Tag Archives: Neemrana Hotels

Solitary Shores: Offbeat Beaches in India

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This summer, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go off the beaten beach to uncover some lesser known sandy stretches across India

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India’s extensive coastline is blessed with large swathes of spectacular beaches. Be it the Konkan coast of Goa-Maharashtra, the Karavali coast of Karnataka or Kerala’s Malabar coast, India’s western side is lapped by the calm Arabian Sea. The slightly rougher eastern coast hemmed by the Bay of Bengal too has its share of beaches – from West Bengal, Odisha and Andhra down to the Coromandel Coast of Tamil Nadu.

However, with a 7000km long coast, some hidden gems have escaped the mainstream, that’s if you know where to find them! Beat the summer heat and crowded hotspots at these truly offbeat beaches…   

Kannur Thottada beach

Thottada, Kannur (Kerala)
While South Kerala is renowned internationally for its beach destinations like Kovalam, Varkala and Mararikulam, the relatively untouched Malabar Coast to the north has its share of secrets. Kannur’s cluster of beaches include the popular Meenkunnu and Payyambalam in the north to Thottada and Ezhara in the south. Thottada, with its serene backwaters and cliffs, retains the vibe of old Kerala, prior to the influx of tourism. Stay at beachfront homestays and feast on excellent Moplah cuisine – pathiris (assorted pancakes), fish curries and kallumakai (green mussels). At Kannur Beach House, go on a backwater boat ride with Nasir while Rosie stirs up delightful local fare. Stay in a renovated handloom factory at Costa Malabari with fresh seafood prepared home style. Just 10km south, skim the surf in your vehicle at Muzhappilangad, a 5km long drive-in beach. Watch fishermen draw in the morning catch and gaze at golden sunsets silhouetting Dharmadom Island.

Getting there
Jet Airways flies to Calicut International Airport, Kozhikode from it’s a 110km drive up to Thottada Beach, just south of Kannur.

Where to Stay
Kannur Beach House Ph 0497-2836530 www.kannurbeachhouse.com
Costa Malabari Ph 0484–2371761 www.costamalabari.com
Chera Rocks Ph 0490-2343211 www.cherarocks.com

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Nadibag, Ankola (Karnataka)
Uttara Kannada is well known for its beach haunts like Gokarna and Devbagh in Karwar, though few pay attention to the small coastal town of Ankola wedged between these two popular tourist getaways. The Poojageri River meanders through the forests of the Western Ghats, before it finally meets the sea at an idyllic place called Nadibag (River Garden) in Ankola. Few tourists come here, barring locals who climb the hill to catch the sunset, pose for selfies on the rocks or wade in the surf. The twin sights of the sea on one side and a picturesque lagoon on the other, as the sun goes down makes it an unforgettable spectacle. Ankola doesn’t have any fancy resorts, so Gokarna is the closest place for creature comforts.

Getting there
Jet Airways flies to Hubli (145 km from Ankola via Yellapur on NH-63) or Dabolim Airport, Goa (132 km via Karwar on Kochi-Panvel Highway).

Where to Stay
SwaSwara, Om Beach, Gokarna Ph 0484-3011711 www.swaswara.com

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Bhogwe, Malvan (Maharashtra)
The coast of Malvan in Maharashtra was once Maha-lavan, a ‘Great saltpan’ from where sea salt was traded. As the Karli River empties into the Arabian Sea, the beautiful strip of land between the river and the sea is Devbag or ‘Garden of the Gods’. Both, the river and the jetty are called Karli, so the place on the far side (taar) was called Taar-karli! While the scenic confluence developed into a hub for adventure sports, Bhogwe, located south of Tarkarli, has thankfully managed to escape the attention of most tourists. The best way to explore this stretch is by boat, which deposits you at Bhogwe Beach, a long swathe of untouched sand, before continuing the journey past Kille Nivti fort to Golden Rocks, a jagged ochre-hued hillock, that dazzles in the afternoon sun. Make sure to carry water and a picnic hamper. Relish excellent Malvani cuisine while staying in bamboo huts on a hill overlooking the sea or at Maachli Farmstay about 5km from the coast.

Getting there
Jet Airways flies to Mumbai and Dabolim Airport, Goa (123 km via Kudal).

Where to Stay
Aditya Bhogwe’s Eco Village Ph 9423052022, 9420743046 Email arunsamant@yahoo.com
Maachli Farmstay, Parule Ph 9637333284, 9423879865 www.maachli.in

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Laxmanpur, Neil Island (Andamans)
The Andaman and Nicobar islands are a much desired getaway for most beach lovers. Though only 32 of the 572 islands are inhabited, much of the usual haunts like Port Blair and Havelock Island are overrun by tourism. Yet, Neil Island, an hour’s boat ride from Havelock in Ritchie’s Archipelago, is relatively unexplored. Most of the local agricultural produce comes from the tiny island of Neil, pegged as the ‘Vegetable Bowl of the Andamans’. A lone metaled road cuts through the lush foliage to quiet beaches like Sitapur, Bharatpur and Govindpur, though it’s Laxmanpur that takes your breath away. Divided into two stretches, Laxmanpur 1 or Sunset Point offers stunning views and snorkeling opportunities and has comfy beach dwellings. Laxmanpur 2, dominated by a natural rock bridge, divulges secrets of the marine world at low tide. As the waters recede, local guides take you around salt pools inhabited by fish, eels, sea cucumbers and clams. Forget scuba, snorkeling or glass bottom boat rides, you can marvel at the variety of corals on a leisurely morning walk! See stag horn corals, finger corals, boulder corals and colour-changing corals from close quarters before the tide swells and hides them from sight.

Getting there
Jet Airways flies direct from Chennai and Kolkata to Port Blair (2 hrs), from where a ferry transports you via Havelock (1hr 30m) to Neil island (1hr).

Where to Stay
Sea Shell Ph +91-9933239625 www.seashellhotels.net/neil
Tango Beach Resort Ph 03192-230396, 9933292984 www.tangobeachandaman.com

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Tharangambadi (Tamil Nadu)
While the Coromandel coastline has popular beach destinations like Mahabs (Mamallapuram) and Pondy (Puducherry), few stop by further down the coast at Tharangambadi or ‘The Land of the Dancing Waves’. The Danes leased this small coastal village from the Thanjavur Nayaks and transformed it into a trading colony called ‘Trankebar’, eventually selling it to the British. The erstwhile summer residence of the British collector, renovated by Neemrana into the Bungalow on the Beach, has rooms named after Danish ships that docked at Tranquebar. Located on King Street between the Dansborg Fort and the half-sunken 12th century Masilamani Nathar Temple, the bungalow is the perfect base for heritage walks around the coastal town. Explore the Danish cemetery, Zion Church, New Jerusalem Church, Landsporten (Town Gate) and The Governor’s bungalow, all built in the 1700s. Watch catamarans set out for fishing in the early rays of dawn as you enjoy India’s only ozone-rich beach with the option to stay at Neemrana’s other properties nearby – Nayak House and Gate House.

Getting there
Jet Airways flies to Tiruchirapalli International Airport, Trichy (160 km via Kumbakonam)

Where to Stay
Bungalow on the Beach Ph 04364 288065, 9750816034 www.neemranahotels.com

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Talpona-Galgibaga (Goa)
With over half a century of being in the crosshairs of tourism, there are few secrets in Goa. Arambol, Ashwem, Morjim, Agonda; all the once offbeat haunts are now quite beat! But in comparison to the busy beaches of North Goa, the south is somewhat quieter. However, it isn’t till you drive south of Palolem near Canacona just short of the Goa-Karnataka border that you find a stretch that’s truly remote. As the Kochi-Panvel highway veers away from the coast, two lovely beaches line the tract of land where the Talpon and Galgibag rivers drain into the sea. Named after the streams, Talpona and Galgibaga beaches are indeed offbeat sandy stretches that few people visit. Since Galgibaga is an important turtle nesting site, tourism infrastructure is thankfully restricted. There are only a few stalls on the beach, making it one of the last undeveloped beaches in Goa where you can soak up the sun without hawkers pestering you with sarongs, beads or massages. Stay in a quiet riverside homestay at Talpona or in a Portuguese villa converted into the boutique hotel Turiya, which offers spa therapies and excellent local cuisine.

Getting there
Jet Airways flies to Dabolim Airport, Goa (76.5km via Margao)

Where to Stay
Rio De Talpona Ph +91-78759 21012 www.riodetalpona.com
Turiya Villa & Spa, Canacona Ph 0832-2644172 www.turiyavilla.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the May 2016 issue of JetWings magazine. 

 

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Royal Gwalior

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From grand palaces and historic forts to scrumptious food and music celebrations, Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh has much to offer, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY 

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After winding up Urwahi Road past mammoth rock cut sculptures of Jain tirthankaras, we stood awestruck by the sight of bright blue mosaic tiles and bands of quirky yellow ducks and blue elephants on the stony façade of Man Mandir Palace atop Gwalior Fort. Babur described it as ‘the pearl in the necklace of forts of Hind’ while Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of India famously proclaimed “The Gwalior fortress is the key to Hindoostan”. Lying at the crossroads of North India, the historic city was a coveted prize and a strategic outpost on the trade routes that fanned from Delhi to Malwa, Gujarat and the Deccan.

The majestic fort crowns Gopachal Parvat, the solitary sandstone outcrop of the Vindhyas rising above the plains. Once a hill where cowherds lazed, it became a quiet nook for ascetics. Sometime in the 8th century Suraj Sen, a Kachhwaha Rajput chieftain, lost his way while on a hunt in the forest. Tired and thirsty, he encountered the sage Gwalipa on this secluded hill. The saint gave him water from a pond, which not only quenched his thirst but also cured his leprosy. In gratitude, the prince built a protective wall to prevent wild beasts from disturbing the sage’s yagnas and a palace for himself. While the miraculous pond was called Suraj Kund after the king, the city that grew around the fort was named Gwalher after Gwalipa the saint.

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Over the years, smoothened by time and myriad tongues, Gwalher became Gwalior, in the same manner that the Sahastrabahu temple of the Kachhwahas got corrupted to Saas Bahu! But there was good reason for it. Built in 1092 by King Mahipala, the shrine was named after and dedicated to the ‘thousand-armed’ Vishnu, ardently worshiped by the queen. Since the prince’s wife was a Shiva devotee, a separate shrine was built for her beside the Vishnu temple. Collectively, they were called Saas-Bahu Mandir, referring to the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law’s temples.

In a similar vein, Teli ka Mandir, the loftiest and oldest surviving structure within the fort has little to do with oil-mongers but was originally called Telangana Mandir on account of its Dravidian spire. Gwalior Fort is a treasure trove of history. While it is common knowledge that the zero was invented in India, the earliest written record of the numeral is an inscription in the Chaturbhuj temple dating back to 876 CE.

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The Pal dynasty of Kachhwahas and the Gurjar Pratiharas controlled Gwalior initially, but the fort changed hands with alarming rapidity, slipping from the grasp of Delhi’s first Turkic Sultan Qutubuddin Aibak to Iltutmish. After the Delhi Sultanate collapsed at the end of the 14th century, independent regional kingdoms sprouted, including the Tomars, under whose reign Gwalior soared to great heights.

Periods of war and bloodshed alternated with interludes of peace and stability, when the sound of music drowned battle cries and the clash of swords was forgotten in the rhythms of poetry. The credit for developing Gwaliori Dhrupad, considered one of the purest forms of Indian music, goes to Tomar Raja Man Singh (1486-1516). Musicians from across the country descended on Man Singh’s opulent palace Man Mandir.

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Two of the most famous musicians in medieval India, Baiju Bawra and Tansen trace their roots to Gwalior. At one time, nearly half the musicians in the Mughal imperial court came from the city. Books preserved in Jai Vilas Mahal recount legends of how Baiju Bawra and Tansen could light oil lamps by singing Raga Deepak; cause rain by singing Megh Malhar; make flowers bloom by singing Raga Bahar; hypnotize deer with Raga Mrigaranjini or melt a stone slab with Raga Malkauns. Tansen, originally one of the nine jewels of Man Singh’s court, later became one of the navratnas (nine jewels) of Akbar’s court. When the maestro died, Akbar ordered all musicians in the country to join the funeral procession.

Thousands still flock to Gwalior every year in December for a weeklong music celebration in memory of Tansen not far from his 16th century tomb under the shade of a tamarind tree. As per local tradition, aspiring singers often chew the tamarind leaves for a sweet voice. Tansen’s raised rectangular memorial was humbled by the grand mausoleum of his spiritual mentor and Sufi mystic Sheikh Mohammad Ghaus Shattari. With lace-like screens, his massive square tomb was capped with a large dome.

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Akbar borrowed more than the city’s prized poet laureate; he also found in Gwalior’s mahals (palaces) and chhatris (domed pavilions) the inspiration for Mughal architecture. While Man Mandir was a private pleasure palace, Man Singh built another palace for his doe-eyed Gujar queen Mrignayani at the base of the hillock. Gujari Mahal now houses an archaeological museum, with a rare 10th century statuette of Shalbhanjika the Tree Goddess, kept under lock and key in the curator’s office.

Sadly, after the death of Raja Man Singh, the Tomar dynasty was swept aside. Ibrahim Lodhi captured the fortress after a two-year long siege but Babur wrested Gwalior after defeating Lodhi at the Battle of Panipat in 1526. Not known for his appreciation of Indian architecture, the founder of the Mughal Empire was struck by the loveliness of Man Mandir. He noted, “Man Singh’s palace is a wonderful edifice. On every side are cupolas, each covered with sheets of gilded copper. The outer walls are decorated with glowing tiles.”

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Under Humayun, the Mughals lost the fortress to Sher Shah Suri but Akbar reclaimed it. However, the palace that once resounded with song and laughter, echoed with the anguished cries of prisoners. The underground realms and pleasure pools where maharanis once gossiped turned into chambers of torture. French traveller Bernier noted horrific accounts of the prison. From Akbar to Aurangzeb, state prisoners were dulled with poppy and left to decay and die a slow painful death.

Among the few who left the prison alive was sixth Sikh Guru Hargobind Singh. Imprisoned unjustly, Emperor Jahangir was forced to order his release at the insistence of his beloved queen Nur Jahan. Seeing the plight of captive princes and fellow inmates, the Guru said he could not leave alone. The Mughal emperor decreed that as many prisoners who could hold on to the Guru’s robe would be released. Overnight, tassels were attached to the Guru’s tunic and thus 51 other people were set free. Not far from the celebrated Scindia School atop the fort, Gurudwara Data Bandi Chhod celebrates this incident.

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After Aurangzeb’s death, anarchy prevailed until Mahadji Scindia, founder of the Maratha empire seized the fort in 1765. Always at odds with the expansionist British, the Marathas fought many battles eventually losing the fort in 1780 before they faced a complete rout in 1843.

Public sentiment had built up so much against the British that a handful of soldiers in Meerut sparked off a nationwide rebellion in 1857. Gwalior once again changed hands as Tatya Tope, Rao Saheb Peshwa and Rani Lakshmibai took hold of the fort. The Rani of Jhansi died fighting valiantly against the British at the fort’s southern base, Phool Bagh. Ironically, the Scindias sided with the British and received handsome rewards which fueled a construction frenzy of opulent palaces and mansions in Gwalior.

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Jai Vilas Mahal, styled after a palace in Versailles stands in Lashkar (a Persian word meaning ‘camp’), an area once occupied by army battalions. Forty rooms of the 400-room European style mansion are maintained as the Jiwaji Rao Scindia Museum, with royal artefacts and opulent dining sets on display. The highlight is a gigantic pair of Belgian chandeliers in the Durbar Hall and a silver train in the dining room that ran on a miniature track dispensing post-dinner cognac, dry fruits and cigars!

Madha Rao Scindia I, founder of modern Gwalior built the Phool Bagh where a temple, mosque, gurudwara and Theosophical lodge stand testimony to the city’s secular ethos. The king also started the Gwalior trade fair in 1905, the biggest fair in Madhya Pradesh. Music aficionados will find it worth their while to visit Sarod Ghar or the Museum of Music, set up in the ancestral house of the legendary maestro Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan, father of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan.

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Nearby, the place where the British Army Unit 34 encamped during Second World War is called ‘Thatipur’, its numerical reference lost on locals. In the syncretic air of Gwalior, Ramtanu Pandey becomes ‘Miyan’ Tansen and a fearless Gujar village belle Nanhi becomes Mrignayani the queen. Unperturbed by the burden of history, Gwalior juggles its various influences with panache and typical Bundelkhandi swagger.

FACT FILE

Getting there
Gwalior Airport is located at Maharajpur, 10 km north-east of the city and is connected by flights from several cities.

When to go
The month-long Gwalior Trade fair is held between the second week of January and February. Tansen Samaroh is a 5-day classical music festival held in December.

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Where to Stay
Deo Bagh
The royal summer house of the Yadavs facing the nine-chequered garden Nau Bagh is run as a heritage hotel by Neemrana. The 25-acre property has lovely gardens, cenotaphs, pavilions and two 18th century Maratha temples.
Ph +91 751 2820357 www.deo-bagh.neemranahotels.com

Usha Kiran Palace
The 120-year-old colonial era palace with twin towers is run by the Taj Group as a heritage hotel and has hosted luminaries like the King of England.
Ph +91 751 244 4000 www.tajhotels.com

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What to Eat
Try the local favourite bedai, a poori stuffed with spiced lentils, besides gajak (sesame, sugar and ghee sweet) from Ratiram Gajak and Morena Gajak Bhandar. Regulars queue up early morning for samosa, kachori and sweets at SS Kachoriwala and Bahadura, an 80-year-old sweet shop in Naya Bazaar. Also check out Dilli Parathe Wala at Sarafa Bazar, Agrawal Puri Bhandar at Nayi Sadak and laddus at Shankerlal Halwai.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the Cover Story in the April 2016 issue of JetWings International magazine. 

Get Lost: 15 Off-the-Grid Holidays

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Had enough of partying and want a quiet escape away from it all? Sit around a bonfire, watch the stars and get away from the crowds in these remote places that aren’t too difficult to reach. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY show a whole world out there to lose yourself in…

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Get some Soulitude in the Himalayas at Ramgarh (Uttarakhand)
‘I’m off to Ramgarh’ you can announce nonchalantly and let the world figure out which of the dozen Ramgarhs in India you have toodled off to. Thanks to its remote location, the village of Gagar near Ramgarh (35 km north east of Nainital) is free from tourist traffic. Tucked away in the slopes of a scenic hamlet at 7,000 ft, it commands a majestic view of the Kumaon Himalayas – Nanda Devi, Trishul, Panchachuli, Pindari Glacier, Nandakot, Nandaghunti and Kamet. Its ten rooms, named Nirvana, Bliss, Quietude, Awakening, Peace (you get the idea), offer ample ‘soulitude’ and inspiration. Hike to the local Ramgarh market and continue to scenic orchards and old dak bungalows of Ashok Vatika renovated by Neemrana into the Ramgarh Bungalows. Wake up to a magical sunrise in this quiet nook that served as Rabindranath Tagore’s literary retreat for six years – he even considered it as the location of his dream abode and university Shantiniketan! The renowned poetess Mahadevi Verma too lived in Ramgarh – her home is now a library of her works. You might consider reading a book here, if not writing one! Owner Manish Chandra also runs another quiet retreat called Soulitude by the River at Chanfi nearby.

Soulitude in the Himalayas
Gagar, Nainital-Mukteshwar Road, Kumaon, Uttarakhand
Ph +91 99993 30379 http://www.soulitude.in
Tariff Rs.8,000-12,000

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Swing in a hammock by a gurgling river at Shanthi Kunnj (Karnataka)
Deep in the heart of Malnad on the banks of the gurgling Bhadra River, swing lazily in a hammock while staying in wood and bamboo thatched cottages overlooking the river and forest beyond. The Areca House, Log House, Glass House, Mud House, Tent House are all made of locally available timber, tucked away in a coffee, cardamom, areca and pepper plantation. Go on a tour of the Holy Cross Estate run by the Saldanhas or take an adventurous jeep ride to the river bank for a splash and barbecue picnic of fish baked in sand. The area was called Masigadde (Coal Field) as the forests were burned for producing charcoal to power the steam locomotives during the British era. Thankfully the forests are now protected as part of the Bhadra and Muthodi tiger reserves. Guests have reported rare tiger sightings just across the river though otters are aplenty.

Shanthi Kunnj Homestay
Devdhana Village, Honnekoppa, Sangameshwarpet, Near Kadabagere, Chikmagalur District, Karnataka Ph 0824-2485180 www.shanthikunnj.com
Tariff Rs.3,500/person, all-inclusive

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Have a wild time of a different kind in Chambal Safari Lodge (Uttar Pradesh)
The once notorious bandit terrain of India, the Chambal valley today offers exciting opportunities for wildlife tourism and eco conservation. Spearheading these efforts are Kunwar Ram Pratap (RP) and Anu Singh who run Chambal Safari Lodge in their ancestral property. Mela Kothi, the family’s field camp that once hosted a cattle mela (fair) has independent cottages on 35 acres of private farmland. Enjoy fireside dinners under the stars, go on bicycle jaunts, horse rides and camel safaris in the ravines or village and nature trails on foot. The signature experience is the jeep drive to the banks of the Chambal River for a guided boat ride. Spot gharials and muggers on the sandbanks and flocks of Indian skimmers besides other wildlife. Watch camels ford the river loaded with firewood on an excursion to Ater Fort (2km) across the Chambal. At Bateshwar (11km) view the riverside temples on the banks of the Yamuna from the riverside retreat The Kunj.

Chambal Safari Lodge
Mela Kothi, Village Jarar, Tehsil Bah, District Agra, Uttar Pradesh
Ph 9997066002, 9837415512, 9719501517
Email rpsjarar@chambalsafari.com www.chambalsafari.com
Tariff Rs.7,000-9,000, meals and excursions extra

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Experience tranquility at Tranquebar at the Bungalow by the Beach (Tamil Nadu)
Imagine a red sun casting golden spangles on a sea with silhouettes of fishing boats dancing past the waves. Throw in an easy chair on a wraparound balcony that overlooks India’s most oxygen-rich beach in front, the 17th century Danish Fort Dansborg to the right and a Pandya temple to the left and you have the perfect do-nothing holiday. Tharangambadi, literally the ‘Land of the Dancing Waves’ became Tranquebar under the Danes. Neemrana’s Bungalow by the Beach offers privacy with a dollop of wistful colonial nostalgia and rooms quaintly named after old Danish ships – Christianus Septimus, Countess Moltke, Prince Christian, take your pick! Period décor, stewards in attendance, a blue pool by the beach and delicious cuisine; this is old world luxury redefined. Visit the Fort museum or take INTACH’s heritage walk to leisurely explore the last vestiges of Scandinavian heritage at the only Danish outpost in India. In this time warp, Tamil culture seamless blends into the town’s landscape though streets still bear names like Kongensgade (King’s Street), Borgan Street and the old gateway Landsporten, besides historic churches, homes of former Danish Governors and pastors, an old cemetery and India’s 1st printing press! Neemrana has also restored two other heritage houses – the Gate House and the Thanga House into their signature ‘non-hotel’ hotels.

Bungalow on the Beach
24 King Street, Tharangambadi, District Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu
Ph +91 11 4666 1666, 9310630386, 9786100461 www.neemranahotels.com
Tariff Rs.5,000-7,000

Turiya Spa Canacona Goa_Amit Bhandare

Explore your fourth state of consciousness at Turiya Spa near Palolem (Goa)
Let’s face it, everyone has had their share of unconsciousness in Goa. But true to its name, Turiya explores the fourth state of consciousness. Set in a serene corner of Canacona, the 100-year old Portuguese villa and spa was renovated by architect and designer Sandesh Prabhu to help visitors to Goa find innermost peace. The 12,000 sq ft landscaped property has an inviting ambience, cheery colours and an intimate Eden-like garden with chikkoo, mango, avocado and frangipani trees. Get pampered with delicious home-style Konkani cuisine, bathe in open to sky baths or soak in a step-down bath, savour rejuvenative spa treatments based on Western methods and traditional Indian systems of Ayurveda. Uncover local culture with visits to a local market or farm or hire a bike to scenic Palolem (2km) and Agonda beaches (10 km north). Boat trips to Butterfly Island for dolphin sightings and day trips to Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary and Karwar are other activities.

Turiya Villa and Spa
House No 16, Chaudi, Canacona, Goa
Ph 0832-2644172, 2643077, 9821594004
www.turiyahotels.com
Tariff Rs.5,000-9,500

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Watch the stillness of Umiam Lake & enjoy Khasi hospitality at Ri Kynjai (Meghalaya)
Located on the outskirts of Shillong, Ri Kynjai is a boutique lakeside resort in Meghalaya really lives up to its tagline ‘Serenity by the Lake’. The resort reflects Khasi traditions in every aspect of hospitality and architecture. Stay in plush cottages and stylish thatched huts on stilts. Wrapped within its warm pine interiors and wooden floors, watch drifting clouds and watercolour beauty of the surroundings or sit in the balcony and contemplate on the stillness of Umiam Lake. Submerge yourself in high-end spa treatments at Khem Janai or indulge in gourmet fare at the restaurant Sao Aiom (Four Seasons) specializing in North Eastern delicacies like jadoh, smoked pork with bamboo shoot and the famous Cherrapunji Chicken. The 45 acre wooded estate and gardens are great for leisurely walks, though for more adventure visit the nearby village of Umiuh or hike around the Khasi Hills.

Ri Kynjai
Umniuh Khwan, UCC Road, Ri Bhoi District, Meghalaya
Ph +91 9862420300, 9862420301 www.rikynjai.com
Tariff Rs.7,000-12,000

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Find Alpine comfort in India at Chalets Naldehra (Himachal)
Undulating grassy meadows fringed by tall cedar trees, Naldehra (22 km north of Shimla), was so enchanting that Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India (1899-1905) renamed his youngest daughter Alexandra as Naldehra after his favourite haunt. The undulating golf course set up by Curzon – the oldest in India and one of the highest 18-hole golf links in the world – still ranks among the most challenging in the country. Not far from the course, beyond a manicured lawn and a pretty garden, Finnish log cabins stand at multiple levels, no two of which are alike. Set on a 2-acre patch owned by the enterprising father-son duo Yatish and Amish Sud, the personal holiday home strategically built close to the golf course soon transformed into a resort., a Every chalet, named after early explorers who mapped the hills, sports commemorative brass plaques – F Younghusband Chalet, Gerard Chalet, Captain Kennedy Chalet, Sir Henry Collet Chalet. The revolving restaurant, 360˚ Top of the World, is the first of its kind in Himachal Pradesh! The small octagonal restaurant seats 20 and is a great perch to unwind and enjoy a delicious meal with laser lights, sunset views and starry nights. Hike to the picturesque village of Kogi to see old Himachali temples and homes with slate roofs.

Chalets Naldehra
Naldehra, District Shimla, Himachal Pradesh
Ph 0177-2747715, 9816062007, 9816039162 www.chaletsnaldehra.com
Tariff Rs.14,990-22,990 (2n/3d package)

Deluxe Room --The Grand Dragon Hotel Ladakh-2

Fly to the roof of the world while enjoying plush comfort in Ladakh’s winter (J&K)
While thousands drive to Ladakh when the high Himalayan passes open in summer, the relatively quiet winter holds its own charm. Not just the air, the crowd too thins out as the temperature drops. The sheer joy of leaving fresh tracks in snow will make anyone feel like an adventurer. And what better way to do it than pamper yourself at Grand Dragon, the swankiest 5-star hotel in Ladakh? Stay in plush rooms that open out to a view of the snow-capped peaks of Stok Kangri, Khardung la pass, besides landmarks like Leh Palace and Shanti Stupa. Sip a hot cuppa and dine at the specialty restaurant Tusrabs, literally ‘from ancient times’ that serves a fusion of Ladakhi, Tibetan & Chinese cuisine. After acclimatizing to the 3500 m, take a day trip along the Indus river past Nimu where it meets the Zanskar to Chilling, the start point of the Chadar (Frozen River) Trek. Visit Ladakh’s oldest living monastery Alchi, the moonscapes of Lamayuru, Atishey village and attend local festivals like Gustor (Jan 7) at Spituk gompa or Losar and Dosmochey (Feb).

The Grand Dragon Ladakh
Old Road, Sheynam, Leh, Ladakh
Ph +91 1982-255866/266, 9906986782, 9622997222 www.thegranddragonladakh.com
Tariff Rs.22,999-32,999/person (3n/4d Winter Offer)

IMG_6904 Samten Yongjhar Gompa prayer flags

Escape to Mechuka on the China border (Arunachal)
Mechuka is so remote, it’s closer to the Chinese border than to any Indian town. Named after the hot water springs found in the area (men means medicine, chu is water while kha literally means snow or mouth), the far flung town lies in the West Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh. Reached after a circuitous drive from Aalo, the road deposts you at a wide plateau surrounded by an amphitheater of hills. The Siyom or Yargyap chu river snakes across the valley criss-crossed by bamboo bridges lined with prayer flags. Being an advanced airfield and staging post for the Indian Army, you wake up to the sound of bagpipes and military drills in the morning as wild horses graze in the fields. Base yourself at local guest houses and quaint homestays while visiting Tibetan monasteries like Samden Yongjhar gompa and Dorjeling gompa, besides the cave where Guru Nanak is supposed to have meditated 500 years ago on his trip to Tibet.

Department of Tourism, Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh
Ph +91-360-2214745 www.arunachaltourism.com

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Gaze at the Aravalis as you listen to folk musicians at Dadhikar (Rajasthan)
Rajasthan is a land of forts and palaces, which is why it’s easy to miss out on some of the lesser known gems in the state. Dadhikar Fort, northwest of Alwar, is one such jewel. Wander into a world scented by 1000 years of history as you sip morning tea on the ramparts with unbeatable panoramic views. Choose from a bouquet of regal suites and stone clad rooms to curl up, with impeccable meals served in the courtyard and soul-stirring folk music under the stars. Balladeers sing ‘Saher Dadhikar Pargana, Alwar Garh ke paas, Basti Raja Chand ki, Abhaner nikas’ as they recount the legend of Raja Chand who camped here after his capital Abhaneri was flooded. The campsite (dera) came to be known as Derakar, which over time was corrupted to Dadhikar. Explore the hill fort, Sariska tiger sanctuary and nearby forts of Ajabgarh-Bhangarh besides Alwar’s hilltop bastion Bala Qila.

The Dadhikar Fort
Village Dadhikar, Alwar, Rajasthan
Ph +91 9871655431, 9950669900
www.dadhikarhotels.com
Tariff Rs.4,500-14,000

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Enjoy high tea at Tea Nest in Coonoor (Tamil Nadu)
Rolling tea estates, cool wind perfumed with the freshness of eucalyptus and pine, gushing waterfalls and exotic flower gardens; the Nilgiris is a dream destination. If you wish to stay away from the rumpus of Ooty, check into Tea Nest – a tea-themed hideaway outside Coonoor surrounded by 1800 acres of tea plantations. Wake up to birdsong in this perch on a hillock as gaurs graze in the bushes nearby, walk or cycle around the plantations dotted with tea-pickers busily plucking away or relax in the patio admiring the Pakkasurankote hill range. The early 19th century colonial villa has rooms tagged after tea varieties and presents a splendid 7-course tea-inspired menu served by friendly attentive staff. The Tea Nest Annexe, a 2-room planter’s bungalow scarcely 1 km away from the main house offers more privacy in a romantic setting. Don’t miss the nature trail past Toda hamlets and Hill Grove railway station to the ethnic Kurumba Village Resort, the company’s flagship enterprise nestled in a spice plantation on the Connoor-Mettupalayam Ghat road.

Tea Nest
Singara Estate, Coonoor, Tamil Nadu
Ph +91-423-2234018, 9442147198 (Tea Nest), +91-423-2233030, 8903502763 (Tea Nest Annexe) www.natureresorts.in
Tariff Rs.2,500-4,000, incl. breakfast

Woodpecker Tree House- View from the Plantation

Perch in a tree house at Pepper Trail in Wayanad (Kerala)
In a recent survey, Wayanad ranked among the top 10 best accommodations in the world. Adding to the present mix of specialty hotels, nature resorts and boutique hotels is Pepper Trail. The highlight of the 200-acre coffee and spice plantation in Kerala’s hilly district is a charming 140-year-old colonial bungalow. The lovingly restored Pazhey Bungalaav (Old Bungalow) houses the Malabar and Mackenzie Suites with quaint four posters and antique furniture. Perched on giant jackfruit trees nearby, the tree houses are 40 feet off the ground. Just because you are at the treetop, doesn’t mean you scrimp on luxury. Named Hornbill and Woodpecker, each tree house comes with large bedrooms, outdoor living spaces and safari inspired furniture. There’s plenty to do in and around the estate – guided plantation walks, cycling, open jeep safaris and coracle rides or fishing on the estate reservoir.

Pepper Trail
Mangalam Carp Estate, Chulliyode, Sulthan Bathery, Wayanad, Kerala
Ph +91 9562277000 www.peppertrail.in
Tariff Rs.4,700-18,000

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Stay in a house on stilts in Dibrugarh (Assam)
Head to Dibrugarh in Upper Assam to live the lazy life of a tea planter in a chang bungalow (traditional house on stilts). Rooms named after the tributaries of the Brahmaputra River look out to manicured lawns as fresh brewed tea is always available. Specially designed horse-riding tours take you around century old tea estates or cross-country along the banks of the Brahmaputra. Picnic on grassy banks, boat cruises and kayaking or extend your itinerary to visit the ancient Ahom capital of Sibsagar and the wildlife preserves of Kaziranga and Dibru Saikhowa. Purvi Discovery runs another lodge closer to town called Chowkidinghee Chang Bungalow and the new boutique property Wathai Heritage Bungalow at Limbuguri Tea Estate in Tinsukia, a good base to explore Dibru Saikhowa National Park.

Purvi Discovery
Ph 0373 2301120, 2300035 Email purvidiscovery@gmail.com www.assamteatourism.com
Tariff Rs.3,500-9,000, incl. breakfast

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Maroon yourself on Neil Island (Andamans)
The boat jetty at Bharatpur on Neil Island juts out into the vast Andaman sea of electric blue. You can walk to it each day from your beach hut just to watch the daily boat from Havelock sail away. In this nook, it is easy to stay in self-imposed exile for as long as one wants, snorkeling around the reefs and eating fresh seafood. Spread over 18.9 sq km and only 5km at its widest point, Neil is a tiny speck in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands nearly 1400 km from the Indian mainland and 40 km east of Port Blair. Its five villages harbour 3000 fishing and agricultural families, which gives the island its popular name – ‘Vegetable Bowl of the Andamans’. Neil is so small one can cover the whole island on foot in a day. The beaches (originally numbered for convenience) took on their present names after Hindu migrants were resettled here by the Indian Government after the 1971 Bangladesh War. Watch the sunrise at Sitapur or see it go down at Laxmanpur and marvel at the natural stone bridge and corals in shallow pools during low tide. Laze at Ramnagar or swim in Govindnagar, but whatever you do, don’t glug Neil down like a vodka shot; savour it like single malt…

Andaman & Nicobar Tourism
Ph 03192-232694, 244091 www.andamans.gov.in

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Stay in an erstwhile hunting lodge at Kila Dalijoda (Odisha)
Once an exclusive hunting lodge of Raja Jyoti Prasad Singh Deo, king of Panchakote Raj, Kila Dalijoda is a beautiful two storied stone house 22 km north of Cuttack in Odisha. The heritage homestay is named after its proximity to Dalijoda Forest Range, part of the newly declared Kapilas Elephant Sanctuary. The European style mansion, with arched windows and tinted glass was built in 1931-33, and at that time boasted tech advancements like self generating electricity, electrified fencing and water harvesting. Present hosts Debjit Prasad Singh Deo and his wife Namrata have kept its wild soul intact carrying out only minor renovation. With just three suites, it is the perfect hideaway where guests get a dose of rural lifestyle with visits to weekly village markets, tribal settlements and nature walks. Savour delicious home-cooked Odiya meals, with quail eggs available all year round (and duck eggs in winter), preferred over the plebeian chicken eggs due to traditional reasons.

Kila Dalijoda
Ph +91 9438667086 Email debjitsinghdeo@yahoo.co.in www.kiladalijoda.com
Tariff Rs.3,000-4,000

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unedited version of the article that appeared on 18 December, 2015 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at http://www.cntraveller.in/story/off-the-grid-getaways-for-your-next-long-weekend/

In search of new thrills: New travel experiences in 2016

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The new year brings the promise of touching new frontiers in travel – new destinations, novel experiences and newer ways to see places old and new. Not just the world, India too is opening up with unique travel experiences for the discerning traveler. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY dig out 10 exciting options.

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Hot Air Ballooning as you SkyWaltz in Rajasthan & Maharashtra
If you think you need to go as far as Cappadocia in Turkey, Bugun in Myanmar or Africa for ballooning, here’s a major breakthrough! SkyWaltz gives you a chance to become a SkyXplorer with Balloon Safari options at multiple locations in India. In Rajasthan, waft over forts, palaces and villages of the rugged Aravalis as you get a taste of Rajputana at Jaipur, Pushkar, Ranthambhore and Neemrana. After a great stint at the Pushkar Mela, SkyWaltz brings the adventure to Maharashtra. Soar above green hills, valleys and lakes of the evergreen Sahyadris at Lonavala, Pune and Mumbai. While the duration of the morning and evening flight is 60 minutes, no two flights are alike as you drift where the winds decide to take you. The season is open until Feb-March with a short break for summer.

Cost Rs.12,000 or USD $250/head
Ph +91 9560387222, 1800 103 8839 http://www.skywaltz.com

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Attend Asia’s longest beach festival
After charming everyone with their Isla de Calma (Isle of Calm) ad campaign, Diu now promises to tantalize tourists with the longest beach festival in Asia. A one-of-a-kind festival held across three months until February 15, 2016, Festa De Diu is a celebration of music, art and culture. Choose from 60 beachside luxury tented cottages, which give access to the cultural extravaganza. Heritage walks, workshops and theme weeks dedicated to wellness, laughter and the arts, besides a dedicated adventure zone for bungee jumping, ziplining between cliffs and hot air ballooning over the Arabian Sea, are added attractions. In your spare time, explore this erstwhile Portuguese enclave with stunning beaches, Baroque churches and historic citadels like Diu Fort and Fortim do Mar or Panikotha (Water Fort), which featured in films like Qayamat. After you’ve had your fill of local sights like Naida caves, the walled city of Jhampa and Nagoa Beach lined with hoka trees brought by the Portuguese from Africa, head to nearby tourist destinations like Gir National Park and Somnath Temple.

Cost Rs.8,099 upwards/day for 3 people, incl. breakfast
Ph 1800 103 9257 http://www.festadiu.com

Hampi by Sky

Hampi by Sky on a microlight 
With stunning architecture of the Vijayanagar Empire and a surreal landscape of boulders set amongst a quilted patchwork of banana and rice fields, Hampi is easily one of the most inspiring destinations in the country. As per local guidespeak, it would take a visitor ‘3 months, 3 days, 3 hours, 3 minutes’ on foot, to see all the ruins of this once glorious city. While one wonders just how they came upon this perplexing equation, you get a sense of Hampi’s vastness from the summit of Anjanadri or Malyavanta hill. Walk around the ruins in amazement or ride about on hired bicycles, or try a great new way to experience Hampi – on a microlight flight. Take off from a school playground for a 30-minute aerial tour of the ruins, soaring across the Tungabhadra and get a unique birds’ eye view of Hampi.

Cost 15 min Rs.3500, 30 min Rs.7000
Timings 6-8:30 am, 5-7 pm
Contact Manjunath +91 9448975862

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Ziplining in Rishikesh
A holy dip in the Ganga is passé; it’s time to upgrade to a holy zip on the Ganga. Flying Fox, India’s zipline pioneers, started South Asia’s first zipline at Neemrana in 2007 with five sections over the 15th century fort – named after a film theme, from Bond to Major Saheb. Flying Fox also runs zipline tours at Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort flying over ridges, ramparts and two lakes before landing on the tip of a fortified tower. In Punjab, Flying Fox Kikar at an old hunting lodge is the longest zip-line tour in South Asia and the first forest-based zip-line adventure in India. Their latest addition is at Rishikesh – the only zip lines across the river Ganga. Run in partnership with Snow Leopard Adventures, the zip tour is located at Snow Leopard’s Camp Panther at Shivpuri, a 15-minute drive upstream of Tapovan. Two zip lines called High Times and White Water Flyer traverse 400m as you glide across the raging white water rapids 230 ft below, watching rafting crews bob past and unbelievable views unfold along the Himalayan foothills. The whole tour lasts 45-60 minutes and includes a safety briefing, trial zip, zip tour and a short forest walk. For the adventure enthusiast, the zipline tour is a great experience besides the rafting and bungee jump.

Cost Rs.1,399-2,299/person
Ph +91 9568943116, 011-66487678 http://www.flyingfox.asia

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Kitesurfing in Rameshwaram
Though most visitors to Rameshwaram head to the Ramanathaswamy temple to worship one of the twelve jyotirlingas in India and see the longest temple corridor in the country, the temple town is fast emerging as a pilgrimage spot for kite surfers. Steady wind speed, sparse rains and endless deep blue sea make it an ideal location for kite surfing or surf boarding powered by a kite. Quest Expeditions, fronted by petite Charmaine, India’s first female kite surfer, offers a certification course with wave-style riding, freestyle or jumps at numerous locations on the Coromandel Coast. Stay in rustic beach huts for a reasonable Rs.1,250 per person, including meals and transfers to kite spots like Swami’s Bay, Lands End lagoon and Fisherman’s Cove. Well connected by rail and road, Rameshwaram is a 3 hour drive from Chennai and Madurai airports. The activity is possible all year round, with winter north winds blowing between Oct–Mar and summer south winds between Apr–Sep.

Cost Rs.15-30,000 for private/shared lessons of 6-10 hours over 1-2 days.
Ph +91 9820367412, 9930920409 http://www.thekitesurfingholiday.com

Muzhappilangad Road Rajas IMG_0086_Anurag Mallick

Rickshaw Run from Jaisalmer to Shillong or Shillong to Cochin
When the joy of riding a tuk tuk didn’t seem exciting enough, maverick tour company The Adventurists decided to institute a 3500 km race across the Indian subcontinent for teams of three participants in custom-built auto rickshaws. Often described as a ‘pan-Indian adventure in a 7 horsepower glorified lawnmower’, the Rickshaw Run has no fixed route. Participants map their own way between the start and finish line. They also get to paint their rickshaw, customize and name it – Krazy Jalfrezi, Ganesha’s Goras, Curry on Tukkin’, Bananas in Pyjamas, Naan Point Five on Rickshaw Scale, you get the idea! Teams can choose a charity they support and raise funds for their adventure. This year’s edition offers three cross-country routes – Cochin to Jaisalmer in January, Jaisalmer to Shillong in April and Shillong to Cochin in August. If road trips aren’t your thing, perhaps you can try Adventure 9 in the Indian Ocean – crossing the Zanzibar Archipelago in a ngalawa (dugout canoe) powered by a bed sheet!

Cost £1,595 entry fee for the trio, which includes a rickshaw with all paperwork, 2-days of test drive, launch and finish line parties, a blog and free travel insurance worth £210. www.theadventurists.com

 

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‘Life of Pi’ Rickshaw tour of Pondy & other filmy trails
The latest travel trend is thematic film trails, be it the Pataudi Palace that featured in Julia Roberts’ ‘Eat Pray Love’ or Ravla Khempur in Rajasthan where ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ was shot. However, Pondicherry offers a quirky rickshaw tour of the famous filming locations in Ang Lee’s ‘Life of Pi’, besides Pondy’s other historic sights. Conceived by CGH Hotels, the tour commences at their flagship hotel Maison Perumal, winds past the 136-year-old Calve College to Foyer de Soldat, Joan of Arc statue and the tomb of Marquis de Bussy, dating back to 1785. Visit the 22-acre Botanical Gardens that served as the zoo run by Pi’s father. Instead of the motley bunch of animals, you’ll find 900 exotic plants collected by the French. Retrace the footsteps of Anandi and her friends through the bustle of Grand Bazaar at the junction of Mahatma Gandhi Road and Nehru Street into Goubert Market, where Pi peeped between the rows of garlands strung by flower sellers. Visit the trinity of faiths from Tamil temples, churches and the Kuthba Mosque, where Pi wrestled with spirituality. Or watch the surf at the old pier where Pi bid his final adieu to Anandi. End the rickshaw tour with a set Franco-Tamil meal at the nameless restaurant at Maison Perumal.

Cost Rs.600 for 1 hour, Rs.800 for 1 1/2 hour (For two)
Maison Perumal 58 Perumal Koil Street, Puducherry
Ph 0413-2227519, 9488009576 http://www.cghearth.com

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Retrace the Silk Route in the Thar
Thanks to China’s bid to revive the ancient trade route linking China, Central Asia to Europe, the Silk Route has again come into focus. The southern arm of the trade route skirted north of Rajputana touching places like Lodhurva, Ossian, Bikaner and Jaisalmer, which emerged as trading hubs. Suryagarh on the outskirts of Jaisalmer has crafted bespoke Desert Trails in the Thar, allowing guests to visit old forts, caravanserais and cenotaphs of local and foreign traders, recreating the old trade routes that once criss-crossed the desert. Your caravan takes you to Khaba Fort overlooking the ruins of the ancient village of Paliwal Brahmins and repaints the faded glory of yesteryears in the abandoned settlements of Kuldhara and Lakhmana before transporting you to the desert oasis of Joshida Talao for elaborate repast set on the banks of the scenic reservoir. Further on, sip the cool sweet water from the ancient wells of Mundhari. At Suryagarh, relish char-grilled meats and succulent kebabs in a range of dining settings, get a spa treatment at Rait Spa using sand or the newly launched Luni Salt Therapy and participate in celebrations like the White Nights of the Rajputs.

Cost Rs.18,000 upwards
Ph +91-7827151151, 02992-269269 http://www.suryagarh.com

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Glamping at India’s exclusive mobile luxury camp in Ladakh
The Ultimate Travelling Camp or TUTC is a unique concept in ‘Glamping’ or glamour camping introduced in India by Cox & Kings as part of their Bharat Deko brand. Past the white-washed stupas and fields of chorten, the Chamba Camp in Ladakh overlooking Thiksey monastery is set up when the passes open for summer and packs up before they close for winter. For a short period between June to September, it gives guests a taste of unrivalled indulgence. Each individually designed luxury tent comes with an en-suite bathroom, colonial furniture, private deck and your own personal butler. Experienced guides and travelogists accompany you on personalized cultural trips to monasteries and oracles and regale you with folk tales by the campfire. As part of the package, watch a game of polo in the high altitude cold desert, raft down the mighty Indus River and enjoy lavish picnic lunches. In 2015, it won Robb Report’s 27th Annual International Best of Best Awards, the connoisseur’s guide to the world’s finest things. They also run a similar luxury camp at Diskit in Ladakh’s Nubra Valley.

Cost 2,45,355/person for 6 days, 5 nights
Ph 1800 123 0508 http://www.coxandkings.com

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Kerala’s Jatayu Nature Park and Ramayana museum
While Kerala’s ambitious Muziris Heritage Project (the largest heritage conservation project in the country) is still underway around the ancient port of Muziris near present day Kodungalloor, the state is ready with its latest attraction – Jatayu Nature Park. It is believed that Jatayu, the legendary vulture from Ramayana tried to rescue Sita as she was being abducted by Ravana and perished on this rocky lair, which was called Jatayupara (Jatayu Rock). The dominating feature of the mythological cum adventure theme park is the 200 ft long sculpture of Jatayu sprawled atop the 1,000-ft high hillock at Chadayamangalam in Kollam district. One can also spot Lord Rama’s footprint on the hillock, set in stone. The 65-acre park is the brainchild of Malayalam filmmaker and sculptor Rajiv Anchal. Besides an adventure park, ropeway rides, viewing deck, Ayurveda themed cave resorts and a 1.5 km long walkway through the jungle, the theme park that will be unveiled in phases. It will also feature a Ramayana museum and a ‘6D theatre’ that recreates the aerial battle between Jatayu and Ravana.

Jatayu Nature Park, Jatayu Junction, Chadayamangalam
Ph: +91-474 2477077 http://www.jatayunaturepark.com, http://www.keralatourism.org

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 3 January, 2016 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Cherry on the Pi: Pondicherry’s most charming hotels

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The erstwhile French enclave of Pondicherry was the filming locale of Ang Lee’s film Life of Pi. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY pick the most charming boutique hotels for a delightful holiday.

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Palais de Mahe
CGH Earth’s new boutique hotel, a yellow and white, high-roofed colonnaded building echoes French colonial architecture. With 18 luxury suites overlooking a swimming pool, an Ayurveda spa and long arched verandahs lined with leafy planters, the hotel is a stone’s throw from the Promenade. The terrace restaurant’s delightful Indian fusion cuisine made with fresh catch and vegetables, ensures why people return for their pan-seared fish masalas, beef steaks and tangy daals laced with piquant spices.

4, Rue Bussy (LBS Street) Ph 0484 3011711 Email palaisdemahe@cghearth.com www.cghearth.com Tariff Rs.13,200; 18 rooms

The Promenade
Located in the heart of the French quarter overlooking Pondicherry’s beachfront, this luxury boutique hotel was once the old Railway Station building. Associated with one of India’s top fashion brands Hidesign, this stylish hotel has a French colonial exterior with ultra-modern minimalist interiors. The rooftop restaurant Lighthouse offers a great view of the Pondy skyline and the sea.

23, Goubert Avenue Ph 0413 2227750 www.sarovarhotels.com
Tariff Rs.6,750-Rs.8,500; 38 rooms

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Le Dupleix
The 18th century French villa, converted by Hidesign into a designer Heritage Hotel, is named after Francois Dupleix, the Governor of Pondicherry. Stay in ultra-modern penthouses with private terraces or cozy heritage rooms with the smell of aged wood, evocative of a plush colonial life. Dine on Mediterranean or Pondicherry cuisine at the gourmet restaurant under a mango tree in the courtyard. The Governor’s Lounge bar has embroidered artwork by Jean Francois Lesage and a richly carved wooden ceiling commissioned by le Dupleix.

5, Rue de la Casserne Ph 0413 2226999, 2226001 www.ledupleix.com
Tariff Rs.5,200–10,200; 14 rooms

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Maison Perumal
The first CGH Earth initiative in Pondicherry’s Tamil Quarter holds all the old world charm of a traditional Franco-Tamil home. Blending stark simplicity and antique furniture with a dash of stained glass vibrancy, the 2-storeyed 200-year-old mansion’s rooms retain a sense of warm sepia-toned familiarity of a lived-in home. Attentive staff and a flavourful menu at the gallery cum in-house restaurant set around the inner courtyard accentuate the irresistible charm of the place. Explore the hidden heritage of Pondy on quaint rickshaw rides or cycles.

58, Perumal Koil Street Ph 0413 2227519, 9442127519 www.cghearth.com Tariff Rs.8,360; 10 rooms

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Villa Shanti
An elegantly restored 19th century home run by Sylvain Paquiry with a grey and white façade, Villa Shanti manages a seamless blend of tradition and modern aesthetics. A newly added wing, vertical garden and airy well-lit rooms set around a green courtyard promise a pleasant boutique hotel stay. Signature dishes made with fresh farm products are procured and prepared by the chef himself, and served in its roomy chic restaurant and café bar.

14, Rue Suffren Ph 0413 4200028 Email s.paquiry@lavillashanti.com www.lavillashanti.com Tariff Rs.7,000-11,000; 15 rooms

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La Maison Tamoulle
Formerly known as Calve Hotel run by WelcomHeritage, the 150-year-old Chettiar bungalow has been recently taken over by Neemrana. Its French rebranding literally means ‘Tamil bungalow’ as the Chettinad plaster, Athangudi tiles, pillared columns and stained glass windows suggest. The thematic rooms are named after the navaratna (nine gems) and the delectable mix of French and Baroque elements with vernacular architecture is echoed in the in-house restaurant that serves great Creole and Indian cuisine.

Old No.36, Vysial Street Ph 0413 2223738, 2224103 www.neemranahotels.com Tariff Rs.3,000-5,000; 10 rooms

Gratitude
Painstakingly restored over three years in collaboration with INTACH, the 150 year old bungalow suffused with Anglo French furnishings is the perfect writer’s retreat. With no TV, it’s ideal for creative people seeking quietude. Long-term stays are possible at reduced rates. The house is entirely a non-smoking zone and the terrace has daybeds with attached yoga and massage rooms. The in-house La Boutique de la Maison Gratitude has exquisite vintage jewellery, clothing in natural fabrics, bags and clutch purse; all limited edition pieces.

52, Rue Romain Rolland Ph 0413 2225029, 9442065029 www.gratitudeheritage.in Tariff Rs.4,000-6,200; 9 rooms

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Hotel de l’ Orient
An old Tamil home rebuilt by the French in the 1760s that once housed the Department of Education, the Neemrana hotel proudly retains the old name Instruction Publique at its entrance. Rooms overlook a foliaged central courtyard with Carte Blanche restaurant specializing in excellent Creole cuisine.

17, Romain Rolland Street Ph 0413 2343067/68/74 www.neemranahotels.com
Tariff Rs.4,000-7,000, 16 rooms

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Hotel de Pondicherry
A 170-year-old French townhouse, later converted into a boutique heritage hotel, has rooms named after former French governors and Tamil luminaries. The Dupleix suite opens into a terrace. Antique teak beds, Thanjavur paintings and sepia tinted photographs transport you to a bygone era. Though no food is served, the French cuisine restaurant Le Club is located in the tropical garden to the front.

38, Rue Dumas Ph 0413 2227409 www.hoteldepondicherry.com Tariff Rs.3,000-5,000; 12 rooms

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The Dune
Run by Sunil Varghese and Frenchman Dimitri Klien who has a keen eye for art, recycling, and environment, this ‘Lost Paradise’ is set in a sprawling 35 acre organic farm and flower garden with a private 700 m seafront. No two rooms at The Dune are alike with a wide range of eclectic and individualistic arty villas and suites with reclaimed doors and windows. As the manager says, ‘Apart from the staff, everything else in antique’! Enjoy healthy organic meals at FUN (Food U Need) Restaurant, sizzling seafood at The Seaside Bar, rejuvenating therapies at Veda Spa, besides outdoor games, cycling, boating and rural experiences like milking cows and farming. The Artists in Residence programme makes it a popular base for international artists while proceeds from the Artyzan Shop & Design studio fund school fees for underprivileged children.

Pudhukuppam, Keelputhupet (after Pondicherry University) Ph 0413 2655751, 9364455440 www.thedunehotel.com Tariff Rs.5,500-Rs.17,950; 50 rooms

Mango Hill Hotel  IMG_0661_Pondy-Anurag Mallick

Mango Hill
A French-run hotel on a hill planted with mango and cashew trees located between Pondicherry and Auroville, Mango Hill has a quaint brick and pastel feel. Rooms have a private terrace with sea-views and Thai style cottage rooms with sit-outs overlook a pool. Organic home-grown vegetables, fresh fish, cured ham, pâté and cheeses produced in-house are stirred into lovely dishes in the open kitchen. Owner and cheese-maker Marion Ducret conducts workshops (Ph 8098809089, Email cheeseyclass@gmail.com) and the hotel has a dairy room, cold rooms and a large wine cellar. The weekday Swim n Lunch offers visitors pool access and lunch at Rs.490.

Old Auroville Road, Bommayapalayam Ph 0413 2655491-3 www.hotel-mangohill-pondicherry.com Tariff Rs.2,500-3,750; 25 rooms

1210_Pondy-Anurag Mallick

Villa Helena
The colonial heritage guesthouse started out as an annex for Roselyne Guitry, a perfumer from Burgundy to store her collection of antiques. Currently owned by Benjamin Passicos, the century old building has a lush courtyard, open-air lounge with planters’ chairs, large rooms furnished with antiques and colonial furniture and the in-house Satsangh Restaurant.

13, Bussy Street Ph 0413 2226789, 4200377 Email villahelena@sify.com
Tariff Rs.2,800-3,000; 7 rooms

Villa Christophe
A boutique guesthouse in a restored 19th century villa with rooms with floral themes (Jasmine, Hibiscus and Frangipani) and equally beautiful bathrooms. Breakfast is charged at Rs.250/head.

5, Surcouf Street Ph 90258 17351 www.villachristophe.com Tariff Rs.3,000-3,500; 3 rooms

Le Reve Bleu & The Pink Ambassador owner IMG_0532_Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy_Pondy-Anurag Mallick

Le Reve Bleu
Literally ‘The Blue Dream’, this small budget guest house is run by a quirky French woman Christelle, know locally as the lady with the pink ambassador. The Tamil home comes with 6 rooms and a common kitchen-cum-hall on the ground floor for breakfasts, discussions and evenings. It’s quite popular among French backpackers.

95, Montorsier Street Ph 9894802333 www.lerevebleu-pondy.com Tariff 1,200; 6 rooms

1161_Pondy-Anurag Mallick

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 7 October 2015 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at http://www.cntraveller.in/story/where-stay-puducherry/

It’s the time to Fresco: Painted Havelis of Shekhawati

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore a region north of Jaipur often described as the ‘largest open air gallery of Rajasthan’

Mahansar Fort heritage hotel owner IMG_0328Anurag Priya

Origin of Shekhawati and its havelis
The haveli was to the baniya (merchant) what the gadh (fort) was to the Rajput. In 15th century, Rao Shekhaji (1433-88), baron of the Shekhawat sub-clan of the Kachhwaha dynasty conquered a vast region north of Amber, which was called Shekhawati. Over time, his descendants set up smaller thikanas (fiefdoms). However, the birth of the haveli (palatial home) can be traced to the rise of the Marwaris. After the decline of the Silk Route, this merchant community migrated from the desert region of Marwar around 1820 to the ports of Calcutta and Bombay, amassing huge fortunes. Though Marwaris ventured far for business, they always returned for three things – weddings, religious ceremonies and buildings. Strewn across 13,784 sq km, hundreds of painted havelis vied to outdo the other, making Shekhawati the largest open-air gallery in Rajasthan.

Bagar Piramal Haveli renovated by Neemrana into a hotel IMG_0125_Anurag Priya

The land of millionaires
As per oral folklore, Shekhawati once had 22 crorepatis. Some of India’s biggest business houses have their roots here – Oswal, Mittal, Ruia, Lohia, Birla, Dalmia, Goenka, Singhania, Agarwal, Khetan, Modi, Kothari, Jalan, Poddar, Morarka, Jhunjhunuwala, Piramal… Built in 1928, The Piramal Haveli in Bagar was the home of Seth Piramal Chaturbhuj Makhania who made a fortune in Bombay, trading in cotton, silver and opium. Renovated by Neemrana and the closest Shekhawati hotel from Delhi, the haveli has a large garden and two pillared courtyards with colourful wall tiles and kitsch frescoes of flying angels and gods in motorcars. Presence of the British in Jaipur since 1803 finds ample reflection in the murals. Ph 01592 221220-21, 9310630386 http://www.neemranahotels.com

Ramgarh frescos - even undersides of domed chhatris serve as a canvas IMG_0630_Anurag Priya

Myriad themes
Mural painting was an elaborate process that involved application of different materials and techniques in multiple layers. The laborious task of grinding sandela or kara, a smooth paste was left for women or boys. Scenes depicted cover ten broad themes – decorative designs, daily life, religion, raga mala, folk mythology, historical events or personalities, flora and fauna, erotica, maps or places and the British and their contraptions. Most chhatris or domes include a rasamandala in the ceiling – a dancing circle in which Krishna miraculously replicates himself so each Gopi finds him dancing next to her.

Mahansar IMG_0214_Anurag Priya

Tales of romance
Besides popular love stories like Laila-Majnu and Heer-Ranjha, Shekhawati’s murals have a recurrent theme of a couple astride a camel portraying Rajasthan’s most popular romantic tale – Dhola-Maru. Married off as kids, Dhola returns as an adolescent to fetch his wife. En route they encounter bandits Umra-Sumra and like a true Rajput wife, Maru repels the attackers while Dhola urges his camel onward. Paintings also represent lesser-known folk tales of Binjo-Sorath; Binjo mesmerizes his young aunt Sorath with his veena as she dances to his tunes. Sassi-Punu recounts the legend of Punu, a prince who weds Sassi, an abandoned princess raised among washermen. Tragically, Punu is kidnapped and Sassi dies in search of him in the desert…

Nawalgarh-Rajasthanis in a steamer IMG_2011_Anurag Priya

United Colours of Shekhawati
Long before 19th century natural colours like lampblack and red, green and yellow ochres were in use. Lime was a substitute for white and to lighten other hues, while indigo, ultramarine, vermilion, verdigris, gold and silver were reserved for puja rooms and bedrooms. Indian Yellow, made from gomutra or urine collected from cows fed on mango leaves, was rarely used. In 1860, German chemical pigments like artificial ultramarine, chrome red and emerald green reached India and remained popular till World War I, until supplies were hit. Inspired by ‘Made in Germany’ paint tins, many painters randomly emblazoned the word “Germany” to depict anything English! Maroon was popular between 1820-65, red and blue held sway between 1860-1910 while multi-coloured paintings using cheap European paints dominated 1900-50.

Dundlod-Fort interiors IMG_1585Anurag Priya

Dundlod: The Far Pavilions
In 1750, Thakur Kesri Singhji chose the site for Shivgarh Fort at the behest of local saint Dundlu Maharaj and named the village Dundlod. The beautiful diwankhana (assembly hall) has paintings of maharajas astride famous horses. Current owner Kanwar Raghavendra Singh (Bonnie Bana), who sourced 25 Marwari horses for the 1978 TV series The Far Pavilions, ended up buying them after the shoot! With partner Francesca Kelly, he runs Royal Equestrian & Polo Centre, organizing riding holidays across Rajasthan. The old well Sethon ka Kua and town square doubled up as a Partition era market in Pinjar. JP Dutta’s film Ghulami too was shot here and in Fatehpur, where most recently Salman Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan was filmed. Ph 9829212176, 9414208518 http://www.dundlod.com

Dundlod Seth Arjun Das Goenka Haveli Museum IMG_1457_Anurag Priya

Mansions with museums
Seth Arjundas Goenka Haveli Museum in Dundlod is a beautifully restored 1875 haveli showcasing merchant life in 19th century displaying old artefacts in 20 rooms. The richly carved fortified gate leads to the mardana (men’s quarter), an outer courtyard for visitors. Life-size clay figures depict the merchant, customers and punkha-walla, who manually swung the cloth ceiling fans. He was usually deaf and mute to ensure that business dealings remained secret. The inner courtyard or zenana recreates household scenes with large vessels, ladies at the chakki (stone wheel), cooks rolling out chapatis in the rasoi (kitchen) and earthen pitchers in a paniyada (narrow water storage room). Ph 9884053841 Mohan Goenka (Caretaker)

Nawalgarh Roop Niwas Kothi horse safaris IMG_1745_Anurag Priya

Far from the madding crowd
Founded by Thakur Nawal Singhji in 1737, Nawalgarh stands on an erstwhile grazing ground for horses, but is among the most modern towns in Shekhawati. Wrapped by a parkota (high wall), the town is marked by four pols (gates) – Bawadi, Mandi, Agoona and Nansa Darwajas. When the town outgrew these confines, Roop Niwas Kothi or ‘Rawal sab ki Kothi’ an old country house on a 100-acre patch became the family’s favoured retreat. The heritage resort has an impressive stable of Marwari horses and is owned by Bhanwar Devendra Singh who runs Royal Riding Holidays. Ph 01594-222008 http://www.roopniwaskothi.com

Nawalgarh-Dr Ramnath A Poddar Haveli Museum IMG_1977Anurag Priya

The art of haveli restoration
Nawalgarh’s Morarka Haveli was built by Jairam Dasji Morarka in the latter half of 18th century. After years of disuse, its renovation began in 2004 under conservation expert Dr Hotchand. Instead of cement, limestone, lal mitti (red mud) and river sand were used to strengthen surfaces. Marble dust and slaked lime replaced synthetic resins to reinforce plaster. Over 700 frescoes and 160 sculpted doors and windows, charred by smoke, dust and dirt were restored using traditional methods. Another renovated mansion nearby, Uttara Haveli was built in 1890 by Kesardev Morarka. Since the family did not dwell here long, it was opened for transiting relatives during functions. It was dubbed Uttaron ki Haveli (house of those who come and go), which morphed into Uttara Haveli. Ph 9649578317 http://www.morarkahavelimuseum.com

Nawalgarh-Dr Ramnath A Poddar Haveli Museum IMG_1940_Anurag Priya

Dr Ramnath A Podar Haveli Museum, a window to Rajasthan
Philanthropist Anandilal Podar built the haveli in 1902, which was converted into a museum and a centre for art, culture and heritage by his grandson Kantikumar R Podar. Restoring 750 frescoes spread over 11,200 sq m, he named the museum in memory of his father Ramnath A Podar. It has several interesting galleries on Rajasthani lifestyle, musical instruments, festivals, jewellery, miniature paintings, handicrafts, forts, palaces, bridal costumes, artworks in stone, wood and marble, besides turbans! Ph 01594-225446, 223138 http://www.podarhavelimuseum.org

Ramgarh Freco Hotel IMG_0665Anurag Priya

There are Ramgarhs, and there’s Ramgarh Sethan
Excessive taxation by Bikaner state led to the decline of Churu and the formation of Ramgarh. To protest the harsh taxes imposed by Thakur Sheo Singh of Churu, the Agrawal community of Podars left his territory in 1791 and founded a new town 16km south, with help from the Rao Raja of Sikar. In order to differentiate it from other Ramgarhs, they called it Ramgarh Sethan or Sethon ka Ramgarh (Ramgarh of wealthy merchants), vowing to outshine their former home. True to their word, Ramgarh reflects the wealth they amassed and spent to beautify their havelis. Today, Ramgarh holds the largest number of frescoes in Shekhawati. The Khandelwal family renovated the century old Khemka Haveli into the Ramgarh Fresco Hotel and organizes walking tours around the painted town. Ph 9971133230 http://www.ramgarhfresco.com

Ramgarh Shani Mandir IMG_0496Anurag Priya

Mirror mirror on the wall
Ironically, Ramgarh’s biggest mansion Sawalka Haveli was built in defiance of the Podars. Being old settlers, the Podars didn’t allow the Sawalkas into their territory, so Motilal Sawalika built a magnificent abode just outside the city gates! A short walk away is the Shani temple built by Gurudayal Khemka in 1840. The porch ceiling depicts mythological themes while mirror work on the interior walls is done using glass brought from Belgium and Persia around 1850.

Mahansar fresco-train IMG_0274_Anurag Priya

Weird contraptions of the Western world
The earliest depictions of Europeans in the frescoes are as army officers and troops. By mid 19th century their strange machines began to appear – paddle steamers and cargo boats that plied along the Ganga. While the railway was introduced in India in the 1850s, the first mural featuring a locomotive dates to 1872. Being the perfect frieze to divide a wall horizontally, the train fad caught on, sometimes even showing erotica in the carriages! By end 19th century, modern age contraptions shared wall space with camels and elephants – bicycles, cars, manned balloons and aeroplanes, locally called cheel-gadi (eagle craft). Western women were depicted listening to gramophones or playing netball.

Alsisar-Jhunjhunu wala ki Haveli  IMG_2163Anurag Priya

The Golden Room of Mahansar
The lofty Narain Niwas Castle in Mahansar was built in 1768 by Nawalgarh’s founder Thakur Nawal Singh for his second son Thakur Nahar Singh. Thakur Maheshwar Singh, the eighth generation scion, runs it as a simple heritage hotel with great sunset views from the terrace. Nearby, is one of the best painted havelis in Shekhawati – Sone Chandi ki Dukan or Golden Room built in 1846 inside a Podar haveli. Named after the gold and silver leaf used to decorate its walls, the vibrant frescoes show intricately rendered scenes from the Ramayana, the life of Krishna and incarnations of Vishnu. Ph 01595-264761, 99282 76998 http://www.mahansarfort.com

Castle Mandawa hall IMG_7193_Anurag Priya

Mandawa, the heart of trade
Being an old trading outpost on the Delhi-Bikaner route, Mandawa prospered greatly; its 175 havelis are ample proof. Perhaps the best specimens are Gulab Rai Ladia Haveli and Murmuria Haveli with its bizarre East-meets-West theme. Thakur Nawal Singh built Castle Mandawa in 1755 and rooms in its zenana display antique murals to objects in marble with antique armour and family portraits showcased in the diwankhana (drawing room). Ph 0141-2374112 http://www.mandawahotels.com

Fatehpur-Haveli Nadine le Prince IMG_0798Anurag Priya

Fatehpur’s French connection
Originally built in 1802 by the Devras, the richest family of silk traders at the court of the local ruler, the Nandlal Devra Haveli was purchased in 1998 by artist Nadine le Prince, a descendant of French painter Jean-Baptiste le Prince. Nadine restored its frescoes using local artists and opened a cultural center that exhibits her artwork alongside French and Indian modern artists covering contemporary to tribal art. Next door the 200-year old Saraf Haveli has original paintings with Belgian glass inlay but marred by a provision store run by the caretaker inside! Jwala Prasad Bhartia Haveli built in 1925 displays stunning wall murals and exquisite teak doorways chiseled by jangids or traditional wood carvers. Ph 01571-233024 http://www.cultural-centre.com

Alsisar Mahal IMG_2114Anurag Priya

Alsisar: Thirst for honour
Alsisar recounts the legend of two sisters Alsi and Malsi. Unable to bear a taunt faced by his sisters who went to draw water from the village well at lunch, Nawal Singh abandoned his field and vowed to consume water and food only after digging his own well. The Bhan siblings dug through the night until they struck water. Alsi settled down at this sar (water source) which was called Alsisar, while Malsi moved to a nearby place, thus named Malsisar. Besides Alsisar Mahal, site of the Magnetic Fields festival, the town has numerous temples, wells, cenotaphs, dharamsalas and mansions like Indra Vilas, a 100-room haveli set in a ten-acre compound built by Indrachand Kejriwal in 1595. Jhunjhunuwala ki haveli, built by Seth Kasturimal 170 years ago has two rooms with inimitable mural paintings. Ph 0141-2364652 http://www.alsisarmahal.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 19 May 2015 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at www.cntraveller.in/story/inside-painted-havelis-shekhawati

Kochi Coo: 10 Reasons why we love Cochin

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There’s more to India’s first European township than Dutch palaces and Chinese fishing nets; ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY find ten reasons to love Kochi

IMG_9292 Earplugs at Brunton Boatyard_Anurag Mallick

Boat spotting from Brunton Boatyard
Anyone stepping into the leafy courtyard of the pierside Brunton Boatyard never fails to ask how old the heritage property is. Guests are startled to learn that CGH Earth’s faux colonial hotel resurrected from an old Victorian shipbuilding yard is just over a decade old! At the waterfront garden spot birds and boats over breakfast or watch the daily traffic in India’s busiest harbour from your balcony. Ferries, fishing boats, trawlers, massive liners to naval ships; it’s a continuous procession along the aquatic highway. Little wonder the attentive management provides earplugs with each room to block out the foghorns!

http://www.cghearth.com

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

Colonial cuisines
Kerala’s legendary Spice Coast drew the world’s leading colonial powers to its shores. And there’s no better place than Cochin to see the merging of various cultures through cuisine. The Portuguese introduced the use of coconut milk, the Jews gave the appam while the Dutch drew culinary influences from their colonies in Ceylon, Indonesia and Malaya. Even today, the Dutch Bruder bread is baked daily in Fort Kochi. Enjoy the confluence of Mediterranean and Malabar flavours at The Malabar Junction or Cajun and Creole at fusionBay. At Eighth Bastion Hotel’s East Indies take the ‘Dutch Route’, a specially prepared menu of satays, rendang (Sumatran caramelized curry), shiitake bisque and lamprais (a corruption of ‘lump rice’) – a Sri Lankan Dutch Burgher dish of aubergine, frikkadel (Afrikaans meatball), sambal (spicy relish) and shrimp balchao (pickle) wrapped in a leaf with rice. Brunton Boatyard’s History Restaurant offers a limited portion of First Class Railway Mutton Curry every day, besides classics like Syrian Christian Duck Moilee, Anglo Indian cutlet, Jewish Chuttulli Meen and idiappam (Ceylonese string hoppers) with fish curry. Enjoy the day’s catch at the alfresco Terrace Grill or fresh fish caught at the Chinese fishing nets rustled up at street shacks.

IMG_9548 Rickshaw Run parking lot_Anurag Mallick

India’s most colourful parking lot
Ganesha’s Goras, Curry on Tukkin’, Bananas in Pyjamas, Good Korma, The Goafather, Krazy Jalfrezi, Here Today Gandhi ‘morrow, Naan Point Five on Rickshaw Scale… the names of the autorickshaws are as colourful as their zany appearance. Kochi is the designated parking lot for the Rickshaw Run, a 3500 km race across the subcontinent organized by The Adventurists. The offbeat tour company describes it as a ‘pan-Indian adventure in a 7 horsepower glorified lawnmower, the least sensible thing to do with two weeks’. Teams of three take part in custom-built autorickshaws with no fixed route, often espousing a social cause. On a handwritten bulletin board, participants record memorable incidents on the road, which makes for an interesting read! There’s a Cochin to Jaisalmer race via Goa in January 2015 and an August run from North East to Cochin.

http://www.theadventurists.com/rickshaw-run

IMG_9450 Graffiti on Burgher Street_Anurag Mallick

Graffiti from Kochi-Muziris Biennale
Kochi is literally an open-air gallery where walls act as canvases and beachside boulders and trees are reclaimed as artworks. Local artists often squat by the roadside, drawing old buildings or picturesque lanes. Most of the graffiti appeared during the inaugural Kochi-Muziris Biennale, an international exhibition of contemporary art held at Kochi and the historic port of Muziris in December 2012. Over three months nearly 4 lakh visitors saw works by 89 artists from 23 countries at a dozen sites. After a great debut, the second biennale between December 2014-March 2015 saw new artworks and the addition of a new venue – the historic Bastion Bungalow. Drop by at Gallery OED on Bazaar Road, Kashi Art Gallery and David Hall for ongoing art exhibitions.

http://www.kochimuzirisbiennale.org

IMG_9983 Feeding pigeons at Jain Temple_Anurag Mallick

Feeding pigeons at the Jain temple
Every noon, the old Jain temple at Mattancherry witnesses a unique avian ritual. The resident pigeons at Sri Vardhman Sthanak Vasi Jain Sangh circle the spire of the temple thrice before landing in the courtyard to feed. The sky is transformed into a blur of wings as the fearless birds hop right into your palm to peck at grains. Spotting the white pigeon is considered auspicious.

Visiting hours for foreigners is after 11 am.

IMG_9601 Fort Kochi Heritage Walk_Gunnery_Anurag Mallick

Heritage walk around Fort Kochi
If you’ve had your share of overpriced spice boxes in Jew’s Town, the world’s largest varpu (brass vessel) at Crafters antique shop and a peek into Idiom Booksellers, the ‘best little book shop in South India’, take a heritage walk down the streets of Fort Kochi. The Dutch wrested Cochin from the Portuguese in 1663 and the British took over in 1795. The streets bear traces of all these colonial influences. Begin at Vasco Da Gama Square with a narrow promenade running parallel to the Chinese fishing nets. By the beach is a large anchor and steam boilers; relics from the dredging of Vembanad Lake to create the modern port of Kochi in 1936. The artificial island thus created was named Willingdon after the erstwhile governor of Madras, who commissioned the project. Walk past the remains of Fort Immanuel and Gunnery and follow the Dutch Cemetery Road to the oldest European cemetery in India dated 1724. Marvel at the colonial architecture of Poovath Heritage and Thakur House as you walk past Parade Ground to St. Francis Church, Santa Cruz Basilica, VOC Gate from 1740 and the Indo-Portuguese Museum inside the Bishop’s House campus.

IMG_9301 Eighth Bastion Hotel_Anurag Mallick

Stay in historic settings
From St Francis’ home to Vasco da Gama Inn and the House of Yesudas to colonial haunts, Kochi’s hotels are steeped in history. Imagine staying in a bungalow once inhabited by Vasco da Gama and Saint Francis Xavier! Dating back to 1506, Neemrana’s Le Colonial adjacent to St. Francis Church is the oldest hotel in Fort Cochin. Its other property The Tower House, a scallop-walled twin-bungalow on the site of a 17th century lighthouse, is located right opposite the Chinese fishing nets. Amritara’s Poovath Heritage is a renovated Dutch palace next to the Dutch cemetery while Bolgatty Palace is an island resort located within the oldest Dutch palace outside Holland. The Old Harbour Hotel, a colonial home for employees of English tea-broking firms is a 300 year-old building that blends Dutch and Portuguese architecture. Koder House, home of an illustrious Jewish family that migrated from Iraq, served as a haunt for statesmen and dignitaries who came for its Friday Open House parties. Adding colour and character to Cochin are several homestays and boutique hotels – from The Bungalow Heritage Homestay in Vypeen to Walton’s Homestay on Princess Street described as ‘The home by the side of the road’.

http://www.neemranahotels.com

IMG_9569 David Hall_Anurag Mallick

Vibrant cafe scene
Kochi has a buzzing café culture where art, music and eclectic cuisine come together. The iconic Kashi Art Café on Burgher Street is a destination by itself with great décor and atmosphere, besides excellent French pressed coffee, cakes and canvases. Try Teapot on Petercelli Street, catch a gig at Café Papaya’s Under the Tree in Ernakulam or Springr Café & Studio in Mattancherry, with the popular Ramesh ettan chai kada below it. David Hall, built in late 17th century by the Dutch East India Company from recycled material of demolished Portuguese churches, was the residence of Dutch commander Van Rheede who compiled Malabar’s flora in Hortus Malabaricus. Renovated by CGH Earth into a contemporary art gallery for local artists, it also has a laid-back garden café.

Kashi Art Café Ph 0484-2215769 http://www.kashiartgallery.com

IMG_9962 Kayees mutton biryani_Anurag Mallick

Kayees, Mattancherry’s Mutton Biryani
There are biryanis and then there’s Kayees’ mutton biryani. Locals even specify, “The one from Mattancherry, not Ernakulam”! For years, Kayees Rahmathulla Café, a small eatery on New Road has been churning out delicious Malabari cuisine in its wood fired kitchen. Besides biryanis, try chicken curry, mutton roast, fish curry, or mop up the curries and kurmas with an assortment of idiyappam, appam, pathiri, puttu or parotta. Lunch times are quite busy with large take away orders. Be there early as the mutton biryani gets depleted quite rapidly.

Kayees Hotel Ph 0484-2226080, 2221234 Email kayees@sify.com

IMG_9432 Take a ferry_Anurag Mallick

Take the ferry instead of the road
Cut down travel time like the locals by ferry hopping from Fort Kochi to Ernakulam and islands like Vypeen, Bolghatty and Willingdon. The spacious ferries load up bikes, cycles, four-wheelers and throngs of people in an organized manner, before tooting their horn and chugging across the waters. The ferry service is available from 6am to 10pm and the timetable and fares is listed at all jetties. Escape peak hour snarls in a 30-minute hop between the islands!

Main Jetty Ph 0484-2360215

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 28 November 2014 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at http://www.cntraveller.in/story/10-reasons-why-we-love-kochi

Slow train to Matheran

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY hop on the heritage Matheran Hill Railway to unearth the hill station’s sights, sounds and stories of a colonial past  

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When the train announcing Karjat-CST rolled into CST station and belched out its morning mob onto the Mumbai platform like a regurgitating python, we looked like a pair of mutant migrants stepping into the train. We were exiting when the world was entering the metropolis. It was like driving in the wrong direction on a one-way. But going to a hill station that prohibited motorized transport to prevent pollution is a rare luxury. Stations whizzed by and two hours later, we hopped off at Neral. A hand slipped under the ticket counter to hand us our manually stamped Edmondson tickets for the heritage train bound to Matheran – a permit to a cleaner, greener world.

Matheran emerged as a sought after refuge in the hills for the British in the 1800s. Though the region was home to the adivasis for centuries, it was Hugh Poyntz Malet, the District Collector of Thane in 1850 who ‘chanced upon’ Matheran. Lord Elphinstone, the former Governor of Bombay, laid the foundation for its development into a hill station and sanatorium for the British. Its rugged hills and welcoming cool air provided the perfect antidote to weary British officers and their families forced to suffer the muggy sultry weather of Bombay. Matheran, which literally means ‘Forest atop a mountain’ became a holiday haven; a feature that hasn’t changed ever since.

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The toy train lumbers up from Neral for 20km over two hours, its bogies jangling in a merry chug-chug as mountain panoramas and valleys unfold between quaint stations and quirky tunnels. We pass a board announcing ‘Ah What a Sharp Curve’. Sometime later, a board with two parrots squawked ‘One Kiss Tunnel’. This famous dark passage was named by a British Officer as it was short enough for lovers to steal a naughty romantic kiss.

At Jummapatti station we halted to make way for the Neral-bound train to cross the single track. Villagers vending snacks and fruit rushed in with woven baskets to woo passengers. Adventure seekers who trek up to Matheran along a forest trail often recount tales about the natural beauty and multitude of waterfalls around Jummapatti. Waterpipe station was the next short halt to cool down the engine.

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The railroad zig-zags around a scenic route that is best experienced post the monsoons, when trees are washed clean and the mountains are green. Sometimes the train would climb so slowly, one could actually hop off, walk alongside, shoot some pictures and hop back! We chugged past Mount Barry, Panorama Point and Simpson Point through a canopy of trees. A towering rock painted with the image of Lord Ganesha emerged round a bend that broke the colour tone of the surroundings with its vibrant maroon, turmeric and turquoise hues. Everyone scrambled for a picture. We learnt that the monolith was hand-painted by Rajaram Vaman Khade, our toy train’s engine driver!

The construction of a railway line from the plains of Neral to Matheran was nothing short of miracle. At a time when no aerial survey could be carried out and no proper communication system was in place, one man with a vision to create an easier access, made it happen. It was philanthropist Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy, the first sheriff of Bombay who introduced the Matheran Hill Railway in 1907. He made a generous contribution of Rs.16 lakh and his son Abdul Hussein Adamjee Peerbhoy accomplished the herculean task in 7 years. Four engines from the Orenstein & Koppel Company were sourced all the way from Germany.

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Impressed by the success of this overwhelming feat, the British Government knighted him as ‘Sir’ Adamjee Peerbhoy. Even today, the train halts at Aman Lodge Railway Station and whistles thrice as a mark of respect to the great soul. His beautiful bungalow ‘The Chalet’ was located just above the Aman Lodge Station, which incidentally is named after his late wife, Amina.

As we pulled to a stop at Matheran station in the heart of town, it was pleasantly quiet except for the twitter of birds, the neighing of horses and a straggle of porters. Declared an eco-sensitive zone, people who drive down to Matheran, have to park their vehicles at Dasturi, 2½ km away. With horses, hand-drawn rickshaws and walking the only means of getting around, Matheran was clearly designed for city folk to slow down and savour nature. The beauty of Matheran had captured the imagination of many. Its famous sights and landmarks like Lords Central Hotel find a mention in Salman Rushdie’s evocative ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’.

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The overpowering influence of Bollywood was evident as we straddled Bobby and Singham, two majestic horses. Rocky, Auro and Krishh watched sullenly from afar. We gaped as a small pony called Chhota Bheem ferried a kid to school! There were about 462 horses in Matheran, acquired from Nasik and Shirdi to help transport tourists. With no fear of swerving through traffic, honks, smoke fumes or traffic jams, we trotted away past the ornate arch of Kapadia marketplace. Old shops were institutions by themselves – Nariman Chikki Mart, purveyor of specialty chikkis ran a brisk business in caramelized nutty bars, fudge and jars of honey while Deepak’s Tea and Cold Drink House seemed a popular haunt.

Matheran wore an old world charm with colonial buildings, old hotels and Parsi bungalows with garden sculptures in marble. Located close to the market and station was The Byke, the oldest residence in Matheran. Built in 1854, it was the home of Captain Hugh Malet and named after his favourite racehorse. Reinvented as Hotel Byke, modern rooms with more comfort had been added around the old heritage structure.

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We dismounted at a stand and walked past iron gates to discover a big secret hidden in a wooded estate – Neemrana’s Verandah in the Forest. The second building to come up in Matheran, it was the former home of Captain Barr. A beautiful 2-storeyed heritage bungalow named after its charming wide verandah, its 30 ft ceiling was the highest in Matheran. Luxurious rooms bore names of prominent citizens – Jehangir, Jeejeebhoy, Peerbhoy, Kotwal, Petit, Albert Sassoon, Chenoy, Shankarshet and Kapadia.

Indoor dining was arranged in Malet Hall while Elphinstone, the royal suite was located below with archival pictures of the bungalow and its renovation dressing the walls. A machan for birdwatching and a regal reading room stocked with coffee table books tracing the Raj era and Parsi history, colonial décor, crockery and attentive staff on call, you could spend endless hours of relaxation despite the chattering monkeys. Armed with slingshots, the friendly staff even kept Matheran’s notorious monkeys at bay!

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Based on the duration of your stay, you can decide how you wish to explore the 38 scenic points marked out for a visitor. It covers the three different ranges spread across Matheran’s 8 square miles in an 18-mile circuit. We opted for a mix of foot and hooves to get the best of both worlds! The evening walk took us to the ancient Shiva shrine of Pisarnath and Charlotte’s Lake, an emerald green reservoir that was the source of the town’s drinking water. Other walkers plodded on panting tiredly as we sipped glasses of sugarcane juice and the local favorite, kokum juice by the wayside stalls. Nearby, Lord’s Point and Cecil Point (also referred to as Celia Point) afforded stunning views of the Sahyadris.

We reached Echo Point at the magical hour of dusk. Across a wide open chasm, Prabal Garh was silhouetted against the setting sun that poured gold into the horizon before it sank into a V-shaped mountainscape. On our right, beyond a stunning horseshoe gorge that glowed in dusky pink tones like a half-eaten peach, we saw Honeymoon Point and Louisa Point with people miniaturized into living dolls by the distance. We returned to The Verandah in the moonlight for a sumptuous meal and rest as cicadas sang through the night.

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The next day was a 12-point horseback trail to more scenic locations. For 350 bucks, the ride across the countryside raises a muddy dust trail and halts at Matheran’s many vantage points, each riddled with odd legends. The horsemen double up as guides. “This is King George Point. Honeymoon Point is favourite of couples. Some say we get honey there. There’s also zip-line valley crossing – one is 1,300 ft starting from Alexander Point to Rambaug, another is 2000 ft from King Edward to Louisa Point,’ he rattled on.

Louisa Point, the southernmost tip in Matheran’s westward range was developed by Edward Fawcett in 1853, and ranks among Matheran’s oldest spots with an English name. Just below on the right of Louisa Point, is the famous ‘Lion’s Head’ a leonine shaped rocky outcrop presenting a spectacular view. In ideal weather conditions, one can observe the lights of Mumbai beyond Prabalgarh. The historic fort was a stronghold of Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji.

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According to folklore, Shivaji’s agent Prabal Rao, was a staunch Shiva devotee who would often visit the shrine at Matheran’s ‘One Tree Hill’. When the region came under the influence of the Mughals, Prabal Rao’s routine visit was hampered by regular skirmishes with Mughal aide Ramaji Rao and a ferocious lion roaming in the area. It is said that Chatrapati Shivaji and Prabal Rao undertook a secret mission along a perilous route and killed Ramaji and the lion in an ambush. The risky uphill path was named Shivaji’s Ladder and the majestic crag came to be known Lion’s Head.

Continuing along the northward trail we sprinted past Malang to Coronation Point, opened a year after the coronation of the King Edward VII in 1902. A vein-like meandering path with a plunging valley on one side led us to Danger Point or Janjeera which ended rather abruptly. Even expert riders and horses have missed a step and lost their lives in accidents when the spot is engulfed by mist. Crossing Rustomjee and Chenoy Point, we finally reached Porcupine or Sunset Point, the farthest edge on the western range. We dismounted near a desolate tree and hurried down a walking path heading to the precipice. It was worth it. The perch commands an expansive view of the valleys and surrounding hills and is hugely popular as the best place to savour the sunset.

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Far ahead of Monkey Point, Hart Point and Mary Point is another belvedere. It is said that dawn unfolds at Panorama Point in a magical sunrise with all embracing view of two sides of Matheran. On May 1st 1903, Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy organized a special picnic party in honour of WD Shepherd, commissioner of the southern division and ran a special train from Matheran to Panorama Point. As the toy train inches up the tortuous track near Panorama Point, people say is impossible to figure if the train is ascending or descending. Curiously, some of the locals referred to Panorama Point as Pandurang Point.

‘Our Malet Point’ was named by Col Haigen in 1894 to honour Hugh Malet, the man who discovered Matheran. But with no board announcing this fact, people call it “Our Point”! Explore the south of Matheran past Olympia Race Course and Chowk to Alexander Point, named after the husband of Malet’s niece. Malet often walked through the dense forested tract below Rambagh down to the base of the hill. The stories didn’t stop there. We heard about the mysterious haunted ‘Red House’ and the tragic tale of a wedding party that disappeared mysteriously while travelling from Badlapur to Panvel. The spot was called Navara Naveri, referring to ‘groom and bride’.

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With a measly torchlight elongating our shadows, we came across several abandoned old homes, eerily silent and wrapped in various stages of decay, silhouetted in the glades. We reached The Verandah, lit up like a star, relieved that we weren’t waylaid by the spectres of darkness. The next morning, in the broad light of day we laughed when we learnt that except for a few rundown villas, most of them were lovely holiday homes with old toothless caretakers tending to the gardens awaiting the return of their rightful owners.

We heard the whistle go. It was time to board the slow train that shuddered slowly out of paradise. Interestingly, on the descent, train assistants crouched between boxcars to manually apply brakes so that the train didn’t over speed and go off track. The Matheran Hill Railway was an extraordinary feat of engineering genius and these lines written in 1924 in the Handbook to Matheran offer a fitting tribute: 

Hugh Malet who discovered this hill
Whom we all remember still
Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy for all his skill
In bringing the railway on the hill
Good paymaster with his intellect wise
Turning the lovely hill into paradise

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Matheran is 90km from Mumbai and about 2½ hours by road. Motor vehicles are not allowed beyond the car park at Dasturi. Besides local trains from CST, a few Mumbai-Pune express trains like Deccan Express (11007) and Koyna Express (11029) stop at Neral Junction. From here the heritage hill train takes 2 hours for the 21 km climb to Matheran.

Getting Around
To move around, walk, ride a horse or take a hand-pulled rickshaw. Porters are available to carry luggage. Sightseeing tours on horseback are available as per 7-point, 12-point or full day tour.

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Costs
Train tickets for Matheran Hill Rail cost Rs.210 (1st Class), Rs.35 (2nd Class Reserved) and Rs.20 (2nd class unreserved). Horses and rickshaws usually cost Rs.100-200/hour but rates can be negotiated as per package. Park your car at Dasturi for Rs.35/day. Charges for entering Matheran are Rs.40 for adults. Shared taxi from Neral to Dasturi (Rs.70/person).

Stay

Verandah in the Forest
Barr House, Matheran
Ph 02148 230810/230296, 9404810446
http://www.neemranahotels.com
Tariff Rs.3,500-7,000

The Byke Heritage
Ph 02148 230 365-7
http://www.thebyke.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the November 2013 issue of Rail Bandhu, the in-train magazine of the Indian Railways.

Walk by a River: Rishikesh to Tapovan

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY journey along the Ganga from Rishikesh to Tapovan in search of Himalayan stories, mystics and adventure

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‘Who was the son of Hanuman?’ Mauni Baba gesticulated with his hands. The Ukrainian scowled, the Russian shook his head, as all eyes turned to us. ‘Baba, wasn’t he a bachelor, sworn to brahmacharya (celibacy)?’ we enquired politely. Mauni Baba gave us his warm benign smile and through dumb charades explained the mythological conundrum. How, on his aerial journey to Lanka a bead of sweat fell from Hanuman’s body into the ocean and was swallowed by a makara (sea creature). The child thus born of it was called Makaradhwaja and became the gatekeeper of Ravana’s brother, Ahiravana. During the Lanka war, the powerful Makaradhwaja came face to face with the monkey god who was baffled to meet his match. When he asked the young lad his identity, he replied that he was his son. Hanuman surely must have been more shocked than us.

It was a helluva story. More so, considering baba had used just gestures to communicate it. At 14,435 ft, our theatrics could have been mistaken for high altitude madness, but there were hardly any people save a herd of Himalayan blue sheep to make such assumptions. The majestic Shivling peak (21,750 ft) towered above us, its head covered in clouds while the Amar Ganga stream flowed silently as if washing its feet. Tapovan, the spiritual retreat of Lord Shiva, wore an air of meditative calm.

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Herds of bharal flocked to Mauni Baba’s Ashram. Besides providing food, shelter and answers to mundane and philosophical questions of humans, the young swami also tended to the salt intake of the herbivores. On a vow of silence since eight years, he was one of the many extraordinary people we met on our Ganga odyssey.

Our tricky descent over mud slopes, rocky paths and glaciers brought us to Gaumukh, the glacial source of the Ganga. It was alarming to see that the path we had taken while climbing had shifted on our return. Deep below our feet, bits of the glacier fell into an unseen abyss with a chilling distant splash. We walked gingerly wondering when the icy path would give way. Global warming was not some phenomenon in the future; it was a reality unfolding right in front of our eyes. The source of India’s holiest river was a trickling expanse of mud and it felt as if time was running out…

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We breezed past the clutch of camps at Bhojbasa, the shady arbor of chir pine at Chirbasa and through Gangotri National Park. We had walked 21km non-stop from Tapovan and by evening we returned to the mayhem of mainstream Gangotri. After thanking the river deity for a safe trip, we crossed the metal bridge to the quieter side and stayed at the Isha Vasyam Ashram. At dusk the oil lamps by the riverside seemed magical as the snowy peaks of Sudarshan and Bhagirathi shone in the fading light.

Next morning, a walking path led us to Gauri Kund, the spot where Lord Shiva took the tempestuous Ganga into his matted locks and saved earth from the fury of her descent. Just opposite Surya Kund, we came to a kutiya (hut) decorated with driftwood and sacred stone arrangements. This was the ashram of Swami Sundaranandji, better known as Clicking Swami or Photo Baba, whose amazing stories kept us enthralled for hours…

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Swami ji came here in 1948 from Nellore and after meeting his guru Tapovan Maharaj, developed a fascination for nature. He took to photography in 1956 with a Rs.25 Agfa Click III camera and went about documenting the Himalayas with amazing detail. A veteran mountaineer who has scaled 25 peaks, Sundaranandji has trekked to Gaumukh 108 times much before there was a path and walked from Gangotri to Badrinath a dozen times. During the China war he showed the way through the mountains to the Indian army. He survived a fall into a crevasse and lowered himself using a rope, risking his life to take photographs of Suralaya Glacier in Satopanth.

He has a penchant for discovering the sacred symbol Om in nature and has captured pictures in stone, leaves, flowers and sky. With several awards to his credit and many exhibitions across the country, a lot of his 8 quintal photographs and 4000 slides had been purloined by visitors. An operation in 2002 ended his climbing career but his lifetime’s work finally bore fruit through a coffee table book ‘Himalaya: Through the lens of a Sadhu’, translated into German and Italian.

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Poring over his glossy photos, Swami Sundaranandji rued that the mountains are not the same anymore. It was unbelievable to see crystal blue waters at Surya Kund when Gangotri was bejewelled like heaven on earth. Swamiji scoffed at the herd of pilgrims who came with blinders on a char dham yatra, with little time to explore the natural beauty or the inclination to climb a hill. “Eshwar mandir ya masjid mein nahin, prakriti ke praangan mein yun hi bikhra pada hai,” he said, meaning ‘God does not reside in temples or mosques, he is scattered everywhere in the courtyard of nature.’

The bus from Gangotri dropped us to Dharali where the Ganga had broadened into a wide expanse. Lazing by the tents of the Char Dham Camp of Leisure Hotels, it was cathartic to gaze at the placid river murmuring past us. At the ancient Kalp Kedar Temple, Swami Narasimh Tirth told us that this was the mool sthan (original place) of the Ganga and that the glacier had actually shifted 21km to Gangotri over centuries! It is common knowledge that the glacier recedes 5m every year but this was a staggering statistic. The temple itself was believed to be 5115 years old, built by the Pandavas. Adorning the façade was an intriguing face of Surya, the sun god or Kalabhairava, Shiva’s fierce attendant.

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Earlier the temple overlooked the Ganga but had since sunk. A famous photograph from 1802 showed us the shrines of Parvati and Ganesha, destroyed in the glacial shift of 1895, which also flattened an 18km stretch from Jangla to Sukhi. Between 1935-38 another glacial shift submerged the Kalp Kedar temple with only the shikhara visible. The temple was partially excavated in 1980 but 6 ft still remains underwater. The priest told us that every Shravan, the Ganga comes up to Lord Shiva and washes the panch-mukhi lingam as an oblation while in the dry season, the submerged temples magically reappear.

It is said that the Pandavas cursed Kalp Kedar to be washed away since Lord Shiva did not give them darshan when they had performed a penance to atone for the bloodbath at the Mahabharata war. The Pandavas took a holy dip to remove the sin of hatya (murder), so the river bears the name Hatyaharini. We continued on the Pandava trail to Mukhwa, the winter seat of the Ganga, where Bhima’s horse left its hoofmarks on a rock while going to Mansarovar. Locals believe that Bhima created the Bhim Ganga waterfall to quench the thirst of the Pandavas.

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Even today, cows and mules step into the same hoof prints while walking up the mountain. Our young guides Gokul and Samridh mimicked Arjun and Bhima shooting an arrow into the mountain. The trail beyond led to Danda Pokhri for views of Mount Sumeru. But we were content with the splendor of Chandraparvat, Srikanth, Himvan and Bandarpoonch. On our walk through the quaint village, the boys insisted we taste the berries and shoots like chuli, shirol and saunf (fennel) that grew on the mountainside.

As we descended via Uttarkashi to Rishikesh, the rise in temperature was palpable. Relaxing at Neemrana’s Glasshouse on the Ganges amidst the mango and litchi orchards of the Maharaja of Tehri seemed like a perfect way to unwind.

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From our perch we spotted yellow and blue dinghies bob down the river and were tempted to embark on a white-water rafting adventure. At a placid stretch, the guide egged us to jump overboard. We needed no encouragement. The icy cold water of the Ganga was like balm to our trek-weary bodies. Sage Bhagirathi hadn’t just assured the salvation of his 60,000 ancestors, he had ensured it for generations to come.   

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article was published on 19 May 2013 in the Sunday supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper. 

Tranquebar: Dancing waves and a Danish dream

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY walk through India’s only Danish outpost on Tamil Nadu’s Coromandel Coast to see a Scandinavian fort, exotic churches and the first printing press in the country

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At dawn, the sea at Tranquebar had turned into molten gold. We watched tongues of shimmering waves sweep across the empty shore from our balcony at Neemrana’s Bungalow on the Beach. To the left, the crumbling Masilamani Nathar Temple was being slowly reclaimed by the sea. On the right, burnished by the Midas touch of the sun, stood the stolid Dansborg Fort, symbol of a grand dream of kings and queens across continents. A dream that took birth nearly four centuries ago in 1620 when Captain Roland Clippe of the Danish Navy negotiated a 16-point trade treaty on behalf of King Christian IV with Raghunatha Nayak of Thanjavur.

Seduced by visions of prosperity that captured the imagination of faraway Denmark, the small coastal village of Tharangambadi (literally, Land of the Dancing Waves) was transformed into ‘Trankebar’, the only Danish outpost in India. Leased for a princely sum of Rs.3111, the Danes fortified the town and assumed complete control by 1777, eventually selling it to the British for 12.5 lakh rupees in 1845. It wasn’t a bad business deal, but in acceding to the British supremacy over maritime trade, the Danish dream had slipped into the waves…

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Today the sleepy town, a pale shadow of its former self as a bustling fortified port, was the only relic of Danish culture in India. The sort of place that makes you pause, take a deep breath and smile for no apparent reason. Or perhaps, it was because we woke up in Christianus Septimus, a period room named after one of the many Danish ships that sailed to Tranquebar. The large four-poster complemented the wooden floors while ceiling-to-floor curtains billowed gently in the breeze.

Located on the first floor between other quaintly named rooms (Princess Louise and Countess Moltke), a long verandah offered a splendid view of the garden and the seascape. Infused with the old world charm of antique furniture, blue-and-white porcelain and attentive personnel at your beck and call, it was tough to leave the former summer residence of the British collector. But after a hearty breakfast and tall glasses of fresh juice, we were ready for our heritage walk of Tranquebar.

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A herd of goats butted each other playfully by the gate as we stepped into Dansborg Fort. For Rs.50, you can walk in the hallowed precincts of the Danish stronghold that dictated trade in India for around 250 years. Built by Ove Gedde, Commander of the Danish Royal Navy and Tranquebar’s earliest Governor, the fort was a unique specimen of Scandinavian defense architecture. The first floor served as the Governor’s residence while rooms on the lower level were used as godowns, prisons and refuge for soldiers. There were separate rooms for security, arsenal, storage of beer and wine, stables and pigeon coops.

Tucked away in the fort’s central chamber, the Danish Fort Museum was a cache of Danish artefacts, miniature ships, cannons, lists of Danish Governors and ships that docked at Tranquebar, besides a copy of the trade agreement between King Raghunatha Nayak and the Danes. The original 1620 treaty bearing the royal signature in Telugu on a gold foil was part of the International Archives in Copenhagen. Despite being a protected monument, the fort languished for decades after India’s independence and was renovated in 2002 by the Tranquebar Association of Denmark, State Archaeology Department and the ASI nearly 382 years after being built.

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The adjacent Parade Ground was once a venue for ceremonial parades and bazaars. Today, the odd local walks up to tourists to peddle undecipherable metal pieces as ‘Danish coins’. A cross on a stone memorial marked the arrival of the first Lutheran missionaries to India. Ordered by Danish king Frederick IV to spread spiritual and religious service in India, Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plütschau landed at Tranquebar on 9 July, 1706. Here Ziegenbalg established India’s first printing press, which published over 300 books in Tamil, including the first Tamil translation of the New Testament in 1715.

Kongensgade or King’s Street was lined by stately buildings and old churches ending at the arched Landsporten or Town Gate. Workers were busy renovating the Governor’s Bungalow, formerly the private residence of Governor David Brown, as it was being converted into a museum. The adjacent Commander’s or Halkier’s House was a Teacher’s Training Institute run by the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church. Nearby Zion Church, the oldest Protestant Church in India, consecrated in 1701, symbolized the spread of the Danish population from Dansborg Fort to surrounding areas.

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When the church proved small for the growing Christian community, Ziegenbalg built the New Jerusalem Church in 1718, a marvellous fusion of Indo-German architecture. Stained glass windows above the altar cast rainbow streaks across the tomb of Ziegenbalg. A few gravestones paved the garden while a small lane led us to the old cemetery behind the church on Kavalamettu Street.

We continued on King’s Street past the former home of Danish Governors, Van Theylingen’s House and Rehling’s House, with impressive white pillars. To adapt to Tranquebar’s tropical climate the original pitched roof was replaced by a flat one and a verandah and porch were added. Just beyond Danish engineer Muhldorff’s House was the Gate House, a converted Neemrana heritage hotel set in a beautiful lawn.

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For a surprisingly short distance, it took forever to reach Landsporten, first built in the 1660s. When the old gate crumbled, Governor Peter Anker commissioned Muhldorff to build the present one in 1791. Local autorickshaws, bikes and school children crossed the historic arch, oblivious of its significance.

But Tranquebar had other layers under its Danish exterior – the Perumal Kovil temple, Muslim houses, mosque, dargah and old homes displaying vernacular Danish-Tamil architecture. Getting on to Borgan Street, we crossed Pastor Johann Gründler’s House, who co-authored several books in Tamil with Ziegenbalg. The house functioned as a boys’ hostel while Ziegenbalg Museum Complex with the old printing press was now a school.

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Our heritage walk ended at the INTACH Museum on Goldsmith Street, a complex of five renovated Tamil houses with exhibits and panels by Best Sellers Foundation, INTACH’s renovation efforts and a small art café. The Tranquebar Craft Centre sold bags, terracotta toys, coconut shell curios, key chains, hand-woven baskets and Tsunamika toys that funded tsunami relief projects. The Nayak House nearby had also been renovated into a Neemrana hotel.

As we returned to our bungalow via Queen’s Street, we paused at the gilded statue of Ziegenbalg. Erected during the Tercentenary celebrations of the Tranquebar Mission (1706-2006), a sign encouraged visitors to ‘always be the first’, listing 21 pioneering efforts of the German missionary. He was ‘the first protestant missionary to India, the first royal missionary from Denmark, the first to introduce the printing press, start a paper mill, print a Tamil calendar, translate German hymns into Tamil and Tamil books into German, preach a sermon in Tamil, the first to introduce the free noon meal scheme…’

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Phew! We don’t know whether it was Ziegenbalg’s list of achievements or the magical sunset, but we were left breathless. A lone catamaran bobbed on the waters and a gust of wind blew across Tranquebar’s ozone-rich beach. And we could see why it was so easy to bear roots here forever.

FACT FILE

Stay
Neemrana Hotels
Ph +91 11 4666 1666, 9310630386
sales@neemranahotels.com
www.neemranahotels.com

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Nearby: Velankanni Church (43km), Chidambaram Natarajar temple (52km), Kumbakonam (57km) and the French enclave of Pondicherry (120km) are short excursions.

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Trichy, from where Tranquebar is 145km via SH-22.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the September 2012 issue of JetWings magazine.