Tag Archives: Rajasthan

Oota Chronicles: Travelling for food

Standard

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.

IMG_3247

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.

IMG_4596

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.

IMG_5485

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.

IMG_5274

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.

IMG_1634

“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.

GJB_8273

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.

IMG_4377

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

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

IMG_8910-Suryagarh's elaborate halwai breakfast

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

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

IMG_9190-Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy

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…

36961551_464494194020966_3634414764827869184_n

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.

 

Advertisements

Native Spirits: Traditional alcoholic brews of India

Standard

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

Apong in Arunachal IMG_5430

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.

Zutho in Nagaland DSC05001

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.

Apong in Arunachal IMG_7718

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.

Bhang lassi IMG_6919

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.

Bhang lassi IMG_6916

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.

Elaichi from Rajasthan IMG_4305

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!

Apong in Arunachal IMG_7721

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.

Coorg wines IMG_4464

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.

Elaichi from Rajasthan IMG_4303

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!

Bonda men carrying handia to a village haat in Odisha IMG_6083

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.

Salfi in Odisha IMG_6170

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.

Handiya at a Santhal home in Bengal IMG_0062

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).

Women in Chhattisgarh collecting mahua flowers IMG_6515

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.

Salfi in Odisha IMG_6139

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.

DSC09607_Anurag Mallick

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.

Chhang in Ladakh IMG_2381

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!

Apong in Arunachal IMG_7719

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!”

dr-bhang-jaisalmer1

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

Standard

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

IMG_3514_1

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.

IMG_3602

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!

IMG_3359

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.

IMG_2940_1

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.

IMG_3120

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.

IMG_3156

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.

IMG_2828

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3623

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.

IMG_2865

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’.

IMG_3460

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.

IMG_3548

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.

IMG_3479

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.

IMG_3213

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.

IMG_3619

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.

IMG_3188

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.

IMG_3263

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

IMG_2869

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

Standard

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

Jhalmuri IMG_9867

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.

Ahmedabad Law Garden snacks IMG_7450

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.

Indore Bhutte ka kees IMG_3501

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.

Bombay Vada Paav DSC03781

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.

Bun maska tea at an Irani cafe IMG_8073

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).

Salli Gosht with bun IMG_8284

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.

Kadhi fafda IMG_3423

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.

Gwalior bedai IMG_4792

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.

Golgappa IMG_9392

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.

Kolkata rolls IMG_6529

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.

Litti chokha IMG_7021

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).

Dhenkanal bada IMG_6546

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).

Mangalore goli bajji IMG_5436

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.

Malabar snacks_Bonda bajji IMG_1791

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.

Kashmiri bakeries IMG_9995

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

Standard

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

neemrana_capturing-memories-at-uncha-bagh

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.

28_suryagarh-devika-narain

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.

2_suryagarh-devika-narain

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.

neemrana_entertainment-at-the-amphitheatre

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.

neemrana_all-ready-for-the-jaimala-at-shatranj-terrace

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

taj-lake-palace-udaipur-royal-spa-boat

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.

taj-lake-palace-udaipur-pool

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.

4_suryagarh-devika-narain

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

deogarh-mahal-pano

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.

deogarh-mahal-car-palace

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.

rambagh-palace-jaipur-the-palace-courtyard-1

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.

rambagh-palace-jaipur-palace-exterior

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

nahargarh-ranthambhore-img_5646

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.

nahargarh-ranthambhore-img_5662

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. 

Desert Rain: Trails across the Thar

Standard

ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY piece together Thar’s glorious past from fragments of ruins, cenotaphs, folklore, forgotten forts and caravanserais along the Silk Route

IMG_8922_Anurag Priya

The road shot across the Thar, a monochrome landscape resembling a gargantuan oatmeal cookie, toasted by sun and time to an uneven brown. All of a sudden, the endless parched expanse was broken by a vast carpet of green, speckled with vegetation. Stray horses lapped at water puddles on the fringes. We rubbed our eyes. It was no mirage. We were staring at the result of an indigenous rainwater harvesting practice that has provided sustenance in these barren tracts for centuries!

At an unmarked location near Jaisalmer beyond the reach of Google Maps, we were on the bespoke Desert Remembers trail, beautifully curated to present Thar’s lesser known history and folklore. The ancient Paliwal Brahmins, who prospered from trade on the Silk Route, were geniuses in agriculture and practised an innovative farming technique. Studying local topography and geology, they identified flatlands and built embankments above an impervious gypsum layer to trap rainwater. These precious aagor (catchment areas) caught the first rains and a network of dhoras (drains) channelled water throughout the khadin (community farmland), ensuring it remained a shallow oasis.

IMG_8974-Horses slake their thirst near a khadin

Low ridges to our right formed the mineral rich gravely uplands that gently sloped towards the fertile silty basin on our left. The harnessed rainwater was flooded into the low lying fields and held for two months. The impervious gypsum layer enabled the soil to resuscitate, assuring a round of crops annually and sometimes, even a post-rain crop. No one owned the land and the entire community collectively shared the harvest! Their water management was so legendary, the Paliwals were believed to possess powers to summon rains at will.

As we drove past a sandstone pillar, we noticed deities and inscriptions carved on it. Our host Manvendra Singh Shekhawat explained that it was a govardhan, ancient water markers venerated as shila-ji (holy stone) by locals. Sometimes precious metals would be buried under the posts, with etchings of the ruling planetary deity, aligned to constellations in the sky. It doubled up as a navigational aid and served as life-saving signposts for travellers in the past. After a full day, we finally retired to the comfort of our base Suryagarh.

IMG_8992-Govardhan or water markers

Many of the hotel’s design elements were inspired by its surroundings – the jharokas overlooking the central courtyard from Jaisalmer’s havelis, windows and friezes from Khaba Fort and stone walls and ceiling design from Kuldhara. Champagne and snacks heralded the launch of the Residences at Suryagarh, an exclusive section of private suites set away from the main hotel.

Each handcrafted sandstone haveli offered a sense of private luxury while a large open courtyard, reminiscent of Paliwal villages, was based on the community living concept. Wide windows and pillared corridors framed the vastness of the desert while the warm décor, sunken rooms and furnishings exuded sophisticated charm. In a rare tribute, each room was named after the chief karigar (mason) who built it!

IMG_8910-Suryagarh's elaborate halwai breakfast

The next day, the prospect of waking up for before dawn for ‘Breakfast with Peacocks’ seemed too much effort, so we settled for a leisurely Halwayi Breakfast in the courtyard. It was an asssault course of farsan (snacks), which were consumed in no particular order – kachori, aloo bonda, mirchi pakoda, fafda, samosa, laddus, gulabjamun, fruits, fresh juices, followed by assorted parathas, curd and a variety of pickles and chutneys. It was carnage.

Going by our diet, it would seem we were setting out to conquer Khaba Fort, not visit it. As we disembarked, a turbaned manganiyar clicked his castanets to a soulful rendition of the folk classic “Padharo mhare des.” We could have sworn he was perched in the central jharoka of the Suryagarh courtyard moments ago but had magically transported himelf here. Once a flourishing caravanserai, Khaba Fort housed a small museum with fossil rocks and info boards that traced Thar’s geological history. It was hard to believe that 60 million years ago, the desert was a watery world hemmed by the Arabian Sea but over time the seabed had become an unending sea of dunes.

IMG_8995-Khaba Fort

The next stop was Nav Dungar temple, one in a series of nine hill deities, atop Jaisalmer’s second highest point. Members of a desert cycling expedition from Barmer to Jaisalmer halted here for a breather as raucous ravens and vultures lazily circled overhead. The black desert road swooped down the rugged hills and snaked across the arid lands. En route camels and goats flocked to the khejri trees for nourishment and shade. A group of Muslim women waited by the roadside, their vibrant odhnis (veils) billowing in the wind as chunky traditional silver jewellery glinted around their necks, arms and feet. They smiled, noticing how captivated we were by the raw ethnic beauty of their kohl rimmed eyes and gold disc nose studs.

Even before our calorie loss from the day’s exertions could reach double figures, we had reached Joshida Talao, a royal pleasure haunt by the lake. A stone pavilion stood forlorn, once a resting spot for weary travellers. Khejri trees drooped into the small lake as if quenching their thirst. Every now and then, a tractor with blaring music would roll by to replenish water tankers that supplied nearby villages. Reclining on bolsters, we were plied with refreshments and succulent char-grilled meats as we listened to the strains of the algoza (double flute). Perched on a lakeside platform, our troubadour seemed more magician than musician with his acts of teleportation.

IMG_9154_Anurag Priya

We raced in a trail of dust, feeling lost in the overwhelming emptiness until we saw a lone sign of habitation – a dhani (settlement) of Bhils. This nomadic tribe was apparently cursed by goddess Parvati for not appreciating a gift from Lord Shiva. Tracing their lineage to Parvati’s brothers, the Bhils are doomed to wander till perpetuity. Even to this day, Bhils don’t farm. In a land that believes in community living, the Bhils live as nuclear families, moving every few months to another place.

Their hut had no electricity but a cellphone was left to charge on the roof, plugged into a solar panel! Goats bleated in a pen while a lady rolled chapatis on a clay stove inside. She barely had enough for her family; yet she invited us with a broad smile – “Come, have dinner with us!” Their indomitable spirit of survival in these harsh climes with the barest minimum and innate goodness to open their hearts and homes, moved us deeply.

IMG_9611_Anurag Priya

Despite the apparent nothingness all around, there was much to cover – cenotaphs of merchants and travellers, retracing old trade routes on camel safaris, ancient stepwells and tanks, hillocks with fossil remains, the sweet water wells of Mundari and the midnight Chudail (Witches) Trail at Kuldhara; the Thar indeed held many secrets. The size and scale of the ruins hinted at untold prosperity. But what looked innoccuous in the day seemed shadowy and ominous by moonlight. It was in the course of one night that the Paliwals abandoned their 84 settlements en masse. Some ascribe their migration to high taxation, a lascivious ruler or locals poisoning their wells out of jealousy. Whatever the cause, they left no trace of where they went.

Since we had explored Jaisalmer’s yellow sandstone mansions and jharokas earlier, we opted out of the city tour. The famous hill fort had inspired Satyajit Ray to pen the mystery novel Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress), which he directed into a Bangla movie in 1974. Based on a reincarnation theme, the adventure revolved around detective Feluda and a kid who had a recurring dream of deserts and peacocks. We could identify with that kid.

IMG_8997-Ruins of Khaba

We drove to Lodhruva, an old trading town and capital of the Bhati rulers before Rawal Jaisal shifted it to Jaisalmer. The 12th century Jain temple of Parswanath, the 23rd tirthankara, was bedecked with garlands. Local kids eagerly guided us around the complex to the sacred Tree of Life, a fabulous wooden structure carved with flora and fauna besides the snake-hole where people offered milk (the lucky ones got to see the serpent)! We were fine with unlucky.

Unfortunately, Lodhruva was raided by Mahmud of Ghazni and Mohammed Ghori several times. After years of neglect, the temple was renovated in the 70s. The sacred sandal paste on our forehead felt cool in the dry desert wind. We sighed and carried on. Like the Bhils, we too had long resigned ourselves to a nomadic life of travel…

Rajasthan_Lodhruva Jain temple IMG_9364_Anurag & Priya

Fact File

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Jodhpur Airport, from where Jaisalmer is 300 km/6 hrs by road and Suryagarh is a 20 min drive from town on Sam Road.

Where to Stay: Stay in palace rooms, suites or the new Residences, with signature Rajasthani cuisine in various fine dine settings. http://www.suryagarh.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unedited version of the article that appeared in the September 2015 issue of JetWings magazine.

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

Standard

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

Mahansar Fort heritage hotel owner IMG_0328Anurag Priya

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

Bagar Piramal Haveli renovated by Neemrana into a hotel IMG_0125_Anurag Priya

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

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

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

Mahansar IMG_0214_Anurag Priya

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

Nawalgarh-Rajasthanis in a steamer IMG_2011_Anurag Priya

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

Dundlod-Fort interiors IMG_1585Anurag Priya

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

Dundlod Seth Arjun Das Goenka Haveli Museum IMG_1457_Anurag Priya

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

Nawalgarh Roop Niwas Kothi horse safaris IMG_1745_Anurag Priya

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

Nawalgarh-Dr Ramnath A Poddar Haveli Museum IMG_1977Anurag Priya

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

Nawalgarh-Dr Ramnath A Poddar Haveli Museum IMG_1940_Anurag Priya

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

Ramgarh Freco Hotel IMG_0665Anurag Priya

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

Ramgarh Shani Mandir IMG_0496Anurag Priya

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

Mahansar fresco-train IMG_0274_Anurag Priya

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

Alsisar-Jhunjhunu wala ki Haveli  IMG_2163Anurag Priya

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

Castle Mandawa hall IMG_7193_Anurag Priya

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

Fatehpur-Haveli Nadine le Prince IMG_0798Anurag Priya

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

Alsisar Mahal IMG_2114Anurag Priya

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

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

Faith Accompli: 10 Quirky roadside shrines in India

Standard

Bullet Motorcycle temple, Aeroplane Gurudwara, Traffic Ganesha to Visa Hanuman, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY pick out 10 quirky roadside shrines in India

Chinganachera Temple Kerala DSC_0355

India is a country that takes religion quite seriously. As if 33 crore gods in the Hindu pantheon were not enough, there are temples dedicated to seers, saints and larger than life figures. Actors are often idolized – there’s an Amitabh Bachchan temple in Kolkata, a Khushboo shrine at Trichy and a Namitha temple in Tirunelveli. Politicians too have ardent followers – a Mahatma Gandhi temple at Bhatra village in Sambalpur to a cardboard temple in Karimnagar dedicated to Sonia Gandhi, an MGR shine at Thirunindravoor, Chennai or a proposed Mayawati temple at Natpura in Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region. Actor Manoj Tiwari takes hero worship to a new level with a Sachin Tendulkar temple (because he’s the ‘god of cricket’) in his hometown Atarwalia in Bihar’s Kaimur district. Forget humans, there are shrines for animals too. Rats are deified as ancestors at Karni Mata temple at Deshnoke in Rajasthan while dogs turn into gods at a unique canine temple at Ramnagar in Karnataka’s Channapatna district! Here we showcase some truly offbeat roadside shrines in India…

Bullet Bana temple Rajasthan IMG_1098

Bullet Bana temple, Pali (Rajasthan)
Nobody can deny the cult status the Royal Enfield motorbike enjoys in India, but a shrine dedicated to the 350 cc Bullet? Bang on the NH-65 highway via Rohet to Jodhpur stands the roadside temple of Bullet Banna or Motorcycle Baba. It is in memory of Om Singh Rathore of Chotilla village, who died here in a motorcycle accident in 1988. The cops took his bike to the police station, but the next morning it went missing and was strangely found parked at the crash site. Each time the bike was impounded, it returned on its own to the accident-prone spot. Believing it to be divine will, locals built a temple in Om Banna’s memory with his Bullet enshrined alongside his garlanded photo. Travelers stop by to light incense sticks and pray for a safe passage.

18 bata 2 temple Naldehra IMG_6759

18 bata 2 temple, Naldehra (Himachal Pradesh)
In the hills, it’s not unusual for shrines to crop up at accident prone areas and treacherous spots. However what makes this Naldehra shrine unique is its name – ‘Atharah bata do’ or 18/2. It is believed that in a tragic crash some years ago, a bus went over the precipice resulting in eighteen fatalities and only two survivors. The temple that came up on the dangerous curve thus got its strange appellation.

Chain Tree Vythiri IMG_7274

Chain Tree, Vythiri (Kerala)
In Kerala’s hilly district of Wayanad, beyond the misty ghats of Lakkidi near Vythiri, just off the NH-212 stands an unusual tree in chains. It recounts the tragic tale of Karinthandan, a young tribal who guided a British engineer to find a safe route through the treacherous Thamrasseri Ghat. He was killed equally treacherously. It is said his troubled spirit began haunting travellers and often led to accidents. So a puja was performed by a priest to pacify his soul which was then chained to a tree. The iron shackles still drape the branches of the famous Chain Tree as tourists drop by for a quick picture. While on trees, the nature temple of Chingan Chira, 10 km from Kollengode in Palakkad district, deserves mention. With a canopy spread over 2 acres, the cluster of banyan trees looks eerie with wooden houses and offerings dangling from it. Adding to its strange mystique are blocks of flat stone with grinders, mortars and pestles placed around it. Devotees drop by on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays to perform pujas, sacrifice fowls and prepare thanksgiving meals to the deity. It is a popular spot for shooting films, videos and the odd wedding album!

Traffic Ganesha Bengaluru

Traffic Ganesha, Bangalore (Karnataka)
The Ganesha temple on Kasturba Road in Bangalore is known by many local names – Vahana (Vehicle) Ganpati, Traffic Ganesha or Accident Ganesha. Though the temple is believed to be 600 years old, for the last 60 years, motorists have been bringing their new vehicles for blessings of an accident-free life. After all, it has royal approval! As per temple priest Subramaniam Deekshit, the Maharaja of Mysore Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar was travelling in his Rolls Royce from Mysore to Bangalore, when his car broke down nearby. Forced to abandon his vehicle, the king started off on foot and saw the roadside temple. On performing a puja here, his Rolls Royce mysteriously sputtered to life. This happened a few times. Even the Diwan of Mysore, T Ananda Rao, after whom the Anand Rao Circle is named, stayed at Cantonment and regularly prayed at the shrine. When TVS opened its showroom in Bangalore, it brought its new chassis and vehicles for puja. With the opening of the Benz and Nissan showrooms on Kasturba Road, the practice caught on. The belief that an accident can be averted if you perform a puja is so strong that people come in the thousands for vahana puja during Ayudha Puja. Two-wheeler owners believe that they would upgrade to a car and small car owners think their aspirations to buy a bigger car would be fulfilled. Whether the vehicle is old or new, a cycle or a Merc, Traffic Ganesha’s fame only increases each year.

Jaswantgarh Memorial Arunachal DSC02808

Jaswantgarh Memorial, Near Sela Pass (Arunachal Pradesh)
Maha Vir Chakra Jaswant Singh of 4 Garhwal Rifles laid down his life during the 1962 war, fighting the Chinese Army for 72 hours along with two other soldiers. He was eventually caught and hanged at the same place where the Jaswantgarh Memorial now stands, 14 km from Sela Pass in Arunachal Pradesh. Besides a garlanded bronze bust of ‘Baba’ Jaswant Singh, the war hero’s belongings are also enshrined – his Army uniform, cap, watch and belt. An earthen lamp placed in front of the portrait of Jaswant Singh burns round the clock. While the rifleman may be no more, his six caretakers from 19 Garhwal Corps believe Babaji’s spirit lives on. He is served bed tea at 4:30am, breakfast at 9am and dinner at 7pm. They make his bed, polish his shoes, deliver the mail sent by his admirers and even clear the mails the next morning after ‘he has gone through them’. They change his bed sheets every Tuesday. Besides serving Baba, the soldiers manning the unique shrine also help needy travelers along the hazardous mountain road.

Betaal Mandir Maharashtra IMG_2512

Betaal Mandir, Mithbav (Maharashtra)
Maharashtra too has its share of strange shrines – be it a Shiva temple at Kunkeshwar built by shipwrecked Arabian sailors as thanksgiving or Pune’s Khunya Murlidhar temple whose foundations are soaked in blood. Even as the idol was being consecrated, a feud took place outside between the Peshwa and Dada Gadre, a local moneylender, leading to its strange name. Across the Konkan region, it is not unusual to find village shrines of gram-rakshaks, like the Shreedev Upralkar Prasann near Sawantwadi. Echoing the tale of Wayanad’s Chain Tree, the shrine is dedicated to a dhangar (shepherd) who revealed the passage through Amboli pass to the British and thereby got killed. He became the custodian of the passes and once when the British attacked the region, his spirit protected the people. Speaking of spirits, the small Betaal Temple by the road near Mithbav beach is much revered. The wandering spirit is invisible to the human eye. It is said, every evening, his palki (palanquin) carried by his ganas roams the area for an hour. People avoid going near his shrine around 7, else they get possessed, pull their hair and go mad. The madness is abated only after the god is appeased.

Ayyanar shrines Tamil Nadu

Keeranur Ayyanar (Tamil Nadu)
Though Tamil Nadu has many celebrated temples of the Cholas, Pandyas and Pallavas, the roadside shrines of village deities called Ayyanars are quite fascinating. Often seated with a sacrificial sword in hand or shown riding horses or elephants with a retinue of lesser gods and attendants, the deities act as guardian of the adjoining village – as rainmaker, protector of the fields and night patroller of the village borders. As votive offerings, people donate terracotta horses lining the pathway leading to the shrine, usually located in the shadow of a sacred tree or grove. Perhaps the best example can be seen off NH-210 at Keeranur, 25km south of Trichy on the road to Pudukottai in Chettinad.

Aeroplane Gurudwara gateway

Aeroplane Gurudwara, Talhan (Punjab)
Punjab’s Doaba region, the fertile land between the two rivers Beas and Sutlej, has over six million natives settled abroad, with at least one member from each family staying overseas. Many of them owe their overseas stint to Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh Gurdwara at Talhan village near Jalandhar, better known as Hawai Jahaz or Aeroplane Gurudwara. Just off NH-1, a gate capped with a British Airways aircraft model leads to a road lined with shops selling toy planes of Lufthansa, British Airways, Air Canada and other international carriers. These are not souvenirs, but offerings to the gurudwara in the hope of going abroad! The inner sanctum on the first floor of the century-old gurudwara has several plane models in neat rows. Because of the lack of space, the gurudwara committee has started distributing the toys to underprivileged children.

Hanuman ji in Kuldhara Rajasthan IMG_9558

Visa Hanuman, Ahmedabad (Gujarat) & Hyderabad (Andhra)
Lord Hanuman is often considered by some as the unofficial god of encroachment. One day suddenly someone may find an udbhav murti that’s manifested itself magically or after a dream. Some just have to place a Hanuman statue or idol and within no time a small shop and a cluster of buildings will come up around it. But Hanuman or Balaji is no ordinary god. In the narrow by-lanes of Desai-ni-pol at Khadia in Ahmedabad, a Hanuman shrine guarantees 100% visa approval for any foreign country. Himanshu Mehta, priest and caretaker of the 250-year-old temple elaborates on this amazing feat. Once eight applicants had their visas approved on Diwali eve after seeking Lord Hanuman’s blessings. The temple is packed on Saturdays, with nearly a thousand ardent devotees filing their appeals for his consideration. Similar is the tale of Chilkur Balaji Temple, popularly known as Visa Balaji. Located on the banks of Osman Sagar Lake, 17 km from Mehedipatnam near Hyderabad, the temple of the Visa God is perhaps the only one in India that does not accept money offerings or have the ubiquitous hundi for donations from the devotees.

Anicut Hanuman of the 19th Vent, Trichy (Tamil Nadu)
There are Hanuman shrines on hillocks, at crossroads and by the river, but a temple in a dam, now that’s a first! Situated 15km from Trichy, the Grand Anicut or Kallanai (kal means stone, anai is dam) built by Tamil king Karikala Cholan 2000 years ago with unhewn stone is believed to be one of the world’s oldest man-made dams. At its base lies an unobtrusive Hanuman temple that has been there for 200 years. A stone tablet in one corner has an engraving of Lord Hanuman on one side and an 1804 inscription by British captain JL Calddell. Despite several attempts, engineers of the East India Company could not complete building the 19th vent of the dam. It is said that Lord Hanuman appeared in a British officer’s dream and instructed him to build a temple for him at the spot. Brushing off the bizarre dream, the officer didn’t act upon it but was soon accosted by a troop of monkeys. Strangely, the local mason too reported receiving a similar vision. Fearing further disruption of the dam work, the officer conceded and a temple was eventually built at the 19th vent. Work magically resumed thereafter and jinx was broken. Today, despite the force of River Cauvery’s waters lashing through the temple and perilous water levels in the rains, the tiny shrine still stands in defiance, almost echoing the indomitable qualities of its God.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 30 March 2015 in National Geographic Traveller online. Read the story here: http://www.natgeotraveller.in/web-exclusive/web-exclusive-month/india-shrines/

Offbeat Destinations for 2015

Standard

ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY trundle off the beaten track across India to find uncommon faraway places filled with history, beauty and intrigue

As people wander to predictable destinations around the country, there are several places that lie unnoticed in the back lanes of public memory. Mark this year with an exploration of less known holiday spots and offbeat experiences ranging from forgotten French enclaves, wild getaways and ancient animal fairs to organic farmstays, rock cut caves, Himalayan villages and more. Here’s a pick of places chanced upon while joining dots on the map, which remain relatively unmarked by GPS, untouched by cable and some beyond the connectivity of phone and internet networks.

Achanakmar Chhattisgarh_Anurag Mallick IMG_6214 opt

Achanakmar (Chhattisgarh)
A wildlife park that takes its name from an unfortunate incident where a British officer was ‘suddenly killed’ by a tiger may not seem like a cheery getaway, but a century later, Achanakmar still retains much of its wild charm. Located 60 km from Bilaspur at Chhattisgarh’s northern border with Madhya Pradesh, the 914 sq km sanctuary is part of the much larger Achanakmar-Amarkantak Biosphere Reserve. A wildlife corridor across the Satpura-Maikal hills connects it to Kanha. After a 700-year reign of the Kalchuri kings, the region came under Maratha control between 15th-17th centuries and in 1818 Major Blunt became the first British officer to come here, followed by General Smith. British-built forest rest houses dot the park – from the entry gate at Lamni to Achanakmar 35km away, besides Chaparwa, Surhi and Sonbhadra Tourist Resort at Amadob. It’s a great place to spot leopards, wild dogs, jackals and hyenas. The forest is rich with sal, sag (ironwood) and tendu, whose leaves are used to roll beedis. A heady fragrance of mahua flowers hangs in the air and the canopy is broken with the riotous splash of palash or Flame of the Forest, prized as a dye, cosmetic and antiseptic. Home to Gond and Baiga tribes who depend on the forest and collect flowers to make hooch, deep inside Achanakmar you can find sacred trees and Gudgud Ped, which rumbles like a noisy stomach! Ph 0771 4028635/6 http://www.chhattisgarhtourism.net

Bateshwar ghats view from The Kunj rooftop IMG_3709 opt

Bateshwar (Uttar Pradesh)
While innumerable spiritual spots on the Ganga, Bateshwar is an ancient pilgrim centre located on the banks of the Yamuna. The ancestral home of former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Bateshwar is also famous for its 500-year-old cattle fair held over a month after Diwali on the riverbank at Bah near Agra. After Bihar’s Sonepur Mela, Bateshwar is the oldest and largest cattle fair in India, where animals are traded in a rural fair. A string of riverside temples dedicated to various manifestations of Lord Shiva like Panchmukheshwar, Pataleshwar and Gowrishankar lie on a scenic curve of the river. The main shrine of Bateshwarnath, which gives the town its name, is dedicated to Shiva’s ascetic form Batuk nath, who is believed to have rested under a vat (banyan) tree here, which still shades the shrine. Perched on a raised platform with ghats (steps) leading down to the river, the complex once had 108 Shiva temples! Sadly, only 40 remain due to the fickle course of the river. Explore the maze of mud caves and hillocks inhabited by sadhus. A Maha Aarti is held on the ghats every full moon but the biggest celebration takes place during Karthik Purnima, when pilgrims come for a holy dip in the Yamuna. As part of an eco-tourism project by the Chambal Conservation Foundation, the Jarar family’s riverside retreat The Kunj offers a pleasant rooftop view of the crescent of temples. Local guided tours arranged by Chambal Safari Lodge include a boat ride and visits to noteworthy temples. Rs.1500/person. Ph 9997066002, 9837415512 http://www.bateshwar.co.uk

IMG_4862_chandarnagore_Anurag Mallick

Chandernagor (West Bengal)
While there’s no better place than Pondicherry to savour the vestiges of French colonial rule in India, Chandernagor (or Chandannagar) lies quietly in the shadows. In the constant Anglo French tussle for trading supremacy, the British razed Chandernagore’s Fort d’Orleans and much of the French outpost in 1757, to bolster British Calcutta. Today, St Joseph’s Convent built in 1861 with its little chapel bearing the historic 1720 door through which British generals Clive and Watson marched in stands as a mute reminder. The French motto Liberté Egalité Fraternité is emblazoned on the town’s entry gate. If Pondy is a cradle of Franco-Tamil culture, Chandernagor assimilates Bengali flavours, visible in mansions like Kanhai Seth’er Bari, Nundy Bari and Nritya Gopal Smriti Mandir, which fuses Corinthian columns with Hindu motifs. Past the Sacred Heart Church lies The Strand, a mile long paved avenue lined with historic buildings, reminiscent of Pondy’s Promenade. To the north, stands Hotel de Paris, built in 1878, presently housing the Sub-divisional court and the 1887 Thai Shola hotel is now the Chandannagar College. Stroll past Rabindra Bhavan, the Gendarmerie and an 1845 Clocktower to Dupleix Palace, the erstwhile Governor’s residence converted into an Indo-French Cultural Centre and museum. Joraghat or Chandni, a decorated pavilion at the ferry point bears a plaque dedicated to Dourgachorone Roquitte (Durgacharan Rakshit), courtier of the French Government and the first Indian to be given the Chevalier de legion d’Honour in 1896. Underground House, originally a rest house of the French navy with its lowest level underwater, later hosted Rabindra Nath Tagore, who popularized ‘Patal Bari’ in his stories. In its heyday, Chandernagore was the most decorated ghat on the 2500km stretch of the Ganga. Local resident Kalyan Chakravarty, leads walking trails and heritage tours. Stay in the colonial comforts of Red Brick Residency in Kolkata for a day visit to the town, 37 km away via GT Road. Ph 9831330846 http://www.chandernagorheritage.com

DSC_6706_opt

Dhankar (Himachal Pradesh)
As you trudge 8km up the bare mountain road from Shichling, midway between Kaza and Tabo, the 1000 ft high rocky spurs of Dhankar appear. Literally translated as ‘fort on a cliff’ (Dhang means cliff in Tibetan, and khar is fort), the sight of a precariously balanced fort on a 1000-foot high wind-eroded sandy spur makes one think its collapse is imminent. The World Monuments Fund lists Dhankar as one of the World’s Hundred Most Endangered Sites, yet locals believe that when the world ends, Dhankar will be the last monastery to fall. The village has remnants of an old palace, a prison and a cave that provided shelter to all the village folk during war and a museum showcasing its historic past. Poised on steep southern slope of the village, the Dhankar Monastery overlooks the confluence of the Spiti and Pin Rivers. One of the five major monastic centres in Spiti, it belongs to the Gelugpa sect of Vajrayana Buddhism and was founded between 7th and 9th centuries. The gompa displays exquisite thangkas, murals and a riveting statue of Vairochana with four figures seated back-to-back. A 3km road from the village goes to Dhankar Lake (4517 m), a 2-hr hike, or a treacherous vertical ascent that takes an hour. Trek for 3 hrs from Dhankar to Lhalung (3758 m) to see the 1000-year-old Sherkhang Temple notable for its stucco building with wall and ceiling paintings. From Lhalung trek further to Demul, Komik and Langza, staying in rustic homestays run by Spiti Ecosphere. Ph 01906-222-652 http://www.spitiecosphere.com

Katrathal potter making chillums IMG_1018Anurag Priya

Katrathal (Rajasthan)
Counted among the ancient villages of Rajasthan, Katrathal dates back 5000 years to the Mahabharata era when it served as the capital of Kichak, army commander of King Virat of Matsya desa. Kichak was slain by Pandava Bhima for insulting Draupadi. The village also has an unusual cenotaph of Maharaja Budh Singh, a remarkable warrior who was beheaded in battle 25km away but legend recounts how his headless body fought its way back to Katrathal. A chhatri (cenotaph) marks the spot where his body fell. Yet the nondescript village’s has bragging rights as India’s largest producer of clay chillums (earthen pipes). Potters attribute it to Katrathal’s extraordinary mud. Experience the region’s rustic charm at Jor ki Dhani Godham, a 15-acre farmstay about 15km from Sikar on the Katrathal-Hardyalpura Road. Host Kan Singh Nirvan, an advocate of organic farming and healthy living, considers the desi gaai (country cow) as the focal point of his farmstay. Thanks to the germicidal and anti-bacterial properties of cow dung and urine, Kan Singh uses them in a self-concocted solution called jivamrit (organic nectar) for farming. In a small garden patch, rose bushes, papaya and musambi, prosper without being watered, deriving moisture and nutrients from a pit of organic waste. Stay in thatched huts with walls of aran, a medicinal plant eaten by goats and camels, which has therapeutic air-cooling properties. Enjoy farm-fresh milk, curd, buttermilk, white butter and ghee besides bajra (pearl millet) roti, pulses, vegetables and jaggery served on a traditional bajot (low stool). Ph +91-9875039977

IMG_6904 Samten Yongjhar Gompa prayer flags

Mechuka (Arunachal Pradesh)
The road from Aalo winds through the folds of Arunachal’s never-ending hills to finally reach a clearing surrounded by an amphitheatre of mountains – Shinjong, Damjen and Lola. This is Mechuka, named after the medicinal hot water springs in which locals take a therapeutic bath (men-medicine, chu-water, kha-open area). Site of India’s most remote airfield on the China border, one wakes up to the sound of bugles and bagpipes of the morning drill. The old gompa of Samden Yongjhar sits on a hillock overlooking the Yargyap River criss-crossed with lovely hanging bridges. 7km from Mechuka at Dorjeling, is the large clay idol of Jawa Jamboku, a manifestation of Lord Buddha as protector against demons, split across two floors as if straddling two worlds. Stay at Nehnang Guest House, locally known as Private I.B.

Melghat IMG_8601

Melghat (Maharashtra)
The rediscovery of the Forest Owlet in the forests of Melghat has brought international attention to this forested tract of Central India. Thought to be extinct for nearly 113 years and often confused for the more common spotted owlet, it was rediscovered in the foothills of the Satpura Range in November 1997 by American ornithologist Pamela C. Rasmussen. Though the park is a noted tiger reserve, birders flock to Melghat for a good sighting of the critically endangered bird. The small owlet can often be seen perched atop tall teak trees scouting for its prey. Stay at the MTDC hotel or Harshawardhan at Chikaldhara and visit the Gawilgarh fort, named after the Gawli (cowherds) who have inhabited the pastoral tracts of Berar (modern day Amravati) for centuries.

Mukhwa village IMG_8476

Mukhwa (Uttarakhand)
When the Gangotri temple closes for winter after Diwali, the idol of Ganga is shifted to a lower altitude. Mukhwa is the lesser-known winter seat of Gangotri. Stay at riverside tents in an apple grove at Leisure Hotel’s Char Dham Camp at Dharali and stroll across the bridge for a temple visit at Mukhwa and a view of Chandraparvat, Srikanth, Himvan and Bandarpoonch peaks. The village marks the Himalayan ascent of the Pandavas and locals eagerly guide you to the jharna (waterfall). It is believed that Bhima created the Bhim Ganga waterfall to quench the thirst of the Pandavas. Imprints on a rock are regarded as the hoofmarks Bhima’s horse en route to Mansarovar. Even today, cows and mules step into the same hoof prints while ambling up the mountain. The trail beyond leads to Danda Pokhri for views of Mount Sudarshan and Sumeru with other trails to Sat Tal and Kedarnath via Bhrigupanth. http://www.leisurehotels.co.in Ph 011-46520000

Narthamalai IMG_8643

Narthamalai (Tamil Nadu)
Just 25km from Trichy off the Pudukottai highway is a cluster of nine hills with some of the longest edicts and oldest rock cut cave temples in South India. What makes Narthamalai even more charming are its tarns – rainwater runoff from the rocky hills collect in natural cavities creating small ponds. On the southwest foot of Kadambar malai, facing a water-filled trench is the Kadamba Nayanar temple hewn into the hillock. To its right are two sets of inscriptions of Rajaraja I and Rajendra II inscribed on a specially prepared surface, comparable to Ashokan Rock Edicts. Nearby, shrines of Mangalambigai and Nagarisvaram stand apart on the rocky bed. At the other end of the village, a good 20 min hike up Mela malai leads past Thalayaruvi Singam Sunai, a green pool that has a rock-cut shrine, seen only when the water is drained. Peeping from behind the rocky incline is the turret of the Sivan kovil. The Vijayalayacholeswaran Temple towers above the facing Nandi, subsidiary shrines and fields below. Constructed in 9th century by Vijayalaya Chola, the first king of the Imperial Cholas, this temple is very important as it served as the prototype for the Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur. Snug against the mountain is the cave temple of Pathinen Boomi Vinnagaram or Thirumerkoil. Set on a platform with makaras, yalis, lions and elephants in the frieze, the highlight being a dozen near-identical bas-relief sculptures of Vishnu standing on lotus pedestals on the mukha mandapa wall. The adjacent cave shrine of Pazhiyileeswaram has a nandi and dwarapalas guarding the linga inside. The newly renovated Sangam Hotel in Trichy or Chidamabara Vilas near Tirumayam Fort, make ideal bases to cover Narthamalai. Ph 0431-4244555 http://www.sangamhotels.com

Tilari Goa rafting3

Tilari (Goa)
While white water rafting has recently taken off in Goa on the Mhadei River, it is largely a monsoon driven activity with a season lasting till October. But a new, relatively unknown haunt on the Goa Maharashtra border is being hailed by rafting pioneer John Pollard as ‘a cracking little rafting stretch with one of the most technical and steep sections run in South India.’ Located not far from the Tilari dam and backwaters near the border town of Dodamarg, the river technically falls in Maharashtra but enters Goa as the Chapora River. The 6km stretch has rapids of upto class 4 with a small gorge section that builds up to a real belting rapid called Wrecking Ball and obstacles like Rocky Garden, Kudashi Falls and Below the Bridge. The season lasts from October to Jan but being a dam released river, this year water might be released right up to May. The minimum age limit to raft is 15 yrs. Swimming is advisable but not a must. Rafters are trained thoroughly first and do various rescue drills. Small sporty rafts better suited to this steep technical river are used that seat 3 to 5 (unlike 8 or 9). Trips start at 10.00 am or 2.30 pm at Rs.2250/head. Ph 7387238866, 8805727230 http://www.goarafting.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 4 January 2015 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Deogarh: Escape to royalty

Standard

ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY indulge in the royal pleasures of Deogarh, a tiny fiefdom in Rajasthan with a fairy-tale castle, rugged forts, village jaunts and ancient cave shrines.

Image 

In another era, we would have ambled up the slope on an elephant’s back, swaying past bazaars before entering the regal gates of Deogarh Mahal. But given the century we found ourselves in, we resigned ourselves to the modest backseat of a taxi, secretly ruing that it wasn’t a vintage classic. The first thing that strikes you when you enter these precincts is its overwhelming grandness and antique appeal. Tons of stone and lime had been procured to create this massive ochre and white palace that served as the residence of Rawat Sangaji, great grandson of the legendary Chunda Sisodia, one of the 16 Umraos (feudal lords) of Mewar.

The history of Deogarh is inextricably linked to pride and honour. Story goes, when the powerful Rathors of Marwar consolidated their position by capturing the forts of Ajmer and Nagaur, they made Mandore their capital and decided to forge ties with the Sisodias of Mewar. Ranmal, fierce heir apparent to the Marwar throne came to Chittor with a wedding proposal. He hoped that the eligible heir to Mewar’s throne Chunda Sisodia, would agree to marry Rathor princess Hansabai. But destiny has its twists.

Image

Since Chunda Sisodia was away, his father, Rana Lakha joked that the proposal could not have been for an old man like himself. When Chundaji heard this, his bristling Rajput pride forbade him from accepting a bride ‘spurned’ by his father. To avert a revenge drama between the two clans, old Rana Lakha agreed to marry the young Hansabai, but on the condition that Chundaji abdicates the right to the throne. In true Bhisma style, Chunda Sisodia renounced his birthright, left Chittor and shaped a new dominion for himself in the lawless lands north.

We sailed past the old katcheri (court) and stepped through an impressive entrance decorated with wall murals of horses into the inner courtyard. Niches, windows and doors were beautified by scalloped arches while walls studded with decorative mirrors twinkled in silvery collages of floral and peacock themes… We threw our bags and were off to explore the palace.

Image

Stairways led up to bastions, balconies and pumpkin-shaped turrets in the terrace offering alluring views of the Aravallis. In an otherwise rugged corner of Rajasthan, Deogarh’s altitude (2100 ft) and location amidst lakes and forests made it comparatively cooler and a natural choice for a regal residence. A little gasp escaped our lips as we entered each room. True to its name Sheesh Mahal was a royal chamber adorned with mirrors and stained glass windows. Sunlight streamed in to impart a sparkling jewel-like radiance to the room. Named Ranjit Prakash, the room was dedicated to Ranjit Singhji (1847-1867) who oversaw the renovation of this section. His regal portrait adorned the bedroom wall.

The Maharana and Royal Suites opened in a profusion of low divans, cushions and carpets accentuated by stunning carved furniture, coloured glass and intricate mirror inlays with nature motifs and plush bathrooms; all of which added characteristic grandeur and enviable opulence. A maze of corridors led past rooms with themes from Lord Krishna’s life and the Mahabharata. A piazza displayed the royal marble throne while the Chitrashala or Artist’s wing showcased the distinct miniature painting style of Deogarh. A rear lattice screen looked like an uncanny prototype of the famous Hawa Mahal. Legend has it that Pratap Singh, younger son of Maharaja Madho Singh I of Jaipur and Princess Kundan Kunwar of Deogarh sought sanctuary here as a child, when his life was threatened by Jaipur’s scheming aristocracy. He built the Hawa Mahal in 1799 as a nostalgic reminder of his happy days in Deogarh.

Image

We learnt that the bathroom in Room 201 was once an open arched gallery for Bijay Singh ji (1900-1943), who loved to bathe thrice a day, pouring a hundred pitchers of water each time. It is said that when he went to attend his son Sangram Singh’s wedding in Bihar, the journey stretched to seven days because the train had to keep halting for his daily triple ablutions! Being the first Rawat who went to Europe, Bijay Singh was so enamoured by their trains that he installed railway-style sash windows and a matching washbasin in his bathroom!

The Chundawats have inherited some eccentricities that continue to infuse Deogarh with quirky irreverence. We noticed the tongue-in-cheek “Duck or Grouse” warning on low doors and the crazy signboards that we passed earlier, “London Raining, New York Snowing, Deogarh Fine Weather, Only 3 km”. With a treasure of around 30 cars, we were taken around the garage and introduced to the sturdy army trucks named Thapero, Dhamero and Bhachero (a pun on Pajero). A fancy Austin had been renovated into Car-o-Bar (a bar on wheels).

Image

It wasn’t long before we were summoned for an open-air supper on the terrace with wine and an arresting spread of Rajasthani fare. The kebab and tikka starters kept on coming until we realized our folly – we had forgotten to give the signal! Only after we removed the little flag carried by a tiny elephant curio on the table and put it horizontally in its trunk did we graduate to the main course!

The next day we set out on a rural ramble, preferring a jeep ride through the village instead of the horse carriage! We rolled past the busy bazaar and huts where women in colourful skirts and veils balanced columns of water pots on their heads with graceful ease, groups of old men in colourful turbans enjoyed their smoke and royal cenotaphs stood in quietude. We halted to watch a blindfolded ox merry-go-around a strange contraption; it was the traditional method of oil extraction from oilseeds. The blindfolds were to ensure the ox didn’t get dizzy!

Image

We headed towards Seengh Sagar, the erstwhile royal hunting lodge overlooking a lake, another family property 5km away. Gazing at an old map and the album that documented its renovation, we could only marvel at how the ruins of this lake fort had been transformed into a swish villa with a central courtyard entwined in creepers, a pool, open-air dining and three lavish bedrooms (named after musical ragas) with enticing bathrooms. Warm décor, silk furnishings, and attentive staff to take care of every need, Seengh Sagar blends luxury and solitude in the midst of nature. Another experience in the wilderness was the tented camp at Deogarh Khayyam. The woods are a haven for several species of birds and post-monsoon, the moats and lakes brim with water.

A trip to Deogarh wouldn’t be complete without visiting the desolate ruins of Anjana Fort and the Anjaneshwar Mahadev cave temple. According to Shatrunjai Singh, “Anjana in Rajasthan means a rock with a water hole, though most wrongly deduce that Lord Hanuman’s mother Anjana performed penance here.” Strangely, a huge rock near the entrance bore a bizarre resemblance to a monkey’s face! Shatrunjai ji explained “Sixteen maharajas have taken Samadhi in the fort… All of them lived as austere bramacharyas and were given the status of kings and permitted to keep elephants, a royal perk! Two were live samadhis; which means they could decide when to descend.” That was our cue to leave…

Image

We drove to the ancient cave shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva. A large step well signaled the 9th century temple tucked in the rocky hillside. We bent down to avoid the low ceiling studded with tiny bats to reach a wide inner chamber where a lone linga was decorated with flowers and statues of nandi nearby. Outside, it was dusk and the air was thick with the continuous twitter of birds flying to their nests. We clambered into the jeep once more to return to our palace for another night of royal pleasures. A buffet feast simmered on a long table as we supped to the tune of haunting folk songs on a moonlit night. After being royally pampered, we slipped under the quilted coverlet preparing ourselves for the heartbreak of returning to the humdrum of city life as commoners.

Getting There 
Located 135 km from Udaipur, Deogarh is strategically located near Kumbalgarh (85 km) and Ranakpur (100 km)

Deogarh Mahal
Deogarh Madaria Devgarh, Rajasthan 313331
Ph 9928834777 http://www.deogarhmahal.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 1 September 2013 in the Sunday supplement of Deccan Herald.