Park, Curieuse Island has several rare endemic plant species. Besides the coco de mer palms, the other old-timers include giant tortoises who don’t mind sharing beach barbeques! In fact, the island has numerous free ranging Aldabra Giant land tortoises who love getting curious about you and your food! A 15 minute boat ride takes you to St. Pierre Islet, a haven for snorkelling and diving.

IMG_0172 Seychelles Tea Factory_Priya Ganapathy

7) Sey Beer, Sey Brew, SeyTe
Besides being one of the finest viewpoints in Mahe, the famous Seychelles Tea Factory showcases how tea is grown and manufactured. The Tea Tavern by the gate is a convenient place to enjoy a brew or buy a range of classic SeyTe, with blended varieties like Special Vanilla, Green Tea, Bio Tea, Indian Ocean, Orange and Cinnamon. The “Spirit of The Seychelles” flowed steadily at the renowned rum distillery Takamaka Bay at La Plaine St Andre, a 200 year estate and homestead. We discovered that the fascinating process of rum-making from sugarcane to shot glass actually began with an old sugarcane crusher imported from India! The noisy cast iron contraption had ‘Chabavak’ (chewer) embossed in Devnagiri script! After a heady tasting session of their extraordinary range of award winning spirits including White rum, Dark rum, Spice Rum and Vesou, we voted the premium St Andre 8 Year Old with its woody aroma and Coco Rum (a delicious blend with coconut extract) as favourites. The in-house restaurant La Plaine St Andre has a hearty Creole-inspired lunch of Millionaire salad with palm hearts and fish, Red snapper, chicken coconut curry and a sweet potato-banana-nutmeg dessert.

IMG_0488 Carnaval International de Victoria_Priya Ganapathy

8) Catch the Carnival spirit at Victoria, the smallest capital in the world
When the Carnaval International de Victoria hit the streets, the infectious festive spirit paints the capital in a riot of colour, dance and unabated fun. International and local acts, flamboyant costumes, music and vibrant tableaux create an electric mood as everyone whirls to capture the raw energy and beauty of the spectacle on camera. The much awaited carnival takes place around the third week of April every year.

IMG_0302 Tamil temple at Mahe_Priya Ganapathy

9) Visit the only Hindu temple in Mahe, the largest island of Seychelles
Not far from the heart of Victoria, the capital city, the spire of a South Indian shrine carved with rainbow hued gods and goddesses looks like it has been directly transplanted from a temple street in Tamil Nadu! From within the Sri Navasakti Vinayagar Temple, priests chant Sanskrit shlokas in soulful Carnatic style as bells, drums and nadaswara music resound inside. Clearly, the Hindu Tamils in Seychelles contribute to its multicultural ethos.

IMG_0644 Inter-island ferry_Priya Ganapathy

10) Learn scuba diving at Big Blue Divers
Beau Vallon in Mahe is the chosen hub for adventure seekers who come to sail, snorkel, dive, fish or parasail. With dive sites varying from 8-30m, Seychelles is suitable for both beginners and experienced divers. The waters are ideal between March-May and September-November. Big Blue Divers, run by Gilly and Elizabeth Fideria, offer diving sessions in crystal waters and coral gardens around Willy’s Rock. The treasures in this watery world with a coral reef swarmed by myriad fish can keep one rapt for hours. Elizabeth says, “People only have to dive once to know if they like it or not. Seychelles helps you figure out whether you’re a sea loving turtle or a land dwelling tortoise!”

IMG_0156 Seychelles is an excellent beach destination_Priya Ganapathy

Fact File
Getting There:
Jet Airways has flies to Mahé via Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Colombo. Air Seychelles flies direct from Mumbai to Mahé (4 hr 10 min) three times a week. For inter-island travel, hop on to Cat Cocos www.catcocos.com or local ferries from Mahé to Praslin and La Digue.

Where to Stay: Choose from private island resorts like www.fregate.com, www.north-island.com or www.denisisland.com to chalets, villas and luxury resorts like Hotel Savoy Resort & Spa (www.savoy.sc) in Beau Vallon (Mahé), Hotel L’Archipel www.larchipel.com (Praslin) to boutique homestays like Glacis Heights Villa (Mahé), farmstays and retreats. For budget holiday options visit www.seychellessecrets.com

For more details visit www.seychelles.travel

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the Cover Story in the September 2015 issue of JetWings magazine.

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

Coffee berries DSC05899_Anurag Priya

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?

Fresh roasted coffee beans IMG_9631_Anurag Priya

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.’

Coffee at Lake Forest Resort Yercaud 005_Anurag Priya

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.

800px-A_Turkish_coffee_house_on_the_Bosphorus._Edmund_Spencer_(capt.)._Travels_in_the_western_Causasus.1838._cover

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.

Baba Budan Giri_Landscape_Anurag Priya

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.

Nature Nirvana near Chikmagalur _Anurag Priya

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.

Gushing about Waterfalls

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go on a waterfall trail across India to chronicle the Legends of the Falls

Niriang waterfall Meghalaya DSC00927_Anurag Mallick

With the advent of the monsoon, India’s many waterfalls revive into gushing torrents. Many are named after the closest village – like Jog (Gersoppa) in Karnataka or Amboli and Vihigaon in Maharashtra. Some are named after their appearance – Dhuandhar in Madhya Pradesh or Hogenakkal after hogey nakkal (smoke stones) on account of the rising mist. There are still others that are labeled after the creatures that frequent them – Bear Shola Falls in Kodaikanal, Hirni (Doe Falls) in Jharkhand, Chitrakot in Chhattisgarh (after chital or spotted deer) or Puliaruvi (Tiger Falls) in Courtallam. However, in a country where mountains and rivers are steeped in fables, can waterfalls be far behind? Here, we showcase some unique falls whose waters hide legends of kings, sages, gods, mortals and maidens…

Dudhsagar Waterfall Goa DSC04291

Dudhsagar (Goa)
Legends recount the tale of the princess who used to bathe in a scenic nook of the Khandepar River, a tributary of the Mandovi. After her bath, she would sit with her attendants, and drink a tumbler of sweetened milk. Once, on hearing voices in the woods, a prince stumbled upon the waterfall. To protect her modesty, the princess upturned the tumbler of milk and the water became milky and fell down as Dudhsagar (Ocean of Milk). The waterfall – India’s fifth highest – plummets 310 m off a lofty ridge bisected by a railway track and a scenic bridge!

Access: Trek from Braganza Ghat near Castle Rock while staying at Off the Grid Camp at Poppalwadi or Dudhsagar Resort at Mollem, 14km away

Jet Airways flies to Dabolim

Nohkalikai falls at Cherrapunjee

Nohkalikai (Meghalaya)
One of the most beautiful waterfalls in the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, Nohkalikai drops from misty cliffs into an aquamarine pool. However, its natural beauty hides a sinister tale. In the village of Rangjirteh, from where the stream passes, there once lived a poor lady called Ka Likai. When she gave birth to a child, her husband passed away. In due course, she got married again. However, her new husband did not love the child and often got angry with Ka Likai for not taking proper care of him. One day when she was away to carry iron ore, he killed the child, cut the body into pieces and prepared a curry. He tossed the head and bones away but forgot to dispose the fingers he had hidden in the betelnut basket. When the lady returned and enquired about the child, the man said he had gone out to play and excused himself. She relished the rice and curry, thinking it to be meat from a sacrifice in the village. However when she reached for some betelnut, she stumbled upon the fingers. Letting out a terrible shriek, she grabbed her dao (machete), ran out and threw herself off the precipice. From that time, the waterfall was known as Noh Ka Likai or the Fall of Ka Likai.

Access: At Cherrapunjee, 60 km from Shillong; track the monsoon while staying at Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort

Jet Airways flies to Guwahati

Irpu Falls Coorg_Anurag Mallick

Irpu (Karnataka)
It is believed that in their conquest to Lanka, the brothers Rama and Lakshmana were crossing over the Brahmagiri Hills from Kodagu to Kerala. In a rare display of disobedience, Lakshmana felt a sudden surge of anger, returned his bow and arrows to his elder brother and stormed off. Oddly, the moment he stepped into Kodava land, his anger dissipated. Rama, walked up to Lakshmana, carrying a lump of earth from Kerala and explained that Kerala’s earth was Parashuram Kshetra, reclaimed by the sage after several bloody carnages against kshatriyas, and thus incited passions. Overcome by remorse, Lakshmana shot an arrow into the Brahmagiri mountain and threatened to fling himself into the flames that shot forth. Rama created the Lakshmana Teertha, extinguished the fire and blessed its waters with the power to absolve a person of his sins. Some believe it was Lakshmana’s tears of remorse that became the Lakshmana Teertha. Oddly, irpu in Sanskrit means ‘enemy’ – a place that made enemies even out of brothers. Even now, in Coorg when brothers fight, they ascribe it to this legend.

Access: A 5 min walk from the Irpu Rameshwara temple at the base of the Brahmagiri mountains in Coorg, stay at Ramcad Estate or other homestays

Jet Airways flies to Bangalore and Mangalore

Bheem Nadi Uttarakhand IMG_8566

Bheem nadi (Uttarakhand)
After the Mahabharata war, the Pandavas renounced their kingdom and headed to the Himalayas to atone for all the bloodshed. At Dharali, the Pandavas took a bath in the river to remove the sin of hatya (murder) and thus the stream was called Hatyaharini. While going to Manasarovar, Bhima’s horse allegedly left its hoofmarks on a rock, which can be seen even today at Mukhwa. Locals believe that Bhima created a waterfall (Bhim nadi or Bhim Ganga) by shooting an arrow into the mountain to quench the thirst of the Pandavas. The niche where he supposedly rested a knee to take aim, still exists besides the image of a sleeping horse. Even today, cows and mules step into the same hoof prints while walking up the mountain. Village boys from Mukhwa often lead you to the jharna, where quartz stones, called moti patthar by the villagers due to their pearl colour, can be found around the waterfall.

Access: Stay at Leisure Hotels’ Char Dham Camp at Dharali and cross the bridge on the Ganga to Mukhwa, from where the waterfall is a short hike away.

Jet Airways flies to Delhi and Dehradun

Courtallam Five Falls opt

Courtallam/Kutralam (Tamil Nadu)
It is believed that after separating from his wife Kaveri, Sage Agastya headed further south and climbed the loftiest mountain to meditate. Named Agasthiyar Malai, it is from the hill’s lofty heights that the Chittar River dashes down through roots and herbs as Kutralam Falls. Tagged as the Natural Spa of the South, (or Kuttralam Courtallam) Falls is the collective name for a diverse cluster of nine waterfalls. Peraruvi (Main Falls) plummets from a height of 120ft with people of all ages jostling for a good shower. In what appears like a mega community bathroom, fully clothed women cluster to the right, the elderly and children stay to the left and oiled men of all shapes and sizes brave the full force of the central torrent. The gentler Chittaruvi Falls is close by. Spreading like the hood of a five-headed serpent is Aintharuvi (Five Falls) 5km from the Main Falls with a shrine dedicated to Ayyanar Shastha. Around 6.5km from the Main Falls is Pazhaya Courtallam (Old Falls) with the ancient Thirukoortalanatheeshwara (Lord of the Peaks) shrine at the foothills. The conch-shaped temple has a stunning Chitra Sabha (one of the famous Pancha Sabhas) with beautiful mural paintings and wood carvings housing a Nataraja deity. A mile-long trek from Main Falls up the mountain leads to Shenbaga Devi Falls, after a temple nearby. Puckle’s Path, named after the District Collector who laid it in the 1860s, leads to Thenaruvi  (Honey Falls), alluding to the honeycombs garlanding the overhanging rocks. Puliaruvi (Tiger Falls), once the watering hole of the big cats, has bathing ghats for pilgrims visiting the Pashupathi Shashta Temple. Pazhathota Aruvi (Fruit Garden Falls) near the Govt Horticulture Park above Five Falls is off-limits to the public. An hour’s drive from Courtallam past Shenkottai, Palaruvi (Milk Falls) plunges from the forests of Ariyankavu and offers a panoramic valley view. The best season is June to September and between November and January during north-eastern monsoons.

Access: Located 5km from Tenkasi, it’s 167km south-west of Madurai via NH-208 on the Tenkasi–Shenkottai Road in Tirunelveli District.

Jet Airways flies to Madurai

Yapik Arunachal IMG_6567

Yapik (Arunachal)
As the high road plows deep into the folds of the mountain on the drive to Mechuka, a stunning waterfall makes every traveler stop and marvel. The wispy Yapik descends like a fairy. However, after a brief pit stop, our co-passengers urged us to hurry up. We wondered why. The oldest in the group explained, ‘Yapik is beautiful, but you must not overstay your welcome. After some time, red egg-shaped stones fall from above. And bad things happen!’ We did not stay long enough to find out…

Access: On the drive from Along to Mechuka while basing yourself at Nehnang Hotel (Private IB)

Jet Airways flies to Itanagar

Thoseghar waterfalls IMG_3848_Anurag Mallick

Thoseghar (Maharashtra)
During the course of their exile, Rama and Lakshmana are supposed to have drifted down from Nashik and Mumbai down the Sahyadris. As they came to Saputara or the region of seven hills, like Banganga, they shot an arrow and created a spring. The twin streams of the Thoseghar Falls are known as Ram and Lakshman, though locals also refer to them as Mota Dhabdaba (big fall), which plummets 250 m in wide tiers and Chhota Dhabdaba (small fall), the three-ribboned stream to the right. However, it is water collected from the surrounding range of mountains Mahabaleshwar, Yavateshwar, Kas and Panchgani that forms this cataract and the origin of the Tarlee River. Access to the waterfall in monsoons is tricky due to slippery rocks and force of the water. A board with a list of lives lost in drowning accidents serves as ample warning.

Access: Drive 26km from Satara on the Sajjangadh road; stay at Nivant Hill Resort, on Kas Plateau Road

Jet Airways flies to Mumbai and Pune

Bhagsu (Himachal)
As per local legend of the gaddis (shepherds), nearly 5000 years ago Vasuki, the King of Serpents, stole Lord Shiva’s miraculous bowl holding the water of immortality. Having incurred the Lord’s wrath, the snake god fled with the bowl, which turned upside down while escaping. Its contents were released and formed the waterfall while the spot itself was name after the serpent’s (nag) attempt to flee (bhaag) – as Bhagsunag. While the story may be more fable than fact, the naga connection is apparent. According to another lore, once the region of Alwar in Rajasthan was facing a severe drought. For the benefit of his people, the mystic king Bhagsu left his kingdom and wandered everywhere for a solution. On reaching the slopes of the Dhauladhar mountains, he chanced upon a magical spring owned by Nag devta. Seeing the serpent god away, the king stole a little water in his kamandala (water pot) and left. On returning to his abode, the Naga instantly sensed his water had been pilfered and knew who was the culprit. He chased the king and in the ensuing scuffle, the water spilled and created the waterfall. Bhagsu was shattered. On learning of his noble quest, the serpent blessed his kingdom with rain. He also decreed that the place would become a spot of pilgrimage and be named after the king…

Access: Just 2km from the Himalayan retreat of McLeodganj lies the temple of Bhagsu nag and a short 20 min walk leads to the scenic 30 ft cascade.

Jet Airways flies to Chandigarh and Amritsar

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Athirapally (Kerala)
Perhaps no waterfall in India has been depicted in films as much as Athirapally. Kerala’s biggest fall has served as a backdrop for several songs in Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi cinema. A major portion of 1986 Tamil movie Punnagai Mannan, starring Kamal Hassan and Revathi was based and shot near the falls, leading to its popular nickname as Punnagai Mannan Falls. But the waterfall might as well have been named Mani Ratnam Falls, whose love for the location made him cast it not once, but again and again. It featured in his 1997 film Iruvar starring Mohanlal and Aishwarya Rai, the 1998 film Dil Se with Shahrukh Khan and Manisha Koirala, the 2007 Guru with Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai and then again in 2010 in Raavan (Raavanan in Tamil). Such is Athirapally’s popularity that nearly 7 million tourists visit the falls and nearby Vazhachal annually.

Access: 30 km from Chalakudi, 55km from Kochi Airport and 58km from Thrissur. Stay at Rainforest Athirapally with waterfall views from every room.

Jet Airways flies to Cochin, Kozhikode and Coimbatore

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article was the cover story for the July 2014 issue of JetWings International magazine.

Tea Junction: History of chai in India

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From mythology, legend, local preparations to tea-growing regions, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY chronicle the journey of tea in India from leaf to cup

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According to Buddhist folklore, when Siddhartha sat in meditation on his path to enlightenment, he kept falling asleep. Infuriated at his lack of self-discipline, he plucked out his eyelashes and flung them to the ground. At the spot where his eyelashes fell, there arose a plant blessed with the magical properties of banishing sleep. The plant was Camellia sinensis or Chinese Camellia, more popular as tea.

The Chinese connection is attributed to a story that recounts how few leaves from a Camellia bush fell into a pot of boiling water by mistake and the brew was served to a Chinese Emperor who hailed its rejuvenative powers. It is suggested that the Tang Dynasty made tea the national drink of China and coined the world ch’a for tea. While these legends may be apocryphal, documented evidence establishes that tea was being consumed in India as early as 750 BC. Not surprisingly, the country today is the highest consumer of tea. Yet the evolution of tea as a drink of Emperors and colonial rulers into a daily beverage of a man on the street began with an epic story of deception and industrial espionage.

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During the 1800s, Europe, particularly England became obsessed by the magical brew of the Orient. China held sway over the world trade and production of tea remained a fiercely guarded secret for centuries. In a shocking clandestine corporate heist, the British East India Company sent a faithful Scottish botanist and plant hunter into the heart of Imperial China to steal the secret of tea. Robert Fortune, the chosen hero for this near impossible mission, went to China disguised as a mandarin armed with a ponytail and a crummy pistol and explored the region for four years (1848-1851). How the humble botanist risked his life fighting off Chinese warlords and pirates to return to India with a clutch of precious saplings, seeds and meticulous documentation on how tea was traditionally prepared, is the stuff of legends; inspiring books like “For all the tea in China” by Sarah Rose and even a movie “Robert Fortune: The Tea Thief” by Belgian filmmaker Diane Perelsztejn.

Until then, Britain filled its coffers with silver earned from Chinese tea in exchange for opium grown in India. However, after the two Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856-58), China broke Britain’s stranglehold over opium trade by becoming the world’s biggest producer of poppy! By smuggling saplings of the most prized black and green tea into India and spawning nurseries in Assam and Darjeeling, Fortune literally changed the fortunes of the British Empire forever and made the world wake up to tea.

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Interestingly, indigenous wild tea bushes were found growing in Assam even prior to 1823. It is said Bessa Gaum, a Singhpo tribe chieftain served a unique dark beverage to Robert Bruce, a Scottish officer in the British army! It was his brother, Charles Alexander Bruce who propagated and popularized Assam tea by establishing the Assam Company, the world’s first tea enterprise. Prince Dwarkanath, Rabindranath Tagore’s grandfather was on its elite list of Board of Directors in 1839. In 1841, Dr. A Campbell became the pioneer of tea plantations in Darjeeling, when he launched a trial seed planting experiment using Chinese tea seeds at an altitude of 700ft. Several Europeans besides Bhagatbir Rai, a local resident, followed his path and numerous tea estates took root across the hilly slopes of Darjeeling.

By 1866 nearly 39 estates spread across 405 hectares were producing tea, making Darjeeling synonymous with the now world famous export. Soon, engineer W O’Brien Ansell introduced the first power-driven tea rollers and sorters and installed turbines, revolutionizing the whole process of tea manufacture in factories through mechanization by 1872. Tea connoisseurs across the globe attribute the combination of unique soil, altitude, temperature and weather to the delicious ‘muscatel’ aroma of Darjeeling tea, earning its tag as the champagne of teas.

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After the unfortunate hanging of local Maniram who defied European entrepreneurs by planting his own tea in 1858, Rosheswar Barua became the first Indian to establish and own six tea estates. The popularity of the golden brew gained momentum and profit, luring enterprising traders from faraway lands to stake their claim in the business. Soon Marwaris like Senai Ram Lohia set out on camel and foot from Ratangarh in Rajasthan to Dibrugarh in Assam in 1861 on learning about the “gold growing there”. A year later, motivated planters like James White set up a tea plantation in the Terai region sparking off similar estates in the Dooars.

As numbers swelled to 13 plantations, the British set up Dooars Tea Planter’s Association in 1877 followed by the Indian Tea Association in 1881 to represent North Indian planters. This was no proverbial storm in a teacup; it was a stirring of a business frenzy that has lasted for more than a century – across the north, east and south of India from Assam to the foothills of the Himalayas in Kumaon and Kangra, Kullu and Garhwal to the slopes of Nilgiris, Munnar and Anamalai in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

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The southern wave of tea was triggered around 1832 by Dr Christie’s early trials with tea cultivation in the Nilgiri region. Mann the first planter to manufacture Nilgiri teas, founded a tea plantation near Coonoor in 1854 that became renowned as Coonoor Tea Estate. Around this time, another planter, Rae, set up Dunsandle Estate near Kulhatty. In 1878, James Finlay & Co. pioneered tea cultivation in hilly tracts of Kerala. Munnar is home to some of the world’s highest tea plantations and the tea owes its uniqueness to the distinct geographical conditions and altitude. By 1893, the United Planters’ Association of Southern India was established to represent those in the south.

From the meditative art of Japanese tea ceremonies to the idea of culinary elegance and etiquette for Afternoon tea, High Tea and garden tea parties introduced by Anna Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, to the simple everyday way of life phenomenon of chai in India, the art of tea drinking has transformed over the decades from region to region.

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An extract from Lu Yu’s definitive classic on tea, Ch’a Ching, the world’s first book on the subject, says the best quality tea must have –
The creases like the leather boots of Tartar horsemen,
Curl like the dewlap of a mighty bullock,
Unfold like a mist rising out of a ravine,
Gleam like a lake touched by a zephyr,
And be wet and soft like
Earth newly swept by rain

Lu Yu simplified the whole process of manufacturing tea bricks, which were steamed and dried for storage as: “All there is to making tea is to pick it, steam it, pound it, shape it, dry it, tie it, and seal It.”. In the ancient days, tea bricks were so valuable that they served as currency in parts of China, Tibet, Mongolia and Central Asia. They were often compressed with fascinating designs and imprints and were also consumed as food during hunger and as a cure for cough and cold. Today the practice of using tea bricks is uncommon but the sheer range of tea available in the market leaves one speechless.

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It’s hard to believe that the 3000 different varieties of teas available in the world come from the humble Camellia sinensis or Camellia assamica plants, varying only by the region it was grown, the season it was picked and the processing method of leaves. However, tea can be broadly categorized into four types namely, Black, Green, White and Oolong tea. India is the world’s largest producer and consumer of tea. Together with China, we contribute 2,338,000 tonnes to the world’s total tea production! In 16th Century India, tea was used to prepare a vegetable dish using garlic and oil and a drink was made using the boiled tea leaves.

There’s a quirky lore about an Indian brand called Rungli Rungliot. On his quest for the perfect tea, a Buddhist lama wandered across mountains, valleys and passes of the North East. Deadbeat after his long journey, he stopped at a point between Gangtok and Darjeeling, where the road twists high above the Teesta river. He uttered the words ‘Rungli Rungliot’ meaning ‘Thus far, and no further’. As luck would have it, he discovered the perfect tea right there, giving the place and brand the name!

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Customized to a Tea

Today, Indians have given their own spin to the art of making tea. While a majority of tea drinkers prefer to sip tea with milk or cream and sugar, many Indians add spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, herbs like basil, mint, liquorice and ginger for additional flavor. So we have milk tea or masala tea and the strongly brewed kadak chai served in hilly tracts of northern India; the malai mar ke chai, a full-bodied brew with a fat dollop of cream scooped into the cup; the eco-friendly railway matka chai served in red clay cups; Kerala tea laced with peppercorns and nutmeg; the stiff sugar rush of Irani chai or “khade chammach ki chai (literally, standing spoon tea) which refers to a light brew with a layer of sugar at the bottom that is so thick it could keep a spoon upright!

For those who like a large dose of lactose, the milky concoctions of dust tea served around the old Fort St George in Chennai and the cow belt of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are a must. For a dash of exotic, try the mild flavors of Kashmiri Kahwa, an aromatic green tea that is boiled with saffron, cinnamon, cardamom, crushed Kashmiri roses and sweetened with honey and crumbled walnuts and almonds. The strange salty pink Sheer Chai or Noon Chai is another offering from Kashmir besides the famous Gud-gud Chai – a buttery salty local tea served in nearby Leh and Ladakh.

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Mumbai’s “Cutting chai” or Bangalore’s “By-two” chai are economical urban alternatives where one cup of tea is halved or shared between two people. Kerala’s Meter chai is a skillful display of mixing tea contents and providing a head of froth by deftly pouring hot tea between two containers drawn about one meter apart! The Arab-influenced Sulaimani Chai or lemon black tea, is a delightful refreshment served commonly at biryani parlors and cafes.

When it comes to great highland teas, the aromatic Darjeeling tea still wears the crown with its original orthodox manufacturing process which involves five stages after picking the sacrosanct formula of “two leaves and a bud” – withering, rolling, fermentation, drying and storing. The dark Nilgiri Tea with its intense aroma and rich flavor rules the south. Export quality, hand-sorted, full-leaf versions like Orange Pekoe clearly target the affluent lot. “CTC” an acronym for Curl, Tear and Crush method is the more modern type of manufacture adopted in the plains and lowlands like Assam. More recently, ‘Organic tea’ or tea grown using natural manure and eco-sustainable farming practices without chemical fertilizers and pesticides and healthy ‘Green tea’ with its rich anti-oxidants, medicinal benefits and slimming properties is fast gaining popularity.

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Types of tea
White Teas are the purest and least processed of all teas. This loose-leaf tea brews a light color and flavor. Green Teas are a popular beverage across Asia. Sometimes scented versions of loose green teas are prepared using flowers like chamomile, jasmine or fruits. Oolong Tea is full-bodied with a flavorful sweet aroma and is often served in Chinese restaurants. Black Tea is an old favourite used in tea bags and iced teas. Herbal Teas often called tisane, often do not contain actual tea leaves and come in 3 types: Rooibos teas or red tea made from a South African red bush, Mate teas which possess an unusual coffee taste made from leaves and twigs of the Yerba mate plant and Herbal Infusions made of pure herbs, flowers or fruits which are served hot or chilled.

Blooming Teas (also known as artisan or flowering teas) are the designer brews which are hand tied by tea artists. They can be flavoured or scented and actually blossom as they steep, to create beautiful designs. Hence, they make lovely gifts and souvenirs. Tea Blends are most popular as they offer a delicate mix of the best of premium teas to give the best combination of colour, flavor and aroma.

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Tea holidays in India
Tea tourism has burgeoned rapidly across the country and tourists are encouraged to experience plantation life in colonial style tea gardens, heritage bungalows and liveried staff on call. The best way to know your oolong from your pekoe is to witness the journey of tea from leaf to cup through the elaborate manufacturing process from tea plucking to tea-tasting sessions besides nature walks and adventure activities. Tea-picking season lasts from April-October, making it a good time to visit tea estates and factories. Plan your trip to catch the picking and production season – First flush (March-May), Second flush (June- July), Monsoon/Rain flush (Aug-Sept), Autumnal Flush (Oct-Nov). Winter is generally a dormant time for tea.

The topography, temperature and terrain make it ideal for tea cultivation in several areas of our country. Tea grows in warm, humid climate with well distributed rainfall and long days of sunshine. From the dark fragrant Nilgiri Tea to Munnar’s full-bodied Kanan Devan tea, the bright and bold maltiness of Assam or the finest Darjeeling the color of Himalayan sunlight, India’s tea growing regions are diverse.

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Head to Kurseong, home to the world’s first tea factory set up in 1859 where you can savour Silver Tips Imperial (the most expensive tea) while staying at homestays run by villagers at Makaibari Estate. Become a tea taster at Jorhat’s Gatoonga Tea Factory while staying at Heritage North East’s Burra Sahib and Mistry Sahib bungalows. Wild Mahseer, an 1875 British angling bungalow and former residence of the tea-estate manager have been transformed into a classy resort. Stay at the Darang Tea Estate to get a real taste of Kangra tea. Carpeting the Palampur hills by the British since 1882, the aromatic brew has a weak colour, but the Dhauladhar range’s microclimate lends a certain aroma after it is sun dried.

In South India, stay at The Tea Sanctuary in Munnar and drop by at the Tea Museum. Or relax in the colonial comforts of Briar Tea Bungalows at Meghamalai. Experience tea-themed cuisine and bison in the bush at Tea Nest Coonoor. As a spoonful of tea leaves steep silently in a pot of fine bone china, the cinematic sight of waves of rolling green tea gardens and tea pickers busily tucking fresh leaves into their baskets returns as a lasting reminder of how it all began.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 22 June 2014 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald.

Soul kadhi: Konkan Homestays

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY wander by a quiet Malvan of forgotten beaches and epicurean delights.

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‘Kudaaal?’ the bleary-eyed Neeta Travels helper on the sleeper bus scowled at us incredulously. Surely, we meant Candolim? Nope, Kudal it was, 60km short of Mapusa. The bus screeched to a halt near Sanman Hotel and within minutes our pre-arranged auto was speeding down SH-119 with the urgency of a Rickshaw Run. In a pretty lake, yawning lotuses were still rubbing their lashes to greet the morning sun.

In ancient times, the region was Maha-lavan or a great saltpan, so the seaport exporting salt came to be known as Malvan. We were headed for Parule, a scenic village between Malvan and Vengurla in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg district. Nearly 1600 years ago, the village was called Parulya gramam and built around a unique Surya shrine. While Konark on India’s eastern coast was a tribute to the rising sun, the Adinarayan temple at Parule was dedicated to the setting sun. Until recently, the last rays of the sun would fall upon the idol before disappearing over the horizon, but a renovation project put an end to this marvel.

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Having experienced Malvani hospitality earlier at Dilip Aklekar’s delightful Dwarka Homestay at Talawade (halfway between Vengurla and Sawantwadi), we were back for our Konkan fix. A wooden bridge across a stream led us to Maachli, a farmstay run by Pravin Samant. His son Prathamesh showed us to our village themed hut. Modelled after the maachli or machaans constructed in fields to protect crops, the cottage had conical roofs (acute enough to prevent monkeys from jumping on them) with thatching. Large windows and a balcony offered an unhindered view of the farm. In the bathroom, in place of the usual plastic bucket was a ghanghara or copper vessel. The rustic charm of Maachli was evident everywhere.

The interactive kitchen Randhap (Malvani for ‘cooking’) was where Mrs. Priya Samant gave her cooking demos. Vegetables were chopped on a traditional cutter called adalho while farm-fresh organic vegetables and seafood were prepared on a chool (mud stove). Food was served in earthen pots and patravali (leaf plates) at a dining area called Pavhner. For breakfast we had masala sandhan, a yellowish idly of toor dal with turmeric and coconut and a troika of pohatikat kanda pohe (spicy onion flavour), gode pohe (sweet jaggery version) and the delicious kalo lele pohe, seasoned with ghee and live coal that imparted a smoky flavour!

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Prathamesh accompanied us on the Morning Nature Trail, a short walk to the Bandheshvaray temple of the gurakhi (shepherd) community. At the local avath (village society) ladies painted their basil platforms for Tulsi Vivah, the ceremonial marriage of the sacred plant with Lord Vishnu. On our way back we took a plantation tour through the farm where coconut, betelnut, spices, banana and mango is grown. For a hands-on rural experience, visitors are encouraged to milk a cow, visit a potters village, draw water from the well or learn to use a laath, the traditional way to tap water from the stream for irrigation.

We sat on the bridge dangling our legs in the stream for a natural fish spa treatment, watching their tiny mouths peel away flecks of our dead skin. Soon we were hungry too, and sauntered back to the farm where Priya aunty had prepared an impressive meal of fish fry, fish masala, kulith usal (horsegram), rice, curry and chapatis served in fronds of the areca tree. The 2½-hour Sunset Trek to the beach through coconut groves, mango orchards, small jungles, plateaus and three hills seemed like the perfect post-meal walk. But we were more interested in the trek to the ancient devrai (sacred grove).

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For centuries these preserved forests have maintained a delicate ecological balance. These sanctuaries have survived due to the deep-rooted beliefs of local communities. Forget plucking anything from the forest, visitors are not supposed to even remove a single leaf. For any such transgression, one must donate a golden leaf. It was with great anticipation we crawled through dense undergrowth and creepers. Soon the forest became so thick, even sunlight couldn’t penetrate the foliage.

We paused at the open shrine of Devchar (protector of the tribal community and master of the jungle) where locals offer bottles of alcohol and beedi (country cigarettes) to propitiate him. Within a few paces, orange pennants and bells announced the shrine of Dungoba or Dungeshwar, a god of the local Kolis. Even today fishermen prayed here before setting out to sea for a good catch and safe return. We said a brief prayer before heading back to Maachli.

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Over dinner, conversation was back to food. We learnt how triphala berries were added to curries like khatkhate (veg curry) and bhaji chi keli (raw banana curry) for a nice aroma. It was refreshing to go beyond the Malvani staple of kombdi vade (chicken with thick poori) to lesser-known delicacies – ambode (dal vada), amboli (multi-grain pancake), khaparoli (pancake of chana, urad dal, poha served with coconut milk) and dhondas (sweet pancake made of cucumber or jackfruit).

The next morning, we headed to the coast for a relaxing stay in bamboo cottages of Bhogwe Eco Village on a quiet hillside overlooking the sea. Located just south of Tarkarli, Bhogwe had managed to escape the attention of most tourists. As the Karli River emptied into the sea, a tiny strip of land was sandwiched between the river and the sea as if protected by some divine hand. This was Devbag or Garden of the Gods. “This region is mainly populated by Samants. Trade union leader Dutta Samant was from this very village”, said our genial host Arun Samant, a tome of information. “Since the river and the jetty were called Karli, the place on the far side (taar) became Tar-karli!”

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A quick meal of rice, fish sukka and the golden goodness of fish tikhla (thick curry), and we were ready to hit the high seas. A boat from Korjai jetty transported us down the creek but we decided to skip the frenetic water sports and parasailing at Tarkarli and Tsunami Island. The shallow muddy patch, home to stilts, sandpipers and screaming hordes of adventure seekers, was not the result of a sea storm but just a tourist gimmick.

Using the high tide to our advantage, we stopped at the Panch Pandav Shivling Mandir, a laterite shrine allegedly built overnight by the Pandavas in exile. A short ride past the scenic confluence of Devbag Sangam led to Bhogwe beach, a long swathe of untouched sand, the Kille Nivti fort and Golden Rocks. The jagged ochre-hued hillock jutted out of the sea, gilted by the afternoon sun, hence its name.

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We got back just in time to watch the sun go down at Sahebachi Kathi, named after an 8ft long pole that had been erected by the British for a geological survey. The stick was of a standard height and was used by the Navy to ascertain the maritime boundaries of India. Some vandals removed it thinking Shivaji had erected it to mark some gold buried at the base! Interestingly, 150 years ago, not too far from here, English astronomer Norman Lockyer observed the sun to discover helium in 1868. Since Vijaydurg lay in the path of totality of a solar eclipse, solar prominences were observed from specially erected viewing platforms, still known as Sahebache katte (Englishman’s platform). 18 August is celebrated annually at Vijaydurg as Helium Day.

Dinner was a delicious spread of prawn curry, poli (thin chapatis), rice, papad, beetroot stir fry, raw banana fritters and sol kadhi, ending it with a dollop of shrikhand. In the morning, we watched Mr. Samant’s wife Arti expertly pour the watery batter on the cast iron griddle to churn out ghavan (Malvani dosa), served with coconut chutney. From a vantage point, Mr. Samant pointed out the proposed international airport at Chipi and Meruwa chi pani, a perennial source of water where leopards come to slake their thirst in the dry season.He accompanied us on a short hike to his riverside farm, where a ring of coconut trees acted as a buffer from the saline creek. We took a ride in a country craft through the mangrove for some birdwatching and followed it up with a visit to a cashew factory where local women expertly used mechanical kernel removers to process the raw cashew.

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As we said goodbye to the Samants and headed back to Kudal, it was great to meet architect George Joel, the designer of the bamboo cottages at Bhogwe. Having worked with KONBAC (Konkan Bamboo and Cane Development Centre), George set up Green Earth Culture to provide a range of bamboo solutions like barbeque huts, elephant lamps and pre-engineered building solutions. We dropped by at his workshop at Zarap 6km from Kudal to see slivers of bamboo veneer being handcrafted into premium wine baskets, lampshades and gifting accessories under the brand name Chiva. Available in traditional weaves like daayami (herringbone), gawaaksh (cross) and jaalika (basketry), it came in colour schemes like manjul (pastel), gattik (dynamic) and taamrata (tanned).

We opened our bamboo box of chocolates to pop a few while waiting for our Neeta Travels bus. On dialing the local contact number to find out the timing and pick up point of the bus, we were greeted by an angry retort. “Kudaaal?” enquired an all too familiar voice. Sigh. It was going to be an eventful ride back to Mumbai…

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FACT FILE

Getting there

Kudal, 20 km north of Sawantwadi, on the Mumbai-Goa highway is the nearest railway station and access point. Parule is 22km from Kudal via SH-119 and accessible by state transport buses and auto-rickshaws. Bhogwe is 2km from Parule on the coast.

When to visit

The area is great to visit all year round with each season having its own charm – beaches are great from October to summer and in the rains, the Konkan hinterland becomes a lush paradise.

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Where to Stay

Maachli Farmstay
Ishavasyam, Manjardewadi, At Post-Parule, Taluk Vengurle, Sindhudurg 416523
Ph 9637333284, 9423879865 Email prathameshsawant@maachli.in www.maachli.in
Tariff Rs.4,900, incl. of all meals and nature trail & plantation tour, activities extra (4 cottages)

Aditya Bhogwe’s Eco Village
Bhogwe Dutond, Parule
Ph 9423052022, 9420743046 Email arunsamant@yahoo.com
Tariff Rs.2,000, incl. breakfast Meals Veg Rs.150, Seafood Rs.200 (6 cottages)

The Leela’s
Bamboo Houses & Water Sports, Newali, Vengurla
Ph 02366 269567, 9421143807 Email onkar.samant@yahoo.com www.theleelas.com
Tariff Rs 2000 (3 cottages)

Dwarka Farmstay
At Post, Talawade, Taluka Sawantwadi, District Sindhudurg 416529
Ph 02363 266267, 9167231351, 9422541168
Email dilip@dwarkahomestay.com www.dwarkahomestay.com
Tariff Rs.2800-3500 (9 rooms)

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Where to Eat

Hotel Sanman at Kudal is a small highway joint that offers great thali meals – veg Rs.50, fish Rs.60, chicken or tisra/clam Rs.70, prawns Rs.110. At Vengurla, try Hotel Annapurna (Ph 02366-262387, 9422576845). At Sawantwadi, Balakrishna and Narvekar’s Mess near the old post office and Bhalekar opposite the gymkhana are great for fish and mutton thalis.

What to see and do

Walks – Maachli organizes a sunset hike to the coast, trek to a devrai (sacred grove) and other nature trails

Boat rides – Dolphin cruises in the open sea, boat rides in the Karli creek or till Golden Rocks & serene mangrove rides in country crafts

Water sports – Banana boats, bumpy rides, jet skis and parasailing at Tarkarli & Tsunami Island, besides snorkeling and scuba at Sindhudurg Mahalaxmi Parasailing & water sports Ph 8412023789, 8007273664 www.mahalaxmiadventures.com

Forts – The Konkan coast is dotted by many seaside forts – from the lesser-known Kille Nivti to the popular Sindhudurg and Vijaydurg further north

Bamboo products – Stop by to pick up handcrafted bamboo veneer products from Green Earth Culture on NH-17 at Zarap, 6km from Kudal Ph 9422071781 www.greenearthculture.com

Folk arts – Catch Parashuram Gangawane demonstrating dashavatara and chitrakathe besides other loka-kala performances of the Thakar community at Pinguli Art Complex. Ph 9029564382, 9987653909 Email taka.museum@gmail.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the May 2014 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.