Category Archives: Road Trips

Dhenkanal: Royal Fables

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The palaces of Odisha are opening up to visitors at long last, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY on a trip to the erstwhile princely state of Dhenkanal 

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It was pitch dark and the narrow mud road was barely discernible in our car’s headlights. Somewhere on the outskirts of Dhenkanal, our vehicle scratched its way through some bramble on an increasingly narrowing path. “Bab…..u”, our driver Kalia’s voice quavered, unsure of the way ahead. “Please let us go back into town and take a lodge,” he pleaded in Oriya. Eerily, we passed by an outré Kali temple, whose female leonine doorkeepers wore skull garlands and wielded a bloodied sword, clutching a decapitated head. We caught Kalia looking at it nervously out of the corner of his eye…

Indeed, there was no road marked, but Google Maps insisted that our destination Gajlaxmi Palace was nearby. The seconds ticked away slowly and Kalia sat on the edge of his seat, teeth chattering, his nose to the steering wheel, until we finally saw a white edifice looming to the right. By the time we had finished rejoicing and unloading our bags, our driver had convinced our hosts that we planned to murder him and decamp with his vehicle. Why two travel writers on assignment would want to pop off their driver was perhaps beyond poor Kalia’s comprehension, but we hoped that it was just Dhenkanal’s wilderness and the long drive that distressed him!

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This was indeed wild country. Inhabited by aboriginal tribes since prehistoric times and surrounded by lush river valleys and the Bahukhai and Kapilash Forests of the Eastern Ghats, Dhenkanal is home to tigers, elephants and other beasts. Located on the gentle slopes of the Megha Hills, the double-storey palace is tucked in an untamed patch on the town’s quiet outskirts. Jitendra Pratap Singh Deo or JP and his charming wife Navneeta run it as a heritage hotel.

Strewn across its living spaces and rooms were large sandook (chests), period furniture and artefacts while hunting trophies lined the walls. From a glass showcase in the drawing room, the shiny eyes of the dreaded man-eating tiger of Naranpatna glowered at us. It had claimed 83 victims before being shot by JP’s father Kumar Saheb Ranendra Pratap Singh Deo at Koraput. The trophy and the palace featured in Satyajit Ray’s Royal Bengal Rahasya, shot by Sandip Ray, besides a host of other films.

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By morning, Gajlaxmi Palace wore a more cheerful air. We savoured the view of the surrounding forests from the terrace and took a morning walk through the orchard to a water tank frequented by elephants, wild boar, barking deer, civet cats, rabbits, peafowl, jungle fowl and raptors. Being the only water source in the area, it attracted all sorts of wildlife. Our appearance from a thicket startled a sambhar on the opposite bank.

Back at the palace, Navneeta explained over breakfast how the palace took seven years to build before being completed in 1942. When she came here from Udaipur in 1998, it was total wilderness and one couldn’t even spot a cyclewala! Her innate Rajasthani love for heritage and hospitality, prompted her to convince JP to renovate it into a heritage stay in 2009. They finally opened in February 2011, naming it after the famous Gajlaxmi puja of Dhenkanal.

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Despite the proximity to Bhubaneswar airport (100 km away), things didn’t look up until they were featured in an international guide as a ‘rural retreat.’ Most of their visitors were from Europe and would often end up extending their stay. JP takes his guests on jeep rides to Satkosia, Saptasajya and other excursions.

The summer heat forces the hosts to close down for 4 months from April, but the rest of the year is excellent for nature walks in the surrounding orchard full of cashew, jackfruit, mango and litchi trees and dense clumps of sal and bamboo. The homegrown produce from the farm like papaya, drumsticks, carrots and cabbage are conveniently used in the kitchen.

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Besides Dhenkanal, the extended royal family of Singh Deos also reigned other princely states like Balangir, Kalahandi and Mayurbhanj. Dhenkanal is supposedly named after a Sabara tribal chief called Dhenka who ruled this patch in 16th century. Sridhar Bhanja, a local chieftain from the neighbouring region of Garh Besalia, vanquished Dhenka in battle.

Dhenka’s dying wish was that the area be named after him and his sacred relic be preserved and worshipped. The area was called Dhenkanal in his memory and his relic is worshipped at Dhenkanal Palace to this day!

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In 1529, Hari Singh Vidyadhar, commander of the southern forces of Gajapati king Pratap Rudra Deva, defeated the local Bhanja chief and established control over the region. The Gajapati Maharaj crowned him as the Raja of Dhenkanal and ever since, 18 generations have ruled the throne. Dhenkanal Palace, a large complex on the slopes of the Garhjat Hills, was built at the site of a fort that witnessed a long drawn siege with the Marathas.

Six rooms have been reserved for guests, two large family rooms double up as lounges while the Durbar Hall hosts folk music and dance performances on request. Be it Aul Palace near Bhitarkanika or Parikud Palace near Chilka, many of Odisha’s old palaces are being converted into heritage hotels.

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Dhenkanal town doesn’t have major attractions, except the 16th century Siddha Balarama Temple with its 90 ft high spire that towers over town, the Dhenkanal Science Museum near the palace Rajbati and the District Museum, which houses weapons of erstwhile rulers and Paleolithic tools found in archaeological excavations.

The presence of Dhenkanal College, Indian Institute of Mass Communication and other educational institutions gives the town a youthful air with a large student population. Snack vendors park their cycles outside schools, colleges and street corners to dish out dahi bada and the eponymous Dhenkanal bada, a traditional fried snack of black gram and rice served with ghughni (yellow pea curry).

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After a quick bite at Gourang Mishtan Bhandar, we drove 24km via Karmul to Joranda, the religious headquarters of ‘Mahima Dharma’, a 19th century monotheistic cult and reform movement that is often described as ‘the world’s youngest religion’. Joranda houses the samadhi of its founder Mahima Gosain.

Ascetics in loincloth with long matted hair roamed about the vast complex dotted with temples – Shunya Mandir, Dhuni Mandir and Gadi Mandir. They believe in a single supreme God or parambrahma named Alekha who is formless and omnipresent.

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Monks lead a life of austerity, celibacy, piety and constant movement, as they cannot sleep in the same place on successive nights or eat twice in the same house. The temples have no idols, only beautiful lamps and feathers and the evening arti is a sublime experience. At the Joranda fair, in existence since 1874, devotees pray together, recite ‘Alekh Brahma’ and burn ghee for universal peace and harmony.

Backtracking to the Y-junction at Kaimati, we continued to Kapilash. At 457 m, the lofty peak with its 13th century Shiva temple of Chandrasekhar is hailed as the ‘Kailash of Odisha’. We parked at the base of the hill, but instead of hiking up 1,351 steps, hired a 4-wheel-drive jeep to tackle the steep ghat road and twelve hairpin bends to the temple.

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The spire of the Shiva temple bears an image of Lord Jagannath, which demonstrates the synthesis of Shaivism and Vaishnavism. East of the main shrine, at a higher altitude of 2239 ft, stand the temples of Narayan and Vishwanath, the latter being older than the Chandrasekhar temple, hence also called ‘Budha Linga’.

Dhenkanal is excellently placed for excursions. Perched at 900 feet, the hill temple of Raghunath or Lord Rama at Saptasajya, 14km away, was built by Rani Ratnaprabha Devi of Dhenkanal. The name Sapta Sajya refers to the ‘seven hills’ where Lord Rama, the Saptarishi (seven celestial sages) and the Pandavas are believed to have stayed.

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We drove into a nondescript village called Sadeibereni where craftsmen practiced the ancient art of dhokra – an indigenous metal casting technique using the lost wax method where they use clay, beeswax and scrap metal to make bracelets, necklaces and idols of gods and goddesses, besides utilitarian pieces.

At the weaving village of Nuapatna, the narrow bylanes resound with the clackety-clack of looms as weavers and master craftsmen avidly share their technique of creating these lovely khandua paat (traditional bandha or ikat saris).

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It was again late evening by the time we drove past Chaudwar towards Kila Dalijoda. Kalia was at the wheel and it was pitch dark outside. He cleared his throat nervously and uttered ‘Babu…’, but luckily we spotted two pillars and on a hunch asked him to drive through.

We ended up at a beautiful two-storey stone house and were welcomed by Debjit Prasad Singh Deo and his wife Namrata who run Kila Dalijoda as a heritage homestay. Stone steps led up to a hall of the European style mansion with lovely stained glass windows, arches and period furniture.

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Once a hunting lodge of the erstwhile rulers of Panchakote, Kila Dalijoda was built in 1931-33 by Raja Jyoti Prasad Singh Deo. It was named after the adjoining Dalijoda forest range of the Kapilas Elephant Sanctuary that once stretched right up to its doorstep!

The original patch of Kila Dalijoda spread over 11,000 acres; today the holding has shrunk to just 40 acres with two large tanks on the property. While we devoured home-cooked Odiya fare like machha besara (fish in mustard curry), saag (greens) and arisa pitha (deep fried rice pancake), Debjit helped us plan our trip to Bhitarkanika and nearby craft villages and tiny hamlets of the Saura and Munda tribes.

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The proximity to the Mahanadi and its back channels gave ample opportunities for fishing and the gently undulating tracts were great for cycling. By the time we were done with Kalia on the Odisha guidebook project for Outlook Traveller, we had driven 3000 km around the state.

As we bid him goodbye at the Biju Patnaik International Airport at Bhubaneswar, Kalia was teary-eyed but we couldn’t be sure whether it was genuine joy of travelling with us, or relief that he was still alive…

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Air The nearest airport at Bhubaneswar is 80 km from Dhenkanal, from Kila Dalijoda it’s only 45km.
Rail Dhenkanal railway station serves Dhenkanal district and is well connected to Cuttack (55 km) on the main Howrah Chennai route
Road 75 km NW of Bhubaneswar and 55 km from Cuttack via NH-55 via Chaudwar, while NH-42 connects Dhenkanal to Sambalpur and Rourkela.

Where to Stay
Many of the royal palaces in and around Dhenkanal have now been converted into heritage hotels and palatial homestays.

Dhenkanal Palace
Ph 9437292448, 9748478335
Email contact@dhenkanalpalace.com
http://www.dhenkanalpalace.com

Gajlaxmi Palace
Borapada, 3km from Dhenkanal
Ph 9861011221, 9337411020
Email navneeta.singhdeo@gmail.com
http://www.gajlaxmipalace.com

Kila Dalijoda
Ambilijhari, via Chaudwar
Ph 9438667086
Email debjitsinghdeo@yahoo.co.in
http://www.kiladalijoda.com

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What to Eat
Try the Dhenkanal bara and local sweets at Gouranga Sahoo Mistharna Bhandara (Ph 06762-224861, 9778228877) on College Road and Prasidha Bara in Ganesh Bazaar. Dhenkanal is also known for its Chhunchi Patra, a sweet cake made of ground coconut, rice and maida.

When to go
Dhenkanal is great to visit from October to March. The Joranda fair is held on a full-moon day in the Hindu month of Magha (Jan–Feb). Shivaratri is celebrated at Kapilash with great fervour in Feb-March. The Ramnavami Fair at Saptasajya is held in March-April.

Tourist Office
TRC Complex, Mahisapat
At PO & Dist Dhenkanal 759001
Ph 06762-221031, 234670
http://www.odishatourism.gov.in

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the December 2017 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine. Here’s a link to the original article: https://www.outlookindia.com/outlooktraveller/destinations/odisha-royal-fables/

 

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Pedal On: India By Cycle

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY get their bums on the saddle to map out exciting cycling experiences across India

img_0387-pondy-cycle-tourThe location was perfect, the mellow morning set the right mood and our bicycles were the funkiest set of two wheels. Astride canary yellow and hot pink bicycles retrofitted by ‘My Vintage Bicyclette’, we set off at 7am on the ‘Wake Up Pondy Tour’. Our guide Manisha from SITA (South India Traditional Arts) led us through Puducherry’s less-explored Muslim Quarter – past Elliamman Koil temple, down Tippu Sahib, Mullah and Cazy Streets to the 19th century Kuthba Mosque, a blend of Mughal domes and French designs. Goubert Market, with its lively flower, vegetable and fish stalls, brought back memories of Life of Pi. After visiting the fishermen’s colony at the far end of the French Quarter, we ended at SITA’s garden cafeteria for a South Indian breakfast.

How Fiona Guerra and Idriss Madir, the duo behind My Vintage Bicyclette met in Aleppey and landed in Pondicherry, customizing bikes and creating cycle tours, is something even they cannot explain. They fell in love with India and the Atlas cycle on their first trip and decided to soup up vintage Indian cycles to brighten up mundane daily life. They revealed, “After settling in Pondicherry in 2012, such a creative and colorful city full of talented craftsmen and knowhow, we prototyped our first vintage custom hand-painted bikes for friends. It was difficult to ship the cycles to France and North India so we brainstormed to find a solution – ergo, the Pondy Cycle Tour!”

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With friend and partner Fleur Soumer, manager at SITA, a cultural center housed in the bright blue Villa Martine Marie Jacqueline, they crafted an authentic, local cycle tour. Since March 2014, they have welcomed over 1000 happy cyclists. Last November, a new afternoon tour was added to discover Pondy with ace photographer Gopinath Ram.

Fiona and Idriss admit, “For us, cycling is the perfect way to move around. Not too slow, not too fast, healthy, practical and eco-friendly. As urban cyclists, we don’t travel great distances by cycle in India, but do rent them in the cities we visit. We loved cycling in Hampi, Fort Kochi and Orchha. But we love it most in Pondicherry, a place we consider home. The city is human sized, to stroll along the Beach road is unique, as for the typical rides through the heritage streets and their bougainvillea…so cliché but unforgettable!”

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Cycling in India has taken off in leading metros with urban folk pedaling to work and weekday techies becoming rallyists over the weekend. Bengaluru is fast becoming India’s cycling capital. Till a few years ago, if someone flung terms like FTP and HRM, you knew he was referring to File Transfer Protocol and Human Resource Manager; today it could be Functional Threshold Power and Heart Rate Monitor!

Rohan Kini quit his IT job and founded Bums On The Saddle in 2006, a top-end bicycle service shop in Bengaluru where he’s the ‘Chief Wrench’. BOTS is the perfect place to geek out with Body Geometry Fit Specialists helping you find your unique riding position and intense training sessions to improve cadence, average speed and climb timings.

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It’s a busy calendar – from GMC (Great Malnad Challenge), BBC (Bengaluru Bicycle Challenge) to TFN (Tour of Nilgiris), the event that put India on the global cycling map. Started in 2008 by Bengaluru’s Ride a Cycle Foundation, TFN is India’s largest cycling event. Held between 16-23 December each year, the 7-day ride spans 800+ km, passing through three wildlife sanctuaries – Nagarahole (Karnataka), Wayanad (Kerala) and Mudumalai (Tamil Nadu).

Pankaj Mangal, founder of Bengaluru-based The Art of Bicycle Trips, says it all started when he and two friends went on a 100km bicycle ride to Cauvery Fishing Camp. After riding out 60km, they sat under a statue of Mahatma Gandhi when the penny dropped. This was it – being outdoors, getting out of comfort zones and enjoying the simple life of the countryside. In 2010, they launched their first tour the Bike & Hike day trip to Ramnagaram, the immortal setting for Sholay. Today, their wide repertoire stretches from Udaipur to Vietnam.

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The latest entrant on the scene is Bengaluru By Cycle, started by local boys Raghu and Nithya. Just a few months old, they offer a lovely Pete Tour in the heart of Bengaluru. Reporting early morning at Cubbonpet, it was uncanny to see the busy commercial quarter free from traffic. Raghu explained “Most tourists go to MG Road or Lalbagh, but this was where Bangalore started. We grew up here and know the backlanes inside out. Being fond of cycling and having done a DelhiByCycle tour in 2010, we thought of launching a cycling tour in Bengaluru. Unlike walking, you can cover a larger area on a cycle.”

Bengaluru Pete was established in 1537 around a mud fort built by Yelahanka chieftain Kempegowda. Originally spread over one square mile; today Bengaluru has expanded to 741 sq km! The 12km ride took us through the city’s oldest parts – a 250-year-old dargah linked to the local Karaga festival and Cubbonpet’s bylanes, where Bengaluru’s old culture thrived in garadimanes (wrestling akharas), temples and daily rituals.

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Sipping tea at the crossroads of Avenue Road, we smiled at the irony. At the spot where Kempegowda allegedly let loose four bullocks in the cardinal directions to mark his city’s boundaries, there was a ‘no entry’ sign for bullock carts! The highlight was Asia’s largest flower mart, set in the ground floor of KR Market. Established in 1928, it was formerly a water tank and a battlefield during the Anglo-Mysore Wars. We bit into crisp dosas at Udupi Krishna Bhavan as Raghu outlined plans for more tours in partnership with Jack Leenars of DelhiByCycle.

In 2009, while working as the South Asia correspondent for Dutch daily De Telegraaf, Jack was looking for a new challenge in life and began exploring Old Delhi on a bicycle. “It was a total blast! The best experience I ever had. So many impressions, colours, smells, beautiful faces, amazing architecture and great history. All clustered within the centuries-old city walls. After cycling for two months I finally designed the best possible route, gave up my journalism career and jumped into the deep called DelhiByCycle.”

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He started with the Shah Jahan Tour, a glimpse into the life and times of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and his 1500-acre capital Shahjahanabad. Built in 17th century, it was regarded as the most prosperous and beautiful city in the world. Today, it is a 400-year-old web of alleys enmeshed with electric cables and infused with the smell of brewing tea and simmering curries. Pedalling past Chawri Bazar and Fatehpuri Masjid, the vibrant spice market, a chai break in Civil Lines, stops at Old Delhi railway station and Chandni Chowk, an outside darshan of Red Fort and Jama Masjid and you’ve truly earned your breakfast at Karim’s!

DBC has expanded operations with four other tours – the Haveli tour explores the lavish noblemen mansions or havelis in the 17th century metropolis of Shajahanabad, ‘a city of decadent Emirs, ruthless Persian invaders, woeful poets, mystical men, masterful artists and forgotten architects who wove dreams into the now crumbling contours of Old Delhi.’

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The Raj tour showcases the Imperial heart of New Delhi, taking in sights like Connaught Place, Parliament House, Presidential Palace, India Gate and Agrasen ki Baoli. The Sufi trail of Nizamuddin and the urban village of Kotla Mubarakpur took Jack the longest to develop (almost one year), integrating stunning rooftop views, Humayun’s Tomb and picnic on the Lodhi Garden lawns. But Jack’s favourite is the Yamuna tour, which includes a boat ride on the river! Recently, he designed cycle tours in Lucknow in partnership with UP Tourism.

Jack has inspired many to take up cycling as a hobby, if not a profession! After a cycling tour with him, Eleonore Gaspa and Ophélie Teyssandier returned to Jaipur to start their own company. Jaipur is packed with so many attractions, most tend to focus on the touristy sights. So the two French girls decided to create their own itinerary, showcasing lesser known aspects of this wonderful city. The thematic tours kick off early from Ramganj Chaupad leading guests through the City Palace district of the walled city, ending with a Rajasthani breakfast in Karnot Mahal, a 270-year-old heritage haveli.

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The Pink Inside Tour goes inside homes and workshops of marble carvers, jewellers and artisans, a wholesale vegetable and fruit market, cenotaphs, havelis, ancient temples, even the back kitchen of a sweetshop! The Pink Sensation tour covers everything from Ras Kapoor haveli (named after a courtesan, not the actor) to the local lassiwalla and a temple ceremony in an ancient Shiva shrine. On the Pink Royal tour see Jal Mahal, Gaitor cenotaphs, vegetable markets and a ceremony at the Govind Devji Royal Temple.

Jaipur-based Virasat Experiences, who started with walking tours in the walled city, also run an excellent Jaipur Cycle Tour. Ride through the streets and markets early morning, past Hawa Mahal to the city’s outskirts and 4km up the hill to Nahargarh Fort. Savour a panoramic view of the city from 700 m, before an exciting downhill journey. With local street food tasting and a Rajasthani breakfast in a heritage haveli, it’s a great way to get Jaipur’s local flavours. A more challenging excursion is the Nahargarh Cycling Expedition through the Aravalli forests to Nahargarh fort and stepwell, Man Sagar Lake, Nahargarh–Jaigarh tunnels and Jaigarh fort, built on a hill called Cheel Ka Teela (Mound of Eagles).

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Like Rajasthan, another classic cycling destination is Kerala where the topography changes every day – beach, winding ghats, steep hills. Kerala Bicycle Trips has been crafting thematic cycle tours for years. Starting off from Mattancherry near Jew Town, the Sunrise Beach Route has fishmongers, toddy tappers, milkmen and school kids for company.

The Old Kochi Bike Route explores a 3km radius of large warehouses exporting spices and tea, dhobiwallas and Christian, Hindu, Gujarati and Jain settlements. On the day-long Spice Coast Route, head to rustic Alappuzha or take the Hornbills Route along a canal bund road past lush paddy fields and coconut groves to the forests of Edamalayar and Thattekad. There’s a whole world to explore, if you get your bums on the saddle…

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FACT FILE

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Jaipur and Cochin.

SITA Puducherry
Ph 0413-4200718 www.pondicherry-arts.com
Timings: Mon-Sat 9am-12:30pm, 2pm-8pm
Cost: Rs.1200/person (Rs.400 children), incl. breakfast

Kerala Bicycle Trips
Ph 97420 19837 www.keralabicycletrips.com
Cost: Rs.1500-4200/person

Delhi By Cycle
Ph 011-64645906, 98117 23720 www.delhibycycle.com
Timings: 6:30-10am
Cost: Rs.1850/person, incl. breakfast

Bengaluru By Cycle
Ph 95138 86305 www.bengalurubycycle.com
Timings: 6:30–9:30am
Cost: Rs.1500/person, incl. breakfast

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Cyclin Jaipur
Ph 77280 60956, 77280 60651 www.cyclinjaipur.com
Timings: 6:45-10am
Cost: Rs.2000/person, incl. breakfast

Virasat Experiences
Ph 0141-5109090/95, 96672 00797 www.virasatexperiences.com
Cost: Rs.1650-3500/person incl. refreshments

Art of Bicycle Trips
Ph 78294 86953 http://www.artofbicycletrips.com
Cost: Rs.1450-2500/person (½ day tours), $1695-3495/person (multi-day) incl. stay & food

My Vintage Bicyclette
Ph 84898 97427 Email my.vintage.bicyclette@gmail.com

Bums on the Saddle
Ph 080-41143064, 41505583, 73497 83178 www.bumsonthesaddle.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unabridged version of the article that appeared in the December 2016 issue of JetWings magazine.

Konkan Cool: Where to stay along the coast

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY travel down the Konkan coast from Mumbai to Goa to handpick boutique villas and quaint homestays, with a bit of sightseeing thrown in 

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Ccaza Ccomodore, Mandwa
If anyone told you could be at a vacation home outside Mumbai within half an hour from SoBo, it would be hard to believe, right? Not if you hop on to a speedboat for a 20-minute ride to Mandwa from the Gateway of India. Bypass the traffic of weekend revelers and practically teleport yourself to the family home of the Mongias, run as a luxurious boutique villa. Commodore Surinder Mongia served in the Navy and his yachtsmen sons Ashim and Nitin (also a gourmand) have three Arjuna awards between them. And a seafarer’s pad can never be too far from water! With a sheltered pool and the beach just 1½ km away, the villa is perfect for some R&R. Enjoy barbecues, wood-fired artisan pizza and made-to-order gourmet meals like spinach and fish roulade and red wine lamb with thyme scented rice, with flexible meal timings! The in-house Shiivaz Spa offers Balinese and Swedish massages, besides Shiatsu, Aromatherapy and Reflexology treatments. Two spacious bedrooms and a large suite for four, make the Med-style villa ideal for a group of friends.

What to see around
The quiet nook has not much to see except a splendid sunset at Mandwa Jetty with dining at Kikis Café & Deli. Or relax at the quiet Sasawane, Saral and Awas beaches nearby.

Getting there
50 min by ferry or 20 min by speedboat from Gateway of India to Mandwa Jetty and 3 km (7 min) inland at Mhatre Phata, Dhokawade. By road it’s 95 km (3 hrs) from Mumbai; turn right at Pen and continue via Vadkhal and Kihim for Mandwa.

Tariff Rs.12,000/couple, including all meals

Ph 9820132158 Email ccazaccomodore@gmail.com http://www.ccazaccomodore.in

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Firefly, Alibaug
Set on a 4-acre hill overlooking the Revdanda river and estuary, Martin and Sagarika’s holiday farmhouse south of Alibaug offers breathtaking views. The luxury villa has 5 bedrooms spread across three air-conditioned cottages (Poolside, Glass and Gatekeeper Cottage) with a 12.5 m infinity pool overlooking the valley and creek. If you bring provisions, the live-in staff rustles up meals at the poolside kitchen and barbecue (Rs.1,500 per day for the two ladies). Stocked with books, games, satellite TV with DVDs and Wi-Fi, Firefly is a self-sufficient farmhouse that is pet-friendly. If you’re nervous around dogs, the resident pets Sniff and Skylar can be kept at the base of the property by caretaker Dalip.

What to see around
Should you choose to head out, Firefly is excellently located with both Alibaug and Kashid half an hour’s drive away. Closer home are the Jesuit monastery and seaside fort at Revdanda besides the lighthouse and 16th century hilltop Portuguese fort at Korlai.

Getting there
1 hour drive from Mandwa Jetty or a 3-hour drive from Mumbai.

Tariff Rs.32,000 per night for 5-room villa, ideal for 10 guests, minimum stay 2 nights

http://www.airbnb.co.in/rooms/469202?s=SgFK

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Serene Ravine, Kolbandre
A small family-run homestay near Dapoli run by Shekhar Tulpule, Serene Ravine is a 15-acre nature retreat ideal for painters, photographers and nature lovers. Wild flowers, butterflies and orioles, eagles and hornbills keep you company, so go birdwatching by day and stargazing at night. Set on the banks of the Kotjai river, you could relax in a riverside shack or spend time between the waterfall and the porch swing. Being a farm, you can watch cows being milked and walk through coconut and betelnut plantations with a tour of the cashew-processing unit. Choose from family suites, rooms and dorms and enjoy delicious Konkani and Maharashtrian meals including house specialties like fish and modak.

What to see around
Head downstream on the Kotjai river to the 1000-year-old Panhale–Kazi caves with old Hindu and Buddhist sculptures. Make an offbeat temple trail to the scenic Keshavraj temple, Chandika cave shrine and Kadyawarcha Ganpati at Anjarle built in 1150 AD on a kada (cliff) with wooden pillars. With easy access to a wide swathe of beaches between Kelshi and Kolthare, you can catch the fish auction at Harne beach (7:30 am and 4:30 pm) and witness a geographic marvel at Ladghar – the beach has a patch of red sand that gives the illusion of a red sea!

Getting there
238 km from Mumbai via Veer, Khed and Dapoli (8 km away)

Tariff Rs.3,500 for two, includes breakfast & dinner, meals Rs.300/head

Ph 9225609232, 9209139044 Email tulpuleagro@yahoo.com http://www.sereneravineholidays.in

Atithi Parinay Kotawde IMG_1934_Anurag & Priya

Atithi Parinay, Kotawde
Midway between Ratnagiri and Ganpatipule, the riverside homestay is run by mother-daughter duo Mrs. Vasudha and Medha Sahasrabudhe. Surrounded by hills on three sides and set on the banks of the swirling Kusum river, the 3-acre plantation is lush with mango trees, kokum, pineapple, chikoo and paddy fields. The laterite and stone house has bungalow rooms, besides cottages with cowdung floors and modern amenities, Swiss tents and a 12 ft high tree house, popular with couples. Walk across the bamboo bridge over the river for a slice of village life or catch the daily rituals at the Mahalakshmi temple. The highlight is the excellent home-cooked Chitpawan Brahmin cuisine served on banana leaf – poli (thin oiled chapati), koshimbir (dry veg raita), aamti (sweetish thin daal), kulith usal (stir-fried horsegram), bhopla bharit (pumpkin mash), sandhan (jackfruit cake), patodey (rice cakes steamed in turmeric leaves), chunda (spicy mango preserve) and moramba (mango preserve), besides unlimited mangoes and aam-ras in summer!

What to see around
The closest beach Aare-Vaare is 5km with the more popular Ganpatipule Beach 13km away – visit the beachside Ganesha temple and the Prachin Konkan open-air museum. Continue further north to the cliffside Karhateshwar Temple or watch ships being built at Bharati Shipyard in Ratnagiri. Don’t miss the coastal town’s famous landmarks – Tilak Smarak where freedom fighter Balgangadhar Tilak was born, the Thibaw Palace built for a Burmese king exiled by the British and the horseshoe-shaped Ratnadurga fort spread over 120 acres with a Bhagwati cave Mandir and lighthouse nearby.

Getting there
Kotawde is 350 km from Mumbai and 13 km from Ganpatipule and Ratnagiri

Tariff Rs.3,500-4,000, inclusive of breakfast

Ph 02352-240121, 9049981309 Email info@atithiparinay.com http://www.atithiparinay.com

Oceano Pearl Tree House Ganeshgule IMG_3258_Anurag & Priya

Oceano Pearl, Ganeshgule
Located in a 1.5-acre coconut grove, this beachside homestay south of Ratnagiri is run by Mithil Pitre and family. Unlike Ganpatipule further north, the remote hamlet Ganeshgule, rarely sees hordes of tourists. Swing lazily in a hammock in the shade of coconut trees enjoying the sea breeze, relish fresh coastal fare and relax in your own private beach. Choose from a wide range of rooms and a tree house. Hike to beachside cliffs to watch the sunset and the twinkling lights of the Finolex factory.

What to see around
The old Ganesh Mandir is just 1 km away or drive 6.5km to Swami Swarupanand Math at Pawas. Discover other offbeat beaches like Purnagad and Gavkhadi (10km) or visit the Surya Temple at Kasheli 20 km away.

Getting there
358 km from Mumbai and 23km south of Ratnagiri

Tariff Rs.2,800-4,800, including breakfast

Ph 02352-237800, 9689559789, 8605599789 Email oceanopearl@yahoo.com http://www.oceanopearl.com

Pitruchaya Homestay Shirgaon IMG_2387_Anurag & Priya

Pitruchaya, Shirgaon
Set amidst mango orchards, laterite quarries and brick factories, Pitruchaya near Shirgaon is run by a sweet couple Vijay & Vaishali Loke. What started off as a wayside eatery for people driving to Devgad Fort soon turned into a small 3-room homestay. Besides authentic Malvani fare like kolambi (prawn) or kalva (clam) fry and Malvani mutton, the highlight is the stunning terrace suite, with paintings done by artists from Pinguli Art Complex and bamboo furniture from KONBAC (Konkan Bamboo & Cane Development Centre) at Kudal.

What to see around
Drive 27km to the coast to the quiet Devgad Fort and continue 18km south to Kunkeshwar, site of an unusual 400-year-old Shiva temple built by Arab sailors who survived a shipwreck. The serene Mithbav Beach 10 km further south has a Betaal Mandir dedicated to a wandering spirit that supposedly induces madness in passersby at twilight! The clifftop shrine on the dungar (hill) is dedicated to goddess Gajbadevi who appeared in a dream and instructed villagers to install a temple for safe passage.

Getting there: 439 km from Mumbai, Shirgaon is located on the Devgad-Nipani Highway or SH-117 and is 13 km from Nandgaon on the Mumbai-Goa highway.

Tariff Rs.1,500-2,000, meals extra

Ph 98699 81393, 97645 93947 Email sindhudurg@rtne.co.in

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Maachli Farmstay, Parule
Maachli is a great place to experience life on a farm without compromising on comfort. Four rustic themed cottages with thatched conical roofs and modern amenities overlook a lush coconut, betelnut, banana and spice plantation, providing seclusion and serenity. Run by Pravin Samant, the family-run farmstay is accessible after crossing a perennial stream, which doubles up as a natural fish spa if you dangle your legs from the bamboo bridge after a hike! Besides plantation walks, there are longer trails like the 1½ hr Morning Nature Trail to a gurakhi (shepherd) temple or the 2½ hr Sunset Trek to the coast. Enjoy excellent Malvani cuisine like masala sandhan (yellow idly with turmeric), amboli (multi-grain pancake), dhondas (sweet cucumber or jackfruit pancake), varieties of poha – spicy tikat kanda pohe, gode pohe sweetened with jaggery and the smoky kalo lele pohe, seasoned with ghee and live coal! An earthen stove is used for all cooking and fish fry and chapatis are served in areca fronds.

What to see around
Besides the Adinarayan temple at Parule dedicated to the setting sun, visit the Vetoba and Ravalnath temples. Don’t miss the hike to a centuries-old devrai (sacred forest) overgrown with dense trees and creepers. At the open shrine of Devchar (protector of the tribal community) locals offer alcohol and beedi (country cigarettes) to propitiate him. Within a few paces, orange pennants and bells announced the shrine of Dungoba or Dungeshwar, worshipped by the kolis for a good catch and safe return when setting out to sea.

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

Tariff Rs.5,400, inclusive of all meals and nature trail & plantation tour, activities extra

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

Aditya Bhogwe's Eco Village IMG_2520_Anurag Mallick

Aditya Bhogwe’s Eco Village, Bhogwe
Just south of Tarkarli, away from the boatloads of tourists and adventure seekers, six bamboo cottages on a quiet hillside overlook the scenic confluence of the Karli River as it empties into the sea. The tiny strip of land sandwiched between the river and the sea is called Devbag or Garden of the Gods. Enjoy the warm hospitality of the Samants as you dig into flavourful fish thalis with poli (thin chapatis), rice, papad, stir fried beetroot/greens or raw banana fritters washed down with sol kadhi and a generous dollop of shrikhand. Absorb the view from your balcony or take a short hike to the riverside farm, where a ring of coconut trees act as a buffer from the saline creek. Ride in a country craft through the mangroves for some birdwatching and visit a cashew factory to watch local ladies process raw cashews. Round it off with sunset at Sahebachi Kathi, named after an 8ft long geological survey pole erected by the British.

What to see around
A boat ride from Korjai jetty down the creek takes you past the scenic confluence of Devbag Sangam to Bhogwe Beach, a long swathe of untouched sand. Disembark to see the Panch Pandav Shivling Mandir, a laterite shrine allegedly built overnight by the exiled Pandavas and continue by boat to Golden Rocks, a jagged ochre-hued hillock jutting out of the seashore. The forlorn Kille Nivti fort has a desolate beauty far from the frenetic adventure activities at Tarkarli, Tsunami Island and Sindhudurg. Mahalaxmi Parasailing & Water Sports offers banana boats, bumpy rides, jet skis, parasailing, snorkeling and scuba. Ph 8412023789, 8007273664 http://www.mahalaxmiwatersports.com

Getting there: 500 km from Mumbai, Bhogwe is 4km from Parule on the coast.

Tariff Rs.2,200, including breakfast (Meals Veg Rs.150, Seafood Rs.200)

Ph 9423052022, 9420743046 Email arunsamant@yahoo.com

Dwarka Farms Homestay Talavada IMG_3369_Anurag & Priya

Dwarka Homestay, Talavada
An organic farmstay near Sawantwadi, Dilip Aklekar’s 15-acre Dwarka Farms is tucked away in a mango orchard with 230 alphonso trees besides cashew, coconut, banana and pineapple. 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. The food is an amazing Malvani spread of farm produce, fresh seafood from the coast and delicious kombdi (chicken) curry. The large homestead has rooftop dorms and 9 rooms with large balconies opening into the orchard. A passionate advocate of Konkan’s natural wealth, Dilip’s friendly exuberance is just the stimulus one needs to head out of the comfort of the farm on excursions to beaches, ghats and temples nearby, besides forays into Goa.

What to see around
Drive 14 km to Vengurla on the coast to see the port and old lighthouse and drive south to a series of beautiful beaches – Sagareshwar, Mochemad and Shiroda. Drop by at the Redi Ganpati Mandir, the scenic Aronda backwaters and Terekhol Fort.

Getting there
Located 534 km from Mumbai, Talavada is 11 km from Vengurla and 14 km from Sawantwadi on the Vengurla-Sawantwadi Road.

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

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

Nandan Farms Sawantwadi IMG_3020_Anurag & Priya

Nandan Farms, Sawantwadi
Half-hidden in a beautiful farm near Sawantwadi at the base of a small hillock, the terracotta-toned bungalow with a sloping tiled roof and earthy interiors is livened up by colourful floor tiles, bamboo furniture and fish-shaped wooden doorjambs. Stone pavers for pathways and garden lamps add a rustic appeal. Run by ace cook Amrutha Padgaonkar or Ammu, who hails from Vengurla, it’s a great place to savour Malvani coastal delights. With just 2 rooms in a 12-acre property, privacy is guaranteed.

What to see around
Visit Sawantwadi Palace to watch Ganjifa artists make ancient playing cards under the supervision of HH Satvashila Devi, drop by at Chitar Ali (Artist’s Alley) near Moti Talao where local artisans make lacquerware toys or drive 30 km to Amboli Ghat to bathe in waterfalls, drive through the mist and reach the source of the Hiranyakeshi river flowing out of a cavern.

Getting there
Drive down 517 km on NH-17 to Sawantwadi and head 2 km from town on Amboli Road

Tariff Rs.4,000/couple, including all meals

Ph 94223 74277 Email amrutapadgaonkar@yahoo.in

Kashid-Murud Janjira drive DSC02199_Anurag & Priya

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 14 October 2015 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at http://www.cntraveller.in/story/konkan-cool-where-stay-along-coast/

The Wooden Road: Germany’s Half Timbered House Trail

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While autobahn is great for speed enthusiasts, ANURAG MALLICK enjoys slow travel on a driving holiday across Swabia in Baden-Württemberg, taking the southern Red Route of the German Timber Frame Road through medieval towns with half-timbered houses and vineyards        

Bleubauren-Blautopf IMG_0587_Anurag Mallick

Having caught the last flight to Stuttgart in the group, I had the least amount of time to do justice to the extensive spread at Restaurant Trollinger at the Mövenpick Hotel just outside Stuttgart Airport, let alone shower and change. But it was a taste of what lay ahead. Patience, I said to myself, as we got ready to take on the Deutsche Fachwerke Strasse.

The historic German Timber Frame Road runs 3,000km north to south through medieval towns with cobbled streets and half-timbered houses, heritage walks by guides in period costume and Swabian cuisine dished out at cellars, weinstube (wine restaurants) and biergartens (beer gardens). We were covering the 772km-long southern Red Route, a dramatic landscape where both history and geography had been shaped by the course of rivers and receding ice after the last Ice Age.

Bietigheim-Half-timbered house IMG_9837_Anurag Mallick

It was a short drive from Stuttgart to the charming little town of Bietigheim-Bissingen (actually two, for the price one). In 1975, Bietigheim and Bissingen, 3km apart, became twin towns. Locals fondly call them Bi-Bi! Anette Hochmuth from the German Framework Road greeted us near the town square and led us through the Unteres Tor (Lower Gate), the last surviving original gate.

Quirky art was typical of Bietigheim with sculptures like Kuhriousum (a cow on a milk can), Die Schwätzer (The Gossipers) and the outré Villa Visconti or House of Heads sporting a façade with heads of celebrities. We walked to the Marktplatz, the medieval town centre lined with spectacular buildings like the Rathaus (town hall). It was built in 1507 in the Black Forest region, dismantled and brought on rafts down the Enz River and reassembled here. Near the Old Latin School, Hornmoldhaus was one of the best-preserved Renaissance houses in South Germany with exquisite woodwork and painted interiors. It housed the Stadtmuseum (City Museum) and a miniature model of the town.

Bietigheim-Kuhriosum sculpture IMG_9812_Anurag Mallick

The reason they were called half-timbered houses was because of the wood-saving skeleton with self-supporting timber and curtain walls that had a filling of clay, mud, hay or brick. The method was both ecological and aesthetic. Stone was the privilege of the elite, which gave rise to the German expression steinreich or ‘stone rich’.

We continued to the wine village of Besigheim, surrounded by the Neckar and Enz rivers. Dominating the market square was the Town Hall built in 1359 and the charming Dreigabelhaus or Three-gabled house. The traditional Restaurant Ratsstüble is a great place to try Swabian delicacies. Swabia, a historic region in present day Baden-Württemberg, boasts its own distinct culture and cuisine. Our visit co-incided with Spargelzeit or Asparagus Season and the local favourite white asparagus was on the menu. Also on offer was Maultaschen, pasta stuffed with minced meat, spinach, onions and breadcrumbs. And thereby hangs a tale.

Schwabian cuisine-Maultaschen at Restaurant Ente Blaubeuren IMG_0712_Anurag Mallick

During Lent, ‘good’ Christians usually refrained from meat, but the cheeky Cistercian monks of Maulbronn Abbey were unwilling to do so. They hid the meat inside the pasta so God would not be able to see it! Since it looked like a tasche (bag) and came from Maulbronn, it was called Maultaschen. Nicknamed ‘Swindlers of the Almighty’, the coarser Swabian dialect was less charitable – the tongue twister Herrgottsbescheißerle means ‘God’s little bullshitters’!

Next up was Schorndorf, a 12th-century medieval town famous as the birthplace of Gottlieb Daimler, born here in 1834. His house and birthplace display his drawings, memorabilia and photos, tracing his transformation from a baker’s son to the inventor of the first small, high-speed petrol engine. The Galleries for Art & Technology had several of his inventions, automobiles and the first motorised bike. Daimler was working on an electric engine long before there was running water and electricity.

Schorndorf-Gottlieb Daimler birthplace IMG_0157_Anurag Mallick

In 1350, when Schorndorf’s fortifications were expanded to encircle the burgeoning town with new walls, people appropriated the old city walls to save money. One such specimen was a crooked house on Rommelgasse simply known as The House on the Wall. The houses were so close together one wonders if they could have built a common wall and reduced costs. But a small alleyway separated the houses, to prevent fires from spreading rapidly.

Rather more poignant were the cobblestone-sized memorials we literally stumbled upon. Started in 1996 by Gunter Demnig, these Stolpersteine or stumbling stones were created to commemorate victims of the Holocaust, put outside the house where they were last seen before being deported to concentration camps. Like Schorndorf, nearly 50,000 Stolpersteine can be seen across 18 countries in Europe, making it the world’s largest memorial.

Schorndorf-Stolperstein or stumbling stones IMG_0076_Anurag Mallick

In under an hour, we reached Esslingen, an old town with 1,200 years of architecture, criss-crossed by cobbled alleys, and the Burg (castle), with vineyards draping its slopes like a royal cloak, lording over town. One had to climb 300 steps for a view of Esslingen from the summit. For now the only fortification we were interested in was of the liquid kind as we ambled into Sektkellerei Kessler—Germany’s oldest producer of sparkling wine. After learning the secret of champagne in France, Georg Christian Kessler returned to set up his own company in 1826. Within the 1,000-year-old walls of the keller (cellar) they produced 1.5 million bottles annually.

Our eloquent guide Mr Roe took us on a tour of the inner city. “German history is too complicated with kings and kaisers fighting for power. After a glass of sekt you forget everything in any case,” he announced. And, thus, we set off to see the most important of the 800 monuments in the Altstadt (Old Town). Schelztor, the square gate tower, had a quirky installation of a man balancing on a pole. The Skywalker, designed by artist Van der Goetze in 1994, symbolised the medieval maxim that if you could support yourself for one year and one day, you became a free citizen.

Esslingen am Neckar-Town square IMG_0189_Anurag Mallick

Esslingen was the most important European town in the 13th century, superseding even Rome. It lay on the Route 66 of the Middle Ages, connecting Antwerp in the north to Venice in the south, crossing the Neckar River. Esslingen am Neckar prospered due to the two bridges that levied a high toll tax offering safe passage to merchants, thus developing as a trading location. It was the oldest, longest and widest stone bridge in Germany. Esslingen also had the oldest continuous timber-frame front with nearly 200 half-timbered houses.

The Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall), with large doors for easy passage of wine barrels, was the best example of Swabian Allemanic architecture. The Rathaus served as a covered market where the baker, candlestick maker and other craftsmen exhibited their goods. Occasionally a death sentence would be carried out in the top window. The new Town Hall built in 1422 was an architectural marvel with nine bells that played over 200 melodies. Each day was represented by a different statue of the ruling planet, which changed daily thanks to a rotary device.

Bleubauren-Blautopf statue of Schönen Lau IMG_0599_Anurag Mallick

After an early dinner at the cosy Weinkeller Einhorn with its recurrent unicorn motif, we continued to scenic Blaubeuren, tucked amidst wooded slopes and rocky outcrops in the valley of the Danube. Being springtime, there was enough daylight to squeeze in a Segway tour to Blautopf (Blue Pool), source of the Blau, Germany’s most beautiful karst spring. Coursing through a 12km-long network of limestone caves and caverns, it emerges from the base of the Swabian Jura (Alps) ending in a 22m deep funnel-shaped pool. The spire of the Benedictine monastery and the water mill mirrored in its blue waters is heart-achingly beautiful.

Blaubeuren’s historic town centre was one of the best-preserved in Germany with lovely lanes to stroll around dotted with shops, cafés and inns. We stopped by at Urgeschichtliches or Prehistoric Museum to see its most prized object. It looked like a dressed chicken, but the 6cm sculpture was a remnant of the last Ice Age—a 40,000-year-old figurine of Venus carved from mammoth ivory. Excavated from the Hohle Fels cavern, 4km southwest, it is counted among the world’s oldest sculptures and is the oldest representation of a female figure.

Biberach-Medieval walk with wife of a master weaver IMG_0813_Anurag Mallick

At Biberach, another interesting female figure waiting for us. Dressed in a medieval style gown and her hair covered in a scarf (back then if you let your hair loose, you were a loose woman), the ‘wife of the master weaver’ welcomed us to the year 1533. “Watch out for the horseman,” she cautioned, as a motorcar passed close by. It was an entertaining city walk to Weberberg, the medieval craftsmen’s settlement.

In 16th century, around 400 looms were located along the lane and a quarter of the population lived off the weaving trade. Fustian, a cloth made of flax and cotton, was a big hit in the Middle Ages and the source of Biberach’s wealth. Since the flax had to be kept damp, weavers worked in the dank environment of the cellar, often developing chronic coughs. We continued our walk to the stunning Marktplatz (market square) dominated by the Stadtpfarrkirche or St Martin’s Church.

Biberach-Marktplatz or town square IMG_0781_Anurag Mallick

Dinner was at Weinstube Goldener Rebstock where we had been granted the community table. Usually anyone walking into the restaurant could occupy a free seat there and successive people bought the next round. For this, the table came with a bell with the word ‘stammtisch’, which we were told not to ring, unless we wanted to buy the whole restaurant a round of beer. We were happy with our steamed potatoes with cheese platter and *seele (literally, ‘soul’) German footlong with ham.

The next day we came to Pfullendorf, between the river Danube and Lake Constance, where a ‘robber from the 1820s’ took us on a tour. Starting from the northernmost and highest point, Obertor (Upper Gate), the robber decoded secret signs marked on wealthy houses and how money was hidden on wooden beams. The Altes Haus (Old House), built in 1317, was one of the oldest townhouses in Southern Germany with a museum tracing the town’s history. We ended the tour at the subterranean restaurant Felsenkeller with a meal of mashed potatoes and ham baked inside a whole loaf of bread.

Pfullendorf-Heritage walk with medieval era robber IMG_1025_Anurag Mallick

Any more food and we would have rolled down the steep vineyard slopes all the way to Meersburg. It was located on the northern shore of Bodensee or Lake Constance, the largest lake in Germany. Our guide Jutta said the lake freezes once every century (the last time was 1963), an event celebrated with a procession of St John’s statue. Literally, the Castle on the Lake, Meersburg’s baroque skyline was shaped by wealthy prince bishops who employed the famous baroque architect Balthasar Neumann. The Alte Burg (Old Castle) is said to be the oldest in Germany that’s still inhabited.

We explored the chapel in the baroque palace Neues Schloss (New Castle), the Rathaus (Town Hall) and the oldest medieval inn Zum Baren (The Bear) dating back to 1250. Staatsweingut Meersburg is the best place to learn about the region’s wine. Descending sharply to the lakeshore, the vineyards have southern exposure and limestone rich soil originating in the Ice Age, unique to German viticulture. With lovely views of boats and yachts on the lake, lined by pretty hotels and restaurants, Meersburg was the prettiest wine village in Germany. Ironically, the best view of the vineyards does not belong to Meersburg, but to Constance.

Meersburg-Vineyards by the lake IMG_1491_Anurag Mallick

Legend has it that on the manor Haltnau Wendelgard, all the vineyards belonged to a not-so-pretty lady, her face disfigured by a harelip. She longed for love and wrote a letter to the Mayor of Meersburg that if he or a member of his town council took her out for dinner every Sunday, and gave her a long kiss, all the vineyards would become part of Meersburg.

She must have been rather unsightly as the proposal was unanimously rejected. She then wrote the same letter to the Mayor of Constance. Our guide, Frau Jutta remarked, “We don’t know whether the men of Constance were blinder, greedier or less sensitive, but ever since, the vineyards have belonged to Constance and not to Meersburg.” It was time to swig one for the road.

Meersburg-Lake Constance IMG_1502_Anurag Mallick

FACT FILE

Good to Know
Deutsche Fachwerke Strasse or The German Timber Frame Road is a 3,000 km tourism trail that starts from the fishing town of Stade at the mouth of the Elbe River in north Germany and ends at Meersburg on Lake Constance in the south. Divided into six colour-coded regional lines, the route connects nearly 100 towns with half-timbered houses, historical sites and diverse geographic zones – Elbe River to Harz Mountains in Lower Saxony (Blue Route), Harz to Thuringian Forest (Orange Route), Weser Hills via North Hesse to Vogelsberg and Spessart Uplands (Brown Route), Lahn Valley and Rheingau (Yellow Route), the confluence of Rhine and Main into Odenwald (Purple Route) and Neckar Valley, Black Forest and Lake Constance region (Red Route).

Getting there
By Air: Fly to Frankfurt Airport and take a connecting flight to Stuttgart, capital of the in Baden-Württemberg region.

Getting Around
From the airport, depart by private coach on the Red Route (772 km), starting with Bietigheim-Bissingen, 25 km north of Stuttgart and Besigheim, 8km north of the twin towns. Ludwigsburg, 15 km south of Besigheim has more hotels and is a good overnight stop. Bypass Stuttgart town and drive 35 km to Schorndorf and another 35 km to Esslingen. Continue 76 km southwest to Blaubeuren for an overnight stop. Cover Biberach, 41 km south, and Pfullendorf (53 km further away) en route to Meersburg, 37 km on the northern bank of Lake Constance. Meersburg to Stuttgart is 186 km.

Pfullendorf-Distance marker IMG_1114_Anurag Mallick

Stay
Romantik Hotel Friedrich von Schiller, Bietigheim
Hotel Blauzeit, Friedrichstrasse, Ludwigsburg www.blauzeit.com
Hotel Ochsen, Marktstrasse, Blaubeuren www.ochsen-blaubeuren.de
Flair Hotel zum Schiff, Bismarckplatz, Meersburg www.hotelzumschiff.de

Eat & Drink
Try Swabian delicacies like pancake soup, spätzle (local noodles), maultaschen (stuffed pasta), seele (long baguette) and white asparagus. Wash it down with Apfelschorle (apple soda) or wine schorle (wine with soda), Kessler sparkling wine cellar at Esslingen, regional wines like Lemberger, Blaufränkisch, Dornfelder, Riesling, Kerner, Müller-Thurgau and Trollinger, besides German beer like Dinkelacker and Holgenbrau.

Pfullendorf-Felsenkeller dining in a cellar IMG_1219_Anurag Mallick

Restaurant Trollinger, Mövenpick Hotel, Stuttgart Airport www.trollingerstubn.de
Must try: German buffet spreads

Restaurant Ratsstüble, Besigheim http://www.ratsstueble-besigheim.de
Must try: Asparagus soup, maultaschen, spätzle

Felsenkeller, Heiligenberger Straße 20, Pfullendorf www.felsenkeller-pfullendorf.de
Must try: German beer, ham baked inside a whole loaf of bread, Swabian mashed potatoes

Weinkeller Einhorn, Esslingen http://www.weinkellereinhorn.de
Must try: Roast beef, German style pork chops, with cellar dating back to 729

Restaurant Golden Ente, Biberach www.zur-ente.de
Must try: Duck liver, leg and breast of duck, rump steak with roasted onions & spätzle

Restaurant Goldener Rebstock, Biberach www.goldenerrebstock.de
Must try: Seele, Potato cheese platter, German beer and excellent whiskey collection

Schwabian cuisine-Duck breast at Restaurant Ente Blaubeuren IMG_0709_Anurag Mallick

Sektkellerei Kessler, Esslingen http://www.kessler-sekt.de
Must try: Germany’s oldest sparkling wine maker of Hochgewächs, Jägergrün, Cabinet & Rosé and Kessler Creations like Riesling and Weissburgunder

Brennerei Rossle, Blaubeuren-Seissen http://www.brennereiroessle.de
Must try: Schnapps and liquors in exotic flavours like apple, peach, orange, ginger and vanilla

Staatsweingut Meersburg http://www.staatsweingut-meersburg.de
Must try: Secco white sparkling wine pairs well with cheese, the dry Meersburger Lerchenberg Muller-Thurgau is excellent with asparagus, the slightly almondy and buttery Hohentwieler Olgaberg Weissburgunder goes with everything, the Meersburger Jungfernstieg Spatburgunder Blanc de Noirs is ideal with white meat whereas those who love spicy, hot, Indian food might prefer the special Rosé Gutswein Spatburgunder Weissherbst.

Meersburg-Staatswine IMG_1441_Anurag Mallick

See
Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart documents over 125 years of auto industry history in a single continuous timeline www.mercedes-benz.com
Gottlieb Daimler Gebursthaus (Birthplace) in Schorndorf www.daimler.com

When to go
Christmas markets in winter at Stuttgart (one of the oldest and biggest in Europe, started in 1692) and Baroque style medieval Christmas market in Esslingen are held in Nov-Dec

Bietigheim-Horse sculpture IMG_9949_Anurag Mallick

Guided Tours
A 2 hr guided walking tour from the old own centre of Bietigheim-Bissingen is offered every Sunday at 10:30 am from Easter to October. www.bietigheim-bissingen.de www.3b-tourismus.de

The Tourist Information at Markplatz in Pfullendorf organizes free town tours every Friday 10 am between May to October, covering the old town, the Rathaus, Steinscheuer (a granary converted into a library) and other half-timbered houses. http://www.pfullendorf.de

Meersburg’s Tourist Information on Kirchstraße 4 offers 1½ hr guided walks at 10:30 am on Tues/Thurs of the historic Old town, past the fortress, on the terrace of the New Castle, into the Castle Chapel and the Wine Museum. It is free for Lake Constance Experience Ticket holders or € 5.00 per person. www.meersburg.de

For more info, www.germany.travel

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the August 2015 issue of Outlook Traveller. Read the story on OT at http://www.outlooktraveller.com/trips/on-a-ride-through-swabia-driving-in-germany-1007936

10 magical drives from Bengaluru

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From the Western Ghats to the Deccan Plateau and the Karavali Coast to Coromandel, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY hit the highways of South India to seek out ten scenic drives from Bangalore

Searching for some great drives around Bengaluru? Look no further than this handpicked list of destinations across regions, themes and geographic zones with everything you need to know – where to stay, what to eat, how to get there, distances, midway stops and what to see en route. Presented in increasing order of distance from Bangalore, take these scenic routes across Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Goa.

Baba Budan Giri_Landscape 2_opt

Sakleshpur
Swathed in plantations of coffee, cardamom, pepper and areca, Sakleshpur is the scenic gateway to the Western Ghats. Straddling the passes on the town’s outskirts is Tipu Sultan’s strategic fort Manjarabad. Shaped like an eight-cornered star radiating around a central hillock, the climb is difficult, but offers superb views all around. The 56.8 km Green Route from Sakleshpur to Kukke Subrahmanya, dotted by 58 tunnels, 109 bridges and 25 waterfalls used to be a stunning trek along an abandoned railway track until it was recently converted into broad gauge. Now you can hop on to a train to soak in the natural beauty of Bisle Ghat, home to India’s most spectacular rainforests. From the scenic Bisle viewpoint one can see the mountain ranges of three districts – Kumara Parvatha (1319 m) in Dakshina Kannada, Puspha Giri (1712 m) and Dodda Betta (1119 m) in Coorg and Patta Betta (1112 m) in Hassan district. For a misty drive, head north to Chikmagalur and the Baba Budan Giri hills to climb Karnataka’s highest peak Mullaiyanagiri.
Stay: The Radcliffe Bungalow at the 1000-acre Ossoor Estate 3 km before Sakleshpur off the highway is a charming colonial era plantation bungalow with 3 rooms, red oxide floors and open to sky bathrooms. Run by Plantation Escapes, they also have an 8-room property near Chikmagalur called Mist Valley. www.plantationescapes.com
Distance: 221 km (4 hrs)
Route: Take the Bengaluru-Mangaluru highway or NH-48 via Nelamangala, Kunigal, Hassan and Channarayapatna

Pitstop: Kamath Upchar after Channarayapatna
En route: Drowning church of Shettihalli, Gorur Dam, Hoysala temples at Mosale, Nuggehalli besides Belur-Halebid

Guided Jeep Drive Through Coffee Plantations

Pollibetta
As the winding road climbs the ghats of Coorg, the glossy green coffee bushes and pepper vines present a soothing sight. In monsoon, blankets of mist wrap the rainforest and waterfalls are at their torrential best – be it Abbi and Hattihole near Madikeri (Mercara), Chelavara near Kakkabe or Irpu near Srimangala. Go on a guided Bean to Cup plantation tour with Tata Coffee, enjoy a round of golf at the 9-hole course, grapple with rapids while whitewater rafting at Dubare and Upper Barapole rivers or hike to vantage points like Kotebetta, Mandalpatti and Kabbe Pass. Base yourself in any of the colonial-era bungalows around Pollibetta run by Tata Coffee’s Plantation Trails and feast on traditional Kodava cuisine like koli (chicken) and pandi (pork) curry and monsoon staples like kumme (mushrooms), bemble (bamboo shoots) and kemb (colocasia) curry.
Stay: Stay in premium heritage bungalows like the century old Cottabetta or Thaneerhulla, Woshully plantation bungalow or plantation cottages like Surgi, Thaneerhulla, Yemmengundi or Glenlorna, which offers the rare view of a tea estate in coffee county. They also run the Arabidacool heritage bungalow near Chikmagalur. www.plantationtrails.net
Distance: 230 km (5 hrs)
Route: SH-17 till Srirangapatna, turn right onto the Mercara highway and after Hunsur, take the left deviation towards Gonicoppa (look out for the Plantation Trails sign), drive on to Thithimathi and turn right at another sign to Pollibetta, 9 km away.
Pitstop: Maddur vada at Maddur Tiffany’s or puliyogare, pongal, Kanchipuram idlis and Brahmin Iyengar snacks at Kadambam, Channapatna
En route: Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, KRS Dam (Brindavan Gardens) and Namdroling Golden Temple at the Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe near Kushalnagar.

Vythiri Resort rope bridge IMG_1686_Anurag Priya

Lakkidi
Perched at an altitude of 700 m atop Thamarassery Ghat, Lakkidi squats on the western border of Kerala’s hilliest district Wayanad. Located just 5 km from the tourist hub of Vythiri, it is one of the highest locations in the district. The winding Thamarassery–Lakkidi Ghat road, often shrouded in mist and fog, is called the Cherrapunjee of Kerala. Stop by at the freshwater Pookot Lake and the Chain Tree, which pays tribute to the spirit of a tribal chieftain who showed the secret way through the passes to a British officer but was treacherously killed. Head to the district headquarters Kalpetta for Wayanad Splash, a monsoon carnival with mud football, crab hunting, offroad drives and other rain soaked adventures. Hike to the heart-shaped lake at Chembra, Wayanad’s highest peak or take part in cross country cycling, treks and other adventure trails with Muddy Boots.
Stay: Laze in rustic themed tree houses or pool villas at Vythiri Resort, an eco friendly rainforest hideaway landscaped around a gurgling mountain stream. Pamper yourself with rejuvenative Ayurveda therapies, delicious Kerala cuisine and leisurely forest walks. www.vythiriresort.com
Distance: 290 km (7-8 hrs)
Route: SH-17 till Mysuru and NH-212 on the Kozhikode Road via Gundlupet, Muthanga, Sulthan Bathery and Kalpetta
Pitstop: Jowar roti, yenne badnekayi, neer dosa and North Karnataka delights at Kamat Madhuvan on the southern outskirts of Mysuru on the Kozhikode Road
En route: Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary and the Jain Temple at Sulthan Bathery that Tipu Sultan used an ammunition dump.

Coonoor offroad jeep ride to Pakkasurankote IMG_2450_Anurag Priya

Coonoor
Take a drive up the hairpin bends of the Nilgiris or Blue Mountains for a magical sight of tea plantations that stretch for miles. Escape the bustle of Ooty to quieter Coonoor for drives to stunning viewpoints like Dolphin’s Nose, Catherine Falls, Kodanad and Rangaswamy Pillar. For an offroad experience, drive to Red Hills and Avalanchi or take a 4-wheel jeep ride past Glendale and Nonsuch Estates to Pakkasuran Kote with ruins of Tipu Sultan’s fort. Stay in a plantation bungalow while trekking downhill past Toda hamlets and Hillgrove Railway station. For a lazy slideshow of the hills, hop on to the Nilgiri Mountain Railway that covers the 26km uphill climb from Mettupalayam to Ooty in just under 5 hrs, crossing 16 tunnels and 250 bridges.
Stay: Tea Nest Coonoor on Singara Estate Road is a quiet nook overlooking tea plantations with rooms named after tea varieties, a seven-course tea-themed menu and the odd gaur among the bushes. They also run a private 2-room planter bungalow called Tea Nest Annexe 1 km down the road, besides the ethnic Kurumba Village Resort in a spice plantation on the Connoor-Mettupalayam Ghat road www.natureresorts.in
Distance: 285 km (7-8 hrs)
Route: SH-17 till Mysuru, NH-212 till Gundlupet and NH-67 till Theppakadu. The route via Gudalur (right of the Y junction) is 30 km longer with less hairpin bends, though the left route via Masinagudi is more scenic with 36 hairpin bends
Pitstop: JLR’s Bandipur Safari Lodge has decent buffet lunches or try South Indian fare at Indian Coffee House Hotel on NH-67 at Gudalur
En route: Wildlife at Mudumalai National Park, Bandipur Tiger Reserve or Kabini

Agumbe British milestone DSC04266_Anurag Priya

Agumbe
One of the rainiest places in Karnataka, Agumbe is significant for many reasons. With a mean annual rainfall of 7,620 mm (300 inches), it is often described as the Cherrapunjee of the South. The sleepy rain-soaked hamlet served as Malgudi in Shankar Nag’s TV adaptation of RK Narayan’s nostalgic tale of Swami and his childhood. It is home to Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) founded in 2005 by herpetologist Romulus Whitaker dedicated to the Indian Cobra. One could visit Agumbe just to see the ‘Top of the Ghaut’ milestone erected by the British to mark the distance from ‘Shemoga’. Or marvel at the sunset from the viewpoint. But one of the biggest incentives is Mr. Nayak, the vada seller at Agumbe Forest checkpost who dispenses vadas with wisdom, stocking books of literary interest, for which regular patrons drive for miles.
Stay: Not too far from Agumbe near Thirthahalli is the quaint Kolavara Heritage homestay, a Chowkimane (traditional home) in a working plantation where you can enjoy Malnad cuisine and nature hikes www.kolavaraheritage.com
Distance: 357 km (8-9 hrs)
Route: NH-4 till Tumkur, NH-206 via Tiptur, Kadur, Tarikere, Bhadravati bypass, Shivamogga bypass, Thirthahalli
Pitstop: Chattambade and vadas at Mr. Nayak’s roadside stall at Agumbe Check-post and meenina oota (fish meals) at Mandagadde, midway between Shivamogga and Thirthahalli
En route: Sringeri temple, Mandagadde Bird Sanctuary and Kannada poet laureate Kuvempu’s birthplace Kavishaila

Pichavaram drive Gingee Fort 622_Anurag Priya

Pichavaram
Spread over 2800 acres off Tamil Nadu’s Coromandel Coast; Pichavaram is one of the largest mangrove forests in the world. It first shot to fame with MGR’s 1975 film Idhaya Kanni and more recently served as a dramatic backdrop for Kamal Hassan’s Dashavataram. Navigable by boats that weave in and out of narrow canals lined by overgrown mangrove roots, it is a paradise for nature lovers. An early morning boat ride from the Arignar Anna Tourist Complex is ideal for birdwatching. And once you hit the ECR or East Coast Road, extend your itinerary by driving north to the erstwhile French enclave of Puducherry and the ancient maritime Pallava capital of Mamallapuram. Or head south to Tharamgambadi or Tranquebar, once a flourishing Danish outpost with stunning Scandinavian churches and a seaside fort.
Stay: Hotel Sardharam have a decent property in Chidambaram with great food and also run Pichavaram Eco Resort overlooking the boat jetty at Pichavaram backwaters, besides a Chola-themed heritage hotel Lakshmi Vilas near Veeranam Lake www.hotelsaradharam.co.in
Distance: 366 km (9-10 hrs)
Route: NH-7 via Electronic City, Hosur to Krishnagiri, NH-66 to Tiruvannamalai and onward to Cuddalore
Pitstop:
Adyar Ananda Bhavan at BP petrol pump in Chinnar, between Hosur and Krishnagiri
En route: Arunachaleshwara temple and Sri Ramana Maharishi Ashram at Tiruvannamalai, Gingee Fort, Nataraja temple at Chidambaram

Vivanta by Taj Bekal Exterior

Bekal
Remember ‘Tu Hi Re’ from Mani Ratnam’s Bombay and the rain drenched fort where it was shot? That’s Bekal, the largest and most well preserved fort in Kerala built by Shivappa Nayak in 1650. Kasaragod, Kerala’s northernmost district has the highest concentration of forts in the state, highlighting the importance of trade in the Malabar region. Follow the fort trail to Chandragiri and Hosadurg nearby, feast on local Moplah cuisine or take a houseboat ride in the Thejaswini river and the serene backwaters of Valiyaparamba.
Stay: BRDC (Bekal Resort Development Corporation) has facilitated a string of premium resorts like Nileshwaram Hermitage and The Lalit, though the pick of the lot is Vivanta by Taj Bekal. Spread over 26 acres near Kappil Beach, stay in laterite-lined villas inspired by kettuvallam (houseboat) motifs with private plunge pools, signature therapies at Jiva Grande Spa, besides honeymoon packages and vow renewal ceremonies. www.vivantabytaj.com
Distance: 368 km (9-10 hrs)
Route: SH-17 to Mysuru and the old Mysuru-Mangaluru highway or NH-275 via Madikeri, Sampaje, Sullia to Jaloor, and SH-55 via Adhur and Cherkala to Bekal
Pitstop: The renovated East End Hotel in Madikeri is a great place for keema parathas, meat ball curry, though for firewood roasted akki roti with pandi curry stop by at the dingy yet delicious West End Bar on the other end of town.
En route: Omkareshwar Temple, Raja’s Seat and Gaddige in Madikeri, Malik Dinar mosque at Kasaragod

Munnar monsoon IMG_8985_Anurag Priya

Munnar
With most beaches out of bounds during monsoon, the beauty of Kerala in the rains is best experienced in the hills. And what better haunt than Munnar, located at the scenic tri-junction of moon aaru or ‘three rivers’ – Mudrapuzha, Nallathanni and Kundala? Watch the mist roll over the mountains from your perch as you sip a steaming cup of Kannan Devan Hills chai. Drop by at the tea factory to trace the journey from leaf to cup as you explore the colonial summer hideout of the British through excellent short drives. Go via Mattupety Dam and Echo Point to Top Station or via the scenic lake of Devikulam to Bison Valley. Visit Eravikulam National Park to spot the Nilgiri Tahr or head to Anamudi Peak, at 2695m the highest point south of the Himalayas.
Stay: Tiled roof stone cottages built using rocks from the property, Mountain Club is a picture-postcard resort at Chinnakanal 21 km from town adjacent to Club Mahindra. It has an excellent multi-cuisine restaurant, coffee shop and an infinity pool overlooking Anayirankal Dam. www.mountainclub.co.in
Distance: 478km (11-12 hrs)
Route: NH-7 via Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri to Salem, via Avinashi and Udumalpet onto Munnar Road
Pitstop: Besides Adyar Ananda Bhavan midway between Dharmapuri and Thoppur, there’s all day dining and a great value lunch buffet at GRT Grand Estancia at Salem, besides Hotel Chinnis at Perundurai
En route: Mettur Dam, Bhavani temple,
Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary

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Toodhalli
Ever heard that thing about not eating fish in months that don’t have an ‘r’? May, June, July and August is the monsoon period when fish usually spawn, hence the old adage. But if you were to drive up the Karavali Coast to Karwar, there are several places to drop anchor. Kundapura, a town known for its legendary cuisine, boasts iconic dishes like Kundapur Chicken, Chicken Ghee Roast, Chicken sukka and neer dosa, with enough variety to keep one docked for days. Drive up further to Sai Vishram Beach Resort in Baindoor, perhaps the only non-alcoholic pure vegetarian resort on the coast. But for the best culinary and wellness experience drop by at Wild Woods Spa, which offers rare delights like jackfruit idli and dosa, wild mushroom curry, bamboo shoot curry, pathrode, spinach dosa and the signature dasola yele (Hibiscus leaf) idli.
Stay: Besides Blue Waters at Kundapura and Sai Vishram at Baindoor, Wild Woods Spa & Resort at Toodhalli, 7km from Shiroor checkpost, is a great place to enjoy the rains. A mountain stream encircles the botanical retreat that offers wood and stone cottages, exotic cuisine and spa treatments. www.wildwoodsspa.com
Distance: 496 km (12 hrs)
Route: NH-48 to Mangaluru via Shiradi Ghat and head north on NH-17 to Kundapura, Bhatkal and beyond. If closed for renovation or road repair, take NH-4 via Tumkur, Chitradurga, Davangere to Harihar and turn left via Siddapur and Jog Falls to reach the coast at Bhatkal. Or take NH-48 to Hassan and NH-234 via Belur and Mudigere to Charmadi Ghat, Belthangady, Karkala and Udupi.
Pitstop: Shetty Lunch Home in Kundapura is legendary for its sukkas, ghee roast and the eponymous Kundapur Chicken. Stop at Kwality on NH-17 for Bhatkal biryani (they serve only chicken)
En route: Stunning coastal views, waterfalls like Jog, Arshinagundi and Apsarakonda, coastal pilgrim trail from Udupi, Kukke Subramanya, Kollur Mookambika, Murudeshwar, Idagunji to Gokarna and Jain circuit of Moodbidri, Karkala, Varanga and Bhatkal.

Turiya Spa Canacona Goa_Amit Bhandare

Palolem
Driving through Goa in the rains, especially the rich hinterland, is the perfect foil to the frenetic beach activity of the high season. Away from the secluded coast and the sore sight of fishing boats shrouded with palm fronds and blue tarpaulin, the green of the lush countryside is so bright it hurts your eyes! Explore the quiet south with trips to Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary on the Goa-Karnataka border, the stone cut temple of Tambdi Surla, a railway track hike or adventure bike ride to Doodhsagar waterfall or white water rafting on the Surla Mhadei river.
Stay: A tastefully renovated century old Portuguese villa in a quiet colony of Canacona, Turiya Villa & Spa is named after the fourth state of consciousness and is a great place to relax with lovely homestyle Konkani food and an in-house spa that offers Ayurveda, body and beauty treatments www.turiyahotels.com
Distance: 559 km (12-14 hrs)
Route: NH-4 via Tumkur, Chitradurga, Davangere to Haveri, via Yellapur to Karwar and up the coastal NH-17 to Canacona
Pitstop: Thatte idlis at Bidadi, Sri Kottureshwara or Old Sagar Hotel in Davangere for benne dosas and Amrut Restaurant and Shwetha Lunch Home in Karwar
En route: Chitradurga Fort, Yana Caves (Kumta-Sirsi route), Tagore Beach Karwar

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as a monsoon special on 15 July 2015 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at http://www.cntraveller.in/story/10-magical-monsoon-drives-bengaluru

Irish Loop: The Ring of Kerry

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover that a day-trip along the circular Ring of Kerry is a great way to experience the natural beauty and mordant wit of Ireland Ring of Kerry Ireland-Anurag Mallick IMG_7143_opt

‘And now a famous song you folks must have heard about the place’, crackled the sonorous voice of our driver-cum-guide Tim as he pointed to the vast expanse of blue outside the bus window. There was momentary silence on the PA system and then he goes ‘Dingle Bay, Dingle Bay, Dingle all the Way…’

One of the most scenic circular routes in the world, the 106-mile long Ring of Kerry tour is as much a showcase of Irish humour as sparkling lakes, scenic highlands and rugged coastline. Be it bus drivers, cruise skippers, nature guides like Con Moriarty or jarvies operating jaunting cars (horse drawn carts), locals pride themselves in their knowledge and like to tell it with swagger, as if each one of them had locked lips with the Blarney stone. Ring of Kerry Ireland-Anurag Mallick IMG_7249_opt

The train journey from Dublin to Killarney via Mallow seemed like some old forgotten memory. A scenic racecourse, church steeples, old aquaducts and grazing sheep whizzed by, as we reached Killarney by dusk. Our base for the Ring of Kerry adventure, Killarney was Ireland’s tidiest town in 2011, with cobbled paths and neat rows of bars, restaurants and shops selling Irish souvenirs. It was at Foleys Townhouse, originally a 19th Century coaching inn that we first heard ‘Dingle Bay’ bandied about as a term to authenticate its fresh catch.

Tourism in Killarney was not new. The scenic region got a royal stamp of endorsement after Queen Victoria’s visit in 1861 and in the late 1800s writer Bram Stoker visited Killarney. It’s believed that the vampire chronicles of Dracula were inspired by his late night wanderings around Ross Castle and stories of hermit John Drake who slept in a coffin in Muckross Abbey. Interestingly, Gaelic for bad blood is ‘droch fola’. Ring of Kerry Ireland-Anurag Mallick IMG_7103_opt

Stories of our midnight mayhem could have filled a book and we barely made it for the early morning start to the Ring of Kerry tour. Our first stop was Kerry Bog Village Museum at Glenbeigh, winner of the Agri Heritage Award. Recreating a typical 18th century village during the Great Irish Famine (1845-52), the various period cottages beautifully illustrated traditional architecture. The Turfcutter’s Dwelling had river reed as thatch, bog scraw for insulating the ceiling and uneven flag stone floors.

The stone-built Old Forge was dimlit for the blacksmith to discern the temperature and colour of the horseshoes on the cobbled floor. The Stable Dwelling came with a hen house, butter churns and raised back door for sweeping away animal droppings. The Thatcher’s Dwelling had spacious interiors and a first floor, but the most fascinating structure was the humble Labourer’s Cottage with mud floors and small windows. Ring of Kerry Ireland-Anurag Mallick IMG_7174_opt

In the old days, as per Irish taxation laws people paid more for having large windows, as having more light was seen as a luxury. So in this era, houses had unusually small windows and half doors, as light was allowed from the top half of the door when needed, which wasn’t taxable. It was this intriguing practice that gave rise to the phrase ‘daylight robbery’. The museum also had on showcase a Romany Caravan used by the traveling people of Ireland and rare native breeds like Kerry Bog Pony and the Irish Wolfhound, the world’s tallest dogs. Used to hunt wolves, elk and boar since Roman times, Irish wolfhounds had been procured by Roman consul Quintus Aurelius in 391 AD to fight in the Coloseum of Rome!

Adjacent, The Red Fox Inn run by the warm Mulvihill family was the perfect place for a ‘3P stop’ (pee, photo, puff), as our tour guide Virginia Moriarty quipped. If you thought a caffeine shot was rejuvenating, wait till you spike it with some Irish whiskey and cream. After alarmingly large portions of Irish coffee, we were back on the road to Cahersiveen, driving past vestiges of the old railroad and ruins of stone cottages from the great famine. In the distance, the jagged pinnacles of Skellig Islands jutted out of the Atlantic Ocean like croutons in a bowl of soup. Little Skellig hosted 66,000 gannets, the world’s second largest colony of these seabirds while the UNESCO World Heritage site of Skellig Michael held medieval monastic ruins.

Ring of Kerry Ireland-Anurag Mallick IMG_7095_opt

The Ring of Kerry provided an amazing insight into Ireland’s ancient history. From wedge tombs of the Neolithic period, stone circles of the Bronze Age, beehive huts and Ogham stone inscriptions of the Iron Age, 4000-year-old copper mines of Ross Island to churches, castles and abbeys, it had it all. A cluster of islets were nicknamed ‘The Bull, the Cow and the Calf’ and Henry pointed out a bizarre house built like a boat at the water’s edge, described by locals as ‘the ship that never went to sea waiting for the high tide’!

Beyond Beenarourke Pass at Coomakista, we halted at the Lady Madonna Statue for Sailors Lost at Sea. All along we spotted quaint seafood restaurants like Smugglers Inn and Sheilin, but dropped anchor at Scariff Inn, which offered the ‘most scenic view in Ireland.’ We dined on legendary lamb stew, seafood chowder and other Irish fare with views overlooking the bay. Ring of Kerry Ireland-Anurag Mallick IMG_7277_opt

Before long, we rolled into the seaside resort town of Waterville, a favourite holiday spot for Charlie Chaplin and his family, who first visited in 1959 and liked it so much, he returned every year for a decade. Not far from Butler Arms Hotel where he stayed, a statue commemorates his visits with a plaque ‘For a man who made the movies speak in the heart of millions Charlie spent many a year in our midst as a welcome and humble guest and friend to many.’

His image was created by sculptor Alan Ryan Hall and funded by Chaplin’s daughter Josephine. As a tribute, Waterville hosts the annual Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival in August. Following Chaplin’s footsteps, the town attracted other celebrities like Shirley Maclaine, Catherine Zeta Jones and Tiger Woods. Scenic coastal hikes from Waterville to Cahersiveen and Caherdaniel form part of the wonderful 200 km walking trail The Kerry Way. Ring of Kerry Ireland-Anurag Mallick IMG_7289_opt

Tim explained the origin behind Irish town names. Places like Kildare and Kilkenny denote church (Kil means Church of), Ballyn implies ‘Town Of’ while Caher suggests ‘Fort of’, usually a stone fort located inland. Dun refers to a fort by the sea while List refers to a fort built between 400 BC and 100 AD. ‘Forget that, you can tell the weather by the position of sheep on the mountain side.’ Before the guffaws could die down, he patiently elaborated ‘If they are grazing at the top, it means the weather will be good because they’ll need time to come down. So if they are at the foot of the mountain, it means the weather might be dodgy.’

We realized why sheep are synonymous with Irish countryside as we cruised towards picturesque Sneem, which formed a swirling knot in the Ring, where the river Sneem joined Kenmare Bay. A statue of Steve ‘Crusher’ Casey, five times World Heavyweight Champion in wrestling between 1938-47 adorned the town square. A short walk led to the scenic bridge and a quaint bar fronted by boulder with a short eulogy: ‘Those days in our hearts we will cherish, Contented although we were poor, And the songs that were sung, In the days we were young, On the stone outside Dan Murphy’s Door.’ Ring of Kerry Ireland-Anurag Mallick IMG_7329_opt

We repeatedly tested the advertising tagline ‘Guinness is good for you’ before continuing on the Ring, which contoured the ever-changing landscape. We passed Moll’s Gap, Gap of Dunloe, Macgillicuddy Reeks, Ireland’s highest mountain with the majestic peak Corran Tuathail (3414 ft), Lough Leane, the biggest of the three lakes of Killarney and Ladies View, named after a lady-in-waiting of the Queen who gushed ‘This is the finest view in all the realm.’ The drive back to Killarney through forests of oak and yew was a breeze.

The 26,000-acre Killarney National Park was criss-crossed by several walking paths like Old Boathouse Trail and Arthur Young Trail. But all we could walk was a few paces to Hannigan’s Bar for a pint and an evening of live Irish music. It all seemed oddly familiar, like a face you’ve seen before. Maudlin, we joined in the chorus to Molly Malone, Danny Boy and It’s a long way to Tipperary and realized that the songs we grew up with were actually classic Irish ballads! The guy at the bar summed it up well ‘God bless the wives of Ireland, All their men are half mad, All their wars are merry, And all their songs are sad!’

Ring of Kerry Ireland-Anurag Mallick IMG_7306_opt

FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly to Dublin and take an Aer Lingus connection to Kerry Airport (55 min). Alternately, take a train from Dublin’s Heuston station to Mallow (2¼ hr) every hour for the onward journey (5-8 pm) and every half hour for the return (5:30-7:30pm). At Mallow, take a change to Killarney (1 hr). There’s a 5:05 pm direct train from Heuston to Killarney (75 Euro return trip).

Good to Know
The 179 km circular loop road (N70, N71 and R562) starts from Killarney in County Kerry, south-western Ireland, heading around the Iveragh Peninsula through Kenmare, Sneem, Waterville, Cahersiveen and Killorglin. As the narrow roads make it difficult for tour coaches to pass, buses run in an anti-clockwise direction, traveling via Killorglin.

Local tours
Railtours Ireland organizes rail and coach tours from Dublin’s Heuston station to Killarney via Mallow (Mon-Sat). Choose from other great tours to Aran Islands, Cliffs of Moher, Cork, Connemara, Galway Bay, Blarney Castle, Giant’s Causeway, etc. www.railtoursireland.com www.irishrail.ie

Killarney Lake Tours – MV Pride of the Lakes waterbus and Lily of Killarney Watercoach offers daily sailings from Ross Castle (10:30am-5pm) to Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula. Their Gap of Dunloe Tour combines travel by bus, pony carriages and boat via the Lakes of Killarney.

The Kerry Way is an established 200km walking path that roughly follows the scenic driving route, while a signposted Ring of Kerry cycling path uses older quieter roads. There are numerous variations to the route like St. Finian’s Bay and Valentia Island, which the official driving ring skips. Ring of Kerry Ireland-Anurag Mallick IMG_7102_opt
Stay
Killarney International
Kenmare Place, Killarney, County Kerry, Ireland Tel: +353-(0) 64-6631816 http://www.killarneyinternational.com

Foleys Townhouse Guesthouse
24 High Street, Killarney, County Kerry, Ireland Tel: +353-(0) 64-6631217 http://www.foleystownhouse.com

See Peat bogs, prehistoric ruins, Killarney National park, Kerry Bog Village Museum, Skellig Experience, Muckross House and day trip to Gap of Dunloe. To plan your Ireland tour, visit http://www.discoverireland.com

Must Try Irish coffee at Red Fox Inn, Seafood chowder at Scariff Inn, Irish meal at Foleys Townhouse in Killarney, Pint of Guinness at a bar

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine. http://www.outlooktraveller.com/trips/the-scenic-ring-of-kerry-tour-of-ireland-1007367

Kerala on Wheels and Water

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With 44 rivers and 1500 km of labyrinthine canals, Kerala’s backwaters are a maze. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY negotiate highways and waterways in a droll look on a bike trip down the Kerala coastline

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THE Yezdi 250 cc Roadking is perhaps the most uncomplicated motorbike known to mankind. The point at which it got complicated was when we expressed our desire to use its services for a coastal trip of Kerala. We never realised we had so many Malayali friends until then. “Venda, it’s veeeery rash.” “It’s quite far, no!” A graphic designer friend even went as far as to read into the colour coding of the Kerala State Transport buses. “Red is the colour for danger, yellow is for fear – go make the connection.”

But with long road trips under our belt, we felt reasonably confident. There was a second round of parleying about the route. We could either ride via Mysore and follow State Highway 88 to Kannur or take the long-winded NH 47 to Thrissur via Salem and Palakkad. We decided to do neither and took the less-explored route to Kasaragod, so we could start from the northern-most tip of Kerala. The straight sparse road from Bangalore to Mangalore seemed perfect and before our Malayali friends could say Thiruvananthapuram, we were off.

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Valiyaparamba boat crossing

We sped past the stark landscape till Hassan, climbed the sweeping Ghat roads after Sakleshpur and 50 odd kilometres before Mangalore took a detour south from Uppinangadi. In the olden days, salt and other goods used to be transported upstream in boats to Uppinanagadi from Mangalore and the Kerala coastline. Over time the confluence of the Netravathy and the Kumaradhara evolved into a salt market (uppu angadi), hence its present name.

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Ducks in Alappuzha

The general plan was to follow the coastal road that coiled its way down Kerala, its black form slithering along the waterways like an aquatic snake. From Ananthapura in the north, the original seat of Ananthapadmanabha Swamy to Thiruvananthapuram in the south, his displaced home; Vishnu’s all-pervasive aura seemed to float on an aqueous bed of rivers, lakes and canals. Stirred by such parallels in mythology, we decided to visit a temple for an auspicious start. And who better to turn to than Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles? We rode eight kilometres northeast of Kasaragod to Madhur and after a token offering, were ready for my coastal trip. Our first leg would take us through the legendary spice coast of Malabar or ‘The land of hills’, which stretched from Kasaragod to Kannur, Wayanad, Kozhikode, Malappuram, Palakkad and Thrissur.

We took a detour south of Kasaragod and as the bike slipped and slid over weeds we rode into Bekal. Famous for the largest and the best-preserved fort in Kerala, this was where ‘Tu hi re’ from Mani Ratnam’s film, Bombay, was shot. Next came the stunning Pallikere beach and then we carried on to Muzhappilangad, a four kilometre stretch touted as Kerala’s longest drive-in beach, which was more easily accessible.

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Korapuzha backwaters – Houseboat ride in Karyangode

Normally we’re not the kind who drink while driving but when you come across a town like Mahe, even the strongest of characters can suffer a total breakdown of self- control. Apart from Goa, Mahe had the cheapest booze anywhere on the West Coast. Perhaps news of India’s liberation had not reached this intoxicated nook, which is why they were selling booze at such pre-independence rates. Or maybe because it was part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry. Soon, it didn’t even matter. After losing a day but still dangerously flippant, we resisted my urge to take a detour and personally congratulate Payyoli Express PT Usha for catapulting a tiny village onto the international athletic map.

However, we did make a symbolic stop at Kappad, where the first Europeans had set foot in India 500 years ago. A small stone memorial on the beach marked the approximate landing spot of Vasco da Gama. It was time for us to drop anchor and we rode down the remaining 16 km to Kozhikode and roamed around the bustling township. It was during one such walkabout that we had our first close brush with the red and yellow Kerala State Transport bus. After narrowly missing us, the mean contraption went hurtling down the unpaved road in a fume of dust, its black cloth windows rolled up on the sides, unfurled only during rains. It seemed, with a little more tweaking, it could even be set to sail. It was time to get back on the bike.

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It was amazing; just the same way every city had an MG Road, every temple town had a Temple Lane or a Car Street. All temple lanes were more or less the same – narrow, lined by shops and suddenly a temple right in the middle of everything. Same was the case with Guruvayur. We found out that apart from other sacred ablutions, the idol of Guruvayurappan had a abhisheka with panchagavya, a holy mixture of five bovine products – ghee, milk, curd, urine and cow dung. It was even more startling that several pilgrims actually consumed this prasad as it was supposed to cleanse all your inner impurities. We decided we could live with our impurities and bought the regular palpayasam from the prasad counter instead. The sandal paste smeared on our foreheads felt cool as we rode out of Guruvayur, stopping next at the strange paradox that was Kodungallur.

There was something in its gene or maybe its location that made it a natural stop for seafarers and missionaries. Earlier, Kodungallur was a flourishing port-town called Muziris and an astonishing confluence of cultures. Mentioned in the memoirs of Ptolemy and Pliny, this was where the Romans built a temple for Augustus in the 1st century. This was where St Thomas is supposed to have landed in 52 AD. This was where the first Jews arrived in Kerala, as legend has it, in King Solomon’s ship. This was also where Malik Ibn Dinar first landed along with 20 disciples of Prophet Muhammad. But the sudden flooding of the Periyar in 1341 wiped out Muziris and the flood waters gouged out a natural safe port 50 kilometres south. This new small harbour ‘Kochh-azi’ came to be known as Kochi.

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Vembanad Lake houseboat cruise

Kochi too was not without its share of glory. After Vasco’s arrival, the Portuguese developed it as a trading outpost and built a fort to protect their factory. Fort Manuel, a tribute to the King of Portugal, became the first fortress constructed by the Europeans in India and this was where Vasco was finally laid to rest. What fascinated us were the Chinese fishing nets, which according to legend, were brought here by Chinese traders from the court of Kublai Khan. As we left Kochi, we did something unthinkable. We abandoned the National Highway.

There was a time when roads as we know them didn’t exist and the entire transportation system in Kerala was a network of rivers, lakes and backwater canals. Boats were the only way to get around. And the mother of all such aquatic highways was National Waterway 3. Stretching from Kochi to Kollam, interlinked by several rivers and the Vembanad, Punnamada, Kayamkulam and Ashtamudi lakes, it was a distance of about 150 kilometres. We somehow managed to get a boatman considerate enough to offer us a ride, with a little extra baggage – our bike.  We didn’t want to backtrack to pick it later, but could take this relationship only as far as Vaikom, some 30 odd kilometres.

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Boatman steering the way along the backwaters

After two days of backwater rides, a visit to Kumarakom bird sanctuary, Mohiniattam performances and the joys of Kerala massages, we moved ahead. Our only concern was to get back to the main coastal road, which after joining up with Thrissur had undergone a name change–it had become NH 47! We stopped by at Kottayam to visit the 13th century Valliyapalli and Cheriyapalli churches and were amazed to see a plaque commemorating a State visit by Ethiopian king Halie Selassie in 1956. Riding out of Kottayam to Alappuzha via Changanaserry, we got a lazy slideshow of the rich Kuttanad culture. Women wove coir ropes by the riverside, bare-bodied men flung fishing nets with great skill and kids paddled country boats with ease. The river was their lifeline in much the same way we were dependent on it. Mussels, crab, prawn and every variety of fish that the river could yield, we had consumed during our stay. Just the way Parasurama was moved by guilt after his carnage, our salvation lay in a short temple tour.

We stopped at the Sree Krishna Temple in Ambalappuzha to taste the legendary palpayasam. We also visited the Subrahmanya Swamy Temple at Haripad, the snake temple at Mannarassala and by sundown made a detour closer to the coast to see the majestic Kayamkulam. The wide mouth of the lake opened into the Arabian Sea offering spectacular views of the sunset. En route we checked out the 18th century Krishnapuram Palace built during the reign of Marthanda Varma, the great ruler of Travancore. The double-storied structure housed one of the largest mural painting in Kerala – the 14 feet by 11 feet Gajendra Moksham. Soon the NH 47 curved to the right and squeezed its way between the coast and the eight-armed Ashtamudi Lake, the second largest backwater stretch in Kerala. NW 3 terminated at Kollam nearby and we forsook the highway and took a smaller road to one last offbeat destination. 

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Kottapuram bridge

Varkala, just a little south of Paravur, was a pilgrim centre famous for the Papanasam (Destroyer of Sins) Beach. A dip absolved a person of all the sins he had committed and as a precaution, we spent a good deal of time under water before visiting the Janardhana Swamy Temple. The temple site marked the spot where Brahma consecrated Vishnu as Janardhana. But the story of how the place was chosen reminded us of the manner in which train passengers reserved seats in general compartments – by hurling a handkerchief, towel or any disposable piece of garment. Legend has it that in the hunt for an appropriate place for consecration Sage Narada threw his bark garment (valkalam), and that is how the spot was chosen and named.

Fifteen km south of Varkala was Anjengo, a small shanty known only for the fort built there by the Dutch. The outlandish name was a Dutch phonetic corruption of the original name ‘Anj-thengu’ or The Place with Five Coconut Trees. In a place like Kerala, where every inch was covered by coconut, that really wasn’t a very good landmark to tell people how to get there. But somehow we managed to reach Anjengo, and even made it back to the National Highway. And before we could realise it, we were in Thiruvananthapuram. That was it – the marathon Kerala trip was over. We did go further south to visit Kovalam and Poovar, but we had simply run out of any more Kerala. Or so we thought. We still had to get back…

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Authors: Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as an Impressions piece in the encyclopedia-cum-coffee table book Stark World Kerala. For more on Kerala Great Backwaters visit http://greatbackwaters.com

The Great Indian Road Trip

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Having criss-crossed India in buses, jeeps, rickshaws, trucks, tractors, tongas, jugaads, chhakdas and assorted transport, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY present 10 amazing road trips from their travels.

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Be it rallies from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, trips down Asia’s oldest highway GT Road or funky tuk-tuks participating in the Rickshaw Run, there’s no better way to experience India than a road journey. Mountain roads take you through India’s ghats and passes while coastal drives are dotted with battle-scarred forts and ports that shaped the fortunes of traders and empires. From monuments, geographic wonders, wildlife zones to regional cuisine, each journey comes with its distinct sights, sounds and tastes.

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Andaman Trunk Road (Andaman & Nicobar Islands)

The megaphone crackles to life as the convoy of vehicles at Jirkatang police check-post stirs into activity. The inspector’s monotonous drone instructs people not to stop the vehicle, give food or money to wayside tribals, establish contact or take photos else their cameras might be damaged/confiscated. Red clothing is to be avoided. Thus, with a heightened sense of anticipation, the journey up the Andaman Trunk Road commences. The northward route from Port Blair on NH-223 is an amazing 360 km journey through Jarawa territory, a reclusive tribe of Negroid descent, who linger among the shadows of the forest. Fixed convoy timings and ferry crossings at Middle Strait and Humphrey Strait make the trip more exciting. From Chidiyatapu in South Andamans to Aerial Bay in North Andamans, the road weaves past the limestone caves and mud volcanoes of Baratang, Cuthbert Bay Beach near Rangat to Mayabunder and Diglipur in the far north.

Jet Airways flies to Port Blair

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Assam Trunk Road (North East)

From Goalpara in Assam to Roing in Arunachal Pradesh, the 740 km stretch of NH-37 is better known as the Assam Trunk Road. Start the journey from Guwahati for a 600 km run to Upper Assam along the Brahmaputra past tea estates, wildlife parks and old capitals. Cross the Bagori and Kohora ranges of Kaziranga National Park to the tea bungalows of Jorhat run by Heritage North East. Visit the Ahom capital of Sibsagar and the old capital Charideo, built by Sukaphaa, founder of the Ahom dynasty. Cross the historic Namdang stone bridge, a 60 m long bridge hewn from a monolithic rock in 1703. Pass by maidams or royal vaults as you follow the eastward trail to the Chang Bungalows of Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Dibru Saikhowa National Park.

Jet Airways flies to Guwahati, Jorhat and Dibrugarh

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Konkan Coastal Highway (Maharashtra)

Recreate the famous Bollywood route from Bombay to Goa using the less-explored Sagari Mahamarg (Coastal Highway) instead of the usual NH-17. Beaches, sea forts, temples, palaces, dramatic landscapes and Malvani dishes like kombdi vade (chicken curry) and Malvani fish curry make the drive worthwhile. Explore Portuguese forts at Chaul, Alibaug, Revdanda and Korlai, laze by the beaches of Kashid and take a boat ride to the Siddi bastion of Murud Janjira. Stop at Atithi Parinay, a beautiful homestay near Ganpatipule for the sattvik pleasures of Konkanasth Brahmin cuisine. Visit the birthplace of Lokmanya Tilak at Ratnagiri and Thibaw Palace, residence of the exiled king of Burma. Follow Shivaji’s footsteps from Jaigad to the forts of Vijaydurg, Devgad and Sindhudurg. Explore lesser-known beaches like Mithbav and Sagareshwar or coastal towns like Malvan and Vengurla while staying at Bhogwe Eco-Stay, Maachli or Dwarka Farms. Drop by at Tiracol Fort and Aronda backwaters before crossing the new Kiranpani Bridge to Arambol.

Jet Airways flies to Mumbai and Dabolim Airport, Goa

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Manali to Leh (Himachal/Ladakh)

The Manali-Leh highway, a part of NH 21, is a 490 km adventure that pits a traveler against the world’s highest passes, nullahs (streams), windswept ridges, strange geographic formations and India’s most surreal landscapes. Open for only 4-5 months in a year from May-June to mid-October, the road connects Manali to Lahaul, Spiti and Zanskar valleys in Ladakh. Negotiate the treacherous loops of Rohtang Pass (13,051 ft) in the Pir Panjal range for a night halt at Keylong or Sarchu. Tackle the three great passes of the Zanskar range Baralacha La (16,050 ft), Lachlung La (16,598 ft) and Tanglang La (17,480 ft) with the high road bisecting the rambling More plains, like the Buddhist Middle Path to nirvana. Take an excursion to high altitude lakes like Pangong tso and Tso Mo Riri or continue past the Upshi checkpost to Leh.

Jet Airways flies to Leh and Delhi

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Malabar Coast (Kerala)

The 369 km drive from Kasaragod to Kochi down NH-17 or Edapally Panvel highway takes you along Kerala’s legendary Spice Coast that drew colonial powers for trade in pepper and cardamom. Start from the Malik Deenar Mosque in Kasaragod and forts at Bekal and Chandragiri with a houseboat ride at Valiyaparamba Backwaters. Watch a theyyam at Parassinikkadavu Muthappan temple and 150 species of snakes at the Snake Park nearby. Explore Kannur’s many beaches Meenkunnu, Payyambalam, Thottada and Ezhara while staying at seaside homestays like Kannur Beach House and Shanti Theeram or make a gourmet stop at Ayisha Manzil for ‘Tellicherry Pepper’ cooking holidays. Visit the museum and palace of the Arakkal Ali Rajas and see the colonial imprint of the Portuguese, British and French at St Angelo Fort, Thalassery Fort and Mahe. Chase the surf at Muzhappilangad’s drive-in beach and buy local handicrafts at Sargaalaya craft village in Iringal. Walk on the wide sands of Payyoli Beach where PT Usha learnt to run or watch sea gulls swoop at Kappad where Vasco Da Gama landed in 1498. Visit century old mosques at Kuttichira and feast on pathiris, biryanis, Kozhikode halwa, banana chips and Moplah cuisine. Continue to the ooru (boat) building hub of Beypore, Kadalundi bird sanctuary, past Vallikunnu and Ponnani to Kodungallur, with its Bhagavathy temple, St Thomas Church and Cheraman Juma Masjid, India’s oldest mosque.

Jet Airways flies to Kozhikode and Kochi

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ECR, Coromandel Coast (Tamil Nadu)

With Chola ports, Danish enclaves, French colonies and unique temples dotting the drive, the NH-45A or East Coast Road (ECR) is a journey down history. Drive south from Chennai for a cultural stop at Dakshin Chitra and Cholamandala Art Village or observe muggers, gharials and snakes at Madras Crocodile Bank. Mamallapuram, the maritime capital of the Pallavas of Kanchi, makes for a great halt with its shore temples, bas reliefs, monuments and stone carvers. Cover the stunning Nataraj Temple at Chidambaram, the mangrove forests of Pichavaram and the korai pai (grass mat) makers at Thaikkal. Stay at villas, mansions and boutique hotels at trading outposts from French Pondicherry to Danish Tranquebar. Nagore dargah, Sirkazhi temple and Velankanni’s churches add a spiritual dimension to the trip. Drive south to Ramanathapuram en route to Rameshwaram or continue southward on ECR to Thoothukkudi, a 643 km drive from Chennai.

Jet Airways flies to Chennai

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Karavali Coast (Karnataka)

Hemmed in between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats, the 320 km Karavali coastline is a scenic marine drive. Start at Mangalore with the temple of the guardian deity Mangla Devi and the Udupi Sri Krishna temple. Savour Dakshin Kannada fare at an Udupi café or try Mangalorean fish curry and Kundapur chicken. Lose yourself in the dozens of heritage structures transplanted at Hasta Shilpa Heritage Village at Manipal. Take a boat ride from Malpe harbour to St Mary’s Island, relax in the gentle surf at Turtle Bay Trasi or drive past the ocean road at Marvanthe to Baindoor for backwater rides and high sea adventures at Sai Vishram Beach Resort. Say a prayer at the world’s tallest Shiva statue in Murudeshwar and worship the atmalinga at Gokarna while exploring its beaches. Go on banana boat rides at Devbagh Beach Resort and find your muse at Karwar, where Rabindranath Tagore wrote his first poem.

Jet Airways flies to Mangalore

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Desert Run (Rajasthan)

Rajasthani men in fluorescent turbans, rustic women in long veils and herds of camel nibbling on roadside khejri trees holding up traffic, a road trip of Rajasthan is a colourful adventure. From the Pink City of Jaipur to the Blue City of Jodhpur to the Golden City of Jaisalmer, the desert safari packs in many thrills. Near Rohet on NH-65 is the roadside shrine of Motorcycle Baba or Bullet Banna, where travelers pray at his garlanded photo and the enshrined 350 cc Bullet motorcycle for a safe passage. Participate in an opium ceremony in the Bishnoi village of Guda Bishnoi and visit the Khejarli Memorial where 363 people sacrificed their lives to protect a grove of the sacred khejri tree. You can expect milestones bearing strange names like Chacha, Lathi, Bap, Dudu and Luni, trailers ferrying strange equipment to Kandla Port and Hotel Shimla in Pokharan! Listen to Dr Bhang’s sales spiel as he stirs up a bhang lassi at the Jaisalmer Bhang Shop. Visit the ghost town of Kuldhara, an abandoned village of Paliwal Brahmins and ride camels named Michael Jackson and Raja Hindustani in the dunes of Sam.

Jet Airways flies to Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur

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Rann of Kutch (Gujarat)

Surreal salt pans, ancient stepwells, miles of coastal roads and vibrant Kathiawari culture, Gujarat is a relatively unexplored driving destination in India. Driving up Surat and Baroda, arrive at the Gulf of Khambhat coast where the former vidi (grassland) of the Maharaja of Bhavnagar was converted into the Blackbuck National Park at Velvadar. Drive along the coast to the old Portuguese enclave of Diu, the temple at Somnath, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthplace Porbander, the ancient city of Dwarka and the erstwhile princely state of Jamnagar. Cruise around Mandvi, Bhuj and Dholavira to explore the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK), a vast salt-encrusted plain of dark silt. In this remarkable landscape wild asses roam free and large flocks of Demoiselle Cranes and flamingoes breed in winter. LRK is an eco-tone, a transitional area between marine and terrestrial ecosystems and its location on the bird migration route makes it an important stopover for 300 bird species.

Jet Airways flies to Ahmedabad, Baroda, Rajkot and Porbandar

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Punjab Road Trip (Punjab)

A trip to Punjab is more than a scenic ride past mustard fields. On the 300km run from Patiala to Wagah you’ll see rural hamlets with stretch limos, mansions sporting water tanks shaped like weightlifters and roadside restaurants churning lassi in washing machines! At Kila Raipur Sports Festival near Ludhiana, burly men twirl gas cylinders like toys as desi sportstars tug motorbikes and tractors with their beards at Punjab’s Rural Olympics. Follow the Sutlej river to Phillaur, developed by Sher Shah Suri as a caravanserai, used as a daak ghar (postal center) by Shah Jahan and the site of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s fort. The Police Training Academy houses India’s oldest fingerprinting unit set up in 1892 and a museum with weapons, burglary tools, Lord Lytton’s sword and the pen used to sign Bhagat Singh’s death warrant. Follow tractors overloaded with sugarcane to Phagwara with its Jagatjit Town Hall or Kapurthala’s Jagatjit Jubilee Hall featured in the film ‘Tanu weds Manu’. At Jalandhar, watch hockey sticks and cricket bats being handcrafted at the Beat All Sports factory. After a mandatory stop at Amritsar’s Golden Temple, discover bonesetters, kulcha makers and shops selling papad-warian. At Wagah, witness the border-closing ceremony with foot-stomping soldiers and BSF cheerleaders as foreigners pose against signs welcoming all to the world’s largest democracy.

Jet Airways flies to Chandigarh and Amritsar 

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article was the Cover Story for the November 2013 issue of JetWings International magazine. 

Drive down the Konkan Coast: NH-17 and beyond

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY drive down the Konkan Coast from Mumbai to Goa to discover quaint homestays, a Burmese palace in Ratnagiri, a temple built by Arab sailors and delicious Malvani cuisine

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Located just off the busy NH-17 or Mumbai-Goa highway lies a slice of Konkan many tend to overlook. Hop on a flight or an overnight bus bound for Goa and you are likely to miss the charms of the countryside, but take a drive down the coast and a magical world reveals itself. Pristine beaches, seaside forts, unusual temples, imposing palaces and dramatic landscapes are always close at hand from Konkan’s diverse homestays, which range from tree-houses and organic farms to earthy cottages of wood and laterite.

However, Konkan’s biggest draw is its signature cuisine, spiced with kokum, tempered with coconut and synonymous with iconic dishes like kombdi vade (chicken curry-puri), Malvani mutton curry and a wide array of sea food. Lesser known, but as varied as the creatures of the sea, is the diverse world of Konkanasth Brahmin cuisine. Mild yet full of farm-fresh flavour, meals are usually eaten off a banana leaf plucked straight from the tree and washed down with kalan (Maharashtrian kadi) and that amazing Konkani concoction, Sol kadi.

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As the road weaves past Khed, the perfect mid-stop is Ratnagiri, about 350km south of Mumbai. Though famous for its hapoos (Alphonso) mangoes, the historic town is also the birthplace of freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak. The unobtrusive double-storey house with sloping tiled roofs is a showcase of his achievements and personal memorabilia. But what’s surprising is a palace in Ratnagiri for a Burmese scion.

After the British forces defeated and captured Thibaw, the king of Burma (Myanmar) in 1885, they shipped him here to prevent a possible revolt by his subjects. When the rented bungalow where he was placed under house arrest proved inadequate, the British permitted the king to build a royal residence for himself known as Thibaw Palace. Set on the far end of a grassy field, the stupendous red edifice has quaint windows with wooden slats, a small museum and unusual artefacts like a bed made of medicinal herbs!

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Soon, the busy town of Ratnagiri slips away and we reach the village of Kotawde. Surrounded by hills on three sides and located on the banks of the Kusum river, Atithi Parinay is a beautiful homestay on a 3 acre patch. Choose from immaculate rooms with wooden floors in the main house constructed out of laterite and stone, or a tree house overlooking paddy fields, a Swiss tent with a stone floor and two rooms with a designer cowdung floor. Medha and her mother Vasudha Sahasrabuddhe offer the sattvik (vegetarian) delights of Chitpawan Brahmin cuisine and leisurely walks to the river and paddy fields.

The homestay is an ideal base to cover Ganpatipule, the sandy lair of Lord Ganesha, where the waters of the ocean come up once a year to touch the image as a symbolic oblation. As per legend, a cowherd’s cows refused to give milk and would magically empty their udders on a rocky reef. A stone image of Ganpati naturally emerged from the hillside and a temple was contsructed by Shivaji’s minister Annaji Datto Sachiv. Ater a quick stopover at the cultural showcase of Pracheen Konkan we visited lesser known beaches like Aare-Vaare and Marve before heading down the coast to Devgad.

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South of the virtually impregnable bastion of Vijaydurg and the nodal town of Jamsande is the quiet seafort of Devgad. The coastal road continues to Kunkeshwar where a 400-year-old Shiva temple stands on the shore lashed by waves. Ironically, it was built by Arabian sailors who survived a storm and erected the shrine to the region’s patron deity as thanksgiving.

The entire coast is dotted by such unusual temples, each with its own mythology. Mithbav nearby, has a Betaal Mandir dedicated to a wandering spirit that bears a malefic influence on passersby at dusk. Equally fascinating is the Gajbadevi temple overlooking Tambarde Beach, where the goddess appeared in a dream and instructed villagers to install her there for safe passage.

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Our base for this sector Pitruchaya, is a sweet homestay near Shirgaon on SH-117 or the Devgad-Nipani Road. Surrounded by brick factories and Devgad’s legendary mango orchards, the house has a stunning terrace suite and bamboo furniture from KONBAC (Konkan Bamboo & Cane Development Centre) at Kudal. Vaishali and Vijay Loke also run a Malvani restaurant for occasional drop-ins and we are treated to unusual fare like kalva (clams) and modka, a small tasty fish. The real surprise however, is Mr. Vijay’s 106-year-old mother Savitri Devi, who still washed her own clothes and cut vegetables!

We find ourselves back on the highway and turn from Nandgaon past Kankavali and Kudal to Sawantwadi, our final destination. Blessed with a 60% forest cover (the highest in Konkan), the town is swathed in green. Tucked away in a 12-acre cashew, coconut, banana and pineapple farm at the base of a small hillock is the picturesque Nandan Farms. Its mud walls, terracotta tiles, wooden beams and furniture lend an earthy appeal while Amruta Padgaonkar or Ammu’s cooking and warm hospitality make the stay worthwhile.

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The cultural hub of Sawantwadi teems with rare arts and crafts. At the ivy-laden 17th century Sawantwadi Palace, artists hand-craft Ganjifa (traditional playing cards) under the guidance of the queen Shatwashila Devi. Across Moti Talaav, families on Chitar Ali (Artist’s Lane) busily churn out lacquerware toys. Dilip Aklekar of Dwarka Farmhouse takes us to Pinguli Art Complex, where Prakash Gangawane strives to nurture the 11 loka-kalas of the Thakar community – leather puppetry, Chitrakathe and performing arts. 

After a wet trip to Amboli Ghat, a 690 m misty pass riddled with waterfalls, we are greeted by an elaborate meal at Dwarka. The 15-acre farm with cashew, coconut, banana, pineapple and 230 hapoos trees follows a plant-to-plate philosophy and acts as a migratory corridor for elephants, wild boar and exotic birds.

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Dilip remarks ‘Next time, visit Sagareshwar beach and Aronda backwaters; you’ll forget Tarkarli. In fact, you’re so close to Goa, you can take a ferry from Kiranpani to Tiracol’. But we realize, the best part about Bombay to Goa is what lay in between, as we head back up the magical Konkan coast.

Getting there: From Mumbai, take the Goa highway (NH-17) to Ratnagiri, 329 km south. Continue south on the highway till Nandgaon and turn right on SH-117 towards Devgad via Shirgaon. Take the coastal route via Kunkeshwar and Mithbav to Malvan and Vengurla. Or continue on the Mumbai-Goa road to Sawantwadi via Kankavli and Kudal. From Sawantwadi, it’s just 46km to Mapusa or a 525 km ride back to Mumbai.

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 16 May 2012 in Conde Nast Traveller online. 

Jharkhand: Land of Forests

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ANURAG MALLICK travels 2400 km by road across Jharkhand in a Bolero over 10 days through remote tribal habitats and Naxal terrain.

“In this wilderness are found savages whose dress consists of peacock feathers and their food the flesh of buffalos; the trees are their dwelling and leaves and feather their bed.” 

This is an excerpt from Tarikh-i-Firoz Shahi, which recounts the memoirs of Firoz Shah Tughlaq when he came to Chhotanagpur in 1359-60 during his Jajnagar expedition. Over five centuries later, with minor changes in their diet and other cosmetic corrections, the description of Jharkhand and its many tribes, still rings true…

The Birhors (literally, forest people) still live in kumbas made of leaf. The Lohars still practice the dying craft of blacksmithy. The Asurs, who migrated from the Gangetic plains, are believed to be the first iron smelters of the subcontinent. Of the 30 different tribes spread over the Chhotanagpur region, the Santhals are the most predominant and the amicable Mundas, the most ancient. It is in these adi-vasis (an interesting derivative is ab-origine, both meaning ‘people from the beginning’), that lies the answer to everything.

The Chotanagpur Plateau serves as a meeting place for the Himalayan and Peninsular biospecies. Here, you find a portion of the oldest part of the earth’s crust, making it the most ancient geological formation in the country. The recent findings of hand axes and blades in Pathalgarwa and the cave paintings littered across the Northern Karnapura Valley during mining operations have further harped on the region’s antiquity.

Besides being India’s largest producer of iron ore, coal, mica, copper, bauxite and uranium, the mineral-rich Chotanagpur Plateau happens to be the greatest producer of lac in the world. Its pliable soil has fashioned many artefacts, its soft wood has created several handicrafts and its metal-tinted earth spawned a myriad paintings. Yet, such fascination is not new, as people have been seduced by its stories for centuries.

The Mughal generals under Akbar and Jehangir invaded this territory for the sake of its diamond and gold deposits. Sher Shah came all the way to fight the Raja of Jharkhand to obtain the white elephant Syama Chandra. In an obvious behavioural chink, the elephant never threw dust upon his head like the other pachyderms and Sher Shah believed that its possession would ensure him the throne of Delhi.

For years, the region has been typecast as a mining hub with little to offer except industrial centres like Bokaro, Dhanbad, Jamshedpur and religious hotspots like Deoghar, Rajrappa and Parasnath, the Jain pilgrimage centre atop the highest hill in Jharkhand. Some obvious excursions like Top Chanchi, Dimna and Dalma were omitted in this issue not out of oversight but by intention. The idea was to go beyond the obvious to uncover what lay beyond.

It resulted in a 2400 km circumabulation of the state, starting from Ranchi and the waterfalls around it. The anti-clockwise odyssey took us via Chaibasa, Kiriburu, Jamshedpur, Purulia, Panchet, Maithon, Massanjore, Dumka, Basukinath, Deoghar, Parasnath, Surajkund, Tilaiya, Hazaribagh, back to Ranchi. The last leg of the journey to Netarhat, Betla and back to the state capital via Latehar was perhaps the most leisurely.

Breakfast, usually at sweet shops, comprised freshly made poori with aloo sabzi and the customary jalebi. The rare lumps of aloo in a yellow sea of mild gravy stood out like islands of hope for our taste buds. Sometimes to break the monotony, we ate litti and dhuska, a salty pua made of rice and chana dal. Wherever possible, we glugged glasses of the local brew handiya and whether it was a line hotel or a circuit house, always insisted on a full grown desi chicken.

In the end, all we had to show for our efforts was a mystical world of unbelievable stories. The Ligirda swamp, where a mere jump on a hillock can cause the swampy earth to tremble. Barsori, a tiny hamlet off a village road between Betla and Netarhat, where a sharp clap of the hands produces a customary shower of water droplets. Duarsini, an obscure village on the far side of Jonha Falls where potatos are known to weigh at least a kilo. Littipara, where the curd is so thick that you can carry it home in a gamchcha (red flimsy towel). Legend has it that the true test of its thickness is that if you throw a lump of curd against the wall, it will stick.

And then, there were places with lyrical names like Kiriburu, Mahuadanr, Baresand, Chhipadohar, Dumberpat and the legendary Jhumri Tilaiya. In a land where people’s lives were inextricably linked to its dwindling jungles, it was easy to discern the imprint of nature and wildlife in every name. After all, this was Jharkhand, ‘The Land of forests’…

RANCHI: Divine Inspiration 

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There’s something about the Ranchi climate and its greenery that has always inspired great men to greater things. Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad started writing his famous commentary on the Quran here. Jyotindranath Tagore often spent a contemplative hour on Tagore Hill before composing his thoughts. Some contend that Rabindranath Tagore was inspired to pen down his literary classic Gitanjali right here in Ranchi. Even the wise British appointed it as the summer capital of Bihar and many officers chose to write their memoirs in its tranquil surroundings. With such an august assembly that had graced Ranchi’s past, it was difficult for an ordinary writer like me to even lift a pen. The best I could do was to at least go about discovering the land that inspired them.

On the northen periphery of Ranchi and about 5 km from the city centre is its chief attraction, Tagore Hill. Showing great real estate acumen for his time, Jyotindranath Tagore bought a large patch of land on the Morhabadi Hill and its adjoining areas and made it his home. His fourteen long years of self-imposed exile were well spent in study and his love for the arts. It’s believed that his younger brother Rabindranath often visited him from Calcutta, spending time musing on the hill. Over the years, the small hillock was simply dubbed Tagore Hill in memory of the elder brother, who lived there until his death in 1925.

As you enter through the white-washed, mural-lined main gate and climb up the steps, the city of Ranchi begins to take form. The busy lanes disappear into a green landscape interrupted by small hillocks, lakes and distant signs of habitation. Halfway up the hill, is a white building that will eventually house a museum dedicated to the life and times of the Tagore brothers. A pathway leads to the top, where an old chhatri built by the Tagores untidily lists out who loves who in Ranchi. If you can ignore the grafitti and the amorous couples, the spot still remains an inspiring perch, offering a tryst with the rising and setting sun.

Close to Tagore Hill is Kanke Dam, with a rock garden lanscaped with an amusement park and water slides at the base of the hillock. Hatia, the other waterbody, lies at the other end of town and tends to be less crowded. After you have had your share of churches, temples and relics of the Raj, escape from the busy town to Ormanjhi, a 20 km excursion on Hazaribagh road. The Birsa Munda Jaivik Udyan (Biological Garden) is a rare repository of rare herbs, plants and animals.

About 15 km ahead on the Ormanjhi–Sikidiri road, is the Crocodile breeding centre at Muta. With two crocodiles from the nearby Bhera river and three from the Madras Crocodile Bank, the project was initiated in 1987. Today, the numbers have swollen to about 50. Back in town, the Jharkhand Tribal Research Institute with its anthropological museum and library is the perfect place to understand the people and their rich culture.

Centrally located within the state, the capital is well-connected by road, rail and air and thus, the perfect place to start your explorations. You can start with the waterfalls and then plan your itinerary accordingly. As you leave the outer city limits, the trappings of a modern town slip away and the soul of the real Ranchi emerges…

The road wove past small villages with chai stalls selling samosa and kachori. Young boys sat astride painted bicycles with a glarish cluster of plastic flowers; some in school uniforms, some sporting goggles, a bright bandana and t-shirts with Dhoni’s portrait. If Tanushree Dutta had placed Jamshedpur on the Bollywood centrestage, Mahendra Singh Dhoni had hoisted Jharkhand onto the international map. Petrol pumps around Ranchi proudly flaunted ‘Dhoni was here’ signs, feeding off the dizzying fame of the bike-crazy cricketer.

At a small stream on the outskirts of Ranchi, we saw a tribal boy mending a strange basket that looked more like a lamp. On enquiry, he said that it was a fishing basket made out of bamboo and thread drawn from plastic bora (gunny sacks). We waited patiently till he finished. Meanwhile, his wiry companion blocked a section of the river with broad leaves, stone and soil. They diverted the stream and placed the basket at one end. Its unique valve mechanism ensured that once the fish entered, it couldn’t escape. After a while the trapdoor floor was opened into a basket to store a silvery mass. The overjoyed kid pointed out all the varieties of fish – that’s Magur, that white-coloured one is the Ponthi and the finger-sized one is Kusma. In one magical moment, that little boy scarcely 3 feet high from the ground, instantly rose in my eyes to the stature of a giant.

This was the land of a myriad tribes, whose heart beats with the song of the river, the crash of a cascade and women with baskets on their heads and children strapped to their backs singing an unknown tune. The popular couplet still rings true: ‘Peeth par chhowa, maath par khanchi; Jab dekho to samjho Ranchi’… (A cloth backpack behind, a basket on the head, if you see it, it means you’re in Ranchi)

Where to Stay

JTDC Birsa Vihar, Main Road, Ranchi 834 001 Ph: 0651-2331828

For more information, contact

Tourist Information Centre, Directorate of Tourism, Birsa Vihar Complex, Main Road, Ranchi 834 001 Ph: 0651-2300646, 2310230 E-mail: rch_tourismj@sancharnet.in

WATERFALLS: Around Ranchi

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Ranchi is surrounded by several waterfalls, though they are all scattered in different directions. Jonha and Sita along with Hundru form one cluster on NH-32 to Purulia and can be covered along with Dassam, on the Ranchi-Tata route (NH-33). If you start early, you can cover all these in a day. The Panchghagh and the far-flung Hirni lie on the route to Chaibasa. From Dassam, you can also cover Panchghagh, by continuing on the diversion from Taimara to Khunti. Sadni, Lodh, Sugabandh and Mirchaiya are best covered if you are travelling between Netarhat and Betla.

Jonha Falls

Named after the nearest village, Jonha is also known as Gautam Dhara as Lord Buddha is believed to have bathed here. A temple and ashram dedicated to Buddha was built atop Gautam Pahar by the sons of Raja Baldevdas Birla. A sign clearly proclaims that the ashram was originally meant for people of the Hindu faith as well as all branches of arya dharm (Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Sanatani, Aryasamajis). Locals also call Jonha the Gunga Nala because the stream apparently comes from Ganga ghat. 453 steps take you down to the waterfall and to the farflung villages of Konardih and Duarsini on the other side of the stream. Across the bridge is a basic guest house run by the same Kurmi mahto caretakers of Jiling Siring village (literally, Long Boulder) who maintain the Kisan Bhavan Atithishala & Jalpangrih at the car park. They can rustle up a good meal of rice and desi murgi curry while you come back from your trip. (Parking Rs.10)

Sita Dhara

Named after Sita who is believed to have bathed here during her years of exile, Sita Dhara is less visited and hence more difficult to access. The steps leading down often get obscured by foliage. Those who take the trouble to go down to the bottom of the fall will be rewarded by sight of a pair of footprints, which are believed to belong to Sita.

Hundru Falls

Located about 45 km from Ranchi, the spectacular Hundru falls are created by the Swarnarekha river falling from a height of over 320 feet. About 700 steps take you down to the base of the waterfall, an exercise that is sure to drench you when the torrential waterfall is at its prime.

Getting there: From Ranchi take the NH-32 to Purulia and come to Angarha. From there a left turn takes you 22 km to Hundru, whereas the straight road takes you to Jonha and Sita. 16 km from Angarha you’ll reach the gateway at Amrutbagan Chowk, from where a 5 km drive will take you to Jonha. 1 km short of Jonha is a diversion, from where a 5 km drive will take you to Sita. For Hundru, take the left from Angarha and drive 22 km.

Dassam Falls

Erroneously thought to mean ‘ten’ after the number of rivulets, Dassam actually means ‘falls’ in the local Mundari language. The Kanchi river plummets from a height of about 144 feet and you can see the waterfall from platforms at different elevations.

Getting there: Situated about 40 km from Ranchi off the Ranchi Tata highway, you take a right turn from NH-33 at Taimara. 3 km after crossing Taimara, there’s a diversion from where a left takes you to Dassam and the right, to Khunti. 

Panchghagh

Panchghagh is the collective name for a group of five waterfalls (panch ghagh in the dehati tongue) formed in a row due to the breaking up of the Banai river. Cemented walkways connect the different cataracts, of which stream 2 is the most popular while 5 is the biggest, though a bit inaccessible. You can walk down from the tourist shelter to the base of stream 2. Further downstream is a forest patch with a clearing that’s a very popular haunt for picknickers.

Getting there: From Ranchi, head south on the road to Chaibasa, drive past Khunti and 4 km after Murhu, turn right from Panchghagh mod and drive 1 1/2 km to the car park, a total distance of 55 km from Ranchi. Parking Rs.10

Hirni Falls

The Ramgarha river which travels 12 km through dense jungles, plunges down in a broad torrent as Hirni. From the car park, a walkway to the left takes you to the other side of the river to a tourist hut whereas steps to the right lead up to the top of the hill. From an observation tower at the top you can see the mighty fall and the jungles that lie beyond. A little further up there’s a bridge spanning the river and a shed. A tourist complex with a restaurant and lodging facility is currently under construction near the car park. The caretaker Lemsa Purti recounts how his ancestors migrated from further upstream after they saw a rat afloat on a piece of wood. Which is why, of all the totemic clans, the Chutia (rat in their language) Purtis revere the rat and do not harm it. Lemsa conjectured that the name Hirni perhaps comes from the profusion of deer in the area. Even today, the limestone kohs (caves) deep inside the jungles above, are home to beasts like tigers, bear and porcupine.

Getting there: About 75 km from Ranchi on the road to Chaibasa, Hirni is 22 km further from Panchghagh. 

KIRIBURU: High above the Saranda 

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A dry leaf in the Saranda forest slowly falls to the thick carpet of leaves. You don’t even notice its abnormal descent, which is not in slow swinging arcs, but straight down like some dead weight. Halfway down its trajectory, and you realize, that what you have mistaken to be a leaf is actually a Flying Lizard pirouetting down to the jungle floor. It’s a rare sight of the endangered reptile, but that’s the kind of magic Saranda wields. Spread over an area of 820 sq km, Saranda is home not just to the largest sal forest in Asia but also the densest you would have ever seen. Legend has it that the foliage is so thick that sunlight rarely creeps down to the forest floor and you often have to switch on headlights during the day. Even the intrepid British, lured here by the rich mining prospects, referred to this remote, inaccessible region as ‘The Tibet of India’.

While Baraiburu acts as the gateway to Saranda, the twin mining settlements of Kiriburu and Meghatuburu act like its watchtowers. Like sentinels, they peer down from a height of 2800 ft, straddling the boundary between Jharkhand and Orissa. Contigious with the Simlipal forest reserve in bordering Orissa, this entire stretch once formed a great migratory corridor for elephants. It’s not for nothing the Santhals called the place Kiriburu or the Abode of Elephants (Kiri in Santhali means elephant and Buru, their mountainous home). However, because of widespread mining and shafts that go down hundreds of meters into the bowels of the earth, the pachyderms have now migrated further inward into the jungles of Saranda. The old dak bungalow built by the British at Tholkobad in 1905 is no longer there, but Kiriburu still manages to captivate every visitor with its legendary sunrise and sunsets. That’s if you are willing to take the trouble of bending down to touch the very toes of Jharkhand…

Chakradharpur, a stop on the Eastern Railway network, was a popular stop by road too. We were halted abruptly at the railway crossing as if being forced to acknowledge its significance. A goods train, laden with coal, painfully inched past like it was inspecting our parade – dusty trucks carrying cement, autos, bicycles and a motley bunch sweltering like giddy schoolchildren in the hot afternoon sun. Jeeps crammed with people seemed to compete in some perverse attempt at a world record. Most of the vehicles had speakers on their roofs, facing outside! I realized why, as they shot through the thickly wooded road, screaming like Banshees, the blaring speakers serving as the only warning.

The en-route stop at Jagganathpur for its weekly haat was a colourful affair. Thousands milled about in the rural mart with makeshift shops selling clothes, earthen pots, vegetables, agro seeds, ducks, poultry, dried fish and white balls of ranu for making handiya. There were stalls after stalls selling handiya in large pots. The busy female bartenders were dishing out the local brew in broad sal leaves folded into improvised bowls. Tired after their shopping spree, the women drank themselves silly and meandered back to their villages with their haul of goods. Long after we had crossed Jagganathpur we were still seeing people dropping off like flies by the roadside.

Leaving the tricky Noamundi route, we took a bypass from Kotoghar and emerged through the jungles at Bada Jamda. It was dusk by the time we reached Hathi Chowk, from where the tar road climbed around the mountainside to Kiriburu. It seemed that the stars had descended on earth that night, till we realized that the twinkling lights were actually from the mines.

The hilltop SAIL Guest House was a welcome respite after the arduous journey. Over dinner, the caretaker Narad Bodra, outlined Kiriburu’s history. It was the British who had laid the foundations of the mining industry since the time of pre-independence. Later, the Japanese developed the mines and constructed factories. In 1964, SAIL began its operations at Kiriburu, which spread to Meghatuburu and Noamundi. Soon, the rich manganese and iron ore deposits drew many others. Even today, the water from the Ghagharati waterfall inside the mines is sourced to wash the iron ore. We retired early to catch the sunrise.

The Sunrise Point, located a short walk behind the SAIL Guest House on Hill Top, was bathed in the serene early morning glow. Slowly the mist cleared and the green landscape began to take shape. A greater part of the day was spent exploring the neighbouring areas of Saranda and we were fortunate to meet the Saranda Queen. With a perimeter that measured nearly 9 m, the Saranda Queen was the oldest sal tree in the Saranda forests. On the way back, we saw Ho tribal women artfully balancing piles of firewood with children slung to their back. Thankfully, we were just in time for some tea and sunset.

The clouds hung low over Meghatuburu, 6 km from Hill Top. We drove past the Kendriya Vidyalaya to Bhagwan Par, a tranquil spot chosen by a local SAIL GM as the site of a guest house, and hence named after him. The Meghalaya Guest House was no longer in use and the road wound past it, stopping at a cement wall. From there a short walk to the left ended at Sunset Point. The skies changed colour every instant and blue-tinted hills with lush forests stretched into the distance for miles. It was at that precise moment you acknowledged the wisdom of the local Ho tribals, who were the custodians of the forests. In their language, Saranda meant ‘The Land of Seven Hundred Hills’. We counted till thirty-five till the light went out. Soon, we were enveloped in darkness with nothing but stars above and stars below…

Getting there

By Road: There’s a daily bus from Ranchi to Kiriburu which goes via Chaibasa. If you are driving down, it’s a 140 km ride to Chaibasa via Khunti, Bandgaon and Chakradharpur. From there, take the Jhinkpani, Hat Gamhariya, Jagganathpur route to Baraiburu, 80 km away. Because of the frenetic mining activity, avoid the dumper-infested road via Noamundi. Instead, take a bypass through the jungle after Jagganathpur at Kotoghar to emerge at Bada Jamda. From there, cross the railway track and take the left from Hathi Chowk for the final 30 km climb to Kiriburu.

By Rail: The smarter thing to do is to take a train. From Jamshedpur, take the Tata Gua Passenger at 8:15 am which reaches Bada Jamda at 12:30 pm. From Calcutta, the Howrah Barbil Jan Shatabdi Express (2021) leaves at 6 am and reaches Barbil (20 km away from Kiriburu in Orissa) at 1 pm via Kharagpur, Tatanagar and Jamda. Alight at Bada Jamda and take a cab, which are also available on share basis. To get back you can take the return Barbil Howrah Express (2022) at 1:30 pm.

Where to Stay

SAIL Atithi Bhavan (7 rooms), K.T.I. HRDC Guest House, Hill Top Kiriburu

For bookings, contact Mr Ojha, Jr Manager Ph: 06596-244380, 245279,  Raw Material Division, SAIL, Calcutta

Officer’s Bachelor Hostel (12 rooms), SAIL Guest House No.2, Near Bank Mod, Meghatuburu

Kiriburu Excursions:

Tholkobad

30 km from Kiriburu and about 46 km south of Manoharpur is Tholkobad, a village that lies at an altitude of 1800 ft. Once the favoured haunt of the British, this was where they built an isolated dak bungalow in 1905. It is no longer operational but Tholkobad still offers pine forests, sloping hills and excursions into the lush Karampada jungle. Located 10 km from Tholkobad is Loyall’s View, a vantage point that offers a closer look at the hillocks of Saranda Forest.

Ligirda Swamp

A natural wetland spread over 7-8 acres, the Ligirda swamp is a narrow patch created by the perennial Ligirda Lor river. It is located about 4 km from Tholkobad. Locals say that if you stand on a particular hillock and jump, you can see the marshy earth tremble all around. Because of the obvious dangers involved, it’s best to go along with a local guide.

Toybo Fall

20 km from Tholkobad, the Koel and Karo rivers merge near Manoharpur to jump 100 feet as the Toybo Fall. This area is still home to the wild elephants of Saranda.

MASSANJORE: Quiet flows the Mayurakshi

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“The great country that’s India has its capital in Delhi, within India lies the beautiful state of Jharkhand, in one corner of the state is the district of Dumka, within the district is the tiny village of Saltalla, that’s where we are from, that’s where we are from, we, the Santhals of Saltalla”

…so trailed the mellifluous voices of the beautiful Santhali girls. There was little one could make out barring the names of different places. It was a customary introduction performed by the Sidho Kanhu Santhali Sanskritik Kendra. And as the Mayurakshi flowed silently behind, the girls swayed in their green saris, the mandhar (tribal drum) tapped a primal beat, while the Santhal boys trembled with ghungroos tied to their feet. They sang about the brave Sidho Kanhu, who had been imprisoned by the British for rebelling against the unjust tax imposed on tribal forest land. Meanwhile, their brothers Chand and Bhairon wistfully watched from afar, astride their horses. Sidho Kanhu were hanged from a banyan tree at Bhognadih near Baghdaha More. There was so much sadness, that even the horse had cried…

The Santhals love to recount the legendary saga of their folklore heroes as it reminds them not only of the sacrifices made by their ancestors but also of the beautiful land they rose to defend. Clothed in green and right at the border of Bengal, Massanjore is perhaps one of the least explored parts of Jharkhand. Its rural life, steeped in tribal traditions, was to give rise to yet another hero. A lanky lad with curly hair faced the camera for the first time, winning a National Award in his very first celluloid adventure. That lad was Mithun Chakraborty, whose Mrigya was shot on location near Massanjore in the nondescript village of Taldangal. It is the first of the many discoveries you’ll make in the area.

Massanjore’s chief attraction is the 2100 ft long dam, built with Canadian co-operation across the Mayurakshi river. The foundation stone was laid by Dr. Rajendra Prasad in 1951 and the sluices were opened four years later by Lester Pearson, the External Affairs Minister of Canada. In a fitting tribute to its partners, the concrete structure was called Canada Dam. Though the dam lies in Jharkhand, the beneficiary state is West Bengal. For permission to see the Power House and Operation Gallery of Canada Dam, contact the Supintending Engineer, Mayurakshi Canal Circle at Seuri, 40 km away.

The muddy brown waters of the reservoir are a stark contrast against the green hills. At two vantage points, are located the two Inspection Bungalows of West Bengal & Jharkhand. When LK Advani’s famous ratha yatra entered Bihar, Lalu challenged him, halting the progress of the proverbial Ashwamedha horse and lodging Mr Advani temporarily not in any prison, but in the remote Jharkhand IB of Massanjore! From the Jharkhand bungalow you can see the Mayurakshi escaping through the sluices in a gushing arc. The West Bengal IB is perched atop a hillock and offers a stunning view of the reservoir. Though boating has been stopped of late, forest walks and a trip to the garden at the foot of the dam are some activities you can indulge in. You can sit for hours just gazing at the beautiful Mayurakshi though it is the magical sunset that enthrals most visitors.

To get a whiff of tribal culture, you can visit Saltalla to see the Santhal tribals in their element. They have various dances and are willing to oblige interested visitors for a small sum. Starting off with Karamneer, the ritualistic welcome of the guest, they perform Dong, usually danced during marriages, Lagne, a magha pooja celebration and the famous Karam nritya, where boys and girls form circles as tribute to the creator. At the start of the Dussehra puja, they perform the Dasain, marking the end of the puja with Bungarum (propitiating the goddess). The dancers become so engrossed in the dance that they squat on the ground like chickens and emerge from the trance like state only after receiving the goddess’ blessings.

For Santhali dance performances, contact 

Manik Sen Hemrom, Sidho Kanhu Santhali Sanskritik Kendra, Gram Saltala, Post Bagnol, Massanjore (Outpost), Dumka Ph: 06434-242234

Getting there:

Massanjore is 31 km from Dumka. Drive 16 km on Rampurhat Road, turn right from Pattabari More and drive for 15 km on the road to Seuri in West Bengal. If you are driving to Dumka from Maithon, go via Jamtada, Palajori and remember to turn right at the Sidho Kanhu memorial at Baghdaha More. Further ahead if you take the Ranighaghar Nischintpur route, you’ll save at least 25-30 km.

Where to Stay

Jharkhand Inspection Bungalow (4 rooms)

For bookings, contact District Commissioner, Dumka Ph: 06434-222502

Mayurakshi Bhavan (6 rooms)

For bookings, contact Executive Engineer, Mayurakshi Head Quarters Division, PO Seuri, Dist Birbhum Ph: 03462-255229 (Tariff: Rs.300, 600, 1000 for 1, 2 or 3-bed rooms) or Irrigation & Waterways Department, Jalasampad Bhavan, Western Block, 3rd Floor, Salt Lake City, Kolkata 91

Bengal Youth Hostel (38 rooms)

For bookings, contact Assistant Director, Directorate of Youth Services, Calcutta 1

Circuit House 

Opposite Bus Stand, Dumka Ph: 06434-222236. For bookings, contact DC, Dumka Ph: 06434-222502

Massanjore Excursions:

Maithon

Before it was transformed into a buzzing powerhouse of hydroelectric activity, it was the peaceful abode of Maa Kalyaneshwari. The name is a corruption of Mai-ka-sthan; Mai’than perhaps being the Bangla way of saying it. The temple at Kalyaneshwari, scarcely 4 km from the dam site, is tucked away in quietude whereas all the action seems centred around the lake. Spread over an area of 65 sq km, it is Damodar Valley Corporation’s largest reservoir in the state. Though the dam was designed for flood control across the Barakar river, it has inundated several lesser known Jain shrines in the process. Maithon has a unique underground power station, believed to be the first of its kind in South East Asia. DVC has 14 power plants Close by, a deer park and a bird sanctuary have been established. On an island in the lake is a rest house which offers accommodation. Boating and fishing facilities are available.

Getting there: Maithon is 52 km from Dhanbad. If you are coming from Jamshedpur or South Jharkhand, you can bypass the coal belt of Chas, Bokaro and Dhanbad and drive through West Bengal. Take the route via Purulia and drive down Barakar Road via Raghunathpur, Barakar and Chirkunda. From Maithon, you can drive further to Dumka/Massanjore via Chittaranjan, Jamtada and Palajori. 

HAZARIBAGH: The Land of a thousand Tigers

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Ask anyone from Hazaribagh and most often than not, he’ll tend to describe his town as a hill-station. One cursory look and you feel that the moniker doesn’t quite fit into our modern day definition of a mountain retreat, but Hazaribagh is all that, and much more…

Theories abound whether the name comes from a thousand gardens or a thousand tigers, though the lush forests are indication enough that both existed in equal measure. The most famous ‘bagh’ was a mango grove where troops, travellers and saints camped while taking the old road from Kolkata to Varanasi. Lord Buddha passed this way, Chaitanya passed this way, the British passed this way, though some, like the buddhajibis (intellectuals) of Bengal, could not tear themselves away from the greenery and settled down in its wonderful climate. In Hazaribagh it’s not uncommon to find old houses with quaint names like Dutta Manor.

Despite its allure, travelling to Hazaribagh wasn’t easy. Thanks to its topography, there was no railway connection then; there’s no railway connection now. In the olden days, people got here by taking a train to Giridih and then travelled in a push-push, a sort of palanquin on wheels that was literally pushed and pulled by coolies. The perilous journey had to pass through dense forests full of bandits, beasts and unknown dangers. Yet, it was the same taste of adventure that inspired Rabindranath Tagore to travel along this route in a push-push in 1885. He penned down the memoirs of this incredible voyage in an essay titled ‘Chotanagpur’. Today, travelling along this hilly tract dotted by lakes, streams, forests and ravines still remains a surreal experience, minus the dangers of old.

Perhaps the best place to soak in Hazaribagh’s natural beauty is from Canary Hill, which affords not only a bird’s eye view of the town and the lakes but also the dense foliage that surrounds it. A 6 km dirt track from the main road takes you to the top, where you can stay at the Kanheri Hill Guest House. The name of the guest house and the road that leads to it, are most probably a corruption of the British appellation ‘Canary’. On another hill nearby, 575 steps lead you to the old observation tower built by the British. It earlier had a canteen and a searchlight, but both are not in use anymore.

Locals rue that ever since Betla cornered the wildlife market, Hazaribagh National Park is not what it used to be. The number of beasts in the jungles might have dwindled, but of late, the thick forests are eliciting a different kind of interest. The entire Hazaribagh district has been found to be rich in Palaeolithic deposits – dolmens, Neolithic sites and far flung stone shelters replete with Mesolithic rock art. Interestingly, it is these ancient rock paintings of the Karanpura Valley that serve as the prototype of the existing art forms of the Kurmis, Oraons, Santhals and other tribes.

For a deeper understanding of this unusual heritage, take a detour from Canary Hill to meet Bulu Imam, the local convenor of INTACH and a vociferous champion of the endangered sites. In a quiet grove called Sanskriti, Bulu set up the Tribal Women Artists Co-operative to nurture sacred traditions like the Khovar painting (decoration of the bridal room during marriages) and Sohrai art (ritualistic painting of the house during the harvest season). Putli and other state-level artists have found a refuge and a new meaning. The different tribal styles have been neatly represented in a museum that also houses interesting archaeological finds. Bulu is a busy man and is helped in this endeavour by his sons Justin, Gustav and his extended family. Apart from hundreds of articles, he spends much of his time collaborating with specialists who can help him promote the rich cultural heritage of the region. “More international visitors have come to this tiny nook than the whole of Hazaribagh district”, he says with a twinkle in his eye.

For more information, contact

Bulu Imam, Sanskriti, ‘The Grove’, Dipugarha, Hazaribagh 825 301 Ph: 06546-264820 www.geocities.com/buluimam

Where to Stay

Kanheri Hill Rest House, Canary Hill, Hazaribagh. For bookings, contact DFO (Divisional Forest Officer), Van Bhavan, Forest Division, Hazaribagh (West) Ph: 06546-222339

Hazaribagh: Excursions

Surajkund

According to legend during the treta yuga, this area was the tapobhumi of Sarvangi rishi. Despite his austerities the sage suffered from painful body sores. When the banished trio of Rama, Lakshmana and Sita came here during their exile, they were greatly disturbed by the sage’s condition. Lord Rama then propitiated the sun god Surya, the giver of all life, and created a hot spring. He then made Sarvangi rishi bathe in its miraculous waters and the sage was healed in no time. The hot springs remained hidden in dense forests for centuries until the Maharaja of Patiala cleared a road, tiled the floors and made steps for the kund in 1218. Even today people suffering from skin ailments and rheumatism come from afar to Surajkund to consecrate the holy amla (gooseberry) fruit. It is said that if your prayers are to be fulfilled, the amla you place inside the kund will float to the top in under a minute, otherwise you may sit for a whole day and the fruit will remain immersed at the bottom.

What’s even more amazing is that despite being in the same vicinity, the different kunds have variable temperatures. Surya kund’s scalding water measures at 88.5 C, Ram Kund is 55 C, Lakshmana and Brahma are 45 C while Sita is a mild 5 C. At noon, the water level in all the tanks decreases and regains its original level only when the sun has sunk a little.

Pandit Vijay Pandey elaborated that the boiling water of Surya Kund becomes cool only during a solar eclipse! Nearby is a tank where water from all the five kunds merge into one where devotees can have a therapeutic bath. Not far from the kund are some old temples dedicated to Surya, Shiva, Hanuman, Radha Krishna and Durga. Though visitors to Surajkund are few, the place comes alive every year during Makar Sankranti when the Surajkund Mela is held with great fanfare between 14-30 Jan.

Getting there: Surajkund is 72 km from Hazaribagh, located half way between Barhi and Bagodar on GT Road (NH-2). It is a 2 km diversion off the highway from Belkappi, near Barakattha.

Tilaiya Dam

Propelled into limelight because of repeated song requests on Vividh Bharti, the famous Jhumri Tilaiya is actually not one place, but two. Jhumri is a small village 3 km from the more famous Tilaiya, home to the legendary Sainik School and the Tilaiya Dam. The road climbs the ghats after Barhi, offering a glimpse of the dam from afar, before it swoops down to neatly bifurcate the reservoir. Built across the Barakar River, the Tilaiya Dam and DVC-run Hydel Station are dedicated to the people of India. The foundation stone was laid by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and a scenic park was made on Nehru Island to commemorate his visit. Local boatmen offer rides in large boats that can easily seat about 20 people. The boat won’t move an inch till at least 10-12 people are on board at the cost of Rs.10/head. A slightly longer foray to Nehru Island costs Rs.200, plus waiting charges.

Where to Stay: Urwan Tourist Complex & Jheel Restaurant (20 rooms), NH-31, Urwan, Ph: 06534-235178

Getting there: From Hazaribagh it’s a 36 km drive till Barhi, where the Ranchi-Patna highway (NH-31) is intersected by the GT Road (NH-2). It’s a 23 km drive from Barhi Chowk to Tilaiya. From Urwan, take a right turn and a 6 km ride past the Sainik school will deposit you at Tilaiya Dam.

Itkhori

According to legend Lord Buddha once sat in meditation in the quiet environs of this place. His aunt tried in vain to distract him and she gave up, muttering Iti Khoyi, literally ‘Lost Here’. Over the years the name was phonetically corrupted to Itkhori, a place that has become the latest attraction on the Buddhist circuit. However, Itkhori is a fine example of religious tolerance as you can find several Jain and Hindu shrines next to the Buddhist relics. Apart from the 9th century Maa Bhadrakali temple complex, a Shiva linga with 1008 lingams carved onto its surface, the beautiful images of 104 bodhisattvas sculpted on a stupa and the foot impressions of the 10th Jain tirthankara Sheetalnath, there are several Buddhist sculptures of great antiquity.

Getting there: 20 km from Hazaribagh on the road to Barhi is a diversion to the right called Itkhori More, from where Itkhori is 30 km away, 16 km west of Chouparan. 

NETARHAT: Guv’nor Sahib’s Summer Retreat 

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The beautiful Koel murmured like a tropical birdsong. Left of the bridge at Banari, it was a wide shallow stream and to the right it gurgled through a bed of rocks. Immediately after Banari, the ghat road began its final 22 km ascent to Netarhat. Lined with sal trees and a profusion of bamboo, the mountain road slowly climbed through the sun-dappled forest. Through gaps in the dense foliage, you could see the plains below merge into sloping mountains in the distance. The British had described Netarhat as ‘a plateau that lay across the seven hills west of Ranchi’, lending it an aura of a mythical land that existed only in their imaginations. Perched like a shimmering crown on the crest of Chhotanagpur at 3800 feet, it was the highest point on the plateau. Little wonder they had endearingly called it the ‘Queen of the Chhotanagpur’.

A little over a century ago, the British had set up a military camp at Netarhat. Because of lack of good water in the immediate vicinity, the cantonment soon closed down. On a chance visit to the area, Sir Edward Gait, Lt. Governor of Bihar and Orissa grasped the true potential of this four mile long, two and a half mile broad plateau. The British soon created an artificial dam solving the water problem. After Sir Edward, many successors emulated his holidaying ways and soon Netarhat became a permanent summer retreat of the Governor.

Inspired by its bracing climate and green hillocks, the homesick British, in their quintessential wry humour, corrupted the name from Netarhat to ‘Near the Heart’. Contrary to popular belief, that’s not how the place was named. It was in fact, a corruption of the local adivasi name Netar Paat or ‘Hillock of Bamboo’. Even today, the hills (or paats) of Netarpaat, Paseripaat, Doomerpaat, Sobhipaat, Dasvanpaat and Jamedoorapaat abound in a profusion of bamboo and several tribes, primarily the Kisan, Birjia, Korwan and Paharia.

The erstwhile British Governor’s Chalet, a beautiful wooden structure, is the stuff legends are made of. Story has it that once upon a time the governor’s beautiful daughter fell in love with an adivasi boy who worked in their household. Love in the lonesome hill retreat blossomed like a forest flower bursting into bloom. Sure enough, with time, the governor’s daughter realized that their mismatched love was futile. Some whisperers say she was carrying a child. Despite being a high ranking officer’s daughter, she knew that the strict British authority would neither spare her, nor the tribal boy. So she spoke to the local villagers and chose the most beautiful spot in town; where the sloping Netarhat plateau ended in a deep chasm. Legend has it that she came bounding in her horse and leapt to her death, dashing against the rocks below. Several days later, the soldiers found her body and interred her with honour. The governor named the spot Magnolia Point after his daughter. The adivasi boy was shot and the two lovers were finally united in death. A plaque summarises the immortal love story of Magnolia and as you watch the magical sunset, your heart wells up with a thousand emotions.

From Magnolia Point you can see the villages of Saniadera, Korgi and Aadhe, which stand out like green patches against the blue green hills. Some British officers rode horseback through the shortcut from Betla to Netarhat, often braving the perils of the forest. “Akhir ghoda bagh ka lahsun hai, saheb (The horse is like garlic or spice to the tiger),” quipped Sudh Ram Birjia, the local caretaker, bringing chai and the tastiest pakodas on earth. Even now you can trek down to the villages through the forest trail, though it’s best to take along a local guide.

Enroute to Magnolia Point, a 10 km drive via Batuatoli, you can find the other attraction in town – the Netarhat Public School. Set up in 1954 with the credo of ‘Atta Deepa Vihrath’ (Be thou thine light), the residential school follows the traditional gurukul system. Students call their teachers Shrimanji, the female teachers are addressed as Ma, the hostels are Ashrams and equal stress is laid on Sanskrit, Hindi and English. A 3 phase entrance exam has ensured admission on merit, with a long line of illustrious alumni. The main square has a beautiful statue of a local tribal woman with a child balancing a pot on her head.

The beauty of Netarhat is that it has the quiet aura of a meditative mountain retreat, minus the touristy trappings of a hill station. The pace of things at the cluster of shops in the town square seems unhurried. Make sure to eat the delectable samosa-ghughni before you start your explorations around town. The Netarhat dam, 1 1/2 km from the main chowk, is a tranquil spot and Koel View Point, 3 km away, affords spectacular views of the Koel river meandering below. On moonlit nights the Koel is transformed into a magical silvery stream. The excess water of the Netarhat dam drains out into a valley to form a picturesque waterfall called the Upper Ghaghri, 4 km away. The Lower Ghaghri, 12 km from Netarhat, is also worth a look for its 320 feet cataract.

For a slighter longer excursion you can take a 10 km hike to Banari through a forest shortcut. Though Netarhat’s peak tourist season is from October to March, monsoons tend to be contemplative, the clouds are beautiful in November-December, whereas in June-July you’ll find the nashpati orchards laden with ripe juicy pears. Visit it anytime round the year and each time you’ll realize that it truly is ‘Near-the-heart’.

Getting there:

Netarhat is 155 km from Ranchi and a 4 1/2 hr journey. Get onto Ratu road and drive down via Mandar to Kuru, where you leave the NH-75 and head to Lohardaga, Ghaghra and Banari, from where a 22 km ascent takes you to Netarhat. At Dumberpat, or Netarhat Mod, it’s just a 7 km ride to the right through the archway while the left takes you to Mahuadanr and Betla.

Where to Stay

Prabhat Vihar

The JTDC-run hotel is the most popular place in town and offers the best view of the fabled Netarhat sunrise. There are two complexes at different elevations, with the cafeteria in between. The older structure on higher ground affords a view from the comfort of your room. For bookings, contact the Manager Abdul Wahab on 94315-28751. Tariff: Rs.350

Palamau Dak Dungalow For bookings, contact DDC (District Development Commissioner), Latehar or Administrator, District Board, Daltonganj

Palamau Forest Rest House For bookings, contact DFO, Ranchi (West) Forest Division

PWD Inspection Bungalow For bookings, contact Executive Engineer, PWD, Doranda, Ranchi

NETARHAT Excursions:

Lodh Falls

The waters of the Burha river flow from Chhattisgarh and fall into Jharkhand from a height of 468 feet, making it the highest cataract in the state. Earlier known as Burha Ghagh, the waterfall dashes down the rocks from three sides, its white waters glinting in the sun. From the car park, there’s a forest trail interspersed by 255 steps though you can hear the sound crashing waters from afar.

Getting there: From Netarhat, drive 40 km to Mahuadanr, from where Lodh is a 19 km diversion. Drive straight from Shastri Chowk and turn left from the pond at Pandridippa.  

BETLA: The Heart of Palamau

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Betla has the unique distinction of being the site for the first tiger census in the world. The study was conducted in 1932, which soon paved way for the Palamau forests to be notified as a wildlife preserve. By 1974, the park became one of India’s earliest tiger reserves under Project Tiger. Littered with the forts and monuments of the local Chero kings and blessed with a dense profusion of sal, Betla is like a marriage between the two famous parks of north India, Ranthambhore and Corbett.

The drive from Netarhat to Betla cuts through the fields of paddy like a scythe in long sweeping arcs. In some empty patches, villagers plough the red earth with bullocks, till you slowly descend into a dense forest patch. Just before the forest check-post at Baresand, a 2 km diversion off the main road, leads to the scenic Sugabandh falls. After Maromar, you cross the bridge at Garu, where the Koel river runs alongside the road for about half a kilometer as if racing you, till it loses interest and swerves off into the jungle. Then without warning, it appears again, cutting across the road in the form of a nullah, like an aquatic speedbreaker. The vehicle cruises through, throwing a fine spray, much to the delight of squealing school children. And again..and again.

Scarcely 3 km from Garu is Mirchaiya, a 100 ft waterfall perhaps named after its slender shape, which can be seen right from the road. Before long, you penetrate the deep jungles and enter Betla.

After registering our vehicles at the barrier, we came to the park entrance. A signboard proclaimed ‘B for Bison, E for Elephant, T for Tiger, L for Leopard, A for Antelope’, clearly spelling out what Betla had in store for its visitors. However, it wasn’t the only witticism Betla had to offer. Over tea, a local forest guard recited a funny couplet that traced the advent of the British along that route. “Garu mein daru piya, Bhorbandha mein ghoda bandha, Chhipadohar mein chhip gaya aur Baresand mein saand hua.” We doubled over with laughter and entered through the park gate.

Apart from jeep safaris, you can also hitch a ride with Juhi or Anarkali, the resident elephants. It ensures a deeper foray into the dense jungle and you can easily sight bison and lots of ungulates. The watchtowers at Chaturbathwa, Hathbajhwa and Madhuchuan give you a better chance to sight a tiger. Evenings are considered more conducive for sighting. Early mornings are more suited for birdwatchers, who can see several of the 175 species of birds found inside the park. There is also a Nature Interpretation Center (Timings: 10 am to 5 pm) at Betla with displays of animal figurines, a museum, library and an auditorium that screens wildlife films. A fee of Rs.100 entitles you entry into the park between 5 am to 5 pm and also an excursion to the Palamau fort.

The Palamau Kila, as the local Cheros call it, is located 5 km from Kutumu More, north of the park entrance. Raja Medini Rai, the most famous king in the adivasi Chero line, defeated the Maharaja of Chhotanagpur in his capital city of Doisa and with the spoils of war, built the lower Palamau Fort. The whole area abounds with the legends of the generous Medini Rai, under whose reign, the kingdom prospered. The king often moved incognito from house to house to see if anyone was without a cow or a buffalo. According to a Chero saying ‘In the reign of Raja Medini Rai, no house was without a churner and butter’. Neither did the king levy any tax on the income of his subjects. Once he thought of asking each headman to offer at least one shell as his tribute. To his surprise he found that he was presented by a gold shell instead!

Though the lore of Medini Rai lives on, his legacy seems to be fast crumbling to ruin. Within the old fort you can find the remains of stables, the royal area and an unprotected well with an underground chamber used by royals to privately draw out water. The impressive main gateway once had square amethyst and lapis lazuli tiles that shone like gems in the afternoon sun and moonlit nights. Through a narrow staircase with half-eroded steps you can climb onto the 40 feet high walls that had resisted invaders for over two centuries. However, one section of the fort wall was breached when the British fired a cannon at the weakest spot, demolishing the kachcha wall.

A section of the fort was completed by Medini Rai’s son Pratap Rai while his father was busy in battle. Pratap Rai also constructed a newer fort on an elevated patch, which is in much better condition. The fort has three main gates, notable among which are the Singh Dwar (Lion Gate), the largest of the three, and the Nagpuri Gate, which has inscriptions in Sanskrit and Persian. 2 km from the fort is the Kamal Dah jheel, where the royal family used to bathe. Legend has it that Medini Rai’s queen was so delicate and sweet-natured, that when she bathed in the lotus pond, the lotus never sank! Unbelievable? Visit this magical outpost of the Cheros and you’ll be a believer for life.

For more information, contact

Field Director, Project Tiger, Jail Compound, Betla, P.O. Daltonganj Ph: 06562-222650

Getting there:

By Road: If you are coming from Netarhat, the 120 km drive takes you to Betla via Mahuadanr. While coming from Ranchi, get onto Ratu Road and instead of turning from Kuru to Lohardaga and Netarhat, continue straight on NH-75 via Chandwa and Latehar towards Daltonganj. 10 km before Daltonganj, you take a left from Dubiya More to Betla 15 km away.

By Rail: The tri-weekly Hatia-Delhi Swarna Jayanti Express (8603) runs on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, stopping at Daltonganj and Barwadih, the nearest railway station, 14 km away. However, it’s easier to get a cab to Betla from Daltonganj (25 km).

Where to Stay

Van Vihar

The JTDC-run hotel is the best place to stay in town and has a variety of a/c, non a/c, deluxe rooms, dormitory and a beautiful tree house. Apart from jungle safaris, guides and  nearby excursions they can also arrange for a pick up and drop from Daltonganj station with prior information. Ph: 06567-226513

Betla Forest Rest House

Located close to Kechki Sangam, the new improved Forest Rest House is located in the vee where the North Koel joins the Auranga. The undoubted advantage is its remote location and scenic view. For booking, contact DFO (Divisional Forest Officer), Wildlife Division, Daltonganj Ph: 06562-222650

BETLA Excursions:

Maromar

Maromar has a Forest Rest House built in 1947 with two canary yellow rooms, but its chief attraction is the Kusumi tree house that was added in 1993. Built around a kusum tree, the twin-roomed wooden structure is accessible by a flight of stairs. The balcony opens out to a forest patch that offers you the luxury of birdwatching without moving a muscle. The forest slopes upward to the Hulukpahad mountain that dominates the landscape. On the far side atop the mountain is a watchtower that affords magnificent views of the forests of Betla. To get there, drive 4 km from Maromar to Bhorbandha, from where the ‘Atthais Turning’ forest road, named after the 28 winding turns, curves upward to the mountain top. Alternately, from Netarhat, you can get there from Daldaliya.

For bookings, contact Chief Conservator of Forests, Daltonganj (South), Forest Division, Daltonganj Ph: 06562-222422. You can also book the FRH at Aksi and Garu from here.

Author: Anurag Mallick. This appeared as a special 20-page supplement in the November 2006 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.