Mughal Garden

If you reside in Delhi NCR and yet, are unaware of this gem, well, it is not too late now. Are you wondering what is so special about it? Then read on!

P had visited the Mughal Garden earlier & had been wowed by its grandiosity. A visit to this Garden was a fitting gift for N who is also an anthophile. The Garden can be visited during Udyanotsav held every year between February to March.

Scentimental Roses are interesting with red & white striped petals.

Entry is free of cost, but you do need to register on the easy-to-navigate website. The Mughal Garden comes under Circuit Three. We received the Visitor Entry Pass after registering on the website. It contained a registration number, date of visit, time slot, our names & guidelines.

Do note that you may not get tickets for the immediate dates. (Considering the current pandemic, the Udyanotsav 2021 dates have not been announced.)

So, up and about on Saturday, we made our way to the Mughal Garden. We were returning to the Presidential Estate a little more than a year later. On our first visit, we had toured Circuit One; you can read about it here.

There is no other place where you can see >120 rose varieties.

The architecture had fascinated us. This time, we were ready to be mesmerized by nature. The day we visited; the heavens had opened. We kept hoping rain would not play spoilsport & luckily, it did not. A light drizzle continued throughout our visit but nothing that could dampen our sightseeing.

Entry is allowed from Gate 35 only. Leave behind everything except your cell phone, wallet, identity card and the Visitor Entry Pass. After scrutiny of our identity papers & a physical search, we were inside the Mughal Garden.

What is a Mughal Garden?

We began at the Bonsai Garden. It was set up in 2010 with ~250 plants…

To the credit of the Mughals, they had a keen eye for aesthetics. They blended architecture & nature beautifully using plenty of flower beds & water bodies. India has, architecturally, benefited from the import of the Charbagh design, i.e., using canals to divide a rectangle/ square into four distinct parts.

The Mughal Garden in the Presidential Estate

The Mughal Garden at the President’s House is one such garden. This Garden had not been built by the Mughals but by Sir Edwin Lutyens, taking inspiration from the Charbagh design.

Roses are a permanent feature of the Mughal Garden but the prime bloom is in February-March.

While the name ‘Mughal Garden’ makes the Mughal inspiration evident, what is unknown is it also includes British garden art elements – flower beds on lawn edges & along pavements.

The Garden consists of rare species of flowers. If you want to see more than 70 varieties of seasonal flowers, head here. The lush greenery is eye-catching.

We had a wild desire to become President just to be able to live in this beezer house with this beaut garden!

It was a rainy day. We feared our visit would be hampered by the rain…

Bonsai Garden

The first garden we encountered was a Bonsai Garden. This Garden was Former President Ms. Pratibha Patil’s contribution. We had never seen so many bonsai plants under one roof (or one sky to be technically correct).

The petite plants glistened with the raindrops. The variety left us spellbound – upright, slanting, cascade, semi cascade – jade, rubber bush, fern, camachile, tamarind & many, many more!

An integral part of childhood…

We remember camachile (better known as jungle jalebi) from our childhood. It was an integral part. We picked these off the ground & ate the sour & sweet pulp inside the seed pod!

Herbal Garden

Next, we stepped into the Herbal Garden. This Garden was established by Former President Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. The Garden has more than 30 aromatic & medicinal plants. The best part is – their use is depicted alongside them.

From the Bonsai Garden, we moved to the Herbal Garden.

It was a treat to our senses to be able to see & smell herbs like Ashwagandha, Damask Rose, Geranium, Lemongrass, Stevia etc. Another part of the garden contained shrubs & small trees of Bay Leaf, Bel, Cinnamon, Clove, Gooseberry, Hadjod, Jamun etc.

The President’s Office frequently invites farmers to see the herbal plants & encourages them to grow these for their own as well as society’s benefit.

Spiritual Garden

A cluster of Banyan Trees caught our eye.

Our next foray was into the Spiritual Garden. This Garden had ~40 different plants of importance to different religions – banyan, coconut, fig, Krishna burgad, rudraksh, etc.

The Garden conveys the message of co-existence despite differences.

Musical Garden

As we gazed at the greenery around us, strains of music reached our ears. On looking around, we saw a Musical Fountain…

As we gazed at the greenery around us, strains of music reached our ears. On looking around, we saw a Musical Fountain. This Fountain was Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam’s initiative.

Being Dr. Kalam’s brainchild, it was only natural that the Fountain incorporated scientific elements of digital electronics, hydro dynamics etc. In the tranquil Mughal Gardens, this brought liveliness.

It played the tunes of Shehnai & Vande Mataram.

On the Rashtrapati Bhavan website, a statement is written that summarizes the entire Mughal Gardens beautifully, better than we could have done – “If the Rashtrapati Bhavan is a masterpiece of architecture, the 15-acre Mughal Garden is considered its soul.”

Rectangular Garden

This Garden is right in front of the Rashtrapati Bhavan main building. Water canals divide the Garden into a grid of squares. Spanish Cherry trees are planted around this.

It has two main gardens – East Lawn in oblong shape & Central Lawn in square shape. The Central Lawn is where the President meets diplomatic community, media persons etc.

Dahlias lined up the sides of the Rectangular Lawn.

Terrace gardens flank the sides of the Rectangular Garden. The centers of these gardens have inward falling fountains, making wells. At the end of the terrace gardens, two gazebos stand handsomely, sheltered by Putranjiva trees.

Water chutes have been creatively designed through levels of steps and with carved fish motifs, giving an impression of fishes in water!

Dahlias, annuals grown here, lined up the sides of this Garden. Their colors & sizes were unbelievable!

Flowers are the highlight of the Mughal Garden. Dahlia is one of the annuals grown in the Garden…

Rows & rows of a variety of orange – the China Orange – were a delight to see.

Undoubtedly, this Garden is one of the most beautiful gardens in the world.

Long Garden

The Mughal Garden has a large variety of flowers.

While the Mughal Garden has a variety of flowers, roses are the prime attraction. & while roses are a permanent feature of the Garden, the prime bloom is in February-March.

We next walked into the Long Garden or more popularly called ‘rose garden’. As soon as we entered this Garden, the sweet smell of hundreds of roses wafted up to us.

A bright Sun may have brought out the colors even more vividly, but the overcast weather was quite pleasant to walk in.

Is there any other place where you can see more than 120 rose varieties? Adora, Blue Moon, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Taj Mahal etc. Mind boggling! The rose beds are margined with dahlia, iris, oxalis, salvia etc.

A pergola stands on the central pavement of the Garden with elephant trunks carved on it. The enclosing walls of the Long Garden are covered with creepers like flame vine, garlic vine etc.

On exiting this Garden, we came across Sweet Pea flowers & were wholly enamored with them. The splash of color, their lush leaves, & their tendency to climb made them a favorite for us.

Sweet Pea was quite insignificant before a Scottish horticulturist turned it into a floral sensation in the Victorian era!

Circular Garden

Our visit ended at the Circular Garden. This Garden is also known as Pearl/ Sunken Garden. A fountain concealed in a circular pond forms the center of the Garden. This has more than 30 varieties of seasonal flowers. We had a jolly time gaping at alyssum, marigold, phlox, viola, sweet William etc.

A distillation unit is installed here to distill essential oils of aromatic & herbal plants.

Till our next visit, we’ll remember the multitude of flowers we saw in a single visit.

On the Rashtrapati Bhavan website, a statement is written that summarizes the entire Mughal Garden beautifully, better than we could have done –

“If the Rashtrapati Bhavan is a masterpiece of architecture, the 15-acre Mughal Garden is considered its soul.”

Mashobra

& Beyond To Chail, Fagu, Kufri & Theog

March is that time of the year when the bitter cold has ended but the merciless Delhi Sun is still at least a month away. Being the winter lovers that we are, we wanted to hold back a slice of the frost & this made us think of Himachal Pradesh over the 2019 Holi long weekend. Mashobra had been on our radar for ages. So, why not?

Not a marked trail. Finding our own path. Guessing which turns to take…

We took the Shatabdi to Chandigarh. After road, train is our preferred transport mode. From Delhi, places like Ajmer, Bhopal, Dehradun, Himachal Pradesh, & Uttarakhand get good connectivity.

It took us barely four hours to reach Chandigarh. We had booked a MyChoize self-drive from Chandigarh. Over the last couple of years, our best discovery & adoption have been of self-drive car rentals in India.

Rather than abandoning destinations because they are too far or because they do not have proper connectivity or rather than depending on local taxis, this is a much better alternative.

MyChoize self-drive car in magical, snowy Theog!

We have tried many self-drive service providers till now but MyChoize & Revv have come up tops among all. The company guy delivered the car to us at the Chandigarh railway station, checked our papers, completed the formalities & handed over the car to us. The entire process would have taken 15 minutes at most.

We then drove from Chandigarh from Mashobra halting at HPTDC The Pinewood, Barog for lunch. The hotel was on the highway with ample parking available. It had a nice garden. The building was reminiscent of the British Raj.

It was drizzling which added to the ambience. The Chicken Masala & Mutton Biryani were delectable & adequate in portion.

Step out for a walk through a forest trail…

We then continued to Mashobra. We had booked Khanabadosh for our stay; more on it later.

The First Evening

It was evening by the time we reached. As we were in a village called Purani Koti in Mashobra, there was not much to do once the Sun set. Moreover, we had had an early start to the day; so, we were happy to lounge in the cosy living room of our home-stay.

Our kind of place!

We had not expected the chill to hit us; so, we were happy to sit next to a blower & sip on warm tea. Geetika, the friendly owner of Khanabadosh had kept her home & hearth warm. Blankets, blowers & shawls strewn here & there helped us ward off the chill.

We scoured the well-stocked library to find something suitable to read. A house with books is a house we love! Geetika gave us company in the evening. We chatted away until the real owners turned up – Sultan & Gabbar. Being dog lovers, we were pleased as punch to greet the two Golden Retrievers.

The evening culminated in a dainty dinner served by the warm Kalam Singh, fondly called Pen Singh.

Fascinating bit about mountains – difference in temperature between Sun & shade

The First Full Day

The cold did not go away in the morning but became bearable. We stepped out of the warm cottage gingerly. The garden was full of colorful flowers, a Buddha statue & knickknacks. A wreath donned the front door. Christmas feels!

Geetika shared with us the concept of Khanabadosh. It is a wandering house. Every three years, she packs up her bags & moves to a new destination. Our dream life… Sigh!

Weeping Willows have been a part of our childhoods, thanks to them featuring in umpteen stories. We’d a vague image of a willow in our minds… Finally a chance to see it!

We basked in the Sun while cuddling with the two pooches but soon managed to tear ourselves away from them & stepped out for a walk. There are umpteen forest trails near Khanabadosh but be ready to huff & puff.

Those who know us know well that we’re dog people. These two gentle giants were absolutely cuddly…

We chose a trail that took us through an unforgettable pine forest. It was not really marked; more of finding our own paths & guessing which turns to take. Clearings in the forests brought spectacular vistas which made the huffing & puffing worthwhile.

We spotted a blue sky, a cat, birds, children playing cricket, lots of greenery, our first Weeping Willow, village folks at work, & wildflowers! We have heard people ask – “What’s there to do in the mountains?” We agree. The whole point of mountains is you do nothing; just surrender yourself to nature…

Happiness is… A blue sky!

On turning back, we opted for the road instead of the forest trail. Purani Koti was exactly our kind of place! Few people, more animals… But we are cognizant of the problems remote areas bring.

It is easy to get enchanted as a sightseer, but different to live there!

After the tiring walk, we recharged our batteries with an expedition to Fagu & Theog. We drove on till Theog, turned back & halted at Fagu for lunch. We were first surprised, then thrilled to see snow on the mountainsides in March – end!

Opt for roads through forests…

Charles Dickens has captured March well – “It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.” Anyhow, the snow transformed Fagu into a magical world.

The crisp spring air did us good. We stopped at HPTDC The Apple Blossom, Fagu for tea. It had an excellent location & ample parking. The hotel gave a ~360-degree view of the Himalayas.

An expedition to Fagu & Theog

While we waited for tea, we walked around taking in the snowy sights. The tea was good too! We chose to have lunch at a roadside kiosk & returned to Khanabadosh for more doggo love!

King of this jungle! It watched us curiously for a while & then stealthily moved away…

The Second Full Day

For a change, we woke up to see the sunrise. Purani Koti was yet to come to life but little birds were up & about. The feathered creatures were proving the saying ‘The early bird catches the worm’.

Sultan & Gabbar had stirred too & were off on their morning walk with Kalam Singh.

These little ones were up & about even before sunrise.

Later in the day, we headed to Chail. Kufri, as usual, was a mess. Dirty & overcrowded! We still do not understand what fun tourists derive from riding mules!

Once we crossed Kufri, we began to spot the snow-capped Himalayas. This mountain range has been our source of happiness for decades. Every time we visit the Himalayas, we understand better how people become spiritually enlightened here.

Our first stop was HPTDC The Chail Palace – a childhood favorite! The humble Palace holds its charm. The green lawn outside is a perfect spot for tea while sunbathing. The opulent interiors are full of artifacts of the bygone era. Time travel!

Time travel!

We had Hot Buttered Rum in the Royal Bar followed by lunch at the palace restaurant. The Fruit Cream & Saag Mutton were appetizing. The service was great. Lunch time is crowded as day visitors drop in. Plan your day/ time accordingly.

In the past, we have stayed in the Maharani Suite & in the log huts. The Maharani Suite, of course, was exceptional. We would love to return for another stay.

Our next stop was the Chail Cricket Ground. It is the highest cricket ground in the world, but we doubt regular matches are played here. It is inside a cantonment area; you’ve to fill in your details in a register to enter. & the moment you step inside the cantonment, smooth roads appear. The Cricket Ground, unfortunately, can be seen only from its gate.

Just so you know we’re not fibbing!
Rhododendron – synonymous with Himalayas…

On our way back to Mashobra, we spotted snowy peaks & rhododendrons. The Himalayas are our happy place! The drive to Theog & Chail had been appealing. Soulful music added to the allure!

The Last Morning

Morning scenes made our hearts grow fonder of Mashobra. Sultan came up to say a sad goodbye while Gabbar showed his anger by keeping his back towards us. I so miss these beautiful doggies… Sadly, Sultan died this February. Now, Bruce Lee gives company to Gabbar.

Wildflowers… Enid Blyton books would be full of their mention.

We drove back to Chandigarh stopping at Falcon Cafe Lounge, Panchkula for lunch. The lounge had a relaxed vibe. There was a birthday party going on but because it was a separate area, it did not trouble us.

The Arabic Hummus Chicken Sandwich, Juicy Chicken Burger, Paan Ice cream & The Great Chocolate Shake were good. The service was great too.

At the Chandigarh Railway Station, we returned our MyChoize vehicle & caught the Shatabdi to come back to Delhi NCR.

Maybe it was spring, maybe it was winter. If the weather hadn’t confused me enough already, the trees complicated the matter further…

Accommodation

When researching accommodation options for Mashobra, we were torn between Khanabadosh & Mahasu House. The latter was tried & tested by friends, & highly recommended, but the former had doggies! That clinched the deal for us.

Being frequent travelers, Khanabadosh was out of our budget, but Geetika was generous & gave us a discount; we adjusted some too. We knew then that we had made the right choice as things started falling in place.

Bird lovers, please help identify. Is it a Brown Thrasher?

All our interaction took place on email. Geetika was prompt & clear in her answers. She kept in touch with us till the day we traveled. On our actual travel day, we used Google Maps without any hassle to reach Khanabadosh.

Geetika’s home was a ground + 2 expansive yet cosy building made of stones, reminding you of the English countryside mansions you read about in childhood. A quick tour, a warm chai, & scores of conversations quickly made us feel at ease.

Of course, we were dying to meet the pooches – Gabbar & Sultan. What affectionate rascals they turned out to be! Gabbar, the naughty one, kept us regaled throughout with its antics. While Sultan taught us the meaning of love all over again.

Bird feeders! Geetika has made her home welcome not just for people, but for animals & birds too.

Over the next couple of days, Geetika gave us great ideas on where to go & what to eat.

Our post would be incomplete without a mention of Kalam Singh – the pocket-sized dynamite who fed us till we exploded, & still had a long face we did not eat enough. Isn’t that the feeling you’ve at home? Not for a moment we felt we were in a stranger’s house.

Nothing we say about Kalam Singh’s culinary skills (or managing skills) would do justice. We hogged on parathas, omelettes, chicken, fish, & myriad kinds of vegetables.

Sultan & Gabbar off on their morning walk with Kalam Singh.

If you like bird watching, you can keep an eye out in the garden of Khanabadosh around sunrise. We saw many little feathered creatures. The decor was outstanding. Geetika has painstakingly collected artifacts from her travels. These gave a richness to her home without ever seeming ‘too much’.

Shawls were kept here & there if you suddenly felt a chill. A bowl full of chocolates at the door ensured we gained a few pounds, as if Kalam Singh’s food were not enough.

Our room was comfortable with enough blankets & a heater. Khanabadosh is a home-stay in the truest sense. It is Geetika’s home & she has opened it to strangers. Moreover, Khanabadosh welcomes animals & birds too. Yes, it is pet-friendly!

Feathered things proving the saying – The early bird catches the worm.

We cannot wait to visit Khanabadosh again at its new location.

Tips For Visiting

  1. Chandigarh to Mashobra is 122 KMS & took us ~five hours with stopovers.
  2. Mashobra is barely 10 KMS away from Shimla yet has a completely different character. Instead of staying in the bustling Shimla city, make Mashobra your base. You can easily visit Chail, Fagu, Naldera, Shimla, Shoghi & Theog from here.
  3. Mashobra is a sleepy little town. Please do not expect ‘touristy’ activities here. Instead, expect a lot of calm & nature.
  4. If you like hiking/ walking & bird watching, then Mashobra is the place for you.
  5. Mashobra gets snowfall in winter. For the winter chill & snowy magic, go from October to March. But even during the rest of the year, the weather is pleasant.
  6. Mashobra can be reached via –
    1. Jubbarhatti airport, Shimla
    1. Kalka Railway Station
    1. Shimla bus stand
    1. Well connected by National Highway 5
  7. Please be prepared for patchy connectivity. Disconnect!
  8. Do not feed the wild animals & birds.
Linesmen at work!

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LODI GARDEN

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

Tomb of Sikandar Lodi

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

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

Heritage

Shisha Gumbad

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

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

Bara Gumbad

Friday Mosque flanking the Bara Gumbad

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

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

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

Mohamed Shah’s Tomb

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

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

Shisha Gumbad

Shisha Gumbad

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

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

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

Jharokha on the outer wall of Shisha Gumbad

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

Ceramic Tile Work

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

Tomb of Sikandar Lodi

Stones strewn about

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

WIP!

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

Athpula

The beautifully – curved Athpula

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

Reflection on the stream bed

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

Other Structures

Gateway to Rose Garden

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

A rose by any other name…

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

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

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

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

Water Lilies

Nature

Highlight of Our Walk – Red Naped Ibis

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

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

Flora

Glasshouse for Indoor Plants

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

The eerie winter look

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

Tulip Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bamboo grove is dedicated to various bamboo species.

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

Fauna

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

Domestic Goose

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

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

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

Tips For Visiting

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

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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.

What We Loved Seeing In Bali

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

Beaches…

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

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

Double Six Beach

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

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

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

Kayu Aya Beach

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

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

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

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

Nusa Dua Beach

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

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

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

Heritage

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

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

Puri Saren Agung

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

puri saren agung
Ceremonial Chairs at the Puri Saren Agung

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

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

Satria Gatotkaca Statue

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

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

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

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

pura tanah lot
Pura Tanah Lot

Pura Tanah Lot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pura Batu Bolong
Pura Batu Bolong

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

The Temple is located in Beraban in Tabanan Regency.

Pura Luhur Uluwatu

Sunset, Pura Luhur Uluwatu
Sunset at the Pura Luhur Uluwatu

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

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

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

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

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

Kecak & Fire Dance

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

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

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

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

Nature

Gunung Batur
Gunung Batur

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

Cantik Agriculture

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

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

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

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

Gunung Batur

Mount Batur, dusk
Mount Batur at dusk

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

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

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

Danau Batur
Danau Batur

Danau Batur

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

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

Mandala Suci Wenara Wana
Outside the Mandala Suci Wenara Wana

Mandala Suci Wenara Wana

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

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

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

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

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

Beat The Heat! – 2

A few folks reached out to us to know more about the three destinations we recommended in Part I to escape the Indian summer. Glad we could be of help! But, three destinations are inadequate for six months of the intense north Indian summer. So, we bring three more long weekend getaways from Delhi. All the three are in the Himalayas, yet are quite different from each other!

Dharamshala

The home of the Dalai Lama & the Tibetan Government in exile is technically not a long weekend destination, i.e., three days will be insufficient to do justice to it. But something is better than nothing!

Fly to Gaggal, or take a train to Pathankot, or drive down to Dharamshala, the serene Himalayan town is more accessible than ever before.

We have a soft spot for all things Buddhist. Thus, liking Dharamshala came naturally to us. If you are of a spiritual bent, you will benefit from a visit to the Namgyal Monastery, the largest Tibetan temple outside of Tibet.

If, instead, you are one who prefers the outdoors, you can take the long but picturesque walk to the Bhagsu Waterfall. But, let us caution you – the waterfall & the Bhagsu Nag Temple can get crowded.

And then, there is always the option of sit back & sigh at the stunning views of the Himalayas.

We stayed at Sterling Dharamshala but we believe there are better options available like Hotel Norbu House and The Divine Hima. We drove from New Delhi to Dharamshala which became a little tiring as the distance is >500 KMS.

Our original trip of fours days had to be cut short by a day due to an accident. It only makes us determined to return to Dharamshala soon!

Jim Corbett National Park

OK, this is an uncommon choice to ‘beat the heat’ as the Jim Corbett National Park itself attains temperatures of 40+ degrees Celsius. But this is the best time to spot the big cat. Thanks to the extreme heat, many watering holes dry up, forcing the animals to congregate at the few that remain. Thus, summer turns out to be a great time to spot most animals near water bodies, including the tiger.

If you are like us (hate summer), let us reassure you that because of the greenery, the Park still remains bearable. Safaris take place in mornings & early evenings. So, take out the broad brimmed hat, slather on the sunscreen, put on the glares & head to Corbett.

And, again, if, like us, you dislike crowds, fewer tourists visit the Jim Corbett National Park in the summer, making it a more private experience for those who do.

You can get from Delhi NCR to the Park in about six hours, eight in case of traffic.

In our two visits, we stayed at Kanwhizz HUM TUM Resort (yes, that was its name but now it is called La Perle River Resorts), and The Riverview Retreat. Both are on the banks of the River Kosi but we recommend The Riverview Retreat. You can walk to the river and spend time in solitude, listening to the sounds of nature.

Kanwhizz HUM TUM had cabanas next to the Kosi. We enjoyed a candlelit dinner in one of the cabanas.

candlelit dinner, river kosi, kanwhizz
Great way to end day – Candlelit dinner by River Kosi at Kanwhizz

Be careful of the scams operating in Jim Corbett National Park in the name of safaris. Agencies like Travel Tiger Track can cheat you by showing you zones like Sitabani (hardly a wildlife reserve) in the name of tiger safaris. No permit is needed for this ‘zone’. Private vehicles are allowed. There is a tea stall inside where visitors can not just have tea but biscuits, mixtures & instant noodles. Smoking is allowed too. No guide is needed to visit Sitabani.

Around sunset, visit the Garjiya Devi Temple, located on the other side of the Kosi. You cross a foot over bridge to get to it. To get to the shrine, you will climb steep steps. The shrine is small but the idol is beautiful.

Little Bambi
Little Bambi

Pangot

Falling under the Nainital district & the Naina Devi Himalayan Bird Conservation Reserve, Pangot (or Pangoot) is a village known for its bird watching. Its beauty lies in its picturesqueness. The village, though barely 15 KMS from Nainital, is fairly remote.

Pangot is a birdwatcher’s paradise, courtesy the hundreds of bird types found here. Oak & rhododendron forests attract the eye. If you like all-weather destinations, this is the place. Like most of our other recommendations, please do not expect a list of things to do/ see in Pangot. It is a place of calm & quiet. So, if you love nature, make your way to this village which, along with birding, offers scope for activities like mountain biking too.

Pangot is a village; expect limited number of accommodation options. We stayed at The Nest Cottages which we liked for its location. Away from ‘civilization’, you can enjoy solitude. Your neighbors are birds, dogs & monkeys.

The cottages are standalone, reminding of English novels with their slanting roofs & wooden interiors. Excellent service, home style vegetarian food. The owner is a sweet old man, lovely to converse with.

We did not have to step out of the property to see birds; many kinds greeted us right in the common area. Hardly any network & an erratic TV meant tranquility. Did we mention they have a well-stocked library?

Another accommodation you can consider is Jungle Lore Birding Lodge.

You can get from Delhi NCR to Pangot in about seven hours, nine in case of traffic. Do not forget to halt at Nainital to do some boating at the Naini Lake or to have a delectable meal at Sakley’s Restaurant & Pastry Shop.

Beat the Heat!

Come April & the Sun starts its mercilessness on the hapless souls of the National Capital Region. Right till September, it becomes a matter of hot, very hot & unbearably hot. In these six months, at least one getaway is needed to cooler environs.

Aren’t we thankful that the Himalayas are a stone’s throw away? So, to help you tolerate the weather, we bring three relatively unknown, long weekend getaways from Delhi. All the three are in Uttarakhand, in the Nainital district, yet are as different from Nainital as chalk from cheese!

Jeolikot: It was a never-heard-of-before village for us till we made our way here. Jeolikot is located close to Nainital, & yet, is far removed from the chaos that Nainital can be during the tourist season. It is a great place for flower lovers & lepidopterists.

jeolikot, mist
Misty Jeolikot

Visit Jeolikot for a picturesque view of the Himalayas. It is not a place where you rush around to ‘see’ spots. Rather, grab a book, or put on your favorite music, or carry a board game, sit facing the mountains, grab a cup of ‘chai’ & life is sorted.

outside, cozy, morning tea, sitout
Outside our room, a cozy spot to sip the morning tea

Located a little down the hill from the main road, The Cottage is a cozy home stay reminiscent of the bygone colonial era. Its red roof exudes an old-world charm. The shimmery blue & white porcelain crockery make up a large part of the decor. A decor you will be tempted to take home!

To top it, Ms. Bhuvan Kumari’s impeccable hospitality & warmth. Over mugs of tea, she regaled us with stories ranging from leopards to winter soirees. The best part – dogs! When we visited, there were three adorable & friendly doggos.

greet, dog
Greeted by ‘Nanhi Bai’

We tried to get to Nainital but, being an extended weekend, we could not get past the traffic jam. Instead, we turned towards Bhimtal, had lunch at a dhaba from where the Bhimtal Lake was faintly visible, & returned to the calmness of Jeolikot.

bhimtal
Spot Bhimtal in the distance

We recommend – do not bother with Nainital & the like. Head out for a stroll in Jeolikot itself. You will come across giggling kids, grazing horses, plenty of flora, & wild berries. Try the Chicken Roast at The Cottage, and pick up souvenirs from Kilmora.

You can get from Delhi NCR to Jeolikot in about seven hours, nine if there is traffic.

Sattal, little known, picturesque
Sattal – So little known, & thus so picturesque!

Sattal: A village deriving its name from the lake it encircles, Sattal is near Bhimtal, but is less known. True to its name, the ‘lake’ is actually a combination of seven lakes, each quite pristine. Forests surround the lakes.

mind, reel, gorgeous
Our minds reeled with all the gorgeousness.

Given the ecosystem, birds thrive here, making Sattal a paradise for ornithophiles. We spent our time birding. Ask for directions to get to the bird watching spot, the Studio. It is a downhill walk, with no restrooms in the vicinity. As birding is a time-consuming activity, this is something you need to be aware of. Also, note that bird watching needs a lot of patience & silence. You make one movement/ sound, & the bird would have flown off.

It was our first birding experience; we were lucky to spot jungle myna, blue whistling thrush, grey wagtail, red-Wattled lapwing, oriental turtle dove, orange flanked bush robin, grey-headed canary flycatcher, black bulbul, verditer flycatcher, white throated laughing thrush, slaty-headed parakeet, ultramarine flycatcher, Himalayan bulbul, & black headed jay.

Located in a nearby village called Suriyagaon is Naveen’s Glen, an estate comprising apartments, cottages & villas. It is run by Ms. Nitya Budharaja & her family. The rooms have been done up warmly. A personal touch is evident in every aspect of Naveen’s Glen.

Naveen's Glen, garden, bloom
Naveen’s Glen garden in full bloom!

To top it, there is an absolutely stunning view of the sunset from the garden. We spent many minutes chatting with Ms. Budharaja, getting recommendations from her for bird watching & for food.

sunrise, sunset, Jo Walton
“There’s a sunrise & a sunset every single day, & they’re absolutely free. Don’t miss so many of them.” – Jo Walton

The best part – again dogs! When we visited, there were three adorable & friendly doggos.

It does not snow in Sattal; so, it is accessible throughout the year. You can get from Delhi NCR to Sattal in about six hours, eight in case of traffic. Naveen’s Glen is located off the main road, the last few kilometers are devoid of human habitation. But, do not worry – you are on the right track.

Nathuakhan, Dusk, changing colors, amaze
Nathuakhan Dusk – The changing colors amazed us.

Nathuakhan: Falling under the Ramgarh block, Nathuakhan is essentially a village. & therein lies its beauty. It offers appealing views of the sun caressed Himalayan ranges which are dotted with soaring trees of pine, birch & many others.

clear day, snow-capped mountain, entice
On clear days, the snow-capped mountains entice…

The mountainous terrains, fertile valley and dense cover of abundant forest make Nathuakhan a place to rest and enjoy solitude away from the city buzz. The mountains may get your creative juices flowing; so, whatever your artistic inclination, carry it along.

Summer, Flower, wilt
Summer had arrived. Flowers had started wilting.

If you like to work your limbs, there are a number of walking trails nearby. Keep a lookout for members of the feline family. 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, we suggest you carry your alcohol.

Country wood cottages augment the beauty of Nathuakhan. Bob’s Place is one such. It is nestled away from crowds, provides comforting food, and does not compel one to do anything. Bob’s Place has standalone cottages erected in a multi-level manner. The highest ones command a view of snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas. The lower ones have sit-out areas but the view gets diminished by the foliage.

Our cottage had a fireplace, a blanket and a heater. The food we ate 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 identify how good this would taste. 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.

You can get from Delhi NCR to Nathuakhan in about nine hours, eleven in case of traffic. Do not forget to pick up shawls, stoles, herbs and pine needle decorations from Kilmora, and fruit spreads from Himjoli.

(You can read our full blog post on Nathuakhan here.)

So, go ahead & beat the heat!

MASAI MARA TALES

For somebody who has grown up watching the nature & wildlife channels on television, the Masai Mara National Reserve was a must-have on the bucket list. Thus, when an ex-colleague, now working in Nairobi, asked us to come over, specially as the migration season was on, we did not have to think twice. It also meant that our planning & reservations were being done at the last minute, implying fewer options and/ or higher fares. But we knew we might not get a chance again anytime soon. Before we could digest the fact that we were (finally) visiting the Masai Mara, we were on a plane bound for Nairobi via Muscat.

Getting to the Mara from Nairobi is possible both by air & by road. We chose road as we have been lifelong believers of ‘the best way to see the country is by road’. But if you want to save time, you can choose the flight option. Tiny air crafts land on airstrips made inside the national reserve, giving a chance to see the vast land aerially. But, do note, as these are the small air crafts, there are luggage restrictions. Check before you book!









A Common Eland reminded us of the Indian Blue Cow. #InternationalCousins

Within the reserve, as well as right on the periphery, there are innumerable accommodation options available. The ones within have an added advantage of the visitor being able to sleep amidst the wilderness, listening to the wildlife sounds all night long. We chose a camp at the periphery, thanks to, well, our last-minute booking. But we do not regret it, as our hearts were full with all that we saw during the daytime. Speaking of accommodation, camps are available in both luxury & mid segment, to suit all budgets.

With the details out of the way, let us come to the Masai Mara National Reserve itself. Imagine an unending stretch of land in front of you, with golden grass swaying in the breeze, a blue sky overhead, and here & there a spotting of acacia trees! Turn left, or right, or around, & the same vista greets you. The golden grass reminds you of wheat fields. The clouds twist & turn into different shapes. And a giraffe chomps on the thorny leaves of the acacia tree! Remembering our first sight of this vast grassland, & writing about it, still gives us Goosebumps!

So, Mara stands for ‘spotted land’ in the Masai language. Rightly so, as the monotony of the flat savanna is broken by the spotting of the flattop acacia trees. When the light is right, clouds cast their shadow on the land, causing a spotting of a different kind. And when the migration is underway, animals spot this gorgeous grassland.

Enough & more has been said about the Masai Mara. So, instead of the generic, we would like to share a few experiences we had.

A leopard had hunted a wildebeest & hung it on a tree for some leisurely eating later. As the day was too warm, the leopard had receded into the shade. When we chanced upon the carcass hanging from the tree, we noticed a White-Backed Vulture sitting next to it. Around the vulture flocked many Lilac-Breasted Rollers. But none of the birds touched the carcass. The birds were waiting for the leopard to finish eating the wildebeest. When pieces would fall on the ground, the vulture would snag its share. And when the carcass rots, the rollers would move in to eat the maggots. There could not be a better example of animals working on the principle of symbiosis.

The second realization for us was the ‘survival of the fittest’. Such an oft-used term, and still when we saw it being played out, it gave us chills. Once July begins, the Kenyan side of the Mara River becomes greener. Herbivores cross the crocodile-infested river and come over to the Mara to give their young ones a better chance at survival. This phenomenon is called The Great Migration. Now, imagine, a river teeming with brutal, hungry Nile Crocodiles. A herd of wildebeest anxiously stand on the edge of the river, debating whether or not to cross. The choices are being eaten by the crocodiles if they do, and death by starvation if they don’t. They take a chance & dash through the river. In the process, the slow and weak ones get snapped up by the crocodiles, & a few get caught in the stampede. But most cross! Nature eliminates the weak, & the fittest survive. Ruthless, but natural!

A White-Bellied Bustard tried to blend in with the grass but… caught you!

On a sunrise safari, we missed a hunt by a few minutes. A cheetah stood tall over a dying impala. Ideally, it should have sat down & feasted. But its ears were pricked up. The cheetah was, rightly, on high alert. A lioness had smelt the blood and was making her way towards the cheetah. The fastest animal in the world was no match for the Big Five member. It scooted, leaving its prey for the lioness. She staked claim on the impala, lapped up a little blood, but did not eat either. What was the matter? It turned out she was on a honeymoon, & was waiting for her mate to partake the food first. The king of the jungle walked in with a swagger, & dragged off the impala into the bushes. The lioness looked on, forlorn. At a distance, the cheetah rested its tired limbs, brooded over losing its meal, but glad to be alive! We had heard stories of the dominance of the Big Five; we now had one of our own.

There were so many more such eyeopeners. The ink may run dry, our national reserve stories would not. Stories of the Elephant calf mocking us, the Rhinoceros casually strolling on the path, the beautiful Zebras running along with our vehicle, the Giraffes cocking their ears at us, the Wildebeest walking in a straight line, the Ostrich looking for water, the Lion cubs cuddling, the uncountable varieties of birds posing readily for us, the Hippopotami sunbathing, the Agama Lizards darting around us, the Warthog hiding on seeing us, the East African Jackal being curious about us, five Cheetahs popping out of the grass when we expected only one…

If you have the time, try to go for all the kinds of game drives – sunrise, full day, & sunset. Each has a USP. E.g., the sunrise drive is the best time to catch the Big Cats in action. The sunset one is most suitable for seeing the raptors. We also chose a private vehicle, which meant we were the only ones in it. Sure, it was expensive, but we wanted an unhindered view of the savanna & the wildlife.








We like beings like these – bruised but not broken… Go Lioness!

Lastly, a visit to the reserve is incomplete without visiting the Masai village. You can meet the tribes people, understand their customs, see their distinctive outfits, buy traditional handmade beaded jewellery & participate in their traditional jumping dance. It is not something one can forget!

Ever since we returned, we have encouraged everyone, specially those with kids, to go to the Masai Mara National Reserve. The beautiful land can teach us a thousand lessons on why the environment must be respected. The timelessness of the Masai Mara, the vastness of the grassland, & the coexistence of different species – if these are not what dreams are made of…

The Land of Happiness – Part I

Ever since Bhutan opened itself to the world, there has been a certain aura around it. Proximity to India and the much-acclaimed natural beauty are added incentives. We have now been to Bhutan twice – once during the monsoon and then during winter.

Before we get into the describing the magical kingdom, a few essentials:

Travel Agent – We realize online bookings are difficult. So, we opt for a travel agency. We go with Wow Bhutan Travels which we also highly recommend. We also come to understand that a guide & a driver are mandatory for tourists. Thus, you may consider this option for ease & peace 😊

civilization, city, town, bhutan, river
Like all civilizations, all the major cities & towns of Bhutan are situated alongside rivers

Visa –Indians do not need a visa but do need to carry either the passport or the voter identity card. Our travel agent gets an e-permit issued for us which entitles us to visit beyond Paro/ Thimphu. The e-permit saves us time at the Paro immigration too. Find more details here.

Flights – If you are flying, there are only two airlines to Bhutan – Druk Air & Bhutan Airlines. We recommend Druk Air – More reliable as it is the national carrier & has been operating for many years now.

Hotels– Hotels are available for every budget. Bhutanese have a high service orientation; even basic hotels are clean & comfortable.

Bhutan--2
Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

Accessibility – If you are a sedentary person, it will be good to start physical activity if you intend to visit Bhutan. There is a considerable amount of walking required. Even within structures, you will encounter stairs & inclines.

F&B – The most common dishes are Sewo Marp (steamed Punakha red rice), Josha Maaroo (minced chicken and peas), Ema Datsi (cheese chili), Doma (betel leaf), & mixed vegetable curry. Bhutanese like their food SPICY!

If you plan to have food outside your hotel, ensure you make it early; restaurants close by 9 PM.

Bhutan also has local whiskey and wine brands. Try them out.

Glossary of Terms – To ease your reading:

  1. Dzong – A fortress that now houses administrative offices & religious seats
  2. Lhakhang – A temple
  3. Chhu – A river
  4. Gonpa – A Buddhist monastery or temple

authentic, Bhutanese meal, Spinach, Pork, Rice
Our first authentic Bhutanese meal – Dry Fried Spinach, Kewa Datshi, Mixed Veg, Pork Ribs, Seekam Paa, Spinach Soup, and Sticky Rice. Delish is an understatement!

Weather – In the rains, the mountains are lush green. August is called the ‘summer-monsoon’ month; the maximum temperature is 25℃! In contrast, in our January visit, the land looks bereft of greenery but has a natural arid beauty. Be ready to shiver any time of the day or night.

Hot Stone Bath – Something that is a must-do in Bhutan is to get a hot stone bath. It is a traditional Bhutanese therapy, aimed at a number of medical benefits. Water, traditionally taken from a river, is heated using hot stones.

The stones come from the rivers/ streams too and are roasted over open fire/ kilns. You will lie down in a wooden tub filled with this hot water. Your host will adjust the temperature based on your comfort, adding more hot stones or cold water. S/ he will add medicinal herbs to the water to help you relax.

You can opt for both private & public experiences of the hot stone bath. If opting for a public experience, take a bathing suit with you. The temperature outside is freezing but we do not feel it as long as we are soaked in the bath.

With the facts out-of-the-way, how about insights?

Bhutan is for nature lovers. If you are one, take your backpack; start moving on the streets (or ‘Lam’s). If you are a driving buff, drive into Bhutan & keep driving within. You will not be disappointed.

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

We speak with all the locals we come across. They tell us interesting facts about Buddhism & Bhutan. Did you know – according to Buddhism, India is considered the center of the earth? Is it because Buddha attained Nirvana here or did Buddha attain Nirvana here because it is the center of the earth? The hierarchy of the holiest places for Buddhism is India, Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan.

Something that surprises us is the harmony in which all living beings co-exist here. Pigeons are unafraid of cats; cats of dogs; dogs of cows; & all of these of human beings. What brings this symbiosis? Is it due to the respect that Buddhism propagates towards all living creatures? Animals are docile & quiet. We can understand human beings treating the animals well but animals also treating each other well? It is a mystery.

The overwhelming women employment stands out. The hospitality sector majorly has women, who also work late into the night. They are given the respect they deserve and treated as equals.

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We notice, with sadness, that urbanization doesn’t spare anyone…

The cities & towns are seeking modernity while not discarding traditions. Thanks to the mandate on architecture conforming to the Bhutanese style, the country looks as if you have stepped back a century.

Bhutan is a cleaner, colder, healthier, prettier, and quieter version of India. With Tata, Eicher, Ashok Leyland, Bharat Petroleum, Indian Oil, Maruti cars, we feel we have not left India but still have left India.

Getting to the specifics of our visits, we have visited Bumthang, Paro, Phobjikha Valley, Punakha, Thimphu, Trongsa, & Wangdue. We hope to transport you to the Magical Kingdom through this blog, as well as provide a few helpful tips. We rank each of these places in our order of preference.

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

For each place, we further provide the attractions and our accommodation picks. Here we go!

1.    Phobjikha Valley

Phobjikha is a glacial valley in the center of Bhutan. It is famous for the Black-Necked Cranes that migrate here during winter from Tibet. We love how the valley shape refreshes our geography lessons. In January-end, the land is arid but has a haunting beauty.

The Phobjikha Valley is the only place where we encounter snow & bitter cold; our vehicles refuse to start in the morning. Compared to the rest of Bhutan, it comes across as undeveloped; but that just adds to its appeal.

January, shade, brown, green, dominate
In January, shades of brown & green dominate.

Visit the Phobjikha Valley during winter to see the graceful cranes & the crane festival, but even without the birds, you will love it. It has an idyllic setting; you can see the Sun rise behind the mountains, the village slowly coming to life, unpaved roads, greenery, calm & tranquil… There is nothing not to love.

If there is one place you should cover in Bhutan, it is this.

Black-Necked Cranes – They come in hundreds after spending their summer in Tibet. The Cranes arrive in September/ October & fly back in February/ March. If you are a bird watcher, you must visit the Phobjikha Valley.

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There’s also a Crane Festival at the Gangtey Gompa, where performers imitate the graceful movements of the cranes.

The Bhutanese consider the Black-Necked Cranes (‘Birds of Heaven’) sacred. They are so particular about conservation that this entire area is devoid of overhead electric transmission lines.

The Black Necked Crane Visitor Center overlooks the protected area. This marshy land is the natural habitat of the Cranes. At the Center, you can use powerful binoculars to spot the birds. Tall & slender, they are no less than runway models!

Karma, a juvenile Black-Necked Crane who got injured and cannot fly again, is cared for at the Center.

karma, break, wing, rescue, dog, recover, friend, valley
Karma broke a wing & had to be rescued lest it be attacked & eaten by feral dogs. It is yet to recover fully, spending its days seeing its friends scattered around the valley.

Gangtey Gonpa – We love hearing the stories behind sacred sites. The fascinating bit about the Gonpa is that on arrival in the Phobjikha Valley, the Black-Necked Cranes circle it three times before settling down. They repeat the process while returning to Tibet.

To see this phenomenon, the footfall increases in September/ October. It almost seems like a pilgrimage but there can be a scientific explanation. The Gangtey Gonpa is the highest point in the Phobjikha Valley. The Black-Necked Cranes use it to do an aerial survey & choose the area they want to descend into.

The pilgrimage story sounds infinitely better, does it not?

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The architecture, the colors… Uff!

Our Accommodation Pick – At a walking distance from the Crane Center is the Gakiling Guest House. It commands a view of the Phobjikha Valley & has a good sunrise view. Do not expect a TV or any other mode of artificial entertainment.

The Valley, & so the guesthouse, are meant for people who want to immerse themselves in nature. The rooms & bathrooms are basic but adequately furnished, with ample heaters & blankets to keep off the cold. The balcony faces East; you can get sunrise shots.

You will find an old-school heater in the dining room, & hot stones to warm your hands. The F&B and service are decent.

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Evening scenes

2.    Bumthang

Bumthang houses the highest number of ancient temples and sacred sites. But if, for a moment, we disregard the sites, the sights are enough to enthrall! It is a beautiful land; pine trees, open meadows, and animals grazing on the meadows remind one of Switzerland.

Bumthang, being fertile, you can find ample organic products here. Try visiting the breweries & cheese factories. It is one of the rare places in Bhutan with a domestic airport. We drive down from Trongsa; not a good decision as the east west highway is being broadened. But the drive is certainly scenic.

ascend, bumthang, drop, temperature, obvious
As we ascend towards Bumthang, the drop in temperature becomes all too obvious!

Jakar Dzong – If you go by the picturesqueness of Dzongs, this will be almost on top. ‘Jakar’ means ‘white bird’ which relates to its legend. When the building of this Dzong was being considered, a white bird flew high in the sky and settled on this piece of land, signaling that this was the location for the Dzong.

We love Bhutanese legends!

Jambay Lhakhang – The legend pertains to an ogress who was terrorizing the Himalayan regions. To pin her down, the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo built 108 temples on a single day. This is one of them! The Lhakhang has been repaired and rebuilt several times. It is a must – visit due to its antiquity.

You can see the elderly doing ‘parikrama’ of the small, unassuming Jambay Lhakhang. The Lhakhang & the neighboring areas are so silent that the only sound you will hear is of the giant prayer flags fluttering in the wind.

Kurjey Lhakhang – Compared to the other Lhakhangs we visit, this is large in size. It is considered as incredibly important as the main shrine houses the body imprint of Guru Rinpoche. A tall cypress tree beside the Lhakhang is regarded as His ‘walking stick’.

The aura in the entire temple complex is mystic when we visit. Dusk & chilly winds contribute to the mysticism. When you visit, keep your ears tuned for a wind chime outside the window of the main shrine. Its music will make you think someone is playing a flute. Do tell us if it does not amaze you!

jambay lhakhang, 108, temple, tibet, songtsen goenpo, day, ogress, earth, forever, love, legend
Jambay Lhakhang – one of the 108 temples built by the Tibetan King Songtsen Goenpo in 659 AD in a single day to pin down an ogress to earth forever. #WeLoveLegend

Mebar Tsho (Burning Lake) – According to legend, Terton Pema Lingpa (Treasure Discoverer) jumped into the lake with a butter lamp in his hand. He emerged holding a chest and a scroll of paper with the butter lamp still burning in his hand! The Lake is a sacred site.

The access to the Burning Lake involves a climb down uneven stone steps. Coming back up can be exhausting. Also, the boulders near the Lake are slippery; there have been accidents here. Be careful!

Our Accommodation Pick –We were originally booked for December but our trip got postponed to January. Despite remaining closed in January, the Jakar Village Lodge opened for a couple of days only for us, to honor our booking. That stole our hearts!

The Jakar Village Lodge is located a little away from the town. The approach is scary, but once inside, the hospitality will warm you. Rooms are well furnished with the deal maker being the heater in the bathroom! F&B are good.

You will have a good time sitting by the radiator & chatting with the friendly staff.

hotel, movie
When your hotel looks like it’s popped out of an old movie!

Back with Part II soon!

When Like & Dislike Co-existed

“Gar firdaus ae baruhe zamin ast, Hamin astu Hamin astu Hamin ast.” (If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.) No reference to Kashmir can start without this quote. Yet, we are divided on our agreement with it.

There is no doubt that the Kashmir valleys are sights to behold. At the same time, are they the best there can be? Did Amir Khusrou travel the world before he bestowed Kashmir with this honor? Or even travel all of India?

No, don’t get us wrong. We are not doubting the beauty of Kashmir. We have seen it firsthand ourselves. But to call it paradise when you have worthy competitors is a trifle unfair, is it not?

gorgeous
Gulmarg – Such a gorgeous sight!

If we limit ourselves to India, we have found the barrenness of Ladakh, the rain-drenched hills of Himachal, the forts of Rajasthan, the sunsets of the Rann of Kutch, the backwaters of Kerala & many more to be equally beautiful, if not more.

Nonetheless, Kashmir captivates in a way that leaves an imprint on your mind for your entire life. We were fortunate enough to visit the beautiful cities & surroundings of Gulmarg, Pahalgam & Srinagar.

We were here around the Independence Day. Everybody cautioned us that it was an unsafe time to visit the valley. We felt this would be the safest due to heightened security; & we were right. While paramilitary & police presence is a common sight, on 15th August, there was a curfew-like situation which made our movement easy.

poem, Kashmir, memory
Gulmarg – All poems about Kashmir returned to memory.

Our first stop, Gulmarg, proved to be a pretty little town with the gondola being its claim to fame. A walking distance away from our hotel, Nedous, was the gondola station. The gondola took us to a staggering height.

Here, enthusiastic folks can try their hands at snow sports, while the lazy ones can sit & admire the scenery. On open meadows, we saw horses galloping. It brought back to mind the vivid descriptions that Enid Blyton would paint. Ah, the joys of childhood! Rolling green hills surrounded our cottage. Tall pine trees adorned these hills. We asked ourselves- who would say this is India? Looks more like Switzerland!

We believe what irked us about Kashmir was the attitude of most people & their self-defined rules. In Gulmarg & Pahalgam, we could visit the sightseeing spots only if we hired a local taxi. We were not allowed to use our Srinagar-registered taxi. What was the insecurity here? Why create this nuisance for travelers? Why differentiate yourself from your brethren? It is all Kashmir, is it not? You are all Kashmiris, are you not?

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Too much prettiness

On 15th, we moved from Gulmarg to Pahalgam, a distance of 145 kms. The roads were deserted and the only presence we saw was of security forces. At one check post, we were stopped by a group of men.

The leader, clad in a vest & khaki trousers, & with an automatic in hand, came up to our vehicle, peered inside & asked our driver if we were all tourists. Satisfied, he let us go. The driver told us he was a J&K policeman.

We were left wondering. He looked like a goon. He neither had a uniform on nor was he displaying an identification. How was a layperson to know who he was, & with what authority was he stopping us? We are afraid to say this but he may have been a militant.

cottage, Pahalgam, River Lidder
The area surrounding our cottage in Pahalgam – River Lidder providing the perfect way to spend a few days.

Our apprehensions abated once we reached the busy but picturesque town of Pahalgam. All the curfew we had witnessed on our route evaporated here. Even with a light rain, locals & tourists thronged the main street, rushing to eat, shop or just idle away time.

Sadly, our experiences at the three restaurants we tried –Trout Beat, Paradise & Heena – were quite poor. The worst was that the servers, chefs & managers did not seem to care that we did not enjoy their food or service.

We had thought Kashmiri hospitality would be something to write home about. We know a bunch of Kashmiris who have moved out of Kashmir, & they are warm & friendly people.

wisp, leaf
Wispy leaves

We had also only heard till date that Kashmiris refer to the people from rest of India as Hindustanis. We saw it firsthand there. In a restaurant in Pahalgam, a local picked up a fight with the restaurant manager, questioning him why were Hindustanis being served & Kashmiris were kept waiting! We wanted to say – brother, whether you like it or not, you are a Hindustani too.

Our bitterness evaporated with the sights that Pahalgam had in store. We stayed at Travelers’ Inn, a cottage which could be reached only by crossing a treacherous wooden bridge over an angry Lidder river.

On the land around the cottage, at any given point of time, five horses could be found grazing. Right in front of the cottage was the river, peaceful & crystal clear one moment, and angry & muddy the other.

Chashmashahi, purity, water
At Chashmashahi, pure water becomes impure just minutes after emerging from the ground.

Surrounding the cottage were mountains that started off green at the base and turned white as your eyes reached the peaks. It was one of those places where you could easily spend a few days just curled up in an armchair, in the sun, listening to the river, & reading a book.

The beautiful valleys of Aru & Betaab were nearby; so if you did feel like moving a limb, you could head here to soak in more natural beauty.

Another thing that annoyed us was not getting any product at MRP. It is no more a situation where Kashmir does not get tourists. It has an inflow all year round. It is perhaps because the rules that apply to the rest of India do not apply to Kashmir.

beauty, houseboat
We’d only heard about the beauty of the houseboats. When we saw it first hand, we didn’t want to leave…

Our last stop was Srinagar. We had an impression that Srinagar being the capital, it will be crowded and polluted with nothing to see. We could not have been more wrong. If you leave the heart of the city aside, the suburbs are beautiful & quiet.

The Dal Lake occupies a major part of the city and the promenade is a breeze to drive through. We opted to stay at Nigeen Lake, touted to be prettier & quieter. We had only heard about the beauty of houseboats. When we entered our Wangnoo Houseboat, we were so enamored we wished we could extend our stay. A plush setting with wooden interiors, the houseboat was fit for royalty. The canopied-bed was an added charm. The best part was the ‘home delivery’ of almost anything we wanted.

Srinagar offered Pari Mahal, Chashmashahi, and Hazrat BAL & Nishat Bagh to us. All those history lessons, all those story books, all those references in movies came back to us as we gaped unabashedly at each of these places.

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The symbol of Kashmir – the sleek shikaras

We finally found Kashmiri food that we loved. Ahdoos served us a wazwan that erased all the bad food experiences we had endured till then.

Our sojourn to the beautiful valley was short and sweet, with a little bit of spice thrown in. Our cameras managed to pick up colors we did not even know existed. We loved the kahwa even though the dishes did not excite us much. We brought back blackberries, firans, jewelry, kahwa, ponchos, saffron, walnuts and walnut tarts. Yum!

The natural beauty and the salubrious weather make it indeed a paradise, but when man interferes with paradise, it ceases to remain so…

Shout out to The Wanderbug for organizing this trip for us!

 

Images courtesy our friend & co-traveler, Tushar Belwal

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.

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