Tag Archives: Bikaner

India’s Hottest Destinations

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY pick ten upcoming destinations across India to visit this year. Go now, before it gets really hot! 

A spurt of new attractions and airports across the country has turned the spotlight to atypical places hitherto off the tourist grid. Some places are reinventing themselves with unique sights or through experiential hospitality ventures, thus witnessing a surge of visitors.

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Statue of Unity
Everybody seems to be making a beeline to see the world’s tallest statue, Gujarat’s hot new attraction. Sardar Sarovar Dam was hardly a tourist destination, but the 182m tall Sardar Patel statue constructed on a small river island Sadhu Bet changed all that. Built at around 3000 crores by L&T in a world record time of 33 months, it was unveiled on 31st October 2018 on Sardar Patel’s 143rd birth anniversary. From the parking lot and ticket counter at Kevadiya, visitors are transported to the dam site in a shuttle bus. A wide walkway lined with travelators and a series of escalators leads to Sardar Patel’s feet with an Exhibition Hall and Gallery at the base.

Designed by Padma Bhushan artist Shri Ram V Sutar, the sculpture of Sardar Patel’s face in the hall is an exact replica of the main statue in the scale of 1:5. A museum catalogues Patel’s life and contribution to the freedom movement, besides the making of the statue. An audio-visual gallery screens a 15-minute show on Patel and the state’s tribal legacy. The concrete towers shooting up the statue’s legs have two high-speed elevators that transport visitors to the 153 m (502 ft) high viewing gallery in just 30 seconds. One can stay at the two Tent Cities overlooking the Sardar Sarovar Dam run by Gujarat Tourism. With direct flights to Baroda and Surat (a 2 hr drive), plenty of good hotels and a hovercraft project in the pipeline, the Statue of Unity is truly a big attraction.

Getting there: Fly to Baroda and drive 100 km to Kevadiya, from where buses transport you to SoU.
Timings: 9am-5pm, Monday closed  Entry: Viewing Gallery Adults Rs.350, Children Rs.200, Bus Rs.30 www.soutickets.in (2-hr visit slots available online)
Stay: Grand Mercure Surya Palace in Baroda www.grandmercure.com

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Jhalana
Bera near Jawai Dam in western Rajasthan has gained a lot of attention for its leopard population and charming stays like Jawai Leopard Camp, Leopards Lair, Castle Bera and Varawal Leopard Camp. Jeep safaris across its boulder-ridden landscape provide sightings from a distance but require a big lens to photograph the big cats. Jhalana, on the other hand, is a relatively new destination and its easy access (just 6km from Jaipur’s city centre) is a big advantage. Spread over 20 sq km, Jhalana Leopard Safari Park is home to around 16 leopards, of which 6-7 leopards have their territory in the tourism zone of the park. Started as recently as December 2016, two safari routes are currently open for visitors and sightings have been great.

Getting there: Fly to Jaipur and drive 6km to Jhalana.

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Ahmedabad
Acclaimed by UNESCO as India’s first heritage city in 2017, Ahmedabad serves as the perfect introduction to Gujarat. Hiding in its historic lanes are exquisite mosques, ornate stepwells, quaint pols (walled neighbourhoods) and a wealth of history and architecture. Go on a guided heritage walk with Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) or an unusual night walk of the Old City around Mangaldas ni Haveli while staying at The House of MG. The historic hotel showcases the textile traditions of various communities in Gujarat with a family archive of saris and shawls. The new textile gallery collection has three exhibitions titled ‘The Art of the Loom’, ‘Painting with Threads’ and ‘The Colours of White’.

The new lifestyle Renaissance Hotel is inspired by the city’s textile, culinary and festive heritage with kite-like patterns and other architectural motifs. It also has a specialty Japanese and Asian restaurant called Kuro to cater to the many corporate travelers from Japan! Its well-informed Navigators are like custodians of the city who take guests on specially curated local experiences – a tour of Sabarmati Ashram led by a Gandhian, meals at Agashiye rooftop restaurant at The House of MG to chasing wild asses in the Little Rann of Kutch (2hrs from Ahmedabad) while staying at Rann Riders ethnic resort.

Getting there: Fly to Ahmedabad and drive 2 hrs to the Little Rann of Kutch at Dasada
Stay: The House of MG & Mangaldas ni Haveli https://houseofmg.com/
Renaissance Ahmedabad Hotel http://renaissance-hotels.marriott.com/

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Sindhudurg
With commercial flight operations set to commence and the most luxurious resort on Maharashtra’s Konkan coast, tourism in Sindhudurg is set to boom. After rave reviews of their villas in Goa, Coco Shambhala’s Sindhudurg property won the best debut boutique hotel award in 2017 and was ranked by Conde Nast Traveller among the ‘25 Best Beach Villas in the World.’ Its recognition is well deserved. Overlooking a large swathe of the Arabian Sea and a short walk from Bhogwe beach, Coco Shambhala is nothing short of a tropical oasis.

An old village door opens to a flight of laterite steps that lead to four sea facing luxury villas at different levels. Each of them – Arka, Amaresha, Inaya and Varenya – come with two rooms, an open dining-cum-living space and private plunge pool. Dine on delectable international cuisine and Konkan fare in the comfort of your villa, spot birds from the balcony and pamper yourself at the spa. Excursions are organized to Bhogwe Beach, Kile Nivti fort ruins, boat ride and water sports at Tarkarli and Sindhudurg Fort, the only sea fort built by Chhatrapati Shivaji.

Getting there: Fly to Dabolim Airport in Goa and drive 3½ hrs north to Bhogwe in Sindhudurg district via Kudal.
Stay: Coco Shambhala Ph 8550985232, 9372267182 https://cocoshambhala.com/

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Bikaner
With direct flights now from Delhi and Jaipur, Bikaner is emerging as Rajasthan’s top destination packed with attractions. Explore Bikaji ki Tekri where the town was founded, the massive Junagadh Fort, Ganga Golden Jubilee Museum, the royal cenotaphs at Devi Kund Sagar, the opulent Laxmi Niwas Palace (a meal here is a must) and the 15th century Bhandasar Temple, the oldest and largest of Bikaner’s 27 Jain shrines. Its foundation was built using ghee instead of water – an indignant response from the merchant when someone taunted him for wasting water in an arid region. The city’s most Instagram’ed location is the cluster of seven Rampuria havelis built by a prosperous Marwari family of Oswal Jains. Red sandstone mansions with exquisite jalis (lattice work) and contrasting turquoise doors and windows line the narrow lane. Bhanwar Niwas, the grandest of these mansions, is run as a heritage hotel by Sunil Rampuria and his son Prashant and boasts a stunning Blue Drawing Room and gilded Dining Hall featuring the work of local usta (gold painting) artists.

Sunil’s newer property Gaj Kesri is a beautiful art hotel set amidst sprawling gardens and adorned with stunning art pieces. Go on a delightful horse carriage ride through the bylanes of Bikaner, visit the Camel Breeding Farm and Karni Mata’s ‘Rat Temple’ and peep into the Bhikaji factory to see how the legendary Bikaneri Bhujia is made. Narendra Bhawan, residence of the last maharaja of Bikaner, was recently renovated into a whimsical boutique hotel inspired by his eclectic personality and travels. The rooms represent Narendra Singh ji’s transition across the ages – flamboyant Princes rooms, Regimental rooms inspired by his military life, India rooms with khadi décor and avant garde Republic rooms. Be wowed by specially curated culinary experiences like Reveille at Ratadi Talai, Sundowners at the Pastures and Picnic at Ganga Sagar Canal, besides Merchant and Royal Exploration tours of the city.

Getting there: Fly to Bikaner from Delhi and Jaipur
Stay: Narendra Bhawan www.narendrabhawan.com
Gaj Kesri www.gajkesri.com Bhanwar Niwas www.bhanwarniwas.com

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Kurumgad
What used to be a rustic island retreat called The Great Outdoors off the coast of Karwar is now a hot new island getaway. The Little Earth Group, which runs the famous Destiny Farmstay, Sherlock and King’s Cliff in Ooty, has transformed this turtle-shaped isle of Kurumgad into the plush and private Cintacor Island Resort. Stay in ocean-themed rooms and enjoy the day’s fresh catch at Captain Nemo’s Deck at the highest point of the island. Go on trails around the isle – the Half Mile Trail, the East & West Mile Way and the Temple Trail to the old Narasimha temple linked to many legends. Discover charming nooks like Terrapin Pond, Cozy Canopy formed naturally by old roots and branches and Secret Cove, ideal for swimming, sunbathing, kayaking and fishing.

Indulge in water sports activities like jet skiing, kayaking, tubing and banana boat rides or simply watch the sun go down at ‘On the Rocks’ beach bar. Choose from various boat trips – Sunrise cruise (6:30 am), Sunset cruise (5:30 pm), Dolphin cruise (9am-6pm), River Cruise (9am-6pm) upstream along the river Kali or Lighthouse Tour (3pm) with a picnic hamper at Oyster Rock Lighthouse on Devgad island. If you like to take it easy, just go fishing, snorkeling, stargazing or pop by at the seafacing Kurumasana Spa (11am-9pm) that offers Swedish & Thai massages, wraps and signature therapies like the Stress Buster massage. So get on a boat (pick up/drop from Karwar jetty included) and drop anchor at 14.7 N, 74.1 E.

Getting there: Fly to Dabolim airport and drive 2 hrs to Karwar, from where Kurumgad is a 7km/30 min by boat.
Stay: Cintacor Island Resort Ph 9487533640 www.cintacorislandresort.com  

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Bengaluru
There’s a lot happening in Bengaluru, which makes Karnataka’s capital the flavour of the season. While the new terminal is still underway, the KIAL airport has been swanked up with a new F&B precinct outside called The Quad that everyone seems to love. There’s shopping and dining outlets in an alfresco environment and the city’s best craft beer from Windmills, Geist and Barley & Grape. With over 70 microbreweries, the city has firmly established itself as the Microbrewery capital of India. New joints like Fox in the Field, Shakesbierre, Aurum, Bier Library, XooX and Byg Brewski on Hennur Road (which, at 65,000 sq ft, is the largest craft brewery in India and one of the largest in Asia) have added to the ever-expanding pub culture and Bangalore nightlife.

Upping the oomph factor is a clutch of new hotels that wow visitors with unique concepts in hospitality – like the spanking upscale Four Seasons at Embassy ONE. Renaissance Hotel Race Course Road is a lifestyle hotel with an unusual derby theme inspired by the adjoining racetrack and curates authentic local experiences for guests. The stylish Sheraton Grand Bangalore in Whitefield is well kitted for business and leisure travelers alike with light fixtures and paper art from Auroville, Czech chandeliers by Lasvit and kinetic installations at the Convention Centre. Get a detox at Shine Spa and enjoy a range of cuisine choices at the restaurants – Inazia for pan-Asian and Grills and BBQs at Upper Cut.

Getting there: Fly direct to Kempegowda International Airport
Stay: Renaissance Hotel Race Course Road http://renaissance-hotels.marriott.com/
Sheraton Grand Bangalore Convention Centre www.sheraton.com
Four Seasons www.fourseasons.com

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Puducherry
Set up in 1968, Auroville recently completed 50 years of existence and has opened itself to visitors interested in a more immersive experience than a mere look at the Matri Mandir. While shops and eateries at the Visitor Centre happily snare tourists with some hankering for a visit inside the ‘Golden Globe’, true travelers could get a behind-the-scenes look at Auroville, led by an Aurovillean. Aura Journeys organize walks, tours and workshops to explore various communities – from agri farming to handmade paper, indigo dyeing, waste upcycling to artisanal chocolate and more, ending with a meal at the Solar Kitchen, making a great half day tour.

In Puducherry (Pondicherry), there’s a new Police Museum near our Lady of Angels Church with interesting headgear of gendarmes over the years. The Raj Nivas or Governor’s House is now open to visitors Mon-Sat 12pm to 1:30 pm, after registering online. Discover ‘Pondy By Cycle’ and choose a Wake Up Pondy Tour (7am-9am) with breakfast included or an Afternoon Photo Tour (3pm-7pm) with tea. Try scuba diving with Temple Adventures, go for guided walks with SITA on the French Connections Trail, Pondy Gourmet Walks and culture workshops. Take a ‘Life of Pi’ cycle rickshaw tour from Maison Perumal in the Tamil Quarter and a dose of Ayurveda and marma chikitsa at Palais de Mahe, as you experience modern Indian cuisine at their windy terrace restaurant. Get a dose of wellness with wat-su (water shiatsu) treatments and visit the Deepak Chopra Healing Centre at Dune Eco Village & Spa, which also runs the Hotel de L’Orient in the French Quarter.

Getting there: Fly to Chennai and drive 3 hrs to Pondy or take a train to Villupuram and drive an hour.

Stay: Dune Wellness Group https://dunewellnessgroup.com/
Maison Perumal and Palais de Mahe www.cghearth.com  

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Kannur
With the opening of Kannur International Airport, tourism is growing in Malabar, the northern tract of Kerala. Located a 45-minute drive east of Kannur town, the airport is perfectly positioned to explore the coastal towns of Bekal, Kannur and Thalassery and even destinations like Coorg and Wayanad. Being an ancient port, Kannur formerly Cannanore, was a centre of spice trade for the Portuguese, the Dutch and later a strategic British base on the west coast. Not many know that baking, circus and cricket were introduced to India in this coastal nook. Malabar has Kerala’s most pristine stretch of backwaters at Valiyaparamba with houseboat cruises sans the crowds of Alapuzha.

Visit beedi making units, coir factories and handloom weaving workshops and explore Bekal Fort, St Angelo’s Fort, Arakkal Kettu museum, Overbury’s Folly, old mosques, lighthouses and beaches like Payyambalam, Thottada and the drive-in Muzhappilangad. The region is known for its dramatic oracular ritual form – theyyam – an elaborate costumed spectacle that often lasts all night. While in Kannur, don’t miss the fish meals at Hotel Odhen’s or the Thalassery biryani at Paris Restaurant. Stay at beachside homestays like Kannur Beach House and Costa Malabari. For a culinary masterclass head to Ayisha Manzil where owner Faiza conducts demo-workshops on Mapilah cuisine, with informative walks to the local fish and vegetable market with her husband and host, Moosa.

Getting there: Fly to Kannur airport and drive 30 km to Kannur and 21 km south to Thalassery.

Stay: Ayisha Manzil www.ayishamanzil.com
Kannur Beach House Ph 098471 86330 www.kannurbeachhouse.com

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Rajkot
Easily one of the best new museums in India, Mahatma Gandhi’s alma mater has been converted into a hi-tech museum that opened on 30 September, 2018. Founded in 1875 as ‘Kattywar’ High School by the Nawab of Junagadh to mark The Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to India in 1870, Alfred High School was the first English School in Saurashtra. Mahatma Gandhi studied here between 1880-87 and it was renamed Mohandas Gandhi Vidyalaya in 1971.

The school’s 39 classrooms spread across two floors of the handsome stone building now serve as inspiring galleries, which pay a befitting tribute to the man who led India’s Freedom Struggle. With world-class technology and presentation – touch screens, interactive installations and recorded speeches – the museum illustrates the Mahatma’s life events and philosophy. Museum tickets are valid for Sound & Light show (7pm-7:20pm). While in town, also visit Mahatma Gandhi’s childhood home Kaba Gandhi no Delo, Watson Museum and the quirky Rotary Dolls Museum.

Gandhi Museum Timings: 10am-7pm
Entry: Rs.25 Adults, Rs.10 Children, Rs.400 Foreigners

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. An abridged version of this article was carried on 8 June, 2019 in the Travel supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper. 

Offbeat Heritage: It’s Monumental

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On the occasion of The International Day for Monuments and Sites (18 April) or World Heritage Day, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY uncover lesser known places of heritage in India

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We stared wide-eyed at Mahabat Maqbara. Never in our wildest dreams had we imagined stumbling upon a monument as grand as this in dusty Junagadh. Built in 1892 for Nawab Mahabat Khan II (1851-1882), the mausoleum was a unique blend of European and Indo-Islamic architecture.

French windows stretched from floor to lintel and Gothic columns shared space alongside Islamic arches and ornate flourishes. Adjacent, and similar in grandeur, stood the florid mausoleum of the Vizier Sheikh Mohamed Bahauddinbhai Hasambhai surrounded by four minarets with elaborate spiral stairways.

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The historic town in southern Gujarat had its share of monuments – from Ashokan edicts to Buddhist caves of Uperkot Fort, the sacred Girnar Hill dotted with shrines and mind numbing murals of the Darbargadh at the old capital of Sihor. It’s hard to stand out in a country with a plethora of UNESCO World Heritage heavyweights…

The Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri, the monuments of Delhi, forts and palaces of Rajasthan, the temples of Khajuraho-Orchha, Buddhist caves of Ajanta-Ellora and the Kailasanatha temple, the Sanchi stupa, churches of Old Goa, ruins of the Vijayanagara Empire at Hampi, stunning Hoysala temples at Belur-Halebid to Chalukyan architecture at Badami-Aihole-Pattadakal and the Great Living Chola temples of Thanjavur, Darasuram and Gangaikondacholapuram…

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Yet, on our journeys through Gujarat, we came across a wealth of lesser-known treasures – from stepwells, gateways to monuments. UNESCO World Heritage site Champaner-Pavagadh is a vast archeological park near Baroda spread over 2500 acres with monuments stretching from Pavagadh Hill, an early Hindu citadel extending to Champaner, the 15th century capital of Sultan Mahmud Begda (1458-1511) of Gujarat.

Now reclaimed by bramble, the old mosques flanked by minarets with arched entrances and jharokhas take the breath away of any visitor. Shaher ki Masjid was built for the royal family and nobles, the Nagina, Khajuri and Kevda Masjids were named after the shape of the dome and the Jami Masjid was counted among the finest mosques in Gujarat.

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A drive to the Statue of Unity from Baroda, passes through Dabhoi, an ancient fortified town known for its old fort and exquisitely carved gateways. The main entrance is the intricate Hira Bhagol (Gate), extending to the Gadh Bhavani Kalika Mandir. The spectacular gateway harks to the legend of its architect Hiradhar, who was buried here alive because the king feared that he would replicate a similar masterpiece for someone else. Some say Hira ran short of stones, thereby incurring the king’s wrath.

A hidden gem and one of Surat’s most important historical monuments are the European tombs of merchants and functionaries of the East India Company who worked in the factories at Surat. The English Cemetery has the impressive grave of the Oxenden brothers while the most majestic structure in the Dutch cemetery is the octagonal tomb of Baron Hendrik Adrian van Rheede. The adjacent Armenian cemetery has no superstructure, only elaborately inscribed tombstones.

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In neighbouring Rajasthan, an oft-overlooked destination is Bikaner, with its Rampuria havelis, Junagadh Fort, Laxmi Niwas Palace and Narendra Bhawan, the erstwhile residence of Bikaner’s last maharaja which has been recently renovated with rooms and décor inspired by his life and times.

Stay at Bhanwar Nivas or Gaj Kesri while going on tonga rides through the Old City or do the specially curated Merchants Trail. Mandawa in Shekhawati used to be an important stopover en route to Bikaner but the region is worthy of deeper exploration.

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In 15th century, Rao Shekhaji (1433-88), scion of the Shekhawat clan of the Kachhwaha dynasty conquered a vast area north of Amber. Over time, his descendants set up smaller thikanas (fiefdoms), raising new villages, forts and palaces, which attracted Marwari traders.

Using riches amassed through trade, the merchants built flamboyant painted havelis, often vying to outdo the other. Located at the junction of Churu, Sikar and Jhunjhunu the 13,784 sq km area called Shekhawati is thus described as ‘the largest open-air gallery in Rajasthan’.

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Nawalgarh, founded by Thakur Nawal Singh, has stunning mansions like the late 18th century Morarka Haveli and Dr Ramnath A Podar Haveli Museum. The Narain Niwas Castle in Mahansar was built in 1768 by Nawal Singh ji for his second son Thakur Nahar Singh. Nearby, is one of the best painted havelis in Shekhawati – Sone Chandi ki Dukan or Golden Room built in 1846 inside a Podar haveli. Ramgarh holds the largest number of frescoes in Shekhawati with the biggest mansion being Sawalka Haveli. The Khandelwal family renovated the century old Khemka Haveli into the Ramgarh Fresco Hotel and organizes walking tours around the painted town.

In Himachal, we found another heritage town called Garli. It is said that the 52 clans of the hill Sood community were driven out of Rajasthan by marauding Mughals and came to the Kangra Valley. Here, they became treasurers of the Kangra royals and as contractors, helped the British built Shimla. Settled around the hamlets of Garli and its twin town Pragpur 4km away, they used their riches to set up palatial homes showcasing jaw-dropping architectural styles. Many are crumbling but few like Chateau Garli and Naurang Yatri Nivas have been painstakingly restored and thrown open to visitors.

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A heritage walk through the cobbled meandering alleys is the best way to explore the town. The Spiti Left Bank Trek takes you to high altitude villages like Komic, the highest in Asia with a stunning old monastery, and Dhankar, the site of a crumbling gompa that was the first to be built in Spiti and as per legend will be the last to fall.

Another relatively undiscovered architectural treasure is Burhanpur in Central India. Between 1600 and 1720, it served as a secondary Mughal capital and finishing centre where princes and princesses were groomed. Akbar, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb, Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana all served as governors for over three decades each. Burhanpur has a staggering 126 monuments – the most after Delhi – including 35 key sights. Here, Sanskrit shared space alongside Arabic in Adil Shah’s two mosques Jama Masjid in Burhanpur and the lofty citadel of Asirgarh.

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The riverside palace complex Shahi Kila was expanded into Mughalbagh by the Mughals who overthrew the Farookis. Here, Shah Jahan built a grand hamam for Mumtaz Mahal suffused with paintings and inlaid with precious stones to reflect the lamp light. The entire ceiling is redolent with intricate paintings and a closer look reveals how some of the iconic motifs seem to be inspired by royal turbans and accessories worn by Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Begum.

Not many know that Mumtaz died in Burhanpur while giving birth to her fourteenth child and was laid to rest at her beloved Ahukhana, a hunting ground turned rose garden. Jehangir built a dar-ul-shifa (hospital) and a mardana underground Turkish bath where 125 men could bathe at a time; it lay hidden under a mound of earth until excavated 25 years ago.

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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. Begum Shah Shuja ka Makbara (tomb of Bilkis Jahan), wife of Shah Jahan’s fourth son Shah Shuja, is a simple yet marvelous monument with exquisite murals that is kept under lock and key to prevent vandalism. The caretaker will happily open it for visitors who wish to see the interior wall niches that are studded with jewel-like paintings, thankfully still intact in portions.

Some sites remain imprinted in our minds vividly because of the sheer impact, be it the massive rock cut Jain statues on Gopachal Parvat while climbing up to Gwalior Fort or the gigantic Buddhist figurines of Kanheri caves in Borivali, Mumbai. From the blue and gold motifs of Raja Man Singh’s fort in Gwalior to the sight of the tomb of Bahmani sultans at Ashtur struck by lightning or the soaring madrasa of Mahmud Gawan in Gulbarga (now Kalaburagi)…

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Be it the glazed finesse of the pillars and carvings at the Madhukeshwara temple in Banavasi, the old capital of the Kadambas or the symmetry of the twin temples of Mosale near Hassan; we tried to go beyond the known to the lesser known. If the terracotta temples of Bishnupur and West Bengal are overdone, try the terracotta temple complex of Maluti in Jharkhand.

In Chhattisgarh, the ruins at Tala on the banks of the Maniari river is a fascinating site. Built out of red sandstone by two Sarabhpuriya queens in the 6th century, the twin Shiva shrines of Devrani (Young Sister-in-law)-Jethani (Elder Sister-in-law). Exquisite carvings lie strewn like a jigsaw puzzle – remains of an elephant-drawn chariot, majestic pillars with four lion heads and outré bharvahak ganas (weight-bearing gargoyles).

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Beside an ornate doorway, the 8.8 ft tall sculpture of Rudra Shiva glared in stony silence from a grilled enclosure, with the goat-headed figure of Daksha bowed in reverence. The statue of Mahakal Rudra weighs 9 tonnes and is intriguing as it’s believed to represent the signs of the zodiac – coiled snakes for matted locks, two fish instead of a moustache, round chin shaped like a crab, stomach in the form of a kumbh (pot), two lion heads for knee caps and waist marked by the faces of four maidens. In the past, Tala was a prominent seat of Tantric worship.

There are many places in India that bear traces of colonial trade. While Pondicherry (Puducherry) is well known for its French heritage, Chandannagar further up the East coast 37km from Kolkata is relatively undiscovered French outpost. Taking the Grand Trunk Road to the Liberty gate emblazoned with the French motto, you are drawn into an old world of French colonialism and Bengali aristocracy.

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Mansions like Nundy-bari, Kanhai Seth’er Bari, Nritya Gopal Smriti Mandir, Patal Bari and Sri Nandadulal temple coexist alongside St Joseph’s Convent, the 1878 Hotel de Paris (now Sub-divisional court), 1887 Thai Shola hotel (presently Chandannagar college) and erstwhile residence of Governor Francois Dupleix, now the Institut de Chandernagor museum.

‘Trankebar’ on the Coromandel Coast was the only Danish outpost in India. The Danes leased the coastal village of Tharangambadi (literally, Land of the Dancing Waves) from the Maharaja of Thanjavur, fortified it and after 250 years of trade, eventually sold it to the British. The arched Landsporten or Town Gate beckons you in like a portal as you walk down Kongensgade or King’s Street lined by stately buildings.

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Zion Church, the oldest Protestant Church in India, consecrated in 1701, New Jerusalem Church of 1718, a fusion of Indo-German architecture, the Governor’s Bungalow, now a museum, Commander’s House and Neemrana’s Bungalow on the Beach – it’s like a walk through time as you reach Dansborg Fort, a rare specimen of Scandinavian defense architecture in India.

While in Tamil Nadu, a state weighed down by enviable temples and the architectural treasure of Chettinad, lesser known sights still manage to startle you. Narthamalai is a cluster of nine hills with the longest edicts and oldest rock-cut cave temples in South India. At the hillock of Melamalai, we were drawn by the spire of the Vijayalayacholeswaran Temple.

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Built by Vijayalaya Chola, it served as a prototype for the Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur. Much smaller, the likeness was uncanny! Thirumerkoil, a cave temple on a platform decorated with elephants, makaras and yalis, held a dozen bas-relief sculptures of Vishnu standing on lotus pedestals. In the adjacent cave shrine of Pazhiyileeswaram, a nandi and dwarapalas (gatekeepers) guarded a massive linga.

At the quiet hillock of Kadambarmalai, rainwater had collected in natural stone cavities and the 1400-year-old temple hewn into the hillock had inscriptions of Rajaraja I and Rajendra II etched on the hillside. There was not a soul in sight as we watched wild birds hop around, sipping and bathing undisturbed in the natural tank, where ancient boulders scripted stories of a past we knew little about. No matter how far or offbeat we ventured into this vast country of ours, we were humbly reminded how we were only scratching the surface…

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 21 April 2019 as the cover story in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper. 

Inspired Heritage: Reclaiming the Past

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‘Inspired Heritage’, that’s the buzz at luxury hotels across the country, as they pick out elements from history to spruce up their interior decor, while curating new menus and experiences, discover ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY

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A turbaned doorkeeper sounded the gong marking our arrival outside the gates of Kamalapura Palace, alerting the front desk about our impending check in. The car rattled along the stone pathway, deliberately rough hewn like in the past, the way a ratha or chariot would have clattered in bygone Hampi. The main building and villas came to view, their turrets and domes so reminiscent of Hampi’s monuments. There were shades of Anegundi’s Kamalapura Palace and the angular roofs echoed the temples near Virupaksha…

Greeted with a cool sandalwood tika, flower garland and a welcome drink, we were ushered to a foyer. In place of the reception was a recreation of Hampi’s iconic landmark Sister Stones, two sisters who complained about the tedious exploration of Hampi on foot and were magically turned into stone! The beautiful arches seemed right out of the Octagonal Bath.

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We were led to our Jal Mahal villa styled after the zenana or Queen’s Quarters and their water palaces. While Evolve Back (formerly Orange County) had styled its pioneering resort at Chikkana Halli Estate in Siddapur, Coorg on the lines of a plantation resort and its Kabini resort as a thatched Kuruba hadi (settlement), their latest offering in Hampi was a celebration of the architectural glory of the Vijayanagar Empire.

In what’s emerging as a new trend, hotels in India are now seeking inspiration from their immediate environment not just for design and architecture, but also for cuisine and thematic curated experiences. After working up an appetite in our private pool, we relished local Vijayanagara cuisine at Tuluva, the restaurant named after the most prominent of the three dynasties that ruled Hampi. Bidri showcased the Dakkani flavours of the Hyderabad-Karnataka region. The lofty Elephant Stables inspired the design of the Howdah bar.

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Our guide Venkatesh took us on specially curated itineraries – the Raya Trail, the Virupaksha Trail, the Pattabhirama temple adopted by Evolve Back and the Tungabhadra Trek, along the banks of the river past Courtesan Street, Achyutharaya Temple, Sugreeva’s Cave and the fascinating Koti Linga carved on a sheet of rock, just in time for sunset.

After wowing everyone with Grand Chola in Chennai with its Chola inspired architecture, the latest addition to ITC’s luxury portfolio is ITC Kohenur in Hyderabad, the first luxury business hotel in the heart of Hi-tech City. In keeping with their Responsible Luxury theme, it mirrors the culture and ethos of the destination, inspired by the world’s most famed jewel – the rare priceless diamond from Golconda.

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Its unique angular architecture is a reflection of the facets of the famed diamond with crystal clear glass façade. Like the Kohenur (Persian for ‘Mountain of Light’), the hotel is bright and full of light by day. By evening, it lights up like a gem, rising majestically above the lake Durgam Cheruvu that it overlooks.

The jali (lattice) pattern and marble inlay floors are a recurrent motif with an installation of Hyderabad’s local craft bangles hanging from the ceiling at the reception. The Peacock Bar, a tribute to Shah Jahan’s Peacock Throne where the Kohinoor diamond was once mounted, had a bas relief plaster peacock on the ceiling glittering with colourful tekri (glass) work. The Golconda Pavilion with design motifs from the 14th century Bidri metal craft, Persian zardozi and pearls, showcases local culinary favourites from the region.

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The restaurant Dum Pukht Begum’s has arches, columns and chandeliers reminiscent of palaces like Falaknuma and Chowmahalla. Its rich interiors reflect another famous diamond from the region the Noor-ul-ain (Light of the Eye), a tribute to the royal ladies who brought refinement and appreciation of fine things. The food too balances the flavours of Awadhi cuisine from the Dum Pukht brand with local Nizami touches.

At 4000 sq ft, the Grand Presidential Suite Koh-i-Noor is the largest in the Hi-Tech area. Even the Executive Room is more spacious than the other base category rooms in the city. Given its location in Hi-Tech City, the hotel comes with snazzy features – entertainment and room automation app on an i-Pad and a unique automated laundry system that can be accessed without entering the room. In between meals at the creative Chinese restaurant Yi Jing and authentic Italian Ottimo, we found time and space to rejuvenate ourselves at Kaya Kalp Spa.

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In Kochi, CGH Earth Hotels achieved the impossible. Inspired by the shipping legacy of India’s busiest harbour town, they transformed an old Victorian shipbuilding yard into a waterfront colonial-style hotel called Brunton Boatyard. One look at its lofty ceiling and large pillars and one imagines it’s a restored heritage mansion that dates back a few centuries; yet it’s just over a decade old!

Enjoy the day’s catch at the alfresco Terrace Grill or sample Kochi’s multi-cultural cuisine at History Restaurant – the Syrian Christian Duck Moilee, Anglo Indian cutlet, Jewish Chuttulli Meen, Ceylonese idiappam (string hoppers) with fish curry and the now iconic First Class Railway Mutton Curry.

IMG_9340 East Indies_Cheenavala, a trio of fish, calamari and tiger prawn_Anurag Mallick

CGH’s other hotel Eighth Bastion is a tribute to the historic port town’s Dutch legacy and is named after Fort Kochi’s ‘eighth bastion’ – no longer there. Their restaurant East Indies presents a specially prepared menu called the ‘Dutch Route’, featuring dishes collected from former Dutch colonies. Expect everything from Dutch Bruder bread to Indonesian satays, rendang (Sumatran caramelized curry) and lamprais, a Sri Lankan Dutch Burgher dish of aubergine, frikkadel (Afrikaans meatball), sambal (spicy relish) and balchao (shrimp pickle) wrapped in a leaf with rice, hence its derived name ‘lump rice’.

When it comes to heritage, no one does it as well as Rajasthan. JW Marriott Jaipur Resort & Spa is the first signature hotel under the Starwood banner in Rajasthan. An architectural gem set against the Aravalis, it is styled after the Amber Fort nearby. Musicians by the doorway welcome you to a mesmerizing world of intricate marble inlay, traditional jaali (lattice) and tikri (patterned mirror work), with ornate fountains and water bodies recreating the air of a pleasure palace.

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Each dining space had its own character – all-day dining at Sukh Mahal, the rooftop restaurant Hawa Mahal or the Indian specialty restaurant Mohan Mahal, inspired by the Sheesh Mahal at Amer Fort in Jaipur. A unique fine-dine experience, instead of electric lighting, light from candle flames are reflected in a stunning mosaic of mirrors in the ceiling and walls of the restaurant.

We savoured signature dishes such as laal maas, murgh makai ka soweta, dana methi ki sabzi and more. Tailor-made experiences included a walking tour of old Amer and a visit to Hathi Gaon, home to rehabilitated elephants that ply up the slope of Amer Fort ferrying tourists every day. The elephant interaction program includes a joyride, body painting with natural colours, bathing and feeding.

Magical clouds at Suryagarh Jaisalmer

As you drive past Jaisalmer, an open jeep convoy leads guests to the fort-like entrance of Suryagarh where a pair of camel riders usher you up the driveway. At the porch, a Manganiyar troupe welcomes you with song, Panditji applies a tilak and flower petals are showered from a jharokha above as you enter the foyer. An attendant hands a towel, another plies you with cool beverage and a musician seated in the central courtyard welcomes you to the magical world of Suryagarh.

An ode to the medieval Silk Route trade, Suryagarh is styled on the impressive ruins of Paliwal Brahmin settlements at Kuldhara and Khaba Fort. The hotel beautifully integrates design elements from its surroundings – the jharokas overlooking the central courtyard were inspired by Jaisalmer’s havelis, windows and friezes from Khaba Fort and stone walls and ceiling design from Kuldhara.

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The Residences, an exclusive section of private suites set away from the main hotel. Each handcrafted sandstone haveli was based on the community living concept and offered a sense of private luxury with a large open courtyard, reminiscent of Paliwal villages. Wide windows and pillared corridors framed the vastness of the desert while the warm décor, sunken rooms and furnishings exude sophisticated charm. Even its diverse dining experiences are beautifully curated – Breakfast with Peacocks, Halwayi Breakfast in the courtyard or Dining on the Dunes.

Its bespoke Desert Remembers trails present the Thar desert’s lesser known history – a midnight Chudail (Witches) Trail at Kuldhara, cenotaphs of merchants and travellers, ancient stepwells, ruins of caravanserais, rainwater harvesting techniques and the sweet water wells of Mundari, retracing old trade routes. Even the wellness therapies at Rait Spa were an ode to the region’s geography, using salt from the Luni river and potlis of rait (sand).

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Narendra Bhawan, a swanky boutique hotel in Bikaner has taken theme holidays to another level. It retells the story of Narendra Singh ji, the last reigning maharaja of Bikaner (1948-2003). Born at the cusp of India’s independence, Narendra Singh ji established a novel residence in keeping with his new tastes and vision and Narendra Bhawan celebrates his life’s passage through time – from his royal birth and patronage, military life, the makings of a global bon vivant to a socialist who embraced the idea of a new democratic India.

We viewed the recently launched premium Regimental Rooms, based on Narendra Singh ji’s time at the royal military academy. The canopied bed is styled like a field tent, while stern military stripes and miniature Spanish armada lanterns adorn the room. The starters were finger food you’d expect in an elite military club. We were led down to the foyer where a police band played outside to go with the theme, followed by a ‘mess lunch’ at the Gaushala.

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After a viewing of the India Room, we enjoyed a sundowner and dinner by the poolside and a viewing of the Republic Room ended in a brunch at the Indira Gandhi canal and an Imperial dinner at Laxmi Niwas Palace. Each category of room corresponded a particular stage of Narendra Singh ji’s life with a specially curated meal and experience, titled the Grand Essentials of Life.

The food at Narendra Bhawan is as eclectic in choice as its erstwhile owner. From smoked salmon, cured ham, assorted cheese and canapés to robust Rajasthani fare like kale chane ki kadhi, papad ki sabzi and aloe vera ki sabzi, it carries off its varied cuisine with élan. Thanks to the direct flight connectivity from Delhi to Bikaner, you can be here quicker than the waiting time on a weekend at a posh South Delhi restaurant.

Facade-The Grand Dragon Hotel Ladakh

In Leh, The Grand Dragon Ladakh draws from vernacular architecture of the region with ornate carved windows and intricate dragons blazing flames of colour around the pillars and wide open views overlooking the Stok Kangri range. Welcomed with silken scarves we are handed a pouch of camphor that helps acclimatize to the high altitude.

Going beyond the obvious sightseeing trails, the hotel highlights unique offbeat excursions like visiting the only potter in the monastery village of Likir, local oracles, tea and biscuits by the Indus and smithy workshops in Chilling to interact with metal craftsmen making bells and utensils for locals and Buddhist monasteries, including exquisite kettles. It’s heartening to see how hospitality brands in India are exploring new ways to recreate the glory of the days gone by in their architecture, cuisine and experiences.

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FACT FILE 

Where to Stay

Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace, Hampi
www.evolveback.com

ITC Kohenur, Hi-tech City, Hyderabad
www.itchotels.in

Brunton Boatyard/Eighth Bastion, Kochi
www.cghearth.com

JW Marriott Jaipur Resort & Spa, Kukas, near Amer
www.jwmarriottjaipur.com

Narendra Bhawan, Bikaner
www.narendrabhawan.com

Suryagarh, Jaisalmer
www.suryagarh.com

The Grand Dragon Ladakh, Leh
www.thegranddragonladakh.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 7 Dec, 2018 in Indulge, the Friday supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.

Salt, Sand & Spice: The Thar therapy

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The desert sand heals those that dare to tread it. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover an oasis of wellness amid the dunes of Rajasthan.

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One look at the harsh unforgiving landscape of the Thar and you wonder what rejuvenation a desert could possibly offer? As we drove in to Jaisalmer, there was no palm-fringed oasis in sight and the barren land with hardy kikar and khejri trees stretched as far as the eye could see. Unlike Kerala or Bali, the Thar didn’t possess the healing touch of green that soothes the soul, the crisp mountain air of British sanatoriums of yore or the relaxing soak of hot water springs in the fabled spa towns of Europe.

The Great Indian Desert yawned endlessly over 200,000 sq km covering 60% of the state of Rajasthan. However, all apprehensions about a wellness holiday in an arid desolate tract prone to extremes of temperatures dissipated, as a flagged convoy waiting on the town’s outskirts led us with much pomp to Suryagarh. From the main gate, two camels ushered us up the slope to the resort’s entrance where floral showers, drummers and a traditional welcome swept us off our feet…

Halwai Breakfast

Founded by Maharawal Jaisal in 12th century, Jaisalmer lay on the southern strand of the Silk Route. Between 16th and 18th century, the city thrived on taxes collected from the caravans from Central Asia passing through the desert en route to Osian and China. Its caravanserais teemed with traders plying exotic goods.

Inspired by this indigenous desert culture and its ancient healing traditions, Suryagarh’s Rait Spa was named after the sea of rait (sand) it was set in. Drawing on the essence of delicate aromas of fine oils, elixirs and spices, its signature thermal therapies were based on sand, salt and stone. But Suryagarh’s legendary hospitality spearheaded by our host Manvendra Singh Shekhawat was not to be taken lightly.

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The Halwayi breakfast of traditional snacks and sweets was so heavy we could barely make it to our first spa session. Trudging with heavy steps from our opulent Haveli Residence, we secretly hoped that the short walk to the spa was enough digestive exercise.

The illustration of mustachioed wrestlers dominated the Akhara or gym while yellow lights contrasted against the deep blue of Neel, the indoor pool. The flicker of oil lamps and flower petals announced Rait Spa, enveloped in an air of calm. Ambient eastern music played in the background and it was like being in a medieval oasis in the desert.

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We tried the Sand Ritual, an age-old treatment handed down centuries based on the natural healing potential of heat. After a fragrant spice scrub, we surrendered to a massage using heated potlis (bundles) of Jaisalmer rait (sand), which helped relieve the tautness of our muscles. We felt knots of pain slowly melt away into nothingness.

The soft tinkle of a bell announced the end of the session. We couldn’t believe that only an hour had passed; it felt like eternity. After we cooled off in henna and aromatic vetiver (camel grass or khus), the therapist explained how heat aided the body to release toxins naturally and regain natural rhythms, enabling better metabolism.

Rait Spa, Suryagarh Jaisalmer

‘Better metabolism’, just the words we wanted to hear! For the days that followed, we needed every ounce of metabolic willpower to take on the specially curated culinary experiences at diverse venues – breakfast with peacocks in the bush at dawn, specialty cuisine at Legends of Marwar, Jaisalmer kebabs and biryani at the Lake Gardens, Thar dinner at Celebration Gardens, Signature Thali dinner at The Courtyard that came veiled or the magical Dinner on the Dunes under the stars – a recreation of the nomadic hunt menu. Mehboob Khan and the troupe of manganiyars (traditional musicians) formed a continuous musical backdrop.

The days were spent exploring the Thar on bespoke trails through shifting sands and thorny scrub. We scoured dhanis (small settlements), learnt about govardhans or carved pillar markers that pointed out water sources, tasted fresh water at sweet water wells, marveled at Phoenician-like figures of traders on tombstones in the cemeteries of Paliwal Brahmins and went on the spooky midnight Chudail Trail to the abandoned village of Kuldhara.

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Overlooking the ruins of homes and serais, stood the 13th century Khaba Fort. Info panels explained how 60 million years ago, the Arabian Sea stretched beyond Gujarat to present-day Rajasthan and this vast wasteland was once a flourishing tract through which the Saraswati and its tributaries coursed.

Tectonic shifts caused the river to dry up, leaving behind little rivulets and isolated saltwater lakes. One such surviving river is the Luni, known in Sanskrit as Lavanavati, or ‘salt river’, due to its high salinity. Incidentally, the desert too is referred to as Lavana Sagara (Sea of Salt). Even today, the sandy bed throws up whorled fossils of ammonites and petrified trees.

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For centuries, these salt-water lakes and streams in the Thar Desert have been used to manufacture sodium chloride salt. On our return, we noticed the motifs of jalis, stonework and roof patterns of the ruins finding recurrence in Suryagarh’s architecture but we didn’t expect the salt to be used for our spa therapies!

Rait’s unique salt therapy sources salt from the Luni riverbed handpicked by the staff. It is fused with IMRS (Intelligent Magnetic Resonance System), a health care system developed in Germany to balance the body’s magnetic field and subtly adjust bodily cadences. Adhering to the salt theme, Himalayan rock salts were used to light the room to cleanse and align the energies.

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For better efficacy and absorption by the skin, oils were charged with bio disks, technically engineered using over 100 natural minerals bonded in glass using molecular level fusion at high heat. The therapist slowly wrapped us in soft muslin drenched in salt and we lay mummified, experiencing heavenly realms of peace. The salts were rich in potassium, magnesium and other minerals, ideal for deep cellular-level cleansing. An hour later, we emerged like lithe spirits.

Another signature therapy was Stone using the healing properties of tiger-striped seashells from the Philippine islands with volcanic stones. These unique, specially sourced seashells, enclosed with a gel rich in lava powder, emit heat due to a natural chemical reaction. The shells, rich in calcium carbonate and trace elements, help nourish bones and tissues. The coarse texture of the shells made a natural scrub and we yielded to the long strokes and deep-kneading massage that boosted vascular circulation, drained toxins and improved metabolism.

Rait Spa, Suryagarh Jaisalmer_Couple Room

Back in our room, a secret bedside platter of assorted traditional sweets awaited us. This daily treat was the creation of resident halwayi Chef Gatta Ram who would set them with little scrolls tied with silken strings, explaining each item. Tearing ourselves away from the pleasure palace that’s Suryagarh was near impossible but the task of continuing our Thar wellness tour to their property in Bikaner goaded us on.

Narendra Bhawan, the revamped residence of Narendra Singh ji, the last Maharaja of Bikaner is the most idiosyncratic address in the region. Renouncing the comforts of the palace, he created his own residence where he stayed with his family, 86 dogs and 500 cows (he used to call each by name)! Long before bovine love was fashionable in India, he was given a Gauratna for his service to cows. Legend goes that he never ate a meal till his animals were fed.

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Today, his goshala (cowshed) is an alfresco bar where we downed Negronis and evening snacks on a fiery onyx tabletop. We were led us past the typical Bikaneri façade, for which red sandstone was brought from Dhulmera 80km away. Step inside, and it was anything but Bikaner.

It took architect Ravi Gupta and interior designer Ayush Kasliwal six years to reinterpret Narendra Bhawan as a tribute to the man and his travels. Manvendra explained, “We imagined it as the house of a mad uncle we all love – nothing makes sense initially, but eventually it grows on you. Like a residence, it’s not themed”.

Narendra Bhawan- Residence Room

Bright walls, framed Banarasi textiles, Ming vases, crystals, porcelain figurines from Dresden, Richmond patterned chequered floors, Art Deco lights, framed photos of the Narendra Singh ji’s royal lineage and dogs, old Encyclopedia Britannica and Penguin classics, usta gold painting, a red piano; everything was an ode to the maharaja’s eccentric nature and eclectic tastes.

The rooms transcend his phases in life – flamboyant Prince rooms, leather-panelled Regimental rooms flagging his military lineage, India rooms reflecting Gandhian ethos and Republic rooms showcasing works of Le Corbusier in a post-independent India. “It’s not really a hotel but a landscape of memories – life’s passage through time,” added Manvendra.

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The same vein of creativity ran through the spa. Inspired by the great sanitariums of Europe, Clinic – The Spa was a novel concept based on holistic healing through flowers and plants. Between 1920-30, Dr Edward Bach developed a set of 38 floral remedies catering to a particular emotional state.

Using concepts from the Bach Flower Therapy, Narendra Bhawan’s Flower Essences are specially designed to soothe one’s senses, instill harmony and bring balance. Aided with Bemer technology for Physical Vascular Therapy, it promised improved microcirculation, enabling the body’s self-healing powers to promote inner and outer radiance. The spa’s clean sharp décor bestows a sense of calm.

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The food carried the irreverence forward, fusing disparate themes like the banquets of kings at P&C (Pearls & Chiffon), colonial era bakeries at the Mad Hatter, poolside Muslim feasts served in crescent platters, Jain thalis in a haveli’s rooftop on the Merchant Trail, Reveille at Ratadi Talai that recreated cavalier grills to smart English menus with a Bikaneri touch.

Listening to jazz while eating dahi wale aloo, murgh sabja, kachre ki sabji (variety of wild melon) and angoor ki sabzi was quite an experience. Inventiveness was its peak with arrancini biryani, wild mushroom gujiya and seb ki kheer. At open pastures beyond Bikaner, we enjoyed sundowners and char-grilled kebabs as folk musicians played the ravan hattha (stringed instrument) by the dancing light of lanterns and the setting sun. Life was good in the Thar.

Narendra Bhawan (6)

FACT FILE

Getting there
The nearest airport is Jodhpur, from where Jaisalmer is 300km (5 hrs) and Bikaner 249km (4 hrs). Jaisalmer and Bikaner are 312 km apart.

What to See
Jaisalmer: Fort, Patwon ki Haveli, Museums, Kuldhara & Khaba ruins, Desert National Park, Sam & Khuri Dunes
Bikaner: Junagadh Fort, Laxmi Niwas Palace, Rampuria Havelis, Bhandasar Jain temple, Karni Mata temple at Deshnoke

What to Eat
Mirchi bada, Bhikaji’s Bikaneri bhujiya & namkeen, Mawa Kachori, local dishes like ker-sangri, kachra, gatte ki sabzi with bajre ki roti.

Infinity Swimming Pool

Where to Stay

Suryagarh
Kahala Phata, Sam Road, Jaisalmer
Ph +91-02992-269269 www.suryagarh.com
Rait Spa Therapies: Salt 1hr 45 min Rs.5900/person upwards, Sand 2 hrs. Rs.7000/person, Rs.12,000/couple, Stone 1hr 30 min Rs.4400/person, Rs.7500/couple

Narendra Bhawan
Karni Nagar, Gandhi Colony, Bikaner
Ph +91-0151-2252500, 7827151151
www.narendrabhawan.com

For more info, visit http://rajasthan-tourism.org/

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Travel+Leisure India magazine.

Oota Chronicles: Travelling for food

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Chefs are stepping out of their kitchens to travel far and wide in search of authentic flavours, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

JW Marriott Bengaluru - Coffee Trail with Chef Anthony (19)

When JW Marriott Bengaluru invited us to a Coorg Coffee Trail with award-winning executive chef Anthony En Yuan Huang, we weren’t sure what to expect. “It’s a coffee-themed food festival in Bangalore, after a field trip to Coorg,” we were told enigmatically. And thus, a motley group of writers, foodies and chefs set off for Kodagu. We pulled over at a side road for a pop-up breakfast of JW Marriott’s signature soft-centre chocolate cookies, croissants, cupcakes and sandwiches.

It was just an appetizer for the lunch at Cuisine Papera in Gonikoppal. In a museum-like setting amid old vessels and traditional implements, we tried vonekk yerchi (smoked pork), pork chudals, bemble (bamboo shoot) and pandi curry with akki otti. It wasn’t ideal prep for a berry picking exercise at Tarun Cariappa’s coffee estate at Valnoor but we sluggishly learnt how coffee is grown, harvested and processed, savouring sweet paputtu, mushroom toasties and traditional Kodava hospitality.

JW Marriott Bengaluru - Coffee Trail with Chef Anthony (3)

By evening, we reached The Bungalow 1934, a heritage property run by rallyist Amrith Thimmaiah. With a backdrop of mist-laden hills, Chef Anthony conducted a Master Class on coffee-inspired dishes like Drunken Chicken, marinated with Coorg coffee, green pepper, parangi malu (bird’s eye chili) and a can of beer, staying true to the region. See the video of JW Marriott’s Coorg Coffee Trail.

Back in Bengaluru, we enjoyed a coffee spa and a coffee-themed buffet at JW Kitchen. Coffee-crusted beef tournedos, tiger prawns marinated in Coorg coffee, espresso desserts and coffee-based cocktails; it was a caffeine fix of a different kind. From food festivals, pop-ups to theme restaurants, ‘eat local’ is the new mantra and chefs are moving out of the comfort of their kitchens. They travel miles to ensure their food is zero-mile and locally sourced.

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Westin Hyderabad Mindspace relies on the cultural roots of its chefs for culinary inspiration. At Seasonal Taste, Chef Mukesh Sharma from Gwalior delved into the traditional tastes of Madhya Pradesh to develop a gharana cuisine of royal flavors from Gwalior, Indore and Bhopal – bhutte ki kees (spiced grated corn) and Bhopali gosht korma.

Westin encourages its chefs to regale patrons with unusual offerings like the maharajas of yore – vada burgers and golgappas with guacamole and sol kadhi! At their Frontier fine dine restaurant Kangan, an artisan from the Old City crafts a lac bangle for guests gratis, a wonderful way of keeping both cultural and culinary traditions alive.

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Total Environment roped us in as travel writers for a food research project to open a pan-Karnataka restaurant in Bangalore. With a video crew and two talented chefs in tow, we cooked at homes, iconic hotels, temple kitchens and smoky village huts. After 18 years at UK’s top restaurants, Chef Suresh Venkatramana returned to his roots to rediscover Karnataka’s traditional cuisine.

Self-taught chef and F&B consultant Manjit Singh of Herbs & Spice fame has launched restaurants from Indiranagar to Aizawl. An avid biker, his driving skills and fluency in Kannada made him an asset on our food journeys. He haggled with fisherwomen, bargained at village markets and made Gowda hunter-style sand-baked fish by the river, earning the nickname Manjit Singh ‘Gowda’ or MSG.

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Planning it by circuits – Coorg, Malnad, Coast, North and South Karnataka – the coast was supposed to be one linear trip with stopovers at Mangalore, Udupi, Bhatkal, Gokarna and Karwar. We could not even cross Mangalore in our first attempt, as we were ensnared in a delicious web of sukkas, seafood, goli baje, sajjige-bajjil and Mangalore buns, always referred to in plural even if you ask for one.

We realized there was no such thing as Mangalorean cuisine but Bunt, GSB (Gaud Saraswat Brahmin), Catholic, Jain and Beary cuisines, each a rich representative of various communities. So what’s the food scene in Mangalore, we asked our foodie friend Arun Pandit. “After Ramzaan, cholesterol, after Christmas, cirrhosis, after Ratholsavam (chariot festival), gas…” he summed up the hazards of feasting season and overdose of meat, liquor and asafoetida.

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We stuffed leitão (pigling) with the Britto sisters and chickens with Luna and Lunita, made tindli-moi (cashew-ivy gourd) at Pereira Hotel and savoured fish meals at Narayana and pork meals at a home-style Catholic eatery Mary Bai ‘mai jowan’ (literally ‘mum’s food’). We tried the ‘Gadbad’ ice cream at Diana Restaurant in Udupi, where it was rustled up in a gadibidi (great hurry).

Near Yellapura, we encountered Siddis, descendants of African slaves brought by the Portuguese, and cooked wild ferns like aame soppu, literally ‘turtle greens.’ From being goaded to eat goat balls at a Sauji eatery (good for virility, winked the owner) to waking up before dawn to harvest a nest of fire ants to make chigli chutney in Malnad, we did it all.

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“Hum pet pe kafan baandh ke nikle hain” (We’ve set out with shrouds on our stomachs), was our popular refrain, as we devoured everything from gurudwara langar at Bidar to cycle khova (sold on bicycles) in Bellary. By the time we were done, we clocked 20,000km over two years, covering 25 communities. Virtual strangers opened their homes and hearths to help us document these rare culinary treasures. See the video of our Oota journeys.

After extensive food trials, Karnataka’s culinary heritage was finally showcased at Oota, a Karnataka-themed restaurant in Whitefield. Our travels inspired mixologist Neil Alexander to concoct indigenous cocktails using local ingredients – Mandya Sour with honeycomb infused whiskey and sugarcane juice and Varthur Overflow, using Gokarna’s pink-hued Saneykatta salt.

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In Chennai, ITC Grand Chola’s Chef Varun Mohan researched India’s imperial kitchens for Royal Vega, a pan-Indian vegetarian restaurant with a season-based menu. Avartana serves South Indian dishes with a contemporary twist. For ITC’s new hotel WelcomHotel Coimbatore, Chef Praveen Anand travelled across the Tamil hinterland to research Kongunadu cuisine, stopping at local eateries, parotta joints and homes to understand culinary nuances and techniques. WelcomeCafe Kovai has a small regional showcase of kadai thengai curry (quail in dry coconut and red chilis) and kalakki (soft scrambled egg masala).

Mrs Meenakshi Meyyappan, octogenarian owner of The Bangala in Karaikudi, has dedicated her life to hospitality, showcasing the cuisine of the Nattukottai Chettiars of Tamil Nadu. After years of serving traditional meals on banana leaf at her heritage hotel, she has co-authored The Chettinad Cookbook and The Bangala Table. Even today, Mrs Meyyappan personally fixes the daily menu at The Bangala a day in advance.

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The assimilation of various flavours to form a unique composite cuisine can be best seen in Kochi. Like a UN potluck, the Portuguese introduced coconut milk, the Jews contributed the appam while the Dutch infused culinary influences from their colonies – Indonesian satay to Sumatran rendang (caramelized curry).

CGH’s Eighth Bastion Hotel offers a tantalizing ‘Dutch Route’ at their restaurant East Indies with Dutch Bruder bread and lamprais (Sri Lankan Dutch Burgher dish). Brunton Boatyard’s History Restaurant showcases 32 cuisines of various communities in Fort Kochi – Syrian Christian duck moilee, Anglo Indian cutlet, Jewish chuttulli meen, Ceylonese string hoppers and Railway Mutton Curry.

IMG_8910-Suryagarh's elaborate halwai breakfast

For the longest time, Rajasthan’s culinary repertoire was a stereotype of laal maas, dal-bati and gatte ki sabzi. But heritage hotels have revived recipes carefully documented by various thikanas. At Bikaner’s Laxmi Niwas Palace, at a low-lit long table inside Rajat Mahal the Gold Room, we feasted on boti marinated with kachri (wild melon) and red chilis and wild country fowl with warqi paratha.

At Narendra Bhawan, the avant garde residence of Bikaner’s last Maharaja Narendra Singhji, we relished a Bikaneri nashta of mirchi vadas, bajra poori, kesar lassi and pista chaach. The Marwari Lunch at the Queen’s Table in P&C (Pearls & Chiffon) had carefully curated dishes from Bikaner’s royal kitchens – maans ke sule, khargosh kachra and murgh tamatar Nagori, besides the Maharaja’s eclectic European tastes – goat cheese mousse and arrancini biryani.

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One place that takes culinary exploration to another level is Suryagarh near Jaisalmer. At their specialty restaurant Legends of Marwar, host Manvendra Singh regaled us with stories of Marwar’s lesser-known fare from court kitchens and royal hunts. Suryagarh makes great effort to present its food in dramatic outdoor settings.

Waking up before dawn for Breakfast with Peacocks, the never-ending Halwayi breakfast, sundowners, Dinner on the Dunes with a nomadic hunt menu and Jaisalmer grill and curry dinner at The Lake Garden. The starry Thar sky mirrored the twinkle of lamps, Kalbeliyas danced as the smoky aroma of char grilled bater (quail) and khad khargosh (smoked rabbit) mingled with the ballads of kings…

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FACT FILE

Oota Bangalore, Whitefield
Ph 88802 33322
https://www.facebook.com/OotaBangalore/
http://www.windmillscraftworks.com

JW Marriott Bengaluru
Ph 80671 89999
http://www.marriott.com

Westin Hyderabad Mindspace, Hi-Tech City
Ph 040 67676767
http://www.westinhyderabadmindspace.com/

WelcomHotel Coimbatore
Ph 042 22226555
http://www.itchotels.in

The Bangala Chettinad, Karaikudi
Ph 044 24934851, 94431 83021
http://www.thebangala.com

Eighth Bastion/Brunton Boatyard, Fort Kochi
Ph 0484 4261711
http://www.cghearth.com

Narendra Bhawan, Bikaner
Ph 07827151151, 0151-2252500
http://www.narendrabhawan.com

Suryagarh, Jaisalmer
Ph 02992 269269
http://www.suryagarh.com

JW Marriott Bengaluru - Coffee Trail with Chef Anthony (18)

For more food journeys, follow
@red_scarab, @oota_bangalore, @chefmanjit and @chefanthonyhuang on Instagram
@anuragamuffin, @priyaganapathy and @chefmanjit on Twitter

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the cover story in Indulge, the supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper on 9 March 2018.

 

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.