Travel and Places

A breezy summer holiday in Sakleshpur

Travel and Places

With coffee estates, lovely treks, waterfalls and encounters of the wild kind, Sakleshpur can surprise you. Do yourself a favour and go there right away.

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It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. One moment, we were chatting about heading back into the hills and the next moment, we had decided to go to Sakleshpur the next day. This is how we decide on most of our trips, because it goes with our personality (of not thinking and planning too much and leveraging the spontaneity of the moment). We had visited Fort Kochi as a family just three weeks ago (and I had packed in a solo trip to Madras/Chennai after that), but already, there was this strong itch to go away somewhere again.

So we set out Saturday morning by car. We have heard that the train route from Bangalore to Sakleshpur is also scenic, but we kept that for another time. Leaving home at 5 am (to avoid the traffic nightmare that invariably descends on this city as early as 6 am), we were in Nelamangala by 5:45. A brief stop for a cup of tea and we were on the move again. Reaching Chennarayapatna at about 8:30, we breakfasted at Adyar Ananda Bhavan (AAB). We’d have preferred a smaller outlet that was more ‘local’ in nature, but there was nothing like that for a long distance. And so, AAB it was.

When we set out again after this pit stop, it was 9 am. We breezed through Hassan, after which the road became a little narrower and rougher (but it was still reasonably good). We reached our guest house at exactly 10:30 am, 5 hours after we left home. It was a comfortable ride overall, and if you consider the two halts, I’d say we made good time.

Our guest house was nothing fancy; but, it was clean and comfortable, with excellent views of paddy fields on one side and a jungle on the other. I wondered about its fancy name (Butterstone River Valley), but forgot to ask the manager about it.

We checked in and lazed around for a while, stretching our cramped muscles and just settling down. An hour or so later, we walked over to a waterfall nearby. The leisurely ten-minute stroll took us past humble houses built in the Malnad style, piles of logs kept on the roadside (and to be used to make a fire later on, I guessed), coffee plantations and rough-hewn paths that led into the forest. It was good to be walking in the hills again– my mountain-loving soul was on song!

The small sign board said ‘Abbi Falls’, although the manager of our resort had called it ‘Habbi Falls’. Nothing much in the spelling, really. It is quite common to find different spellings of the same name in India, with one syllable more or less. One of the funny things about this country is that, with its varying languages and dialects, it is enough to be able to pronounce a name somewhat correctly – an approximation of sorts.

A short, but slippery descent through a mud path took us to the waterfall. We heard the sound of the water just before we turned the final bend and emerged from a clump of bushes. At first glance, it was nothing much; the water plunged about 25 feet after which it eddied for a bit amidst the rocks before forming a stream. But as we started moving towards the fall, we realized that the rocks and pebbles were slippery. Some tricky negotiation of this stretch and some Dutch courage took us to the point where the water was plunging down. It was then that I realized that the water was falling with considerable force, even though the height wasn’t much. We slipped into the water (cold and so refreshing) and stayed there awhile. Much kicking, splashing and squealing happened. After a time, I ventured past the water eddies and sat directly under the water’s flow. Fat drops of water now hit fell on my head and back directly, making me feel the force of the current anew. I emerged from the water curtain after about twenty minutes, feeling thoroughly refreshed and my skin tingling.

We then sat on the rocks for a long time, letting our clothes dry in the warm sun. The warmth of the sun was in contrast to the cool breeze – it was a feeling to be savoured. So far, we had had the place practically to ourselves, but now a small crowd arrived. We sat there, idly watching them, letting the breeze caress our bodies, listening to the sound of the insects in the forest, wondering at the continuous rush of the water….time just passed.

Finally, reluctantly, we dragged ourselves from that spot and trudged back to our resort for a hearty (and well earned) meal. Predictably, we felt heavy-lidded after lunch and crashed in our room for a couple of hours. Awaking in the late afternoon, we found some piping hot filter coffee waiting for us. I had forgotten all about coffee!Sakleshpur is coffee country, home to thousands of acres of coffee plantations. So no wonder we were being offered some fine coffee by the resort. A leisurely cuppa later, Shankar who works at the resort, offered to take us on a plantation walk.

The plantation was about 80 acres in size (small, as plantations go), but it was in the midst of a thick jungle. Our path was rocky at places and highly uneven, which meant that we really had to focus on it. At particularly steep stretches, I could feel my sinews stretching. I remember thinking that this was proving to be more of a trek and less of a plantation walk. Coffee had been planted in between a variety of native tree species, forming a thick jungle. As we hiked, Shankar pointed out coffee bushes and explained how coffee is grown. Apparently, it takes about a year for the coffee beans to sprout. Of the different kinds of coffee, Robusta and Arabica are the predominant varieties in Sakleshpur. They differ in taste and aroma. Sprinklers meant to water the bushes punctuated our trail.

We kept up a steady pace, trying to concentrate on both the tough trail and Shankar’s monologue. After about forty minutes of hiking, we stopped for a short breather. Silence enveloped us, broken only by our slightly ragged breathing. We took a few pictures of the scene. Charu (the wife), said ‘Oh, look. There is a bison.’ And when I turned to look, there indeed was a bison. About seven feet tall, he seemed to be gazing at us calmly. And we gazed back at him calmly. He was standing on the edge of the path, half inside the bushes, about twenty feet from us. But it was when Shankar saw the animal too that all hell broke loose. He just whispered ‘Run!’ at us, turned and matched action to word. Nonplussed by this unexpected turn of events, we stood rooted to the spot for a moment before Shankar’s feverish ‘Run (exclamation) reached our ears a second time. The blood gushed through our veins and we started running. Honestly, I should call it scrambling. We ran blindly for God knows how long. We ran back the way we had come, our minds a total blank – except for the fact that, by now, we had realized that the bison could be a very dangerous customer indeed, inspite of his benign expression.

I don’t know how far we ran, huffing and puffing. I had the extra task of holding on tightly to my DSLR, a task that suddenly seemed onerous. My legs felt like chunks of lead and my lungs were on fire. As we ran, I was haunted by the thought that any moment now, the bison could gore us into the ground from behind. And finally, when we felt we couldn’t run an inch more, we stopped. The silence and calm around us was in shocking contrast to the turmoil in our heads. As our breathing returned to normal, we started walking slowly. Shankar assured us that we were out of danger now.

Reaching our guest house, the first thing I did was to imbibe some stuff far stronger than coffee. God knows I needed it. As I sat on our porch afterwards, I thought back to the experience. Somehow, it felt unreal. But the fear and exhilaration coursing through my mind were telling me that it had been all too real.

We sat on the porch for the rest of the evening, reading, chatting and enjoying views of the now-golden paddy fields. Dinner was a subdued affair, because we were happily tired.

We set out early the next morning, after some more of that wonderful filter coffee. We drove about 10 kms from the resort, parked the car and then trekked up to a peak that was perhaps a kilometer away. This and two other peaks that were close by, we together called Byreshwar Gudda (‘gudda’ means peak in Kannada). The name is actually that of the deity of a small temple close to where we had parked our car. Byreshwar is a common deity in Karnataka, and an incarnation of Lord Shiva. The peak was open on three sides, offering us a stunning, 300 degree view of the valley and the ranges yonder. Behind us, a steep path rose up to another cliff.We were there for a long time, taking pictures, enjoying the view and lying down on the moist grass. A wind was gusting and the sun was slowly warming up to the day ahead. Shankar pointed out an elephant corridor in the distance. Places like this shoo away all thoughts from your mind and compel you to live in just that moment. Looking up, I badly wanted to gather the deep blue sky in my arms.

We spent an hour on the peak, before carefully picking our way down. As we were walking, a small stone temple hove into view. This was the temple that has given the peak its name – Byreshwara Devasthana. Local legend says that the Pandavas built it and dedicated it to Lord Shiva as part of their prayers to the yogi God. Such legends abound in a country like India. There is no way one can verify them. And so, the best one can do is to take the legend at face value. And before you know it, the place automatically acquires a sense of history and atmosphere. Inspite of the plain stonework, the temple looked elegant. The still-soft sunrays formed a halo around the temple crest. The design of the crest looked unique to me – fashioned into a nine-step arrangement, it was like nothing I had seen in any other temple.

We drove back to our resort in silence, our minds stilled by the lovely experiences of the morning. Breakfast was a simple but tasty affair, comprising spicy sevai (rice vermicelli), akki roti and coconut-garlic chutney. We chased down the meal with tumblerfulls of – what else? – filter coffee. We then had a quick bath and checked out of the resort. In leaving, I managed to buy some coffee powder from the manager of the resort. The powder had been sourced from their own estate, the one we had walked in the previous evening.

Driving back to Mangalore Road, we stopped at Manzarabad Fort – our last halt of the trip. It seems that outside the Sakleshpur region, hardly anybody knows about this fort. And yet, it is a thing of beauty, tucked away amidst forests and coffee estates. We had to park the car on the main road and go the rest of the way on foot. Steps with a railing have been laid to make the climb slightly easier for people. We counted 255 steps from bottom to top in what was a short, but steep climb.

As forts go, this one is small. Its visual attraction is that it is built in the shape of a star, though I realized that you’d have to view it from a helicopter to make out that shape. This fort was extremely important to Tipu Sultan, because it helped him guard the ghat ranges in this part of Mysore Province, of which he was the ruler. At that time, he had to fight continual battles with the British, the Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad. Like other old forts in many parts of India, this one too is in reasonably good shape (it was built in 1792).

We walked past the old garrison, peeped into dark chambers and admired the step-well built right in the middle. Bending and walking through a narrow passage, we emerged inside a watch tower. This must have been where soldiers would have stood centuries ago, guns at the ready, not knowing when the enemy would attack them. The broken ramparts of the fort gave us a sweeping view of the surrounding hills.

Our drive back to Bangalore was smooth. We made it home in exactly five hours (including a halt for lunch at Kamat Restaurant near Channarayapatna). As we sat sipping ginger tea at home, we thought back to the lovely place we had left behind and started making plans to return there.

 

Sakleshpur – fact file

  • The Sakleshpur region is about 4000-4500 feet above sea level. Situated on the Bangalore-Mangalore route, it takes a running time of 4 hours by train or car.
  • Apart from coffee, pepper and cardamom are also grown here. The salubrious climate makes it good for growing spices.
  • Sakleshpur forms part of Malnad, a socio-cultural name given to this part of Karnataka. The word ‘Malnad’ comes from ‘maley naadu, which means ‘hill country’ in Kannada. Houses in this region are characterized by sloping roofs clad in elegant brown tiles and a colonnaded porch for people to relax in.
  • By and large, this area is unknown to people living outside Karnataka. As of now, most tourists to Sakleshpur come from Bangalore.
  • Other than tiny, dubious-looking eateries, there aren’t many good options on this route. It is therefore best to stop at Adyar Ananda Bhavan in Chennarayapatna. Though overpriced, the food is very good. Kamat Restaurant, diagonally opposite Adyar Ananda Bhavan, is really not worth it.
  • We stayed at the Butterstone River Valley, a guest house that is about 24 kms from Sakleshpur town (where incidentally, you can buy essentials and tank up).
  • A quick sidenote about this guest house: it is good for those who want a simple, no-frills place which just lets you hang out with friends and indulge in a few team activities. You can play badminton, volleyball and mud volleyball. There is a rustic ‘swimming pool’ too (by that, I mean a tank where you can dunk youself). You get authentic Malnad breakfast, but the cooks lose their way at lunch and dinner. If you want superb all-day food, a wide menu, personalized service, a well-appointed room and the trimmings of a real resort, this place won’t cut it.
  • When we went there (April 2017), this region did not have luxury resorts. Look for a good homestay that offers you scenic views, local cuisine and superb filter coffee.

When you leave, buy some coffee powder. Buying close to source will mean that you will get excellent quality at a good price. Ask the manager of the guest house for help in this regard.

 

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Luxury by the sea – a review of Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel, Fort Kochi.

Travel and Places

 

Picture this. A British engineer is brought to India from London, on the express commission of building the Cochin port. This man accomplishes this task with the help of a large team that includes native Indians. Over the years, he makes Cochin a port to reckon with. With the arrival of the port, the railways too came to the area (the imported goods had to be carted away from the port, right?), and the Cochin Harbour Terminus was established in neighbouring Willingdon Island. The engineer is lauded by none less than Lord Willingdon, the then Governor of Madras and is decorated by the Queen.

In 1928, this man, who answers to the name, Robert Bristow, builds a sprawling mansion for himself by the sea and lives there until his return to Britain in 1941. The parcel of land he picks offers choice views of the untamed sea, of boats and ships passing by and of glorious sunrises and sunsets. But it has something more than all this too – a piece of maritime history. Because on this very same plot of land stood the old Cochin lighthouse, the guiding lamp for ships passing through the bay.

Fast forward by ninety years. The bungalow by the sea is now the Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel, a boutique hotel. A couple of sit-outs with awnings, a lawn, a swimming pool and two rooms have been added to the compound. Modern fixtures have been fitted too. But the core of the mansion remains as it was all those years ago. The wooden floors and stairs, the large wood-framed windows, solid wooden doors and tiled roofs are all there and in superb nick.

 

We stayed at this hotel for three days recently. We were treating ourselves on the tenth anniversary of our hitched life. Sitting on the terrace that gives on to the sea, I remember thinking that ‘hitched’ would be a wrong word to describe our married life. On the contrary, ‘liberated’ would be the apt word, because I found my soul mate in my wife. Someone who shares my love for life and believes in letting me live the way I want to, rather than imposing ifs and buts on me. I really started leading an unfettered life only after I came to know her.

 

 

We are given the only room in the hotel that has a private terrace. I look at the nameplate outside the room (The Bristow Suite) and realize that this is the same room that Robert Bristow used to occupy all those years ago. Apart from the terrace, the suite has a spacious room and a roomy bathroom. Most of the furniture has an antique look, right down to the brass dial telephone in which the earpiece and mouthpiece are different. This instrument is the source of much excitement to us over the three days, with each one of us taking turns to make calls on it. If the hotel staff are surprised to find so many calls coming from our room, they do not show it.

 

 

 

Our typical day was like this. We wake up at about seven and settle down in the terrace with a cup of tea to watch the sky come alive. The sea breeze caresses our faces as we drink in the sights and sounds. On the tiny beach next door, people are already riding the waves. Our cuppa over, we head over to the beach for our own share of frolicking. An hour later, we tramp back to the hotel, totally drenched and with sand all over. A large grin is plastered on our faces. We wash off the sand (but not the grin) at the outdoor shower, change clothes quickly in our room and come down for some much-needed food.

 

Breakfast is sumptuous, with a few Continental and Indian dishes on the menu. Apart from cornflakes, fruits, a variety of fresh juices, toast and eggs, there are a few Keralan dishes on offer. We see a changing menu of dosas, idlis, uppuma, puttu and appams, with chutney, sambar, vegetable stew, kadala curry and peas curry to go with them. Over the next hour and a half, there is total silence at our table, as we treat the food with the devotion it deserves. Sitting back with a belch and a contented sigh, we move on to a cup of hot South Indian filter coffee. In between all this, we chat with the genial wait staff, gleaning details about their life, the hotel, the town and sundry other things. They are hardworking people who help a lot in giving us a great experience.

 

 

 

We then drag ourselves out of the hotel for a bit of exploration. If we take in the little-known Indo-Portuguese Museum and the St. Francis Church one day, we visit the Vasco da Gama Square and the quaint little streets around it the next. One morning, we take off to explore Vypeen island and the beach in the tiny hamlet of Cherai (separate pieces on all this to come soon on the blog). Later, we down a beer somewhere and lunch at a sidewalk café or a thattu kada (mobile food vending stalls that serve authentic local food in Kerala) before returning to the hotel for a snooze.

 

Late afternoon finds us in the lovely pool, letting the water cool down our heated bodies. Afterwards, we lie back on the deck chairs and read awhile.

 

 

Come evening, we take a table on the sea-facing lawn and gaze out at the churning waters. Over the three days, we got used to seeing boats big and small, and ships so massive, your jaw’d drop. Some banter with fellow-guests follows. And soon, the great orange disc in the sky starts dipping towards the sea. There are few sights in the whole world that rival a sunset in sheer beauty and simplicity. Even a sunrise pales in comparison, I think. Words seem not just out of place, but positively intrusive at this time. A cloak of silence invariably descends, as all the guests and even the hotel staff submit to the mesmeric beauty of the moment. Slowly, we watch the fireball inch its way towards the great waters on the horizon. And then, finally, it touches the sea and melts into it.

 

 

We wend our way to our room and take our place on the terrace. Uncorking the bottles, we sit down to enjoy a few drinks. Sometimes, we talk. At other times, we fall silent. The mind wanders into fresh pastures. A pleasurable hour or so later, it is time for dinner. We choose one of the lovely cafes that are housed in bungalows nearby. Bungalows that are at least two hundred years old; some built during the Portuguese rule, some during the British time. In all of them, you can see colonial architectural influences beautifully merging with the native style of Kerala.

 

 

Returning to the hotel, we read or star-gaze on the terrace. A few guests are dining on the lawn below, their conversation punctuating the silence. Gradually, the neighbourhood falls silent. The diners go back to their rooms. The last revellers leave the beach and go home. After that, it is just the sea, the breeze, the swaying trees, the moon, the stars and us. And then, late into the night, very, very reluctantly, we leave the terrace and get back into the cozy room. Tonight, will it be the four-poster queen-sized bed or the bay window that is wide enough and comfortable enough to sleep on?

As we hit the sack, there is a sense of peace and quiet satisfaction. It has been a wonderful day. Lazy, yet productive. And sooner than later, we surrender to blissful sleep. A glorious tomorrow awaits us.

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P.S. I doff my hat to the management and staff at The Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel for giving us a supremely memorable stay there. The room, the property, the food and the service were all first-rate.

We paid for the room and food. Our stay was not sponsored by the hotel or any other company/person.

Hotel fact file

  • The hotel is located on Beach Road, near the INS Dronacharya naval base. Most locals in Fort Kochi know it as the ‘old lighthouse bungalow’. For more details, visit the hotel’s website: http://oldlighthousehotel.com/
  • From Kochi airport, you can take a taxi to Fort Kochi and then ask for the hotel. From Ernakulam railway station, you can either hop into an auto (anywhere between Rs. 150 and 400, depending upon your bargaining skills, the mood of the auto driver and whether or not there is a bandh on that day), take a bus (Rs. 10 or thereabouts for a pleasant ride) or take the ferry (ask someone for the ferry to Fort Kochi; fare in single digits.)
  • Depending upon what kind of room you choose and the season, the tariff is upwards of Rs. 7000/- per night, including breakfast. Taxes extra. For the exact tariff, contact the hotel through the website.
  • The hotel is child-friendly. We took our six year old brat along and he had a great time too.
  • The food here can be termed ‘bland’ by Indian standards. So, if you like your food spicy, request the staff to up the ante while placing your order.
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A veggie’s guide to Lucknow’s signature dishes

Travel and Places

Lucknow. Even if you are not part of the regular travelling set, chances are that you would have heard of this city. After all, it is one of the most feted cities on the historical and cultural map of India. There are hundreds of accounts out there that extol the glory of this city. Lucknow was founded by Kanishk Gupta. Though it came under the heel of several dynasties over the centuries, it most popularly known as the ‘Nawabon ka shahar’ – the city of Nawabs, erstwhile rulers of the kingdom of Awadh (the Brits pronounced it ‘Oudh’). The Nawabs lorded over Awadh during the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of the heritage structures (palaces, tombs, mosques, mansions, clock tower, city gates and mourning houses) you see in the city today date back to that period.

The Nawabs were hedonists. It is well known that they had a large appetite for wine, women and song. I like to call this ‘sharab, shabab and rabab’ in Hindustani, the local language of Lucknow. To this, I’d add another word ‘kabab’ (a mutton-based delicacy, but also a larger metaphor for food itself) to complete the description. It would be spot on to say that ‘sharab, shabab, rabab and kabab’ captures the long-held worldview of many of the city’s denizens.

Most articles on the food in Lucknow make it out to be a city for the carnivores. Ask someone what food this Nawabi city is famous for and pat comes the reply ‘Kababs and biryani.’ A few others will perhaps add ‘sheermal and korma’. Except sheermal, all these are meat preparations.

What is not mentioned with equal fervor though, is the lesser-known fact that the city is a haven for vegetarians also. Over a few visits to the city in the last decade, I have sampled the best vegetarian fare that this city has to offer. Which is why I thought a guide like this will help others who visit the city.

When you are in Lucknow next, don’t forget to dig into these. Please note that you do get other vegetarian dishes too in Lucknow – including regular North Indian staples. The list here only mentions my favourites from among the signature dishes of this wonderful city. Also, the list of eateries I have recommended is by no means exhaustive.

So, here goes.

 

Tokri Chaat: Tokri means ‘basket’ in Hindi. So, this is literally chaat that is placed inside a basket. But, wait. It’s not what you think – not a wicker basket. It is an edible basket that is stuffed with chaat. So, you gorge on the chaat and finally, gobble up the basket too. This dish is more of a packaging innovation, to put it in Marketing parlance, because the ingredients are those you’d find in a regular chaat all over North India – diced potatoes, imli (tamarind) chutney, dhaniya/pudina ki chutney (chutney made of coriander or mint leaves), dahi (curd), etc. Still, there is some novelty here and it does taste good. What’s more, it is quite filling, too.

Where? Royal Café, Hazratganj; Madhur Milan near Hanuman Mandir in Aminabad.

 

Tokri chaat

 

The messier, the better. Curd and pudina chutney overflowing the edible ‘tokri’.

 

Tokris awaiting their turn. They are kept on a large griddle to keep them warm until their time comes.

 

Matar ki tikki 

Tikki (flattened patties) is a common enough dish all over North India. But in most places, they are made out of aloo (mashed potato). Lucknow though, offers up an interesting variant of this streetside dish – the mattar tikki. This is a spicy patty made from a mixture of mashed green peas, potatoes, green chillies and spices. The patty is shallow fried in a pool of oil on a large tawa (griddle) until the edge and both sides turn crisp and golden-brown. The inside however, remains soft. The crisp and soft contrast works wonders on your tastebuds. Best eaten with pudina (mint) or dhaniya (coriander) chutney and a sweet-and-sour chutney made from jaggery and tamarind.

Where? Shukla Chaat House, Hazratganj; Ram Narayan Tiwari & Sons, Aminabad.

 

Yeh tikki hain yaa tower? (Are these tikkis or towers?)

Mattar ki tikkis on the griddle at Shukla Chaat House.

 

Sharing space with tokris, aloo tikkis and other snacks.

 

Tahiri – this is a wondrously flavourful rice dish made with seasonal vegetables and masalas. For want of a better description, you can think of it as a vegetarian counter to the biryani. Try peeping into the history of this dish and you might lose your bearings in no time. Legends abound. One of them goes that the Nawabs of Awadh wanted a meatless equivalent of the biryani (Nawabs and meatless? Go figure.), which is why they had their cooks create Tahiri. Another tale says that it actually originated from Hyderabad (though these days, one can find hardly any trace of this dish in the city of the Charminar ). According to yet another, Tahiri is a descendent of the pulao.

In any case, one whiff of fragrance from this dish will dismiss all thoughts about its genesis and history and make you drool.

The Tahiri I have had in Lucknow came with perfectly cooked long-grained Basmati, with a mix of cauliflower, sliced carrots, green peas and chunks of potato, all of which were first shallow-fried in butter. The secret to its flavor and taste though is the fine blend of hand-ground spices made afresh every day. Cardamom, turmeric, ginger, bay leaf, black pepper corns, cumin seeds, garlic and ginger come together to unleash magic on your palate.

No wonder then, that on each trip to this city, I must the Tahiri at least once.

Where? Heritage Hotel, Charbagh. There definitely will be other outlets in town serving this dish, even though I have tasted it only at Hotel Heritage. Ask the locals and they will guide you.

 

Tahiri, served with thick onion raita and mango pickle. Just before I waded into it.

 

Poori-aloo Without question, this is one of the most popular breakfast dishes in the eateries of Lucknow. Why, some of the joints start serving it from as early as six am and keep it up till about eleven. Some others serve it through the day.

A paste of green chillies, ginger, asafoetida, cumin seeds and curd is mixed with wheat flour to prepare the dough for these pooris. The dough is rolled into small balls, which are flattened and fried in a deep pan. And out come crisp, mildly spicy, mildly tangy pooris. These are eaten with a gravy-based potato curry, a spicy chickpea curry and sometimes, pickle too.

Pooris are slightly high on oil, but don’t let that stop you. After all, you will not find this particular taste in many other places.

Where? Ratti Lal’s in Lalbagh.

 

Pooris, aloo ki subzi, chholey and mixed vegetable pickle.

Paan

In most parts of North India, this is the dessert to end all desserts, though it is officially not classified as ‘dessert’. It is made by wrapping a few leaves of the betel vine around areca nuts and slaked lime. You can ask the paanwaala to add tobacco to this mixture for an added bite. You’ll find locals idling in the shade, chewing paan after a hearty meal. One theory goes that the juice of the areca nuts that are wrapped inside the paan leaves has digestive properties. Though this claim is contested by some people, what is not contested by anybody is the fact that paan gives you a mild high.

If you have a sweet tooth, the meetha paan (sweet paan) may be just the thing for you.

 Where? Tiny paan shops all over the city. Just look around from anywhere and chances are, you will spot one.

 

The famed paan. Pop it into your mouth and get ready for a pungent taste and a burst of flavours.

Thandai

The food you get in Lucknow is – let’s face it – as oily and spicy as it is delicious. Add to it, the hot and humid weather of the city. And so, you are going to need a refreshing liquid every now and then. A liquid that keeps you cool and helps you continue eating and exploring. And that liquid answers to the name of ‘thandai’. Eat, drink, explore, eat, drink, explore….that’s the mantra. ‘Thandai’ is a good name for this drink, given that the word means ‘cold’

‘Thandai’ translates to ‘coolness’ in Hindi. And the drink delivers on that promise, straight and simple. It is an off-white, frothy concoction made from an intriguing mixture of ingredients: almonds, fennel seeds, watermelon kernel, rose petals, pepper, white poppy seeds, cardamom, saffron, milk and sugar. There is no fixed recipe for this drink, each joint feeling free to add its own twist to the concoction. Which makes it all the more intriguing.
Where? Raja ki Thandai, a small shop in the Chowk market. It has been around for several decades. It comes in two sizes: regular (chota) and large (bada).

Psst – for a dose of intoxication, ask him for the bhaang thandai, infused with cannabis.

 

Sweet, frothy thandai waiting to be downed.

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Chasing the ruins.

Travel and Places

 

It was a Sunday like any other. But a run like no other.

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It is 6:30 am on a cool Sunday morning. I take a deep breath and look around. I see a hundred other souls like me, most of them kitted out in T-Shirts, track pants or shorts and shoes. Some of them look bleary-eyed, but the rest are on their toes already, limbering up for the run that is about to start. The place is mostly dark, but the area where we have assembled is awash with light.

The MC is on stage, talking about the run – how this run route is different from conventional routes, what to do after the run is over, etc. She then takes the assembled crowd through a basic warm-up exercises. Most people seem to be in their twenties, thirties or forties. But, I spot a few senior citizens too. One lady in particular catches my eye. She seems to be in her seventies, a little frail and slightly bent with age. She is wearing a saree, but her feet are shod in running shoes. She is accompanied by a couple of much younger people – her grandchildren, perhaps? I salute her spirit inwardly as I do my stretches.

And then, it is time. All of us move to the starting point, where a chorus of girls starts an enthusiastic (and screechy) countdown. …4,3,2,1….and GO.

Slowly, like vehicles responding to the changing traffic signal in a city, we start moving. One foot in front of the other, nudging, weaving, avoiding other feet. The crowd, which initially moved as a single block of humanity, starts breaking up a little distance ahead, as the runners start hitting their stride. The first flush of pink dusts the horizon.

 

 

The more serious runners take off at a reasonably high speed, leaving the rest of us behind. Many others (the in-betweens) are running more leisurely. And bringing up the rear are the laggards, including yours truly. Honestly, I am not here to run a timed race, eager to better my previous best and put my fitness to the test. I am treating this more like a pyjama party. And I have dressed the part too – in blue-and-white checked pyjamas, a regular T-shirt and a pair of very frayed walking shoes. What’s more, I am going to run with my camera in hand; probably the only person here who will do so!

My main agenda in coming on this run is to catch this beautiful place at a very early hour in the morning, see some of the parts that I did not see in my previous visit here and take some photos in the soft daylight. This is something I have always wanted to do, but I am hoping that the tag of a ‘run’ and the presence of a few hundred other people will motivate me to get off the starting blocks so early in the morning.

After all, it is not often that you get a chance to run through the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hampi, taking in the beauty of its medieval ruins in the first light of the day.

I shuffle my feet and trot slowly round the first bend in the route, saluting Lord Virupaksha who is on my right. Even at this early hour, the temple is thronged by several devotees and tourists. By the time I climb the incline next to Kadalekallu Ganesha, I am huffing mildly. I stop and take a couple of photos of this small shrine, as the first rays of the sun fall on it. I marvel that it is so well preserved, inspite of being 500 years old. The slim stone pillars contain carvings that depict day-to-day life from those times.

 

From here, the run route hangs a left and then a right, taking you past the Krishna Temple (also built in the 16th century).  The rising sun lights up the temple’s finely-carved entrance. It seems to be in fine fettle, considering its vintage, though some restoration work is going on. Historians believe that an idol of Balakrishna was brought from Orissa and enshrined here. Across the road from the temple, the long, multi-pillared pavilion of Krishna Bazaar makes for a dramatic vista. I simply have to stop again to take in the beautiful scene. Those days, Krishna Bazaar was the groceries market. I am to learn later that Hampi had many such bazaars – including, unbelievably, a paan supari bazaar. As other runners breeze past me, I shoot a few frames of the temple and bazaar. I don’t know how long I stand there, thinking back to the time when this place must have been teeming with people. I wonder if they too haggled with sellers, like their modern-day argumentative descendants.

 

 

 

Next, I come upon the small, yet beautiful Chandikeshwara Temple. The animals (they seem to be lions) carved into the pillars of this temple look splendid in the soft light of the morning. The inner parts of the temple are in deep shade, but I can make out long cracks in the structure at various places. This temple is unusual, because it is one of the few in India that is dedicated to a form of Vishnu called Tiruvengalanatha. I take a few snaps and move on.

 

 

 

 

At the next bend lies another small temple with whitewashed walls – the Uddana Virabhadra temple. The whitewash is uncharacteristic of Hampi (where almost all the old structures are made of granite) and so, gives the temple a distinctive appearance.

 

A short distance ahead, the road passes under a stone gateway. Running under it, I emerge on the side and almost stop in my tracks when I spot several lush, green plantain trees. In fact, a whole grove of them. I am pleasantly surprised. I had never imagined finding even a patch of greenery here, in this ancient capital of the Vijayanagara empire. I wonder why all the photographs of this place show only large boulders and ruins of stone structures.

 

 

As I run, I keep sighting boulders and the ruins of centuries-old structures on both sides of the road. Many of these fabulous structures were ravaged by Muslim marauders of the time (such as the Bijapur Sultans); the rest have been eaten away by time and the elements. I wonder how beautiful these monuments would have looked in their full glory. I feel sad as I think of the destruction wrought on such beautiful works of art. As things stand, we are left to gaze at their ruins and find beauty in their decay.

I rememeber thinking at this point that Hampi perhaps has the distinction of having the maximum density of ruins and boulders per square kilometer in the world.  ‘More history per square inch’ will make a good tagline for this place.

 

 

By now, my run has turned into a full-blown quest for ruins. Though I have been here once before (a few years ago), I did not visit some of these parts back then. And so, I am full with a sense of discovery.

Unlike the other runners who are focused on the road, I keep looking to my left and right. I don’t want to miss the beauty of the route, you see? My mind is like a sponge, soaking in the sights and sounds I encounter along the way. Running with the camera does slow me down a little, but I don’t mind. I see a few other runners raise an eyebrow on spotting my camera and then smile broadly, as understanding dawns.

A short distance ahead lies another shrine – this one dedicated to Lord Anjaneya. Finding an ascetic at this shrine of the monkey god, I stop to have a few words with him. He tells me that this particular Anjaneya is believed to be all-powerful. ‘Pray here and your wish will definitely be granted.’ he tells me in Kannada. He graciously allows me to take his photograph before going his way.

 

 

This stretch of the run route is flanked by paddy fields, with the rice paddies growing to more than six feet. I am huffing again, and so, stop at a culvert to catch my breath. A small stream rushes by at the culvert. I take in the fresh air and marvel at the lushness and serenity of the place.

Soon after I resume running, I come upon a fork in the road. The right turn leads to Hospet (and seeing how desolate it is, it seems to be the road less taken), while the road ahead is the run route, going towards Kamalapur. Bang at the fork, a motorcycle is parked with a policeman sitting astride it. I wave at him and say ‘Namaskara, sir’ and he waves back. As I continue running, I spot a woman, a man and a boy walking together ahead of me. The lady is goading the little man to keep running. I catch up with them and say ‘hi’. The boy, all of six years old, is wearing a T-shirt that proclaims him to be ‘Adi’. Along with him are his mom and uncle. Apparently, his dad and aunt are running the 12 km stretch. I do my bit to motivate Adi to resume running – ‘Look, you have been ahead of even me so far. And if you keep running, you can beat me to the finish!’ After some nudging and cajoling, he resumes jogging. I mentally doff my hat at the child, who is sportingly running 5 kms over undulating and unfamiliar terrain. Talk of getting out of one’s comfort zone.

 

I want to run along with Adi, but I can’t. I have just spotted something intriguing and must know what it is. I see a cluster of stone slabs to my left. A closer look reveals that they are a set of roofs in the middle of a patch of green. I walk around the fenced area and find a small gate. Entering, I find steps going down to a temple. A board proclaims the site as that of a Shiva temple, lying totally underground. It is easy to miss this temple from the road, if you don’t look carefully or didn’t know about it already. This temple is sunk about 15 feet below ground level. Inscriptions found in the temple refer to it as the ‘Prasanna Virupaksha temple’, seven hundred years old. King Krishnadevaraya is said to have donated a lot of money to this temple at the time of his coronration. Today though, many pillars have fallen and stones dislodged. The walls are cracked and the corners, chipped. And yet, the temple is strangely beautiful. I can see that the halls, pavilions and sanctum sanctorum have been crafted with great love and skill.

 

 

I spend about 10 minutes taking in the place, before I run on. I am now on an upward incline on the road. To my right is what the locals refer as the ‘akka thangi gudda’ (‘Sisters boulders’ in English), a couple of mammoth boulders that seem to be conjoined at the head. Across the road from me, I spot two runners on the return leg of the run. Thinking that I am losing steam, they dole out some pep talk. ‘Don’t lose heart, buddy. Keep going. You are nearly there.’ says one of them.  ‘You don’t know the half of it’, I mumble, but smile back at the well-meaning gesture.

 

 

 

Cresting the incline and turning a sharp bend on the road, I see that I have reached the turn-back point. The half-way mark on the run. A few other runners are clustered here, helping themselves to the bananas and biscuits that have been laid out on tables. A volunteer is serving water. I can see smiles of relief and relaxed faces. They must all be happy that at least half the distance has been covered.

 

 

I suddenly realize that I am famished, and wolf down a couple of bananas and a few biscuits. As I am making small talk with the volunteers, Adi, his mom and his uncle also join us. A few minutes later, it is time to start my return journey. This leg of the run is quicker, because I don’t stop to click photos. Curiously however, it also seems easier than the first half. Almost before I realize it, I spot the Virupaksha Temple and a few minutes later, I am at Hampi Bazaar, the starting and finishing point.

 

 

 

 

Rajesh, my friend, has finished ahead of me and is waiting for me here. The place is teeming with people again, many of them clicking the mandatory selfies. I move to a quieter place, take several deep breaths and look back on the run – the sunrise, the beautiful ruins, the greenery, the ascetic, the underground temple. I have seen some parts of Hampi that I missed on my earlier trip to this place.

Physically, I am a little tired, but mentally I am fully refreshed. It feels like I have done myself a favour by participating in this run.

 

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The Lighthouse Effect

Travel and Places

I have a thing for the past. And the ‘paster’, the better. Events, buildings, houses, towns, things, people, stories….anything. In my travels, I often visit places that have a strong hangover of the past. In a country like India especially, it is easy to find such places because they are practically everywhere. There, I find myself spending hours browsing antiquities, looking up old bookstores, gazing at old mansions and forts…even seeking out old people with faces crinkled like walnuts to chat with.

Why is this so? For one, because there is simply so much beauty, grandeur and harmony in things from the past. Most things from the olden days have an exquisite design aesthetic, a robustness and a caliber of craftsmanship that is difficult to find these days. But also, the past reminds us of our roots, our beginnings and the paths we have trodden to come this far. The living remnants and accounts of the past tell us of another way of life, another worldview altogether. They tell us about how we had thought, spoken, acted at one point of time. And if you aggregate these remnants and accounts, you get a cumulative view of the history of mankind. After all, all that we have today has been built on the past (often, on the debris of the past).

But, of all things that embody another time, the one that moves me the most is the lighthouse (again, the older, the better). No curio, no fort, no ancient temple or mosque comes even close to it. From the minute I clap my eyes on a lighthouse, I itch to explore it – even touch and feel it. Even if I spot one from afar (say, from a bus or train), my gaze remains locked on it till it fades out of view.

 

 

The lighthouse instantly calls to mind the several generations of seafarers, for whom the sea was the only way to travel to far-flung places. These were the bravest travelers of all time, foraying into uncharted waters and finding unmapped lands. Braving extreme weather conditions, illness and frequent paucity of resources, they managed to go where nobody else had gone before them.

For them, lighthouses were crucial navigational guides, like lamp posts in the sea. And often, the presence of a lighthouse made the difference between life and death to them. In that sense, they were one of the earliest friends of travelers.

 

 

All these thoughts rush through my mind whenever I see a lighthouse. I have seen several of them over the years – in Daman, Kannur, Vypeen, Vizhinjam, Chennai, Galle (Sri Lanka) and other places. And the effect they have on me hasn’t changed over the years – if anything, it has only intensified.

As soon as I arrive at a seaside town, I enquire about lighthouses. And, if I find that there is one in those parts, I invariably end up visiting it. I enjoy rooting about their base, looking for identification marks (like inscriptions and metal plates) that can help me anchor them in a specific time period. I then sit down on a rampart or rocky coastline next to it for a while, gazing into the sea. If I find the caretaker of the lighthouse, I spend a few minutes with him in delightful conversation.

 

 

 

But what exactly I see in a lighthouse also depends upon my mood-of-the-moment. When I am in a deeply reflective mood, I think of what would have happened, had there never been lighthouses in history. That would surely have set back our progress and our understanding of the world by a few centuries.  When I feel buoyant, I see it as a beacon of hope and safety – a pathfinder and a sanctuary. When I am feeling a little low, I can’t help thinking of it as an extremely desolate place, eyes eternally cast over an equally desolate sea that is vast and unchanging over millions of years. At those moments, I am invariably reminded of a short story called ‘The Foghorn’, that I read in school. ‘The great deep cry of our foghorn shuddering through the rags of mist…’ and the answering call of the creature of the sea, deep-throated in its loneliness are forever etched in my memory.

No matter what my mood, lighthouses have left an indelible impression on me. In my book of travels, they occupy a very special place.

What effect does a lighthouse have on you?

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Life on the edge

Travel and Places

They say life on the edge is always exciting. Even exhilarating. Laced with fear. For a long time I wondered what living on the edge was all about. Though I could half-understand what kind of emotions they were talking about, I couldn’t picture them properly…couldn’t imagine their extent & depth. The rush that they were talking about.

All that changed the moment I stood at the door of a speeding train for the first time. I don’t clearly remember when, but it must have been during one of my journeys home when I was in college in Trissur. I joined college 11 years ago, so I’m talking about a long time back. We used to go home once in maybe six months. And it invariably used to be a group affair – 3 or 4 of us rocking & rolling all the way! So you can imagine the racket we would make.

And at that age, standing at the door is de riguer. It is even better if you are a smoker. You could then light up standing right at the edge of the door, taking care not to hold on to the bar. Then you would lean back against the door with a nonchalant air and smoke away…..stick after stick. Of course, you would vary your pose once in a while if there were nubile young things around.

Thankfully, I didn’t suffer from such impulses. Plus, the fact that I didn’t smoke somewhat made me a non-starter. But that didn’t stop me from spending hours at the door. A habit that has stuck till today.

Back then, because we used to travel in a group or at least as a pair, group dynamics took centrestage. We used to sing loudly, crack jokes & generally make a nuisance of ourselves. Standing at the door gave us a high. We would have made a racket anywhere, but standing at the door enhanced the experience.

After I started working, my travel experience underwent a subtle change. The chief reason being that my journeys became solo affairs (at least mostly). And I started traveling more often. But the old habit of standing on the very edge has stuck. I can’t wait for the train to pull out of the station,  so that I can do my thing. So much so that, I usually spend at least half the journey at the door.

It seems to me that when you are seated inside on your seat, you are a frog in the well. Whichever way you turn, you only see other frogs in the same well. The view to the outer world is well, blocked. It is better if you have a seat by the window, but not much. Because, though you can see the beauty of the world outside, you still feel boxed in. Your view of the world outside is framed. It’s like the frog is just about able to peep out of the well. While it is able to see the beauty all around, it is not really able to get the full import of it. The frame of vision is too small.

When I stand at the door, the frame of vision suddenly seems enlarged many, many times. I am able to experience so much more, take in so much more. It’s like the whole wide world has been spread out like a giant, multi-coloured carpet for my benefit.

 

 

Life at the edge is like a personal conversation between the world & me. I am buffeted by extremes of sights & emotions. One moment, I am looking at a toothless old woman smiling at me through her thick glasses. The very next, I see this cackle of young kids jumping, shouting & waving at the train. This is a frequent sight. I always make it a point to wave back. Their joy is so infectious! I have some difficulty in restraining myself from jumping & shouting like them. It is as well, since I am alive to tell the tale.

One moment I see this buxom young woman bearing her child on her hip, waiting for the train to rush by, so she can cross the track. The very next, I am amazed to see this young turk navigate  the dirt track alongside the railway track on a Rajdoot, with two milk cans hanging from either side! Sometimes, the train slows down & I see workers repairing the track on a bridge ahead. I fear for their safety….I mean, what if one of them falls onto the dry river bed? I can’t get over this uneasiness for several minutes. Not until I see a flock of snow-white birds take off from the bank of a small pond.

 

 

When the train passes through a town or city, I involuntarily take a step backward. As if, all that crowd, noise, dust & stench were physically pushing me back. Some towns can be quite repelling, that way. At the very least, they assault your senses with garish lights & over-loud music. That’s the only time I feel like taking a break from the edge.

In some places, the houses are lined up so close alongside the track that I can witness household scenes through open doors & windows. These are awkward moments, when I feel like an  intruder. I try to avert my eyes from the houses to something farther away. After all, it is not their fault that they have set up home by the tracks.

One of the best sights from the edge is that of the train curving along a bend on the track. Since our trains are usually very long (many are more than half a kilometer long), these bends offer a fabulous view of the entire train. To actually see the coaches connected to one another & to the loco, is to feel the rush in a very intimate way.

 

 

Mountains, groves, deserts, rivers, the sea, farmers tilling the soil, mechanics at work, processions of death, temple-festivals, decorated churches, the muezzin’s call, children walking to school, teenagers idling by a culvert, roadside brawls, ….I have seen it all, heard it all. This is not to say that I have seen it all. Not by a long way.

Of course, life on the edge comes with its risks. The train bucks & sways at high speed; so, you have to be very, very careful. You lose your grip on the handlebars for even a moment and you are history. You need a good sense of balance & anticipation. Over time, your body tunes itself with the motion of the train. You intuitively know when the train is banking on a curve, when it is slowing, when it going up an incline and so on. You learn to stand at the edge, just within the frame of the coach, without jutting out even an inch. You learn to remain alert all the while, watching for the mammoth door lest it should swing close on a bend & chuck you to death. The idea is not just to experience life on the edge, but to also live to tell the tale.

Life on the edge is exhilarating, liberating, humbling, elevating, revealing, dangerous, riotously colourful, beautiful, now seducing, now repelling.

In short, it is indescribable.

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The man behind the Mohan Veena

Travel and Places

 

When Vishwa Mohan Bhatt plays his instrument – the Mohan Veena, a Hindustani slide guitar – he sends us all into raptures. We praise him and his music, and bestow honours upon him. Rightly so. But, do we ever ask who made the instrument with which the musician makes such divine music?

A musician and the music he/she produces is only as good as the instrument he/she plays: a single string not tuned properly, a single piece of material chosen wrong, the size of the hollow not exactly right….and the game is over.

Making an instrument worthy of a master calls for a unique skill and a calibre of a very high order.

The Mohan Veena that Vishwa Mohan Bhatt plays is made by this man. He wears a singlet and a pair of white pajamas most of the time, and works out of a tiny shed in a crowded part of Calcutta. Sipping tiny cups of tea and smoking Navy Cut, he supervises and guides his team of four, and ensures that every instrument that comes out of the shed is a work of art.

He has been at it for 46 years now. If anything, his passion for his art and his appreciation of music have only grown in all these years.

Meeting Bhabasindhu dada recently was a high point for me.

 

 

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Bangalore in 48 hours

Travel and Places

The IT industry and the pubs that Bangalore is known for today, are highly incongruous with the humble origins of this glitzy metropolis. Historians believe that the area on which Bangalore stands today was probably inhabited even during the Stone Age and Iron Age! Much later, a succession of dynasties such as the Hoysalas and the Talakadu Gangas occupied Bangalore, before giving way to Tipu Sultan and subsequently, the British. For the British, Bangalore was one of their important cantonments in South India. They have left behind a fine legacy, mainly in the form of exquisite churches and other buildings. Several of these can be seen even today. From being a ‘pensioner’s paradise’ in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Bangalore has morphed into a bustling, multi-ethnic centre of commerce and education today.

Here’s a two day plan for you to sample some of what the city has to offer. We hope that this will make you return to the city soon for a second helping!

Day One

  • 9 AM – Breakfast at Koshy’s

When in Bangalore, do as the Brits did. Have a breakfast that harks back to the time when the Burra Sahibs and their ladies used to pick up knife and fork, dressed in their daily best. The crowd at Koshy’s today is very modern and arty, but the building, the décor and the food all retain an old-world air. The waiters here do have a stiff upper lip, but if you ignore that and focus on the sausages, cutlets, omelettes and ‘full English’ breakfast, you will feel justifiably happy. Koshy’s is on St. Mark’s Road, close to where the road meets M.G. Road.

  • 10:30 AM – Tipu Sultan’s Fort and Summer Palace

This is a gem hiding in plain view. The Summer Palace is situated bang in the middle of the city – next to the City Market – yet most Bangaloreans themselves don’t know its location. Its teak pillars and frescoes make for an interesting study. The ruins of Tipu’s fort lie close by.

  • 12:30 PM – Commercial Street

One of the most popular street markets in Bangalore, Commercial Street is a good place from where to buy clothes, shoes, jewellery, furnishing and trinkets at reasonable prices. Bargain hard, as you would in most other markets of India.

  • 1:30 PM – Lunch at Mathsya

Mathsya opened just over a year ago, but became almost an overnight hit. An all-vegetarian affair, the food is memorable, and is served graciously and generously. While they have an excellent a la carte menu, the better choice would be their buffet. Offering a wide and interesting spread that varies from day to day, this is superb value for money. Mathsya is situated on Church Street, which runs parallel to M.G. Road.

3 PM – Browse at the old bookstores such as Bookworm, Blossom’s and Select Bookstore

Time was, when the Church Street-M.G.Road-Brigade Road district used to be dotted with bookstores. Most of them have vanished, which is why you should dive into at least one of these three stores. For all you know, they may be running on borrowed time. Each of them offers a wide and eclectic range of books from crime thrillers to medieval art to classical literature. It helps that the store owners are book lovers who can have an intelligent conversation with you, should you be so inclined.

  • 5 PM – Rangoli Metro Art Center

This is situated right next to the M.G. Road Metro station, and is a good, if rare, example of a thoughtful project undertaken by the city’s administration in recent times. It was built as part of the restoration of the MG Road boulevard. It is fast becoming a hub for activities related to culture, photography and art. Photo and painting exhibitions, multi-media installations and monthly Drum Jams (where a random crowd assembles and starts drumming together) are held here. End your visit with a few moments amidst the foliage on the walkway and have filter coffee at Dasaprakash.

  • 6:00 PM – St. Andrew’s Church

Feel the din of traffic fade away as you gaze up at the beautiful red building of this church, with its tall belfry and chiming clock. This 150 year old church is a fine example of Gothic architecture, as interpreted and followed by the orthodox Scottish Presbytarians. This was the central place of worship for the Scottish Regiment of the British Army stationed in Bangalore all those years ago. Spend a couple of hours taking in the architecture, the stunning stained glass work and the trees in the compound. One of the few remaining pipe organs in the world can be found here.

  • 8:30 pm – Dinner at Hyderabad Biryani House

There are a lot of pretenders, but the one we are talking about is located in Victoria Layout, near the Lifestyle store. The pale blue-green building is unpretentious, but the biryani served inside (including the vegetarian version) is worth killing for. It is perfectly spiced and cooked, without an overdose of oil. And the mirchi ka salan, which is served along with the biryani, must rank among the best in India.

Day Two

  • 9 AM – Breakfast at New Krishna Bhavan (NKB)

Start the day with breakfast at one of the best restaurants for South Indian food in Bangalore. New Krishna Bhavan is actually quite old. It is located on Sampige Road in Malleshwaram, diagonally opposite the Mantri Square Mall. Wade into crisp vadas, soft Kotte Kadubus and fragrant rava khichdi, before you wash them down with superb filter coffee. This simple eatery is extremely popular with the locals, and has every reason to be so.

  • 10 AM – Karnataka Chithrakala Parishath

Chithrakala Parishath is Bangalore’s premier center for the arts. The complex on Kumara Krupa Road near the Golf Course houses a good collection of traditional Mysore paintings, leather puppets and sculptures. Some of the paintings of the famed Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich are also kept here. On most days, you are likely to find an exhibition, a workshop and a performance of folk art going on here. Some works of art are available for sale.

  • 1 PMLunch at 13th Floor

As the name suggests, this roof-top restaurant is perched on the thirteenth floor of Barton Centre (on M.G. Road). Since the weather in Bangalore is pleasant for most part of the year, you can enjoy your meal at one of the tables laid out on the terrace. The hawk’s-eye view of central Bangalore is a unique and perfect accompaniment to lunch. 13th Floor offers Indian, Asian and Mediterranean cuisines; take your pick.

  • 3 PM – UB City

UB City is the grandest place for leisure and entertainment in the heart of Bangalore. It has a luxury mall (with stores of Louis Vitton, Canali, Jimmy Choo, Bang & Olufsen, etc.), a performance arena, a few spas, restaurants and watering holes. A great place for retail therapy and a drink.

  • 5 PM – Metro train ride

Hop on the Metro for a jaunty ride. The 7 km stretch from M.G. Road to Bayyapanahalli runs on an elevated track and gives you a good view of the city’s roads and buildings. You will see the Trinity Church, the lush lawns of the army-owned Ranjitsinhji Institute, the temples of Ulsoor and the periphery of Indira Nagar. You can get down at Bayyapanahalli and take the next train back to M.G. Road.

  • 7 pm – Take in a play or a concert

If you are in the mood for a play, head to Ranga Shankara in J.P. Nagar. This is the pre-eminent venue for plays in Bangalore. Ranga Shankara stages a wide repertoire of excellent plays in different languages. To attend a concert, the Chowdiah Memorial Hall in Vyalikaval would probably be your best bet, though there are other good venues too. Check the listings in the day’s newspaper or ask your hotel for help.

  • 9:30 pm – Dinner at Thindi Beedi

The people who named this place Thindi Beedi couldn’t have chosen a more apt name, because this is actually a street full of food carts and stand-up eateries. In Kannada, Thindi Beedi means Food Street. Bangalore’s ode to street food wakes up in the evening and is in action until way past midnight. Here, you will get roasted and sweet corn, bondas and bajjis of different kinds, regional specialties like the Davangere Benne Dosa, Neer Dosa and Akki Roti, pav bhaji and vada pav. Chase them down with desserts like Gulkhand, Holige, Falooda, Kulfi and ice cream. Thindi Beedi is situated in V.V. Puram, very close to Sajjan Rao Circle. Don’t miss this experience.

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Do not miss

St. Mark’s Cathedral

A shade over two centuries old, this church has some excellent Roman arches, woodwork and ornate carvings. And large dollops of peace. The Cathedral is on M.G. Road, opposite Cubbon Park.

Nrityagram

A commune situated about 30 kms outside Bangalore, Nrityagram is a dance school which follows the gurukul tradition. Founded by the late dancer Protima Bedi, it is situated amidst beautiful surroundings in Hesaraghatta.

Nandi Hills

If you are in the mood for a quick getaway to the hills, Nandi Hills is a good bet. Just 65 kms from Bangalore, Nandi Hills makes for an easy day trip. Try to watch the sunrise or sunset from there.

Flea markets aka Santhes

Bangalore has quite a few exciting flea markets like the Sunday Soul Santhe and the Lil Flea. Ask a local friend or your hotel to help you find one. Or, check the internet.

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Kochi in 48 hours

Travel and Places

Kochi is a heady mix of many things. Go there to experience spice markets, churches, museums, palaces, backwater cruises and much more.

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Kochi can take you by surprise. Like a delicious biryani, this city is a burst of aromas, flavours and textures, all of which come together to leave you slightly light-headed. It draws its unique flavours and texture from its rich multi-colonial history, and from the fact that it was the seat of the kingdom of Kochi. It is also one of India’s oldest ports and spice trading hubs, and an emerging metropolis.

Day 1

In which you explore its overseas links

6 am – Chinese fishing nets

Start your day with a visit to the ancient Chinese fishing nets (known in Malayalam as Cheena Vala). These cantilevered fishing nets are permanent fixtures in the water and can be easily mistaken for huge hammocks. You can watch fishermen work these nets at daybreak. The sight of these bamboo-and-rope nets silhouetted against a lightening sky and slowly dipping into the water is mesmerizing. The best view of these nets are to be had from Vasco da Gama Square in Fort Kochi.

9 am – Breakfast at Mary’s Kitchen

Now, this one really is a hidden gem, unknown even to most locals. You can’t visit Kochi and not taste the native fare. So, head over to Mary’s Kitchen and choose from appams, puttu, kadala curry, egg curry, dosa and oddly enough, pancakes too. The food is home-cooked and fresh, since the eatery is just an extension of the family kitchen. One suspects that part of the taste comes from the love with which Mary and her husband Martin cook and serve.

10 am – Jew Town, synagogue and bazaar

Kochi’s connection with the Jews dates back to a thousand years ago. The first Jews landed on the shores of Cranganore (now known as Kodungallur) and over time, established a thriving community there and in Kochi. Over the years, the community has dwindled in number, with less than a hundred Jews remaining here today.

What has survived however is the synagogue, one of the few remaining relics of the city’s Jewish past. Known to the locals as the Paradesi synagogue (‘Paradesi’ means ‘foreigner’ in Malayalam), it has a poignant air about it. The chintz, chandeliers and tiling are well-preserved. One can imagine bar mitzvah and other functions being held here centuries ago.

While you are at it, drop into the Jewish Cemetery also, which has tombstones inscribed in Malayalam and Hebrew. The synagogue and cemetery are on Jew Street in Fort Kochi.

You can round off your visit to Jew Town by exploring the narrow bazaars which boast of excellent spices and antiquities. Take your pick from jewellery, wooden pillars, wooden and metal figurines and carved wooden furniture. Just remember to bargain hard on the prices.

1:00 pm – Browsing at Kashi Art Gallery and lunch at the cafe

Tasteful, quirky, colourful – Kashi Art Gallery symbolizes ‘native chic’. Located in an old house built in the traditional Kerala style on Burgher Street, it draws artists, designers and assorted ‘cool’ folks like a magnet. It has been exquisitely done up, and is home to a wonderful collection of paintings created by local artists. Buying a painting or two is a good way to support the local art talent.

Afterward, lunch at the in-house café. The place has lots of natural light, and an easy vibe about it that lets you dawdle over the excellent food. Kashi is best known for its Continental and British menu, and for its coffee.

2 pm – Mattancherry Dutch Palace

Though named after the Dutch, this palace was actually built by Portuguese colonizers of Kochi. It has been standing strong since the 16th century, when it was built and gifted to the local ruler Veera Kerala Varma. Later, it was expanded and strengthened by the Dutch. A stroll through this Fort gives you a fascinating lesson in the early Colonial history of Kochi.

In a style typical to Kerala, the building has a naalukettu (the building is wrapped around a central, open quandrangle) and flooring made of a peculiar mixture of burnt coconut shells, egg whites, lime and plant juices. Royal memorabilia, weapons, furniture and a number of maps, photos and other documents can be found here. The murals adorning the walls are simply beautiful.

4 pm – St. Francis Church

One of the oldest churches in India, St. Francis Church has managed to retain its ‘ancient’ air. Its tryst with history lies in the fact that this is where Vasco Da Gama’s body lay in repose after his death in 1524, until it was shifted to Portugal. Spend some time in quiet contemplation here and admire the old-world charms of the church – the pews, the wood carvings on the pulpit and the gabled roof.

6:30 pm – Sundowner and dinner at Seagull

How about drinks and dinner with a crashing sea, the coastline and seagulls for company? Seagull has an unbeatable atmosphere, because it juts out into the sea and is close to the docks. A great place for conversations, whether quiet or boisterous. Frequented by knowledgeable locals, this restaurant has acquired its own cult following. It serves a range of local delicacies, apart from beer and other spirits. Don’t forget to wave to the passing hulks as they hoot and head over to the harbor.

Day 2

In which you discover its native side

9 am – Breakfast at Woodland’s  

A simple, tasty South Indian breakfast at Woodland’s is just what you need for the brisk day ahead. Try the super-soft idlis with chutney and scalding-hot sambar, the crisp uzhunnu vadas, pongal, upma or dosai. All of them are equally good. Wash them down with a cup of authentic filter coffee, sigh with pleasure and off you go!

10 am – Museum of Kerala History and Art

For a good overall introduction to Kerala, this is the place you should head to. One of the better museums in South India, this one has good tableaus depicting the various eras in the history of this tiny state. The accompanying audio narration is lucid and well-scripted. The art gallery housed in the same building displays many original works of contemporary Indian artists.

Tucked away in a quiet campus near the suburb of Edappally, this museum is definitely worth visiting.

12 noon – Vallarpadam Church

If you ask for the Basilica of Our Lady of Ransom, chances are that you’ll leave people gaping. But toss up the name ‘Vallarpadam Church’ instead and it will ring a bell. Built by the Dutch in 1676, this intriguingly named church stands on the quiet, beautiful island of Vallarpadam.

1 pm – Lunch at Hotel Grand

Hotel Grand is practically an institution in Ernakulam and is located on MG Road. It is one of those places that never grow old, but remain timeless. It serves perhaps the best traditional plated meal (or ‘meals’ as Malayalis are wont to call it) in town. Wade into the pappadams, erisseri, aviyal, puli-inji, sambar and other delicalies served in unlimited quantities. Order some lip-smacking fish or chicken curry as further accompaniment.

You are liable to be in a state of stupor after this langorously delicious meal, but if you can shake it off, head over to the next destination.

2:30 pm – Spice bazaar on Broadway

Having come to Kochi, you can’t go back without at least checking out the wide range of spices that the city is famous for. The spice-trading heritage of this city dates back to ancient times. Today, the nerve centre of this trade is Broadway, which, contrary to its name, is actually a narrow street close to St. Theresa’s College. As you step into it, the delightful aromas of spices hit you in whirling eddies. The spices are fresh and are available at relatively decent prices. So, take home a few packs of cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, pepper or whatever else you fancy.

4 pm – Boat ride on the sea

Time to catch a whiff of sea breeze. It will be a good idea to take a short cruise along the coastline of Kochi, for which the Ernakulam boat jetty is a good starting point. You could take a return ride on a ferry to one of the islands like Vypeen close by. On the way, you will pass barges and ships, and tiny islands with swaying palms and small houses. There is nothing like a boat ride to give you a feel of the sway and rhythm of life on an island.

6:30 pm – Ernakulathappan temple

The city of Kochi is actually an agglomeration of towns, the largest and most famous of which is Ernakulam. Located on the mainland, Ernakulam takes its name from this temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. For a long time, it was a royal temple of the Maharaja of Kochi. When you visit the temple at dusk, you can see it come aglow with several traditional lamps lit along the walls. The play of light and shadows is fascinating. Take in the Keralan temple architecture and the timeless rituals. Sit down for a bit and watch the seeveli (a ritual in which the idol is taken around the sanctum sanctorum everyday) and chenda vaadyam (a traditional Keralan percussion ensemble). Come away soothed and refreshed.

8:30 pm – Dinner

Wind down your 2 day tour of Kochi with a leisurely meal. Though the city has restaurants in every corner, some of the better ones are New Tandoor, The Rice Boat (at the Taj Malabar), Mosaic (Crowne Plaza) and Pizza Italia. For Malabari cuisine (food that is native to North Kerala), you can check out Thakkaram or Masafi in the Vytilla area.

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7 hidden treasures of Delhi

Travel and Places

Delhi is perhaps the most storied of Indian cities. Much has been written about its conquests and rules, its masters and mistresses, the commingling of diverse influences to create the unique ‘Delhi’ culture and idiom. Still, the fact remains that even now, there are shades of the city that many tourists are not aware of.  Here are seven such. The next time you visit Delhi, try to indulge in these experiences. You will come away charmed!

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 Into the depths of time– Agrasen ki baoli (the step-well built by Agrasen)

North and West India has a rich history of step-wells, which are scientifically designed storage tanks for water. They were built in many kingdoms of medieval India. Agrasen ki baoli one is believed to have been first built by King Agrasen in the 14th century. Subsequent rulers enlarged the well.

It consists of 103 steps that lead down from the top. The steps keep getting narrower as you go down, until you reach the inky depths of the well. For several centuries, this step-well used to store rain water, which was then supplied to neighbouring areas.

The fact that the stepwell is surrounded by busy roads and modern skyscrapers lends it a schizophrenic air. This is likely to rub off on you, making you feel sandwiched between two different eras. For a structure that is seven centuries old, it is in good shape.

Agrasen ki Baoli is located in a narrow alley off Hailey Road, near Kasturba Gandhi Road in central Delhi.

 

 

  1. History on rails – The Rail Museum

The richest legacy left behind in India by the British is perhaps our railway system. The Rail Museum in New Delhi is a repository of some of the finest gems of that legacy. It showcases the best iron steeds that ever ran on rails in India during the British rule. In that sense, this museum is unique among all museums in India. A fascinating way of looking back at Colonial India.

You can ogle at various models of majestic Glasgow-made steam locomotives and the grand saloon cars of the Maharajas (what symbols of vanity!). The smart livery of the iron hulks and the names of the private railway companies they ran for (Rajputana Railway, Souther Mahratha Railway, Oudh and Rohilkund Railway) evoke a very different map of India indeed!

The museum also has an indoor gallery, with many other items and photos related to Indian railway history. A good way to lose yourself for half a day.

 

 

 

  1. Streetside blisss – Parathas at Moolchand

This is gastronomical heaven on the pavement. Delhi has always had a rich culture of street food, and Moolchand Parathewaala is one of the best symbols of that culture. This joint is actually a big cart parked on the pavement, with a few tables and stools laid out for guests. It gets its name from the famous Moolchand Hospital in South Delhi, opposite which it is located. Heavenly parathas with varied stuffings like mooli (radish), anda (egg), aloo (potato), gobhi (cauliflower), dal (lentils), pyaaz (onion) and mixed vegetables are served hot off the griddle, accompanied by the most yummy raita, chutneys, rajma and curd. The mandatory dollop of butter on the parathas will send you into orbit. Moolchand can be a great introduction for travelers to the foodscape of Delhi.

 

  1. Sunday book bazaar at Daryaganj 

Daryaganj is the walled part of Old Delhi, earlier known as Shahjahanabad (the city that Shahjahan, the Mughal ruler, built). Every Sunday morning, the pavements in this area are taken over by books and book lovers of all hues. This fifty year old book bazaar is an institution patronised by book-lover locals. Here, you will find books of every hue. From first folios of literary classics to the latest releases; from computer science text books to Nietzsche and Camus – you’ll find them all here. A great way to spend your Sunday morning. Afterwards, you can celebrate your rich pickings by lunching in one of the old eateries nearby.

 

  1. Theatre by the students of National School of Drama (NSD)

Delhi is the nerve-centre of Hindi and English theatre in India. And the NSD is largely responsible for helping Delhi earn this status. The institute is a crucible of rich acting talent. Throughout the year, it stages a wide range of stimulating plays, giving the audience a fascinating insight into the socio-cultural realities of India. Plays are staged in English and regional languages, though very few travellers to Delhi know about them. The plays are staged in the open air amphitheatre of NSD itself, apart from auditoria around the city. For more information, visit the institute’s website: www. http://nsd.gov.in/delhi/

  1. Shopping at Shankar Market 

Literally and figuratively, Shankar Market lies in the shadow of the hyped-up Connaught Place. This small, cozy market offers a mix of excellent Indian-style clothes, North Indian snacking joints and book shops. All at good bargains. Shankar Market lies close to the Barakhamba Station on the Metro line, and is a favoured destination of the more discerning shoppers.

 

 

  1. Qawwalis at Nizamuddin dargah

The Qawwali is a form of Sufi devotional music, dating back 700 years. Its hallmarks are the verve and abandon with which the musicians sing, transporting the listener to emotional heights. Qawwalis stress the love of Man for the Divine (or the oneness of Man with the Divine). The effect of the songs is amplified by the robust beats of percussion instruments like the dholak and tabla.      

The dargah (shrine) of the 13th century Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya vibrates to the notes of joyful Qawwali music every Thursday evening, making for a rousing experience. As the shadows lengthen, a group of sufi singers come together and invoke the Eternal. They are accompanied by harmonium and dhol players, who infuse the tunes with boisterous rhythm. And the crowd goes into raptures.

 

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