LODI GARDEN

Winter is a great time to go sightseeing in Delhi. Before winter 2020 begins, we felt we must finish blogging about our winter 2019 sightseeing!

Tomb of Sikandar Lodi

We post about Lodi Garden today. We had been to the Lodi Garden earlier but never with a camera. We had to make amends. Also called Lodhi Garden, Lodi Gardens & Lodhi Gardens, this attraction in the heart of the Indian capital combines heritage & nature effortlessly.

We spent a winter afternoon here, sightseeing & soaking in the sun.

Heritage

Shisha Gumbad

The Lodi Garden is a complex of gardens & monuments protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. The structures are weather-beaten but standing strong. The main monuments in the complex are Bara Gumbad, Mohamed Shah’s Tomb, Shisha Gumbad, & Tomb of Sikandar Lodi.

Trivia – The monuments were originally not a part of a complex. They were standalone structures in a village called Khairpur. It was only in the early 20th century that the four monuments were confined together as a park.

Bara Gumbad

Friday Mosque flanking the Bara Gumbad

The Bara Gumbad is a 1490 construction when the Lodi dynasty ruled over Delhi. Out of all the domes in Delhi, this Gumbad is the earliest one. It is flanked by a Friday mosque on one side & a मेहमान खाना (guesthouse) on the other. Both structures viewed together give a symmetry to the Gumbad (though they are nonidentical).

The Bara Gumbad was, perhaps, a gateway to the mosque. The Friday mosque arches are embellished with intricate Arabic inscriptions. It always gives us a sense of awe of the craftsmanship with which such carvings were done in stone.

Through a window in the mosque, we got a pretty frame of the Shisha Gumbad.

Mohamed Shah’s Tomb

It is said the Sayyid’s could not build extravagant monuments as their coffers were diminished. Mohamed Shah’s Tomb has an octagonal chamber which signifies a royal tomb. The chamber is surrounded by an arcade. Buttresses reinforce octagon corners.

We did not manage to see Mohamed Shah’s Tomb on this excursion.

Shisha Gumbad

Shisha Gumbad

The approach to the Shisha Gumbad is lined with small trees & bushes.

In the absence of an inscription, it is unknown whose tomb this Gumbad is, but historians suggest either an unknown part of the Lodi family or Bahlul Lodi (Lodi dynasty founder & Sultan). The latter seems unlikely to us – why would the founder of the dynasty have an unmarked resting place?

Ventilators form a feature on the outer walls. From outside, the Shisha Gumbad appears to be a two – storied structure; however, it has only one floor. Its magic lies in the ceramic tiles that decorate its exterior. These tiles give the Shisha Gumbad its name (Shisha = glass).

Jharokha on the outer wall of Shisha Gumbad

At one point of time, the ceramic tiles lined the entirety of the Shisha Gumbad top, but many have fallen off since. We tried to visualize how it would have looked then. A corbel entrance door frame made us wonder if there is any ‘कारीगर’ today who can create such wonders on stone.

Ceramic Tile Work

Inside, the ceiling is decorated with Quranic inscriptions & floral designs.

Tomb of Sikandar Lodi

Stones strewn about

The Lodi Garden is a huge city park, but its enclosed monuments are situated close to each other. Sikandar Lodi’s Tomb is in the middle of a large, outstanding garden & tall boundary walls. The Tomb was built by his son Ibrahim Lodi upon the former’s death. Its octagonal design stands out. The architectural style is Ind-Islamic.

WIP!

Stones strewn around made us think of probable restoration work. Our conjecture turned out correct when we spotted a ‘Work in Progress’ sign.

Athpula

The beautifully – curved Athpula

As we made our way back to the car park, our last stop of the day was a water body. This lake connected River Yamuna to Sikandar Lodi’s Tomb. The Athpula is placed diagonally across this stream bed. In the Lodi Garden, this bridge is the only structure made by Mughals.

Reflection on the stream bed

The Athpula gets its name from the eight (‘ath’; ‘pula’ = bridge) pillars that support it. It has a beautiful curving shape.

Other Structures

Gateway to Rose Garden

A walled gateway looked appealing to us from afar. It had beautiful paintings in floral patterns. The gateway opened into a garden abloom with roses. There were a narrow staircase going to a ‘roof’, but we did not find it to be a great idea to ascend those dilapidated, high steps.

A rose by any other name…

Almost at an end of the Lodi Garden, we saw a turret. It seemed it would have served as a watchtower. The two- storey tower had a jharokha – style window on the first level.

Another restored mosque painted bright red! Its enclosure seemed to have disappeared over time. It had a triple arched entrance & a vaulted roof.

Color Me Red!
Elsewhere in the Lodi Garden, you can find mysterious sculptures strewn about.

An aspect that is bound to stun you is the symmetry in all the structures.

Water Lilies

Nature

Highlight of Our Walk – Red Naped Ibis

Lodi Garden is home to many kinds of flora & fauna. We must complement the horticulture department for keeping the gardens in a pristine condition. The lush greenery makes it a magnet for walkers & exercise fans. Walkways have been constructed all around the garden for those wanting to stay fit amidst nature.

The symmetrical heritage was not the only one we witnessed. The trees, too, have been planted uniformly.

Flora

Glasshouse for Indoor Plants

While winter was a good time to walk around, a few trees had an eerie, shorn look. We mused how the garden must appear in monsoon. At the same time, we were privileged to see tulips in full bloom. Rows & rows of tulips! Tulips are naturally adapted to mountainous areas & temperate climates. We wondered how the Lodi Garden horticulture department manages to grow them in Delhi. In any case, we have effectively cancelled any plans of visiting Rainawari!

The eerie winter look

Folklore – Tulips have long been associated with the lovers Shirin & Farhad. It is said that where the blood of the two lovers flowed, a single tulip grows every year.

Tulip Garden

We are not too familiar with the names of plants but derive immense joy from spotting myriad kinds.

We saw a few colorful plants that reminded us of cabbage/ lettuce.

The walled gateway had a rose garden in its enclosure. Beds upon beds of roses! We felt we were in the Mughal Gardens! It is a good idea to be like a rose – armed with sharp prickles for anyone who wants to pluck us!

Rose Garden
On a tree that had dried, an artistic face had been carved.

We spotted a Chudail Papdi (Indian Elm/ Jungle Cork Tree). Its bark glows in the dark giving it a ghastly appearance.

A glasshouse had a small water body and plants surrounding it. Outside it, hardworking caretakers were taking a well-deserved break. आह! सर्दी की सुनहरी धूप… Even man’s best friend was enjoying it.

A leaf arch made for a pretty picture.
Is this a White Osteospermum?

A bamboo grove is dedicated to various bamboo species.

Spring was knocking… We saw eager bees on many flowers, ready to pollinate the garden.

Fauna

Lodi Garden is a particularly good habitat for birds. You can see migratory & resident birds here.

Domestic Goose

In the tranquil garden, the duck pond was a noisy area. While the ducks paddled quietly, their geese brethren created a ruckus! But we did spot one pensive Domestic Goose!

The highlight of our walking tour was a Red Naped Ibis. It strutted around nonchalantly, unperturbed by human presence. The Ibis used its long beak to dig out insects & worms from the mud. It was a delight to watch it!

A Little Cormorant watched the duck paddlers!
An Indian Palm Squirrel was ready to jump from its perch.
A Little Egret looked for small fish to feed on.
Dozens of Rose Ringed Parakeets flew around but only one settled on a tree for us to be able to take a shot.

Tips For Visiting

  1. Lodi Garden is in the heart of New Delhi. You can get any mode of transport to reach here. The nearest metro stations are Jor Bagh & JLN (Violet Line).
  2. The Garden is open from sunrise to sunset. It is a haven for morning walkers; so, expect crowds then.
  3. The entry is free.
  4. Given how horrid New Delhi summer is, it is ideal to visit the Lodi Garden from October to March. Or on any of those monsoon days when the weather becomes salubrious…
  5. Nooks & crannies in the Garden are hot-spots for romantic couples. Try to not get scandalized!
  6. MTNL Wi-Fi is available.
  7. Do not feed the birds!
Lodi Garden Layout

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MANDAWA

The ‘Open Air Museum’ In 12 Hours

We had been to Churu earlier. When we were drawing up our itinerary for the Rajasthan road trip, we knew we had to include another Shekhawati town. Mandawa was our fourth & last destination.

We left our Jodhpur hotel after breakfast. Jodhpur to Mandawa was close to 330 KMS. We did not halt anywhere except when needed. The road was terrible; it affected our mood negatively. But we found our solace in spotting birds along the way. We managed to click an Indian Roller & a Black Drongo.

Here is a blogpost on Mandawa.

The Evening

Art Worthy of a Museum

We were at our hotel in Mandawa by early evening. Tired from our journey, we sat under a tree & sipped on steaming masala chai. Then, we were out sightseeing. Our hotel provided us with a guide who took us around the town.

It is not just Marwar & Mewar that are rich with history; Shekhawati has its fair share too. The region is unique. Shekhawati towns are full of havelis that once were homes to rich business families. The businessmen constructed their havelis & baolis with painting on the walls, called frescoes.

The region reminds of cultural amalgamations with fresco themes ranging from Hindu motifs to Rajasthani women to Europeans wearing hats. Religion is an extremely common fresco theme. Scenes depicting Lord Krishna, His childhood antics, His Leela with Radha etc. are found commonly in the frescoes.

Frescoes depicting Lord Krishna are common.

On the other hand, when the Mandawa merchants returned from their Europe travels, they would get these frescoes made to give an idea to the local populace about life abroad.

Today, the havelis lay abandoned as the business families are now settled in Kolkata & Mumbai. A few havelis have been converted into hotels. A few others have been restored with caretakers allowing sightseers to visit. Sadly, we saw only a few caretakers take active interest in care taking.

Sightseeing is now the only way to ensure that the havelis do not remain abandoned. But, even with sightseeing, most havelis need TLC. We wished the owners would take charge. We call all Agarwal’s, Birla’s, Chokhanis, Goenkas, Jhunjhunuwalas, Ladias, Nemanis, Saraf’s to please restore their ancestral residences in Shekhawati.

The unique Shekhawati region!

A little love, a little renovation & a whole lot of old-world charm.

Now, there are no specific sightseeing ‘spots’ in Mandawa though Chokhani Haveli, Ladia Haveli & Saraf Haveli are a few of the splendid ones. The havelis are located close to each other & in narrow alleys. The best way to see the town is on foot.

So just walk around the town & see the havelis & the frescoes. You can enter a few of the havelis to see brightly colored rooms.

Look up!

Our first stop was a water well. Mandawa & its surrounding areas have several open & tube wells, highlighting the scarcity of water in this region. We could imagine the importance of the wells by seeing how beautifully the well was constructed.

Next, we explored the havelis. We discovered something new at every turn.

We climbed to a haveli rooftop & saw Mandawa Fort in the distance. It is now run as Hotel Castle Mandawa by Rajasthan Tourism.

Cultural Amalgamations

At one haveli, a bright green & yellow door caught our eyes. The door was a tourist magnet; it gave us decor goals. We saw more such beautiful doors.

Given that many havelis are neglected by their owners, it was heartening to see Saraf Haveli in good shape. It is a great example of Shekhawati art.

At one haveli, we came across evidence of Mandawa’s trading past. The town was once important, lying on the route between Delhi and Gujarat, and China and the Middle East. How did a Burmah-Shell Oil Storage & Distributing Co. of India Ltd. board find its way here?

In need of a little TLC

An enterprising caretaker had taken to selling goods (which we believed come from the haveli) to tourists.

The Kedar Mal Ladia Haveli is called ‘Golden Haveli’. It has a golden painted room which was a result of competitions to build the most opulent Havelis. Even the main gate leading inside is grand. It is fair to call the Golden Haveli a one-room museum.

A form of stained glass greeted us. This was another exquisite part of the Shekhawati havelis. Belgian Glass was embedded in the doors. We saw scenes from Indian scriptures come alive on the walls. Little gold remains on the golden room frescoes, but colors make the room lively.

Each fresco stood out in its own way.

The ‘gold’ paint has peeled off in places. But it gave us an idea how the room would have looked when it was intact.

In a few havelis, the frescoes date back to the 18th century. & naturally, these transported us to the days of yore. Mandawa is 360 degrees of art. Decoration exists on every conceivable part of the walls. Do not forget to look up as even the underside of arches have art on them. The attention to detail is astounding.

Ceiling frescoes seemed like carpets above our heads. How did people manage to paint entire tapestries on the ceiling? The outer walls have fine decoration. The inner walls are equally attractive.

A Ceiling Carpet

An interesting bit is that only the rooms in which visitors were entertained were painted. The private quarters would be kept plain.

If architecture/ art/ heritage/ history interest you, you will enjoy the havelis & kothis. The lapse of time has not taken away the grandeur. We were out of words to keep describing the frescoes. Each stood out in its own way.

After the visual extravaganza, back at our hotel, we found tourists gazing at frescoes & restoration here. We lounged by the pool enjoying a local shisha & ended the day with a homely dinner.

City – life Frescoes

The Morning

It was time to head home but only after a hearty breakfast at our hotel. Mandawa to NCR was ~290 KMS. We halted at Indulgence, Manesar for lunch. It is a food court having multiple restaurants inside its campus. Even though the campus is big, the parking is inadequate. We had to park on the side of the road itself, which is not ideal as NH8 is a heavy – traffic, high – speed highway.

Having said this, the inside is made quite well. There are food joints for every kind of palate. It is a family – friendly place. Washrooms are available & were clean. We filled our stomachs at Berco’s, Burger King & Giani’s.

So attractive!

Painted havelis & carts pulled by miniature donkeys were just a couple of sights that made Shekhawati a tourist’s paradise. The entire Rajasthan road trip was about experiencing calm in different ways. Every time we visit small cities, life magically seems to become simpler.

After an art & heritage filled road trip, we knew we would sleep easy for some time to come. Before the travel bug infected us again.

Accommodation

The Mirror of Our Dreams at Mandawa Kothi

After the bumpy ride, our accommodation in Mandawa sprang a surprise on us. Knowing that it is a small town, we were not expecting much in terms of hotel quality. But our minds were blown off by the Mandawa Kothi. Everywhere we looked, we saw art.

We thanked God for the person who decided to restore this century – old ‘Kothi’. It would have been heartbreaking to lose such art. This boutique hotel has old world charm coupled with modern amenities. Living in places that echo with history is always an enchanting experience. By staying at Mandawa Kothi for a night, we became a part of its history.

Walking under its arched gates was memorable. We had to cross three gates/ doors to get to the main living area. (We love how old houses had the concept of multiple sections.) Mandawa has been a favored location for Bollywood. A gate in the Mandawa Kothi featured in a prominent scene in the movie Bajrangi Bhaijaan.

Tourists gazing at the frescoes & restoration at Mandawa Kothi

The parking is right in front of the entrance. Mandawa Kothi has just six rooms but all have been carefully restored & upgraded with modern amenities. Our room was beautiful & spacious. There seemed to be just a handful of young men managing the hotel but ever so efficiently.

Sad, we stayed only for a night; wish we had more time at Mandawa Kothi! It felt like a home away from home.

Recommendations

Such attention to detail!
  1. Getting to Mandawa
    1. You can easily do a long weekend road trip from Delhi NCR.
    1. A train to Churu is available from Delhi. Churu to Mandawa can then be done by bus/ cab.
  2. Make your way to Mandawa between November & February. You will not be disappointed.
  3. If you visit Mandawa in winter, do remember the nights can be cold. Do not forget your woolens.
  4. Take a guide with you for the fresco sightseeing as s/ he will be able to point out details you would not notice otherwise.

Ranakpur

A Halt at The Ranakpur Jain Temple

Left Flank of the Adinatha Temple

On our Udaipur to Jodhpur stretch of the Rajasthan road trip, Ranakpur (94 KMS from Udaipur) was a halt that had to be made. P had been here earlier; there was no way N could not see the marvel that the Jain Temple was.

A photo-log from our visit to the Ranakpur Jain Temple.

Ranakpur is a village with greenery & water bodies in an otherwise largely arid Rajasthan. It is often ignored by sightseers, sandwiched as it is between Jodhpur and Udaipur. But Ranakpur holds dear its heritage & history.

The small village is known for its Jain temples dedicated to different Tirthankaras. The temples were built under the patronage of Rana Kumbha (of the Kumbhalgarh fame). Their history – Dharna Shah, a local Jain businessman, dreamed of paying homage to Lord Adinatha by building a temple in His honor. This is a common backstory of many Indian monuments. That a king or a noble dreamed of a god/ guru who either asked for a temple to be built or who pointed to the place where an idol could be found etc.

Picturesque

The temple complex is a large one with multiple temples inside. Each beautiful… But the main one is the Adinatha Temple. The first word that pops into our heads on seeing the temple is – Majestic!

The Adinatha Temple is huge. ~1450 marble pillars are needed to support its structure. At the entrance, an akichaka is carved into the ceiling. It is a man with five bodies representing fire, water, heaven, earth, and air. The akichaka guards the temple.

Life-like!

The temple is, undoubtedly, beautiful from the outside. But it is the inside beauty that amazes us. Marvelous is an understatement for the architecture. The clean, cool & quiet Ranakpur Jain Temple is a break from the overwhelming chaos that life otherwise is.

When you visit Ranakpur,

  1. Spend a night at Ranakpur if you really want to do justice to the large temple complex.
  2. Alternatively, stay at Kumbhalgarh. Cover Ranakpur from there as well as visit the Kumbhalgarh Fort & Wildlife Sanctuary. (We would really like to see its wolves!)
  3. Ranakpur is a popular day trip from Udaipur.
  4. There is a huge parking lot in the temple complex.
  5. Leather products are forbidden inside the temple.
  6. Legs must be covered when visiting the temple. Long pants are available on rent at the ticket counter in case you are wearing shorts, skirts etc. (This rule is relaxed for children.)
  7. Like we always recommend taking a guide when visiting Indian monuments, same goes for the Ranakpur Jain Temple. The guide will be able to point out unique bits. You can take an audio guide too.
  8. If you need to do photography inside, you must purchase a ticket separately for that.
  9. An on-premises canteen offers affordable Jain food.
  10. There is a market too in Ranakpur, where one can buy curios and souvenirs.
  11. October to March is the right time to visit. The rest of the year, the Sun will roast you alive!
  12. If you intend to have lunch at Ranakpur, head to Fateh Bagh. The heritage hotel has beautiful gardens & interiors and is usually sparsely occupied. And the vintage car!!
Love For All Things Old!

ROAD TRIPPING THROUGH RAJASTHAN

Living in Delhi NCR, a trip to Rajasthan becomes almost compulsory every winter. In the past, we’ve made short trips to Churu, to Jaipur, to Kishangarh, to Pushkar, to Ranthambhore, & to Sariska.

City Palace, Jaipur
City Palace, Jaipur

However, in 2019, we decided to do a proper, week long road trip of the desert state, flitting from place to place. Why a Rajasthan road trip you ask? Well, where else can you get a combination of culture, heritage, history, good food, an arid landscape, & tonnes of color?

We’d nine days to spare around Republic Day. We also have a principle of not driving more than 300 kilometers in a day. We feel it’s an optimal distance – covering fair ground, not too tiring, & gives scope to sight see on the way.

With these points in mind, we chose the route of NCR – Jaipur – Udaipur – Jodhpur – Mandawa – NCR. A few of these places were repetitive for us, but we’d not visited these as a couple. So, our itinerary looked something like this –

Amer Fort, Amer
Amer Fort, Amer

Saturday, 26 January 2019 – NCR to Jaipur (289 KMS)

We left on time, had brunch in Behror (146 KMS), & were in Jaipur by afternoon. A cup of tea later, we were out shopping & dining. Overnight in Jaipur.

Sunday, 27 January 2019 – Jaipur & Amer sightseeing

Jagdish Temple, Udaipur
Jagdish Temple, Udaipur

After breakfast, we visited City Palace & Jantar Mantar, strolled through Johari Bazar to reach Hawa Mahal & Laxmi Mishthan Bhandaar (where we’d lunch), & then to Amer (8 KMS from Jaipur) for seeing the fort and the light & sound show.

Back to Jaipur for dinner & overnight stay.

Monday, 28 January 2019 – Jaipur to Udaipur (391 KMS)

Ranakpur Jain Temple, Ranakpur
Jain Temple, Ranakpur

We began after breakfast & halted at Kishangarh (102 KMS) to buy marble products in its famed marble market. We’d made an exception today & chosen ~400 KMS. So, today was going to be a long drive. We stopped for lunch at a dhaba in Kishanpura.

We were crossing Nathdwara (248 KMS from Kishangarh) in the evening when we spontaneously took a break to visit Shrinathji. We finally reached Udaipur by late evening. After refreshing, we headed out for dinner. Overnight in Udaipur.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019 – Udaipur sightseeing

Guda Bishnoi Wildlife Safari, Jodhpur
Guda Bishnoi Wildlife Safari, Jodhpur

Done with breakfast, we visited City Palace Museum, Jagdish Mandir & Bagore Ki Haveli. We ate lunch at a lakefront, rooftop restaurant. We made our way to Chetak Smarak & were back in time for sunset watching at The Sunset Terrace.

We ended the night with the light & sound show at the City Palace, & then dinner. Overnight in Udaipur.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019 – Udaipur to Jodhpur (253 KMS)

Jhunjhunuwala Haveli, Mandawa
Jhunjhunuwala Haveli, Mandawa

We started for Jodhpur after breakfast & a little before lunchtime, we were at Ranakpur (84 KMS). We visited the Jain temple & then lunched at Ranakpur itself. We were at our Jodhpur hotel by early evening. We just went out for dinner tonight.

Overnight in Jodhpur.

Thursday, 31 January 2019 – Jodhpur sightseeing

Mubarak Mahal, Welcome Palace, City Palace, Jaipur
Mubarak Mahal (Welcome Palace), City Palace, Jaipur

We began our day with a safari in the Guda Bishnoi village areas (24 KMS). The first half of the day was spent in visiting a traditional Bishnoi household & spotting wildlife in the surrounding areas. We returned to the city for lunch & then visited the Mehrangarh Fort.

The Fort visit was followed by a sun downer, a walk in the Sardar market, seeing Ghanta Ghar, & an early dinner consisting of local specialties. Overnight in Jodhpur.

Friday, 1 February 2019 – Jodhpur to Mandawa (320 KMS)

town of 365 temples, Amer
The town of 365 temples – Amer

This stretch of the road was horrible. We reached Mandawa by afternoon & went for a walking tour of the town in the evening. Back to hotel for dinner & overnight stay.

Saturday, 2 February 2019 – Mandawa to NCR (275 KMS)

We’d kept this day open, thinking if we needed more time in Mandawa, we’ll stick around for a day more. But we managed to see a fair number of havelis on our first evening itself, & thus, decided to head home today.

Mohan Mandir, Lake Pichola, Udaipur
Mohan Mandir on Lake Pichola, Udaipur

Wondering why we’ve made such a brief post? 😀 It’s because we intend to write detailed posts for each of these four destinations. This blog post was to give an overview of how a week long road trip can be planned for Rajasthan.

Stay tuned for our post on Jaipur!

P. S. There can be endless variations of this road trip. E.g.

Clean & quiet temple, Ranakpur
Clean & quiet temple, Ranakpur

NCR – Churu – Pushkar – Udaipur – Kishangarh – Surajgarh – NCR

NCR – Jaipur – Ajmer – Churu – Surajgarh – NCR

NCR – Mandawa – Ajmer – Surajgarh – NCR etc.

MUSKURAIYE, AAP LUCKNOW MEIN HAI!

Lucknow in 24 hours

There are some places you can never get enough of. Lucknow always brings a sense of belonging. It feels like home. Tunde kebab & kulfi at Aminabad, walk at Hazratganj, sightseeing at Bada & Chota Imambargahs, crossing Cantt, mutton nihari at Rahim’s, kulfi at Chhappan Bhog, chikankari & zari shopping at Chowk, walk in Ambedkar Park, galauti kebab at Dastarkhwan, & kulfi (again!) at Nishatganj – spread over just a few days. That pretty much summaries our two visits to Lucknow.

Emergency airstrip, Agra Lucknow Expressway, uttar pradesh, india
Emergency airstrip on the Agra – Lucknow Expressway

We chose to spend our sixth anniversary in the Awadhi city. We usually make elaborate travel plans, but work commitments forbade us this time. A road trip came to the rescue. Leaving from Noida, using the Yamuna Expressway, eating breakfast at Jewar, & then using the Agra – Lucknow Expressway, we made good time & reached Lucknow by evening.

The Agra – Lucknow Expressway was a breeze to drive on. An empty six – lane highway, with high toll fees (no wonder it is empty), & with almost no stops, the expressway allowed us to cover a large distance in a short span of time.

A highlight of the Agra – Lucknow Expressway is an emergency airstrip built on the expressway itself. The airstrip stretches for a little more than three kilometers. If an emergency landing of IAF combat jets is needed, this can be used.

thrill, emergency airstrip, agra lucknow expressway, uttar pradesh, india
A little thing, but thrilled us to bits!

Caution: Do not get tempted into exceeding speed limits on the Agra – Lucknow Expressway. Like all Indian highways, it can be unpredictable. Also, Indian cars are not made for extremely high speeds. There are enough & more cases of tires bursting on the Expressway.

The First Evening

Our first evening in Lucknow was our anniversary itself. We chose to spend it in a relaxed manner, dressing up, lounging on the rooftop bar of our hotel, raising a toast, coming down to the in house restaurant, hogging on Awadhi cuisine, & retiring early.

splurge, anniversary, lebua, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
Splurging on our anniversary!

At times, a little thing like sitting under the stars can bring immense happiness. As the night got colder, our souls became warmer. We thanked our gods for all the good things bestowed on us…

Saraca, the open-air bar overlooking the lawns, is just what the doctor ordered. Here, it was quite cold but, luckily, they had heaters placed around tables. The dim lighting of Saraca & the twinkling lights of the surrounding buildings created a romantic ambience. We sipped on colorful Long Island Iced Tea & Mojito, both well made. To accompany the drinks, we had Galawat Kebab, which was good too.

Saraca was perfect to relax. Exotic drinks, Awadhi starters, & music under the stars…

cheers, sightseeing, saraca, lebua, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india, long island iced tea, mojito
Cheers to 6 years of sightseeing!

Time to call it a night after some more yummy in our tummy. Azrak, the restaurant at lebua, serves Awadhi food. If Awadhi cuisine isn’t well made, it can turn the dishes oily. But we did not face any such challenge here. We had Awadh Dum Murgh Biryani, Bakarkhani, Dum Murgh, & Ulte Tave Ka Paratha. We are fans of Bakarkhani, & this one lived up to our expectations too.

Azrak is one of those laid-back places; do not hurry through your meal here.

The Next Day

berserk, vintage, lebua, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
When we saw these, we went berserk!

We had traveled over a December long weekend. Fresh after a restful night, we were ready to explore Lucknow. While we waited for our Uber, we posed & clicked with the vintage cars in the lebua premises. The best way to get around old Lucknow is by public transport.

Our first stop was the Bara Imam Bara. An imam bara is a hall for Shia Muslim ceremonies, especially Muharram. The Bara Imam Bara is an imam bara complex built by the Awadh Nawab in 1784. This was the year famine had hit Awadh. Through the Imam Bara construction, the Nawab wanted to provide employment for people. The construction & the consequent employment lasted for 10 years, same as the famine duration.

As we entered the compound, we were struck by the imposing gateways. We entered one, came across a circular garden, & then chanced upon the second gateway. The second is the main gateway where we purchased tickets. As we walked further, the Asfi Masjid came up on our right. It is the last monument to be constructed without using iron.

large, vault, center, chamber, bara imam bara, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
Large vaulted central chamber of Bara Imam Bara

Moving on to the main imam bara, we got ourselves a guide & entered a large vaulted central chamber (largest in the world). In the center of the chamber is the tomb of the Nawab of Awadh, Asaf-Ud-Daula. On the upper floor is a labyrinth, famously known as the Bhool Bhulaiya.

When we emerged from the passages onto the hall balcony, we could not help but be amazed at such a large structure being built without beams/ pillars. Caution – Walking on the narrow terrace is not for the fainthearted! Or for those with acrophobia or vertigo!

The Bhool Bhulaiya legend says there are 1,024 ways to get inside the maze, but only two to come out! The network of passageways winds its way inside the monument, & eventually leads to the roof. The roof was meant to give a panoramic view of the Awadhi city. In the 21st century, however, this is not easily possible.

Bara Imam Bara, roof, uttar pradesh, lucknow, india
The Bara Imam Bara roof

We were thrilled with the Bhool Bhulaiya. For the first time, we got a chance to see a heritage monument by actively participating in it. Namely, finding our way out of the incredible maze! The architecture is worth a mention, specially of echoing walls, & hidden cloisters.

A flight of stairs leads down to the Shahi Baoli (royal stepwell). Around the Baoli is a multi- storey structure with arched windows & inter-connected galleries. Apparently, the Baoli still has running water. Rumors of the Baoli being connected to River Gomti, & of treasures/ treasure maps/ keys to some hidden treasure underneath are quite rife. Exceptional architecture here!

Before we left the Bara Imam Bara, we found another trivia – Ordinary people built the edifice during the day. At night, noblemen broke down whatever was raised that day. This was by the order of the Nawab, to ensure continuing employment for the masses.

shahi baoli, bara imam bara complex, royal stepwell, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
The Shahi Baoli in the Bara Imam Bara complex

Through the Bara Imambargah complex, we caught ourselves gaping at the architecture! For a heritage lover, the Bara Imam Bara scores not only on the heritage but also on the maintenance of its premises, and the easy & fair availability of authorized guides who explain the history behind the monument. To enjoy the monument fully, do take a guide.

Out of the Bara Imam Bara, we hopped onto a tanga (horse carriage). Our first carriage ride! To double the excitement, we spotted the Rumi Darwaza coming up ahead. It is a gateway built under the patronage of Nawab Asaf-Ud-Daula, in the same year as the Bara Imam Bara.

The front facade of the Rumi Darwaza is a fine example of Awadhi architecture! There’s no ticket to see it. Caution – As the Rumi Darwaza is an operational gateway, you must be careful of traffic.

Rumi Darwaza, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
The Rumi Darwaza

The Husainabad Clock Tower is a 19th century marvel. It was constructed in 1881 to mark Sir George Couper’s arrival, the first LG of United Province of Avadh. You can spot the Clock Tower from kilometers, but as you come closer, you can also see a large step-well next to it.

The Satkhanda is a watchtower from the 1800s. The iconic tower has an octagonal base, arched windows & Islamic design details. It is located next to the Husainabad Clock Tower; so, if you are in the area, you cannot miss it. A reminder of Lucknow’s Awadhi & colonial past.

The Husainabad Picture Gallery houses portraits of the erstwhile nawabs of Awadh. The portraits are quite fine, with intricate details. The caretaker pointed out to us a few amazing bits here & there. Like how the nawab’s shoes seem to move!

View, Husainabad Picture Gallery, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
View from the Husainabad Picture Gallery

Our minds were also blown off by the view that the Picture Gallery offered. The Clock Tower to the left, Chota Imam Bara straight ahead, & the Satkhanda to the right. Photography is prohibited at the Gallery. It does not seem to be frequented by tourists; we had the place almost to ourselves.

There is no dearth of darwazas in Lucknow. The Husainabad Darwaza is an outer gateway to the Chota Imam Bara. Passing under arched gateways will remain high points of our lives.

Chota Imam Bara is the popular name of the monument; its actual name is Imam Bara Husainabad Mubarak. It was built under the patronage of Muhammad Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh, in 1838. Today, it serves as a mausoleum for him & his mother.

Chota Imam Bara, entrance, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
The Chota Imam Bara entrance

Indian heritage buildings are nothing short of fascinating. Not just architecturally, but from an engineering POV too:

  1. We noticed a goldfish at the entrance. It is an anemometer. One of the earliest ones in India.
  2. A golden statue at the entrance holds a chain that is connected to a spire. This works as earthing.
  3. A Shahi Hammam (royal bath) houses stained glass windows, an elaborate hot water system & a jacuzzi setup. Apparently, when the nawabs would visit the Imam Bara, they would first complete their ablutions in the Shahi Hammam.

The Tomb of Princess Zinat Asiya is supposed to be a replica of the Taj Mahal. We, however, did not see the likeness.

Chota Imam Bara, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
The Chota Imam Bara

Moving ahead, photography inside the main Imam Bara hall is prohibited. But the inside is worth seeing – chandeliers & crystal glass lampstands!

Looking back from the main Imam Bara hall, we saw the ceremonial gate reflected in the rectangular pond.

Caution – Women are required to cover their heads here.

naubat khana, chota imam bara, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
The Naubat Khana

Opposite the Chota Imam Bara is the Naubat Khana. A Naubat Khana was the orchestra pit of buildings, i.e., musicians would play their instruments sitting in the Naubat Khana so that their music could be heard far & wide.

In the context of the Chota Imam Bara, the Naubat Khana was more of a place from where the hour of the day was announced by beating drums.

We bid adieu to the Chota Imam Bara & hopped back on our tanga. It brought us to the Jama Masjid. The construction was started in 1839 under the patronage of Mohammad Ali Shah Bahadur. Apparently, he wanted this mosque to surpass the Delhi Jama Masjid in size. But, unfortunately, he died before its completion.

jama masjid, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
The Jama Masjid

His wife, Malika Jahan Sahiba, got it completed, but the size could not be matched.

After all the sightseeing, we attacked what Lucknow is famous for – the Awadhi cuisine. If you are a non vegetarian visiting Lucknow, you MUST try the nihari with Qulcha at Raheem’s Qulcha Nihari. Tucked in one of the lanes of Chowk, the restaurant may appear a little dingy but do not let that deter you.

We walked in for lunch & had Mutton Biryani, Mutton Nihari & Qulcha. Each dish was mouthwatering. Portion size was adequate for two. Service was quick. Raheem’s can get quite crowded; you may have to wait your turn. But it is worth it. Families & women can easily go here; nothing to get intimidated about.

Mutton Nahari, Qulcha. raheem qulcha nahari, chowk, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
Mutton Nahari & Qulcha

Stepping out of Raheem Qulcha Nihari with big smiles on our faces, we found ourselves in Phool Wali Gali. The flower mandi is 200-year-old. If we close our eyes, we still remember the fragrance!

It is not just heritage structures that lend an appeal to a place; it is also the traditional markets, cuisines, & culture. Chowk contributes majorly to Lucknow’s history! This market area is heaven for foodies & shoppers. The best way to get around is on foot. Do not hesitate to explore the tiny gullies!

We had heard a lot about the Malai Gilori at Ram Asrey. We had to check it out. Ram Asrey was in another gully of Chowk. We walked here from Raheem’s, taking in the sights & sounds of this centuries’ old market. Ram Asrey is a large sweetmeat shop & goes back hundreds of years.

phool wali gali, chowk, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
Phool Wali Gali

The Malai Paan was a little different from what we expected but delicious, nonetheless. Go ahead & try other mithais too. A heaven for those with a sweet tooth.

We wanted to explore the British Residency post this, but, for some reason, we could not get any public transport to the place. Uber cabs were taking too long to arrive, & rickshaw pullers did not seem to know where the Residency was. After waiting for almost half an hour, we got an Uber cab ready to take us to our hotel.

In the evening, we decided to visit Khadi Weavers, a store we had (again) heard a lot about. It has all Khadi products under one roof. Men’s wear, women’s wear, personal care products, you name it! Khadi Weavers is amazing. The store is compact, neat & well laid out. The clothes are to-die-for & so reasonably priced!

Galawat Kebab, The Mughals Dastarkhwan, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
Galawat Kebab at The Mughals Dastarkhwan

We came out with a bag full of garments. This was after we had to stop our greed from taking over our senses.

We ended our day at The Mughals Dastarkhwan. We were advised to try this restaurant over Tunde Kebabi. Glad we did! Dastarkhwan had a large waiting time, which indicated to us that it was, indeed, popular. It has a proper waiting area outside, where the smell of the tandoori dishes’ wafts in, & gives a boost to your appetite.

Finally, when we were seated inside, we had Dhania Roti, Galawat Kebab, Mutton Rogan Josh, Plain Rice, Shahi Tukda, & Ulte Tawe Ka Paratha. The Dhania Roti (chapati with coriander filling) was a first for us. The Galawat Kebab was, truly, melt-in-the-mouth. The service was quick. The Mughals Dastarkhwan is a family-friendly place.

lucknow charbagh railway station, uttar pradesh, india
The Lucknow Charbagh Railway Station

We cannot wait to go back!

A post – meal drive took us to the Lucknow Charbagh Railway Station. In a place like Lucknow, you cannot possibly escape heritage. Designed by J.H. Hornimen, the Charbagh Railway Station construction began in 1914. It is a fabulous mix of Awadhi, Mughal & Rajput architecture!

If you are up for it, step out in the cold night to have a kulhad chai. It will fill you with warmth…

Street, Lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
Streets of Lucknow

The Last Morning

It was time to head back home but only after a hearty breakfast & a photo shoot! (P.S. The Azrak breakfast spread was great.)

As we crossed our favorite mustard fields on our way back home, we made up our minds to return to Lucknow. After all, still lots to see & eat.

Mustard fields, Eternal favorite, uttar pradesh, india
Mustard fields – Eternal favorite!

Accommodation

For the frugal us, our sixth anniversary was a time to splurge. The least we could do was stay at a fantastic place — the lebua Lucknow.

A boutique property, in the heart of Lucknow, is housed in an old, traditional bungalow with a lush green lawn. Almost entirely white in color, lebua exudes calm. An aangan (courtyard) is surrounded by beautiful rooms. On the grounds you can find vintage cars & two-wheeler, & a garden full of flowering plants & trees. Large, colorful bougainvillea! The hotel had a few Awadh/ Lucknow books on sale at the reception.

Charm, lebua, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
Charming lebua!

Our room was more than comfortable. With a four-poster bed, we felt we had been transported back in time.

Thank goodness for the folks who restored this heritage bungalow! When you travel to Lucknow, & if you can, please stay at lebua. Its modern hospitality blended with traditional ethos will impress you.

Buddham Saranam Gacchami

A half-day excursion to Sarnath

“Buddham Saranam Gacchami. Dhammam Saranam Gacchami. Sangham Saranam Gacchami.”

(“I go to the Buddha for refuge. I go to the Dhamma for refuge. I go to the Sangha for refuge.”)

parikrama, bodhi tree, mulagandha kuti vihara, sarnath, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Do a ‘Parikrama’ of the Bodhi tree.

We have been drawn towards Buddhism for a long time now. As we visited places like Bhutan, Ladakh & Spiti, we came to know more about Gautama Buddha & His teachings. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse further increased our fascination.

In a world of extremes, we find Buddhism to be a balanced religion. The basic premise of ‘looking within’ & ‘introspecting’ appeals to us. It was, thus, only natural for us to visit Sarnath on our travel to Varanasi.

After spending a couple of days in Banaras, we hired a cab to take us to Sarnath. We had a flight to catch later in the evening; so, we wanted to utilize the few hours we had in an effective manner.

Dhamek Stupa, sarnath, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
The Dhamek Stupa

Sarnath is located ~10 KMS from Varanasi. It is the place where Buddha first taught the Dharma. Thus, it is an important pilgrimage center for Buddhists. After the chaos of Varanasi, Sarnath is a sea of peace.

Once you reach the deer park, most of the sightseeing spots are at a walking distance of each other. Engage a guide in Sarnath who can brief you on its history.

Archaeological Museum

We started our Sarnath sightseeing at the Archaeological Museum. You need to buy a ticket from across the road. There is a locker room to deposit all your things, including cellphone.

In the museum, there are stunning artifacts dug up from excavations. Fine Buddhist art is housed. You can see the Asoka Pillar as well as a Buddha sculpture where He sits with eyes downcast, and with a halo around His head.

The Asoka Pillar is, of course, from where the Indian National Emblem is adopted. Four Indian Lions sit back to back on a circular base; a Horse on the left, the Asoka Chakra in the center, and a Bull on the right on the base.

If, like us, you are a history aficionado, you will love the Archaeological Museum. It houses figures from Gupta, Kushana & Mauryan periods.

Chinese Buddhist Temple

Our next stop was the Chinese Buddhist Temple. It is located a little away from the other sightseeing spots. The temple is beautifully painted in red and yellow in the Chinese architectural style. You can see Chinese lanterns hanging on the walls. The surroundings are calm.

Beautiful, paint, red and yellow, chinese buddhist temple, sarnath, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Beautifully painted in red & yellow…

The outer wall has a painting depicting the route taken by Huein Tsang to come to India. Interestingly, the land on which the Chinese Buddhist Temple stands used to be a mangrove. You can see a lot of Chinese/ Japanese pilgrims/ tourists here.

Dhamek Stupa

The huge campus is a delight for history & heritage lovers. The Dhamek Stupa was built in 500 CE to commemorate the Buddha’s activities in Sarnath. It is a thick, solid & tall cylinder of bricks and stone. The wall of the Dhamek Stupa is covered with exquisitely carved figures of humans and birds.

commemorate, Buddha, Sarnath, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Built to commemorate the Buddha’s activities in Sarnath…

Legend has it that if you manage to fling a white prayer cloth atop the stupa, your wishes will be fulfilled. While it may seem impossible to passersby, there are lads here who do that for a fee.

Apart from the main structure, there are innumerable small but significant ones. The Asoka pillar with an edict engraved on it stands nearby. The excavations do not even seem to be complete & yet, the magnitude stuns you.

Mulagandha Kuti Vihara

Shakyamuni Buddha, relics, Mulagandha Kuti Vihara, sarnath, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Shakyamuni Buddha’s relics at the Mulagandha Kuti Vihara

The Mulagandha Kuti Vihara is a monastery & temple surrounded by gardens. It is enshrined with Shakyamuni Buddha’s relics. The Buddhist architecture is worth gaping at, specially the frescoes. The frescoes depict scenes from Buddha’s life & are quite pretty. There is, thus, little doubt why Mulagandha Kuti Vihara is a tourist attraction.

You can hear the chants which bring about serenity. The well-maintained precincts are lined with Buddhist prayer flags. You can do a ‘Parikrama’ of the Bodhi tree. Legend has it that this tree is a descendant of the tree under which Lord Buddha achieved enlightenment.

As we were short on time, our Sarnath visit was for just half-a-day. But, if you are a history buff or are spiritual, you can spend days here.

What We Loved Seeing In Bali

We hope Bali Basics turned out to be helpful to you. Now that you’ve figured out where you want to stay on your Bali holiday, we help you with the sights we saw in Bali & loved. The attractions below are tried & tested, & advocated (& not mentioned in any order of preference)!

Beaches…

morning, chill, kayu aya beach
Morning spent chilling at the Kayu Aya Beach

Bali is, of course, all about beaches. So, it doesn’t really make sense for us to get into these. Nonetheless, we visited the Double Six, the Kayu Aya, & the Nusa Dua beaches.

Double Six Beach

In Seminyak, as a subset of the Seminyak Beach, is the Double Six Beach. It is a relaxed one offering umbrella rentals & a chill ambiance. Perfect for just sitting & watching the activity happening around you & the Indian Ocean. The water wasn’t too cold when we visited; so, one could opt for a dip.

sunset, double six beach
A riveting sunset at the Double Six Beach

Sunset is when the crowds start thronging in. Being on the west coast, the Double Six Beach offers stunning sunset views. The Beach is also home to La Plancha Bali, the beach bar that’s famous for its colorful parasols & beach bags.

Kayu Aya Beach

Kayu Aya Beach is a part of the Seminyak Beach. It is located behind Ku De Ta.

blue sky, Kayu Aya Beach
A blue sky at the Kayu Aya Beach

The beach is peaceful with quiet activities available like body art & kite-flying. Or you can simply carry your book & relax. The ocean was fairly calm when we visited; a few splashed around in the water. There are a few restaurants nearby if hunger strikes.

However, at one spot, we saw of stream of black water coming from inland & getting released into the sea. Not good! We must keep our beaches & oceans squeaky clean.

Nusa Dua Beach

cheer, kite seller, Nusa Dua Beach
A cheerful kite seller at the Nusa Dua Beach

The Nusa Dua Beach is one of the public beaches in Nusa Dua.  The general public can access this beach to try their hand at water sports. However, we found the prices to be expensive here. (Goa has better prices!) Having said that, the water sports facilities (changing rooms, toilets, waiting areas etc.) are well-developed at the Nusa Dua Beach.

Being on the east coast, you can get magical sunrise views.

Heritage

Silver jewelry, UC Silver
Silver jewelry being made at UC Silver

Our favorite bit! Bali is a treasure trove for those inclined towards culture, heritage & history. Dance, metalworking, & painting are just a few of its mainstays. Bali has had a Hindu influence from ancient times, which reflects in the scores of temples found on the island. In fact, Bali is called the island of a thousand temples.

Puri Saren Agung

The Puri Saren Agung is better known as the Ubud Palace. The palace is in the heart of Ubud, with restaurants all around it. The road that it is located on is busy; so, note that you will not get a parking spot here.

puri saren agung
Ceremonial Chairs at the Puri Saren Agung

The Puri Saren Agung is the residence of the royal family of Ubud. The architecture is preserved well & is worth gaping at. The rust & grey-colored buildings are set amidst a charming garden.

Entry is free; so, you can go in & click photos. However, there is a lack of printed information in the Palace, making it a guesswork for sightseers.

Satria Gatotkaca Statue

Ghatotkach Temple, Himachal Pradesh, India
Ghatotkach Temple in Himachal Pradesh, India

You can’t miss this statue. You’ll cross it once you’re on your way from the airport to your accommodation in Kuta/ Seminyak. The statue depicts Gatotkaca, the courageous son of Bheema (one of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic) & Hidimbi (a man eater who wanted to eat Bheema but, instead, fell in love with him).

Gatotkaca was powerful & had magical powers. He not only helped the Pandavas win the Kurukshetra war in the Mahabharata, but also sacrificed himself as a victim of Karna’s deadly weapon that could be used only once (which Karna was saving for Arjuna, Gatotkach’s uncle). Hence, he is regarded with respect in Hinduism.

(Bonus – You can find a Gatotkaca Temple & a Hidimbi Temple (both perhaps the only ones) in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India.)

pura tanah lot
Pura Tanah Lot

Pura Tanah Lot

Pura Tanah Lot is located on a rock formation called Tanah Lot. Tanah Lot itself means ‘ land in the sea ’ in Balinese. True to its name, the rock formation juts out into the sea, with azure water all around.

The Tanah Lot Temple is ancient & a popular pilgrimage spot. The Temple is a 16th C marvel, dedicated to Balinese sea gods (along with Hinduism influence). Thanks to the setting, it has become a cultural & photography destination as well.

Indian Ocean, Pura Tanah Lot,
The Indian Ocean that the Pura Tanah Lot overlooks

The Pura Tanah Lot is accessible during low tide when you can simply walk till it. The main temple is out of bounds for tourists but a small cave with ‘ holy water ‘ is accessible. The priests will expect you to donate & will give you a nasty look if you don’t.

There is another cave with a ‘holy snake’. Legend has it that venomous sea snakes guarded the Tanah Lot Temple from evil spirits. You again need to make a donation to see & touch the ‘holy snake’.

During a high tide, the Temple becomes inaccessible. Then, the Pura Penyawang, an onshore temple is used as an alternative. Don’t forget to visit the Pura Batu Bolong, a temple built on a rock formation, similar to the Pura Tanah Lot.

Pura Batu Bolong
Pura Batu Bolong

As you walk down to the Tanah Lot Temple, you will cross Balinese souvenir shops & restaurants. We’d some refreshing coconut water at one of the many stalls.

The Temple is located in Beraban in Tabanan Regency.

Pura Luhur Uluwatu

Sunset, Pura Luhur Uluwatu
Sunset at the Pura Luhur Uluwatu

Pura Luhur Uluwatu, another sea temple, is located on a cliff on the Indian Ocean, in Pecatu (Badung Regency). In Balinese, ulu means ‘ tip ’ & watu is ‘rock’. True to its name, the Uluwatu Temple is erected on the tip of a rock. The Temple construction year is disputed, but goes as far back as the 10th C.

It is dedicated to Lord Siva, one of the Holy Trinity of Hinduism. Legend has it that the Pura Luhur Uluwatu guards Bali from evil sea spirits. The Uluwatu Temple is accessible through a serpentine pathway. Sightseers end up taking an hour or more to reach the Temple as they can’t help halting at the numerous lookout points along the way.

It is surrounded by a forest with monkeys (who are believed to guard the Pura Luhur Uluwatu against negative influences). The Uluwatu Temple is scenic & a magnificent sunset spot. The Sun dipping into the ocean is something you will remember for years. Thanks to the setting, the Temple has become a splendid photography destination.

sunset, uluwatu temple
Sunsets to die for at the Uluwatu Temple

You need to cover your legs while visiting it. Sarongs & sashes are available at the entrance. If you’re wearing pants, you don’t need a sarong; a sash will do.

Kecak & Fire Dance

A Kecak & Fire Dance is performed every evening at a stage adjacent to the Pura Luhur Uluwatu, lasting an hour. The iconic Fire Dance was a high point of our trip. Against the sunset backdrop, the dance is magical. Dancers enact episodes from the Hindu epic, Ramayana. The background score is provided not by any instrument, but by the ‘chak’ sounds emanated by the performers.

dancer, Kecak & Fire Dance, Lord Hanuman
A dancer in the Kecak & Fire Dance plays Lord Hanuman

We loved the Kecak & Fire Dance from beginning till end. The chanting has stayed with us. The Ramayana episodes were enacted well. Seeing one of our epics beautifully enacted stole our hearts. Definitely recommended!

Go early if you want to see both the Pura Luhur Uluwatu & the Fire Dance. Or, even to get a good seat. Else, like us, you would have to sit on the floor & then have the inflamed husk coming toward you. Also, keep following the story in the pamphlet, else you’ll be lost if you don’t know the Ramayana.

Nature

Gunung Batur
Gunung Batur

At the cost of inviting sniggers, we state that Bali is a lot like India. That is, it’s something for everyone. (Of course, better weather. Of course, fewer people. Of course, smaller distances.) If you’re done with lounging on the beaches, or tired of visiting temples, you still have the option of soaking in nature.

Cantik Agriculture

We knew Bali was famous for its coffee. So, when we got a chance to taste different kinds of coffee, we jumped at it. Cantik Agriculture is a cooperative of local farmers. The coffee bean is processed traditionally. We sampled more than 10 types with each having a strikingly different flavor than the other. The tasting helped us decide which ones we wanted to buy.

luwak civet
A Luwak Civet Image courtesy: Our friend Tushar Belwal

We sampled the popular Coffee Luwak, understood the process by which it’s made & saw the Luwak Civet from whom this coffee comes. (At that point of time, we were unaware of the probable conditions the Luwak Civet is kept in. Knowing better now, we would discourage our readers from opting for the Coffee Luwak. Or, at least find a place where Coffee Luwak is processed ethically.)

The farm had spices of different kinds & a shop where you can buy all their produce. It was on the expensive side but then, it’s once-in-a-lifetime!

Gunung Batur

Mount Batur, dusk
Mount Batur at dusk

Gunung Batur (also called Kintamani volcano) is an active volcano located in Bangli Regency. We visited the volcano at the time of sunset. The mist was settling in slowly, making the picture look surreal.

It’s famous for its sunrise trek, but we chose not to do it. The feedback we’d got was ‘the trek’s difficult’. But even from afar, the Gunung Batur looks spectacular. & who gets to see a volcano everyday anyway?

It got chilly at Mount Batur when we visited in the evening; so, do carry something warm.

Danau Batur
Danau Batur

Danau Batur

Adjacent to the Gunung Batur is the Danau Batur. The Lake Batur is a crater lake, located along the Ring of Fire of volcanic activity. The Lake is considered sacred by the Balinese. It is possible can take a winding road down to the shore.

Danau Batur is a striking color, no matter what time of the day you see it at. As you stand at any of the lookout points, the crisp mountain air & the majestic, crescent-shaped Lake Batur will stun you.

Mandala Suci Wenara Wana
Outside the Mandala Suci Wenara Wana

Mandala Suci Wenara Wana

Mandala Suci Wenara Wana is a natural habitat of the Balinese Long-Tailed Monkey. The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary is a blessed site located in Ubud. We can summarize the Monkey Forest Ubud in one word – enchanting!

It was love at first sight for us – lots of greenery & Long-Tailed Monkeys (also called macaques). The Monkeys usually mind their own business but like they say for every living thing – don’t provoke them. The Forest is beautiful. The moss-covered ruins are lovely. The ruins are of Hindu temples (which are actually still in use).

Temple, Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary
Temple inside the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary

While the Sanctuary is well preserved thanks to a community-based management program, signboards displaying the history & significance of the ruins will be beneficial for sightseers.

In the next post, we’ll bring you a few of our favorite places to drink/ eat in Bali. Till then, happy sightseeing!

Bali Basics

Before we headed to Bali, we had a lot of confusion about its geography & location. Was it an island? Was it a part of Indonesia? How big was it? Blame it on ignorance. And, there’s no better antidote for ignorance than travel.

Once we’d been there, many contacted us when they were planning their own trip. We realized then that we’d not been alone in our confusion & ignorance. Everyone who reached out to us knew Bali was a place to visit, but how’s Bali further divided, which are the areas to stay in/ visit, no one had a clue.

It was almost déjà vu for us, for we’d been equally clueless. After helping a few folks with a better picture of how to place their Bali holiday, we thought we should just put it down in a blog post.

First Up…

Indonesia is a country in Southeast Asia. It’s made up of volcanic islands. Beaches & Komodo dragons are just two of the many things Indonesia is known for. Out of the 18,000+ islands that this nation has, the largest is Sumatra. (Technically, it’s New Guinea, but it doesn’t belong to Indonesia exclusively.)

indonesia, map
Bali vis-a-vis Rest of Indonesia

Bali is the 13th biggest, just about 1.14% the size of Sumatra. And yet, it’s made such a name for itself in the travel world. Bali is a great way to remind ourselves that we mustn’t underestimate anybody/ anything!

Coming to Bali Now…

Bali is a province of Indonesia, & is divided into regencies. Each regency has a capital.

Regency Capital
Denpasar City Denpasar
Badung Regency Mangupura
Bangli Regency Bangli
Buleleng Regency Singaraja
Gianyar Regency Gianyar
Jembrana Regency Negara
Karangasem Regency Amlapura
Klungkung Regency Semarapura
Tabanan Regency Tabanan

Source: Wikipedia

bali, map
Bali Bali

The above map clears it out right away that it’s South Bali that has the most tourism. South is where the beaches are, along with the nightlife. As you travel north, the forests of Bali start emerging. But before that is the place where you get a taste of the culture of Bali. Further north are the regions you would visit if you’re keen to see volcanoes.

Okay, let’s take it one at a time.

Denpasar

Denpasar is the capital of Bali. The city can easily be called the gateway to Bali due to its proximity to the Ngurah Rai International Airport.

Denpasar has a close association with history. In 1906, almost a thousand Balinese committed suicide to avoid surrendering to the invading Dutch troops. The Taman Puputan square is a memorial for the Balinese who laid down their lives.

Denpasar is home to the Turtle Conservation & Education Center, & the Bali Wake Park (wake-boarding anyone?).

Serangan

Serangan is a part of Denpasar. It is an island known for its turtles. Serangan is connected with the mainland by a road bridge.

There are numerous yacht operators here that conduct day trips/ cruises.

Serangan is also home to the Serangan Beach (secluded).

Seminyak

Let’s begin traveling south from Denpasar. The first town you will hit is Seminyak, a suburb of Kuta in the Badung Regency. You can find luxury hotels, spas, high-end restaurants etc. here. Sunsets are a busy time here with bars offering sun-downers on the beaches.

This is also where you will find gorgeous villas for your accommodation needs. We stayed at a heavenly villa called Villa Teman Eden. It was love at first sight! The pool is the highlight but the rooms were spacious with all amenities available. The prettiest bathrooms! Fantastic location! (Also read our piece on our Airbnb experiences featuring Teman Eden.)

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Villa Teman Eden

Seminyak is home to the Double Six Beach & the Kayu Aya Beach.

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Colorful kites at the Kayu Aya Beach

Kuta

Moving further south, you will hit Kuta (Badung Regency), the nightlife hub of Bali. At any time of the day or night, the atmosphere here can only be called electric.

Kuta used to be a fishing village, but also one of the first to start developing for tourism. The Kuta Beach is the most well-known (& thus the most frequented). Being on the west coast, it’s a great spot for sunset watching (& sun-downers!).

You can find luxury resorts, clubs & the like located along the Kuta Beach. And, surfers! (Do you know that surfers massively helped in restarting tourism in Bali post the bombings?)

Sightseers prefer to stay at Kuta (or its suburb, Seminyak) as this is where the action is! Consequently, a few of the best accommodation options can be found here, specifically villas.

Kuta is home to the Satria Gatotkaca Statue & the Waterbom Bali (water slides anyone?).

Jimbaran

Further south is Jimbaran (Badung Regency), a fishing village. Its Bay has calm waters.

Terrorism is an ugly part of the world today. In 2005, suicide bombers attacked a couple of popular restaurants in Jimbaran. But, the wonderful part about the world also is, it bounces back! Bali is a great example of that.

Jimbaran is lined with live seafood counter restaurants. At these restaurants, you can select the live seafood you wish to eat. It will be immediately prepared (generally grilled) & served.

If you’re seeking affordable accommodation options, Jimbaran is the place to try.

Jimbaran is home to the Samasta Lifestyle Village (lots of entertainment) & the Tegal Wangi Beach (hidden beach).

Pecatu

We’re now at almost the south western end of Bali. Pecatu (Badung Regency) is where you’ll find a hilly landscape. The hills shield the beaches, making this area popular with nudists. Pecatu is also the area that’s almost exclusively developed by the private sector.

Pecatu is home to the Uluwatu Temple (a spiritual pillar of Bali) & the Suluban Beach (exotic!).

Kecak dance, Uluwatu Temple
Kecak dance at the Uluwatu Temple

Nusa Dua

Let’s travel east from Pecatu to Nusa Dua (Badung Regency), the water sports area. On the southeast coast of Bali, the sandy beaches are a great backdrop for different water sports like banana boat, parasailing, sea walking & snorkeling.

A sub-district of Nusa Dua is Tanjung Benoa. A peninsula with beaches on three sides – dreamy enough?

Nusa Dua is home to the Nusa Dua Beach & the Museum Pasifika (all things artsy).

Kerobokan

Start moving northwest now. Beyond Denpasar is Kerobokan village (Badung Regency).

The Kerobokan Prison is the stuff legends are made of. Thrill seekers find ways to spend a night in the prison, to experience the notoriety first-hand. For the non-thrill seekers, there are night markets to explore.

Kerobokan is home to the Batu Belig Beach (whattay calm) & the Petitenget Temple (wards off dark forest spirits).

Beraban

Moving further northwest, & closer to the west coast of Bali, you will arrive at Beraban, a village in the Tabanan Regency.

Beraban is home to the Tanah Lot Temple (you can’t not have seen a photo of this place) & the One Bali Agrowisata (chocolate & coffee plantation).

Tanah Lot Temple
The Tanah Lot Temple

Gianyar

Let’s head a little northeast now & come to Gianyar, the seat of the Gianyar regency. It is a town that has preserved its natural & traditional heritage well. Once you’re done with the heritage sightseeing, you can relax on the beach.

Gianyar is home to the Cantik Agriculture (coffee anyone?) & the Bali Bird Park (bird-watching alert).

Coffee, tea, Cantik Agriculture
Coffee & tea tasting at the Cantik Agriculture

Ubud

In the Gianyar Regency itself, towards the northwest, is the cultural center of Bali, called Ubud. The town is located in the uplands. Anything that has to do with Balinese tradition can be found here.

Rain-forests and terraced rice paddies surround Ubud while Hindu temples form the main attractions of the town.

Ubud is home to the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary (Balinese Long – Tailed Monkeys. Squee!) & the Puri Saren Palace (erstwhile official residence of the royal family).

Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary
The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary

Kintamani

Moving far north from Ubud, you will come to Kintamani (Bangli Regency). You can view the Mount Batur from the village. It is the place from where the breed ‘Kintamani dog’ (only official breed in Bali) originates.

Lake Batur
Lake Batur

Kintamani is home to the Mount Batur (active volcano) & the Lake Batur (crater lake located along the Ring of Fire of Mount Batur).

Nusa Lembongan

Southeast of Bali is the island of Nusa Lembongan (Klungkung Regency). It is famous as a side destination for mainland Bali visitors. Nusa Lembongan is surrounded by coral reefs with white sand beaches. Day cruises from the mainland to the island are worth opting for.

Clear ocean, coral reef, Nusa Lembongan
Clear ocean & coral reef at Nusa Lembongan

Nusa Lembongan is home to the Devil’s Tear (cliff jumping anyone?) & the Mangrove Forest (canoe ride).

With this, we end our short guide to the way Bali is structured from a sightseer’s viewpoint. By no means is this list exhaustive. We’ve tried to cover the areas that we’ve personally experienced.

Other Bali Basics…

  • Bali traffic is quite bad. We stayed at Seminyak, & chose to spend a day in Ubud. The traffic from Seminyak to Ubud was awful. This is the reason sightseers choose to break their stay into two places – Seminyak/ Kuta & Ubud.
  • Bali is economical for Indians. Except for the airline fares, all our expenses were similar or even less than what we would spend in, let’s say, Goa, on a similar kind of holiday.

In our next blog post, we’ll share our favorite Bali attractions.

The Journey, The Traveler

What is it about travel that entices me so? Be it global or national; by air or rail; long or short; with family or friends; official or personal – every single time, my eyes light up. It is not just about travel; it is also about the thoughts that rush to me when I travel. This dawned on me during my travel for an engagement to the hinterlands of UP.

When I tumbled my way in the Bolero from Jagdishpur to Lucknow at sunset, there was a smile on my lips. ‘Riding into the sunset’ was the theme in my mind. The roads were neither great nor poor; yet, I was at peace. I had seen rural youth learning skills to become employable. Their sincere faces were etched in my mind. When I closed my eyes, I could visualize them toiling under the hot asbestos roof, trying to make themselves productive. I thought of us, the privileged ones, how we still curse our lives…

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symmetry to my liking

When I traveled from Raebareli to Lucknow, my thoughts wandered to the video I had seen of the poorest of poor. They strove to make a better life. They fought to overcome the odds. In a land where women are still exploited, harassed and oppressed, it was heartening to see groups of women come together to rise from the ashes. Even at a towering 5’8″, I felt small in front of them.

In Amethi, I stayed at a guesthouse which was austere but the hospitality freaked me out. The cook stuffed us with the tastiest food possible. The tehzeeb, I realized, was not limited to Lucknow alone.

Lucknow brought back a sense of belonging, though, frankly, I did not remember a thing from my childhood. Still, it felt like home. Tunde kebab and kulfi at Aminabad, walk at Hazratganj, sightseeing at Bada Imambargah, crossing Cantt, kulfi at Chhappan Bhog, Chikankari shopping at Chowk, Walk in Ambedkar Park, and kulfi (again!) at Nishatganj – spread over 5 days. Courtesy from the most unexpected of quarters. Masha-Allah! Being disappointed with the ‘sandstonification’ of Lucknow. And still being enchanted with how Laxman ka Teela became Teele wali Masjid!

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much needed restoration work going on…

I had thought that the beauty of Bhutan brought out the poetess and thinker in me. But I realize it happens to me every time I travel somewhere.

 

History comes alive, Battles of yore resound

The walls conceal mysteries infinite, I realize as I walk up the stone steps;

The India of today, not very different

Similar battles, similar mysteries, I realize as I walk down the stone steps.

China – Not That Mythical

We have had a chance to visit China twice. Well, Hong Kong & Macau don’t really consider themselves China but the fact remains that they are the special administrative regions of China.

As an Indian (this may be true across nationalities too), China has been a fascinating, mysterious place. The most common thoughts that used to occur to us when we thought of China (& this holds for many more like us):

  1. China has too many people.
  2. The Chinese eat anything that walks.
  3. An Indian will have a problem in finding edible food.
  4. The language barrier is significant.
  5. The major cities are heavily polluted.
  6. The Chinese are rude & unfriendly.
  7. The Chinese are xenophobic.

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Before the opera, we were all ears for this girl playing this instrument quite beautifully. After some time, the Chinese tunes seemed all the same to us.

A few of these turned out to be canards while the rest got validated. Our observations are based on the three cities we visited – Macau, Hong Kong & Beijing. Thus, our sample size is small but hopefully not way off the mark.

So here goes what we detected and felt about China.

China Has Too Many People

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At a cloisonné factory, we got swayed by this work of art, & ran away soon after hearing the cost.

Yes it does. It is next to impossible to go to a tourist attraction & expect to click a photograph with no people in the frame. At times, it is even impossible to see the attraction. A lot of travel blogs suggest reaching early which we did not manage to do. Perhaps that would have helped.

The ‘too many people’ manifests itself in the scramble for public transport too. Hailing a cab can be quite a task but using a subway is easy, cost-effective & we did not find it too crowded. We have seen worse in India 🙂

The Chinese Eat Anything That Walks

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The Ming Dynasty tombs are more museum than tombs.

Not entirely true. The Chinese do eat a lot of meat but most of it is conventional stuff like chicken, beef, pork, seafood, fish, duck etc. At most mid-segment restaurants I visited, there was nothing that was repulsive to read or look at. Hint: dogs, insects, reptiles etc.

However, street markets and a type of restaurants called ‘hotpots’ had ‘interesting’ food available. All the horrors that were in the mind appeared in front of our eyes.

An Indian Will Have a Problem in Finding Edible Food

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The preparation that went into the China trip. Glad to report none of this got consumed! Beijing had edible food more easily available than both these places.

Partially true. There are adequate food options available, thanks to the presence of American, Italian, & even Indian restaurants. You can find vegetarian restaurants too. There are enough McDonald’s, Starbucks etc.

We had a lot of ready-to-eat food with us but gladly, we did not have to consume that. You can find Chinese dishes with conventional meats like chicken, fish & seafood. However, the Chinese dishes taste nothing like what we get in India.

India has its own brand of Chinese, fondly called tandoori Chinese, which is full of sauces and condiments. In comparison, authentic Chinese will appear bland to the Indian palate.

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The night calls for letting our hair down. The Chinese aren’t just about manufacturing and making the world their market. They party as hard as probably any other nationality does! Seen here – the lights of Hou Hai.

Also, we found a particular pungent smell in all Chinese dishes. Perhaps it was the use of fish sauce or oyster sauce. The smell was too overpowering for us to ignore. We minimized our intake of Chinese food consequently.

The Language Barrier Is Significant

Yes it is. 90% of the people we came across did not understand a single word in English. Even basic phrases like ‘thank you’, ‘excuse me’, ‘hi’, ‘hello’ were alien to them. Surprisingly, this was the case in the hospitality sector too.

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While we returned from our partying, we realized there was a curfew in the city. Our taxi driver, midway, refused to drop us to the hotel & asked us to get out in the middle of God-knows-where. Mercifully, we had a phone. We requested our hotel to pick us up. We get evacuated in a Buick. For free! Emergency evacuation in style!!!

A few of the servers who waited on us did not understand English at all. The only English they understood & could say was ‘no English’! We had to point to the menu to order our drinks & dinners. & if we wanted any customization, God help us!

For cab drivers, we carried the Chinese names of our destinations. Thankfully, all of them could read Mandarin. This is a major variation from India. Here, even a rickshaw puller understands Basic English words/ phrases like ‘thank you’, ‘okay’, ‘hello’ etc.

Among the remaining 10%, the grasp of English was elementary at best though we are sure the situation would be different for the crowd that works for multinational corporations.

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Our hotel (Red Wall Garden) celebrated its 5th anniversary while we were there. We got this complimentary savory treat plate. Savory? Who gives savory to celebrate? Where are the cupcakes & muffins?? & treat? It’d kinds of meats we were unsure of. Ahem!

The Major Cities Are Heavily Polluted

Not true. At least not for an Indian. Compared to Delhi NCR, the air quality in both Beijing & Hong Kong was better, though there was a little bit of haze. For travelers coming from developed countries, this may be a worry & thus, as advised by the western travel blogs, it may make sense for them to carry masks.

Apart from the air, we found all the three cities to be impeccably clean. In Beijing, we observed the roads being washed twice a day. The garbage was collected almost on an hourly basis. There was no difference in people’s behavior though.

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She was happy making the painting but wouldn’t let us try… Artists!

Like Indians, they continued to spit, throw garbage etc. at their whim & fancy. But the discipline of the sanitation department was exemplary.

The Chinese Are Rude & Unfriendly

Hem – haw! Yes, the Chinese appear to be rude because (i) they do not smile on seeing you (ii) they talk in a blunt, direct manner. I believe their way of talking stems from their language. As far as I understand, Mandarin does not have grammar & syntax.

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It is more of words put together to make sense. So for a Chinese talking in English – s/ he processes what s/ he wants to say in Mandarin in her/ his head –> s/ he translates that to English in her/ his head –> s/ he speaks/ replies in English.

This makes their English also blunt & devoid of the niceties that we usually put into it. About the smiling bit, I agree they should do it more.

The Chinese Are Xenophobic

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Bigger & grander than Rajpath, this is where the Chinese government sits — Tiananmen Square!

Assume you are not allowed to meet anybody all your life. You are confined to your house. You can interact only with your family members. Your family members do not step out either. You have a view of the outside world only through your window.

Then, suddenly, when you turn 25 years old, you are told you can step out & can even let outsiders enter your house. Will this affect your behavior towards the outside world? Sure it will. Through that narrow window, you had formed an image.

You are now being subjected to other images, a few of which contradict the earlier image & a few which validate. Would you not take time to absorb it all & adapt to it?

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We were sure there was a deeper meaning behind the Chinese opera but we couldn’t help giggling, sitting right at the first table. Subtitles anyone?

Apart from dispelling/ validating the above preconceived notions, I formed a few independent opinions too. Succinctly put:

  1. Beijing is a cleaner, richer version of New Delhi.
  2. The Chinese love big cars – Audi, BMW & Mercedes. These are almost every second car that you see on the road. But the Chinese have no qualms buying these big names secondhand. (This explains the ‘almost every second car’ bit.)
  3. Hong Kong is the not – so – glamorous cousin of Singapore. Both are financial hubs filled with expats. But Hong Kong has a ‘China’ flavor to it.
  4. The Chinese love to talk. They can yap all day long. Given the harshness of their language, this can sound quite jarring to the ears.
  5. Chinese women/ girls love their bling. They can give the Rajouri aunties a run for their money any day.
  6. Macau is not just a gambler’s paradise. It has a lot to keep culture & history lovers occupied too.
  7. Since Hong Kong used to be a British colony, we were under the impression that the place would be full of English eateries. But, sadly, we did not find any place that served the quintessential British food. In fact, our food struggle was greater in Hong Kong than in Beijing.
  8. The Chinese are enterprising. Every second home on the outskirts of Beijing housed a small-scale industry of sorts. From these small factories, they supply goods all across the world. Despite the language barrier, they have managed to trade with the entire world.
  9. Not talking in financial terms, but India is still light years away from being a China. If we imbibe their discipline, we can think of competing with them.
  10. Despite their population struggle, their infrastructure is top class. Better put, their infrastructure is managing to keep up with the population pressure. Perhaps they plan first, execute later.
  11. China, as a whole, has a rich history but it is still a virgin territory for outsiders. Within themselves, they love their historical places, & they accord the respect that such places deserve.
  12. The Chinese love their nightlife. The world may think otherwise due to their apparent serious nature but all the cities we visited had quite ‘happening’ entertainment options.

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The best place to have a good time that we came across in Beijing – San Li Tun. It was a hangout for expats. We finally didn’t feel like aliens…

To summarize our sentiments, there is lots to be explored about China, in China. The expanse of the country ensures that a lifetime will be inadequate to do so. Each small region holds a story. We will be lucky if we get to discover at least a couple more…

As The Steam Blows

We are travel addicts; and clearly road trip aficionados. But, when another long weekend struck, there was an urge to do something different. So browsing through yet another travel magazine, we chanced upon the must-do rides on heritage trains in India.

Mostly found in the hilly regions, these narrow gauge trains have been running since the colonial times. The British did have a way with finding idyllic spots & connecting them to the heartland. Can’t blame them there!

The closest to Delhi, of course, is Shimla or as the British spelt it, Simla, their summer capital. Thus started the search for a suitable train on the Kalka – Shimla route. There are a number of trains but the best in terms of looks is the Shivalik Deluxe Express while the best in terms of performance is the Himalayan Queen. A train with a twist is the Rail Motor Car which looks & sounds more like a jeep than a train.

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Our home for a couple of days

We booked ourselves for the onward journey on the Shivalik Deluxe Express and the return on the Himalayan Queen. With that, the Kalka – Shimla route was covered. But, now came the challenge of the Delhi – Kalka stretch. This was an insipid route; all we had to do was to commute.

The main train on this route, the Howrah Kalka Mail, is seldom punctual. We did not want to take our car to Kalka as we would have trouble finding a parking spot for it for three days.

We grudgingly booked the Howrah Kalka Mail for the onward journey and the Kalka Shatabdi for the return. And we waited, impatiently, for the weekend to arrive. A couple of days before our journey, we began checking if the Howrah Kalka was running on time. To our horror, we realized that it had been running with an average delay of 10-12 hours!

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Surrounded by pine trees

We panicked & started thinking about Plan B. Then it struck us, ever the typical middle-income-group couple, that we could take the bus. Himachal Tourism runs a cool fleet of buses from Delhi to the main cities in Himachal Pradesh.

For Shimla, there is almost a bus an hour. We scrambled to the Himachal Tourism website and heft a sigh of relief when we managed to find a bus at a suitable time on our designated date and booked it quickly.

The website turns out to be quite efficient even though it looks as government – ish as it can. We can select our seats and pay by credit card. Wow! This, of course, was followed by the process of cancelling both our onward tickets.

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Built by a British engineer sometime in the 1800s

Finally, the wait was over. We headed to Himachal Bhavan near Mandi House to board our bus. Our seat was at the far end with a rowdy bunch of young boys right behind us. A peaceful sleep seemed unlikely. Sigh!

Before we boarded, we wanted to have our favorite food-samosa. Right across the road is a snack shop which serves all kinds of greasy & spicy Indian snacks. We were drawn to it like bees to flowers.

Did you know that samosa is not Indian? It’s a take on a middle-eastern snack called ‘sambusak’. Well! Once we were satiated, we grabbed our seats. A quick checking of tickets took place, & we started moving. Yay!

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Trust our army to make just anything better!

Getting out of Delhi was, of course, the biggest challenge, especially it being a weekday. It was compounded with the ‘kaawariyas’ & their entourages. Truly, one can do anything in the name of religion. The ‘kaawar yatra’ now is more about occupying the streets, playing LOUD music and creating nuisance, than it is about worshiping Lord Shiva.

We stopped at the Haryana Tourism guest house in Rai for dinner. Just outside the gate, a bike with two riders unfortunately got a little scare by our bus. While we had dinner, our bus driver & conductor tried to provide comfort to them. Nothing had happened to either them or to the bike. But they had a minor heart attack when our big bus and their tiny bike were millimeters apart. Chuckle!

Dinner was a simple fare. We did not want to delay the bus. We observed other families who are carrying their own food. They spread out the food on sheets in the garden. This took us back to school days. The annual picnic, invariably to the botanical garden, was an occasion we looked forward to, though there was barely anything new that we could see year after year.

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When we walked among clouds

Coming back, we were on our way and soon nodding off as the bus met the highway. The bus itself was in a great condition and there was not an iota of rash driving on the part of the driver.

The seats were comfortable, we were given bottles of water and shown a movie too! Do you support reclining seats? Aren’t they unnecessary and an inconvenience to fellow travelers? The manufacturers think only of the passenger who is going to use the reclining feature. They do not envisage the trouble that the person behind faces.

And we were finally in Shimla! It was early morning, was drizzling and ah, such a beautiful weather! When you are not getting stuck in traffic due to rains or when muddy water is not staining your clothes, then monsoons are just beautiful.

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Flowers of various colors in gardens

We were soon at the Shimla British Resort, another one of the offbeat places we had come across and booked. History has it that the Resort was the residence of a British engineer.

It got handed down to various people before resting with the current owner, who used to give it out for movie and advertisement shootings. Finally, about five years back, he opened it as a Resort for the public.

The Resort is a set of cottages in themes like British, Danish, & Scottish. Each of the rooms is tastefully done with the decor reminding of the colonial times. Lots of woodwork, lots of English paintings, lots of artifacts dating back to the Raj.

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The iconic Viceregal Lodge

We needed some sleep on a proper bed. So we hid ourselves in our Danish Imperial Room and slipped into dreamland. It was noon by the time we were refreshed. It was time to hit Shimla. We felt like tourists.

A quick peek into Trip Advisor showed the Viceregal House (or now known as the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies) as the #1 attraction. Our Resort arranged a cab for us. The cabbie turned out to be a friendly, simple chap. He told us more about Shimla.

The Viceregal House turned out to be more charming than we imagined. It is a Scottish building and was used by the erstwhile British government as their Viceroy’s retreat. A number of historic meetings have taken place here, particularly related to the Indian independence and the partition.

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What happens when you book a honeymoon package

There is a short guided tour for the ground floor. It was completely worth it.  After independence, the House became the President’s summer retreat. Later, the President donated it to set up the institute. The Indian flag flies high.

We could not have been happier & more excited- a lovely weather with temperature around 18° C, a colonial building, greenery all around, & lots of history!

Next stop- the Mall Road. Obviously. Duh! Actually, not that obvious; we were hungry and wanted to settle down somewhere to grab a bite. We took a walk on the Mall Road till the Scandal Point. It was foggy; we deserved a cup of something warm.

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The erstwhile little outhouse

We narrowed down on Wake & Bake Café. Right opposite the police headquarters, is the small, unassuming café. We were famished; Cappuccino, Cold coffee, Chicken, peppers, chilies & rosemary pizza, Hummus & pita, and Carrot cake hardly seemed adequate. Burp!

The rain did not look like it was done with its daily target, but surprisingly, we quite enjoyed it. Perhaps returning to the warmth of the Resort was what the Gods intend for us. & we had no idea about the surprise waiting for us there.

We had booked a honeymoon package with the Resort. One of the inclusions was a romantic room decoration. Our room looked more wild than romantic. There was an interesting mix of balloons, flowers and leaves.

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Trying to catch the mist in our fists

We could neither stop giggling nor stop shaking our heads. We loved the cheesiness of it. For the decoration, we would give them 5/ 10 but for the effort, full marks! There were also fresh fruits & cookies. We did a little dance around the room.

Marriage indeed brings excitement & happiness to life, in the form of honeymoon packages! The poor Resort staff were disappointed when we asked them to clear the decoration within 15 minutes. But well, there was no place to sit. What could we have done? But guys, loved the enthusiasm. Thank you!

Day 2 started with Annandale. It was Kargil Vijay Diwas – the day India won the Kargil War. It was an absolutely fantastic day to visit the Army Museum. We had asked our friendly cabbie to take us around. He willingly obliged.

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Crossing almost 100 tunnels

We hold the defense forces in high esteem, especially the Indian Army. India is handicapped without them. Those days, there was a flash flood in J&K. The army carried out the rescue operations. J&K citizens, who have called the army all sorts of names & forced them to be withdrawn, now sought its help. It was an eye-opener how the army serves the nation without expecting anything.

The area around the Army Museum is a sight to behold. A greenhouse, a golf course, gardens, and vantage seating points- trust the army to do a great job at whatever they do.

So where was Sharma ji taking us next? (Psst, Sharma ji was our friendly cabbie.) We planned to head to Mashobra & Naldehra. The destinations were unimportant; it was the journey that held value.

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Difficult to imagine this when we live in metros

Winding roads, picturesque play of the mountains and valleys- it seemed we were in a picture postcard. We have come to Shimla earlier, but have never felt so contented with this region.

The Mashobra apple orchard was completely covered in clouds. The walk up to the Naldehra golf course did not seem too appealing, especially with the drizzle. But we were more than satisfied with the journey to the two places.

We headed back to our Resort for the second offering of the honeymoon package- a candlelit dinner. They arranged it for us in the small outhouse cottage. This was NICE!

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Pride of the Indian railways

& here was the last day. The day which was the reason for this trip. We were set to experience the UNESCO heritage train ride from Shimla to Kalka. The station is a stone’s throw from the Resort.

We clicked photographs with the train in the backdrop. We made a spectacle of ourselves; people gaped at us, but we were too excited to care. We realized that the seat which is supposed to be for two is really just one & a half. Well, two thin people maybe! It was good in a way as we sat cozily with each other.

The rowdy boys from our bus were on the adjacent seat. We rolled our eyes. The train was choc-a-bloc full. It was a tiny thing with almost no space for luggage. So do ensure you do not board the train with either large bags or with too many bags.

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Bringing our little journey to an end

The train pulled out from the station. Thus started a beautiful journey. We traveled through lush-green mountains, through almost 900 bridges and 100 tunnels in a weather that was pleasant.

It rained; we hurriedly closed our windows, but the water found its way in anyhow. People opened their umbrellas. Yes. In the train. The family behind us was lamenting throughout. But we found it amusing, rather than annoying.

The train brought us closer to nature. There were tiny stations along the way, with white cottages & blue roofs for stations, leaping right out of Malgudi Days. This was surely going to remain etched in our memories for as long as we lived…

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Its charm intact

The train has a decent speed, about 40 kmph. It halts at Kalka from where the broad gauge starts. We boarded the Kalka Shatabdi which fascinated us in another manner. The train was spotless, the air-conditioning worked marvelously, the seats were comfortable, the food was good, and the service was impeccable.

Soon, we were home. Our first heritage train ride had been memorable in more ways than one. Spotting & counting tunnels, a beautiful resort, soothing greenery all around, a salubrious weather, patriotic emotions, a candlelit dinner, & for the first time, liking Shimla…

We recommend an itinerary for four days, three nights:

Delhi – Shimla – Chail – Delhi

Day 0: Depart from Delhi by bus/ train.

Day 1: Arrive early morning at Shimla. Spend the day sightseeing specially Annandale, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, & The Ridge. Spend the night at Shimla British Resort.

Day 2: Hire a vehicle to take you to Mashobra/ Naldehra. Enjoy the journey! Night at Shimla British Resort.

Day 3: Checkout and head to Chail (a 2-hour drive). Check in at HPTDC The Chail Palace. Take a walk around and experience the former summer capital of the princely state of Patiala at its best.

Day 4: After an early breakfast, head to the Shimla railway station (2 hours again) to catch the trains back to Delhi

Recommended time to visit: Pretty much all through the year. It may snow during winter; so be prepared for the cold!

Recommended eats: Fruit chaat, Butter bun & Tea, Gol gappa

Recommended buys: Woolens, Handcrafted antiques, Tibetan floor coverings

P.S. The train bookings were done almost 3 months in advance. We kept a lookout on the ARS.

A Sunday at the Rashtrapati Bhavan

It is strange when you have resided in a city for more than 15 years and yet, are unaware of many of its gems. Now, we were certainly aware of the Rashtrapati Bhavan (RB) but we did not know we could visit it too. When we heard about it from an acquaintance, it was as if the heavens had opened up and God had showered us with Her divinity. Okay, well, we exaggerate, but we did feel a thrill run down our spine. Are you wondering what is so special about this? There are many reasons including our interest in politics, our fascination with heritage, and our love for the ‘new’.

A couple of years back, we had visited the Buckingham Palace to be wowed by its grandiosity. Now, if the Queen can allow visitors, we are sure Mr. President will not mind either! So then, we got down to business. Booking the ticket was fairly simple on the easy-to-navigate www.presidentofindia.nic.in. Do note, though, that:

  1. You have to upload a photograph of yourself and input an identity card number; so, keep these handy.
  2. You may not get tickets for the immediate dates.
  3. Your visit gets postponed to a later day, like it happened with us. But, we found it to be a blessing as instead of moving ourselves early in the January morning, we could laze around and go a little later, when the Sun was out.

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Our tricolor, the Central Dome, the Tuscan Pillars, & the Forecourt – Sandstone dreams!

Undoubtedly excited, we were up and about on Sunday, even if the lure of the quilt was high. After all, we had to meet the President! We had received a detailed email confirming our visit, and containing guidelines and a map. Follow directions as given in the map as entry is allowed from select gates only. It was good to be able to park our vehicle inside the Presidential Estate 😊 Hereon, leave behind anything and everything except your wallet, identity card and the confirmation emails.

After three rounds of scrutiny of our identity papers, we were finally inside The Bhavan. Temporary passes were made for us at the Reception. A Curio Shop nearby attracted us but we realized that better merchandise was available online on the official RB website. Surprise! Post all security clearances, a guide took us through the select parts of the Rashtrapati Bhavan while regaling us with their history, interesting anecdotes and trivia. A PSO followed our group to ensure we did not wander off. We had booked Circuit One which is a tour of the main building.

Lord Buddha Statue: Called the Sahastrabahu Avlokiteshvara, this 1000-armed Lord Buddha Statue was a gift from Vietnam to India. It was brought to India in three parts, and assembled here. The Statue itself is of Plaster of Paris but is surrounded by a marble staircase. The sun rays filtering in through the windows and lighting up the marble stunned us.

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The Government of India Auto Rickshaw!

Durbar Hall: For us, this was the most familiar room as this is where the civil and defense investiture ceremonies, like the Padma awards, take place. The significance of this Hall goes back to the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Nehru to form the first government of independent India.

In front of the Ashok Hall, the Durbar Hall looks simple. Yet, it enthralls in its own way as this is the room that lies right under the Central Dome. So, technically, you are in the heart of the Bhavan.

A fifth century AD Buddha statue is placed against the wall and in front of it is placed the President’s chair during ceremonies. No, our visiting RB was not considered a ceremony and hence, the chair was not there!

Two pieces of trivia made our heads woozy. One, when you are standing in the Durbar Hall, you are at the same height as that of the top of the India Gate! And two, the line that runs in the center of the Hall cutting it into half is also the line that cuts the entire Rashtrapati Bhavan into two equal halves, and runs down along Rajpath till the India Gate!!

North Drawing Room: This is where meetings between the Heads of State occur. Historically important oil paintings adorn the Room like the swearing-in of PM Nehru. The Bhavan uses a lot of acronyms; this Room is called the NDR.

Long Drawing Room: Of course, this is the LDR. It is a meeting room where the annual conferences of governors take place. The LDR seemed to be one of those rare rooms that was not paneled heavily with teak. It had a soft green color. Adding to the aura of the LDR were some stunning paintings and gorgeous chandeliers.

Library: Clearly my favorite spot! Sir Lutyens loved circles. Circular patterns can be found everywhere in RB, from ceilings to floors to chairs! The books are arranged chronologically with the oldest dating 1795. To break the sandstone and marble monotony, the Library floor has golden yellow Jaisalmer stone. On a clear day, you can see the India Gate from the Library. We will have to return on a clear day!

Ashok Hall: Easily the grandest part of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. We have been to a few European palaces and seen their fresco art. The ones in Ashok Hall are equal in their grandeur if not better. It used to be the State Ballroom but is now used for ceremonial functions. Being a Ballroom, its floors are made of wood and have springs underneath to give a little bounce. Of course, now it is fully carpeted with Persian weaves.

The painting on the ceiling and the wall frescoes took our breath away. The rich oil colors make the paintings come alive, so much so, that the one on the ceiling has a 3D effect to it. Bordering the paintings are Persian inscriptions. There are two portraits hung in the Ashok Hall- of Nizami the Poet, and a Persian Lady. Strangely, the painter (s) of both these portraits is (are) unknown.

During the days of ball dance, the orchestra would play out of a loft. Now the trumpeters sit here and use their instruments to signal the arrival of the President.

Grand Stairs: To get from one part of the Bhavan to another, we took the Stairs. I am fairly certain I would be lost in this house! The Stairs are a delight in sandstone. This is the spot where Sir Lutyens’ bust has been placed. He gets to enjoy the Indian Sun! The Mughal ‘jaali’ work can be found around the Stairs. Sir Lutyens may have denied any Indian influence on his work but well, it can be seen aplenty.

Banquet Hall: As the name suggests, this is where the party happens folks! Panelled with Burmese teak on all sides, this hall is a classic. The panels, on top, have intricate zardozi work, which was commissioned by President Patil. Earlier, in place of the zardozi work, were displays of medieval arms. But a banquet hall is hardly the place to display firearms, isn’t it?

What we loved about the Hall was the blue-green-red light system. The head butler uses this to instruct the other butlers. The blue light indicates food to be brought in; green light means start of service; and red is to clear the plates. N is contemplating installing this system in our house too 😊

There is a small anteroom just behind the Hall. This is where the band plays while a banquet is in progress. The band cannot be seen but the music can be heard as it wafts in through the walls!

Forecourt: This is the area that leads from the Main Gate to RB. You would have seen the Forecourt during the swearing-in ceremony of the 2014 central government. The path from the Gate to the Forecourt is lined with trees that are cut in an adorable mushroom shape. N wondered why a broken capital occupied prime position in the Forecourt. We soon came to know about the Rampurva Bull, from the third century BC, excavated from Rampurva in Bihar (hence the name!).

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The Rampurva Bull behind the Tuscan Pillars (& the tiny people carrying out the renovation work)

Central Dome: When we stood in the Forecourt and looked up at the Central Dome where our national tricolour fluttered, our hearts swelled with pride. Did you know- if the flag is flying atop the Dome, it signifies the President is in New Delhi? The Central Dome is inspired from the Sanchi Stupa. It is Massive! It is twice the height of the building itself. Who would have thought?

The Rashtrapati Bhavan is a combination of different styles of architecture. Under the Central Dome are the Tuscan pillars which are Greek in style. On top of the pillars are the carvings of temple bells inspired from Karnataka temples.

When we turned away from the Central Dome and tried spotting the India Gate, we saw the Jaipur Column. Trivia about the Column- it has the map of Delhi on its eastern face.

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The Jaipur Column, & beyond that, the Rajpath leading to the India Gate

 

We missed out on the Guest Wing, though, as it was undergoing renovation. But, on the whole, we came away impressed. The Bhavan is grand and thoughtfully designed. It was interesting to see how a few British traditions are still followed but given an entirely Indian touch. When our cities are being taken over by futuristic glasshouses, these visions in marble and sandstone are a treat to sore eyes. We were also fascinated with the numerous fountains on the roof of RB.

The tour itself was well conducted. The cordial nature of the staff members pleased us – no loud voices, no rudeness, process orientation and efficient use of technology.

Sundays are meant for lazing around but when heritage beckons, we had to obey. And we cannot wait to return to the Rashtrapati Bhavan for the remaining circuits!

My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 3

Continuing from Chapter 2, a few kilometers before Nathu La, I switched to the other car. I was in for making new friends. A group of Rajasthani couples was on holiday to Guwahati, Shillong and Gangtok.

When I say Rajasthani, I mean ‘proper’ Rajasthani. The men wore dhoti – kurta with pagdis; the women were in ghoonghat. All middle-aged folks, they first assumed I did not know Hindi. I hastened to correct them, and we got chatting.

One of the gentlemen was an ex-farmer, now a linesman with the electricity board. He had educated his children who were now doctors and engineers. The pride was evident in his voice. And then, of course, my interview followed.

My Rajasthani friends
My Rajasthani friends

Indians are such a curious bunch. They wanted to know if I worked, if I was married, if I had children, why I had moved to their car etc. but, surprisingly, they did not seem astonished that I was traveling alone. I loved interacting with them. N calls me antisocial, but I am pretty social when not overshadowed by his incessant chatter!

The tourists from Rajasthan were also proud of the fact that they had traveled to Guwahati in a ‘plane’. It made me realize how badly we take for granted the things that are still luxuries for millions.

They asked me about the pollution in Delhi; I bared my heart to them – my wish of not returning to Delhi but of settling down in Gangtok itself. Maybe, take up organic farming. I wish it was as easy as talking about it…

Sikkim can be called Land of Colors too!
Sikkim can be called Land of Colors too!

Chatting and laughing, we were at Nathu La. From the drop-off point, the climb was not too much but the lack of oxygen made every step difficult. I am unsure where I found my courage from. I marched ahead of others and was soon at the top. And I was stunned!

A rope marks the international boundary. It is easy to crossover to China, except that the Chinese would dislike it. The building on the left belongs to India, the one on the right to China. Even neighbors in the posh colonies of Delhi have higher fences & boundaries.

A Chinese soldier walked out to click a photograph. He looked like a teenager in front of our tall and strong Dogra regiment jawaans. But, underestimating them would be suicidal.

Nathu La
The temperature was still a bearable 10 degrees at the pass but the winds would penetrate the strongest of defenses. The smaller building is India while the taller one is China…

Having contented my heart soaking in this piece of my personal history, and having saluted the Indian tricolor, I started my descent.

Let me not make you think the climb was easy. Everyone struggled. A few senior citizens abandoned their plan of going all the way to the top. Walk slowly, take deep breaths, and travel light. In any case, camera, mobile phones and handbags are prohibited. Sip frequently on water. If you feel faint, do not proceed.

A 15-minute visit causes such tribulation to us; imagine how our soldiers man their posts 365 days of the year, in any weather. They are definitely made of superhuman elements.

I see empty roads & want to move here.
I see empty roads & want to move here.

On my way down, I picked up a warrior certificate; one that says I was brave enough to visit Nathu La. Yay!

Once back down, I realized my co-passengers were still making their way down. I had some time to click photographs. While doing so, the cab driver paid me a rare compliment – that I was the first Dilliwala he had liked. He wanted me to stay back in Gangtok and was ready to lease his land to me for organic farming. I smile every time I think of this.

It is uncommon for the people of the plains to extend innocent friendships; anything remotely friendly seems creepy to us. This cabbie was not the last person to become friendly; I was to encounter this again and again in Gangtok. I realized that it was just openness towards a guest but the cynic in me questioned their motive, even if my demeanor remained friendly. It is sad that the people of the metropolitan cities have completely lost their goodness. For us, everything seems to have an underlying agenda.

Another Friendly Encounter
Another Friendly Encounter

Coming back, a last note on Nathu La – carry an identification card (any government – issued one except a PAN card).

We made our way to the Baba Mandir where my own cab awaited. I bid a hearty goodbye to the Rajasthani tourists but I was to bump into them again.

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