Travel and Places

A writer’s life: Bengaluru to Mysuru

Travel and Places

Visiting R.K Narayan’s house in Mysuru, which is now a museum. 

This story first appeared in Mint on May 18, 2017 in the section ‘Weekend Vacations’.

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R.K. Narayan’s house. Photos: Ganesh Vancheeswaran

R.K. Narayan’s house. 

The sun glinted off the chassis of the YP 2511 that stood on a short strip of railway track. As I stood looking at it, my father’s stories about the thrilling train journeys of his childhood echoed in my mind—he is a keen trainspotter. Steam locomotives, such as the one standing in front of me, played a starring role in many of his adventures.

I was at the Rail Museum in Mysuru.

Amid the railway memorabilia, my mind travelled to a city legend—and one of my favourite authors—R.K. Narayan. On this trip, my main interest lay in the RK Narayan Museum which opened last year.  In The Guide, one of his most famous novels, the lead character Raju graduates from railroad station food vendor to tourist guide. It’s a story that has stayed with me. And I was keen to see where he had lived.

Leaving Bengaluru at noon, I had driven down to Karnataka’s cultural capital for the weekend. Mysuru is the starting point for several weekend getaways from Bengaluru, like Coorg, Masinagudi and Ooty, which I had already travelled to. Strangely, Mysuru itself had been off the radar.

I started my trip to the city with a visit to the Rail Museum, later taking a leisurely stroll around the century-old Devaraja Market, which has shops selling flowers, spices, fresh produce, incense and souvenirs. The rest of the day zipped past, with sightseeing stops at the Mysuru and Jaganmohan Palaces.

The house has bay windows and a red oxide floor.

The house has bay windows and a red oxide floor.

Next morning, I found myself in front of Narayan’s old residence in the Yadavagiri area—the house in which he wrote many of his memorable stories. There was something comforting about the bungalow. The big trees outside, the bay windows, the red oxide floor of the portico, the rounded edges of the house, an old handpump—all these seemed strangely familiar. It was like visiting a favourite uncle’s house after a long time.

But then Narayan had been a favourite author of mine.

The house has showcases displaying Narayan’s certificates, mementos and awards. His armchair and a low wooden table are placed in front of a window. There are framed photographs of the writer and his family members hanging on one wall. The sepia-toned photographs show Narayan in some of his most candid moments. Keeping wickets at a game of cricket, standing with his wife and baby, resting on a chair, a wide grin on his face—telling glimpses of the man behind the famous writer.

Elsewhere, his favourite clothes, fountain pen, notebooks, umbrella and spectacles find pride of place. Framed accounts of his life are mounted on the walls, chronicling the rise of the journalist-turned-author. The surprise element is an account of their friendship by the late Khushwant Singh, who described Narayan as “deceptively humble and very lovable”.

A collection of the late author’s books

A collection of the late author’s books.

Upstairs, Narayan’s study has tall windows overlooking the street. Along one side of this room is a bookshelf holding several of his best-sellers. Framed stills from the TV series Malgudi Days, based on the book of the same name, grace another wall.

The museum is unpretentious, much like the man and his writing.

On my way out, I lingered on the porch. In his memoirs, Narayan talks of spending hours there, chatting with visitors or observing the general humdrum of life outside—all of it grist for his charming stories. I asked the museum caretaker a few questions about the writer; his reply, a crusty “I don’t know.” I found it amusing that he should be ignorant of the life of the person whose memories he was supposedly safeguarding.

Narayan would have appreciated the irony.

 

 

Marine history: Chennai to Kannur

Travel and Places

Learning about seafaring traditions, playing on the beach, and visiting a fort built by the Portuguese.

This story first appeared in Mint on July 27, 2017 under the section ‘Weekend Vacations’.

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Fisherfolk unloading the catch of the day, Thottada beach. Photographs: Ganesh Vancheeswaran

Fisherfolk unloading the catch of the day at Thottada beach.

The lady bore a striking resemblance to my grandmother. Her gaze was benign, and she seemed to be smiling. I almost smiled back, and then, remembering who she really was, I chuckled. For behind the gentle gaze was the hardy queen of the Arakkal dynasty. She came from a long line of rulers of the erstwhile Cannanore (now Kannur) principality. Rani Mariyumma Beebi Ali Adi Rajah, known as “Arakkal Beebi”, had inspired respect and admiration for the way she administered her principality in the year leading up to independence. And here she was, gazing at me from her photograph on the wall.

I was winding up a fascinating morning at the Arakkal Museum in Kannur in north Kerala. The Durbar Hall of the Arakkal rulers has been converted into a well-kept archive of their legacy. The two-storey building showcases solid teakwood furniture, weaponry, sepia-tinted photographs, evocative illustrations of ships, battle scenes, scenes from everyday life, and beautifully engraved ceramic-ware. Yellowed copies of letters that the royals had exchanged with the British threw up a surprise; the Laccadive Islands (part of the Lakshadweep Islands) had once been under Arakkal rule—the islands had been sold to the British.

My search for an offbeat place to spend the weekend had led me to Kannur, a little town north of Kozhikode. The overnight train from Chennai had entered Kerala early that morning, giving me a chance to see the glistening backwaters, hamlets and emerald fields at first light.

Leaving the museum, I headed back to the Blue Mermaid Homestay, where I was staying, for a traditional Kerala meal. Come evening, I headed to the unspoilt Thottada beach, which is just next to the home-stay. Jogging barefoot on the sand, playing beach volleyball with a bunch of local boys and watching a glorious sunset stilled all thoughts, making for a contemplative end to the day.

Thottada beach.

Thottada beach.

On the next day’s schedule was a visit to Fort St Angelo, in the centre of town. It’s among the first forts built by the Portuguese in India, in the early 16th century. The stone and laterite fort has aged well. A thick layer of moss covering the walls and rampart was affirmation of a lavish monsoon. The barracks, magazine room, dungeons, bastions and chapel bear testimony to the fact that the Dutch and British had a hand in modifying the fort in later years.

My eyes were drawn to the mast of an old lighthouse that stands on one of the ramparts. The tourist policeman there offered an intriguing titbit: Francisco de Almeida, the first Portuguese viceroy to India, had kept his anointed successor, Afonso de Albuquerque, imprisoned in a dungeon in the fort, until he was ordered by his superiors to free him.

The mast of an old lighthouse on the rampart of Fort St Angelo.

The mast of an old lighthouse on the rampart of Fort St Angelo.

The western corner of the rampart offered a view of slim, colourful fishing boats with seagulls perched on the bows, at the edge of the waters. The sun glinted off the sea, casting a magical light. It was a scene straight out of a painting. This was Moplah Bay, a bustling port-of-call for Chinese, Arab and European traders in ancient times.

The next stop was MVK, the town’s go-to restaurant with an impressive list of local dishes, for delicious Thalassery biryani.

I spent the afternoon at the lighthouse museum. One of only four in India, the museum provides a rare insight into Kannur’s long seafaring traditions. It unveiled everything I ever wanted to know about lighthouses: from lamps, models of primitive lighthouses, navigational buoys and electromechanical parts to letters written by mariners. What’s more, there were no tourists—and I felt vindicated in my choice of an offbeat weekend break.

 

 

 

 

In search of Mirza Ghalib

Travel and Places

Ganesh Vancheeswaran visits the pre-eminent 19th-century Urdu-Persian poet’s house and resting place in Old Delhi, and returns with a couplet on his lip.

This story first appeared in Khaleej Times on August 11, 2017.

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The building is one of the many structures on Gali Qasim Jaan in the congested mohalla (neighbourhood) of Ballimaran in old Delhi. At first, I mistake it for a tenement that is being shared by a dozen families, much like other buildings around it are. It is only when I look closer that I notice the differences. For one, this building is made of red bricks and stone, unlike its neighbours that sport the look of modern-day cement-and-paint structures. Secondly, this is the only building on the street that has a uniformed guard at the entrance. And finally, it seems to have a more dignified appearance than the others.
I stand opposite the arched entrance for a couple of minutes and gaze at the building. People sweep past me on this narrow, congested street and cycle rickshaws tring tring furiously. Iron shutters are rolled up as shops open for business. The air is thick with the cries of hawkers and the smells of breakfast being cooked in a dozen homes.
It is just another day in Purani Dilli (old Delhi), but I am oblivious to it all.
I only have one thought: that I am finally about to step into the old residence of Urdu and Persian poet Mirza Ghalib. It has taken me years of planning and wishing and dreaming, but here I am finally. Truly, a pinch-worthy moment.
The first time I heard of Mirza Ghalib was when I was in school. I came to know that our national television was airing a serial titled Mirza Ghalib. I learnt from an uncle, who lived next door, that it was about the life of a great man who went by the same name. He was supposed to have been a wonderful Urdu poet, someone who was feted for his shaayari. Since my proclivities at that age had less to do with high falutin poetry and more to do with games, the serial was of no consequence to me.
It was only in college that I came face to face with Ghalib’s poetry. Cloaked in the melancholic baritone of Jagjit Singh, a noted ghazal singer, Ghalib’s poetry was like a beam of soft moonlight on a hot summer night. In the years that followed, I came to know the man rather well through his writings. And now, after all these years, I was visiting the house where he had spent his last days.
A plaque at the entrance announces this as ‘Mirza Ghalib Ki Haveli’ (Mirza Ghalib’s mansion). I smile at the security guard and enter the short corridor that leads to the house from the gate. There are two rooms: one ahead of me and another to my right. Both rooms are lit by yellow lighting that casts a soft glow. I walk into the room ahead and look around. There is no other visitor at the moment. The guard joins me and tells me that the house was occupied by various people after Ghalib’s death in 1869 and lost some of its original character because of repeated modifications. When the government decided to convert it into a memorial, it had to buy the house from someone who was running a motor workshop here.
Mirza Ghalib was one of the best Urdu and Persian poets. Born Mirza Asadullah Khan in Agra in 1797, he adopted the nom de plume Ghalib (meaning ‘victor’). He spent most of his life in Delhi, though he spent only the last few years of his life in this particular house. He travelled to places such as Rampur, Calcutta, Murshidabad and Varanasi, meeting and exchanging verses with the nobility. His verses are considered by many to be a benchmark in Urdu poetry and loved for their depth of feeling. I recall my historian friend Swapna Liddle, an expert in the history of Delhi, telling me that Ghalib acquired quite a fan following, with scores of fans writing to him regularly.
Though I love Urdu poetry in general, and have closely followed the works of Zauq, Daag and Mir, there is something about Ghalib’s writings that I find particularly endearing. I guess it is a very personal choice, partly dictated by the fact that the themes he wrote about are ones that I am naturally drawn to. Ghalib frequently struck a distinct philosophical tone in his poetry, musing about life, death, love, passion, pain, suffering and so on.
The din of the streets outside is very faint as I walk around the small memorial. The exposed brickwork of the walls lends character to the place. The walls are adorned by pictures of Ghalib and his couplets. One of the pictures, in which he is reclining on a cushion and writing, even as he draws on a hookah, certainly portrays a person of refined taste.
Finding his family tree framed on another wall comes as a surprise, because I hadn’t thought of his family at all. It could be because I had grown up knowing him only through his poetry, which is an entirely personal affair. The family tree traces the family all the way back to the early 18th century. A couple of small chambers lead off this room and contain more couplets and a large tome containing his poetry.
I try to picture life here during Ghalib’s times – a period when the last of the Mughal emperors was still on the throne and when Old Delhi used to be called Shahjahanabad. He lived in turbulent times and witnessed the First War of Independence in 1857. Entering the second room, I see a bust of the poet, a synopsis of his life and a picture of his wife Umrao Begum. Ghalib’s haveli is light on artefacts, but rich in atmosphere. It is a wonderful throwback to his time.
That evening, I go to Nizamuddin, a few miles away from Ballimaran. While Ballimaran gave the revered poet a home in life, Nizamuddin is where he is housed in death. I have come to visit his tomb. A number of people I ask have absolutely no clue about it. Finally, a passing maulvi (Muslim priest) shows me the way.
The arched entrance to the complex is built in Islamic style. Inside, several children are playing cricket. The azaan rings out from the famous Nizamuddin dargah nearby. I dodge a flying ball, cross an enclosed 16th century pavilion called Chausath Khamba (sixty four pillars) and find myself in a quiet courtyard. In the middle of the courtyard, lies Ghalib’s tomb – a simple room constructed in white marble. Through the open doorway, I can see a faded muslin cloth draped on the grave, with a few dried flowers lying scattered on it.
The caretaker of the tomb tells me that, barring the occasional group of ardent historians or lovers of Urdu poetry, not many visit the grave. Much of the city of Delhi seems to be unaware that one of its most revered poets lies buried in its midst. But then, this is hardly surprising in a city that is littered with heritage sites.
I sit on a stone bench for a while, listening to the prayer coming from the dargah. I finally rise, pay my respects to the poet and leave. My pilgrimage is complete.

Fact file
Ghalib’s memorial is in Gali Qasim Jaan, in the Ballimaran area of old Delhi. Given the congestion in the area, it is best to take the Metro to Chandni Chowk and walk from there. The memorial is open from 10 am to 6 pm, and is closed on Monday. Ghalib’s tomb is located next door to the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin, a revered Sufi saint. There is no entry fee for either site.

 

 

 

Heels, wheels and holidays: urban Indians are embracing experiential travel

Travel and Places

Urban Indians are embracing running vacations and biking tours as a new, experiential approach to travel.

This story first appeared in The Hindu on August 23. 2017.

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Recalling his trip to Hampi, Rajesh Santhanam is somewhat surprised at himself. An avid traveller for more than a decade, he has had his share of long bike rides and treks in remote mountains. But the trip to Hampi (a cluster of ruins that dates back to the Vijayanagar empire and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) stands out for a simple reason. He went there to participate in a run, something he had never done before.

At the crack of dawn on a cool Sunday morning, he joined a few hundred others in running through the ruins. Much before the hordes of tourists descended upon the scene, the runners were already exploring the place, loping past centuries-old temples and step-wells.

Hoofing it

A run vacation is an exciting new development in the Indian travel scene. In essence, it is a run that is professionally organised in a popular tourist destination. It combines two highs: that of running and that of a holiday. As a participant, you can reach the destination a few days in advance, explore it, and then finish your vacation with the run. Or, you could start your vacation with the run and then stay on for a few more days. The fact that the run is not timed enhances the fun.

In its infancy in India, the idea of run vacations is attracting a growing number of people. Go Heritage Run, a company that organises such runs, has seen nearly 6,000 runners participate in their runs in the past three years. Many of them are repeat participants, which is a good indication that this experiment is working. The company offers a calendar of professionally-organised runs throughout the year, in settings as unlikely as Ooty, Halebidu, Khajuraho, Mirjan Fort and Murud-Janjira. Running through the verdant greenery of the Nilgiris, enjoying the pure air, is an unforgettable experience. Or for that matter, taking in the beauty of the seaside Murud-Janjira Fort. You get to see the place in a totally new light. At the end of the run, you are given breakfast, a certificate and a medal.

Journeys on the saddle

If running is not your thing, you could consider signing up for a riding tour instead. A riding tour is essentially all about hopping onto a motorcycle and exploring a place leisurely. It allows you to make impromptu stops along the way, interact with locals and soak in the culture of the place. Seeing that more urban Indians, including women, are interested in long rides, professional outfits such as The Travelling Circus have started organising riding tours. This company has organised more than 25 long rides since its inception in 2011. Destinations on their map include Chikmagalur, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Ladakh and Kinnaur. Rajasthan and Cambodia are being added this year. Details of every tour are planned professionally, with rider safety getting top priority. Your group is accompanied by a support van, a stock of spares and an experienced mechanic.

If you think these rides are meant only for seasoned riders, think again. If you are a first-timer, such a tour can actually help you ease into bike riding. By the end of a tour, you may even fall in love with it!

There are many factors that make these tours tick. Experiencing the sheer thrill of long-distance riding, bonding with like-minded people, and travelling through beautiful places in an immersive manner, are the key factors that make these tours attractive. Of course, they often entail long riding hours and call for a certain level of fitness. At the same time though, you are guaranteed a lot of fun, adventure and a spirit of support and sharing, all of which help seal friendships. And friendships formed on the road do have a special flavour.

Run vacations and riding tours symbolise the changing motivations of the urban Indian, who sees travel as a way to quench his thirst for adventure. In the process, they help discard many stereotypes.

 

 

Kolkata to Chandannagar: The French life

Travel and Places

In Chandannagar, time flows as languorously as the Ganga beside it.

This story first appeared in Mint on November 9, 2017 – in the section titled ‘Weekend Vacations’.

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The statue of Marianne, a national symbol of France, outside the Dupleix mansion. Photos: Ganesh Vancheeswaran

The statue of Marianne, a national symbol of France, outside the Dupleix mansion. 

The rains had left the fields lush green, a vivid contrast to the dark brown soil at the base. This dual-colour canvas kept a tight grip on the sides of the road through most of the trip. Bustling villages and near skirmishes with traffic ensured there was never a dull moment on the drive from Kolkata to Chandannagar.

My decision to go to Chandannagar for the weekend had been an impromptu one, taken the night before. The fact that it was the only French colony in Bengal in the 17th century, at a time when the British were making determined inroads into the region, made me curious. And so, late one Saturday morning, I hopped into a taxi for the 53km ride. It was a swift and mildly disorienting transition from the crush of humanity in Kolkata. As we entered Chandannagar, my driver pointed to two pillars topped with urns. He said these were all that remained of the grand gate built by the French in 1937.

I asked him to take me to the Dupleix Museum, located in a large yellow mansion. It is one of the few in India that houses a collection of artefacts from French rule, which lasted more than 250 years. Chandannagar was a major trading and military hub for the French during the 18th and 19th centuries. And this mansion used to be the official residence of French governor generals. Apart from French memorabilia, the museum houses rare collections of statues, letters exchanged between freedom fighters, and news clips on the freedom movement in Bengal. With its colonnaded courtyard, broad slatted windows and high ceilings, it is a throwback to period architecture. Even today, French is taught at an institute that operates from the same premises.

Leaving the museum, I headed to a stall nearby for a leisurely mutka (earthen cup) of tea. I was in no mood to rush from place to place. Already, I could feel my heartbeat settling into a slower rhythm. Chandannagar has that effect on you.

The interior of the Sacred Heart Church.

The interior of the Sacred Heart Church.

Continuing my journey into the past, I walked up to the lovely Sacred Heart Church, close to the Dupleix Museum. This church, designed by French architect Jacques Duchatz, was inaugurated in 1884. Stepping into its cool portals, I was transported back to the 19th century. The stained glass, old furniture and colourful murals along the nave are largely intact. Later, I walked through the restored graves and tombstones in the cemetery adjoining the church. Buried here along with other nobles is the long-forgotten French commander Duplessis, one of the town’s founding fathers.

Exploring the streets that evening, I saw a number of rambling bungalows from the French period. The structures, still intact, exuded an air of genteel neglect. There was an abundance of greenery. Traffic was sparse and slow-moving. Passing through the local market, I was struck by the absence of the hoarse cries one normally finds in Indian markets. Even the haggling was absent. It seemed as if the entire town loathed anything loud or frenetic.

Wending my way to the strand, I sat on a bench. A few others had colonized benches to read the newspaper or chat. In front of me, the Ganga, known in these parts as the Hooghly, flowed gently, with barely a murmur. Boats ferrying locals were the only traffic. And quiet descended as soon as the day’s activity wound up with the setting sun.

Fortified by some luchi-aloo dum the next morning, I sallied forth again. This time, to the stunning Nanda Dulal temple with its cream-and-vermillion exterior. This temple is built in the do chala (double sloping roof) style native to Bengal, but is, surprisingly, devoid of the terracotta work that is typical of buildings in this district. I learnt from the priest that this temple, which houses a deity of Lord Krishna as a child, was first built in 1740, destroyed and then rebuilt.

I was tempted to join the boys playing volleyball in front of the temple. In keeping with the mood, however, I decided to return to my room to curl up and read.

 

Going Dutch in Galle

Travel and Places

This story first appeared in Khaleej Times on November 17, 2017.

European influence, strong maritime connections and relaxed vibes make this Sri Lankan city a winner.

‘Parawa Street’ – proclaims the name board. It intrigues me, because I can’t understand what it means. All morning, I have seen boards that said ‘Church Street’, ‘Rampart Street’ and the like. Fed on this simple diet, my brain finds it difficult to process ‘Parawa’. A closer inspection of the board tells me that the term refers to fishermen and traders who immigrated from south India and settled in Galle centuries ago. During their time, the Dutch, the main colonisers of Galle, renamed this street ‘Parruastraat’.
Parawa Street is one of the several narrow streets that make up the old settlement inside Galle Fort. Clean and well-paved, the streets are lined on either side by elegant structures. Many of these are a century old, while others go back two centuries or more – when Galle was under Dutch occupation. Many houses have a small portico and a wicket gate, and are painted in brilliant hues of blue, red, orange or yellow. Potted plants hanging from their sloping tiled roofs enhance the mood of cheer.
It is past 9am on a weekday, but most of the shops and boutiques are still closed. I ask a passerby when they will open and receive a smile in return. “They will open, they will open,” she says and moves on.  Traffic is mild, mainly comprising pedestrians or those cycling. The town of Galle is not in a hurry at all. The general understanding seems to be that things here will happen in due course. It, therefore, seems fitting that Galle is our last port of call in a weeklong tour of Sri Lanka. While we entered the country in high excitement, we shall leave it in a state of quiet contentment.
From medieval times to the 19th century, Galle was an important port town near the southern end of the teardrop shaped island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Like in India, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to colonise Galle. When the Dutch overran the settlement in the 17th century, they strengthened and expanded the erstwhile mud fort and many of the buildings within its confines. Also, they erected several of the beautiful timber-stone-cement structures that are standing strong even today. The British came later and added a few lovely churches to the landscape.
The wife and I amble along the ramparts of the fort, stopping to take in the view now and then. We get panoramic views of the sea and at one point, of the grassy expanse of Galle International Cricket Stadium. Passing close to the historic Meeran Mosque, we stop to admire its pristine whiteness, arched windows and architectural symmetry. Inside, the beautiful floor tiles and the stained glass windows catch our eye. Close to the mosque lies a small Buddhist temple, also pristine white. After two hours of walking, we come a full circle to where we had started from: the fort gates. Feeling hungry, we hurry over to a small shack nearby that is serving hot food. We wolf down kothu rottis (a native dish made of wheat or wheat flour, stuffed with a spicy mash of vegetables, fish or chicken) for lunch.
Back at our home-stay, we lounge in the sea-facing balcony with our books. Since this is not the tourist season, the crowds are thin. Come afternoon, many of the smaller shops in the fort settlement close for a few hours, as their owners catch some shut-eye after lunch. When the sun’s rays start slanting, we head out again. Drumbeats and strains of the guitar lead us to a quadrangle near the courthouse, where a local band is performing on the sidelines of a literary festival. The songs are in English and Sinhalese, and are received with energetic applause. As darkness settles, we leave the music behind and seek out the sea again. The lighthouse, built in 1939, looms up in the darkness. Right next to it, lies the old magazine room of the Dutch Navy. Sitting on the ramparts with our legs swinging over the drop to the ocean, we look at the glowing moon and the white foam slamming into the rocks.
At dawn the next morning, I leave my sleeping wife and venture out with my camera, eager to frame the beautiful town in the soft sunlight. I walk over to the fishermen’s wharf and watch the day’s catch being unloaded. Several people are buying fish fresh off the boat. Every day, fishermen put out to sea hours before dawn and return with their first catch by 7am or so.
The winding alleys are quiet, with most people still abed. I am happily surprised to see that Galle has not let its built heritage go to seed, unlike many other places around the world. Supported by a grant from the Dutch government, most of the old buildings have been lovingly restored and repurposed into cafes, art galleries, boutiques and hotels. Today, these are symbols of the chic tourist destination that Galle has become and proof that conserving heritage can be truly profitable for all the stakeholders.
My wife joins me for breakfast at the home-café run by an old man of Moroccan descent. Galle’s Moroccan connection is a thread hidden deep inside the cultural fabric of this town. A small community of Tamil-speaking Muslims, seventh- generation descendents of traders from Morocco, resides inside the fort. Many of its members run small grocery stores or cafes from the courtyard of their homes.
Meal over, we take in the wonderful exhibits at the National Maritime Museum. A nod to the long seafaring traditions of Lanka, the museum houses maps and intriguing tales of shipwrecks alongside jade jars from China and several European memorabilia. Later that day, we take in the antique furniture, exquisite stained glass, tombstones and silence at the Gothic-style All Saints Church. As we walk back to our homestay, the eager shouts of boys playing cricket rend the air. Daytime cricket on the wide ramparts of the fort is a way of life here.
Decidedly, Galle is a great place to celebrate the slow life. The rhythms of this fort settlement are gentle. The cobbled-stone streets, old buildings, bookstores, cafes and the timeless nature of waves crashing into the rocks lull you into a state of peace. The frenetic sounds and movements of the big city stand out by their absence. Conversations are more like soothing murmurs. Nobody seems to be in a hurry to do anything.
Though I hold several striking memories from my time in Galle, the one that dominates my mind is that of the breakfast on the morning of our departure. Our hostess served us appams (sweet-salty rice pancakes with a thin crust and a fluffy middle), spicy chickpea curry, fragrant stew, toast, butter, marmalade, coffee and slices of juicy pineapple. Sitting in the balcony facing the ramparts of the fort, we gorge on the delicious homemade fare for what seems like hours. Yonder, the sea rustles like sandpaper and gulls swoop down.
This memory stands out because that breakfast is the best metaphor I can find for the town itself. Galle is like a wonderful repast: it offers a sumptuous spread, invites you to dawdle over it, stimulates your palate and ensures that the after-taste remains for a long time.

NEED TO KNOW
Galle lies 77 miles south of Colombo, from where you can take a bus, taxi or a train named Queen of the Sea. The route hugs the coast and runs past several beautiful villages. Accommodation options are aplenty, from posh hotels to tiny guest houses, and straddle a wide price range. Since Galle Fort is perfect for walking, take along a pair of comfortable shoes, sunglasses and a bottle of water.
wknd@khaleejtimes.com

The Old Man and his Faith

Travel and Places

The story behind Mumbai’s Jewish connection. And how Masjid Bunder railway station got its name.

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I stumble out of the packed Central Railway local train at the Masjid Bunder station. As it always happens with me when I alight from a local train in Mumbai, I remain dazed for a few minutes as I try to get my bearings. Being packed like a sardine for more than an hour leaves my hair and my wits askew.

Crossing the narrow foot over bridge on the Eastern side, I descend into the crowded bylanes of Mandvi. All around me, vegetables and other goods are being loaded onto or unloaded from trucks. Cycles and scooters are parked haphazardly. Stalls selling samosas, vada pav, lassi and lemon juice dot the lanes here and there. Pedestrians rush past, elbowing you aside, as they always do in this thrusting, frenetic city.

It is the fag end of May and the air is smothering me like a hot, wet blanket. This is Mumbai at its humid worst, but the good news is that in a couple of weeks or so, the monsoon will start. And that will bring relief from the sapping heat and humidity, though it will ruin daily life in other ways.

A hundred feet down this street, I turn right into an equally narrow (but more peaceful) street. As I walk further into it, the sounds of the market thin out a little. I can feel the air eddying around me, moving more freely. The hot, wet blanket has been taken off.

Ahead of me, to my right, I spot a police post manned by three constables. Two of them are lazing around in chairs behind a large table, while the third is standing with a rifle in hand. On the table, a wireless set is squawking out staccato sounds, interspersed with static.

Across the door from the police post is a shabby yellow building with a small blue door marking its entrance. The doorway is short enough to make many people stoop to enter, I remember thinking. In response to my knocking, it opens a minute or two later. I don’t know what I had expected, but I definitely did not expect to see a slightly shriveled, reed-thin man with a gaunt face and bent shoulders. Hoping that my surprise did not show on my face, I step in and introduce myself. He grunts in response, turns and walks inside. I take that as a cue to follow him.

My eyes wander around the tiny compound, taking in the hand pump, the stairs leading to the adjoining building (which could be where this man lives, I speculate) and the small courtyard separating the gate from the building into which he is now leading me. Not a single tree or plant, I note, disappointed.

 

The gaunt, thin man turns out to be the caretaker of the synagogue. I have forgotten his name (a pity, but then, I am bad with names), but I will call him Sam in this piece. Short for Samuel, which is as good a Jewish name as any. Sam is befitting, also because it is the name of the person who built this synagogue nearly two and a half centuries ago – Samual Diwekar.

Sam leads me up four steps into a small verandah, where a mesh screen is keeping away the blinding sunlight and bringing in a semblance of cool. A Marathi newspaper is lying open on a reclining chair.

 

‘Not many people come here anymore’, he says. ‘Service is held only on Saturdays.’ After a pause, he goes on with a wistful glimmer in his eyes ‘But earlier, it wasn’t like this. This place used to be crowded, with people coming and going. Many services used to be held those days.’

I had been so mesmerized by the faraway look in his eyes, that I had forgotten where I was for a moment. His mention of services past instantly recalls me to the present. I remember that I have finally traced the oldest synagogue in the city of Mumbai, a synagogue that was built in 1796. Who would have thought that deep in the bosom of this city lay a building of such historic and cultural value? A building that was the temporal centre of a once-thriving community, that now seems to be counting its last days in India.

And in a way, Sam is the live-in custodian of this cultural heritage today. The lines etched deep on his face, his furrowed brow, his bony frame and the cap perched atop his pate are all still vivid in my memory. As is his slightly melancholic look, his rheumy eyes and mournful tone.

I can imagine him staying in this building almost the whole day, every day, hardly stepping out other than to buy certain essentials. Would he be getting any social visitors at all, I wonder? And what about family? There is something about Sam that hints that he is a loner, withdrawn from the world. Whether he actually is one or not, I don’t know. But stray phrases he lets drop over the next hour only emphasize this feeling.

I speculate that Sam’s personal frame of mind mirrors that of the entire Jewish community in India. Once a large, thriving community, they have now been reduced to a few clusters here and there: in Mumbai, Thane, Pune and Kerala, for instance. While the last remaining Jews of Fort Kochi in Kerala have entered the pages of tourist guidebooks, those in Mumbai have escaped that attention. Indeed, when I was trying to trace this synagogue, I found that most people I asked (even locals and frequent travelers to this city) didn’t know of its existence.

Sam takes me around the medium-sized prayer hall. He points out the tiles, the wooden benches and the polished, old-fashioned lamps hung from the ceiling. Wooden shelves have been ranged along the walls and contain manuscripts, religious texts and various other things associated with running a synagogue. Right in the middle of the room is the Bimah, the raised platform akin to the pulpit of a church, from which the Rabbi reads out the Torah, the religious text. The hall has been maintained well and the floor polished to a shine, though there are small signs of structural decay on the walls. I spot the Torah resting on a tabernacle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding the atmosphere utterly peaceful, I sit down on one of the benches in meditative silence. A few minutes later, I step out of the hall and into the tiny porch, to find Sam deep inside the Marathi newspaper. Not much of a talker is he. He answers my questions in fits and starts, his talk punctuated by grunts and silences. But he does unspool for me the story of this synagogue, the oldest in Mumbai.

It is a curious fact that the Jews of Mumbai have Tipu Sultan, the erstwhile ruler of Mysore and a devout Muslim, to thank for this place of worship.

Back in the late 18th century, Samuel Diwekar and his brother Isaac were captured by Tipu Sultan’s troops in the Anglo-Mysore War. Just as they were about to be condemned to death, Tipu asked him which religion they belonged to. On hearing that they were from the Bene Israel community, Tipu’s mother asked him to pardon them because she had read about this community in the Koran. Tipu let them go unharmed. The brothers Diwekar returned to Mumbai and built this synagogue as a gesture of thanks to the almighty. Which is why they named it ‘Shar Harahamim’, which translates to ‘gate of mercy’ in Hebrew. In Marathi, it is called ‘Dayache Dwar’. The synagogue had originally been built in the Esplanade area, but was rebuilt in its present location in 1860. Fittingly, this street has been named Samual Street, as a nod at the good soul who gave the local Jewish community a prayer house.

 

 

Sam gives me another nugget from (recent) history. Apparently, the locals have always had another appellation for the synagogue – one that is easier on the tongue and far more colloquial. They simply called it ‘juna mashid’ or ‘juna masjid‘ (meaning ‘old prayer house’ in Marathi, the primary local language). And when the Central Railway authorities wanted to name a railway station they had built nearby, they didn’t have to look far. They promptly named it ‘Masjid Bunder’.

Over the years, most of the Bene Israel Jews migrated to Israel. Others went further West to settle down in the USA. Yet others have co-mingled beautifully with the locals of Mumbai, taking Maharashtrian surnames and speaking Marathi well. Only that they continue to be ardent Jews, professing their faith quietly within the confines of their homes and their last few prayer houses such as this one.

Much like Sam, the keeper of an entire community’s memories and its cultural legacy. Sam, who has built his own little world within the confines of the synagogue.

 

 

 

Fact file

  • To reach the synagogue, take a Central or Harbour Railway local train plying towards CST (Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj railway station, also known as VT). Get off at Masjid Bunder station, which is the one before CST. Get out of the station on the Eastern side (or ask someone to direct you to Samuel street or the synagogue itself). Samual Street is a 5-minute walk from the station.  Turn into Samuel Street and look out for a faded yellow building with a bright blue door. It actually looks like a house. That is the Shaar Harahamim synagogue.
  • This neighbourhood is known as Mandvi. Like I have said in the post, be prepared to walk through a crowded, noisy market. 🙂
  • You can also spot the synagogue by the six-pointed Star of David on the building.
  • Since certain Jewish establishments in Mumbai were attacked in 2008, this synagogue has been provided police protection. So, don’t baulk at the sight of armed policemen sitting in a booth/tent opposite the synagogue. If they ask you questions, just say that you are a tourist come to visit the synagogue. Show them your photo ID.
  • Dress conservatively, since this is a place of worship. No shorts or short skirts.
  • At the synagogue, keep your voice low (again, because it is a place of worship and also because the caretaker feels uncomfortable with raised voices. Remember, he lives here in silence for practically the whole week, week after week.).
  • Inside the synagogue, you are free to walk around or sit down on one of the benches. However, please do not touch any of the artefacts or religious objects.
  • Bombay (Mumbai) is very hot and humid from March to June, after which the monsoon kicks in and the roads frequently get flooded. The best time to go, therefore, is between September and March.

Varanasi through my eyes – a photo feature

Travel and Places

It is supposed to be one of the oldest cities in the world that have been continuously inhabited. Some passionate locals claim that it is the oldest such city in the world. For the Hindus, it is the holiest of holies, the gateway to heaven and therefore, the preferred departure point for their final journey.

Varanasi must be one of the most storied cities in the world, one of the truly great cities. To put it mildly, it is an overwhelming city that assaults your senses. It is possible to decode Varanasi at different levels, depending on how deep you want to look, what your worldview is and which aspect of the city you encounter during your visit. For instance, while it is revered by many for its spiritual overtones, it is reviled by many others at the same time. Reviled for being another grimy, crowded, chaotic Indian city and for the various shady operators who try to rip tourists off.

But revere it or revile it, you cannot be indifferent towards it.

In ancient times, this city was known by the name ‘Kashi’. Even today, Hindus across the world refer to their trip to this city as ‘Kashi yatra’. Weddings in the South Indian Iyer community feature a ritual known as ‘Kashi yatra’, in which the groom symbolically renounces this material world and embarks on a journey to Kashi to live in abstinence for the rest of his life. Until, of course, the bride’s family manages to ‘convince’ him and bring him back.

In time, it got a second name ‘Varanasi’ and a third ‘Banaras’. Not many know that ‘Varanasi’ is the conjoined result of the names of two rivers that flow by the city: Varuna and Assi.

Look beneath its spiritual cloak and you will discern several little known facts about this city. For instance, the famous queen Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi was born here. But today, her place of birth lies forgotten and forlon in a corner of this city. Varanasi offers you some of the best vegetarian food, especially chaat. The city is home to a fine architectural legacy left behind by erstwhile rulers and noblemen. Just 12 kms (8 miles) away likes the tiny town of Sarnath, where Gautam Buddha gave his first sermon after gaining enlightenment. And finally, it is a hub for tabla-making (the tabla is the chief percussion instrument in Hindustani classical music).

So friends, here is Varanasi in its various shades. Hope you enjoy this photo essay. Please leave a comment after the post. And if you want to know anything more about this city or plan your trip to it, I will do my best to help you.

P.S. These photos were taken when I was not yet a good photographer. I was still learning the ropes. Still, I want to share them with you to bring out the various shades of this interesting city. So, bear with me on this please.  🙂

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At the Kal Bhairav temple, a vendor looks out for tourists who will buy his wares as an offering to the Lord.

 

Devotees inside the Kal Bhairav temple. The deep red of the pillars and the walls give the temple a very tasteful look. This temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva in a fierce incarnation of Kaal (meaning both ‘fate’ & ‘time’ in Hindi). He wears a garland of skulls and wields a club made of peacock feathers.

 

Flowers and sweets on sale.  The flowers to appease the Gods and the sweets to appease your tummy. 🙂

 

Dusk falls on one of the ghats lining the holy river Ganga.

 

You are in queue for salvation. A corpse lying on the steps of the ghat, waiting for its turn to be burned. Afterwards, the ashes will be scattered in the Ganga.

Burning pyres. It is indeed true that even this supposedly noble act of cremating a body has been turned into a racket in Varanasi. Those who want the body of a loved one consigned to the flames here reconcile themselves to touting, ‘commissions’ and a long waiting line.

 

The faded inscription on this board is the only indication of the historic importance of this place. Rani Lakshmi Bai was born in 1828 in a house that stood here.

 

The Lal Darwaza, one of the entrances to the Ramnagar Fort, built by the erstwhile ruler of Banaras, Raja Balwant Singh, in the 18th century.

 

The chequered lines of the pathways and lawns inside the Ramnagar Fort. The Fort was also known as ‘Kashi naresh ka qila’ (meaning ‘the fort of the lord of Kashi’ in Hindi.)

One of the viewing galleries inside the fort.

 

And quietly flows the Ganga, watched over by the fort. The pavilions on the rampart of the fort give you beautiful views of the river.

 

Symmetrical lines and contours inside the fort.

 

A royal pavilion overlooking the Ganga.

 

Boats waiting to take tourists across the river.

 

 

The lovely ornate entrance to the Buddhist monastery in Sarnath, 8 miles from Varanasi.

The Buddha. Need I say more?

 

This mural on a wall of the monastery shows the Buddha in deep meditation.

 

The more-than 2000 year old Bodhi tree under which The Buddha is said to have delivered his first sermon after attaining nirvana.

 

More murals on the walls of the monastery.

 

 

A Buddhist monk of the Theravada order from Sri Lanka.

 

Buddhist women from Sri Lanka, who are on a pilgrimage to important sites in India. Buddhists from South Asian and South East Asian countries flock to places that feature prominently in the Buddha’s life. Sarnath is definitely one among them.

 

Wind horses, as the prayer flags are also called, are supposed to carry the prayers of devotees to the lord.

 

The Sarnath temple, seen from a distance.

 

A long message inscribed on a stone slab, the interesting feature being that it is in the Mangolian script.

 

Devotees make it a point to turn the prayer wheels.

Votive offerings for the Buddha. Offerings range from bowls of water (considered the purest offering) to flowers and small cups of butter. Curiously, even soft drinks are offered by some people.

 

The prayer hall. A photo of the Dalai Lama is placed at the centre, flanked by two rows of seats for the chanting priests. When I visited, prayers were being chanted for a peaceful and prosperous new year.

 

This bell weights two tons. That’s right, two tons. Put up in the deer park in Sarnath, it tolls twice daily. Apparently, it can be heard 4 kilometres away.

 

 

 

 

 

Two other views of the Sarnath temple.

The Old Delhi food trail – Part 1

Travel and Places

Hidden in the labyrinthine lanes of Old Delhi are some of the best food spots of the city. They are high on history, taste and atmosphere.

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The mere mention of Old Delhi conjures up vivid images of a crowded bazaar (traditional market), old buildings from the Mughal era and wonderful, aromatic food. Take away even one of these elements and the Old Delhi picture will not be complete.

For me, Delhi is home because one half of my family lives there. So, while I live in Bangalore, I definitely end up making a ‘family pilgrimage’ to Delhi at least once a year. During my trip in October 2016, I took time off to explore the streets of Old Delhi. I was especially interested in the decades-old eateries that have been Old Delhi’s pride. In fact, many of them were set up in the early 1900s, making them nearly a century old. Some others are about a hundred and fifty years old and counting. With so many years behind them, you are talking serious history. Each of these joints has secret family recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation. Every one of them also has one or two signature dishes that they claim will beat competitors hollow. Facts like these add to the allure of these eateries. No wonder then, that they accumulated a large number of loyalists much before social media popularized the concepts of fan base and followers.

Make no mistake, given the character of Old Delhi, these eateries are all dives. Nothing fancy when it comes to ambience here. People throng them only for the taste of their food, their history and the ‘atmosphere’. Without much further ado therefore, let’s attend to business, shall we?

Nathu Ram Kachoriwaala

We got off the metro at Chandi Chowk and exited the station through a narrow gully (lane) that leads deeper into the Chandi Chowk market. A couple of minutes later, we spot a Hanuman temple and right opposite that, under the shade of a large tree, is Nathu Ram’s food stall. The ‘stall’ is actually a large tarpaulin sheet that has been spread under the branches of the tree. Cooks are at work under the canopy, one frying jalebis, another frying kachoris. A couple of attendants are helping the cooks out. A few rickety wooden tables stand desultorily, with customers gorging from small, stitched-leaf bowls known as donney in Hindi.

 

Nathu Ram has been feeding hungry souls for more than seven decades. Nobody (including the guy at the counter) seems to know exactly when it was set up. Frankly, nobody bothers. What they do bother about though, is the food that is being doled out.

While the menu nailed to a wooden pillar announces a dozen dishes, most customers ask for one thing first: bedmi puris. We do the same. A couple of minutes later, we are handed out donnays with piping hot, crisp puris, accompanied by aloo subzi (potato curry).  Bedmi puris are palm-sized fluffy breads made from whole wheat flour (atta). The dough has been infused with spicy lentils and asafoetida (known in Hindi as ‘heeng’). The aloo subzi has small pieces of potato in a spicy, watery gravy. I have had this subzi at various places in North India, but the variant found in Old Delhi has a unique taste and flavor.

 

 

Given the size of the puris, we nail several before drawing a deep breath and taking a break. We are sweating profusely, partly because of the heat, but also because of the spice in the food. Talk of being in sweaty heaven(exclamation).

A pair of puris with unlimited refills of aloo subzi comes for Rs. 24/-. If that isn’t cheap, what is?

 

Kanhaiyalal Durga Prasad Dixit

Next, we wend our way to Gali Parathewali (Hindi for ‘paratha lane’; making it amply clear as to what life here is all about), which lies a short distance away. On the way, we pass Shishganj Sahib, a famous gurudwara.

The history of Gali Parathewali goes back nearly two centuries to the mid-nineteenth century. Though the character and complexion of this street has changed considerably over the decades, a handful of the old eateries remain. They are each run by the sixth or seventh generation of Brahmin families from Uttar Pradesh (especially, the Allahabad belt), a fact they take great pride in. It is to one of these that we head this morning.

‘Kanhaiyalal Durga Prasad Dixit’ announced a large board at the entrance to the humble eatery. The fact that it was set up in 1875 is mentioned prominently. The insides of the eatery have been jazzed up a little with lights that are too bright. The cook is at work near the entrance, making – what else – parathas.  You can play safe by asking for the regular aloo, gobhi, methi and mooli parathas. Or, you could get adventurous by ordering one of the more intriguing variants: nimbu, gajar, mutter, papad, kela, karela, tamatar and mewa.

Our gastric juices start flowing again (never mind that we have just stuffed ourselves with puris). We seat ourselves and order three plates of parathas, which arrive a few minutes later. Each plate comprises two small parathas, accompanied by three curries and some pickled vegetables.  Everything on the plate is delicious. We polish the food off in no time, before ordering a few more plates. The parathas are crisp and stuffed well with the vegetables of your choice.

 

A plate of parathas sets you back by about Rs. 60 or 70, depending upon the variant you choose. The price is steep, but worth it, considering the wonderful taste and the fact that you get repeats of the accompanying curries and pickle. Parathewali gali is somewhat overrated, but still worth a visit once in many months.

Pandit Gaya Prasad Madan Mohan

Deciding that our tummies needed a respite after that overload of puris and parathas, we walk a few paces from Kanhaiyalal to Panditji’s hole-in-the-wall that serves luscious rabdi and lassi (to be explained). The lassi (thick, sweetened, churned curd) comes in a tall, stout steel tumbler, while the rabdi (thickened, sweet milk topped with a thick layer of cream) is served in a small bowl made (oddly) of aluminium foil. While lassi is available in most parts of India these days, you must have it in North India, especially in Punjab or Old Delhi, to savour it in its full, authentic glory. It is refrigerated and served chilled. The drops of moisture on the outside of the steel tumbler could well we a reflection of your thirst.

 

 

 

 

Our thirst slaked and the fire in our tummy doused for the moment, we took a stroll through the Chandni Chowk market with its small, old shops and pavement hawkers. Cycle rickshaws and autos deftly wove through the congested thoroughfare like only they can.

About an hour later, we were ready for our next gastronomical foray. And that’s how we landed up at Kanwarji’s Restaurant.

Kanwarji’s Restaurant

You can’t go to Old Delhi and return without having had the chholey bhaturey. Kanwarji’s Restaurant is a narrow outlet, with sweets arranged in shelves right at the entrance. You can take one of the few seats laid out inside or opt to stand on the pavement and enjoy your food. We choose to do the former.

Chholey bhaturey are as much a part of Delhi’s culture as the Red Fort and India Gate. If you ask me to single out one dish you should have on your next trip to Delhi, I would recommend this dish without batting an eyelid. Every area of Delhi has several joints serving this staple, and each has its own taste and flavor.

As if to demonstrate this point, the bhaturey at Kanwarji’s are oval (you get them round everywhere else). The dough of the bhaturey is infused with a mild mixture of asafetida and something else that I could not quite place. The chholey is a dark brown slurry, with chickpeas (channa) floating in it. Onion rings and pickled long green chillies (which are staple accompaniments to dishes in Delhi) complete the ensemble.

 

 

I am recalling all these details for you in retrospect now. At that time though, we just waded into the food. The next time we looked up was fifteen minutes later, after we had picked our plates clean. After that, all we could do for the next few minutes was sit back and sigh in deep contentment.

A plate of chholey bhaturey here comes for Rs. 60/-.

 Pandit Mittanlalji Lemonwaley (aka Mittanlalji Bantawaley)

Banta, as it is known to locals in Delhi, is lemon soda to which a pinch of black salt has been added for that tangy twist. It is much sought-after as a great refresher in the torrid climes of Delhi. A reasonably tall glass of cold banta comes for Rs. 15/-. Since the shop (like all other shops in Chandni Chowk) is actually a crevice on the old wall, there is no shade to stand under. Gulping down the cold drink standing in the glare of the hot sun is an interesting experience.

 

Natraj Dahi Bhalla Corner

And now, for some famous dahi bhalla. Located at the mouth of a lane that leads to Chandi Chowk metro station, Natraj has been dishing out dahi bhallas since 1940. A bhalla is a fried, sour ball of gram flour. After it is cut into small pieces, onto which fresh, thick curd is poured. This is then topped up with generous doses of green chutney (made from crushed mint leaves) and khatti-meethi chutney (sweet-sour chutney made from tamarind) and served to you. I shovel a piece of the bhalla into my mouths and feel a soft explosion of flavours hit my palate. By now, it is well past noon and the sun is high up. Thanks to our prolonged culinary assault since morning, our stomachs are bulging and our knees buckling. We are tottering on the pavement. Much as we’d love to have a second helping of the bhalley, we are forced to keep that for another day.

 

 

 

For now, we just want to head home and crash. But before that, one last stop.

Old Famour Jalebiwala

Several decades ago, Dariba Kalan was famous throughout Delhi for its goldsmiths and jewellery shops. Though many of them remain in business, many others have shut shop. At the entrance to this narrow lane is a shop whose business has nothing to do with gold or jewels. Welcome to Old Famous Jalebi (heck, I am not using these words as adjectives, but as a proper noun. This is the name of the shop, you see?) When your outlet is old and famous, why complicate matters by naming it anything other than ‘Old Famous?’ The shop has been around since 1884.

 

 

Thick juicy, golden-coloured rings of fried batter lie in trays, waiting to be bitten into. A pot-bellied cook is taking out fried maida rings from the cauldron and dunking them into a large vessel containing sugar syrup (known as ‘chashni’ in Hindi). A crowd of about fifteen is jostling for space where there isn’t any. Here, you have to pay first and then take your goodies. Not being in any shape to eat them there, we ask them to pack a kilo of jalebis for us.

 

We will enjoy them in the comfort of home, sprawled on comfortable beds. And then promptly go on the blink.

The vitals

  • Old Delhi is a city within a city, a world in itself. In its warren of narrow streets are several food joints like the ones I have described above. One trip is not enough to do full justice this area. You could therefore make a beginning by visiting the above-mentioned eateries and then come back another day to continue your culinary sojourn. After my next visit to Delhi, I will upload Part 2 of the Old Delhi Food Trail.
  • By and large, most eateries here are open from 8 am to past dusk. You can therefore visit any time in between. The trail I have described here took us about four hours to complete at a leisurely pace.
  • Just keep the heat of the city in mind when you plan this trip. The temperature stays above 40 degrees Celsius for most of the year and the humidity is high.
  • The best way to go to Chandni Chowk is by the metro. Taking along a private vehicle would be a bad idea, because you won’t get a place to park. This area is congested with a capital C.

Five reasons you should go to Fort Kochi right away

Travel and Places

Fort Kochi, the most interesting part of Kochi city in central Kerala, deserves your attention. To me, it is one of the most interesting parts of Kerala, infinitely more interesting than Ernakulam, its cousin across the bay. Ernakulam is your regular Indian city, forever caught in an urban tizzy. It has lost much of its cultural identity and sanity over the past two decades.

Fort Kochi, on the other hand, is a different world; an oasis of cultural and historical riches that soothe the soul of the discerning traveler. Here, you will find a co-mingling of several histories, because a number of dynasties and communities have left their imprint on this tiny piece of land.

For many centuries, Kochi was ruled by several native Malayali chieftains and kings. It is a documented fact that Kochi state was formed in 1142 AD, when the kingdom of the erstwhile ruler Kulasekhara, broke up. Not much is however known about this kingdom until the late fifteenth century, when Vasco da Gama landed on the coast of Calicut.

Fort Kochi came into existence only after the arrival of the Portuguese in India. A few years after they made landfall on the Calicut coastin 1498, they ventured south and built a settlement on a land parcel gifted to them by the then king of Kochi. Their interests lay mainly in trade. They were keen to ship back pepper and other spices. Soon after they reached Kochi, they fortified it with permission from the Kochi Raja and named it Fort Emmanuel. When the modern city of Kochi was formed much, much later, Fort Emmanuel was renamed Fort Kochi. Except for a bastion and a cannon (which you’d be hard put to find), nothing remains of the fort today. But the town has emerged into a vibrant tourist destination.

I give you five specific reasons why you should go there right away.

One: the Portuguese heritage and the churches

The Portuguese were aggressive conquistadors. At the same time, they were prolific builders too. Wherever they went, they put up all manner of beautiful structures – including stately mansions, churches and forts. Fort Kochi is a superb example of the architectural legacy of the Portuguese.

I love two things the most. The first is the way in which they beautifully blended Portuguese and European sensibilities with the native Keralan architectural style. And so, you will find tall columns, arches and gables in houses that are roofed with local tiles. And since no house in Kerala is deemed complete without a backyard and a well, you will find a lush backyard and a deep well too.

Stroll along the streets of Fort Kochi and you will see what I mean. Several of these buildings have been converted into cafes, art galleries and guest houses, which is great. It means that tourism is being built on the strong foundation of a heritage conserved. Bishop’s House, Cabral Yard, Bastian Bungalow and several hotels around the Vasco da Gama Square are fine examples of Indo-Portuguese architecture.

The other thing I love about the Portuguese are their churches. Here, you will find solid masonry, tall spires and belfrys, exquisite stained glass, unshakeable wooden furniture and beautiful murals and frescoes.

Fort Kochi has the best collection of medieval churches in India, all within a few miles of one another. From the church where Vasco da Gama was first interred after his death (St. Francis Church, 1516 AD) to Santa Cruz Basilica (1505 AD), Our Lady of Life Church (1650 AD), Our Lady of Hope Church (Vypin, 1605 AD) are some of the best churches I have been to. It is a pleasure to sit in the pews in silence for a bit, then gaze up at the murals, take in the liturgical furniture and finally, stroll around in the church yard. I get goosebumps when I find tombstones dating back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Speaking of churches, Fort Kochi has one of the most intriguing museums I have ever seen. The Indo-Portuguese Museum is located inside the compound of Bishop House and contains a number of rare artefacts from the Portuguese era. With one important twist: these artefacts are all liturgical in nature; which means, they pertain to the history of the Catholic Church in India. From medieval versions of the Bible, chalices, crosses, altars and vestments, they are all on display here. If you love love the intersection of history and religion, you will love this museum for sure.

Two: the beaches

Fort Kochi is located bang by the sea. It is home to a few lovely beaches where the sand is golden brown and very clean. Apart from what is known as the Fort Kochi beach, there is a beach in Vypin and another in Cherai. Fort Kochi beach does get crowded in the evening, but you can still have a lot of fun. The crowd is never troublesome. Cherai and Vypin beaches are lesser known and therefore, much less crowded. You have to be very careful though, because the waters are very rough. We have built sand castles, jogged on the wet sand and played Frisbee here.

Being on the West coast, these beaches give you great views of sunset. Finish frolicking in the water by 5:30 pm or so, and then settle down on the sands. Watch the sun slowly sink into the horizon.  The orange and pink glow it casts on the waters is magical indeed! Words have no place at moments like these. I love basking in this fading glow. At times like this, I truly feel one with the universe.

Three: the food and the restaurants

Where there is the sea, there is bound to be excellent seafood. And so it is with Fort Kochi. Eateries here offer you a wide variety of fish, in addition to prawns, squids and crabs. And you can have them fried or curried, cooked in one of several ways in the traditional Kerala style.Pair these dishes with the flaky, crisp Kerala porotta or dosaiand you will reach heaven in this life itself.

Or, you could order a naadan (‘country/local/traditional’ in Malayalam) meal, which is served on a plantain leaf, and ask for a non-vegetarian dish on the side. The meal, known as ‘oonu’ in Malayalam, typically consists of two or three vegetable preparations (such as avial, thoran, kaalan, etc.), sambar, rasam, spiced buttermilk, papad, banana chips and pickle, all this to be eaten with nutrient-rich parboiled rice. Some restaurants add a few other items to this ensemble.

My preferred place for lunch or dinner is a sea-fronting restaurant with excellent views of the harbor and the bay. To eat and drink while watching boats and mammoth ships pass by is an interesting experience, to say the least. Seagull Restaurant on Calvathy Road is my all-time favourite for a beer and meal.

For breakfast, stick to delicious local food options like puttu, appam and dosai, served with kadala curry, meen curry or vegetable stew. My kind of breakfast is eaten steaming hot at a street cart, with the aroma of the food mingling with the chatter of locals who are digging in before plunging into their workday.I love to end the meal with a cup of strong Kerala style tea.

Though some eateries serve Continental food and noodles too, I give these a wide berth, because they don’t make it well. It just seems to be a pretence to serve foreign tourists.

Four: the atmospheric hotels

Nowhere else (at least in India) have I seen so many lovely, centuries-old buildings that have been converted into hotels, B&Bs and guest houses. And each one of these buildings has many tales to tell. Koder House, for instance, belonged to a Jewish family in the 19th century, before it was sold by the last descendent. It is now the lovely hotel with a red façade on Vasco da Gama Square. Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel was the site of the old lighthouse of Kochi and the residence of a senior official of the British empire. The Old HarbourHotel belonged to the Dutch way back in the eighteenth century. I could go on like this.

These hotels are high on history and atmosphere, something you’d not find in a regular hotel.

Five: the native art forms of Kerala

Take in a cultural performance at the Kerala Kathakali Centre, located in a tiny winding lane near the Santa Cruz Basilica. A few months back, I spent an enchanting evening watching a Kalaripayittu performance, an ancient martial art form of Kerala. The Centre hosts vocal and instrumental concerts and Kathakali recitals also.

Another venue for such performances is Greenix, which has two auditoria. One of them is located near the bus stand and across from the boarding point for the ferries to Vypin (don’t ask me why, but these ferries are called ‘Jhankar’). Greenix’s second centre is located onCalvathy Road, near a landmark building called Pepper House.

 

When you are there….

  1. Hop onto the large motorized barge, locally known as ‘Jhankar’ and take a five minute ride to the island of Vypin. Once there, take an auto or a bus to the lighthouse and beach.
  2. From Vypin bus stand (which is close to where the Jhankar will drop you), you can take a bus to Cherai junction and from there, hop into an auto to go to Cherai beach. If you don’t like buses much, you could take an auto from Vypin bus stand itself. The ride to Cherai will take between half an hour and 45 minutes. Cherai beach is unspoilt, clean and not crowded on most days.
  3. From Vypin, you could take an auto or bus to Vallarpadam island and visit the beautiful medieval church there.
  4. If you are interested in railway history and trivia, you should visit Cochin Harbour Terminus on Willingdon Island. Until about 1997, long distance express and freight trains used to ply from here. But dwindling business on this route sealed the fate of the terminus. Today, this small abandoned railway station holds a thousand memories and stories. An old weighing machine, fare lists, train schedules, railway tracks, a ticket window…..all these stand mute witnesses to the passage of an era.
  5. I’d also recommend a visit to the Cochin Marine Museum (Willingdon Island), Jew Town and the spice market (both in Mattancherry).
  6. And of course, of course, you must visit the Chinese fishing nets. If you go about 5:30 or 6 am, you can watch the fishermen operate it and cast their nets. It is believed that Chinese traders erected these cantilevered nets a few centuries ago. Little would they have guessed that these nets would one day become the most iconic symbol of Fort Kochi.

 

The vitals

Getting there: Fly to Kochi International Airport and take a taxi to Fort Kochi from there. Or, take a train to Ernakulam from wherever you live. From Ernakulam, take an auto or a bus for an overland ride to Fort Kochi. A more interesting way, however, is to take an auto to the Ernakulam boat jetty and hop onto a public ferry from there.

Shacking up: Like I mentioned earlier, Fort Kochi doesn’t want for accommodation options. From backpacking hostels to luxury hotels, you will find everything here. I think the most interesting way of experiencing the place is to plump for a seaside luxury hotel (high priced, obviously) or a homestay (mid-priced). The Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel is one of the best luxury hotels I have stayed at. A sea-facing restaurant, an al-fresco lounge, a swimming pool and lovely old-fashioned rooms make this a charming place. The food and service are very good too (in particular, the enormous breakfast that is part of the room tariff).

From many forays to Fort Kochi though, I know that the following are also excellent options:

Koder House(luxury; not seaside, but near the sea and the Chinese fishing nets)

The Cochin Club (mid-priced, but very comfortable and almost luxurious)

Tower House Hotel (luxury; not seaside but near the sea and the Chinese fishing nets)

Brunton Boatyard Hotel (luxury, seaside)

Vintage Inn (at Jnaliparambu Junction; low-priced, but clean and comfortable)

Happy Camper (at Jnaliparambu Junction; a backpacker’s hostel)

Grub

Here is some more dope, beyond what I have told you above. A couple of my favourite eateries here are:

Seagull: seaside restaurant and bar, best known for its Kerala style food. Try to go at around 5:30 pm and catch a table on the re-purposed boat pier. Sit back for the next few hours and watch myriad interesting sights as you guzzle cold beer and enjoy your food. It is not everyday that you get to have a beer watching a glorious sunset or a mother of a ship pass close by.

Shanu’s food cart: This is where you should go, for a cheap, authentic, delicious local-style breakfast. The cart is permanently stationed adjacent to the Tower House Hotel on Vasco da Gama Square. You will invariably find a crowd here from say 6 am every morning. Gorge on puttu, appam, kadala curry and meencurry. Once you reach the Square, ask a local to direct you to Shanu’s thattukada (‘thattukada’ is Malayalam for food cart).

Getting around

This settlement is small enough (and of course beautiful enough) to cover on foot. This is how I move around whenever I am there. Other good option is to hire a cycle or scooter by the day. Auto rickshaws (known as tuktuks in certain countries) are available too.

Since Kerala is a conservative state, please cover up adequately.Since the weather is extremely hot and humid for six months a year, light, summery clothes would be your best bet.

With the influx of foreign tourists, some local eateries/bars.auto drivers have started acting snooty towards Indian tourists. Which is sad. I have encountered such specimens a few times. So, if you are an Indian visiting this place, be warned. Remember to not take it personally. If you find someone behaving unreasonably, just give him a piece of your mind (politely, but firmly) and move on to another auto, eatery, hotel. There are plenty of options.

When to go

The heat here is torrid from March to June. If you go during these months, you can roam around in the morning and evening, and retreat to your room in the afternoon.

The best time is from mid-June to mid-August (when the place is drenched by the monsoon rains) and from November to February (when the weather is somewhat pleasant).