Tag Archives: Architecture

Kanheri Caves: Black mountain side

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore a 2400-year-old cave complex in the heart of Mumbai that was once the biggest Buddhist university in western India

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It’s hard to imagine that one of the most urban and densely populated cities in the world hides a 2400-year-old Buddhist cave complex. Its location inside the 103.8 sq km Sanjay Gandhi National Park (one of the largest within a city) in Mumbai’s western suburb of Borivali certainly adds to its appeal. Though SGNP is one of the most visited national parks in Asia with over 2 million visitors annually, not many value these historic relics beyond its backdrop appeal for their selfies. The fact that you can get here in just over an hour is a big plus.

Long before ‘Bombay’ became a commercial hub, Sopara and Kalyan were the two main ports in the region that traded with ancient Greece and Mesopotamia. The 45km land route between these ports passed through this forest and the link to other trade centers like Nasik and Ujjain made it the perfect place for patronage from merchants. And thus, Buddhism arrived in Aparantha (Western India) at Sopara. Though the island of Salsette is rich in rock-cut Buddhist caves – Marol, Mahakali, Magathana, Mandapeshwar and Jogeshwari – Kanheri is the most extensive of the lot.

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Between 1st century BC and 10th century AD, Kanheri was the biggest university in western India and an important Buddhist settlement on the Konkan coast. Buddhist teacher Atisha (980–1054) came here to study meditation under mahasiddha and Tantric yogi Rahulagupta. Back then, the place was known as Krishnagiri or Black Mountain after the dark basalt rock. With the passage of time it became Kanhagiri and eventually Kanheri.

The first definitive reference of Kanheri came from Portuguese naval officer and former Viceroy Joao de Castro, who left a glowing tribute – “A thing certainly not within the power of man, so wonderful that it may be ranked among the seven wonders of the world, unless, instead of thinking them to be the work of men, we attribute them to spirits.” Yet, the forested tract that was once the haunt of austere orange-robed monks today teems with raucous picnickers.

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With the decline of Buddhism, the area lay forgotten and shrouded by forests until British archeologists James Bird in 1839 and Ed West in 1853 rediscovered it. Kanheri is hailed as the single largest Buddhist site in the country with the most number of cave excavations on one hill.

These include chaityagrhas (places of worship), viharas (monasteries), podhis (water cisterns to harvest rainwater), rock-cut benches and plinths that functioned as beds and a wealth of Buddhist sculptures, relief carvings, paintings and inscriptions dating from 1st century BCE to 10th century CE.

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The massive complex has 109 caves interconnected by steps cut into the rock surface. The double-storeyed vihara of Cave 1 has two large pillars framing its entrance while Cave 3 dubbed ‘the Great Chaitya’ (the second largest in India after Karla), has two imposing Buddha statues, an inscription of Yajna Sri Satakarni (170 CE) on the doorjamb and a massive pillared prayer hall.

Cave 4 has a solid dagoba or stupa with relics used for meditation. Caves 5 and 6 were actually water cisterns highlighting the emphasis laid on water conservation using rock cut channels. Located in a gully formed by a torrent, Cave 11 also called Maharaja or Darbar Cave was where grand assemblies were held.

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Cave 34 is the only one with traces of lovely unfinished paintings on the ceiling. A rare depiction of an eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara is seen in Cave 41 and the walls of Caves 90 and 93 bear ornate carvings and sculptures of Buddha and his attendants. The trail continues to the summit from where you behold the entire landscape of western Mumbai from Versova to Gorai islands and Powai’s high-rises on the other side.

Despite the unwelcome shrieks of overzealous visitors and wild troops of monkeys, the trudge uphill promises a sense of peace. By dusk, the caves of Kanheri return to their original state, the way they were centuries ago. The wind wafts through cool dark chambers, echoing the sonorous chants of monks who once dwelt within.

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FACT FILE

Distance: 27 km from Mumbai, 159 km from Pune
Time: 1 hour from Mumbai, 3hr 20 min from Pune
Route: Head north on the Western Express Highway to Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivali and drive 7 km from the main gate to the ticket counter
Link: goo.gl/b1FF41
Stay: 3-member family tent (Rs.2500) and 14-member dorm tent (Rs.4200) at Sanjay Gandhi National Park. For booking, contact Nature Information Center (NIC) Ph 022-28868686 Email nicsgnp78@gmail.com https://sgnp.maharashtra.gov.in
Excursions: Tulsi Lake, Lion & Tiger Safari (Adult Rs.61 Child Rs.24), Nature Trails, Gandhi Tekdi memorial, Boating (2-seater Rs.36, 4-seater Rs.73) and Mini Train (Adult Rs.31 Child Rs.12) at Sanjay Gandhi National Park
Top Tip: Don’t visit on public holidays to avoid crowds. All activities except Gandhi Tekdi and Kanheri Caves closed on Monday & lunch time (1:30pm – 2:30pm). Wear comfy footwear with good grip because of the rocky surface. Carry a picnic hamper, though water, snacks and chai are available at a small tea stall at the entrance.

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 9 Sep 2018 in Mint Lounge newspaper. 

Much ado about Kathmandu

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The charm of Nepal’s ancient temples and squares, lively streets and mountain magic cannot be smothered by any calamity discovers PRIYA GANAPATHY

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‘We are in the year 2074,’ my guide Bir intoned solemnly in what sounded like the opening line of a futuristic sci-fi saga. Given its seamless blend of tradition and modernity, one does feel like a time-traveller in Nepal, but I discovered that the country has its own calendar – the Bikram Sambat Nepali Patro – and an unhurried sense of time!

Nepal has attracted mountaineers and hippies since the 60s, but a lot had happened since my last visit 12 years ago in the middle of bird flu and a palace coup! The month-long trip was a screaming rollercoaster of landslides, bungee jumps, canyoning, rafting and paragliding besides sedate explorations of Kathmandu, Pokhara, Chitwan and Lumbini. This time, I had a more enriching purpose.

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In 2015, I had helplessly watched Nepal receive a body blow from a devastating earthquake. So when Marriott Hotels decided to celebrate their 30th Anniversary by inviting guests from across the world to participate in a home build project, I jumped in. Partnering with Habitat For Humanity, we were to build one of 12 homes for needy families around the globe. Kavre, a region near Kathmandu badly affected by the earthquake would be our worksite for a Nepalese family that had lost their home.

The 40km bus ride to Kavre passed through scenic Nagarkot and the 143ft tall copper statue of Kailashnath Mahadev, built by a Jain businessman from India on the Sanga Hills that divide Bhaktapur and Kavre. This was the traditional village of oil-producers – sang is Newari for mustard oil and ga means village. We drove past rice terraces and the quaint town of Banepa, an old trading outpost between Tibet and Nepal. Everywhere mud and stone homes bore scars of the quake.

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At Kavre, we grabbed gloves, donned hard hats and picked our tools to dig foundation trenches and clear boulders. After completing our ‘Rally to Serve’ project, we visited Habitat for Humanity’s model town in Pipaltar village, where volunteers had helped rebuild 87 houses. Three years on, as the country hobbles back to its feet with rebuilding and restoration projects, tourists are streaming in again, smitten by its irresistible charm.

On our return we stopped at the plush Dwarika’s Resort in Dhulikel for a traditional Newari meal. Tasteful decorated with Nepali artifacts, the emphasis is on holistic living and healthy food using ingredients sourced from their organic farm. Their Himalayan Salt Room ensconces you in a pink cocoon of healing salt while the Chakra sound therapy chamber stimulates the body’s seven chakras. We sipped local beer and dined outdoors, savouring the view of majestic Himalayan peaks.

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Thamel Trail & Durbar Squares
On the surface, Kathmandu seemed the same – crowded and dusty with the familiar charm of brick houses, smiling faces and walls splashed with colourful graffiti. After champagne and high tea marking the launch of Fairfield by Marriott – the first Marriott hotel in Nepal – we took an evening rickshaw ride around the tourist-friendly hub of Thamel. We rolled down Tridevi Marg towards the winding maze of festooned alleys selling an assortment of exotic art and crafts. The streets were lined with bars, pubs, tour agencies and adventure equipment stores.

We learnt that Dharma Kirti Vihar, located behind Swayambhunath stupa was the school where Myanmar’s icon of democracy Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi studied Buddhism and taught English four decades ago. Sambhu, our charioteer stopped by an unusual tree stump covered with coins at a street corner. “That’s Vaisha Dev, the ‘dentist god’. Nepalese people hammer a coin into the idol to solve their dental problems!”

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Hopping off at Basantapur Durbar Square, we set off on a twilight heritage walk with Bir, our guide. The carved spires of temples were silhouetted against an indigo sky. The brackets depicted gods and goddesses as locals believed only they had the power to hold the weight of the massive conical roofs. Swinging between memories and the moment, I tried to fix the missing pieces. One of the oldest structures, Kasthamandap, the wooden architectural wonder that gave Kathmandu its name was completely razed.

Further away, the beautiful carved stone Garuda stared at the vacant space where the multi-tiered 1680 Trailokya Mohan temple should have stood. The Krishna Temple was another gaping spot. The ornate beauty was marred by dense scaffolding, which enveloped the monuments in a skeletal hug. One wasn’t sure how or where to begin healing the city.

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The tall fierce image of Kala Bhairava glowered in lamplight as people bowed their heads in reverence to the God of Time, offering flowers, incense and butter lamps. The temple of Thulja Bhavani, closed throughout the year, is opened to public only on the eighth day of Vijayadashami. We noticed that the structures showed British influences. Bir pointed out a stone inscription in various languages including French; apparently King Pratap Malla who ruled in the 1700s was a polyglot!

The Jaganath temple, famous for its erotic art had been sadly defaced. With Buddhism emerging as the main religion in the 17th century, several people had adopted a monastic life of celibacy and the population in Nepal had dropped drastically. These amorous carvings were created to encourage people to marry and have children! It is also believed that it would prevent Kumari, the incarnation of the Virgin Goddess considered to be a form of Thunder and Lightning, from striking the temple.

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We saw the magnificent 9-storeyed palace built by King Prithvi Narayan Shah, the architect of modern Nepal who conquered the three Malla kingdoms of Nepal and unified it with the Gorkha kingdom. In Indra Chowk, the Akash Bhairav temple honored the unusual terrifying form of Shiva regarded as the Master of the Sky.

His giant form is artistically ‘caged’ to prevent him from flying off and the temple is opened only once a year during Kali Jumma. After wandering around the famous Freak Street (now Jochne) we guzzled local beer at New Orleans, a popular restaurant with retro architecture and a great vibe.

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Stupefying stupas & Himalayan views

The next morning, we headed for our Everest flight. The destination board at the airport counter simply stated “Mountain”! Buckled into a small seat on the tiny Buddha Air 19-seater Beechcraft 1900, with propellers spinning, we were off for a close encounter with Sagarmatha. The scene of high altitude lakes, marbled mountains and glaciers ringed by the world’s best-known peaks seared my mindscape. It was a dreamy tour as we flew just 20 miles short of the world’s highest peak. You even get a chance to sneak into the cockpit for an uninterrupted view and click a few pictures for posterity.

Back on terra firma, I was still dreaming as I walked down Tridevi Marg to the Garden of Dreams (Swapna Bagaicha), famous as the Garden of Six Seasons. The serene Edwardian botanical garden inside Kaiser Mahal, former home of the late Field Marshall Kaiser Shumsher Rana begs you to linger despite the damage to its stunning pavilions, statues, fountains and ponds.

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A leisurely lunch awaited us at Mulchowk Restaurant, a gourmet dining space inside a leafy courtyard of Baber Mahal. Named after Patan’s Mul Chowk or Main Square, the restaurant is set in the erstwhile palace residence of Baber Shumsher. Now renovated by his descendants into a complex of restaurants and multiple courtyards enveloped by a maze of boutiques, art galleries and swanky stores, the luxe hangout is a delightful tribute to Rana architecture.

We headed to the famous Patan Durbar Square, a market cum temple plaza – its atmospheric appeal heightened by the golden glow of sunset. A local band regaled the crowds in one corner as elderly folks and couples chattered around the temple pati (resting plinths) and steps.

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Tourists followed their babbling guides or haggled with hawkers along the cobbled pathways. King Yog Narendra Malla’s golden statue on a stone pillar loomed above as we explored the historic heritage site. We could cover only three of the ten odd temples in this vast complex and the trio of courtyards in the old palace – Mul Chowk, Sundari Chowk and Keshav Narayan Chowk.

The Mulchowk Palace Museum had a collection of statues, paintings and images of Hindu and Buddhist divinities. We saw the Thulja Bhavani shrine where the Malla kings performed sacred rituals and the stunning Sundari Chowk with its unique lace-like wood and ivory carved window, a masterpiece of Newari architecture. The exquisite sunken royal stone bath Tusha Hiti was suffused with intricate carvings.

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The Krishna Mandir, built from a single stone, flaunted its 21 pinnacles and scenes from Hindu epics. The 3-storeyed Golden Temple or Hiranyavarna Mahavihar monastery displayed outstanding metal sculptures. There was so much to Kathmandu our appetite couldn’t be quelled! After a late dinner, we hit the swanky rooftop lounge Prive at Labim Mall to catch the sparkle of the city’s nightlife.

Before heading to the airport next day, as I grabbed some traditional sel rotis to accompany my potato mash, Bir nodded approvingly. According to tradition, visitors and family members are offered this unusual ringed deep-fried bread made with rice flour, bananas and cinnamon before they travel. Since the sel roti’s ends meet and overlap like a bracelet, Nepalis consider it a symbol of reunion – a circle of life. “You may go around the world my friend but like the sel roti, you will return to Nepal someday.” he affirmed.

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FACT FILE 

Getting there
Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan Airport is just a 1hr 45 min flight from Delhi.

Where to stay
Fairfield by Marriott, Thamel
Tariff $100-$150
www.marriott.com

Dwarika’s Hotel Kathmandu
Dwarika’s Resort Dhulikel
Tariff Rs.25,000 + taxes onwards
www.dwarikas.com

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Where to Eat
Garden of Dreams Café
Mulchowk
Prive, Labim Mall
Thamel House

For more info, visit www.welcomenepal.com

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 24 August 2018 in Indulge, the supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.

Burhanpur: Diamond in the Dust

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Mosques with inscriptions in Farsi and Sanskrit, Mumtaz Mahal’s hamam and the Black ‘Taj Mahal’; ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore Burhanpur, the gateway to the Deccan and cultural capital of the Mughals in southern Madhya Pradesh

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A tad weary from our journeys across Central India, we disembarked for a brief stopover at Burhanpur. Hoshang Havaldar, the portly 60-something owner of Hotel Ambar, greeted us with roses and scented cotton yarns. “This ordinary‘sut ka haar’ commemorates Burhanpur’s glorious past as a trading centre of cotton. The fragrance of khus, kewda and gulab represent the three ponds of itr (perfumes) in which Mumtaz Begum took a daily dip in Burhanpur’s Shahi hamam. She gifted a rose to Shah Jahan everyday and we greet our guests with a rose as well.”

Thus, a routine hotel welcome transformed into a history lesson laden with meaning. Local INTACH convener Havaldar took immense pride in his illustrious city. “Without Burhanpur, India’s chronicles are incomplete. Between 1600 and 1720, it served as a secondary Mughal capital and learning centre for princes and princesses, who imbibed tehzeeb (etiquette)-tameez (manners)-taakat (power)-tareeka-e-ilmaat (life lessons). Akbar spent 40 years in Burhanpur, Shah Jahan 44, Aurangzeb 30, while Abdul Rahim Khan-i-khana governed for 37 years. Whoever was appointed a sipahsalar (governor) here was destined for greatness.”

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But what was a Parsi doing in southern Madhya Pradesh? Havaldar’s great grandfather came from Navsari in 1904 to work at the Burhanpur Tapti Cotton Mill. The hotel has been around since 1985 and its foyer is lined with info panels and antiquities. At Heena Garden restaurant, Havaldar explained how Burhanpur’s architecture inspired the hotel’s décor – haveli styled rooms with jalis, arches and lotus patterns. The food was Mughlai but completely vegetarian – from Jalal-e-Akbari to Paneer Mumtaz…

Over a leisurely meal, he elaborated how the Shruti and Smriti puranas refer to Burhanpur as Bhrignapur, the tapobhumi (place of penance) of Bhrigu rishi, who wrote the Bhrigu Samhita on the banks of the Tapti river. Legends recount how Surya the sun god, unable to bear the heat of his own body, created the river from his being. Hence Tapti is worshipped as Surya-putri.“Taap haran karne wali shakti, Tapti.”

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To believers, the mere thought of Tapti or the sight of Narmada is equivalent to a dip in the Ganga. Tapti Mahapuran records how the west-flowing rivers Narmada, Tapti and Poorna predated Ganga’s descent on earth and Ganga undertook a penance to appease the older rivers at Navatha, 40km away. Tapti’s placid flow is attributed to this lore.

That evening we drove around the city noticing its architectural wealth flash amidst its crowded, soiled streets like rubies in the rubble. Burhanpur seemed burdened by its own history. It has a staggering 126 monuments – the most after Delhi – including 35 key sights. With the weakening of the Delhi Sultanate, Malik Nasir Khan claimed independence from Mandu’s Sultan, conquered Asirgarh Fort and renamed his capital in 1427 after Sufi saint Sheikh Burhan-ud-din.

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Burhanpur served as the capital of Khandesh where eleven Farooki kings ruled for two centuries, creating a ‘secular’ state where Sanskrit shared space alongside Arabic and Farsi. Adil Shah’s inscription can be seen at the two Jama Masjids in Burhanpur and Asirgarh. “To this day, Hindu-Muslims are like tanabana (warp and weft) of one weave,” quipped Havaldar. We reached the riverside palace complex Mughalbagh or Shahi Kila, constructed by Adil Shah Farooki II between 1457 and 1503.

The best-preserved structure is the zenana bath, built in 1612 with facilities that outshone modern spas – pleasure fountains, aquatic massage, hot and cold running water, showers and channels to route perfumes into tanks. The bathroom was lit up by eight diamonds studded in the ceiling to multiply the reflection of a lone flame from an oil lamp. Today, only intriguing holes remain.

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During Shah Jahan’s reign, frescoes graced the honeycombed ceiling to delight Mumtaz. Guided by Havaldar’s torch, we gasped at geometric patterns and Iranian designs – stars, lattices, arches, flowers, Shah Jahan’s ruby-studded turban, Mumtaz Begum’s sapphire-studded crescent turban, even an image of the Taj Mahal! Everything about the hamam was so dear to Mumtaz, that it became the inspiration for her tomb.

“Xerox kahoon, photocopy boloon, every aspect has been copied,” Havaldar’s voice resonated in the dark chamber. “Each of the four unique arches feature in the Taj, allowing light to fall on her grave at sunrise, sunset and full moon. The fourth hexagonal arch can be seen in Agra’s Moti Masjid. The blue bands and guldaan (vase) on Mumtaz’s grave are borrowed too, while Burhanpur’s Diwan-e-Aam inspired the public audience hall at Delhi’s Red Fort.” The bedroom where Mumtaz passed away while giving birth to her fourteenth child, Gauhara Begum, was in ruins with a tank on the terrace that kept it cool.

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The architectural genius was admirable. The palace complex, closed from three sides and open to the river, had 140 rooms and housed 400 people. In the cross-section of the false ceiling, we saw three earthen pipes – for fresh water, sludge water and 8 inch pipes for air vents! Alcoves and niches in the courtyard served as Meena Bazaar, a makeshift market for the queens. Shah Jahan built a rampart called Hathiya Chadhao for Mumtaz to descend from her chamber and mount an elephant for a ride to the city. A Pigeon Tower was built by Aurangzeb to ferry messages within the vast Mughal Empire. A few cannons from his time were strewn around; one bore a Farsi inscription: ‘When I open my mouth and belch fire, enemies’ hearts tremble’. Two beautiful mosques the Longi Masjid and Ilaichi Masjid, were named after their clove and cardamom-shaped domes.

Today, 1.75 lakh inhabitants stay within the 4km by 1km fort walls, making it one of India’s largest living forts. Asaf Jah renovated the parkota or circumference during Nizam rule (1720-1760). To him, Burhanpur was heaven for reasons more than its aab-o-hawa (atmosphere). The city had eight darwaaze (gates) and four khidkiyan (windows), as per the Quranic description of bahisht (heaven). Havaldar explained that a gate through which an elephant rider could enter was a darwaza while the smaller khidki allowed horse riders to pass through.

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The three-storeyed Shaniwara Gate served as the city’s main entrance. A blend of Hindu-Muslim motifs, its arch with lotus flowers hark to Akbar’s time, the next level with jharokhe, pipal toranas and kalgi design on the dome are Jahangiri while the two minarets were Shah Jahan’s contribution.

Another unique feature was the nine signs carved on it – ducks, fountains and insignia of the Mughal regiment stationed in Burhanpur. Like the Shaniwara gate, the Itwara and Budhwara gates were named after the local weekly markets. Lohar Mandi Gate was where ironsmiths set up shop while Shikarpura gate, was the hunting route of Akbar’s son Prince Daniyal.

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The following day, we toured with Professor Ghanshyam Malviya alias ‘Guruji’, who was persuaded by Havaldar to lead tours, a decade ago. He showed us how the Jama Masjid, with its 130 ft minars, was built in a way that its 15 arches intersected to form a ‘roofless masjid’. Each arch was unique, decorated with lotus flowers and toranas.

He pointed out a small stone wedged into the structure that conveyed the architect’s illustration of a deeper concept – every stone, big or small played a part in the building, the same way all men were equal in front of god.

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For six centuries, traders flocked to Burhanpur’s cotton market Tana Gujri mandi, which had a serai, hamam and masjid for visitors. Serais were traveller’s inns, kothaar were mid-budget lodges and huzoore were plush stays for respectable dignitaries. Under Noor Jehan’s counsel, Jehangir built a dar-ul-shifa (hospital) and a mardana Turkish bath where 125 men could bathe at a time.

Built underground to conceal bare bodied males from women passing by, it lay hidden under a mound of earth until 25 years ago. Khan-i-khana’s Akbari Saray where Sir Thomas Roe, emissary of King James I halted, was in shambles, but we peeked into the 1780 Zakvi Haveli built by Zakvi-ud-din, 41st Syedna of the Dawoodi Bohra faith.

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Narrow bylanes took us to the first ever Swaminarayan Temple in India, the Maratha-era Bombaywalon ki kothi and the Nathdwara-inspired Bahuji Maharaj ka Mandir. Its 2-inch idol of Lord Krishna needed a telescope for a clear darshan! Bibi ki Masjid, the city’s oldest mosque, was styled on one in Ahmedabad. We stumbled upon the century old wooden house of the Hathiwala family whose ancestors maintained elephants for Maratha and Mughal armies.

There’s no dearth of architectural wonders in Burhanpur. The Black Taj Mahal is the tomb of warrior Shah Nawaz Khan, Khan-i-khana’s son murdered by Aurangzeb. Built out of black stone, it is the lament of a father’s anguish. Begum Shah Shuja ka Makbara (tomb of Bilkis Jahan), wife of Shah Jahan’s fourth son Shah Shuja, has exquisite murals, kept under lock and key. Some say the structure was originally a Jain temple dedicated to 24 tirthankaras.

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The soul of Burhanpur is deeply entrenched in spirituality. Once a flourishing Jain settlement, the city is the revered seat of the Nath sampradaya, Dadu panth, Kabir panth and many religious denominations. The very name Burhanpur is derived from Sufi saint Sheikh Burhan-ud-din Garib, Hazrat Nizam-ud-din Aulia’s disciple. Nearly 4000 Sufi saints came here to spread Islam. “Yahan teen Chishti araam farma rahe hain…”(Here, three Chishti saints are at rest)

Shah Bahauddin Bajan came to Burhanpur as a young tutor to the children of Farooqi kings. Revered for his intellect, he was nicknamed ‘Chup’ Shah as he spoke very little. He died at the age of 120 and many visit his makbara (tomb). Nearby, on the banks of the Utawali, rests Hazrat Shah Bhikhari. “Utawali? Strange name for a river!” we remarked. Guru ji smiled, “She is quick to flood and quick to dry up. She comes in a hurry and disappears as hurriedly, hence ‘utawali’ or eager”.

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Nearly 2 lakh devotees offer namaaz on Shah Bhikhari’s urs. Saint Syed Mohammad Hashmi Kashmi lived in Burhanpur for 12 years. Two hundred years after his death, when the changing course of the Tapti river threatened to submerge his grave, it was shifted to a safer place. Surprisingly, his body was found intact!

Burhanpur is home to the biggest Shia monument in India. 17th-century Bohra saint Maulana Sayyedi Abdul Qadir Hakimuddin Saheb lived here and his tomb Dargah-e-Hakimi is much revered. It is believed a trip to Mecca-Medina is incomplete unless ziyarat is offered at Burhanpur. Spread over 125 acres amid immaculate gardens, the pristine dargah glistens like a fresh lotus in the muck and grime of Burhanpur.

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Syed Hakimuddin’s miraculous powers and the marble mausoleums of the 26th and 42nd Syednas draw many devotees. The old Mughal tradition of the tonga, known in Shah Jahan’s time as shahi sawari, is still alive among the Bohri Muslims who love taking horse-drawn carriages to Dargah-e-Hakimi.

Burhanpur is sacred to the Sikhs too as Guru Nanak stopped here in 1511-12 on his way to Omkareshwar and Guru Gobind Singh halted in 1708 en route to Nanded. Gurudwara Badi Sangat marks the spot where the latter camped and gave satsang. He stayed for 6 months, 9 days at Nivas Asthan Patshahi, which houses his weapons. It was here that Gobind Singh ji decreed that there would be no more gurus after him and the holy book shall be the sole guide. He compiled the Guru Granth Sahib and marked it with his seal. The Gurudwara has the carefully preserved tome with his golden signature and exquisite miniature paintings on each page, locked inside.

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One question nagged us. If Mumtaz Mahal died in Burhanpur, why was her tomb in Agra? Back in the day, Burhanpur had excellent medical facilities and was home to renowned hakims. After Mumtaz died during childbirth, she was embalmed and laid to rest for 6 months at her beloved Ahukhana, the shikargah (hunting lodge) built by Akbar’s son Daniyal, which had been restored by her into a rose garden.

Shah Jahan wished to build a memorial on Tapti’s riverbank so he could see its reflection in the waters. The bank was 80 ft high and required a larger plinth and a taller structure. However, the loamy black cotton soil wouldn’t withstand the weight of such a large edifice. The logistics of transporting marble from Makrana in Rajasthan tilted it in Agra’s favour. The rest is history. We drove out via the historic Dilli Darwaza, along the route of Mumtaz Begum’s final journey in a golden casket in 1631, accompanied by her son Shah Shuja to Agra.

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On Burhanpur’s outskirts, Asirgarh’s distinct form could be seen from afar. Perched at 259m, “it is the highest, oldest and most protected fort of India,” claimed Guruji. Havaldar ranked it among the 7 unconquered forts of India. Overlooking a pass over the Satpuras, Asirgarh lay on a key trade route between North India and the Deccan. It was the strategic Dakkani Darwaza or Doorway to the Deccan.

Nasir Khan Farooki murdered local raja Asa Ahir and captured the fort. Despite a matrimonial alliance with the Farookis, Akbar besieged Asirgarh for six months with a 32,000 strong army in 1600. Mounting cannons atop a hill – named ‘Akbar topi’ for its uncanny resemblance to the Mughal emperor’s headgear – he bombarded the fort in vain. Eventually, he too resorted to deceit. Under the pretext of the zenana wanting to see the fort, Mughal troops emerged from palanquins in Trojanesque fashion to end Farooki rule in Khandesh.

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In January, 1601 Akbar finally offered namaz at the Jama Masjid in Asirgarh. Stone inscriptions record Shah Jahan’s revolt against Jahangir as governor of Burhanpur and Aurangzeb’s overthrow of Shah Jahan. The British paid Rs.7 lakh to acquire the fort from the Marathas. After the 1819 treaty, Asirgarh was the last major fort to come under British control. Such was its import that a message was dispatched to the British viceroy that India had finally been conquered!

Yet, no one ever captured Asirgarh in battle. A formidable chain of seven gateways rose from the abyss, overrun by foliage. We wisely chose the winding mud road off the highway that ended abruptly against 120 ft high walls. Spread over 60 acres, the complex has three fortifications – Malaygarh the lowermost, Kamargarh the middle one built by Aurangzeb and Asirgarh, the highest and oldest part. Steep stairs led to a plateau at the summit where the Jama Masjid stood.

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Legend has it that the mountain was once Ashwathamagiri, the haunt of Drona’s son who hid here after abandoning the Kurukshetra battlefield. Another lore hails how after his ritual bath in the Tapti, Ashwathama does puja at Burhanpur’s Gupteshwar temple and takes a bilva marg (subterranean path) to perform a puja at Asireshwar Mahadev, which gave the fort its name. Till today, a single wild flower mysteriously appears on the linga as proof of his secret ritual.

Scattered around were remains of Rani Mahal, barracks, Phansi Ghar (gallows), prison, cemetery and an erstwhile British cantonment. Veer Surendra Sai, legendary freedom fighter from Sambalpur was imprisoned here for 19 years and died in 1884. From the summit, we spotted Moti Mahal, the palace and mausoleum of Shah Jahan’s third wife Moti Begum at the foothills of Asirgarh. While the whole world flocks to the monument of eternal love at Agra, Burhanpur lies discarded like a concubine, in the dusty wayside of history.

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NAVIGATOR

Getting there
Burhanpur is 181 km south of Indore (4 hrs) via SH-27. The citadel of Asirgarh lies 20km from town and 5km off the highway.

Stay
Hotel Ambar & Holiday Resort
NH-27, Rastipura Colony, Opp. Bus Stand, Burhanpur
Ph 07325-251197, 94240 24949
http://hotelambarburhanpur.com

Shop
Buy cotton clothes at Tana Gujri Mandi, locally made country cheroots or some daraba (sweet) and Burhanpur jalebi to take home.

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Eat
In the Khandesh region, poha, jalebi, samosa, kachori and khaman are commonly eaten for breakfast, besides chiwda, lasaniya sev, maand (roomali roti) and regional dishes like kala masaichi (curry of over-roasted black masala) and makai ki kachori. Try Burhanpur’s thick mawa jalebis at Burhanpur Jalebi Centre, Subhash Chowk (Ph 98262 72490).

For non-veg Mughlai cuisine head to Rahmania Restaurant at Jaistambh Chauraha (Ph 07325-257291) and for veg Mughlai delights like Nargisi kofta, Paneer angara, Jalal-e-Akbari and Kebab Palak, head to Heena Garden at Hotel Ambar Palace. For the signature sweet daraba (semolina, sugar and ghee whisked to a fine fluffy dessert), try Kundan and Geeta in the morning, Subhash bhai halwayi or Milan Mithai at Gandhi Chowk (Ph 07325-252315, 252295).

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5 Things to Do in the Region
Explore India’s highest fort Asirgarh
Try local treats like Burhanpur jalebis, maande and daraba
Take a ride in a tonga or horse-drawn carriage to Dargah-e-Hakimi
Attend Balaji ka Mela (Nov) on the banks of the Tapti river
Do an architecture tour – frescoes at Begum Shah Shuja’s makbara to Shahi Hamam

Discover This
Located 7km from town, Kundi Bhandara or Neher-e-khair zaari (literally, channel that flows regularly and safely) is Burhanpur’s wondrous water system built by Abdul Rahim Khan-i-khana. Water is channeled from the base of mountains at a depth of 80 ft to the surface by 3km long tunnels, using a capillary system. It is supported by a network of 8 gidgidi (points for drawing water), 44 karanje (ponds) and 105 kundi (wells).

It also has the popular misnomer Khooni Bhandara. One morbid story narrates how dacoits often looted and killed merchants who halted at Burhanpur’s serais, and dumped their bodies in a well where the water turned bloody. Local guide Guru ji scoffs at the tall tales – “Ek billi ka bachcha bhi nahi mara 75 saal mein!” (Not even a kitten has died Dargah-i-Hakimi,here in the last 75 years).

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the July 2018 issue of Discover India magazine.

 

 

Maheshwar: Here lived a queen

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Once the capital of Maratha queen Ahilyabai Holkar, Maheshwar looms above the languid waters of the holy Narmada, enfolding within itself history, heritage and fascinating mythologies, explore ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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It was evening by the time we reached the pilgrim town of Maheshwar. At the banks of the sacred Narmada we watched the incessant flow of walkers, pilgrims, bathers, wrestlers and locals. The symmetrical steps of the Ahilyeshwar temple looked familiar – it had served as a scenic backdrop for movies like Padman and Yamla Pagla Deewana! The ghat was dotted with stone Shiva lingas and temples along the riverbank – Til Bhandeshwar, Kashi Vishwanath, Narmada Mata and the chhatri (samadhi) of Rani Ahilyabai.

Between 1766-95, Maheshwar served as the capital of Maratha queen Ahilyabai Holkar. Stopped from committing sati by her father-in-law, she ruled for nearly three decades from her royal seat until Malhar Rao Holkar III shifted the capital to Indore in 1818. High above the ghats, her 250-year-old Ahilya Fort loomed above the Narmada as we caught the last rays of a pink sunset on its languid waters. A yogi, his arms tucked behind his head and legs folded in padmasana, languidly drifted along the current.

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Time flowed unhurriedly like the placid Narmada. We witnessed the devout engrossed in evening rituals as the Kashi Vishwanath arti at 7:40pm was soon followed by the Narmada Maha Arti at 8pm. The priest of Narmada Mata Mandir narrated fascinating legends about the river and the city she coursed through. Born from the sweat of Shiva, Narmada is hailed as Shiv-putri or Shankar’s daughter Shankari.

Maheshwar is thus sacred to Shiva and his imprint can be seen everywhere. Pebbles on Narmada’s riverbed are shaped like a linga (called banalinga). Some say she is both nar (male) and mada (female); others believe she is called narmada because she is narm (soft), bestowing a feeling of peace on the beholder. Her popular name Rewa is derived from rewati or her leaping motion through the rocky bed.

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“Jagat janani, jeevan dayini, wo ajar-amar hai. Sansaar nasht ho jayega, magar Narmada hamesha behti rahegi…” “She is the fountainhead of the world, the giver of life, she is immortal. The world may come to an end, but Narmada shall continue to flow,” explained Pandit ji. “She has other names too”, piped in the others. “Sonsursa, Mahti, Krapa, Mandakini, Mahanawa, Vipapa, Vipasha, Vimala, Namrata, Karbha, Ranjana, Trikuta, Vayuvahini, Dakshinganga.”

Maheshwar was once Mahishmati, founded by king Mahishman and later the capital of thousand-armed king Sahasrarjun. One legend recounts how the king went to the river for a picnic with his 500 wives and blocked the mighty river with his arms so that his queens could frolic in the waters! Meanwhile, Ravana who was flying by in his Pushpak Vimana stopped at the dry riverbed downstream and fashioned a sand shivalinga for his daily worship.

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When Sahasrarjun finally lifted his arms, the gushing waters swept off Ravana’s shivalinga. Furious, he challenged Sahasrajuna to a duel but was pinned to the ground by his 1000 arms. Sahasrajuna placed 10 lamps on Ravana’s heads and one on his hand, bound him and dragged him to the palace and tied him to his son’s cradle, where Ravana remained a prisoner until his release. Even today, the Sahasrarjun temple at Maheshwar lights 11 lamps to commemorate the legend.

Our driver, who had been restlessly shadowing us, politely asked if now we would like to go to our hotel. We laughed and walked up the steps to Ahila Fort. Set amidst gnarled neem and frangipani trees, Ahilyabai’s rajwada (palace) had been beautifully restored into a fort hotel by her descendant Shivajirao or ‘Richard’ Holkar.

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Parisian online magazine ‘The Style Saloniste’ called it “The Far Pavilions and The Jewel in the Crown with a dash of Gandhi idealism”. We were chuffed to know that we would join an elite list of celebrities that had stayed at Fort Ahilya – Mick Jagger, Ralph Fiennes, Lord and Lady Cavendish and Prince Michael of Greece (and Denmark).

In the inner courtyard, Kuntabai, who has been with the royal family for over thirty years, led us to Kachnar, our room on the first floor. Interestingly, the rooms were named after the surrounding trees – Imli, Elaichi, Champa, Badam, Gulmohar, Haldi, Kesar. The best rooms were the lavish river-facing Narmada Suite done up in muted greys with tasteful colour accents and the Nagarkhana Suite, the old drumhouse in a gateway overlooking the Ahilyeshwar Temple.

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“Richard ji will see you for supper at 9pm sharp,” the instruction was as crisp as the linen. The stress on ‘sharp’ was enough to ensure we were well on time. Clad in a simple Maheshwari kurta pyjama and Nehru jacket, ‘Richard ji’ was disarmingly informal. We discussed our recent travels through Madhya Pradesh and talk drifted to local food – the succulent balam kakdi, the tangy khorasani imli and the black coloured country chicken Kadaknath.

Author of ‘Cooking of the Maharajas’ in 1975, Richard often joins guests for conversations over a drink or meals and personally curates the home-style food at Ahilya. Dinner was announced by the drumbeats of the dholak with customized printed menus – mushroom pulao, spiced tomato and green gourd, grilled mahi mahi, crispy okra, capsicum raita, chapattis and vermicelli kheer.

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The next morning, we woke up fashionably late, to the sound of the Lingarchan puja performed daily at 8:30 am at the royal family shrine just below the terrace. The sacred ritual was initiated by Ahilyabai Holkar in 1766 for the well being of her subjects and involved shaping river mud into 1300 miniature Shiva lingas on a wooden board, which was ritually immersed into the river.

An elaborate breakfast awaited us at the Poshak wada – bacon, sausages, baked beans, Maheshwari style scrambled eggs, walnut and sunflower seed bread, with the fort’s jams and citrus preserves made by Richard. We even got a taste of the legendary Batteesee Chatni, a secret recipe of 32 ingredients that Richard will never part with. Ambling around the sprawling hotel, we discovered charming nooks under bougainvillea creepers – a hidden turquoise pool, herb garden and the quirky ‘Le Loo’.

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Lined with wooden pillars, the hallways held a treasure of antiques besides sepia tinted photographs of the Indore royal family and their mansions. The walls exhibited ethereal paintings of Maheshwar by late artist-in-residence Harry Holcroft and riveting prints by photographer Ashish Dubey capturing the many moods of the Narmada. A portion of the sales went towards the Ahilya Fort Wall Project.

The Maheshwar Rajwada serves as a museum on the Holkar lineage and a map marks out the pious queen’s sacred deeds at India’s holiest sites – renovating temples, dharamsalas and ghats from the Himalayas to Mathura, Brindavan, Dwarka and Puri. Locals and the devout often walk into the fort to pay homage at the queen’s statue.

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We visited Rehwa Society, a weaver’s cooperative for local women. The clatter of looms mingled with the incessant hum and chatter of kids next door at Ahilya School, founded in 1979 for weavers’ children. Maheshwar’s weaving tradition goes way back to the 5th Century.

However, weaving as a large scale occupation gained prominence during the reign of Rani Ahilyabai Holkar (1767-1795) when she invited master weavers from Surat and South India to create traditional Navvari or Maharashtrian nine-yard saris and turbans as mementos for royal guests.

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The craft languished till the 1970s when Richard Holkar and his former partner revived the centuries-old tradition of Maheshwar weaving. Today, weaving is the mainstay for over 700 local families. At Rehwa Society alone, 70 ladies and a few men worked in shifts. They showed us the intricacies and typical designs that made Maheshwari weaves so popular.

“Weaving one sari could take 3-10 days, depending on its complexity. Some pallu designs could take 3-4 days,” they explained. The in-house store was a rainbow of colours. All around town the inner bylanes reverberated with the constant clack of looms as shops sold kurtas, shawls, saris and stoles.

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The town is dotted with temples. The Rajarajeshwar temple has a ceiling full of mirrors and coloured glass. Smaller shrines dotted the complex and the path continued to Gobar Ganesh temple displaying an idol made of gobar (cowdung). We completed a radial circuit back to Ahilyeshwar temple, with the chhatri of Vithoji facing the elevated Shiva shrine.

The inner courtyard had beautifully sculpted statues of musicians, dancers, apsaras and even two gentlemen in English costume! Marble slabs on the stone steps marked the water level during two big floods – 6 September 1944 and 17 September 1961.

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Boatmen of the Ma Rewa Nauka Vihar Kewat Samaj Samiti offer boat rides to Sahasradhara and Baneshwar. Gliding past the riverside temples and the fort, we took a leisurely ride to Baneshwar Mahadev, located on an islet midstream and returned by sunset.

That evening, we left the palatial Ahilya Fort for the humbler comforts of the renovated gatehouse – Labboo’z café and lodge. The odd name came from the family driver who initially ran it – Lakshman aka Lambu (the tall one), mispronounced as Labbu by Richard’s kids! Its five rooms were named after birds commonly seen around the lodge.

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We headed to the topmost room Bee Eater above the main fort doorway overlooking the ramparts and a private terrace. Inside, cute alcoves on either side served as luggage racks, seaters, wash, shower and a secret toilet behind a blue door! The blue-grey tiles and Kashmiri embroidered linen from Richard’s mother’s collection added a cozy touch. Large cement steps led to another terrace, perfect for stargazing. We sank into the cane chairs under trees with book-lined alcoves and sweet, ever-smiling staff.

Food was mostly vegetarian snacks, perfect for a short bite. But we had been spoiled silly with Ahilya Fort’s hospitality. Richard’s voice echoed in our ears “It’s called La-Booz, but there’s no booze there. For that, you have to come to the palace!” And so we returned for some more fried parval (pointed gourd), a sip of champagne and unhurried conversations in the history-scented fort. We could try the Maheshwari maalish (massage) tomorrow or perhaps take the boat ride from Mandleshwar to Maheshwar? Like the leisurely river cruise, life in Maheshwar drifted ‘slowly down the Narmada.’

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NAVIGATOR

Getting there:
Maheshwar is 95 km/2 hrs southwest of Indore. Mandu and Omkareshwar are just 1.5 hours away.

Stay:

Ahilya Fort
Ahilya Wada, Maheshwar
Ph 011-41551575
http://www.ahilyafort.com
Tariff ₹26,000 per night upwards; min stay 2 nights

Labboo’z Café & Lodge
The Gatehouse, Outside Ahilya Fort
Maheshwar
Ph 07771004818, 7771004811
Café 10am-8pm

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Eat
Besides specially curated home cooked meals at Ahilya Fort, Labboo’z Café offers vegetarian snacks in the shaded fort compound with a nice garden ambience – samosa, pakoda, grilled sandwich, poha and peanut chat, with chai, coffee and lassi.

Shop
Rehwa Society (Ph 81200 01388, 8424999225 http://www.rehwasociety.org) is open between 10 am–6pm and Saris are around Rs.3000, scarves Rs.700 and dupattas Rs.1200. Tana Bana Maheshwari Handloom (Ph 86026 27811) on Mahatma Gandhi Marg, Bazaar Chowk. Women Weave Gudi Mudi (Ph 88004 11898) on Mandleshwar Road, Gadi Khana.

Discover This: Maheshwari Saris
In Maheshwari saris, silk thread is used in the tana (warp) and cotton in the bana (weft), which imparts a silken sheen and a light, comfortable drape – ideal for the region’s hot climate. However, the uniqueness lies in its weave. The body is checked, striped or plain but the striped pallu and border designs are inspired by traditional or architectural temple motifs. Each design has a specific name – rui phool (cotton flower), diya (lamp), chameli (jasmine), hans (swan), aari (wood saw), jugnu (fireflies), baadal (clouds), jharoka (lattice windows), iint (brick), chatai (mat) and heera (diamond) A wavy border pattern is called ‘Narmada ji’ or leheriya inspired by the river’s ripples…


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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the June 2018 issue of Discover India magazine. 

Ahmedabad: By the banks of the Sabarmati

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Ahmedabad, or Amdavad to locals, will captivate you with its history, architectural gems, heritage walks and food, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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Sometime in 1411 AD, while camping on the banks of the Sabarmati River, Ahmed Shah I saw a hare chasing a dog. Intrigued, he wondered if a typically timid hare could be so brave here, how brave would its people be! And so, he shifted his capital from remote Anhilwada Patan to a new riverside location. In a brilliant throwback to the legend, we saw the tenacious Amdavadi spirit on full display as a tiny goat took on a larger one, incidentally at the burial place of Sultan Ahmed Shah at Badshah ka Hazira near Jama Masjid. However, the city was named Ahmedabad not in honour of one man named Ahmed, but four!

When permission to found a new city was sought from revered Sufi saint Paigambar Al Khizr Khwaja, he set forth a strange condition. Only four individuals with the name Ahmed who lived by the rules of Islamic faith and never missed a single namaaz in life could hold the ropes to lower the foundation stone and ensure the prosperity of the city. The four eminent Ahmeds who fit the requirement included Sultan Ahmed Shah himself, worthy grandson of the first Sultan of Gujarat, Sheikh Ahmed Khattu Ganjbaksh, the saint of Sarkhej, Malik Ahmed whose tomb is in Pathanwada in Kalupur and Kaji Ahmed whose tomb lies in Patan. Thus, Ahmedabad came into existence.

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The Sabarmati river is emblematic of the city and has always played a key role in its story. In the 11th century the area around present-day Ahmedabad was called Ashaval or Ashavalli after local ruler Asha Bhil. When Solanki ruler Raja Karnadev of Anhilwara-Patan defeated him and established a city on the banks of the Sabarmati, it was called Karnavati. Being on the crossroads of trade routes from north to south or Saurashtra and Lat Pradesh, it attracted Jain traders and Brahmins who built several Jain and Hindu temples and monuments.

When Rajput rule came to an end in the early 14th century, Zafar Khan Muzaffar, suba (governor) of the Sultans of Delhi asserted his independence and began ruling Gujarat with Patan as his headquarters. The first three Sultans of Gujarat ruled from there but the expansion of their kingdom prompted them to move the capital from distant Patan to a more central location Karnavati, now Ahmedabad or ‘Amdavad’ as it’s called locally.

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The first structure to be constructed was Bhadra Fort. Built as the principal entrance of the palace complex, it was named after the ancient Rajput citadel of the same name at Anhilwada Patan, dedicated to goddess Bhadrakali. The fort’s massive towers and walls that withstood numerous conflicts finally surrendered to the onslaught of development. Similarly crowded by shops, pedestrians and vehicular traffic is the famous Tran Darwaza (Three Gates), the actual entrance to the walled city. Few know that the Gateway of India was inspired by this structure! Karanj, once a huge area called Maidan-i-Shah was where the sultan and his noblemen watched polo. It also served as a resting place for horses and elephants and a venue for Friday bazaars.

As the city evolved into a textile hub and grew beyond its confines, in the late 1970s, the capital was shifted 30 km further along the Sabarmati to the newly built, well planned city of Gandhinagar. Yet Ahmedabad still continues to be the commercial capital of the state and enthralls visitors with its shaking minarets, fascinating monuments, varied architecture, ancient stepwells and a plethora of museums.

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Heritage

From Hindu vavs (stepwells) at Adalaj, Jain temples and Islamic architecture to colonial influences, Ahmedabad’s heritage is a blend of all these and more. Recognizing its worth, in July 2017, the historic Old City of Ahmedabad was declared as India’s first UNESCO World Heritage City.

Old City
The highlight of the Old City is its numerous pols (derived from Sanskrit pratoli), self-contained neighbourhoods connected by narrow streets and squares with community wells and chabutaras or bird feeder pedestals. These pols were protected by gates, secret passages and cul-de-sacs, known only to its inhabitants. Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation with guidance from CRUTA Foundation runs a Heritage Walk every morning at 8am.

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After a brief slideshow, the walk starts from the world’s first Swaminarayan Mandir built in 1822 at Kalupur and founded by Shri Sahajanand Swami. The temple complex has three sanctums and is surrounded by wooden havelis to house monks. Led by a local guide, the tour takes visitors past various pols, mandirs and monuments.

At Kavi Dalpatram Chowk, we saw a bronze sculpture dedicated to Gujarat’s poet laureate – Kavishvar Dalpatram Dahyabhai (1820-98). He came to Ahmedabad at the age of 24 to study Sanskrit at the Swaminarayan temple and lived in the old mansion behind his statue.

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Lambeshwar ni Pol had intricately carved bird feeders and buildings with wooden pillars, beams and brackets. The Calico Dome built in 1962 along Relief Road was actually the roof of the calico mill shop designed by Gautam Sarabhai and was inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s concept of a geodesic dome. India’s first fashion show was arranged beneath this dome!

Khara kua ni Pol named after a salt water well had buildings bearing colonial influences – from Art Deco motifs to scenes like a European lady reading a book. Shri Kala Ram ji Mandir has a seated idol of Lord Rama carved out of black kasauti (touchstone). Kuawalo Khancho, named after a community well, had a mix of architectural styles – Gujarati, Maratha, Persian and colonial.

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We stopped to marvel at the unique parrot holes – small niches in the exterior walls of houses sometimes with matkas (earthen pots) embedded in the walls. Harkuvar Sethani ni Haveli, once the largest building in the old city, was the colossal mansion of Sheth Hutheesinh’s wife who fulfilled her pious husband’s dream of constructing a large Jain temple. It was fascinating to discover that 600 years ago the Manek river, a tributary of the Sabarmati, flowed on the very road we walked on! A little ahead, below Fernandes Bridge built in 1884 by the British, was Ahmedabad’s biggest book market Chopda Bazaar.

The 2hr heritage walk ended near Muhurat Pol, the first residential area established in the city, opposite the Old Stock Exchange. The House of MG, a Baroque-themed 1924 home converted into a heritage hotel, organizes an unusual heritage walk by night through hidden bylanes to Mangaldas ni Haveli, Kshetrapal Mandir, Lakha Patel ni Pole besides royal tombs of the queen and kings – Rani no Haziro and Badshah no Haziro.

Getting there: Start from the Swaminarayan Temple in Kalupur and end at Jama Masjid

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Jain monuments

The impressive Hutheesing Jain temple dedicated to the 15th Jain tirthankar Dharmanatha is a massive temple complex, initiated by wealthy trader Sheth Hutheesing Kesarisinh and completed by his wife after his death. Built at a cost of Rs.10 lakhs in 1848, the temple was constructed during a severe famine in Gujarat and created employment for hundreds of skilled artisans and supported their families for two years! Its colonnaded corridor with beautiful arches and manastambha (column of honour) are stunning.

Hidden in the bylanes of the old city are some spectacular derasar (Jain shrines). The temple in Shantinath ni pol, named after the 16th Jain tirthankara, was built in 1923 and has a lovely 19 inch idol. Lambeshwar ni Pol is named after a Shvetambar Jain temple while Doshivada ni Pol, inhabited by the goldsmith community, has a Jain library and marble temple of Ashtapadji. Shantidas Zaveri, a Jain merchant built the beautiful Chintamani Derasar in 1626. When Aurangzeb was suba (governor) during Shah Jahan’s reign, he desecrated the temple, but Shantidas secretly hid the images. His heirs installed the image of Lord Adishwar in 1943, the second image was installed in the cellar of Jagvallabh in Nisha Pol and the third one was installed in the temple of Suraj Mahal. Several other Jain temples are centered in Zaveriwad like Sametshikhar temple, Mahavir Swami’s temple and Shri Manibhadraji’s temple. You can spot the only derasar on a terrace while driving by the Sabarmati in Usmanpura depicting the future tirthankar Shri Simandhar Swami.

Getting there: Hutheesing Temple is located on Shahibaug Road at Bardolpura in Madhupura while most of the other Jain temples are within the walled Old City – Sametshikhar temple in Mandvi-ni-Pol, Mahavir Swami’s temple near Fatasha pol and Shri Manibhadraji’s temple near Rupam Cinema

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Islamic monuments

Sarkhej Roza is a beautiful Indo-Saracenic architectural complex fusing Persian elements with Hindu and Jain styles. Sufi saint Sheikh Ahmed Khattu Ganj Baksh, spiritual guide and mentor of Sultan Ahmed Shah chose to settle in the quiet environment of Sarkhej away from the city in his later years. After his death in 1445, Sultan Mohammed Shah commissioned a mausoleum in his honour, along with a mosque. Towards the end of the 15th century, Sultan Mahmud Begada excavated a central tank and added several pavilions, gardens, a small private mosque. Eventually it housed the tombs of his wife and himself.

However, Ahmedabad’s mosques are a treat for any architecture lover. Jama Masjid, one of the India’s largest mosques was built in 1423 at the intersection of four roads with an open court measuring 87,096 sq ft. Two tall minarets around its main arch were destroyed during an earthquake while two remain. Its three gates open to Manek Chowk, Pankor Naka and Kagdi Pol.

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Ahmed Shah’s Mosque was built by the Sultan in 1414 as a private prayer house for the royals. The central hall has exquisite perforated stone windows and corbelled ceilings with a muluk khana (screen hanging gallery) used by the Sultan. The zenana enclosure at the northwest corner has 25 richly carved pillars. Though smaller than the Jama Masjid, it is older and represents the earliest architectural style in its class.

Only two lofty minars remain of the Sidi Bashir Mosque built and named after the famous architect during the reign of Sultan Mahmud Shah I Begada (1458-1511). Destroyed by the 1755 earthquake, only its jhulta (shaking) minars still stand due to the unique plinth construction. Bai Harir Sultani mosque is a stepwell complex and maqbara built by Harir, the chief officer of the Sultan Mahmud Begada’s zenana.

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Rani Sipri’s Mosque built in 1514 by one of the Hindu queens of Nasir-ud-din Mahmud Shah I, is hailed as Masjid-e-Nagina (Jewel of a mosque) for its intricacy despite its diminutive size. Of particular beauty are the perforated stone screens, two slender ornamental minarets and six-domed roof. The Sidi Saeed Mosque built in 1572-73 by an Abyssinian who came to Ahmedabad from Yemen, during the reign of Sultan Muzaffar Shah III, the last ruler of Gujarat took our breath away with its carved jali. The stone lattice with intertwined trees, foliage, depicting the tree of life forms the famous logo for IIM Ahmedabad.

Getting there: Sarkhej is 8km south of the city centre. Jama Masjid is outside Bhadra Fort, along the south side of the road extending from Teen Darwaza to Manek Chowk

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Sabarmati Riverfront

Located in a quiet shaded nook on the river bank, the Sabarmati Ashram was founded in 1917 on the lines of Tolstoy Farm and Phoneix Ashram that Mahatma Gandhi had set up in South Africa. Hridaya Kunj served as the residential quarters of Gandhiji and Kasturba from 1918 till 1930. This was the hriday (heart) of the ashram that inspired all his national activities. Vinoba/Mira Kutir is a small hut where Vinoba Bhave stayed between 1918-21 and Madeleine Slade (Mira) between 1925-33. On display are quotes from eminent leaders and strangely addressed letters – ‘Gandhiji, Delhi’ ‘Mahatma Gandhi, jahan ho wahan’ and ‘Mahatma Gandhi, Mahabaleshwar, About 70 miles from Bombay’.

Gandhiji launched the Dandi March on 12 March 1930 from here, vowing not to return till India was set free. Thousands gathered on the historic Ellis Bridge across the Sabarmati to hear Mahatma Gandhi’s call for the salt satyagraha. Linking the western and eastern parts of the city, the 125-year-old steel bridge with its emblematic arches was the first of its kind in Ahmedabad. After floods destroyed the original Lakkadiyo Pul (wooden bridge) constructed by British engineers in 1875, a new bridge was made in 1892. Engineer Himmatlal Dhirajram Bhachech used imported Birmingham steel at a cost of Rs.4,07,000 to build it and named it after Sir Barrow Helbert Ellis, commissioner of the North Zone.

Since the estimated budget was Rs.5 lakh rupees, the Government suspected Himmatlal of using substandard materials. But an inquiry committee found that it was indeed a fine construction and Himmatlal was honoured with the title of Rao Sahib. When the bridge became too cramped with heavy motorized traffic, new concrete bridges were constructed on either side. In 1997, Ellis Bridge was converted into a pedestrian walkway to preserve it as a heritage landmark of the city. The once squalid river, which had become a seasonal stream, was revived by diverting the rivers of the Narmada and beautified into a scenic riverfront.

Getting there: 7km from the city centre
https://gandhiashramsabarmati.org

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Museums galore

From Doc’s Locks (Dr. Hiren Shah’s Old Locks Collection) to Surendra Patel’s Utensil Museum run by Vechaar (Vishala Environmental Centre of Heritage of Art, Architecture and Research) with thousands of utensils, including a 1000-year-old vessel, Ahmedabad has a wealth of rare museums. The Calico Museum’s nine halls showcase India’s textile traditions including the patolas of Patan and bandhnis of Gujarat (visits by prior booking only). City Museum tells the story of ‘Karnavati: Atit-ni-Zankhi’ at Sanskar Kendra, designed by French architect Le Corbusier. The cellar holds a unique collection of kites gifted by Bhanu Shah to Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, making it the first museum of its kind in India.

AutoWorld Museum, developed by Pranlal Bhogilal family, is the largest automobile collection in India with antique vehicles. Shreyas Museum and Adivasi Museum throw light on the tribal and folk traditions of the state. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Memorial Museum was established at Shahibaug (Motishahi) Palace where he stayed. While Gandhi Memorial Museum at Sabarmati Ashram is dedicated to the Father of the Nation, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai Space Museum is dedicated to the father of India’s space program.

Getting there: The Calico Museum is on Airport Road opposite the under bridge at Shahibag, Tribal Museum is at Gujarat Vidyapith while the City Museum and Kite Museum are at Sanskar Kendra near Sardar Patel Bridge behind NID in Paldi

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Food

The most popular street snack in Ahmedabad is dal vada, avidly consumed by locals who pop in for a quick bite at outlets like Shree Ambika Dal Vada Centre. Sold by weight ranging from Rs.20 (67 grams) to Rs.290 (967 grams), it is served hot with green chillis and salt. For something more substantial, try a Gujarati thali, which was first served commercially by Chandvilas Hotel in 1900. At fixed meal restaurants like Sasuji (Ph 079-26405065-66 http://www.sasuji.in) that open for lunch and dinner, enjoy a spread of dal, kadhi, chapati, puri, papad, rice, chatni, athana, kachumber and buttermilk for just Rs.270.

At the top end is Agashiye, the rooftop fine dine restaurant at The House of MG that offers two variants – a regular thali for Rs.935 and a deluxe thali for Rs.1265. Interestingly, starters like soup, methi gota, makai handva and patra are served at the alfresco waiting lounge. If you don’t mind a little drive, try the rustic charms of Vishalla, a big draw with locals and visitors. There are enough distractions like the Antique Utensils museum and live entertainment to keep you busy until your name is called out (with an appending ‘Bhai)’ and you are led to a low chowki. After a ceremonial hand-wash, a large traditional spread is laid out on sal leaf plates to be savoured in the yellow glow of lanterns.

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In town, Manek Chowk is a busy hub of gold and diamond trade by day but after the shops down their shutters, it transforms into an open-air food court with diverse snack stalls open late into the night. Little wonder one of the largest and most popular stalls is dedicated to churans and digestives! It’s also a great showcase Ahmedabad’s vibrant nightlife and locals swear by the city’s impeccable standard for women’s safety.

Due to the large Jain and Hindu population, vegetarian fare rules the roost. The first all-veg Pizza Hut in the world opened in Ahmedabad! However, not everything is vegetarian in Ahmedabad. For a non-veg fix, head straight to Bhatiyar Gali for mutton samosas, charcoal-grilled kebabs, tawa fry, salli boti and Surti 12 Handi.

Getting there: Agashiye is located at The House of MG boutique hotel near Siddi Sayyid jali, Vishalla is opposite the Toll Naka on Vasna Road in Juhapura

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Shopping

Manek Chowk, named after Hindu saint Baba Maneknath is an open market square near the city centre that serves as a vegetable market in the morning, a jewellery market through the day and a food market by night. In the old city, the cobbler shops of Madhupura sell mojris or traditional footwear while artisans of Rangeela pol make tie-dye bandhini. Rani no Haziro in the walled city near Manek Chowk and Sindhi Market are good spots to pick up bandhini and block printed fabrics. In the Gulbai Tekra area idols of Ganesha and other religious icons are made.

Come evening, shoppers congregate at Law Garden for a good bargain with some food on the go. It’s a good place to pick up Kutchi embroidery, mirror work fabrics, bedspreads, cushion covers, clothes and handicrafts. Being Mahatma Gandhi’s city, there are several khadi emporia. Sabarmati Ashram has a museum shop where you can buy khadi clothes, books, postcards, charkhas and other Gandhi memorabilia. Gujarati snacks like ganthia, muthia, dhokla, khandvi, patra, fafda, khakhra, sev, khaman and kachori, besides local sweets are also popular.

Getting there: Law Garden is accessible via Netaji Road near Ellis Bridge while Manek Chowk and Rani no Haziro are in the Old City

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FACT FILE

Chandrashekhar Solanki
Heritage Walk Co-ordinator
Ph 9327021686 Email cdsolanki3009@gmail.com
School students Rs.30, Indian visitors Rs.50, International guests Rs.100

Night Walk at The House of MG
Bhadra Road, Opp. Sidi Saiyad Jali, Lal Darwaja
Ph 7925506946 https://houseofmg.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article was featured in the March 2018 issue of Discover India magazine.

Bikaner: Tales of the Wild West

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore the bylanes of Bikaner on the Royal and Merchant Trails, tonga rides and other curated experiences while staying at Narendra Bhawan, the residence of the last Maharaja of Bikaner

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In 1488, proud Rathore prince Rao Bika, second son of the Maharaja of Jodhpur Rao Jodha, broke away from the dynasty after his ego was bruised by his father’s barb. On a whim, he came with a band of followers to a barren outcrop of land called Jangladesh to establish his own lineage. This was the Wild West, home to warring Jat clans, who were subdued only after local mystic Karni Mata arranged a strategic matrimonial alliance of Rao Bika with the daughter of Rao Shekha, the powerful Bhati chief of Pugal.

The new capital ‘Bikaner’ thrived due to its strategic location along the caravan routes between Western India and Central Asia. Enriched by trade on the Silk Route, Bikaner’s merchants and nobles built opulent palaces, havelis and temples in red sandstone that have withstood the shifting sands of fortune for five centuries.

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It was the 6th Raja Rai Singh who moved from the original bastion and laid the foundation of a more secure Junagarh Fort, giving impetus to trade in oil and spices. Maharaja Sujan Singh invited merchants to settle at Sujangarh while it was Maharaja Ganga Singh who offered them an incentive to make Bikaner their home, with the promise of tax-free income and donations of land to build houses, ‘for just a rupee and a coconut’. It is said, 1001 havelis were erected during his reign.

Preceding the city’s foundation is the 15th century Bhandasar Temple, the oldest and largest of the 27 Jain shrines in Bikaner, commissioned by Seth Bhanda Shah Oswal in 1468. When someone questioned the need for a lavish temple in a water-scarce region, the indignant trader swore not to use a drop of water. He built the temple’s foundation entirely out of ghee or clarified butter!

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The unique ‘Ghee Wala Mandir’ used 40,000 kg of ghee and is an apt symbol of a proud land, where merchants were no less haughty than kings. Carved in red sandstone and white marble, the temple holds a treasure of frescoes, etchings and wall paintings with rich mirror work and gold leaf work.

We stood awestruck outside the stunning cluster of seven Rampuriya havelis built by three brothers. Red sandstone mansions with exquisitely carved jalis (lattice work) and contrasting turquoise doors and windows lined the narrow lane.

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The Merchant Exploration tour, specially curated by Narendra Bhawan, offers charming insights into the grandeur of the mercantile class and their pivotal role in the growth of Bikaner.

We sat like royals behind Sultan, the sure-footed equine who navigated Bikaner’s impossibly narrow bylanes trotting nimbly beside pedestrians and motorists past havelis on a delightful horse carriage ride. Where the lanes were too tight, we disembarked for a guided walk.

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From Golchha Haveli to Dadda Haveli and Rangari Chowk, Kotharion ka Chowk to Daga Sitya Chowk, the tour culminated in a well-earned meal at Punan Chand Haveli, once a grand merchant residence. Welcomed with a tumbler of chhaas (buttermilk) and fragrant cold towels, we were ushered up narrow staircases to a chamber on the top floor.

While we absorbed the rooftop view of Bikaner, our hosts assembled an amazing Marwari platter on traditional low seating – sev tamatar, Jaisalmeri kala chana, ker-sangri, bajre ki roti, poori, boondi raita and moong dal halwa. The descent seemed daunting after our heavy feast and we soon returned to the comfort of Narendra Bhavan.

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Set in an urban landscape, the residence of Bikaner’s last reigning maharaja Narendra Singh ji seemed like any other Rajasthani haveli from the outside. But step into this boutique hotel and you are transported into a colourful world, much like the idiosyncratic persona of its former owner.

Narendra Singh ji straddled the cusp when the old order was changing to the new. He was born a royal but wanted to live like a commoner so he left the palace to build a humble home for himself. Composed of memories from his travels near and far, the residence is accentuated with unconventional bric-a-brac and offers thoughtfully curated, bespoke experiences.

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In many ways, Narendra Bhawan is an assault on the senses. Its eclectic influences range from the Art Deco movement of Bombay to the flamboyance of Broadway, the decadence of royalty to regimental pageantry inspired by generations-old royal interactions with military academies.

Tall Ming vases in the verandah, crystals from Czechoslovakia, porcelain from Dresden, red velvet settees and gold walls in the waiting room, bronze sculptures of hounds and horses, Hussein paintings, antique furniture and embroidered tapestries.

Narendra Bhawan, residence of Narendra Singh ji, the last Maharaja of Bikaner has been beautifully renovated into a boutique hotel IMG_2821

A whimsical electric red Baby Grand piano ‘Edith’, a tribute to Edith Piaf, sat on a raised stage at the far corner of the foyer. Cleverly renovated, the old single-storey structure was encompassed by a four-floor edifice built around it with the old terrace becoming the central courtyard. The haveli’s pillared arches and latticed windows echoed the traditional architecture of the region.

As the perennially dapper Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, the man behind the project, explained, “It’s like the house of a mad uncle we all love. Nothing makes sense initially, but eventually it grows on you. Because it is a residence, it is not themed, but a landscape of memories, a life depicted through time!” The rooms represent Narendra Singh ji’s transition across the ages – somber Residence rooms, flamboyant Princes rooms and Regimental rooms with masculine leather tones… Our room had the flourish of The Great Gatsby with candy pink lights and sorbet green lamps lighting up a marble topped work desk with a maroon leather chair and printed ottoman. No two rooms were alike and the best artworks were reserved for the loo!

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Here, Narendra Singh ji stayed with his family, 500 cows and 86 dogs. It is common lore that he would call individual cows by name and they would respond. He was awarded a Gauratna for his service to cows and he apparently never ate a meal till all his animals were fed. As a tribute to his love for animals, the gaushala (cowshed) and verandah have been reinterpreted into an outdoor dining space for a drink under the stars. The onyx tabletop came alive in the evening, lit up from below, to impart a fiery glow as we sipped the signature Negroni.

Bikaner has one of the most evolved cuisines in Rajasthan – from the banquets of kings and menus structured in French, to a touch of Bikaner with vegetarian fare of the traders and the meaty flavours of Muslim cuisine. P&C or Pearls & Chiffon was a tribute to the ladies of the house and the illustrious military backgrounds of their families. The high backed chairs exuded an aristocratic air.

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Here, churros and chooza kebab went hand in hand while murgh sabja, dahi waley alu, kachre ki sabji (local melon), angoor ki sabji, kale chane ki kabuli and mooli palak rubbed shoulders with goat cheese mousse, smoked duck with Hoisin glaze and white fungus mushrooms with butter cream and fried walnuts. Desserts like red velvet with ghevar, French almond biscuit and fresh berry compote could melt the hardest of Rajput hearts while their version of the Philadelphia Cheesecake was what one ought to eat before hitting the gym!

After a suitably leisurely breakfast at the Mad Hatter’s Bake House, we set off next morning on a bespoke Royal Exploration tour of its fort and palaces. We started off near the Lakshmi Nathji Temple where it all began – at Bikaji ki Tekri, a collection of chhatris or royal cenotaphs of Rao Bika and Bikaner’s early rulers. Stone tablets in Devanagri script commemorated the valour of the kings. On saving Indian princes from the tyranny of Aurangzeb, they received the title ‘Jai Jangalghar Badshah’.

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Unlike other citadels in Rajasthan that are perched on hills or vantage points, Bikaner’s Junagadh Fort is a rare edifice built on flat land in 1593. Yet, the imposing fort of red sandstone, the same colour as dried blood, has never been conquered. Within the complex lie spectacular courtyards and mahals (palaces) with eye-popping frescoes and tile work.

Karan Mahal has Mughal influence, Anoop Mahal bears gold leaf or usta work, the exquisite Phool Mahal features glass inlay on stucco, while Badal Mahal has blue clouds interspersed with lightning motifs painted on its walls and ceilings. A ceremonial 1,100-year-old sandalwood throne stands in the Durbar Hall. Another outstanding highlight is the Sur Mandar’s unique jharokha of blue and white Delft tiles.

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The Fort Museum heaves with riches like Ali Baba’s fabled cave – thrones made of silver and sandalwood, golden swings, royal palanquins and howdahs and an ornate jhoola (swing) with the dancing gopis. There’s even a Haviland Plane displayed in the Vikram Niwas Durbar Hall, pieced together from the parts of two DH-9DE Haviland Planes shot down. Junagarh houses a smaller private museum Pracheena that displays contemporary arts and crafts, period furniture, costumes, photographs, crockery, cutlery and framed menu cards!

Maharaja Sir Ganga Singh ji served in the First World War in France and Flanders in 1914–1915 and sent 1000 camels to aid the British war effort. The elite gun-toting camel corps called Ganga Risala saw action in both the world wars. Ganga Singh ji represented India as one of the signatories at the Treaty of Versailles and opened the Gang Canal from Punjab in 1927. The world’s longest lined canal at the time, it ushered in another chapter of prosperity for Bikaner.

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Ganga Singh ji also commissioned the opulent Laxmi Niwas Palace, which took architect Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob five years to complete. This fine specimen of Indo-Saracenic architecture (a mix of Hindu, Mughal and European styles) served as the private residence of the royals and is now a heritage hotel. The stunning inner courtyard is lined by various chambers. In the resplendent Swarna Mahal with usta art on a Burma teak-paneled ceiling, dine on elaborate Rajasthani thalis and lal maas or mutton cooked in gulmohar flowers.

Inside the Trophy Bar, an Assamese rhinoceros and a Nepalese bison face off from opposing walls while fourteen magnificent tigers stare down at you in the Billiards Room. In 1902, another royal retreat was commissioned. Lalgarh Palace, now a heritage hotel, was built in Victorian style with beautiful lattices, filigree work and vintage etchings, hunting trophies and old portraits adorning the walls.

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We stopped at the market to see the local jadau jewellery as craftsmen worked wonders with enamel and diamonds studded in 24 carat gold. Others kept alive the tradition of usta, derived from ‘ustad’, an art brought to Bikaner by Muslim artisans. A detour to see the royal cenotaphs at Devi Kund Sagar and we were ready to hit the pool at Narendra Bhawan.

Overlooking the city, the terrace dons its Havana-esque style with aplomb. The plain walls with niches and bursts of green foliage contrast the blue sky and the gorgeous azure of its infinity pool. By evening, it transforms to recreate the magic of Arabian nights with shimmering curtains and sumptuous feasts.

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Narendra Bhawan’s unique experiences are not limited to the confines of the haveli. ‘Reveille at Ratadi Talai’ promises ‘goat for breakfast’, a take on the cavaliers grill, with goat grilled to perfection and served with nalli nihari – a robust curry of trotters, with eggs, bacon and hash.

We drove deep into the heartland of the Bikaner desert to a secret enclave for ‘Sundowners at the Pastures.’ The light of the lanterns mirrored the stars twinkling above, a folk musician played a soulful tune on his ravanahatha, singing about battles won and lost. We raised a toast to the wild glory of Bikaner’s past as the untamed Jangladesh wind ruffled our hair.

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Discover This
30 km from Bikaner, the 600-year-old Karni Mata Temple at Deshnoke, is dedicated to the household goddess of Bikaner’s rulers. Famous as India’s rat temple, it is home to legions of rats that are worshipped by the local Charan community as their reincarnated ancestors.

Scurrying in and out of holes, they perch on shoulders of pleased devotees and scuttle down marbled hallways, into pails of milk and platters of sweets, all 20,000 of them! Devotees tread warily performing pradakshinas (circumambulation) around the shrine as harming a rat is sacrilege while a glimpse of the kaaba (white rat) considered most auspicious.

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NAVIGATOR

How to Reach
By Air: The nearest airport is Jodhpur, 253 km away or Jaipur, 334 km.
By Train: Bikaner lies on the Western Railway and is well connected to Delhi, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Kalka, Allahabad and Howrah.
By Road: Bikaner is 249km from Jodhpur, 312 km from Jaisalmer, 334 km from Jaipur and 458km from Delhi with good bus connectivity.

Where to Stay
Narendra Bhawan
Ph +91-7827151151
http://www.narendrabhawan.com

Laxmi Niwas Palace
Ph 0151-2200088, 8875025218
http://www.laxminiwaspalace.com

Lallgarh Palace
Ph 0151-2540201-7, 9711550134
http://www.lallgarhpalace.com

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What to Eat
Local namkeen and mishtan bhandars are famous for sweets like Mawa Kachori and Ghevar besides the local staple mirchi bada. Bhikaram Chandmal Bhujiawala is the best place to pick up the eponymous Bikaneri bhujiya while Chhotu Motu Joshi Sweet Shop is good for aloo puri, methi-puri, kachoris and lassis.

When to Go
The best time to visit Bikaner is between October and March, the winter months. The colourful Camel Fair is held at Bikaner in January.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in November 2017 in Discover India magazine.

Down the cobbled streets of Copenhagen

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PRIYA GANAPATHY takes a heritage walk down the old cobbled paths of Copenhagen to historic city landmarks, where bits of Denmark’s colourful history and culture come alive with a dollop of humour

DSC03034 The painted houses of Nyhavn, a fairytale setting by day or twilight

High above the Richs building at the corner of Vesterbrogade in Copenhagen, I spotted the gilded Weather Girl sculptures. The rotating ladies atop a tower warn Danes about rain and shine! One rides a bicycle and sticks out of the tower when it is sunny. And if it rains, the sculpture swivels to let the other lady out who carries an umbrella and walks her dog! Created by Einar Utzon-Frank in 1936, the artwork summed up a typical scene in Copenhagen – omnipresent bicycles and rain! There’s an inside joke among men in Copenhagen who swear that “these are the only two women you could trust!”

The Hans Christian Andersen heritage walk is a wonderful way to unearth the city’s hidden stories in buildings and landmarks often ignored in everyday urban tedium. We followed our guide Richard Karpen to where the Old City began, past a straggle of tourists posing near the Bull and Dragon Fountain to cut across the massive courtyard fronting the century-old City Hall. At the doorway, above the balcony was the gilded statue of the city’s founder Absalon, the Catholic Bishop who fortified the castle near the harbour in 1167. The Clock Tower rose 105.6m, making it one of the tallest buildings in town, with the Jensen Olsen astronomical world clock on the ground floor.

Bridge of Sighs view in the Old City Quarter

Copenhagen’s emblem or Coat of Arms – a shield with three towers – rests at the base of the flag pole. Six statues at the top represent the nightwatchmen, the police force and the fire department. The polar bears in the corners represent Greenland and the 32 Faroe Islands which are part of Denmark’s territory. The sea faring nation actually comprises 400 islands and is about the size of Switzerland with a population of 5.6 million Danes.

Inside City Hall, we found ourselves in the august company of Denmark’s most famous luminaries. Four wonderful marble busts decorate the vast hall – Martin Nyrop, the architect of the building, Bertel Thorvaldsen one of the greatest sculptors of early 19th century, Nobel prize-winning physicist and atomic researcher Niels Bohr, and story-teller extraordinaire Hans Christian Andersen.

DSC03130-Wall murals at the University Law Faculty on mythical themes

After signing marriage contracts inside, newly married couples often clink champagne flutes and pose for a picture against City Hall’s stunning backdrop! Some grooms even cart their brides in Copenhagen’s iconic quirky Christiania cargo bikes! The large hall exemplified Danish pride with its simple walls displaying the Danish flag. It is the oldest flag continually in use since the 1300s and Danes consider its signature Crusader’s Cross a symbol of joy. It is perfectly normal in Danish culture to find these flags decorating Christmas trees, birthday cakes, or being propped around picnic blankets… Danes even carry them to greet someone at the airport!

Thorvaldsen’s exquisite statue of Jason and the Golden Fleece is displayed in one section. Initially following the Classical style, he sculpted statues of Greek and Roman Gods before taking inspiration from Nordic deities like Odin, the king of the Gods who gave us Odin’s Day (Wednesday). Here you discover how days of the week are dedicated to gods featured in Norse mythology – Thor the Destroyer with his thunderbolt gave us Thor’s Day (Thursday), Fria is the Goddess of Fertility to whom Fridays are dedicated and Tuesday is named after Tyr, the God of Combat.

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Try saying Strøget in Danish and you’ll confess that Danish is indeed a difficult language. “Everyone here will speak English except your bus driver and the one you’re asking for directions!” Richard joked as we checked out the shopping precinct of Strøget, one of Europe’s longest car-free pedestrian streets. Chockful with global brands and souvenir shops, you will also find upscale shops selling Danish amber, crystal, fur and fashion further down.

A towering bronze Lur Blowers, a pair of Vikings caught in a musical moment nearby paid tribute to the notorious sea-faring Vikings, who were raiders, traders and settlers. For centuries, they struck fear in the hearts of the rest of the world. The sculpture was gifted to the city during the centenary birthday celebration of Denmark’s most famous brewer JC Jacobsen’s who founded Carlsberg. Vikings trace their origins to Danish, Swedish and Nordic tribes who flourished a thousand years ago. Their common language – old Nordic, gave us words like ‘berserk’, ‘kill’, ‘thrust’ and ‘wife’!

IMG_0458-Lurs Blowers statue, a tribute to the Viking legacy of Denmark

We strolled to the old bridge connecting the Court house to the old Debtor’s prison, surrounded by Neo Classical architecture. It was nicknamed the Bridge of Sighs in a nod to the famous one in Venice, which also spans a canal between a Court House and a prison! The spectacular view of the pastel-coloured buildings through the archway was a picturesque angle chosen by Danish painters since early 19th century!

Many of the buildings were designed by the Dutch during the Renaissance in the 1600s like the Rosenborg Castle housing the crown jewels and royal regalia. The elaborate ornamentation of French or Rococo and Baroque architecture emerged in the 1700s. In the 1800s, as artists and architects visited Rome and Greece where great monuments were being unveiled, and often imitated such great works while rebuilding cities across Europe. The antique became the ideal as most cities copied Greek and Roman designs, which spawned the simple and symmetrical Neo Classic architecture in the region. The Danes did not develop their own style of architecture until much later.

DSC03104-Cafe Nytorv, a pitstop for great food and schnapps

We halted at Cafe Nytorv, a small restaurant at the square, run by Dennis and Charlotte that specialises in Danish cuisine. The yellow corner building dated 1792, is a century and a half old and one of Copenhagen’s oldest inns. They welcomed us with a shot of traditional Danish Schnapps or akvavit, a sweet alcoholic drink flavoured with herbs and spices. “It’s designed to make men feel strong and women feel weak,” quipped Richard as we learnt the nuances of its drinking protocol. Our hosts raised a toast and we all uttered the Danish greeting ‘Skål’ (pronounced skol)! The guest could propose another toast and this ceremony could go on “until everyone at the table begins to look good!” If we knocked a couple more, he confirmed that “Dennis will look like Brad Pitt and I will look like George Clooney!”

Today skål’ means hello, cheers, good health or ‘bowl’. But the word holds more history. During Viking times, it was a tradition for the victorious to drink from the skull of the slain opponent or leader after war, which was scooped out to a bowl. It became a warcry and later evolved into a salute to good health. Nytorv stands right near an ancient whipping post. It was hard to imagine how this cheerful café-lined area was a market square where public humiliation was common in the old days. Women brought their children to witness it for it was somewhat ‘educational’ and taught them the consequences of a life of crime!

Caritas Well or Fountain of Charity at the Old Market Square

At the heart of Old Copenhagen was Gammel Torv, the Old Christmas Market Square, the oldest in the city. The marvellous Fountain of Charity of a nude woman with a child at her breast and one at her feet occupied pride of place. It was part of the water system erected in the 1600s by king Christian IV who built Rosenborg Castle and the old Stock Exchange. Two major fires during the 1700s destroyed much of Old Copenhagen. Oddly, most buildings were about the same height; there’s an unwritten law that you’re not supposed to block your neighbour’s sunlight!

We saw a gabled roof carved with Neptune or Poseidon, the God of the Sea holding a trident on one side representing navigation and Hermes or Mercury, the messenger God with wings on his helmet, holding a staff and bag of money, signifying commerce, on the other. An arty sign to inform people that the owner was probably a ship merchant. At the University premises, we admired the Library’s brickwork and stained windows and the vibrant wall frescoes inside the Law Faculty.

DSC03058-Ornate entry of City Hall

Our walk ended at the carved doorway of city’s famous 17th century Round Tower or Rundetarn. It is the oldest observatory in Europe and only 36m tall, yet visitors take a cobbled spiral walk of 209m to reach the lookout for a view of the old city. Apparently, HC Andersen often visited its library hall for inspiration. In about an hour, we had covered entire centuries to witness the evolution of this fairytale city.

FACT FILE

Getting there:
Emirates, Lufthansa, Air France, British Airways and other airlines have daily flights to Copenhagen from major Indian cities via Dubai, Frankfurt or London. The journey time varies from 11 hour 45min to 12 hours 15min. Air India will soon launch direct flights to Copenhagen from Delhi thrice a week initially, starting September.

DSC03178 A blend of old and new architecture, Axel Towers near the 1886 circular Circus Building and Tivoli

Where to Stay:

Avenue Hotel
Ph: 0045 35373111
Award-winning boutique hotel with cosy simple stylish Danish design rooms in the heart of Norrebro, close to the metro with organic breakfast and signature wine hour at the bar.

Hotel Danmark
Ph: 0045 33114806
Brand new upscale boutique hotel in a historic neighbourhood close to City Hall Square and Tivoli. Has a rooftop bar and terrace with great views, fab indoor and outdoor dining options. www.brochner-hotels.com/hotel-danmark

DSC03232-Grilled avacados at Gemyse, Nimb's latest gourmet restaurant focusing on vegetarian cuisine

Where to Eat:
Copenhagen Street Food is a harbourside hangout on Papiroen Island with foodtruck style local, artisanal and global fare. Gemyse at the historic Tivoli Gardens is legendary Nimb’s newest addition serving gourmet, healthy veg fare with a few meat and seafood options. (www.nimb.dk/en/gemyse)

At Guldbergsgade in Norrebro, taste Danish food with Italian produce at Bæst, a restaurant known for organic food, woodfired sourdough pizzas and handstretched cheese. Its adjoining Mirabelle bakery is famous for naturally fermented fresh bread, house made pasta, Baest charcuterie and adventurous flavoured icecreams outside.

DSC03218-Glasshouse at Tivoli Gardens

What to do:

Visit Tivoli Gardens www.tivoligardens.com
Discover Copenhagen from the water on a GoBoat www.goboat.dk/en
Hans Christian Andersen Heritage Walk www.copenhagenwalks.com
Bicycle Tours with Cycling Copenhagen www.cycling-copenhagen.dk
Aquatic adventure along the canals with Kayak Republic www.kayakrepublic.dk
Savour a community Danish dinner at Absalon www.absaloncph.dk

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in Indulge, the Friday magazine supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper on 21 July, 2017. Here’s the original link: http://www.indulgexpress.com/life-style/travel/2017/jul/24/danes-of-delight-down-the-cobbled-streets-of-copenhagen-2811.html

Garli: Mansions in the Mountains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NAVIGATOR

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

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

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

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Where to Stay

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

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

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

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

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

Garli: Chateau Charisma

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover old world romance and architectural gems in a heritage village in Himachal Pradesh

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If it wasn’t for the summer heat and pahadi drumbeats heralding our arrival, we could have been in a faraway village in Germany or Switzerland. We stood under the painted oriel window of Chateau Garli with blues skies broken by white clouds and gyrating weathervanes, utterly besotted and bewildered by its beauty. The arterial road running through the pahadi town was lined by heritage buildings on either side though the summer haze obscured the snow-capped Dhauladhar range.

Garli in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra Valley wears its European influences with an air of nostalgic élan. In the 16th century, the area came under the rule of the Jaswan kingdom. The brave princess Prag Dei put up a stiff resistance against a band of marauders terrorising the valley and Pragpur was established in her honour. Its sister town Garli is peopled by the 52 hill clans of the Sood community, who originally lived in Rajasthan but were driven out by the Mughals.

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Around 19th century they settled around the hamlets of Garli and its more famous architectural twin town Pragpur four kilometres away. The site was chosen carefully at the tri-junction of three Shakti temples – Chintpurni, Jwalamukhi and Brajeshwari in Kangra to receive auspicious astral influences. They came here with cobblers, carpenters, craftsmen and other professionals to set up a trading township.

As treasurers of the Kangra royals and contractors who helped the British establish Shimla, the Soods amassed great fortunes and love for European style is so evident in Garli. The town is a haven of sprawling ancestral homes showcasing jaw-dropping architectural styles. Today, most are however in need of care and renovation. Some of the houses seem to be in a state of decay and the sleepy town does wear a tattered cloak of neglect and abandonment.

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Giving credence to this is a legend of a young bride who was wrongly accused of adultery by the villagers years ago. Angry at the slur to her reputation, the helpless girl cursed the entire village to eternal ruin. Surprisingly enough, over the years people started moving out and by the 1950s, apparently most of the houses in the once thriving village were abandoned. Thankfully, a few, like Chateau Garli, which lay unoccupied for 20 years, have now been protected.

Our host Yatish Sud and his son Amish have painstakingly restored their mansion, constructed in 1921 by his grandfather Lala Mela Ram Sud, into a boutique heritage stay. Each of its 19 rooms holds memories of another time – colonial furniture, mellow lights and crystal chandeliers contrasting sunlit coloured panes spilling rainbow reflections onto the floor.

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Our room in the old main building had a lovely balcony overlooking the large swimming pool. The ceiling artwork and gilded motifs framing the doorways, walls and windows were hand-painted by Amish’s sister Tarini, adding a classy, personal touch to the interiors. The acute gabled roofs, long windows and pillared verandahs of the main building flowed seamlessly to the annexe, which used to be a cattle shed.

Overlooking the pool and rustic kitchen counter, the annexe with its colourful windows transforms into fairytale castle at dusk. Each of the rooms are dressed with antique furniture like four poster beds and baby cribs, which accentuate its old world charm. Beside the pool, a mud-plastered counter was lined with brass pots and a traditional chulha (earthen oven) where food was prepared by local staff.

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Lunch was a lovely Kangra dhaam (meal) featuring a fixed menu of traditional Himachali delicacies like mhani, a preparation of black chana with jaggery and amchoor, siddu, the local steamed bread, mah ki dal, khatta (tangy curry) and meetha (sweet). After washing it down with some Kangra tea, we went on a guided walk around Garli.

Meandering cobbled alleys were lined by copper-toned mud-plastered homes, brick houses with slate roofs and lovely balconies, wooden balustrades, carved doors, wall murals and Rajasthani arches. Rayeeson wali kothi, the first mansion built in Garli, had murals and Rajasthani motifs on the walls, Santri wali kothi was dominated by two turbaned plaster sentries on the parapet wall while Nalke wali kothi had a public tap in front.

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We stopped by at one of the earliest bakeries in town where home-style cookies were being fired in a coal oven. On the town’s eastern end on the road to the Beas stood Naurang Yatri Nivas, a charming rustic style country lodge renovated by Yatish’s friend Atul Lal. In market lanes we discovered the progressive town planning, water and drainage system incorporated nearly a century ago.

The Soods established a boys’ school in 1918, a special women’s hospital in 1921 and a girl’s school by 1955. All of these, along with Garli Water Works, which used imported copper pipes from London, are still operational! The waterworks was inaugurated by Sir Malcolm Hailey, the Governor of Punjab on 8th February 1928 and a special road was built for the purpose. At a time when the rest of India was largely underdeveloped, the infrastructure of this tiny outpost was leagues ahead.

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Homes had wall niches for lamps to illumine the path for pedestrians in the old days. Pots of water were left thoughtfully for people to help combat heat and thirst. Such generosity of spirit was apparent even at Chateau Garli. When Yatish’s grandfather struck water while building the house, he adjusted his compound walls so that the well came outside his boundary and village folk could fill their pots. The practice continues to this day.

As Yatish drove us around local sights like Pong Dam, Dada Siba temple with Kangra paintings and 8th century Masroor rock-cut temples, we realized hospitality was not new to the Suds, it was an age old tradition.

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VITALS

Accommodation
Chateau Garli has 19 heritage rooms and suites between its main house and the annexe and serves robust, home-style meals including Indian, Chinese and local Kangra fare. Each room comes with AC, coffee maker and wi-fi besides a common swimming pool with underwater speakers!

Chateau Garli
Ph +91-1970-246246, 94180 62003
http://www.chateaugarli.com
Tariff Rs.5000 onwards).

Getting There
Garli is 4km/10 min east of its twin village Pragpur in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra district. It is 45km/1 hr southeast of Dharamsala, 186km/3 hrs from Chandigarh and 425km/7 hrs north of New Delhi. The closest airport is Gaggal in Dharamsala which has flights from Delhi. The nearest railway station is Amb, 16km/20 min away, connected by Himachal Express from Delhi, which reaches at 8am. Regular buses ply to Garli from many cities in Himachal like Pathankot (120km), Kullu (180km) and Simla (180km).

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller magazine: http://www.natgeotraveller.in/mountain-stay-chateau-garli-for-himachal-heritage-and-kangra-khana/

Wonderful Wernigerode

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PRIYA GANAPATHY goes for a walk in a beautiful painted German town in the Harz region to discover its captivating history, architecture and legends

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On a chilly winter morning I stepped out of HKK Wernigerode Hotel to explore the town of old brick buildings, stone-grey churches and half-timbered houses painted in myriad colours. Time had almost stood still in this town in Germany’s Harz district, renowned for its ancient Christmas markets and witch festivals. At the Marktplatz (Marketplace), I was treated to the loveliest homes and hotels I’d ever laid my eyes on. Wernigerode is defined by its idiosyncratic architectural style. Poet Hermann Lӧns called it “Bunte Stadt am Harz” or “the colourful painted town in the Harz foothills”.

Apparently, places in Germany suffixed with ‘rode’ indicate forests cleared of trees for tilling. The old city of Wernigerode was founded during the Great Clearings, nearly 1100 years ago by monks from a neighbouring district. They set up a chapel and a small castle to spread the faith in the Harz region. Locals claim the city was named after the Prior of the monastery. With abundant wood and rich mineral ores like gold, silver, copper and iron, the region saw quick growth in craft and trade. Most houses in Wernigerode have a half-timbered style and Wernigerode Public Gardens has a miniature section called “Little Harz” with a collection of 50 prominent landmarks in the Harz.

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The canary-coloured Bimmelbahn, named after the tinkling ‘bimmeln’ sound made by the toy train, trundled cheerily along the narrow cobbled street, ascending to Wernigerode Schloss, the town’s most popular sight. Looming above the city, the castle is a 1.5km hike from the marketplace. The only other access is by foot or horse-drawn carriages, adding to its old world charm.

The fairytale castle blends neo-Baroque and neo-Gothic styles. Fronted by a sprawling garden, it commands a fabulous cityscape of red-roofed buildings punctuated by arrowheads of church spires. In the inner courtyard stone sculptures of griffins and fierce gothic animals guarded wide steps and stone walls riddled with creepers and vines.

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A model of the original 12th Century castle, a former hunting lodge for German royals, is on display. The lavish interiors flaunt exquisite red and blue silk damask wall panels, monogrammed motifs, parquet floors, hunting trophies and gilded portraits. The grand Festaal (banquet hall) decorated with the stag crest of the House of Stolberg-Wernigerode spells out the opulence enjoyed by Kaisers and Dukes.

We noticed a raised deck with a special door. Back in the day, guests had to wear a special hat and thick cape called the ‘smoking jacket’ before entering the smoking lounge. This ensured they didn’t stink up the place with the odour of tobacco smoke clinging to their clothes. In 1950, the castle was refurbished into a museum and opened to public. Its unusual treasures include gifts, silverware, traditional dishes, recipes, menus and a book compiled by the French chef of the Stolberg family.

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Wernigerode’s fascinating history came alive during the guided city walk with the genial Werner Kropf. Goethe, who wrote the classic “Faust” came here in 1777 at the age of 28 to study mining in the Harz. Mining’s loss was music’s gain! Till 1870 it was a small town of 6000 inhabitants and after the foundation of the German Reich, it saw great development. One of the factories that opened in the 1800s was Hasserӧder, the largest and most famous brewery in Germany, which still exists. They produce beer that Germans swear by – about 1million litres per day! In 1899, the railway network through 140km of the Harz mountains to the highest point Brocken, was completed.

Despite several fires, few Baroque style homes managed to survive and are comparatively prettier than the simpler new homes. But what the latter miss out in ornamentation, is made up for in colour. Perhaps the cutest house was Kleinstes Haus, Wernigerode’s smallest house which belonged to postal worker Mr Nettelmann. Wedged between two houses (they skipped building the side walls!), the home built in 1792 is just 3m wide with two rooms, a small hall and kitchen! In 1900, it still managed to house a family of ten. Today the heritage house has been converted into a museum.

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Many houses are over 500 years old and retain remnants of Renaissance period artwork and woodwork with large overhangs, paintings and carvings. We saw a wonky house with a clever signboard in German nailed to its wall “There are not so many days in the year as there the number of years of this house!” Dating back to 1597, it stood crooked because the foundation was damaged by the flooding rains. Art, humour and beauty came together in these lanes.

We halted at the unusual Museum Schiefes Haus, formerly a water-powered mill built in Baroque style in 1680. It was built straight but today leans forward, earning fame as the Crooked Mill in town. Apparently its foundations too, eroded over the centuries as the little brook flowing alongside sometimes swelled into a flood. Today, it inclines 130cm, making it more tilted than the Leaning Tower of Pisa! It features models of mills inside. Its slope is so sharp it’s difficult to balance, like you would on a ship in the high seas. A landscaped Floral Watch designed in 1974 stands nearby.

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Wernigerode’s historic Rathaus or Town Hall in the heart of town was originally built in 1277 as a Spielhaus (playhouse). People gathered here to meet and have beer, play cards every evening, watch theatre or celebrate a wedding. When Wernigerode became a town, they declared it a Marktplatz.

As it prospered, the administration decided on a makeover for the Rathaus in 1936. They invited a young 27-year-old architect brimming with new ideas from his wanderings around Germany to decorate the building. He moved the oriels lying around in a corner for centuries to the roof and added two oriel towers.

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This stunning highlight became a signature of Wernigerode. Sitting pretty in shades of burnt orange, its Mayor Oriel windows (the Mayor’s office lies behind it) frilled by garden plants, the Rathaus is touted as the most beautiful Town Hall between the Atlantic Sea and the Ural Mountains. The inside story is that the administration short-changed the architect on his fee. So, he avenged it by ordering his craftsman to chisel images in the likeness of the administrators to publicly lampoon them. Enraged, they didn’t give him another project!

The building’s façade is beautiful with sculptural embellishments and the figures details even their costume and expression! One figure highlighted the typical attire of a farmer’s wife, another depicted a lumberjack with his axe. A row of wooden sculptures highlight the professions of the time – butcher, farmer, baker, miner, sweeper, the sixth was the artist himself, a carpenter, metalsmith, builder, potter, painter and a gunsmith.

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The centrepiece is the gilded and tiered Benefactor’s Fountain, built in honour of those who rendered exemplary service and contributed to local welfare. Many of the town’s buildings have been renovated into restaurants. The magnificent Gothic Haus built in 1440 was converted into a heritage hotel and restaurant in mid 19th century and was transformed into a 4-star hotel in 1992.

Another timbered heritage hotel Weisser Hirsch or The White Deer, stands opposite the fountain. With 70 restaurants, hotels and cafés, the town is a popular holiday spot. Though Wernigerode is relatively small, it receives an astonishing 3 million visitors a year, of which a million stay at least one night!

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Dampfladen (Steam Shop) stocks steam train souvenirs. The quirky 135-year-old bookshop Juttner’s Buchhandlung has 18 heavy bells hanging outside that chime everyday at five minutes past 12, 3 and 5pm in traditional folk tunes! Nearby, a metal sculpture of an owl and a hanging book highlight it as treasure-trove of wisdom.

Café Wein on Breite Strasse, the long pedestrian-only street, has a chocolate façade laced with pink flowers in its windows that made it look good enough to eat! Built in 1583 as a Renaissance style building, it has been run as a Viennese style café since 1898. The present owner Mrs Zeigermont is a gracious octogenarian who welcomes all her visitors personally. Her cakes are to die for!

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The second marketplace of Wernigerode was also a venue for Walpurgisnacht, the night dedicated to the Witches of Brocken. Every year between 30th April and 1st May, thousands gather here dressed like witches and wizards. Marked by binge drinking, all night dancing and loud music, the festival marks the end of winter and celebrates the onset of spring. We could almost hear the Witches of Brocken Hill cackling and cheering us on for a cold night of revelry.

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FACT FILE

Getting there: Fly to Hanover (130km) and take a train to Wernigerode (2.5 hrs) by the German Federal Railways (Deutsche Bahn) and ‘Veolia’ Transport trains.

When to Go: Wernigerode has a busy calendar with the Town Hall Festival in mid-June and a Wine Festival in June end. The Chocolate Festival began two years ago and takes place in end October. The centuries old Christmas Market begins on 1st December and goes on till Christmas.

For more details, visit www.wernigerode-tourismus.com/ and www.germany.travel

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Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the November 2016 issue of Imperia magazine.