Tag Archives: Rajasthan

Offbeat Heritage: It’s Monumental

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There’s no dearth of architectural wonders in Burhanpur. The Black Taj Mahal is the tomb of warrior Shah Nawaz Khan, Khan-i-khana’s son murdered by Aurangzeb. Begum Shah Shuja ka Makbara (tomb of Bilkis Jahan), wife of Shah Jahan’s fourth son Shah Shuja, is a simple yet marvelous monument with exquisite murals that is kept under lock and key to prevent vandalism. The caretaker will happily open it for visitors who wish to see the interior wall niches that are studded with jewel-like paintings, thankfully still intact in portions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_8642 Vijayalayacholeswaran Shiva temple atop Melamalai in Narthamalai-Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy

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

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

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

Bera: Leopard Country

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore Bera, a remote boulder-strewn habitat in Rajasthan that boasts one of the densest leopard populations in India

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For a place not notified as a national park or sanctuary, there’s surely a lot of wildlife action in Bera. Located at the foothills of the Aravalli range near Jawai baandh (dam) in Rajasthan, Bera is a rocky tract surrounded by villages, scrub forests and privately owned agricultural fields, making it a challenge to be earmarked as a wildlife reserve. Yet, this boulder-ridden landscape is a unique habitat that is one of the finest bastions of the leopard in India.

Almost equidistant from Udaipur and Jodhpur, Bera lies an hour’s drive from the Jain temple at Ranakpur and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kumbhalgarh Fort. As we drove in, Bera’s pastoral charm was evident – the fields were full of lacy fennel and maize, white tufts of cotton, golden ears of wheat and pink-stemmed castor.

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Our base was Varawal Leopard Camp, a clutch of six Swiss tents and a cottage run by Pushpendra Singh Ranawat and his sprightly sister Rajeshwari. Over lunch, we learnt that the Ranawats claim descent from Maharana Pratap; Pushpendra represented the 17th generation after the legendary Rajput ruler and retraced the origins of Bera…

Back then, this tract of southwest Rajasthan bordering Gujarat was called Gorwar or Godwad. Since it lay on the lucrative trade route from Jodhpur to Mewar and Ahmedabad, there was regular traffic of traders, and hence dacoits. Once, Maharana Pratap’s fourth son Rana Shekhaji was accompanying his mother on a pilgrimage to her isht devi (family deity) in Mt Abu.

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While conversing with the general of the small batch of accompanying troops, they rode ahead of the royal entourage. The queen’s palanquin was waylaid by dacoits and she had to hand over her paayal (anklet) for safe passage. She didn’t mention a word about the incident but when they returned, Maharana Pratap enquired about the trip. In reply, she displayed her bare leg. For his negligence, Shekhaji was exiled from Mewar and he set out with a band of men to carve out his own fiefdom.

Returning to these badlands, Shekhaji killed the dacoits and captured the area from the local Chauhan king Munja Balia. The Ranawats set up their first dera (base) at Juna (Old) Bera at the foot of the Aravallis under a banyan tree, finally moving their thikana to its present location 3km west.

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Not many know that this small principality hosted several royalty who came here to hunt leopards. The maharajas of Mewar, Marwar, Indore, Rajkot and Bhavnagar all shot their first leopards at Bera. After hunting was banned and the Land Ceiling Act took away their lands, Bera’s erstwhile royal families turned into conservationists, helping wildlife enthusiasts and photographers track leopards using the knowledge of their ancestors passed down over generations.

In 1957, Umaid Singh ji of Jodhpur built a dam on the Jawai river, creating one of the largest manmade reservoirs in western Rajasthan. It became a haven for flamingos, geese, cranes and aquatic birds. We were visiting at a time when most of the water had been drained for agriculture and dark streaks on boulders marked the level when the dam was full… Wildlife trails reveal hyena, wolf, desert foxes, sloth bear, jungle cat, mongoose, antelope and smaller game though we spotted owls and the Isabelline and Bayback shrikes. However, the apex species is undoubtedly the leopard.

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Over 64 leopards can be found in a radius of just 25 km, the highest leopard density in India. The reason was the inter-connected cave systems, an excellent spot for leopards to seek respite from the hot sun before they stir out to hunt. Leopards only choose caves that have cross-ventilation and an emergency exit. Being a hot-blooded animal, such an air-cooled habitat helps them maintain their body temperature. Pushpendra admitted that he learnt the ropes as a kid while holding the spotlight for his uncles on night drives. “My teachers were Neelam, Nagini, Ziya and I learnt all about leopards while observing their behaviour,” he says.

Bera’s tryst with leopard spotting began with Ziya’s grandmother and Zara’s mother Mangoli. Devi Singh ji’s pioneering resort Leopard’s Lair opened in 1997 and soon other brothers followed suit. Thakur Baljeet Singh started a heritage hotel at Castle Bera. Shatrunjay Singh Pratap and Katyaini run Bera Safari Lodge with stone cottages under the theme ‘leopards and shepherds’ – how wild creatures and pastoral Rabari herdsmen have coexisted for centuries.

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Sujan’s Jawai, designed by owners Anjali and Jaisal Singh, takes luxury camping to another level with 1930’s industrial style tubular brushed steel furniture. Varawal Leopard Camp was started as recently as 2013, but still manages to holds its own thanks to Pushpendra’s keen wildlife knowledge and on-ground experience.

All the lodges are virtually enclosed by leopard country. Private decks offer uninterrupted views of the wilderness and the dramatic landscape of granite formations, scrub and sandy riverbeds. Experienced guides help track the elusive big cats in open jeeps.

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Pushpendra drove us to Devgiri Mataji temple, accessible by an arched entrance and a long flight of steps leading up to the cave shrine. The idol is believed to have manifested itself on its own and the cave split to reveal it. The shrine is guarded by an idol of Bhairon and rock bees who are considered as the devi’s army. Leopards stir out moments after the priest leaves after performing his daily puja!

The oldest leopard in the area is Nagini’s father Daata. The leopards were named after their distinguishing attributes or habitats. Taking inspiration from the Nag Bavci Mandir or temple of the snake god where they were frequently sighted, the female leopard was named Nagini and her mating partner was called Nagvasi. Marshall was so named because he strutted around like one and was very strong.

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Shadewood loved sitting in the shade of trees to make himself near invisible. Neelam was always spotted against a backdrop of ‘blue’ skies. She was challenged by her offspring for territory, who was thus called Baghi (rebel). Neelam’s range spanned 67 caves and 40 acres of boulders and we were lucky to spot a male from her current litter of three at Jag Talao.

Sighting is not easy as one must scour the hills with binoculars. Don’t even attempt photography if you don’t have a tele zoom. While leopards in other areas and forested tracts have more yellow to merge with the foliage, the ones at Bera were a little grayish and muted for better camouflage against the lava rocks or grey granite.

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Trackers spread out in the surrounding villages of Kothar, Siyana and Batu and the three hills Liloda, Badala and Pola to track their movement. The next morning, our pointsman Govind confirmed some activity at Kothar, where we spotted one of Nagini’s three cubs.

“Undoubtedly, females like Ruby, Ziya, Neelam and Baghini have given better sighting,” remarked Pushpendra as his 4X4 negotiated the treacherous incline of the granite hills with practiced ease. All around was an endless lair of boulders and rock, surrounded by a patchwork of fields and the Jawai reservoir shimmering in the distance. One of the caves Bhadreshwar Mahadev is believed to have a Shiva linga installed by the Pandavas.

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Back at Varawal, we watched fascinating leopard videos and were treated to delicious home cooked fare personally supervised by Pushpendra’s mother. Their 120-acre farm has horses and cattle with fresh butter, ghee and chhaas available. Many of the local Rabaris serve as drivers, trackers or attendants at the resorts.

Our ‘man Friday’ Motiram Devasi looked magnificent in his traditional attire – gamchha, baudiya, dhoti, chain, kada and a bright red saafa (turban) that doubled up as a wallet to store things, a tiffin box to stash away a snack and a rope in emergencies, measuring up to 9m! He bid us a cheery goodbye and as we drove out, we saw locals busy in their fields. In a time of frequent man-animal conflicts, Bera was a shining example of conservation and peaceful co-existence…

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Fact File

Getting there
Fly to Jodhpur (160 km) or Udaipur (150 km) and drive 3½ hrs to Bera. Jawai Bandh (12 km) and Falna (30 km) are the nearest railheads. Ranakpur is 60km away while Kumbhalgarh is 85km.

When to go
Bera is great all year round. Winters are most comfortable though summers give the best sightings. By July, the rains arrive and the Jawai river gurgles to life and the reservoir fills up, with water lasting till December, a good time for birding.

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Where to Stay

Varawal Leopard Camp
Ph 9694889207, 7742133581
www.varawalleopard.com

Bera Safari Lodge
Ph 9413312133
www.berasafarilodge.com

Castle Bera
Ph 02933-243186, 9829877787
www.castlebera.com

Sujan’s Jawai Leopard Camp
Ph 011 4617 2700
www.sujanluxury.com

Leopard’s Lair
Ph 8239365771
www.leopardlairresort.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the April 2019 issue of Shubh Yatra magazine.

Inspired Heritage: Reclaiming the Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magical clouds at Suryagarh Jaisalmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facade-The Grand Dragon Hotel Ladakh

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

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

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FACT FILE 

Where to Stay

Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace, Hampi
www.evolveback.com

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

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

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

Narendra Bhawan, Bikaner
www.narendrabhawan.com

Suryagarh, Jaisalmer
www.suryagarh.com

The Grand Dragon Ladakh, Leh
www.thegranddragonladakh.com

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

Kumbhalgarh: Beyond the wall

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The second longest wall in the world stretched to the horizon, the impregnable citadel that fell just once in history, a sanctuary that is home yo the wild – Kumbhalgarh is more than the fort, it is a story in stone, write ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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There are few forts as legendary as Kumbhalgarh. Built by Mewar ruler Maharana Kumbha, it is the birthplace of Maharana Pratap, boasts the longest fort wall in the world after the Great Wall of China and is one of the six hill forts of Rajasthan (besides Amber, Chittorgarh, Gagron, Jaisalmer and Ranthambore) to be recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2013.

Straddling a 1100m high spur of the Aravalis between the Rajput kingdoms of hilly Mewar and arid Marwar, it was the loftiest and second largest fort in Rajasthan – and a wildlife sanctuary as well! We flew into Udaipur and set off on our 3 hour drive to the western range of the Aravalis.

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After a brief highway stop at Iswal for methi pakoda, kadhi-fafda and chai, our driver Narendra regaled us with anecdotes and local lores. This nook of jagged hills had doubled up as Afghanistan for some scenes in the movie Khuda Gawah. More recently, Bollywood films like Dhamaal and Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo had been filmed here. As we crossed the scenic Banas river, Narendra narrated its mythical origin. The two rivers Banas and Sukri originate at Veron ka Math (a corruption of Veeron ka Math), the spot where Mahabharat warrior Karna allegedly learnt weaponry from Lord Parasurama.

While the Banas flows through Mewar, Sukri courses through Marwar. The fable revolves around a saas-bahu episode, where the mother-in-law hailed from Marwar and the daughter-in-law from Mewar. Since their husbands were away, the two women fought bitterly. Once after a spat, they set off to their maternal homes and the route they took eventually became the course of the rivers. While the quarrelsome Sukri would dry up in summer, Banas would flow all year round. And hence the local expression ‘Saas Sukri, bahu Banas.’

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From a distance we saw the cave from where Sage Gorakhnath would emerge for a ritual bath in the Banas after taking a secret route from his ashram on a hill. Story has it that he and his disciple Machhendranath smoked chillums perched on two mountaintops as they miraculously passed the clay pipe from one to the other.

Machhind, an ancient village in the terai (plains), was named in memory of the sage. When Jain prince and Emperor Ashok’s grandson Samprati constructed the first fortification here in 2nd century BC, he named it after the same Machhind as Machindragarh. Over centuries, the Jain temples fell to ruin and the area lay forgotten for 1500 years.

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Aur hum pahunch gaye resort (And we’ve reached the resort),” Narendra exclaimed as we swung into the driveway of Club Mahindra Kumbhalgarh. The spell was broken and though we were happy to have reached our destination, we felt a twinge of disappointment that our engaging conversation was over.

Greeted by drumbeats and a Rajasthani kachhi ghodi (folk dancer in a horse frame), we were soon ushered into our room overlooking the rugged hills. The sky turned dark as we walked to the multi-cuisine restaurant for some namakpara (Rajasthani soup sticks), dal-bati-churma, mutton biryani and traditional desserts like moong dal halwa and mohan-thal.

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The next morning after a leisurely breakfast, we met our guide Salim Khan Pathan at the fort gate. He narrated its fascinating past as we walked up the incline. Much before Udaipur and Kumbhalgarh, the first capital Nagda was set up by Nagaditya, the fourth king of Mewar. Located near Eklingji (23 km north of Udaipur), it was destroyed by Muslim invaders, though the Saas-Bahu temple still stands. In the 8th century, legendary ruler Bappa Rawal expanded the kingdom and built the Eklingji temple, worshipped as the presiding deity of Mewar.

In 14th century, Hammir captured Chittorgarh and was the first to adopt the title Rana. The Mewar kings consider themselves as the Dewan (regent) of Eklingji, hence they do not call themselves maharaja, but maharana. After Chittorgarh was besieged many times by the Sultans of Delhi, Malwa and Gujarat, Rana Kumbha decided to move the capital to a more remote location.

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Mewar needed to be secured and noted Vastushilpa expert Madan Sutradhar was roped in to build 52 new forts and bolster 32 old forts, especially Machhindragarh. However, the walls built during the day would mysteriously collapse at night. This happened for a week and they finally sought local seer Meher Baba’s help. He attributed it to the curse of Devi Shakti who could only be appeased with nar bali (human sacrifice). The ascetic offered himself on the condition that the fort would bear his name.

The next day, before sunrise, he asked the king to follow him. The place where he stopped for the first time would mark the main gate Bhairon Pol. The next place he halted was where he was to be beheaded. Here, a temple of Durga was built. His headless body then walked up to the top and the spot where it fell was where the main palace was constructed. We paid our respects at the small Bhairon shrine and the cavernous Shakti temple with an idol of Navadurga. True to his promise, the place was called Kumbhalmir after Rana Kumbha and Mehr Baba, but over the years it became known as Kumbhalgarh.

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A series of nine gateways led up to the citadel. Entering through Halla Pol where sentries raised an alarm (halla) in case they spotted an enemy, we crossed Hanuman Pol, Ram Pol and Vijay Pol, the main entrance to the fort. Chaugan Pol marked the chaugan (flat area) till where the king rode an elephant; he then switched to a horse until he reached the pagda (foot trail). We walked past cannons and water reservoirs towards Fateh Prakash Palace built by Fateh Singh in 1884. In the rains, the palace would be covered in clouds, hence its popular name Badal Mahal.

Our guide highlighted the features of the male and female quarters – the mardana had a straight access while the zenana had a zigzag entry and small windows with slats for security and privacy. At the base of the walls were lovely paintings in natural colours depicting elephant fighting with tigers, crocodiles and other creatures. The acoustics in the chambers were amazing and the echoes aided meditation.

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The terrace afforded spectacular views all around. To the west, a white tower in the distance marked the hunting point where kings indulged in shikaar (hunts). The narrow hunting trail used by the Maharana was now a 16km trekking route to the Ranakpur Jain temple across the hill, built by Maharana Pratap’s minister Dharna Shah. Between October and March, the 4-4½ hr one-way trek is quite popular with foreigners, who usually return by vehicle. We lingered till sunset and slowly walked down to the base of the fort.

Kumbhalgarh’s 36km long boundary wall stretched into the horizon. The 15 feet wide walls were broad enough to accommodate seven horses side by side. What was astounding was that the fort, wall and 360 temples (300 Jain and 60 Hindu temples) within the vast complex were built in just 15 years between 1443-58.

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Prominent among these are the Yagyashala, Charbhuja temple, Ganesh temple, Pitaliya Shah Jain temple, Bawan Devris, Parsvanatha, Golerao, Laxminarayan temple and Teen devi ka mandir. Neelkantha Mahadeo has a 5 ft tall Shiva linga; legend goes that Rana Kumbha was so tall that he used to sit and pour water over it as abhishekha (libation) and could encircle the linga with both hands!

We were just in time for the sound and light show, which chronicled the history of Mewar – Samprati’s Jain legacy, Rana Hamir’s greatness foretold, the valorous maid Panna Dai who sacrificed her son to smuggle the infant king of Mewar Prince Udai Singh II (future founder of Udaipur) from Chittor to Kumbhalgarh in 1535 and how Mewar’s brave son Rana Pratap was born here on 9 May 1540 and fought the Mughal army at Haldighati 60km away near Gogunda. Raza Murad’s deep baritone as Akbar boomed across the ramparts as we experienced the past come alive. After the show, the fort was beautifully lit up for a few moments, before darkness took over.

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Kumbhalgarh was considered an ajeya kila (unconquerable) and was impregnable to direct assault. It fell only once, due to a shortage of drinking water, to the combined forces of Mughal Emperor Akbar, Raja Man Singh of Amer, Raja Udai Singh of Marwar and the Mirzas of Gujarat. Yet, there’s more to Kumbhalgarh than the fort.

The wildlife safari through the 600 sq km Kumbhalgarh sanctuary took us on a sharp descent into a ravine. Though you don’t spot much besides sambhar and peacocks, we saw relics like the old hunting tower Kali Audhi (audhi means howdah) and Danibatta, the eastern entrance that connected Mewar and Marwar. Nature enthusiasts will enjoy the nature hike from the park entrance to Thandi Beri, 11km away.

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We dropped by at Beeda ki Bhaagal, one of the three villages besides Gundi ka Bilwara and Gawar adopted by Club Mahindra Kumbhalgarh. After chatting with the friendly locals over tea, we visited the local school and interacted with the bright young students who regaled us with patriotic songs. Following a sustainable ‘local livelihood concept’, the resort works closely with surrounding villages and hires locals as staff besides buying their produce and handicrafts.

As part of Club Mahindra’s Hariyali project started a decade ago, we also did some tree planting (the 13th million tree had been planted recently in Maharashtra). The resort also laid great emphasis on sustainability initiatives like solar power, organic farming and conservation and protection of endemic cows on the brink of extinction like the Vechur cow.

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We tried our hand at clay pottery, thanks to Dhanraj, who hails from the potters’ village of Molela. Only soft river clay from the Banas is used for it and he showed us his wares at his stall – a tiny clay whistle shaped like a bird that emitted chirps and warbles when blown and magical pots filled from below that surprisingly didn’t let the water flow out!

Just adjacent was Svaastha Spa and their Universal Indulgence treatments were perfect for our travel weary bodies. We tried the Svaastha Shodhnam, a signature scrub and massage using Ayurvedic and herbal products and a mix of Swedish and Balinese techniques. From our room’s balcony, we caught the strains of folk music emanating from the lawns. Under a blanket of stars, haunting ballads of valour and glory echoed across the Aravalis…

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NAVIGATOR

Getting there
Fly via Mumbai to Maharana Pratap Airport at Udaipur and drive 95 km to Kumbhalgarh (3 hr drive) in Rajsamand district of Rajasthan.

Where to Stay
Club Mahindra Kumbhalgarh
Ph 9672724555, 9672723444
www.clubmahindra.com

The Aodhi
Ph 02954 242341-6, 8003722333
http://hrhhotels.com

Fateh Safari Lodge
Ph 7726060701
www.fatehsafarilodge.com

Ramada Kumbhalgarh
Ph 02954 242401-4, 9799937000
www.ramadakumbhalgarh.com

Eat
Try the kadhi fafda, methi pakoda and chai at Charbhuja Restaurant & Mishtan Bhandar at Iswal, on the drive from Udaipur to Kumbhalgarh

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Do
Sound & Light Show at 7:30 pm
Jeep safari in Kumbhalgarh Sanctuary (Entry Rs.50/person, Gypsy Rs.200. Safari Rs.1850/Gypsy, Eco Guide Rs.200)
Zipline (Fort view Rs.500, Valley view Rs.200, Forest charge Rs.60) Nandanvan Adventures Ph 9099060604
Feed catfish at Hammeripal Lake
Boating at Lakhela lake, Mewar Boating Ph 9660398813

Around
Pottery village Molela (40km)
Ranakpur Jain Temple (50km)
Nathdwara Krishna temple (50km)
Chetak Smarak & Museum at Haldighati (60km)
Eklingji Temple (75km)

Catfish pond

Shop
Buy Molela pottery items like lamps, statues, vessels and decorative items. In Udaipur, pick up laheriya, bandhini, bandhej and other fabrics, besides traditional sweets, namkeen and papad from Jagdish Misthan Bhandar, Bikaner Sweets and Jodhpur Misthan Bhandar.

Fortune Tours & Travels
Ph 8003804000, 9166777966
www.fortunetours.co.in

Discover This
The small village of Taladri is known for its unique Fish Lake. The first Rana of Mewar of the Sisodia clan Rana Hammir Singh constructed a lake, which is called Hammeripal in his memory. The large water body teems with catfish, an introduced species, which locals protect and nurture. Visitors buy packets of chana and puffed rice sold by locals and sit on the steps of the ghat lined with shrines to feed the fish. The frenzied splash of large schools of huge catfish resembling a shiny mass of roiling slithering bodies is a sight to behold.

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

Salt, Sand & Spice: The Thar therapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narendra Bhawan (6)

FACT FILE

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

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

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

Infinity Swimming Pool

Where to Stay

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

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

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

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

Oota Chronicles: Travelling for food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FACT FILE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Native Spirits: Traditional alcoholic brews of India

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Throughout history, India’s traditional drinks menu has been full of potent, flavourful brews, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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While travelling across India is quite a high by itself, in all our forays, we love trying out the local tipple whenever it’s been offered to us. Be it feni or urak in Goa, bhang during Holi, apong in Arunachal Pradesh during the Sollung festival, kyad on a trek to a Living Root Bridge in Meghalaya, chhang to combat the Ladakhi winter, raksi in Sikkim and Nepal, taadi and handia with tribals in Jharkhand or saraph (salfi) and mahua in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha; we have happily imbibed Indian spirits in all its glorious forms wherever we have travelled…

The history of intoxication in India is as old as its gods. Like the Greek ambrosia or nectar, Hindu texts mention amrit or soma, the divine elixir that gave Vedic gods immortality. Agni consumed it in copious quantities and Indra drank rivers of soma for strength to overcome Vrittra, the fearsome three-headed dragon.

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Soma, a Vedic Sanskrit word, literally “to distill, extract or sprinkle” is derived from the juice of the soma plant, ephedra vulgaris. The golden-hued drink was imbibed by mortals as well, since it enabled hallucinations and ecstasy. It often accompanied sacred rituals, helped warriors overcome battle nerves and inspired painters and poets into bursts of creativity. In fact, soma was considered a divine bridge between the mortal world and the realm of the gods.

Alcoholic beverages were known to the Indus Valley Civilization and appeared in the Chalcolithic Era between 3000–2000 BC. Wormwood wine was quite popular in India around 1500 BC. Sukla Yajur veda describes the preparation of two stimulating drinks – parisrut and sura, popular among kshatriyas (warriors) and peasants alike.

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Agriculturists often set aside a portion of their produce for the fermentation of home brews. Made of rice, wheat, sugarcane, grapes and other fruits, sura was prepared with germinated paddy, germinated barley, parched rice and yeast. Katyayana Srauta sutra gives a comprehensive description for preparing sura.

Boiled rice or barley was mixed with the ferment and the entire mixture was kept in a jar, which was placed in a pit for three nights into which cow’s milk and powdered parched rice were poured. Sometimes the fermenting vessel was covered with horse dung or placed on a pile of grains or exposed to the sun or fumigated.

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Another drink popular from pre-Vedic times is bhang, which has been consumed since 2000 BC. In the ancient text Atharva Veda, bhang is hailed as a beneficial herb that releases anxiety. An integral part of Hindu culture and often associated with Shiva, ascetics used bhang or cannabis as food, drink or smoke to boost meditation and achieve transcendental states.

From the streets of Mathura to the ghats of Benares and Omkareshwar, the buds and leaves of the cannabis plant are ground into a paste in a mortar and pestle and shaped into balls or pedas. Milk, dry fruits and Indian spices are added to make a bhang lassi or thandai, widely consumed during Holi.

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During the time of Kautilya, popular Mauryan era drinks included medaka (spiced rice beer), prasanna (spiced barley or wheat beer), asava (sugarcane beer) and arista (medicinal tincture). However, modern day distillation of alcohol scaled new heights with widespread use in the Delhi Sultanate by the 14th century.

Over time, many rajwadas (royal families) and thikanas in Rajputana concocted their own signature brews for recreation or medicine, based on ingredients available locally and climatic conditions. Spices, saffron, fruits, dry fruits and stimulative agents were added for flavour and therapeutic value, distilled through copper pots and matured in wooden casks.

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Back in the day, many princely states had a separate department for liquors. Broadly, three types of liquors were prepared based on strength and refinement – Ikbara for the common man, Dobara for officers and upper middle class and Aasav, reserved only for royalty and nobility. Often referred to as ‘baap-dada ki daru’ in Rajasthan, some of these liqueurs even had aphrodisiacal qualities.

As per legend, Rana Hammir of Ranthambhore, the 14thcentury ruler of Mewar, had eleven wives but didn’t have the stamina to satisfy them all. One day, a saint gave him the recipe for a potion that would give him “the strength of a hundred horses”. And like a blissful royal tale, they all lived happily ever after. However, not all the royal brews were reserved for kings. It is said there was a honey-based brew with 21 spices that was meant for royal ladies that could make a 60-year-old queen behave like a 16-year-old teen!

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One royal bastion that stands out for its heritage liquors is Mahansar, a thikana in Shekhawati founded in 1768 by Thakur Nahar Singh, second son of Thakur Nawal Singh of Nawalgarh. The Mahansar royal family’s legendary Saunf was brewed by fermenting gud (jaggery) and ber (Indian date) in an earthen pot for 15 days, distilled by adding milk, misrisaunf and other spices, stored in a ceramic vessel and matured for six years.

The resultant brew was aromatic, spicy and clear, with a dash of pale yellow. Mahansar has maintained its heritage liquor brewing tradition and old royal formulae. In 2006, Shekhawati Heritage Herbals began brewing Gulab, Saunf and Orange, mint and ginger royal liqueurs under three brands – Royal Mahansar, Maharani Mahansar and Maharaja Mahansar. It spurred a local industry of sorts, similar to the homemade wines of Coorg.

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During mid 18thcentury, ably guided by his kulguru, Thakur Karni Singh ji Shekhawat, descendent to a clan of Mahansar thikana, prepared various aasav, using herbs and spices like saunf (fennel), elaichi (cardamom), pudina (mint), dhaniya (coriander), fruit extracts like orange, apple, watermelon, berries and liqueurs like cider grape wine and gulab (rose). The word ‘julep’ was supposedly derived from an English mispronunciation of ‘gulab’. Royal brews like Rohitaasav, Kumari aasav, Kankaasav, Dus mul ka aasav and mahaverlane were made exclusively for the use of the royal families of Bikaner, Kashmir and Nepal, mainly for medicinal benefit.

In 1862, Thakur Zorawar Singh, part of the Champawat clan of the Rathores founded the prominent Kanota thikana. As a tribute to the royal houses of Jaipur, the Kanota family created the drink Chandrahaas in 1863 and named it after Lord Shiva’s indestructible sword. Since then, they have meticulously followed the original recipe of using nearly 165 herbs and spices like kesar, awlah, safed musli, jaiphal, amla ki chaal, white sandalwood and dry fruits.

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Amar Singh ji of Kanota thikana is known for writing the world’s longest continuous diaries. Maintained in English for 44 years from 1898 to 1942 in 89 folio volumes with 800 pages per volume, these precious notes include detailed recipes for dishes and heritage liquors. His heir Mohan Singh and his sons Man Singh and Prithvi Singh offer special royal thalis and Chandrahass at their Jaipur hotels Royal Castle Kanota and Narain Niwas, built by Amar Singh ji in 1928.

Legend has it that Amar Singh’s son-in-law, Raja sahib Karni Singh of Gadi thikana, was on his deathbed and all the efforts of the royal physician to cure him proved futile. When nothing seemed to work, the royal brewer requested for a chance and administered Chandarhaas. Sure enough, Raja sahib was back on his feet!

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The Shyopurs, who were in charge of the household affairs of the Kachhwahas (Jaipur’s royal family), have over three dozen recipes like Angoor, Ananas and Narangi, which is made with oranges and 18 herbs. The drink supposedly keeps the body cool in scorching summers and can be consumed “from dawn to dawn” and one still feels fresh as a daisy in the morning, without a hangover. Shyopur Narangi Ginger is made from fruits, two dozen spices and pineapple flavours!

Jagmohan, an ancient recipe from the royal house of Marwar in Jodhpur, is made of herbs, spices, dry fruits, seasonal fruits, murabba and bark, finely blended with milk, desi ghee, saffron and crystal sugar. Distilled in the royal cellars for the use of kings and princes, it was a drink for winters. It could be consumed on the rocks in summer as a post-meal dessert liqueur, though citrus and acidic drinks are best avoided with it. Similarly, Kesar Kasturi is made from exotic ingredients like saffron, dry fruits, herbs, nuts, seeds, roots and spices, blended with ghee, milk and crystal sugar.

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Another liqueur Mawalin, from the royal house of Sodawas, 90 km from Jodhpur towards Udaipur, has 38 different ingredients including dates, dry fruits, herbs and two dozen spices. Local folklore says Maharaja Umaid Singh Ji of Jodhpur gave the recipe of Mawalin as jagir (aristocratic fiefdom) to Thakur Sahib Bishan Singh Ji of Osian. It is typically served “in a liqueur glass on a bed of crushed ice in summer and in a bowl of half-inch deep lukewarm water in winter.” A good appetizer, it has curative and medicinal properties, when taken in small doses.

To keep these unique traditions alive, Rajasthan State Ganganagar Sugar Mills (RSGSML) has launched Royal Heritage Liqueurs as a tribute to the state’s royal brewing legacy. The fermentation and distillation process used by the ruling thikanedars have been strictly adhered to with use of earthen pots, copper and brass utensils. We got to savour some of these brews with Raghavendra Singh at Fort Amla, a rustic-style heritage retreat in western Madhya Pradesh, bordering Rajasthan.

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While royalty elevated intoxication into an art form and a science, alcoholic brews were not the exclusive domain of palaces but were widely consumed by the proletariat. Across the adivasi heartland of tribal India, we’ve encountered local ladies selling handia in weekly haats (village markets) by the roadside.

Rice is fermented with bakhar, a yeast prepared with roots, bark and leaves of more than 20 plants to produce handia, which is named after the handi (earthen pots) in which it is stored and usually served in makeshift cups of sal leaf. We’ve glugged it from large brass vessels in a Santhal home near Shantiniketan during the Sohrai festival, accompanied by dancing and thrumming of the mandhar (drum).

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Across Central and Eastern India, flowers of the mahua tree are collected and fermented to make a desi liquor mahua, jokingly referred to as ABCD or Adi Basi Cold Drink. Similar to it is salfi or the chheen tree, whose sap is tapped to make a local brew, hailed as ‘Bastar Beer’. It is considered a sign of prosperity and can be found in almost every tribal household.

In Bihar and Jharkhand, taadi or sap from the taad (palm tree) is equally popular, known as neera in the south. We tried salfi at the village haats at Onkudeli and Chattikona with the Bonda tribesmen in southern Odisha, as they offered it to us straight from their unique ridge gourd cup with a spout to gulp it! Needless to say, it was a heady experience.

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Alcoholic brews have always been closely related with festivals and merriment, as we found out. In the North East, during Etor or Chhota Sollung festival in Arunachal Pradesh, we danced with members of the Adi Padam tribe. Wherever we went, villagers handed us kala (black) apong in hollow bamboo stems and the songs and laughter echoed across the hills. The local brew is made of fermented millet and rice. At Abasa Homestay near Ziro, Kago Kampu and Kago Habung taught us how to make homemade apong.

Easily the most well known Indian distillate is Goan feni, made from cashew, a plant that was introduced to India by the Portuguese (we still call it by its Portuguese name ‘caju’). With the advent of summer, the hillsides come alive with the heady aroma of ripening cashew fruits. The fruits are plucked from the trees and the nuts are separated from the cashew apple and consumed after roasting.

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The cashew apple is squashed in a rock cut basin to extract niro, a non-fermented sweet juice best served chilled. All the collected niro is allowed to ferment and transferred into a big earthen pot where it is boiled for distillation. The first distillate is called urak, which is low in alcoholic content while subsequent distillates yield feni. Quite potent and smelly, feni is best enjoyed with lime and soda though many bars in Goa like Soro and Gunpowder stir up feni-based cocktails!

At The Grand Dragon Ladakh in Leh, huddled in a traditional sit down Ladakhi style restaurant in winter, our host Danish gave us a crash course in Ladakhi cuisine. If endless cups of salty gur gur cha with yak butter ain’t your cup of tea, try the local tipple chhang, made from fermented barley. The drink was poured into our kore (cups) with a snack of churpe (hard cheese) served in a pheypor or decorative lidded bowl, often used to store tsampa or barley.

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A thousand miles away, we had discovered chhang at Sonam di’s little shack at the Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe near Kushalnagar. It tasted like wine, had a high like beer and cost as much as water. After a round, you only had to add water to the fermented millet, leave it for 10 minutes and voila, your next serving was ready!

We used to pick up sacks of millet to drink it at leisure at home in Bangalore. Little wonder the local authorities banned it. The next time we went to Bylakuppe, there was no whiff of chhang anywhere!

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Perhaps the most easily accessible intoxicating brew across India is bhang lassi or thandai, sold at Govt. authorised bhang shops. We’ve tried it in Allahabad, Varanasi, Pushkar and Omkareshwar, though the craziest experience was at the famous bhang shop in Jaisalmer. Located at the base of the fort since the early 1970s, the tiny shop was immortalized by Anthony Bourdain. Chander Prakash Vyas or Babu, better known as Doctor Bhang, represents the tech-savvy third generation and has a YouTube video, an FB page and a killer spiel to hawk his potion to foreign tourists.

We laughed as he rattled off the variants, “We have a light Baby Lassi for Japani-Korean people because they have baby eyes, then Medium, Strong and Super Duper Sexy Strong – full power 24-hour, no toilet, no shower!” Besides bhang lassis in banana, chocolate and other flavours, they also had bhang chocolates and cookies. As we pored over the menu, Dr Bhang took a long look at us and said, “Better you take Super Duper Sexy Strong!”

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 17 December 2017 as the cover story in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Bikaner: Tales of the Wild West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NAVIGATOR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eat Street: India’s best street food

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Indian appetite for street food is insatiable and the variety on offer is mind-boggling. Join ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY on a food journey of the best street eats from around the country

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It is often said that in India, food and language change every few kilometers. In a vast country like ours, street food is as diverse and limitless, with each region having its own specialties. Many food connoisseurs consider India’s capital Delhi as the national street food capital. From Parathe wale gali in Chandni Chowk to late night anda parathas at Moolchand, thukpa in Tibetan Market to various state stalls in Dilli Haat, Delhi’s street food scene is exciting.

Bittoo, the male protagonist in the movie ‘Band Baaja Baaraat’ would earnestly profess ‘Bread pakodey ki kasam.’ Delhiites are likely to swear by their favourite snack as easily as they swear at their best friend. While chhole bhature is typically Delhi, on the streets you are more likely to find pushcarts or bicycles with large brass containers selling chhola kulcha, a soft flatbread served with chhole that’s dry or curried. Hawkers trawl the streets and office complexes carrying baskets of ‘ram laddoo’ or deep fried moong dal pakodas, topped with grated radish and coriander chutney.

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In the evening, vendors clang their tavas to announce deep-fried aloo tikki or aloo chat. Roasted shakkarkandi (sweet potato chat), bread-omelette and boiled eggs topped with onion, green chilis, coriander leaves, salt and chaat masala rule in winter while summer spells lassi, shikanji, bel ka sharbat (wood apple squash), sattu, bhanta (goli soda) and chuski (ice gola) to quench people’s thirst.

Thanks to the significant population of immigrants from Darjeeling and the North East, momo stalls have sprouted all over Delhi like startups in Bangalore. Explore the bylanes of the old city with Delhi Food Walks.

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One place that rivals Delhi for the tag of food capital is Amritsar. The first eateries popped up around the ‘Lake of Nectar’ being excavated that gave the city its name. The common staple is kulcha, a thick aloo paratha cooked in a tandoor and served with bowls of chana, longi (a chutney made of potato, onion, tamarind and mint) and butter. ‘Suchha da Kulcha’ on Maqbool Road, ‘Ashok da Kulcha’ on Ranjit Avenue and ‘Darshan Kulcha wala’ near Jamadar ki Haveli are the top kulcha joints in town.

For Amritsari chhole, there’s ‘Kesar ka Dhaba’ at Chowk Pasiyan, ‘Bade Bhai ka Brothers Dhaba’ and ‘Bharawan da Dhaba’ at Town Hall. Try the tandoori chicken at Beera Chicken on Majitha Road and Amritsari machhi at Makhan Fishwala and Surjit Food Plaza in Nehru Complex. Wash it all down with lassi at Ahuja Milk Bhandar at Lohagadh Gate or Gyan di lassi.

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Mumbaikars are equally passionate about their city’s eats. From bhelpuri at Chowpatty, chaat at Elco Market, late night roomali rolls at Bade Miyan or fruit with ice cream at Bachelorr’s, Mumbai has its chosen haunts. Besides the ubiquitous vada paav, there’s paav in every form – misal paav, paav bhaji and keema paav. Sure, there’s ragda pattice (chana and aloo tikki chaat), but on the national food stage, Mumbai’s frugal eats fare the same as we would in an all-India exam, ‘satisfactory, but can do better’.

Mumbai’s eponymous quick fix the Bombay sandwich is made at roadside stalls with slices of potato, onion, cucumber, tomato and cheese between pressed toast. Competing with Mumbai’s dabbawalas are the unsung poha makers, a local household industry and the idli-vada vendors of Matunga, which harbours a significant Tamil population.

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Parsi-run Irani cafes dish out brun maska and tea all day long. During Ramzan, the mile-long stretch from Bohri Mohalla to Mohammed Ali Road teems with food stalls selling baida roti, rolls, kebabs, malpua and phirni. The same ambience can be found in Nagpur’s Mominpura.

In Ahmedabad, locals throng roadside stalls like Shri Ambika Dal Vada Centre selling hot lentil pakodas with onion and fried chili. After the jewellery shops in the gold district Manek Chowk down their shutters, the entire area transforms into one giant open-air food court. Local businessmen don’t mind; it’s free security till 2 am! Understandably, a lot of real estate is devoted to churans, digestives and mukhwas (mouth fresheners). However, not everything is vegetarian in Amdavad. Bhatiyar Galli is packed with Muslim non-veg fare like salli gosht, mutton samosas, kebabs and patties (puffs).

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Besides khandvi and khaman (dhokla), Gujarat’s most popular snack is Kutchi Dabeli, a desi burger invented in Mandvi, made with potato, masala, chutneys of tamarind, date, garlic, red chilies and garnished with pomegranate and roasted peanuts. Since the filling is ‘pressed’ together between two buns, the dish is called ‘dabeli’. On an average, 20 lakh dabelis are consumed across Kutch every day.

Surat is synonymous with undhiyu, a mixed vegetable dish, literally ‘upside down’ as the dish is traditionally cooked underground in upturned pots with fire from above. Another Surat special is Surti ‘12 handi’paaya (trotters) and assorted meat parts simmering in twelve different handis or pots.

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In neighbouring Rajasthan, cities are associated with their unique snacks. If Jaipur is known for its pyaaz kachori (best at Rawat Mishthan Bhandar and the iconic Lakshmi Mishthan Bhandar or LMB) and Bikaner has its signature Bikaneri bhujiya, Jodhpur wins hands down with its mirchi bada and mawa kachori. Sign up for a Bazaar, Crafts & Cuisine walk with Virasat Experiences and eat your way through the streets of Jaipur, trying out ghevar, imarti and makhaniya lassi.

In Madhya Pradesh, Gwalior’s local snack is bedai, a poori stuffed with spiced lentils. Every morning, regulars queue up at SS Kachoriwala and Bahadura, an 80-year-old shop in Naya Bazaar for samosa, kachori, scrumptious jalebis and gulab jamuns. Dilli Parathe Wala at Sarafa Bazaar, Agrawal Puri Bhandar at Nayi Sadak and Shankerlal Halwai’s laddus aren’t to be missed, besides the mandatory pack of gajak (sesame, sugar and ghee sweet) from Ratiram Gajak or Morena Gajak Bhandar.

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Indore, royal seat of the Holkars, bears a strong Maratha influence, evident in their love for poha, except that they couple it with jalebi! Sharing a border with Gujarat and Rajasthan, khaman and dal-bati are integral to the Malwa region. Indore’s street food scene is legendary with stalls at Sarafa dispensing garadu (deep fried sweet potato), dahi bada, bhutte ka kees (grated corn fried in ghee and spices), batla (green peas) kachori, sev and khopra patties – an aloo bonda with grated coconut inside! Chhappan Dukaan, a commercial precinct of ‘56 shops’, mostly food joints, is home to legends like Johnny Hot Dog and Madhuram’s shikanji, a sweet concoction of thickened milk and dry fruits.

Many cities have a khau galli or ‘Eat Street’ where locals congregate for their daily fix. In Lucknow, Hazratganj and Chowk, the old market stretching between Gol Darwaza and Akbari Darwaza, constitute ultimate foodie heaven. Melt-in-your-mouth kebabs like shami, kakori and galawati are sold at stalls like Tunday Kebab, alongside kulcha-nihari and Lucknowi biryani at Idris or Lalla. Awadhi cuisine, unhurried and delectable, is best savoured in various halwas and desserts like nimish or makkhan malai.

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The most popular ‘naashta’ or breakfast item across the Hindi heartland is poori-sabzi. In Allahabad and Varanasi, locals also love their kalakand and lal peda. Everywhere in India, bhutta (corn) and moongfali (peanuts), variously called jig nuts, kadlekayi, singh dana or ‘timepass’, are anytime eats, grabbed on the go at traffic lights or by the kerb. In the south, they like their groundnuts and corncobs steamed!

The ultimate street food of all time is golgappa, which is known by different names and comes in subtle variations. Pani puri, puchka, gupchup, pani patase, call it what you may, it evokes the same emotions. Holding a makeshift sal leaf cup, awaiting your turn, you open your mouth till the world sees your epiglottis as you relish the burst of flavours and tangy explosion of tamarind water as you gobble a golgappa whole. It’s an unwritten rule that every round of pani puri must be followed by papdi chat, the drier version, and a gratis sukha (dry one sans masala) in the end.

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In Kolkata, besides kaati rolls, biryani and Bengali sweets, the samosa’s smaller cousin, the singada and aloo chop rule the roost. Kolkata’s eastern nook of Tangra is legendary for its Chinese joints. No train journey in these parts is complete without jhaal muri or puffed rice, spiced with mustard oil, peanuts, Bengal gram mixture, onion, chili, coriander, potato cubes and pickle masala, rattled expertly in a dabba with a spoon and served in a thonga (paper packet) with a sliver of coconut.

Every evening in Bihar, locals snack on mudhi (puffed rice) with kachri (onion/potato fritters) or chura bhuja (roasted flat rice) with lal chana. Bihar’s most well known export is litti-chokha, roundels of dough stuffed with spiced sattu (roasted gram flour), which are doused in ghee and relished with potato mash and thin tomato chutney. Bhola Kewat is a litti legend in Ranchi. Another Jharkhand classic is dhuska, a thick fried poori made of powdered rice and chana dal.

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Nearby ‘Steel City’ Jamshedpur, with its multi-cultural, cosmopolitan air, has its superstars – “Tambi ka dosa, Fakira ka chanachur, Hari ka golgappa, Bauwwa ji ka chai, Kewat ka litti, Lakhi ka rolls, Bhatia ka milkshake…” Jampot folks go into raptures over the taste of nostalgia, reminiscing about their street food heroes like kids obsessing over WrestleMania cards.

Pahala, midway between Bhubaneswar and Cuttack, is lined with shops displaying large cauldrons of rasgulla, supposedly invented in Odisha before local maharajas (cooks) popularized it in Kolkata after migrating to Bengal. Another Odiya heavyweight besides chhena poda and chhena gaja is Dhenkanal bada, a dal vada served with ghugni (yellow pea curry).

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Puffed rice or mudhi is consumed all over India, from Odisha, Bengal and Bihar to Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, where it is known as pori. Across North Karnataka, it’s called mandakki and stalls in Davanagere furiously stir it into spicy variants like khara mandakki, nargis or girmit. At dusk, little angadis (shops) dispense hot mensinkayi bajjis (chili pakoda) from Bijapur to Bangalore. Here, an evening snack is not just local tradition, but considered a sacred birthright. People love their bajjis (fritters) made of potato, onion, lentils or raw banana.

If Maddur is synonymous with Maddur vada and Davangere with its benne dosa made with dollops of white butter, Mangaluru boasts teatime snacks like goli bajji, Mangalore Buns, ambode, uppitu-shira and khara roti. In Hubli’s ‘khau galli’ Durgada Bail, stalls sell unique dishes like ‘tomato omelette.’ Cultural capital Mysore has the holy triumvirate of Mysore dosa, Mysore bonda and Mysore pak (a ghee drenched sweet).

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In Bangalore, major food haunts like VV Puram, Malleswaram, Shivaji Nagar and Mosque Road resound with the chomps of hungry masses. The quick and cheap rolls of Fanoos have sated appetites for years. Local outfits run food walks through the pettah (Old Bangalore), Frazer Town, Basavangudi, Russell Market and Military Hotels.

In Hyderabad, feasting continues in the city of Nizams with biryani, keema samosas, haleem and paaya. Tamil Nadu goes into raptures over their dosai and vadai as much as parottas, besides soondal, a salad of garbanzo beans or chickpeas tempered with onion, chilli, mustard seeds, curry leaves and coconut. Every evening, Chennaiites head straight to the fish fry stalls on Elliott Beach to nibble on an assortment of local fish.

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Across Kerala, the morning starts with puttu-kadla, steamed cylindrical rice cakes with black chickpea curry. Chips made of banana, tapioca and jackfruit are fried in roadside stalls like Kumari Banana Chips in Kozhikode. But the northern tract of Malabar promises a world of lesser-known Moplah delicacies – assorted pathiris (rice pancakes stuffed with egg or meats), bonda, ari kaduka (rice stuffed in green mussels), spindle-shaped unnakaya (mashed banana stuffed with coconut, nuts and raisin) and pazham nerchadu (banana fritters).

Like Iyengar bakeries in Bangalore and other colonial haunts across India, Kerala too has its share of outlets dispensing baked goodies. From Mambally’s in Thalassery, Kerala’s first bakery that opened in 1883 to Delecta and Cochin Bakery in Kozhikode, the bakery culture is omnipresent in India right up to distant Srinagar.

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The famous Ahdoos and traditional Sofi-run bakeries churn out khara biscuit, sheermal (saffron flatbread), baqerkhani (puff pastry), lavas (unleavened bread) and kulchas (brittle bread) topped with sesame and poppy seeds, avidly consumed with kehwa (Kashmiri tea) and sheer or noon chai (salty tea).

In Himalayan regions like Ladakh, Sikkim and Darjeeling, locals pop churpi or yak cheese cubes like popcorn. It smells vile, tastes like cardboard and takes hours to melt in your mouth, but somehow they love it. No matter which street corner you hang around, there’s a food stall beckoning you with a local bite that begs to be tried…

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 8 October 2017 in Sunday Herald, the Sunday supplement of Deccan Herald.

Royal Rajasthan: 7 Wow Places for your 7 Vows

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY pick out seven dream locations in Rajasthan for the ultimate destination wedding 

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Few places can match Rajasthan for the sheer opulence and grandeur it imparts to a destination wedding. With forts and palaces doubling up as venues, there’s no better location for Maharaja style nuptials. Ghodis (horses) are too plebian; here the groom arrives in style on elephant back or in a vintage car.

Monuments brought alive with 3D laser mapping, processions carrying mashaals (torches) and entertainment that ranges from local folk musicians to international pop stars; whatever you want, if you have the budget, you can get it. Here’s a look at seven wow places for your seven vows.

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Suryagarh, Jaisalmer
The splash of celebratory orange safas (turban) over fort turrets and ramparts, lavish floral arrangements, starry skies and a cool desert breeze; Suryagarh on the Jaisalmer-Sam Road has wowed many as an unforgettable wedding venue. By day, mandaps and pavilions bedecked with orange and white parasols add colour while thousands of lamps light up niches around the Bawdi (stepped tank) by night.

With classy rooms in the main building for guests and exclusive haveli and suite Residences in a quiet corner ideal for the bride and groom’s family, the 77 rooms can accommodate the whole band, baja, baraat. Rait Spa offers specially designed beauty and wellness therapies for a pre-nup, using locally sourced Thar sand and Luni river salt, besides a stunning indoor pool and gym.

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The top notch cuisine blends the best of international fare with Indian cuisine, served in a variety of dramatic locations – from a lavish Halwai Breakfast in the central courtyard, Silk Route Dinner and Sangeet at the Enchanted Garden by the Lake to Wedding by the Bawdi at the Baradari pavilion of the Celebration Garden. Small celebrations take place in the Mehendi Terrace and musical evenings at the Tulsi Garden. Sundowners, strains of the algoza (double flute) and performances by Kalbeliyas and Manganiyars on the dunes culminate in fireworks, making it an unforgettable exeprience.

Kahala Phata, Sam Road, Jaisalmer 345001
Ph +91-02992-269269, 78271 51151 www.suryagarh.com
Tariff Rs.14,000-1,00,000

Jet Airways flies to Jodhpur, from where Suryagarh is 285km/5hrs by road.

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Neemrana
Located south-west of Delhi in Alwar district, Neemrana’s advantage is its proximity to the national capital. Set against the Aravali hills, the sprawling 15th century fort palace is one of India’s oldest heritage hotels and a destination in itself. The Rs.7 crore renovation project took 15 years and it shows! Cascading down a hillside over 12 tiers of lush landscaped terraces, Neemrana is a stunning location for weddings. From the first regal wedding in 1992 (a London-Singapore affair) to a Punjabi royal bash, it has played matchmaker in many an alliance.

Various functions can be held in the fort’s seven palace wings overlooking 6 acres of terraced patios, alcoves and magnificent gardens like Uncha Baag, Mukut Baag and Sirmaur Baag. Blending Sultanate, Rajput, Mughal and colonial styles, each room is unique – Paashan Mahal (Rock Palace) is built around a rockface of the Aravalis, Uma Vilas has terrific hill views, Chandra Mahal was the old Hall of Justice while Francisi Mahal is a French suite. Enjoy alfresco dinners, Ayurvedic massages, two swimming pools – Raj Kund and the exclusive Surya Kund and Mahaburj restaurant serves excellent Rajasthani and North Indian cuisine.

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There’s plenty to do for guests with camel rides, audio tours, camel cart rides to an 18th century stepwell, vintage car rides and a 5-track Zipline, the first in India, by Flying Fox. Being a hill fort, be prepared to walk and climb high steps to reach different levels. For a smaller, more intimate experience, try Neemrana’s Hill Fort Kesroli near Alwar.

122nd Milestone, Off Delhi-Jaipur Highway, Neemrana, Alwar District 301705
Ph 01494 246007, 9310630386 www.neemranahotels.com
Tariff Rs.6,500-28,000

Jet Airways has several flights to IGI Airport, Delhi from where Neemrana is just 108km

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Udaipur
Steeped in romance and the beauty of its seven lakes interlinked by canals, Udaipur has hosted many a celebrity wedding. In 2004, actress Raveena Tandon got married to film distributor Anil Thadani at Jagmandir Island Palace at Lake Pichola and the whole place transformed into a giant film set with Bollywood biggies flying in from Mumbai. The venue was immortalized in the Bond flick Octopussy.

New York hotelier and Bollywood dilettante Vikram Chatwal married model-turned-entrepreneur Priya Sachdev in 2006 with lavish pre-wedding parties like the masquerade-themed Fantasia that took place in the Zenana Mahal of the City Palace. The sterling guest list of 600 from 26 countries included Bill Clinton, Naomi Campbell and P Diddy, flew in on chartered planes from Bombay, Udaipur and Delhi during the 10-day bash.

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Jagmandir Palace featured again in the marriage of tycoon Sanjay Hinduja with Anu Mahtani in one of the mega wedding spectacles of the country. The global cuisine from 16 countries was served to 16,000 guests in a week-long celebration. There were traffic jams; caused not by the BMWs flown in from Mumbai for transporting guests but due to 208 private chartered planes! The wedding bill alone was £15 million with top artists like J-Lo and Nicole Scherzinger performing at Manek Chowk, a Mughal garden in the City Palace. The mehendi was held at the Shiv Niwas heritage hotel while the starlets stayed in £3,000-a-night luxury suites at Oberoi Udai Vilas.

Besides Fateh Prakash Palace and Shikarbadi Hotel in Udaipur, the HRH Group also lets out Gajner Palace, Karni Bhawan Palace in Bikaner and Gorbandh Palace in Jaisalmer for regal weddings. Udaipur’s advantage is the profusion of excellent lakefront hotels that serve as great nuptial venues. Ferry guests in style at the Taj Lake Palace, opt for a Wedding Package at The Leela Palace or escape to the hilltop fort palace of Devigarh.

HRH Group of Hotels, Udaipur
Ph +91-294 2528016-19, 1800 180 2933, 1800 180 2944
Email events@eternalmewar.in, crs@hrhhotels.com www.hrhhotels.com
Tariff Rs.23,500

Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur 313001
Ph +91 0294 2428700, 2428800 www.tajhotels.com
Tariff Rs.29,000 onwards

The Oberoi Udaivilas, Haridasji Ki Magri, Mulla Talai, Udaipur 313 001
Ph +91 0294 243 3300 www.oberoihotels.com
Tariff Rs.30,000 onwards

Jet Airways flies to Udaipur

Umaid Bhawan Palace/Jodhpur/India

Jodhpur
The big ticket wedding of actress Elizabeth Hurley and Arun Nayar in 2007 didn’t last as long as it took to build the Umaid Bhawan Palace, but that doesn’t dent the eternal charm of Jodhpur. The opulent golden-hued sandstone palace floored well-heeled guests like Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Mick Jagger, Sting, Diana Ross and others. Set amidst 26 acres of lush gardens with 347 rooms, it is the sixth largest private residence in the world, with as many as four indoor and six outdoor venues to accommodate a dream Maharaja style wedding.

The palace has a private museum (with a Champagne Museum Walk), marbled squash courts and a subterranean pool under the palace decorated with zodiac signs on the pathway. Pamper yourself at Jiva Spa. Typically, a two or three-day wedding celebration begins with a cocktail dinner by the Poolside, a Mehndi ceremony at Mehrangarh Fort, Sangeet at the ornate Marwar Hall and Wedding-cum-Reception at the famous Baradari Lawns.

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The Mehrangarh Fort itself is a great location for a destination wedding as the lofty citadel is lit up in laser lights while the revelry on the ramparts continues late into the night. For a price, wedding planners can also organize an elephant polo match for guests. Don’t want to break the bank? Try Ranbanka Palace or Ajit Bhawan.

Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur 342006
Ph +91 291 2510101, 2510100 www.tajhotels.com
Email umaidbhawan.jodhpur@tajhotels.com
Tariff Rs.77,400

Jet Airways flies to Jodhpur

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Deogarh Mahal
Located between the two nodal hubs of Udaipur and Jodhpur, Deogarh or the Fort of the Gods was once the fourth largest jagir (estate) in Rajasthan. In the aristocracy of the Mewar court, the Rawats of Deogarh were counted among one of the sixteen umrao’s (senior feudal barons) of the Maharana of Udaipur. Built around 1670, their citadel is now a luxury heritage resort run by the Deogarh family.

Its 75 rooms stretch across three locations just 5km/15 min apart – 16 luxury Swiss camps at Khayyam, four exclusive suites at the renovated lakefront hunting lodge Fort Seengh Sagar and the rest at the Mahal (palace). Each room is reflective of a different era with Gokul Ajara, Moti Mahal and Ranjit Prakash rooms dating back to 350 years! With wide courtyards and terraces, there are several locations for various events.

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Gala evenings feature folk music and dance while one has a choice of theme dinners – Royal Desert Dinner at Khayyam with folk artists, Lake-side Dinner at Seengh Sagar or a Chowki dinner with low seating on chowkis, silver ware and typical Rajasthani menu. Fruits, vegetables, milk products and oils are all in-house, lending freshness to the typical Mewari cuisine. The Mahal can take care of all your needs – from elephants, buggies, royal processions, vintage cars, mandap décor, puja accessories, fireworks right down to the purohit!

Deogarh Madaria, District Rajsamand 313331
Ph +91-2904-252777, 253333 www.deogarhmahal.com
Tariff Rs.8,500-25,000

Jet Airways flies to Udaipur and Jodhpur, from where Deogarh is 135 km and 175km respectively.

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Jaipur
With its pink sandstone monuments, opulent palaces and festive spirit, the Pink City seems perennially drenched in celebratory hues. No wonder, businessmen, Bollywood stars, TV actors, royal scions, NRIs and foreign visitors, all make a beeline to Jaipur for their nuptials. Shivraj Singh, the prince of Jodhpur, got married to Gayatri Kumari of Askot here in a glittering ceremony in 2010. Jaipur’s advantage is the wide range of hotels geared up to host a wedding, with all facilities at hand – brass bands, vintage cars, elephants, artists and the best of shopping.

The stunning monuments and palaces like Raj Palace and Jai Mahal Palace also form a great backdrop for pre and post wedding shoots. Taj Group’s Rambagh Palace, voted among the top romantic hotels in the country, offers multiple locations and experiences. The royal meal is served in peacock thalis at the Rambagh Lawns, while private lunches are arranged at the royal hunting lodge.

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You could have an intimate family dinner in the Rajput Room or a royal Indian feast at the former palace ballroom Suvarna Mahal, with 18th century French décor and massive crystal chandeliers. Saving all that money for your honeymoon? Opt for Shiv Vilas Palace or Alsisar Haveli in town or drive out 43km northwest of Jaipur to Samode Palace, snug in the Aravalis. For nearly two and half centuries, the palace and its tented camp Samode Bagh have hosted weddings. Have the mandap or sacred fire in the beautiful courtyard and a royal banquet in the opulent Darbar hall.

Samode House, Gangapole, Jaipur 302002
Ph +91-141-2632370, +91-1423-240013-15 www.samode.com

Alsisar Haveli, Sansar Chandra Road, Jaipur 302 001
Ph +91-141-236 8290, 236 4685, 510 7157 www.alsisar.com

Jet Airways flies to Jaipur

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Ranthambhore
When Katy Perry and Russell Brand got married in 2010 at Aman-i-Khas, a luxury resort outside Ranthambhore tiger reserve, it didn’t escape the attention of wedding planners and matchmakers looking for theme weddings! A local priest officiated over their grand Hindu wedding and Katy even put on a nath (nose ornament) and mehendi for the occasion. The nuptials featured a procession of 21 camels, elephants, horses, dancers and musicians. Part of the Aman group of hotels, the venue (and its tariff) is ideal for small, exclusive gatherings.

Each of the ten high-ceilinged tents is inspired by the airy abodes of Mughal emperors while on hunts or expeditions. You can opt for a ‘Machan’ wedding with the ceremony (sans the sacred fire) taking place on a platform 20 ft off the ground and guests watching the proceedings from elephant back. For a more regular affair, choose a swank hotel like Nahargarh to tie the knot.

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Aman-i-Khas, Sherpur-Khiljipur, Ranthambhore Road, Sawai Madhopur
Ph +91-7462 252 052 Email aman-i-khas@amanresorts.com www.amanresorts.com
Tariff Rs.1,06,000

Nahargarh, Village Khilchipur, Ranthambhore Road, Sawai Madhopur 322001
Ph +91-7462-252281-83 Email alsisar@alsisar.com www.nahargarh.com
Tariff Rs.25,000

Jet Airways flies to Jaipur, 160km from Ranthambhore

 

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the Cover Story on Destination Weddings in the October 2016 issue of JetWings magazine.