Appreciation Post

When N & I got married, we promised each other we would never stop wondering. We felt it was a coincidence that the words ‘wondering’ & ‘wandering’ were so similar… Over the last eight years, we have explored much of India!

We pick up our car & drive away at the drop of the hat. Yet, there’s much left to be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, felt & experienced, for India is truly incredible… Travel has given us a chance to experience new cultures, heritage, and food!

The steering wheel of my vehicle called ‘life‘…

More importantly, it’s reinstated our faith in humanity when we have been warmly welcomed by strangers.

We have completed road trips in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Daman & Diu…

Road trips bring about a heightened sense of experience. They are our preferred mode of travel! Any road trip opportunity excites us. An affection for vehicles, a steadfastness for traffic rules, a sense of amazement, and a flair for writing & storytelling make us perfect for undertaking road journeys…

We document our travelogues in our humble effort to popularise even further the behemoth that Incredible India is! Having said all of this, none of this would have been possible without a partner who seldom says no.

So, N, thank you for being my fellow hodophile!

10 Reasons Why We Love The Mountains

Thanks to the lousy day we had yesterday, we have been trying to escape mentally to the mountains. If you know us, we feel ourselves at home in the mountains. 2021 has been difficult for all of us but we have managed to cope on most of the days. However, occasionally, like yesterday, it gets tough.

As we process our thoughts, we seek solace in travelling back through memories. Why we dreamt of the mountains when inundated with sad emotions is something that made us curious. We narrowed down to 10 reasons why we love the mountains so much.

Tso Moriri, Ladakh, India

1. Memories

The mountains were a part of our childhoods, from road trips on the winding roads of Nepal to scaling gravity defying inclines in Darjeeling to trying yak cheese in Gangtok. As young adults, we remember freezing in the chilly winds of Chail & viewing surreal sights in the Scottish Highlands.

Our honeymoon was in Italy, but the standout memory is of viewing the Alps as we flew from Paris to Venice. We are lucky to have visited some amazing places & will continue to make more such memories.

Kyagar Tso, Ladakh

2. Delight

We are not keen on adventure sports, but walking & hiking are a part of us. When a hike takes us to a vantage spot, the adrenaline rush is exceptional. We get drunk by that sense of achievement. Physically we may say ‘no more’ but in our hearts, we know we will do it again.

3. Food

Chicken Thenthuk at The Tibetan Kitchen, Leh, Ladakh

Oh dear! This is triggering a major nostalgia. Mountain food is dainty! We always opt for the local cuisine & have seldom been disappointed. The steaming thukpa of the Tibetan – influence regions to the rajma – chawal (Indian style kidney beans with rice) of the lower Himalayas, we have always had a plethora of options when we visit the mountains.

& how can we not mention the freshly baked goods of hill stations which were home to British colonists!

4. Freedom

Dawn at Leh

When we have stood on the top of a mountain, freedom has been our dominant emotion. For those of us who live in the Indian plains, the warm Sun on our cheeks is welcome for a change. As we inhale the fresh air, with every breath, we exhale the word ‘freedom’.

5. Inactivity

There can be much to do in the mountains but there is always an option to relax. We love the fact that there is no pressure to dress up & complete a checklist of sights to see. There have been mountain trips when we have just lazed in the gardens of our accommodations, looked at the sky change colours, & listened to the birds chirp.

Spotting Indian Bisons at Dhupgarh, Madhya Pradesh, India

The pace of life for the locals is easy-going too & that can be infectious!

6. Landscapes

For those of us who live in Delhi NCR, the Himalayas are our chance of awesome panoramas. There is no better way to escape reality in our opinion. When we are in the mountains for a break, we are in awe of life every single day.

A misty morning at Pachmarhi, Madhya Pradesh

If dramatic scenes do not make us believe in the beauty of life, we doubt anything else can.

7. People

OMG! We could write pages on this. We have met such beautiful people in the mountains. Their life outlook is different from ours & something to take inspiration from. They know the value of life & they do not take anything for granted.

A dramatic sunset at Lodwick Point, Mahabaleshwar, Maharashtra, India

We cannot forget the ladies we met in Kinnaur district in Himachal Pradesh – the friendliest people we have ever come across.

8. Seasons

Be it any season, the mountains remain extraordinary. The breeze of spring, the rivers of summer, the yellowing leaves of autumn, the bone chilling cold of winter – each season has a distinctive vibe & must be experienced.

Mashobra, Himachal Pradesh, India

9. Travel

Our appetite for the mountains has taken us to impressive places – high altitude deserts of Ladakh, lush green hills of Satpura, rainfed forests of Western Ghats, umpteen hamlets of Himachal, warm hospitality of Bhutan, birds of Uttarakhand, Rift Valley of Kenya, safety of Sikkim, rice fields & volcanos of Bali, spooky Scottish Highlands, Great Wall in China, mountainous island of Kauai, undulating streets of Hong Kong, breath-taking valleys of Kashmir, cable car rides of Langkawi, vineyards of Chianti, Blue Mountains of Australia

To each of these places, we have said, ‘we will be back’ & we do dream of returning but we also realise life is too short to keep seeing the same places. So, we continue to revisit these places in our hearts!

Punakha, Bhutan

10. Ambition

Every day we dream of the mountains. Every day we envisage our forever home in the mountains. This becomes more pronounced in the summer when we feel ourselves melting under the Sun. & also in winter because the very thought of snow surrounding us is delicious (even if inconvenient).

We do not know if & when our forever mountain home will materialise but that does not stop us from daydreaming.

Rift Valley, Kenya

It may take a while, but we will be back in the mountains at the first safe opportunity. Breathe in that fresh air & make those memories again. Till then, we are staying home, staying safe, & hope you are too!

Strawberry Overdose Let's Go Sightseeing!

How can you spend a couple of days in Mahabaleshwar? This episode tells you how. Also available as a blog post: https://letsgosightseeing.blog/2021/06/03/strawberry-overdose/
  1. Strawberry Overdose
  2. 10 Reasons Why We Love The Mountains

Doors of Rajasthan

So we’ve been wanting to do this for a LONG time but something or the other made us put it off. Finally, the Holi post of Incredible India made us bite the bullet!

Isn’t that a treat to the eyes? So, here we go, with our version of ‘Doors of Rajasthan’!!

Doors of Rajasthan… Or colors of Rajasthan!

Do you like it? Do you’ve a version of ‘Doors of Rajasthan’ too? Please let us know in the comments.

P. S. This has to be our shortest blog post EVER!

Pali

A Brief Halt at a Unique Indian Temple

On our Udaipur to Jodhpur stretch of the Rajasthan road trip, Pali (92 KMS from Ranakpur) turned out to be a spontaneous halt. We had known about a unique temple existing in Pali but when we found it right on the highway, we had to stop.

The motorcycle that kept returning…

The temple is called Om Banna Dham and/ or Bullet Baba Mandir. We write the key points from our visit here.

About Pali

Pali is situated on the banks of the river Bandi. Since the 11th century, it was part of one or the other kingdom – Guhilas, Songara Chauhans, Champavata Rathores & more & finally Marwar. Pali has the distinction of being Maharana Pratap’s birthplace. During India’s struggle for independence, its ‘thakurs’ had confrontations with the British.

Read about this unique temple in Pali!

Pali is famous for a sweet called ‘Gulab Halwa’ & for its kulfi & ice-cream. It also has many industries. & like any other industrial city, Pali has been struggling with a pollution problem.

What’s Unique About the Temple?

The temple is dedicated to a local youth called Om Singh Rathore. What makes the temple unique is the legend behind it. In 1970, Om Rathore died in a road accident at this spot. The police hauled his motorcycle, a Royal Enfield Bullet 350, away to the police station.

A permanent place for the bike

But the next morning, it was mysteriously discovered back at the accident site. The police again hauled the bike to the station. The next morning, it was again found at the accident site. The police watched the motorbike one night.

The fable goes that it started on its own & stopped at the accident site. After this ghostly happening, the police returned the motor bike to Om Banna’s family. A shrine was erected at the accident site. Since then, Om Singh Rathore’s spirit is said to protect other riders.

The motor bike is the idol at this temple. It draws huge crowds specially the local population. It is almost a rite of passage for bikers. Ironically, Bullet Baba is offered alcohol. We wonder how he manages to protect his drunk devotees!

Om Singh Rathore’s spirit protects other riders.

We Recommend –

  1. Photography is allowed inside the temple.
  2. It can become crowded. Keep your wits about you.

Getting Out

An aarti for Om Rathore

All around the temple, there are ‘dhabas’ (roadside eating joints). Hop into one, chat up with the locals & find out more about the legend of Om Banna.

India – A Land of Temples – & Unique Ones at That

We doubt you can travel even a kilometer in India without coming across a temple. Many of them are ancient while others will, nonetheless, carry ‘ancient’ in their names. Each temple, however, has its distinct belief system.

A popular pilgrimage spot for locals

It is rare to find one devoid of devotees asking for their wishes to be fulfilled or thanking the deity for fulfilled wishes. However, there are a few that are totally unique.

  • Congress President Sonia Gandhi Temple in Telangana
  • Devji Maharaj Mandir (exorcism & ghost fair) in Madhya Pradesh
  • Devaragattu Temple (devotees hit each with sticks) in Andhra Pradesh
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi Temple in Tamil Nadu
  • Stambheshwar Mahadev (vanishing temple) in Gujarat

& so many more…

Ironically, Bullet Baba is offered alcohol. Wonder how he manages to protect his drunk devotees!

Have you visited Pali?

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.

SEEING BENARES IS DIFFERENT FROM EITHER HEARING OR READING ABOUT IT! *

Varanasi in 36 hours

We still prefer referring to Varanasi as Kashi. The word ‘Kashi’ conjures up images of ancient India. After all, didn’t Mark Twain say, Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”?

Ganga Aarti, Dashashwamedh Ghat
The iconic Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat

We made our way to Varanasi on a January long weekend. We had to cancel our original train booking as it was running late. (Winter can be a little risky time to travel in north India, as flights & trains get disrupted due to fog.) We flew to Lal Bahadur Shastri International Airport located in Babatpur, 26 KMS from Varanasi.

The First 12 Hours

The highway from Babatpur to Varanasi was under construction then; so, it took us a while to get to our destination. But the construction has been completed in November 2018.

New Vishwanath Mandir, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India
Colors of Benares New Vishwanath Mandir

Our first evening in Varanasi was reserved for a boat ride on the River Ganges. It had been a childhood dream for us to take a boat on the Ganges & watch the Ghats. As the Sun set, we made our way from the Assi Ghat to the Dashashwamedh Ghat. The gentle swaying of the boat was accompanied by the boatman’s stories. The Ghats twinkled as we floated alongside. Our hearts could not possibly be fuller.

At sunset every day, the Dashashwamedh Ghat is lit up. Priests line up for a magnificent spectacle wherein the Mother River is worshiped. We felt blessed to be watching the iconic Ganga Aarti. The aarti time makes the Ghats (& the river in front) crowded; so, ensure you get here well in time. It was a heady feeling to be a part of faith at this scale. Watching the aarti from the boat was a surreal experience too!

From the Dashashwamedh Ghat, we moved inland through the maze of lanes that are famous for small temples, eateries, shops & what not. We did not have a set agenda but as our tummies were rumbling, we stopped at Bana Lassi. We tried a Plain Lassi & a Banana Lassi. Both were lip smacking good. The cafe had a bohemian touch with floor seating & painted walls – Bob Marley featured too. The place appeals to foreign tourists. Indian youngsters would feel at home here. We could imagine curling up with a book & trying out all their lassi flavors!

lassi, bana lassi, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Our lassis at Bana Lassi

We roamed the Varanasi streets. The abundance of color on the roadside shops dazzled us. Look out for handicraft centers having figurines of gods & goddesses. You will be struck with the variety in color, material & size!

It was time to call it a night after some more yummy in our tummy. Varanasi is known to have one of the tastiest street foods. To validate this, we headed to Kashi Chaat Bhandaar. This place is so good that even a non – street food lover like us returned to eat more. A small, easy – to – miss shop with a handful of tables for seating. Most customers prefer to stand outside, on the road, to gobble up the goodies. The Golgappa, Gulab Jamun, Kulfi Falooda, Potato Tikki Chaat, & Samosa Chaat knocked us off. We may return to Varanasi just for this!

It was a cold January night. Chai would help us sleep better. (Well, there doesn’t really have to be a reason to have tea.) At the Assi Ghat, a kiosk called ‘Taste of Banaras‘ offered us delicious kulhad chai.

Happiness, kulhad chai, cold night, taste of benares, assi ghat, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Happiness is… A kulhad chai on a cold night!

The Next 24 Hours

We had traveled over the Makar Sankranti long weekend. It’s considered auspicious to take a dip in the holy river, but, with the chill, we just bowed our heads. However, we did enjoy watching the kite flying.

We hit the road soon after. The best way to get around Varanasi is on foot or take a rickshaw. Our first stop was the Tulsi Manas Mandir. This is a newer temple. It is built on the site where the Ramayana was written. The gardens around the temple were clean & well-maintained.

tulsi manas mandir, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Tulsi Manas Mandir. That blue!

The Sankat Mochan Mandir is dedicated to the monkey god, Lord Hanuman. As if on cue, there were a lot of monkeys roaming around. While they mind their own business, it’s a good idea not to engage with them. The temple itself is divine. It has a calming effect. It is, probably, the second popular temple in Varanasi, after the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir. There are lockers made outside the temple where it is mandatory to deposit all your belongings, including cellphones.

The Banaras Hindu University has beauty & history at one place! BHU, of course, is legendary. It was a pilgrimage of sorts to come here. The campus took our breath away with its cleanliness, greenery, & wide roads. This is one of the oldest universities in India, & you can almost feel the history when you stand in the campus.

What we liked about the new Vishwanath Mandir was that it was orderly & did not have the same chaos that other temples do. There were proper queues formed & the darshan was managed by officers. The temple is in the middle of the BHU campus & its own precincts are huge. This is a new temple & maintained quite well. Have a cold coffee with ice cream at its entrance.

new Vishwanath Mandir, shikhar, banaras hindu university, bhu, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
The Sun plays with the new Vishwanath Mandir shikhar.

The Nepali Mandir was on our must-see list. The temple is built as a replica of the Pashupatinath Mandir. It was a hidden gem as even many locals did not know about it! It was, thus, a little difficult to find. (P.S. It is on Lalita Ghat.) But once here, we fell in love with the woodwork.

The Nepali Mandir was constructed by one of the erstwhile Nepali kings. The temple is different from all the other temples in its architectural style, materials used etc. The terrace is a good place to view the river. (There’s an entrance fee for foreigners.)

It is a lifelong dream of many Hindus to visit the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir. Glad we got a chance! The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, one of the principal deities in Hinduism. The Kashi Vishwanath Mandir is in a narrow gully with a heavy police presence.

Many ‘priests’ will approach you for a hassle-free ‘darshan‘. You can opt for them if you want to cut the queue & do not mind parting with some money. Better to fix the amount with them beforehand. Our ‘priest’ made us buy a few offerings, got a locker for us to deposit our stuff & to remove our shoes. He, indeed, took us through some other gate where the line was shorter.

Once inside, he took us to the various parts of the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, made us worship & told us the significance of the temple. Beware: these priests have tie ups with the priests inside. So, they will make you complete a worship & ask you to donate large sums of money. It is OK to say no or give only what you want to give.

It was good to be able to visit the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, but it would have been better if there was more discipline inside. Once out after the darshan, you can feast on ‘malaiyo‘ – a thick, creamy variant of curd, available in the gullies connecting the temple to the street. Yum! After all, every puja must be followed by pet – puja.

Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, malaiyo, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
No photos of the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir but chandan courtesy visit to the temple. Gorging on ‘malaiyo’…

(Disclaimer: The area around the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir has been cleaned of encroachments & been beautified.)

We ended our evening at the Assi Ghat. Cultural events keep happening here. The Ganga Aarti takes place at the Assi Ghat too. But as it is not as famous as the one on the Dashashwamedh Ghat, it is less crowded. We got front row seats to view this engrossing event. Morning after morning, evening after evening, it is only faith that makes this possible.

We had heard since childhood that the Banaras Ghats were not fit to step on. However, we did not encounter any such filth. All the Ghats have steps leading to the river. While hawkers & mendicants still throng these steps, there is no stinking dirt as such.

Banaras Ghats, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
The Banaras Ghats have a life of their own!

We loved Varanasi. Delightfully vibrant! Spiritual & all-encompassing!! We understand now why people choose to spend their last days here. Kashi stole our hearts & left us wanting for more. To (mis) quote Arnold Schwarzenegger, “We’ll be back”.

Accommodation

We wanted to stay near the Ghats but had a difficult time finding a suitable accommodation. Thank goodness we chanced upon Hotel Banaras Haveli! It is located at a walking distance from the Assi Ghat. We could spot the Ghat & the River Ganges from our room.

River Ganges, hotel rooftop, hotel banaras haveli, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
View of the River Ganges from the hotel rooftop

The room was comfortable with all required amenities available. Breakfast was served on the rooftop restaurant which was a great way to start the day on a winter morning. The hotel reception guys also arranged a boat for us for the evening boat ride. They also provided the airport pick & drop. All in all, a good choice!

With the Ghat being next door, & with rooms offering a view of the Ganges, we do recommend this hotel.

* Quote from The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna

Statue, Madan Mohan Malviya, Banaras Hindu University, BHU, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Statue of the Late Madan Mohan Malviya at the Banaras Hindu University

A Walk On The Rajpath

Winter is a great time to go sightseeing in Delhi. Before winter 2019 begins, we felt we must finish blogging about our winter 2018 sightseeing!

To begin, we post about Rajpath today. Ideally, we should come to the most important road in India to see the Republic Day Parade. But, thanks to our apprehension of crowds, we’re better off watching it on the TV, at home… Apart from 26 January, we can come here any day!

Ever since we’ve discovered birding, we notice far more birds now.

With time, we’re managing to identify birds too. Nature will be our salvation…

A glimpse of the Rashtrapati Bhavan from the outside in 2018. The flag on top means the President of India is in the house… We aimed to walk from the gates of the Rashtrapati Bhavan to the India Gate, covering the stretch of Rajpath that’s a familiar sight, thanks to the Republic Day Parade!

Raisina Hill houses India’s most important government buildings. Consequently, it’s often used as an equivalent for the Government of India…

While we popularly know these as North Block & South Block, together they’re known as the Secretariat Building.

Sandstone jaalis & carved elephant heads give the renaissance dome an Indian touch. Also note the chhatris… This is where the Government of India is housed! Situated on the Raisina Hill, the North & South Blocks are symmetrical buildings.

They sit on opposite sides of the Rajpath axis & flank the Rashtrapati Bhavan… It’s well-known that Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens was responsible for town planning & (what’s now) Rashtrapati Bhavan construction!

His second-in-command, Herbert Baker, is forgotten, even though he was the one to design the Secretariat Building, New Delhi.

The term ‘Raisina Hill’ was coined after land was acquired from 300 local village families.

Relations between Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens & Baker deteriorated. The hill in front of the Rashtrapati Bhavan obscured the view of the Rajpath & the India Gate… Only the Rashtrapati Bhavan dome was visible from far away!

Sardar Bahadur Sir Sobha Singh was an Indian civil contractor, prominent builder & real estate developer.

President’s Estate, South Block, India Gate, Rashtrapati Bhavan & Vijay Chowk – Sir Sobha Singh has left behind a rich legacy. Wonder if Sobha Realty is related to the man…

Herbert Baker used the Indo-Saracenic Revival architecture to design the Secretariat Building. Love how Indian touches were added to it…

As we began walking down Rajpath, towards the India Gate, we looked back at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The largest residence that any head of state in the world has, the President of India has it.

As we stepped down from the Raisina Hill, on either side of the Rajpath were fountains set in gardens.

The ceremonial boulevard runs not just till the India Gate, but till the Dhyan Chand National Stadium.

The Sansad Bhavan is the house of the Parliament of India, containing the Lok Sabha & the Rajya Sabha.

Salute to the temple of democracy.

The Rajpath is lined on both sides by huge lawns, & rows of trees.

We remember a time when these lawns used to be abuzz with activity. You could find every kind of street hawker selling her/ his wares here… It’s been curtailed now! Areas have been designated where hawkers can pitch their goods.

The Rajpath is also used for key Indian political leaders’ funeral processions.
We’ve to give it to the Delhi horticulture department.

It does a great job of maintaining the greens, & of ushering in color.

Finally, the India Gate.

The India Gate was designed by Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens. Its architecture is quite like the Arch of Constantine, the Arc de Triomphe, & the Gateway of India… On 10 February 1921, the Duke of Connaught laid the foundation stone of the India Gate!

Our symmetry obsession is satisfied, seeing the neatly stacked rows of plants, with not even one out of place.
Flags of the Indian Armed Forces at the India Gate
The India Gate has become a symbol for India.

The India Gate is also a popular spot for civil society protests. This war memorial evokes emotions – the senselessness of war, & yet, a passion for the nation…

No walk is complete without satisfying grub in the end.

Penne A la Vodka at The Immigrant Cafe 2.0
Kadhi Chaawal Arancini at The Immigrant Cafe 2.0

The Arancini was an interesting take on the humble kadhi chawal.

With our hearts & tummies full, we plotted our next heritage outing.

KHAJURAHO – A PHOTO-LOG

Madhya Pradesh must be the most underrated tourist destination in India. The centrally-located state has nature, heritage, & art. Yet, we neither hear much about it nor see family & friends visiting MP. We ourselves were oblivious of all that the state has to offer till we made our way there.

temple, story
Each of the temples has a story behind it.

On our maiden trip, we spent a little less than a week exploring three destinations – Khajuraho, Panna Tiger Reserve & Orchha. Here, we take you through Khajuraho with our photo-blog.

wonder, temple, construct, modern technology
We wonder how the temples were constructed then, when no modern technological marvel was available…

Khajuraho was a seat of the Chandela rulers’ authority. They built numerous temples in the town in the 9th and 10th centuries. Today, the group of temples is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

logo, UNESCO, group of temples
The logo made by UNESCO for the Group of Temples
scene, battle, daily life, shringar, meditation
Scenes from battles, from daily life, from shringar, from meditation to many more…
temple, back, craftsmen
Make it a point to go around the temple to the back; you will realize the craftsmen did not neglect the backside either!
khajuraho, erotica, hype
Khajuraho being only about erotica is a hype!

Erotic sculptures do not make up even 5% of the total. The guides will ask you if you are okay seeing & knowing more about them before they point them out to you.

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The temples are best visited at the time of sunrise/ sunset.

The golden hour is a good time for photography too.

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There are excavations still going on & new old temples (!) are being unearthed.
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Jain Temples

Since the Jain Temples were built around the same time, their architecture is strikingly similar to that of the Hindu temples.

Chaturbhuj Temple
Chaturbhuj Temple

The standalone Chaturbhuj Temple has a well – preserved idol of Lord Vishnu.

sun rays, temple, light, ethereal glow
When the sun rays fall on the temples, they light up with an ethereal glow.

Western Group of Temples

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Look for a Lord Ganesha sculpture to be mesmerized with the eye for detail & the craftsmanship.

Even the roll of His tummy fat has been sculpted with precision!

lakshmana temple, well preserved, exquisite sculpture
The Lakshmana Temple is well-preserved & has exquisite sculptures.
Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, Lord Shiva, grand
The Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is easily the grandest!

It is built in the shape of Mount Meru, the source of creation of the world.

parvati temple, relatively new
The Parvati Temple (in the foreground) is a relatively new one.

It was built by one of the last Bundelkhand kings when the British were instigating religions against each other. To promote harmony, the king built this temple adopting the styles of architecture from Hinduism, Islam & Buddhism. The leftmost is a Hindu ‘shikhar’, the middle one is a Buddhist style pagoda, & the rightmost is an Islamic style dome.

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Each of the temples has a uniqueness about it.

A light & sound show takes place in the evening at the Western Group of Temples. You can opt to see that to understand the regional history better.

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Each of the temples has an architectural beauty that left us in awe.

Tips:

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We loved the silhouettes the external sculptures made.
  1. Khajuraho is best visited in the winter months – October to March. The weather is salubrious to walk around the temples. The temples become even more radiant when the winter sun rays fall on them!
  2. Khajuraho has air connectivity. Delhi – Khajuraho – Varanasi is a preferred route by tourists. We, however, opted for a train to Jhansi – road to Orchha – road to Khajuraho – flight to Delhi.
  3. Khajuraho is a paradise for architecture/ art/ history/ photography enthusiasts. However, if you are someone who yawns at heritage, pass!
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Khajuraho is a paradise for architecture/ art/ history/ photography enthusiasts.

Khajuraho left an indelible mark on us…

worship
Note: Apart from one temple, worship is not permitted in any of the others.

So, What’s Airbnb?

Every now & then, a new phenomenon catches the world’s attention. If it is a fad,it dies down naturally. Else, it goes on to create history. Airbnb, to us,falls in the second category. We had been reading & hearing about Airbnb but our inhibitions were preventing us from trying it out. Will a stranger’s house be clean & hygienic? Will it be safe? But then came a time when we were unable to get a hotel for our travel. After exhausting all the hotel options on TripAdvisor (our love for TA needs to be another blog post), we perforce switched to Airbnb. We chanced upon a two-bedroom cottage in our destination.Looked pretty & reasonably-priced too. The questions still nagged our minds but we went ahead & booked. & that was a life-changing decision for us…

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At the shepherd’s hut, we sat with our host’s family to have homemade food!

Since then, we have stayed in four Airbnb accommodations – a cottage in the Himalayas, a villa in Bali, a flat on the Indian west coast & a shepherd’s hut in the Himalayan foothills. There was no reason for us to dislike any of these. While the cottage was a little away from the town center, it had an incredibly homely feel. The villa in Bali, of course, was outstanding. The flat on the west coast was like a regular apartment but you could see the Arabian Sea from there. & the shepherd’s hut gave us a chance to interact with his family & understand their customs. In all of these, there was the owner/ a caretaker to help us with food.

So, for the uninitiated, Airbnb aggregates bed & breakfast services across the world, & in every possible price range. From the backpackers’ hostel to the luxury travelers’ state-of-the-art mansion, Airbnb has got it all.

A cottage in the Himalayas – Our first AirBnB experience – A winner!

You can choose to have the entire place to yourself. Or you can have a private room but share the common space. Or you can stay in a shared space, like a common room. We have, till now, only chosen accommodations where we had the entire place to ourselves.

So, Airbnb is cheap. Hold on! What? Please do not have this notion. A few Airbnb accommodations can cost as much as a five-star hotel. We did a sample search for a not-very-touristy destination, Gwalior. The available options, for four adults, ranged from INR 900 per night to INR 6,000 per night. But what works in the favor of Airbnb is that the more people you are & the longer you stay,the cheaper the options become.

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An apartment on the Indian West Coast – Spotting the Arabian Sea in the distance

We also like their security features. The hosts are verified & so are the guests. We had to upload our photograph & a photo id. We could book the accommodation only if the two matched. It gave us some comfort that there may not be a psychopath on the other side.

What must be remembered – it is not a hotel. So, do not expect 24*7 service or‘tandoori’ food or room service etc. Think of it as staying in someone’s house.

So,go ahead, create an account & book. Do not forget to share your experience with us.

Cruising Along The Indian West Coast

The 2009 edition of Outlook Traveler spoke of the Mumbai to Goa drive enjoying cult status. The NH17, fondly remembered as NH66, ran along the western coast of India. At a few places, it came at a stone’s throw distance from the Arabian Sea. It sounded exciting.

Arabian Sea, Maravanthe
This is how close to the sea we would drive at times…

So, for our 2017 annual domestic trip, we chose the Western Ghats & the Indian west coast. It was in line with our lets-see-the-country-at-least-before-we-die plan. When we started studying about the NH66, we found that it ran from Panvel to Kanyakumari. We were thrilled! We had ~10 days to spare. We could do a longer stretch than just Mumbai to Goa.

After extensive research & iterations, we narrowed down to a return trip of ~2,100 kilometers: Mumbai- Ganpati Phule- Gokarna- Kannur- Karwar- Panchgani- Mumbai.

The only reason we could not go till Kanyakumari: we had to return to Mumbai to drop off the rented self-drive car. Self-drive car rentals in India do not have the feature of different pick & drop points yet. & 10 days were inadequate to go till Kanyakumari AND return to Mumbai. So, the remaining stretch in maybe another trip!

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In South Karnataka & North Kerala, we crossed many backwater channels…

 

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Maravanthe Beach… unknown… where the only people who stop to frolic in the waters are truck drivers hailing all the way from Punjab, Bihar & the Northeast.

Most of our road trip was on the NH66. Here & there, we touched SH92 (in Maharashtra), SH34 (Karnataka), NH48 (Maharashtra), & the Mumbai- Pune Expressway (Maharashtra). SH92 connects the NH48 to the NH66, traversing through villages to give you a view of rural Maharashtra. SH34 is a beautiful, well-maintained hilly stretch running through the Kali Tiger Reserve & Dandeli, the river rafting paradise of west India. NH48 & Mumbai- Pune Expressway are typical highways: wide roads, straight-line driving & limited scenery.

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SH34 | Crossing the Kali Tiger Reserve – A wonderful green belt with smooth roads

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After NH66, NH48 was boring. Not many turns, not much scenery…

But this post is about the NH66. On our first stretch (Mumbai to Ganpati Phule), the highway zigzagged through the Western Ghats. It being the monsoon season, the Ghats were lush. We saw more shades of green than we thought existed. So much so, that after a while, our eyes sought colors other than green.

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green green everywhere

Once we started from Ganpati Phule (till Kannur), we encountered the reason NH66 is considered so highly. We drove parallel to the Indian west coast. We felt the sea breeze.

At places, the Arabian Sea was right beside us. One such place was Maravanthe: to our right was the Arabian Sea & to our left, the Suparnika River. Essentially, we drove on a thin strip of land.

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Left: River Suparnika. Right: Arabian Sea

All along the highway were fishing hamlets. We halted just about anywhere & asked for the day’s catch to be cooked for us.

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Not really the fishing hamlet food (as we would gobble that up quickly) but you get the drift…

Also pleasing to the eye were the intricately carved & colorfully painted temples. The gopuram of each of them carried gods & goddesses of all kinds, & of more colors than found in a child’s box of crayons.

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Ornate designs on temple gopurams… Hats off to the artist!

There cannot be words better than photographs. So, leaving you with our captures of NH66.

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We spotted the Sun going down behind a stretch of green…

 

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Merging like the palm fronds do with the rocks do with the sea Or standing out with our architectural splendor, be it a church, a school or a temple…

 

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The contrast could not be more striking The tarred roads Against the many shades of green…

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.

Beauty in Barrenness

There is such an emphasis on adornment. Cakes are expected to be decorated. Clothes are required to be embellished. Girls are supposed to be ornamented. Presentations are expected to be beautified.

Amidst all these trimmings, we forget about the innate beauty of people, of places, and of things. We do not, for a second, imagine there can be attractiveness in simplicity. In our estimation, a plain Jane cannot be beautiful.

Unless we garnish our dishes and make them look pretty, we are dissatisfied. We purchase knick – knacks to be kept around the house; these will, presumably, make our dwellings worthier.

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Emu in such an unlikely place…

When we are conditioned thus, it was exciting to find beauty in barrenness. We had had our eyes set on the Rann of Kutch for quite a while. The white salt desert was enticing. We found the miles of nothingness inviting.

But, going to the Rann of Kutch needed time, and we were not getting any holiday which was of more than three days. So, patiently, we waited. October threw up an opportunity and we found ourselves on the path to Gujarat.

Rail journeys have caught our fancy as we realize it is quite convenient to undertake them as long as we can book in advance. And, well, our travel planning is in ADVANCE! So we booked ourselves onto the Ahmedabad – New Delhi Rajdhani and sat back for a comfortable ride.

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This beautiful thing wanted a ride.

From Ahmedabad, it took us about four hours to reach Dasada, a hamlet on the edge of the Rann of Kutch. We had booked ourselves at Rann Riders, which turned out to be one of the best places we have stayed at. But, more on that later.

We cannot even begin to describe the beauty of the Rann. And, mind you, we were at the Little Rann of Kutch. The Great Rann of Kutch is supposed to be grander and prettier. We went to the Little Rann for a sunset safari; everything they show in photographs and movies is cent per cent real.

For miles and kilometers and a few more miles, there was nothing except the parched land of the Rann, crusted white due to the salt deposits. This was immediately after the monsoon. We cannot imagine what the land would be like during summer.

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A Black-Shouldered Kite

At the far end was a lake, on which the Sun was slowly setting. A flight of flamingos brooded on the lake, wondering surely what we humans found so interesting in them. Or, perhaps, they wondered, how after destroying their natural habitats, humans create sanctuaries to ‘protect’ them.

No matter what the flamingos thought, they were a sight to behold. The curved beaks, the pink bodies, the slender legs- all proving, yet again, what a great artist the One above is.

Coming back to the Rann, the precise barrenness was what we found beautiful and calming. We are so used to chaos around us, and the need we feel to be constantly doing something, that these moments, and these spots, where time stands still, are rare.

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An international sales conference in progress

We felt at peace with ourselves. We felt one with nature. For our eyes, there was the Sun, mellowing down to a soothing yellow. There was the lake, shimmering against the rays of the Sun. There was the earth, cracked and white, and yet moist underneath.

There were shrubs, providing a splash of green in the somber setting. The only sound around us was the patter of the hooves of the wild asses running around. (The Little Rann of Kutch is home to the Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary.) And, once in a while, when the flamingos took flight, their wings flapped to create a symphony.

The only smell we had was of the dry, salty earth. The only taste we had was the salt on our lips. And the only sensation we had was of pesky insects trying to bite us. But we felt complete. All our happy memories rushed back to us to make us smile.

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This one we know. We made friends with one in Jammu and Kashmir.

All our pain disappeared for that moment. And yet, we neither felt great joy nor great sorrow. We just felt peaceful.

The Rann wildlife was another aspect that caught our fancy. We could not imagine a landscape as arid as that supporting any kind of flora and fauna. But, surprise! God must have thought- let me make a few patches of earth unfit for human survival, but let me create a few gorgeous animals who will thrive in the same ecology. Good move God!

Among mammals, you can see the most gorgeous wild asses, nimble desert foxes, shy rabbits, and even more shy nilgais. We are not great at identifying birds but we had some help from our safari guide.

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The gorgeous Wild Ass. Not an iota of fear from the hoomans… It knew this was its turf!

You can easily spot ducks, flamingos, and francolins among many others. Of course, they are all wary of human beings, and will fly away the instant you step closer to them.

Lastly, our resort- Rann Riders- was a delight to stay at. We were in the midst of a lush green setting, making us wonder how such verdure could survive the harsh weather condition.

Acres of plants and trees, the names of which we would take a lifetime to find out, surrounded us. Playing hide and seek in these trees were a plethora of animals – dogs, cats, horses, ducks, peacocks, emus, monitor lizards- all living in harmony with each other and with us human beings.

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Flying flamingos… Ooh! Alliteration!!

Our dwelling was a little mud hut called ‘kooba’, a typical village house but with modern amenities. We woke up to the sounds of the animals and slept to the gentle hum of the air conditioner. Truly a step in the Eco-tourism direction!

We are all the more determined now to visit the Great Rann of Kutch, but it will have to wait, and also for the winter months. Even October smoldered here…

 

We suggest a four days, three nights itinerary to the Rann of Kutch and surrounding areas:

Day 1: Arrive in the morning at Ahmedabad. Take a cab to Dasada; you will arrive here by afternoon. Time permitting, take an evening safari of the Little Rann of Kutch. Overnight at the Rann Riders.

Day 2: Take a morning safari of the Little Rann of Kutch. Come back, refresh & head to Modhera & Patan. You can spend the day gaping at the Sun Temple in Modhera and the Rani Ki Vav in Patan. If your pocket allows, indulge in a Patola sari at Patan. Overnight at Rann Riders.

Day 3: After breakfast, checkout & head to Ahmedabad. Try to get to Agashiye for a typical Gujarati Thali. Spend the evening sightseeing through the Sabarmati Ashram & the Sabarmati Riverfront. Overnight at Four Points by Sheraton.

Day 4: Morning will be a great time to check out the Sarkhej Roja. By afternoon/ evening, prepare to leave Ahmedabad.

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.

My Balcony in the Mountains

How we want our life to be – being able to hit the road every alternate weekend. And it has happened in the past; so why not cross our fingers for the future too? Soon after we returned from Kishangarh, we prepared to head to Nathuakhan, a small borough near Nainital in Uttarakhand, India.

Barely two weeks had passed. We had not even unpacked. (We brought ‘living out of a suitcase’ to life.) But it was sheer luck that we were getting long weekends in such quick succession. We wanted to make the best of it.

Going through yet another backdated issue of Outlook Traveler, the name of Bob’s Place sprung up. We Googled it. It fell completely in line with our idea of a holiday. A cottage in a small village, views of the Himalayas, away from crowds, home-cooked food, and no compulsion to do anything. So we got going.

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Sloped Roofs, Bricked Masonry, Well-Built Cottages

We had been to Kumaon quite a few times in the last one year. We knew which turn to take, which road to avoid, where to stop for bio breaks etc. We left on time but could not ditch the Ghaziabad – Hapur traffic.

We cursed our way to the highway which was a mix of gliding & bumping over potholes. Oh the things we do for travel! During our previous trip, we found out about a road via Camry that traversed villages but was at least pothole-free. We gave it a shot.

It was definitely better. It was still relatively unknown. There was less traffic. The roads had managed to stay in good condition. To take this route, first-timers will most definitely have to ask around.

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Not Nipping It In The Bud! Announcing The Arrival Of Spring…

Once we entered Uttarakhand, Rudrapur onwards, the roads were in good condition. Soon, we had a narrow road, flanked by trees on both sides, giving a natural shade. It was on these roads that we could finally put our guard down.

We noticed pink guavas by the roadside and bought a few. I had never eaten a pink guava. I was thrilled. Then I was disappointed; because the pink guavas were tasteless. They would taste fine with salt I guessed.

We alternated between the radio, CD and phone. We could not sit in a car without listening to music. We read the slogans and couplets written behind trucks and admired the profound wisdom our countrymen could share with us.

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The Tiny Dining Room Lit Up In Yellow – Very, Very Inviting

We found WelcomHeritage Bob’s Place on GPS and followed it till the point where we felt compelled to ask. We were told we had come to an alternate route. We could return about 20 kms and then take the correct route or we could continue on the alternate route.

The alternate route was ‘full of stones’ for 4 kms, and could scrape the bottom of the car, but we were assured we could manage. So we carried on. And it turned out to be an adventure of a trip.

The first few kms were fine. We thought we had been scared unnecessarily. Then, it hit us. For a good 4 kms, there was no road. ‘Full of stones’ was a generous description. It was a dust path covered by rocks and pebbles.

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Cobbled Steps, Shrubs & Vines – Isn’t It Right Out Of An English Classic?

It was maneuverable as we were going downhill. The rocks did not scrape the bottom but they did cut our tires. For the 4 kms, we were silent, taking long breaths, and praying for this to end quickly. Mercifully, it was 4 kms, neither more nor less.

After this stretch, the road returned. What we advise – once you reach Bhowali, ask around for the route to be taken for Nathuakhan. Do not follow the GPS blindly. On hilly terrains, GPS proved to be inaccurate for the second time for us.

The good old GPS-the rickshaw guy, the vegetable vendor, the traffic police personnel – still worked, irrespective of the surroundings! Remember you would need to cross Ramgarh to get to Nathuakhan. If you have not crossed Ramgarh, you are on the wrong road buddy!

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According To The Locals, Summer Had Arrived. Flowers Had Started Wilting!

After our mini adventure, we reached Nathuakhan. Bob’s Place was just a little ahead of the village ‘chowk’. It was on the road that led to Almora, Ranikhet, Kausani and Binsar, and had large red iron gates to welcome you.

A courteous staff member welcomed us and offered us a selection of rooms. Visiting places off-season gives us the benefit of being the only guests, and the luxury of choosing any room we desire.

Bob’s Place had standalone cottages erected in a multi-level manner. The highest ones commanded a view of snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas. The lower ones had sit-out areas but the view got diminished by the foliage.

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Who Wouldn’t Like To Have A Breakfast With Such A View?

We chose one of the higher rooms. It had a balcony which gave us breathtaking views and was especially delightful during sunrises and sunsets. The wooden cottage had a fireplace, a blanket and a heater-we knew we were in good hands.

Oh! I did not mention the cold that greeted us. By March-end, most of north India starts burning. We, thus, did not expect it to be cold at the end of March but there was a definite need for light woolens. We were glad we carried the same.

Cold weather adds a tremendous amount of beauty to any place. When you are not sweating and protecting your eyes from the sun, you can enjoy your surroundings much more. When you are not looking for water every five minutes, you can soak in the calm and quiet better. Ah! Winters, come back soon!

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Did I see a face in that window? Naah! It’s just us here. Wait! What? 😀

This holiday was more for us to relax. So all we did in these two days was eat, sleep, read, write, listen to music and watch the sky change colors.

The food was prepared at the cottage and did not taste any different from what we eat at home. The ‘poha’ we had for breakfast was quite different though, and wonderfully so. It was made with ‘khada garam masala’. People who have eaten the Indian-style meat can imagine how good this tastes. The ‘masala chai’ was free-flowing too. Special mention of the chicken fry we got as our finale dinner. Do ask for it when you head to Bob’s Place.

For those who like their poison on-the-go, Nathuakhan has a country liquor store with few English brands available. So, if you have superior tastes or are fussy, I suggest you carry your alcohol.

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Being The Only Guest Meant We Could Trespass Freely…

On our first night here, we were shivering. The fireplace in the room looked inviting. Soon after it was lit, we were sweating. We had covered ourselves with a quilt. The fire was proving too hot to handle!

On top of that, we were apprehensive that we were breathing carbon monoxide. We might not survive to see the morning. If that did not happen, then something in the room would catch fire. It being made of wood, we would be roasted alive.

We laid awake for long staring at the fire, then threw open the door to let the CO out. The fire died soon after. We finally slept…

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We Found Ourselves Not So Alone…

Just before dawn, we crept to the door hoping to find a leopard/ panther sprawled on the balcony. We did find something; something from the feline family itself. A fat golden cat! It was lounging on the sofa to ward off the cold. We wish we get to see a leopard/ panther up close and personal soon.

The mountains got our creative juices flowing. We sat in the balcony, took a long look at the Himalayas, sighed at the sky that turned from orange to pink to purple to black, and got started on our post about Kishangarh.

We were both hooked onto our Bose SoundLink Mini. That tiny thing is as good as a home theater system. It is perfect for travel. The SoundLink fits into the palm of a hand. Once fully charged, it can play for almost two days. And the sound quality is fantastic – clarity & volume both. The SoundLink gets connected via both Bluetooth and USB. It has surely been a worthy purchase!

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The Changing Colors Never Fail To Amaze Us

Our favorites were songs from Queen and Highway. We curled up on the couch and listened to Sooha SA and Kinaare…

There were a number of walking trails nearby. The staff offered to guide us but we were not in a mood to move our limbs. We tried throwing darts on the dartboard. It looked like a simple thing but after three throws, none of which even hit the board, our arms hurt. We have respect for this seemingly simple sport.

The staff was plentiful, courteous and ready to help with pretty much anything. We had a dedicated guy who we found out was from Madhubani. He had worked at Bob’s Place for almost eight years then. He liked it here. The weather was good 🙂 All of us who live in the plains would never think twice about saying yes to the hills. He was soft-spoken and told us quite a bit about the surrounding regions.

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A Little Bit of This & That

Holidays always end sooner than anticipated. And it was time for us to head back. But so we did with our mind, body and soul rejuvenated. We think we can recommend an itinerary for five days, four nights for Kumaon:

Delhi- Dhanachuli- Nathuakhan- Delhi

Day 1: Depart from Delhi early and arrive at Dhanachuli by tea time. Spend the night at Te Aroha exploring the premises, specially the library, playing the piano and sipping ‘something’ on the balcony

Day 2: Have a day excursion/ trek to Mukteshwar. On a clear day, a lot of peaks are visible. If you are the religious kinds, say a quick prayer at the Shiva temple; it is one of the ‘Shakti peeths’.

Day 3: Checkout late and head to Nathuakhan. Check in at Bob’s Place. Get the fireplace going in the lounge and browse the innumerable books kept there

Day 4: After breakfast, head to Almora and/ or Ranikhet and spend the day soaking in the beauty of the British-established hill stations. Or go for one of the hill walks. Back to Bob’s for a chicken fry dinner

Day 5: Checkout and head back to Delhi

Recommended time to visit: Pretty much all through the year. It snows during winter, so be prepared to get trapped and enjoy more days of vacation!

Recommended eats: Poha & Chicken Fry at Bob’s Place

Recommended buys: Shawls, herbs and pine needle decorations from Kilmora; Fruit spreads from Himjoli; Rhododendron juice

Soon back with a Garhwali taste. Till then, sip the rhododendron you folks!

Meet the Maharaja

For us, a holiday is not about rest and rejuvenation alone. At different points in time, it is about adventure, luxury, new experiences, new cultures, new food and discovering each other. One such place which gave a new experience was Kishangarh, Rajasthan, India.

Kishangarh is a big town divided into an old and a new segment. The new segment houses large marble companies with their factories, offices, and lots of small marble product retailers. This is the not-so-interesting side.

The real charm is in the old town of Kishangarh, which houses the Kishangarh fort and the Phool Mahal palace. It is about an hour before Pushkar when traveling from Delhi. Both Ajmer and Pushkar are at easy accessible distances.

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The old town that still owes allegiance to the maharaja of Kishangarh. The blue reminded of Jodhpur…

We came to know about Kishangarh from the 2012 edition of Outlook Traveler. But when we mentioned it to people, they either did not know about it or dismissed it saying it has nothing.

It left us skeptical but not disheartened; skeptical because we were taking our parents along too. Nonetheless, we were determined to find out for ourselves. And, we are glad we did.

We started from Delhi fairly late, at about 9 AM. We got all the city traffic possible. The road from Gurgaon to Jaipur was quite bad too; there was construction going on. Diversions marked our route, making the roads even more congested.

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It may be small. It may not be as glamorous as other heritage properties. But it had a soul…

Once we turned onto the Ajmer- Pushkar road, it was smooth sailing. Phool Mahal palace is available accurately on GPS. Within Kishangarh, we crossed the market to get to the palace. This added to our skepticism as the market was narrow, with a fair degree of hustle and bustle. One of the roads branched to take us to the palace.

Once we reached there, all our skepticism went flying out of the window. Located on one side of the Gond Talav (pond), made of yellow stone, and having the fort as its backdrop, the Phool Mahal is not your typical luxury heritage hotel. It is more of a budget heritage hotel, but with all the old-world charm intact.

Kishor, the caretaker, showed us our rooms, which were on the first floor and were pond-facing. Our parents’ room was in a theme of blue with large bay windows overlooking the lake. It had a bathroom the size of a flat in most metros.

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The prettily done-up rooms. Great lighting, great views!

Our room had a pastel shade, and was circular & small. But it got its beauty from the paintings done on the wall. These were the Kishangarh style of miniature paintings. We also had a small verandah which opened to the lake.

The fort and the palace are retained by the royal family of Kishangarh. The current king is His Highness Maharaja Brajraj Singh. He is the 20th king. Kishangarh was set up when the second son of the Jodhpur Maharaja came here and established his own kingdom. His name was Maharaja Kishen Singh, from which the town takes its name. And true to its name, the town follows Lord Krishna.

The Royal Kishangarh has two more heritage properties – Roopangarh about 25 kms away from Phool Mahal, and Kishangarh House in Mount Abu. The lounge on the ground floor had a wall full of portraits of the 20 kings to have ruled Kishangarh. The dining hall had the photographs of the current king and his family.

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The prettiest bits – the paintings on the walls, called the Kishangarh Style of Paintings

The staff was skeletal but hugely courteous. The Rajasthani hospitality was quite evident. Kishor was not just our go-to person; he was also our guide to the history of the palace and fort. He accommodated all our requests. Along with him, we had a server dedicated to us.

The palace grounds are quite big with a large parking, the main palace, gardens and smaller standalone structures. When we reached, the Gond Talav was covered with water hyacinths.

The story goes-the pond was used for water chestnut farming. Once, along with the seeds of the water chestnut plant, came a few branches and leaves of the water hyacinth plant. These took over the pond as Alexander had taken over the world. Efforts were made to remove these but given their stubbornness and parasitic nature, it had been futile.

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The water-hyacinth covered lake. Before, during and after the wind blew…

The hyacinths were killing the pond. The lack of oxygen made the fish come to the surface. The pond had a dirty brown-grey color. But, but, but, we got a pleasant surprise when a gentle current made all the hyacinths drift into a corner of the pond. The pond then got a  blue shimmer color. That was the sight that kept us company for almost a day and a half.

We hope the municipality took corrective action. It was just a matter of will, was it not? And not every pond would have catfish as large as an eagle’s wingspan.

Next in line for us was the visit to the fort. The entry fee was INR 200 per person. The tickets were available at the Phool Mahal reception. A guide escorted us and explained the doors, the spikes, the horse-drawn carriages, the treasury, the weapon storage area etc.

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The rampart, the defense arrangements, we could breathe the days of yore

He then handed us over to ‘Mukhiya ji’ who was the priest in the temple inside the fort. The temple was dedicated to an avatar of Lord Krishna, Sri Nath ji but it could not be accessed by the public.

Mukhiya ji took us on a tour of the fort interior, which included many palaces. We just managed to cover the queen’s chambers after which we were exhausted. There is quite of bit of climbing that one needs to do, and it being Rajasthan, the Sun can be pretty strong. So try to go during the evening hours and do carry water with you.

It was heartwarming to see an intact fort which gave a glimpse of how the royalty lived many years ago. The fort also housed Studio Kishangarh which was the art initiative by the princess of Kishangarh. The Studio was striving to revive the old Kishangarh painting style. Worth a dekko!

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Studio Kishangarh- an initiative by the princess to revive the lost art of Kishangarh painting

Maintaining the fort would not be easy on the wallet, especially without a private/ public funding; a fort without a regular tourist inflow, it must be the pride of the royal family, and their memories that have kept this going.

His Highness was doing a pretty good job. Our only regrets – (1) We could not explore the fort in full due to its size and our paucity of time; and (2) We could not pick up a souvenir from the Studio Kishangarh outlet.

As we completed the fort visit, we were greeted by the sight of His Highness sitting in the veranda of Phool Mahal. We struck a conversation where he told us about the history, the efforts to clean the pond, the privacy of the Srinathji temple, and his other properties in Roopangarh and Mount Abu.

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Within the massive fort, lots of palaces for kings, Queens, princes, princesses & all bhai- bhatijas! That’s why they didn’t need a TV those days 😉

His Highness came across as a learned man; we later came to know he was an author and a lecturer on the Kishangarh art. There is something royal about royalty, isn’t there?

This brought our trip to an end. The day we left was the day of Holi, the festival of colors. We found the roads and highways devoid of traffic. On our onward journey, we had taken almost eight hours to reach. While returning, it took us six hours.

We took away nuggets of learning from the trip: (1) Never write off a place without experiencing it; (2) Hit the roads on major festival days.

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Bravery awards, replicas, sun-lit verandas, open courtyards… Sigh! This is the era we should have been born in.

Lastly, for the ease of fellow travelers, we suggest the following itinerary ex-Delhi: Delhi – Kishangarh- Ajmer- Pushkar- Roopangarh- Delhi. Five days, four nights would be sufficient.

Day 1: Leave from Delhi in the morning. Reach Kishangarh by evening. Spend the night at Phool Mahal.

Day 2: Start early and explore the fort in the first half. Head to Ajmer after lunch and offer a ‘chaadar’ at the ‘dargah’. Return to Phool Mahal for the night.

Day 3: Start late and head to Pushkar. Visit the Brahma temple and others, if you wish. Or shop at the bazaar and eat delicacies at the German bakeries. Head to the lake towards evening and be a part of the ‘aarti’. Back to Phool Mahal for the night.

Day 4: Head to Roopangarh. Explore the fort by day and rest there at night

Day 5: Leave for Delhi

Recommended time to visit: October-March

Recommended eats: Laal Maas (a very spicy mutton dish)

Recommended buys: A souvenir from Studio Kishangarh, lac bangles

Ram-ram sa!

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 5

Continuing from Chapter 4, day two dawned bright & beautiful again. I looked forward to capturing the Kanchenjunga summit. This was also the day for local sightseeing. KN arrived promptly to take me around.

We started with the Bakthang Falls. The Falls are a better sight during & right after monsoon when the volume of water is high. Currently, it looked bereft of its glory but to me, any sight different from the usual is worth seeing.

A hawker girl asked me if I wanted to dress up in the traditional Sikkimese clothes. I politely declined. One of the other aspects I loved about Sikkim was that the hawkers would offer you their wares once; if you decline, they will move away & not pester you again. This is so unlike most other tourist spots where hawkers will make you want to run!

The Bakthang Waterfall
The Bakthang Waterfall

Next stop was the Tashi View Point – a lookout offering an unobstructed view of the Kanchenjunga. As luck would have it, clouds hovered over the peak. I couldn’t get a clear photo, no matter how hard I wished or how long I waited! I cursed my luck for some time but soon realized that even though I’d been unable to click it, I’d managed to see it with my eyes. And that’s what mattered!

Next up was Ganesha Tok – a temple dedicated to Lord Ganesha, perched on a little height, such that you get a clear view of the Gangtok city. A bit of climbing is required; if you’re not keen on the temple, I’ll recommend to skip it, as the view is average. By contrast, the view from the Tashi View Point is spectacular. Or, perhaps, at night, when the city lights up, the view from Ganesha Tok will make sense!

We made our way to the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology. Don’t let the heavy name deter you. It houses a wonderful museum wherein you can find relics centuries old that tell the tale of Buddhism in India, Nepal, Bhutan & Tibet. I’m an absolute museum buff. I spent the maximum time here, & thanked my stars N wasn’t around, for he abhors museums. This gave me time to read every single description, & not leave even one exhibit unseen.

The Namgyal Institute of Tibetology
The Namgyal Institute of Tibetology- Photography prohibited inside!

Photography is strictly prohibited here (like most museums in India) but as is wont of Indians, they clicked mindlessly. Why is it so difficult for Indians to follow instructions? I was overjoyed when the attentive museum staff caught hold of the defaulters & made them erase the photographs.

A small souvenir shop outside the museum made me splurge a bit. I picked up a book on Buddhism, a traditional necklace for myself & a tote bag. I barely shop on trips. The max I pick up is a fridge magnet. But for this trip, I loosened my purse strings, also because everything seemed reasonable (so atypical of a tourist place)! And then, you don’t travel solo every day, do you?

A few steps & almost a mountain away was the Do Drul Chorten. The climb is pretty much vertical and it knocked the wind out of me. But I guess travel gives me energy. I huffed & puffed my way to the top, circumambulated the chorten, clicked away & attracted more friends again! It struck me that Buddhism & Hinduism have this aspect in common – all their holy sites are built at almost inaccessible places.

Do Drul Chorten
Do Drul Chorten- The effort paid off!

My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 4

Continuing from Chapter 3, about Baba Mandir, do you believe in the supernatural? If you do, good! If you do not, just keep an open mind when you come here.

Legend has it that Harbhajan Singh, a sepoy with the Indian army, fell into a nullah and was washed away while transporting mules. His body could not be found. Later, he appeared in the dream of his colleague and informed about the spot where his body could be found. He further asked for his ‘samadhi’ to be built there. His body was found exactly where he had mentioned in the dream and thus his ‘samadhi’ was built.

To this day, it is believed he protects the Indian army personnel. Even the Chinese believe in him and revere him; they leave a chair empty for him during flag meetings. Till the time he had not retired, he was given his annual leave; his uniform was escorted back to his village. Faith surely makes us do unimaginable things!

The legendary Baba Mandir
The legendary Baba Mandir

It was now time for me to visit the Tsomgo Lake or Changu Lake as called by the locals. It is a beautiful, small lake surrounded by mountains on one side. The best part is – it just pops up on the main road. No off-road driving, no hiking required to get to it. Despite that, it’s loveliness is worth seeing.

This is also the spot where you will come across dozens of yaks, their owners offering you a ride or photography with the yak. For INR 50, I posed happily with a yak, standing next to it. I dislike climbing on top of animals or taking rides on them, for I do not wish to torture them. The yak owner obliged with the camera.

At times, you think that if you travel solo, you will have to rely on selfies to capture your moments. But you will be surprised how eager people are to help. Thus, drop the hesitation folks! Moreover, is a selfie not a poor way to capture a gorgeous background because the entire focus is on the face?

Autumn colors
Autumn colors

I found Tsomgo Lake special not just for the gentle yaks, but also for the fall colors I witnessed there. I had thought I would have to go to the USA or Europe to see the colors of autumn. But the same was evident in Sikkim too. I guess India still has miles to go to advertise its full tourism potential.

My excursion for the first day was now complete. I made my way back to the hotel, stopping intermittently to gape at astounding sights and capture them in my camera. Tiny waterfalls, with water tumbling down on rocks, or lakes that popped up suddenly, or faraway mountains covered in mist – my heart could not be more content.

In the evening, I intended to visit the iconic MG Marg, the hub of activity in Gangtok with eating and shopping options. Alas, I fell asleep on reaching the hotel; by the time I woke up, it was late.

The Tsomgo Lake
The Tsomgo Lake

The locals had recommended taking a taxi to MG Marg, stressing that its reliability & safety, no matter what time of the day. But, somehow, my north Indian anxiety forbade me from trying this out. This is the only regret I carry from my trip…

My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 2

Continuing from Chapter 1, landing in Bagdogra was a visual delight. As we descended, I spotted neat squares and rectangles that served as farms. Almost every shade of green was discernible. Then onward, I was in for a wonderful time.

I had booked an Innova for myself; I can trust the reliability of this vehicle blindly. My driver, KN, was a Sikkimese and pointed out that we would have to go slow on the hills in the dark. I knew then that I was in safe hands. My relief was not shared by my parents who were worrying themselves sick. They got their peace of mind when I reached Gangtok.

Along the way, crossing Bagdogra/ Siliguri was a headache with the annoying auto and rickshaw traffic. Perhaps I had had a bad day which made me more irritable. NH10 was patchy. Traffic was dense till the turn for Darjeeling. There on, it became a breeze. The roads drastically improved once we entered Sikkim at Rangpo.

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Stunning vistas- Sikkim can easily be called the Land of Lakes

It was 9 PM by the time we reached the hotel. The day had been wasted. My plans of roaming on the streets of Gangtok went down the drain. I was exhausted. I wanted a hot meal and a warm bed. Thankfully, my hotel provided both.

New Orchid Hotel was not fancy but its basics were in place. I was welcomed with the traditional ‘khada’, the white silk scarf. They upgraded me from an Executive Room to a Suite. Yay! Not a bad end to a lousy day.

On the first real day of my travel, the initial plan was to undertake local sightseeing in Gangtok. But as I feasted on my breakfast, my cab agent informed that my permit for Nathu La had come. I thus needed to leave for the daylong excursion to Nathu La, Baba Mandir & Tsomgo Lake.

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I wish I could have reached out & touched the clear water…

Excitement would be an understatement to describe my state of mind. Nathu La, of course, is the stuff legends are made of. At 14,200 feet, it is an international boundary between India and China where civilians are allowed. However, the rarefied air and the extreme temperatures deter most tourists. Also, the number of cars (and consequently the number of tourists) to Nathu La has a daily capping. This meant that I had to club with someone in one car for the last 3-4 kilometers. I did not mind this.

I have been to Dochu La, Khardung La, Chang La, Rohtang La and Kunzum La. I knew what to expect from a pass in terms of oxygen and temperature. I was, however, a little anxious about the amount of walking involved. Well, I will cross the bridge when we come to it.

I am a lover of long drives. The terrain reminded me, happily, of Ladakh and Spiti. The sky was blue; the Kangchenjunga beamed at me. I sighed with contentment but I postponed clicking its photos to the next day. I soaked in the sights as we ascended.

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I loved how the mountains seem to fade away…

Once the army-controlled area began, mobile connectivity dropped. Tiny lakes started appearing which looked like infinity pools. Furry dogs sunbathed; I wish I could take one home.

We stopped at Kyangnosla for a bio break. Surprisingly, in the family-run shop/ café, the toilets were clean, though without a light bulb. It struck me that Sikkim had taken the Swachh Bharat Mission seriously. Every few meters in Gangtok, I found posters extolling the virtues of cleanliness. Dustbins were a common feature. There was hardly any litter to be found on the streets.

I knew Sikkim was one of the most developed states in India but now I was getting to see it first-hand. Center-state cooperative federalism is something that Sikkim can teach to the other Indian states.

The blue sky made my day even better!
The blue sky made my day even better!

The ethnicity, the cleanliness, the discipline, the safety – all made me feel I was not in an Indian city. Only the presence of Mr. Narendra Modi’s posters every few hundred meters (put up by the non- BJP state government) and the presence of the Indian army brought me back to reality.

But I digress; let me continue with my Nathu La story.

How Chandratal Cleared My Muddled Head – Part III

This three-part series is my attempt to describe how the holy Moon Lake ‘Chandratal’ affected me. You can read Parts I & II here & here.

Part III

At my Chandratal camp, we were assisted by a cheerful & talkative lad called Santu. It has been more than a year since I met him, & yet I have been unable to forget him. As he served us piping hot tea, he narrated his story.

Cannot help falling in love
Cannot help falling in love

Hailing from the nearby village, Santu was neither the schooling kinds nor was he keen to follow what his forefathers did. He dropped out of school after class 8 & moved to Goa to do odd jobs. Soon, his adventurous (& undoubtedly Himachali) spirit beckoned.

Santu took up camping & hiking. Through training & practice, he mastered both. Now, in the inhospitable terrain of Spiti, he leads groups on treks, & waits at the various camps. He was the youngest in his family; I am pretty sure he had his own parental & peer pressures to deal with.

Still, the boy followed his heart & is now doing something he enjoys, and something which helps him support his family too. Most importantly, something constructive!

Woke up to this sight on Independence Day
Woke up to this on Independence Day

My lesson no. 3 from Chandratal – This was the time the stone pelting had started to gain momentum in the Kashmir valley. I could not help but compare Santu to the misguided youth of the valley.

One the one hand was a boy who charted his own path while still in school, and was today making money legally. On the other were those kids who had been brainwashed so easily to put their lives in jeopardy.

Santu made me believe that our destiny is what we want it to be – either to be seen in a negative light by an entire nation or to be remembered as an inspiration by a girl sitting miles away.

The rugged rugged Spitian terrain
The rugged Spitian terrain

Now the practical part – what to do near Chandratal?

  1. Well, the simplest option is to visit the Moon Lake. A day trip from Batal/ Losar/ Kaza is feasible.
  2. Do I recommend option 1? Not really. Camping at the Lake is far more fulfilling. If you prefer setting up your own tent, you can also hike your way to Chandratal from Batal (& pitch your tent wherever you feel tired!)
  3. The Baralacha La trek starts from Chandratal. So, if you are capable & willing to trek, go for it! Do remember – it’s not an easy one.
  4. For an absorbent soul like mine, the best way to spend time near the Lake is to soak in the sights & sounds, pay homage to the Indian Army and gape at the Chandrabhaga mountain range!

 

My trip extended beyond Chandratal to other parts of the Spiti Valley too, and each day brought in more learning, and yes, more memories. I humbly recommend to everyone – enjoy the journey too. Enjoy every moment, for you never know how your life may change!

How Chandratal Cleared My Muddled Head – Part I

I see people around me exclaim before traveling, “Oh let’s get there! Then we’ll have so much fun.” The focus is commonly on the destination. Then, do I sound crazy if I say that I enjoy my time getting to the destination more than the destination itself? Maybe it sounds cliched but, for me, it is about the journey. Over the years, each of my journeys has given me a food for thought, a reason to smile, and innumerable memories to carry back home. One such journey for me was to the hallowed Chandratal (Moon Lake).

So, August the last year, after I had been amply scared by all and sundry that monsoon was hardly the time to visit Himachal Pradesh, I set off, with three other travel companions. I knew I was in for stunning vistas and cool climes, but I had not expected that I will get a few life lessons along my way. While there are many ways Chandratal affected my life, I choose three that really drove home a few truths. Moments of realization – ta ding!

Part 1

1
Oh, poor truck!

When I left the charm of Manali behind & started ascending the forbidding roads to Chandratal, probably everything my well-wishers had said started coming true. At the same time, it filled me with a strength I never felt before. The mountains humbled me & seemed to be questioning me – Who are you? What have you achieved that you hold your life so dear? When death comes to you, would you not rather it did in the lap of the Himalayas, rather than in a cooped-up room in a city?

As these thoughts churned in my head, my vehicle came to a halt. There was a ‘nala’ in which a mini-truck had got stuck. Now, a ‘nala’ in this part of the country can mean road blockades for days, sleeping in the car, running out of food etc. It is not the calmly flowing trickle of Yamuna; it is a surge of water tumbling down the mountain, washing away parts of it as it goes. The poor truck driver tried his level best to rev up the vehicle; alas, like all else man made, this failed too in front of nature.

When it seemed that we would be stuck here too till a JCB arrived, a group of bikers entered the scene. They got down from their bikes, strode into the water, put up rocks to anchor the truck & pushed with all their might. A couple of tries later, the truck lunged forward – it was free! Fist pumps in the air & in my little heart!

2
Must – Visit – Spiti

My lesson no. 1 from Chandratal – Do not be afraid to take help. It does not matter if the person who is trying to help you is, according to you, incapable to do so; you never know what may click. And if it was not working in the first place any which way, would seeking help make things worse?

 

Now for the practical part – how to reach Chandratal?

  1. Take an early morning flight to Kullu – Take a taxi to Chandratal (~170 kms)

Minimum no. of days you will need – Three

(Disclaimer One – Flights to Kullu are weather-dependent. Disclaimer Two – Keep a spare day because in Spiti, you never know!)

  1. Take an early morning flight to Chandigarh – Taxi to Manali (night halt) – Taxi to Chandratal (~130 kms)

Minimum no. of days you will need – Five

(Disclaimer Two applies here too.)

 

Back with Part II soon…

First blog post

This is our very first post. Isn’t the first always special? And you typically remember it forever, ensuring you tell whoever-is-willing-to-listen about it. Thus, we are doing the same.

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HMS Belfast, London, March

Now, there is nothing extraordinary about us. We are a regular middle-class Indian couple. The only reason we started this blog is to share our travel experiences with the world. We do not call ourselves anything fancy like ‘explorer’ or ‘wanderer’. We are just two perfectly normal human beings out to see our country & the world.

In the course of our travels over the last few years, we have experienced many a new sights, sounds, smells & sensations. We shared our experiences in our social media circles & gradually became someone to whom people reach out for recommendations.

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Coconut Trees, Goa, July

So, we thought – why not? Why not create a platform where we can share what we have seen so that others can draw inspiration from it too? Why not share tidbits that made us wide-eyed? Like, did you know that the HMS Belfast pictured above continues to bob? Or, that it is absolutely possible to enjoy Goa even in the monsoon season?

We will pause it here for this is the first post. But we will be back with more. Soon. Till then, let’s go sightseeing!

Featured Image: Somewhere on the way to Chandratal Lake from Manali, August
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