On our Udaipur to Jodhpur stretch of the Rajasthan road trip, Pali (92 KMS from Ranakpur) turned out to be a spontaneous halt. We had known about a unique temple existing in Pali but when we found it right on the highway, we had to stop.
The temple is called Om Banna Dham and/ or Bullet Baba Mandir. We write the key points from our visit here.
Pali is situated on the banks of the river Bandi. Since the 11th century, it was part of one or the other kingdom – Guhilas, Songara Chauhans, Champavata Rathores & more & finally Marwar. Pali has the distinction of being Maharana Pratap’s birthplace. During India’s struggle for independence, its ‘thakurs’ had confrontations with the British.
Pali is famous for a sweet called ‘Gulab Halwa’ & for its kulfi & ice-cream. It also has many industries. & like any other industrial city, Pali has been struggling with a pollution problem.
What’s Unique About the Temple?
The temple is dedicated to a local youth called Om Singh Rathore. What makes the temple unique is the legend behind it. In 1970, Om Rathore died in a road accident at this spot. The police hauled his motorcycle, a Royal Enfield Bullet 350, away to the police station.
But the next morning, it was mysteriously discovered back at the accident site. The police again hauled the bike to the station. The next morning, it was again found at the accident site. The police watched the motorbike one night.
The fable goes that it started on its own & stopped at the accident site. After this ghostly happening, the police returned the motor bike to Om Banna’s family. A shrine was erected at the accident site. Since then, Om Singh Rathore’s spirit is said to protect other riders.
The motor bike is the idol at this temple. It draws huge crowds specially the local population. It is almost a rite of passage for bikers. Ironically, Bullet Baba is offered alcohol. We wonder how he manages to protect his drunk devotees!
We Recommend –
Photography is allowed inside the temple.
It can become crowded. Keep your wits about you.
All around the temple, there are ‘dhabas’ (roadside eating joints). Hop into one, chat up with the locals & find out more about the legend of Om Banna.
India – A Land of Temples – & Unique Ones at That
We doubt you can travel even a kilometer in India without coming across a temple. Many of them are ancient while others will, nonetheless, carry ‘ancient’ in their names. Each temple, however, has its distinct belief system.
It is rare to find one devoid of devotees asking for their wishes to be fulfilled or thanking the deity for fulfilled wishes. However, there are a few that are totally unique.
Congress President Sonia Gandhi Temple in Telangana
Devji Maharaj Mandir (exorcism & ghost fair) in Madhya Pradesh
Devaragattu Temple (devotees hit each with sticks) in Andhra Pradesh
Prime Minister Narendra Modi Temple in Tamil Nadu
Stambheshwar Mahadev (vanishing temple) in Gujarat
There are some places you can never get enough of. Lucknow always brings a sense of belonging. It feels like home. Tunde kebab & kulfi at Aminabad, walk at Hazratganj, sightseeing at Bada & Chota Imambargahs, crossing Cantt, mutton nihari at Rahim’s, kulfi at Chhappan Bhog, chikankari & zari shopping at Chowk, walk in Ambedkar Park, galauti kebab at Dastarkhwan, & kulfi (again!) at Nishatganj – spread over just a few days. That pretty much summaries our two visits to Lucknow.
We chose to spend our sixth anniversary in the Awadhi city. We usually make elaborate travel plans, but work commitments forbade us this time. A road trip came to the rescue. Leaving from Noida, using the Yamuna Expressway, eating breakfast at Jewar, & then using the Agra – Lucknow Expressway, we made good time & reached Lucknow by evening.
The Agra – Lucknow Expressway was a breeze to drive on. An empty six – lane highway, with high toll fees (no wonder it is empty), & with almost no stops, the expressway allowed us to cover a large distance in a short span of time.
A highlight of the Agra – Lucknow Expressway is an emergency airstrip built on the expressway itself. The airstrip stretches for a little more than three kilometers. If an emergency landing of IAF combat jets is needed, this can be used.
Caution: Do not get tempted into exceeding speed limits on the Agra – Lucknow Expressway. Like all Indian highways, it can be unpredictable. Also, Indian cars are not made for extremely high speeds. There are enough & more cases of tires bursting on the Expressway.
The First Evening
Our first evening in Lucknow was our anniversary itself. We chose to spend it in a relaxed manner, dressing up, lounging on the rooftop bar of our hotel, raising a toast, coming down to the in house restaurant, hogging on Awadhi cuisine, & retiring early.
At times, a little thing like sitting under the stars can bring immense happiness. As the night got colder, our souls became warmer. We thanked our gods for all the good things bestowed on us…
Saraca, the open-air bar overlooking the lawns, is just what the doctor ordered. Here, it was quite cold but, luckily, they had heaters placed around tables. The dim lighting of Saraca & the twinkling lights of the surrounding buildings created a romantic ambience. We sipped on colorful Long Island Iced Tea & Mojito, both well made. To accompany the drinks, we had Galawat Kebab, which was good too.
Saraca was perfect to relax. Exotic drinks, Awadhi starters, & music under the stars…
Time to call it a night after some more yummy in our tummy. Azrak, the restaurant at lebua, serves Awadhi food. If Awadhi cuisine isn’t well made, it can turn the dishes oily. But we did not face any such challenge here. We had Awadh Dum Murgh Biryani, Bakarkhani, Dum Murgh, & Ulte Tave Ka Paratha. We are fans of Bakarkhani, & this one lived up to our expectations too.
Azrak is one of those laid-back places; do not hurry through your meal here.
The Next Day
We had traveled over a December long weekend. Fresh after a restful night, we were ready to explore Lucknow. While we waited for our Uber, we posed & clicked with the vintage cars in the lebua premises. The best way to get around old Lucknow is by public transport.
Our first stop was the Bara Imam Bara. An imam bara is a hall for Shia Muslim ceremonies, especially Muharram. The Bara Imam Bara is an imam bara complex built by the Awadh Nawab in 1784. This was the year famine had hit Awadh. Through the Imam Bara construction, the Nawab wanted to provide employment for people. The construction & the consequent employment lasted for 10 years, same as the famine duration.
As we entered the compound, we were struck by the imposing gateways. We entered one, came across a circular garden, & then chanced upon the second gateway. The second is the main gateway where we purchased tickets. As we walked further, the Asfi Masjid came up on our right. It is the last monument to be constructed without using iron.
Moving on to the main imam bara, we got ourselves a guide & entered a large vaulted central chamber (largest in the world). In the center of the chamber is the tomb of the Nawab of Awadh, Asaf-Ud-Daula. On the upper floor is a labyrinth, famously known as the Bhool Bhulaiya.
When we emerged from the passages onto the hall balcony, we could not help but be amazed at such a large structure being built without beams/ pillars. Caution – Walking on the narrow terrace is not for the fainthearted! Or for those with acrophobia or vertigo!
The Bhool Bhulaiya legend says there are 1,024 ways to get inside the maze, but only two to come out! The network of passageways winds its way inside the monument, & eventually leads to the roof. The roof was meant to give a panoramic view of the Awadhi city. In the 21st century, however, this is not easily possible.
We were thrilled with the Bhool Bhulaiya. For the first time, we got a chance to see a heritage monument by actively participating in it. Namely, finding our way out of the incredible maze! The architecture is worth a mention, specially of echoing walls, & hidden cloisters.
A flight of stairs leads down to the Shahi Baoli (royal stepwell). Around the Baoli is a multi- storey structure with arched windows & inter-connected galleries. Apparently, the Baoli still has running water. Rumors of the Baoli being connected to River Gomti, & of treasures/ treasure maps/ keys to some hidden treasure underneath are quite rife. Exceptional architecture here!
Before we left the Bara Imam Bara, we found another trivia – Ordinary people built the edifice during the day. At night, noblemen broke down whatever was raised that day. This was by the order of the Nawab, to ensure continuing employment for the masses.
Through the Bara Imambargah complex, we caught ourselves gaping at the architecture! For a heritage lover, the Bara Imam Bara scores not only on the heritage but also on the maintenance of its premises, and the easy & fair availability of authorized guides who explain the history behind the monument. To enjoy the monument fully, do take a guide.
Out of the Bara Imam Bara, we hopped onto a tanga (horse carriage). Our first carriage ride! To double the excitement, we spotted the Rumi Darwaza coming up ahead. It is a gateway built under the patronage of Nawab Asaf-Ud-Daula, in the same year as the Bara Imam Bara.
The front facade of the Rumi Darwaza is a fine example of Awadhi architecture! There’s no ticket to see it. Caution – As the Rumi Darwaza is an operational gateway, you must be careful of traffic.
The Husainabad Clock Tower is a 19th century marvel. It was constructed in 1881 to mark Sir George Couper’s arrival, the first LG of United Province of Avadh. You can spot the Clock Tower from kilometers, but as you come closer, you can also see a large step-well next to it.
The Satkhanda is a watchtower from the 1800s. The iconic tower has an octagonal base, arched windows & Islamic design details. It is located next to the Husainabad Clock Tower; so, if you are in the area, you cannot miss it. A reminder of Lucknow’s Awadhi & colonial past.
The Husainabad Picture Gallery houses portraits of the erstwhile nawabs of Awadh. The portraits are quite fine, with intricate details. The caretaker pointed out to us a few amazing bits here & there. Like how the nawab’s shoes seem to move!
Our minds were also blown off by the view that the Picture Gallery offered. The Clock Tower to the left, Chota Imam Bara straight ahead, & the Satkhanda to the right. Photography is prohibited at the Gallery. It does not seem to be frequented by tourists; we had the place almost to ourselves.
There is no dearth of darwazas in Lucknow. The Husainabad Darwaza is an outer gateway to the Chota Imam Bara. Passing under arched gateways will remain high points of our lives.
Chota Imam Bara is the popular name of the monument; its actual name is Imam Bara Husainabad Mubarak. It was built under the patronage of Muhammad Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh, in 1838. Today, it serves as a mausoleum for him & his mother.
Indian heritage buildings are nothing short of fascinating. Not just architecturally, but from an engineering POV too:
We noticed a goldfish at the entrance. It is an anemometer. One of the earliest ones in India.
A golden statue at the entrance holds a chain that is connected to a spire. This works as earthing.
A Shahi Hammam (royal bath) houses stained glass windows, an elaborate hot water system & a jacuzzi setup. Apparently, when the nawabs would visit the Imam Bara, they would first complete their ablutions in the Shahi Hammam.
The Tomb of Princess Zinat Asiya is supposed to be a replica of the Taj Mahal. We, however, did not see the likeness.
Moving ahead, photography inside the main Imam Bara hall is prohibited. But the inside is worth seeing – chandeliers & crystal glass lampstands!
Looking back from the main Imam Bara hall, we saw the ceremonial gate reflected in the rectangular pond.
Caution – Women are required to cover their heads here.
Opposite the Chota Imam Bara is the Naubat Khana. A Naubat Khana was the orchestra pit of buildings, i.e., musicians would play their instruments sitting in the Naubat Khana so that their music could be heard far & wide.
In the context of the Chota Imam Bara, the Naubat Khana was more of a place from where the hour of the day was announced by beating drums.
We bid adieu to the Chota Imam Bara & hopped back on our tanga. It brought us to the Jama Masjid. The construction was started in 1839 under the patronage of Mohammad Ali Shah Bahadur. Apparently, he wanted this mosque to surpass the Delhi Jama Masjid in size. But, unfortunately, he died before its completion.
His wife, Malika Jahan Sahiba, got it completed, but the size could not be matched.
After all the sightseeing, we attacked what Lucknow is famous for – the Awadhi cuisine. If you are a non vegetarian visiting Lucknow, you MUST try the nihari with Qulcha at Raheem’s Qulcha Nihari. Tucked in one of the lanes of Chowk, the restaurant may appear a little dingy but do not let that deter you.
We walked in for lunch & had Mutton Biryani, Mutton Nihari & Qulcha. Each dish was mouthwatering. Portion size was adequate for two. Service was quick. Raheem’s can get quite crowded; you may have to wait your turn. But it is worth it. Families & women can easily go here; nothing to get intimidated about.
Stepping out of Raheem Qulcha Nihari with big smiles on our faces, we found ourselves in Phool Wali Gali. The flower mandi is 200-year-old. If we close our eyes, we still remember the fragrance!
It is not just heritage structures that lend an appeal to a place; it is also the traditional markets, cuisines, & culture. Chowk contributes majorly to Lucknow’s history! This market area is heaven for foodies & shoppers. The best way to get around is on foot. Do not hesitate to explore the tiny gullies!
We had heard a lot about the Malai Gilori at Ram Asrey. We had to check it out. Ram Asrey was in another gully of Chowk. We walked here from Raheem’s, taking in the sights & sounds of this centuries’ old market. Ram Asrey is a large sweetmeat shop & goes back hundreds of years.
The Malai Paan was a little different from what we expected but delicious, nonetheless. Go ahead & try other mithais too. A heaven for those with a sweet tooth.
We wanted to explore the British Residency post this, but, for some reason, we could not get any public transport to the place. Uber cabs were taking too long to arrive, & rickshaw pullers did not seem to know where the Residency was. After waiting for almost half an hour, we got an Uber cab ready to take us to our hotel.
In the evening, we decided to visit Khadi Weavers, a store we had (again) heard a lot about. It has all Khadi products under one roof. Men’s wear, women’s wear, personal care products, you name it! Khadi Weavers is amazing. The store is compact, neat & well laid out. The clothes are to-die-for & so reasonably priced!
We came out with a bag full of garments. This was after we had to stop our greed from taking over our senses.
We ended our day at The Mughals Dastarkhwan. We were advised to try this restaurant over Tunde Kebabi. Glad we did! Dastarkhwan had a large waiting time, which indicated to us that it was, indeed, popular. It has a proper waiting area outside, where the smell of the tandoori dishes’ wafts in, & gives a boost to your appetite.
Finally, when we were seated inside, we had Dhania Roti, Galawat Kebab, Mutton Rogan Josh, Plain Rice, Shahi Tukda, & Ulte Tawe Ka Paratha. The Dhania Roti (chapati with coriander filling) was a first for us. The Galawat Kebab was, truly, melt-in-the-mouth. The service was quick. The Mughals Dastarkhwan is a family-friendly place.
We cannot wait to go back!
A post – meal drive took us to the Lucknow Charbagh Railway Station. In a place like Lucknow, you cannot possibly escape heritage. Designed by J.H. Hornimen, the Charbagh Railway Station construction began in 1914. It is a fabulous mix of Awadhi, Mughal & Rajput architecture!
If you are up for it, step out in the cold night to have a kulhad chai. It will fill you with warmth…
The Last Morning
It was time to head back home but only after a hearty breakfast & a photo shoot! (P.S. The Azrak breakfast spread was great.)
As we crossed our favorite mustard fields on our way back home, we made up our minds to return to Lucknow. After all, still lots to see & eat.
For the frugal us, our sixth anniversary was a time to splurge. The least we could do was stay at a fantastic place — the lebua Lucknow.
A boutique property, in the heart of Lucknow, is housed in an old, traditional bungalow with a lush green lawn. Almost entirely white in color, lebua exudes calm. An aangan (courtyard) is surrounded by beautiful rooms. On the grounds you can find vintage cars & two-wheeler, & a garden full of flowering plants & trees. Large, colorful bougainvillea! The hotel had a few Awadh/ Lucknow books on sale at the reception.
Our room was more than comfortable. With a four-poster bed, we felt we had been transported back in time.
Thank goodness for the folks who restored this heritage bungalow! When you travel to Lucknow, & if you can, please stay at lebua. Its modern hospitality blended with traditional ethos will impress you.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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.)
Madhya Pradesh must be the most underrated tourist
destination in India. The centrally-located state has nature, heritage, &
art. Yet, we neither hear much about it nor see family & friends visiting
MP. We ourselves were oblivious of all that the state has to offer till we made
our way there.
On our maiden trip, we spent a little less than a week exploring three destinations – Khajuraho, Panna Tiger Reserve & Orchha. Here, we take you through Khajuraho with our photo-blog.
Khajuraho was a seat of the Chandela rulers’ authority.
They built numerous temples in the town in the 9th and 10th centuries. Today,
the group of temples is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Erotic sculptures do not make up even 5% of the total. The guides will ask you if you are okay seeing & knowing more about them before they point them out to you.
The golden hour is a good time for photography too.
Since the Jain Temples were built around the same time, their architecture is strikingly similar to that of the Hindu temples.
The standalone Chaturbhuj Temple has a well – preserved idol of Lord Vishnu.
Western Group of Temples
Even the roll of His tummy fat has been sculpted with precision!
It is built in the shape of Mount Meru, the source of creation of the world.
It was built by one of the last Bundelkhand kings when the British were instigating religions against each other. To promote harmony, the king built this temple adopting the styles of architecture from Hinduism, Islam & Buddhism. The leftmost is a Hindu ‘shikhar’, the middle one is a Buddhist style pagoda, & the rightmost is an Islamic style dome.
A light & sound show takes place in the evening at the
Western Group of Temples. You can opt to see that to understand the regional
Khajuraho is best visited in the winter months – October to March. The weather is salubrious to walk around the temples. The temples become even more radiant when the winter sun rays fall on them!
Khajuraho has air connectivity. Delhi – Khajuraho – Varanasi is a preferred route by tourists. We, however, opted for a train to Jhansi – road to Orchha – road to Khajuraho – flight to Delhi.
Khajuraho is a paradise for architecture/ art/ history/ photography enthusiasts. However, if you are someone who yawns at heritage, pass!
We don’t really remember what prompted us to try Zoomin in the first place. In 2009, we created & ordered our first product – a t-shirt!
That started our love affair with this online photo service provider. Over the years, Zoomin has made even our ordinary photographs look excellent in print.
We have tried almost every product it launched – Photo Books, Canvases, Posters, Mugs, Magnets, & even a notebook!
Anyone who loves their photos will know the nightmare called ‘Crashing of The Hard Disk’. Sure, there is Facebook & Instagram, but what if, tomorrow, you wish to quit social media?
There are also many who prefer to flip through albums, either by choice or due to limitations (e.g. the elderly who aren’t technologically-savvy). For each of these scenarios, Zoomin comes as a savior.
So, what do we love about Zoomin?
Speed – At times, we have placed an order in the morning & received the product the next evening! Perhaps, with their business growing, they may be unable to maintain such a turnaround time, but it is still better than many traditional eCommerce websites.
Creation Ease – You sign up on the Zoomin website, upload photographs into an album on the portal, choose the product & theme, place your photos into templates, write your captions & voila! You are done.
There are many optional effects & features available, but if you are like us, you would prefer to keep it natural.
We tried Canva, another leading photograph printing website recently & gave up within 10 minutes due to the navigation difficulty.
New Designs/ Products ALL THE TIME – Zoomin is one of those companies that continuously evolve. It is always coming up with new designs & products.
Since October, Zoomin has been bringing new Easy Book covers based on monthly themes. These covers are designed by doodle artists & sourced designers. For November, Zoomin has festive covers. We cannot wait to get our hands on the new theme-based Easy Books.
Zoomin has recently introduced Decorative Clips to go with Square Prints. We think these look chic. And for those who like to dirty their hands, it has come up with a DIY Photo Display Kit.
Zoomin is launching Felt Boards & Calendars in Square Prints size with new designs by November – end. Hats off to their design & product teams!
Photo Books – Our absolute favorite! A Photo Book is an album that you can create for your trips or for an occasion or even as mixed bag of memories. The high-quality paper gives a glossy look to the photos.
Photo Books are available as Flip Book, Hardcover & Lay Flat. Prices begin at INR 329 which, in our humble opinion, is value for money.
Canvases – We recently tried this & are hooked for life. You can create wall art using your own photographs. They come printed on quality canvas material & already mounted. You can hang them up as soon as they arrive; no hassle of framing.
Our travel photos turned out to be even more beautiful when canvas printed.
The newest Zoomin offering is Square Prints. When we were approached to try these out, we could not say no. A set of 12 photographs, looking like Polaroids, arrived promptly in our mail. To put these up, we chose a vertical magnetic rope. (The other choices were horizontal magnetic rope & washi tapes.)
We were super impressed with the Prints. Made on top quality stock paper with a wonderful finish, the Square Prints breathe life into the photos.
We cannot say the same about the magnetic rope. The Square Prints are on a thick paper & too strong to be held in place by tiny magnets. Also, we felt the magnetic rope is child & household help unfriendly. Perhaps, washi tapes would have been better.
Three boxes full of albums covering our travels & important memories, & we still haven’t got enough. Zoomin is one service we fully vouch for. Convert those memories to keepsakes right away!
(P.S. Did we mention Zoomin has good deals going on throughout the year.)
The 2009 edition of Outlook Traveler spoke of the Mumbai to Goa drive enjoying cult status. The NH17, fondly remembered as NH66, ran along the western coast of India. At a few places, it came at a stone’s throw distance from the Arabian Sea. It sounded exciting.
So, for our 2017 annual domestic trip, we chose the Western Ghats & the Indian west coast. It was in line with our lets-see-the-country-at-least-before-we-die plan. When we started studying about the NH66, we found that it ran from Panvel to Kanyakumari. We were thrilled! We had ~10 days to spare. We could do a longer stretch than just Mumbai to Goa.
After extensive research & iterations, we narrowed down to a return trip of ~2,100 kilometers: Mumbai- Ganpati Phule- Gokarna- Kannur- Karwar- Panchgani- Mumbai.
The only reason we could not go till Kanyakumari: we had to return to Mumbai to drop off the rented self-drive car. Self-drive car rentals in India do not have the feature of different pick & drop points yet. & 10 days were inadequate to go till Kanyakumari AND return to Mumbai. So, the remaining stretch in maybe another trip!
Most of our road trip was on the NH66. Here & there, we touched SH92 (in Maharashtra), SH34 (Karnataka), NH48 (Maharashtra), & the Mumbai- Pune Expressway (Maharashtra). SH92 connects the NH48 to the NH66, traversing through villages to give you a view of rural Maharashtra. SH34 is a beautiful, well-maintained hilly stretch running through the Kali Tiger Reserve & Dandeli, the river rafting paradise of west India. NH48 & Mumbai- Pune Expressway are typical highways: wide roads, straight-line driving & limited scenery.
But this post is about the NH66. On our first stretch (Mumbai to Ganpati Phule), the highway zigzagged through the Western Ghats. It being the monsoon season, the Ghats were lush. We saw more shades of green than we thought existed. So much so, that after a while, our eyes sought colors other than green.
Once we started from Ganpati Phule (till Kannur), we encountered the reason NH66 is considered so highly. We drove parallel to the Indian west coast. We felt the sea breeze.
At places, the Arabian Sea was right beside us. One such place was Maravanthe: to our right was the Arabian Sea & to our left, the Suparnika River. Essentially, we drove on a thin strip of land.
All along the highway were fishing hamlets. We halted just about anywhere & asked for the day’s catch to be cooked for us.
Also pleasing to the eye were the intricately carved & colorfully painted temples. The gopuram of each of them carried gods & goddesses of all kinds, & of more colors than found in a child’s box of crayons.
There cannot be words better than photographs. So, leaving you with our captures of NH66.
We are travel addicts; and clearly road trip aficionados. But, when another long weekend struck, there was an urge to do something different. So browsing through yet another travel magazine, we chanced upon the must-do rides on heritage trains in India.
Mostly found in the hilly regions, these narrow gauge trains have been running since the colonial times. The British did have a way with finding idyllic spots & connecting them to the heartland. Can’t blame them there!
The closest to Delhi, of course, is Shimla or as the British spelt it, Simla, their summer capital. Thus started the search for a suitable train on the Kalka – Shimla route. There are a number of trains but the best in terms of looks is the Shivalik Deluxe Express while the best in terms of performance is the Himalayan Queen. A train with a twist is the Rail Motor Car which looks & sounds more like a jeep than a train.
We booked ourselves for the onward journey on the Shivalik Deluxe Express and the return on the Himalayan Queen. With that, the Kalka – Shimla route was covered. But, now came the challenge of the Delhi – Kalka stretch. This was an insipid route; all we had to do was to commute.
The main train on this route, the Howrah Kalka Mail, is seldom punctual. We did not want to take our car to Kalka as we would have trouble finding a parking spot for it for three days.
We grudgingly booked the Howrah Kalka Mail for the onward journey and the Kalka Shatabdi for the return. And we waited, impatiently, for the weekend to arrive. A couple of days before our journey, we began checking if the Howrah Kalka was running on time. To our horror, we realized that it had been running with an average delay of 10-12 hours!
We panicked & started thinking about Plan B. Then it struck us, ever the typical middle-income-group couple, that we could take the bus. Himachal Tourism runs a cool fleet of buses from Delhi to the main cities in Himachal Pradesh.
For Shimla, there is almost a bus an hour. We scrambled to the Himachal Tourism website and heft a sigh of relief when we managed to find a bus at a suitable time on our designated date and booked it quickly.
The website turns out to be quite efficient even though it looks as government – ish as it can. We can select our seats and pay by credit card. Wow! This, of course, was followed by the process of cancelling both our onward tickets.
Finally, the wait was over. We headed to Himachal Bhavan near Mandi House to board our bus. Our seat was at the far end with a rowdy bunch of young boys right behind us. A peaceful sleep seemed unlikely. Sigh!
Before we boarded, we wanted to have our favorite food-samosa. Right across the road is a snack shop which serves all kinds of greasy & spicy Indian snacks. We were drawn to it like bees to flowers.
Did you know that samosa is not Indian? It’s a take on a middle-eastern snack called ‘sambusak’. Well! Once we were satiated, we grabbed our seats. A quick checking of tickets took place, & we started moving. Yay!
Getting out of Delhi was, of course, the biggest challenge, especially it being a weekday. It was compounded with the ‘kaawariyas’ & their entourages. Truly, one can do anything in the name of religion. The ‘kaawar yatra’ now is more about occupying the streets, playing LOUD music and creating nuisance, than it is about worshiping Lord Shiva.
We stopped at the Haryana Tourism guest house in Rai for dinner. Just outside the gate, a bike with two riders unfortunately got a little scare by our bus. While we had dinner, our bus driver & conductor tried to provide comfort to them. Nothing had happened to either them or to the bike. But they had a minor heart attack when our big bus and their tiny bike were millimeters apart. Chuckle!
Dinner was a simple fare. We did not want to delay the bus. We observed other families who are carrying their own food. They spread out the food on sheets in the garden. This took us back to school days. The annual picnic, invariably to the botanical garden, was an occasion we looked forward to, though there was barely anything new that we could see year after year.
Coming back, we were on our way and soon nodding off as the bus met the highway. The bus itself was in a great condition and there was not an iota of rash driving on the part of the driver.
The seats were comfortable, we were given bottles of water and shown a movie too! Do you support reclining seats? Aren’t they unnecessary and an inconvenience to fellow travelers? The manufacturers think only of the passenger who is going to use the reclining feature. They do not envisage the trouble that the person behind faces.
And we were finally in Shimla! It was early morning, was drizzling and ah, such a beautiful weather! When you are not getting stuck in traffic due to rains or when muddy water is not staining your clothes, then monsoons are just beautiful.
We were soon at the Shimla British Resort, another one of the offbeat places we had come across and booked. History has it that the Resort was the residence of a British engineer.
It got handed down to various people before resting with the current owner, who used to give it out for movie and advertisement shootings. Finally, about five years back, he opened it as a Resort for the public.
The Resort is a set of cottages in themes like British, Danish, & Scottish. Each of the rooms is tastefully done with the decor reminding of the colonial times. Lots of woodwork, lots of English paintings, lots of artifacts dating back to the Raj.
We needed some sleep on a proper bed. So we hid ourselves in our Danish Imperial Room and slipped into dreamland. It was noon by the time we were refreshed. It was time to hit Shimla. We felt like tourists.
A quick peek into Trip Advisor showed the Viceregal House (or now known as the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies) as the #1 attraction. Our Resort arranged a cab for us. The cabbie turned out to be a friendly, simple chap. He told us more about Shimla.
The Viceregal House turned out to be more charming than we imagined. It is a Scottish building and was used by the erstwhile British government as their Viceroy’s retreat. A number of historic meetings have taken place here, particularly related to the Indian independence and the partition.
There is a short guided tour for the ground floor. It was completely worth it. After independence, the House became the President’s summer retreat. Later, the President donated it to set up the institute. The Indian flag flies high.
We could not have been happier & more excited- a lovely weather with temperature around 18° C, a colonial building, greenery all around, & lots of history!
Next stop- the Mall Road. Obviously. Duh! Actually, not that obvious; we were hungry and wanted to settle down somewhere to grab a bite. We took a walk on the Mall Road till the Scandal Point. It was foggy; we deserved a cup of something warm.
We narrowed down on Wake & Bake Café. Right opposite the police headquarters, is the small, unassuming café. We were famished; Cappuccino, Cold coffee, Chicken, peppers, chilies & rosemary pizza, Hummus & pita, and Carrot cake hardly seemed adequate. Burp!
The rain did not look like it was done with its daily target, but surprisingly, we quite enjoyed it. Perhaps returning to the warmth of the Resort was what the Gods intend for us. & we had no idea about the surprise waiting for us there.
We had booked a honeymoon package with the Resort. One of the inclusions was a romantic room decoration. Our room looked more wild than romantic. There was an interesting mix of balloons, flowers and leaves.
We could neither stop giggling nor stop shaking our heads. We loved the cheesiness of it. For the decoration, we would give them 5/ 10 but for the effort, full marks! There were also fresh fruits & cookies. We did a little dance around the room.
Marriage indeed brings excitement & happiness to life, in the form of honeymoon packages! The poor Resort staff were disappointed when we asked them to clear the decoration within 15 minutes. But well, there was no place to sit. What could we have done? But guys, loved the enthusiasm. Thank you!
Day 2 started with Annandale. It was Kargil Vijay Diwas – the day India won the Kargil War. It was an absolutely fantastic day to visit the Army Museum. We had asked our friendly cabbie to take us around. He willingly obliged.
We hold the defense forces in high esteem, especially the Indian Army. India is handicapped without them. Those days, there was a flash flood in J&K. The army carried out the rescue operations. J&K citizens, who have called the army all sorts of names & forced them to be withdrawn, now sought its help. It was an eye-opener how the army serves the nation without expecting anything.
The area around the Army Museum is a sight to behold. A greenhouse, a golf course, gardens, and vantage seating points- trust the army to do a great job at whatever they do.
So where was Sharma ji taking us next? (Psst, Sharma ji was our friendly cabbie.) We planned to head to Mashobra & Naldehra. The destinations were unimportant; it was the journey that held value.
Winding roads, picturesque play of the mountains and valleys- it seemed we were in a picture postcard. We have come to Shimla earlier, but have never felt so contented with this region.
The Mashobra apple orchard was completely covered in clouds. The walk up to the Naldehra golf course did not seem too appealing, especially with the drizzle. But we were more than satisfied with the journey to the two places.
We headed back to our Resort for the second offering of the honeymoon package- a candlelit dinner. They arranged it for us in the small outhouse cottage. This was NICE!
& here was the last day. The day which was the reason for this trip. We were set to experience the UNESCO heritage train ride from Shimla to Kalka. The station is a stone’s throw from the Resort.
We clicked photographs with the train in the backdrop. We made a spectacle of ourselves; people gaped at us, but we were too excited to care. We realized that the seat which is supposed to be for two is really just one & a half. Well, two thin people maybe! It was good in a way as we sat cozily with each other.
The rowdy boys from our bus were on the adjacent seat. We rolled our eyes. The train was choc-a-bloc full. It was a tiny thing with almost no space for luggage. So do ensure you do not board the train with either large bags or with too many bags.
The train pulled out from the station. Thus started a beautiful journey. We traveled through lush-green mountains, through almost 900 bridges and 100 tunnels in a weather that was pleasant.
It rained; we hurriedly closed our windows, but the water found its way in anyhow. People opened their umbrellas. Yes. In the train. The family behind us was lamenting throughout. But we found it amusing, rather than annoying.
The train brought us closer to nature. There were tiny stations along the way, with white cottages & blue roofs for stations, leaping right out of Malgudi Days. This was surely going to remain etched in our memories for as long as we lived…
The train has a decent speed, about 40 kmph. It halts at Kalka from where the broad gauge starts. We boarded the Kalka Shatabdi which fascinated us in another manner. The train was spotless, the air-conditioning worked marvelously, the seats were comfortable, the food was good, and the service was impeccable.
Soon, we were home. Our first heritage train ride had been memorable in more ways than one. Spotting & counting tunnels, a beautiful resort, soothing greenery all around, a salubrious weather, patriotic emotions, a candlelit dinner, & for the first time, liking Shimla…
We recommend an itinerary for four days, three nights:
Continuing from Chapter 4, day two dawned bright & beautiful again. I looked forward to capturing the Kanchenjunga summit. This was also the day for local sightseeing. KN arrived promptly to take me around.
We started with the Bakthang Falls. The Falls are a better sight during & right after monsoon when the volume of water is high. Currently, it looked bereft of its glory but to me, any sight different from the usual is worth seeing.
A hawker girl asked me if I wanted to dress up in the traditional Sikkimese clothes. I politely declined. One of the other aspects I loved about Sikkim was that the hawkers would offer you their wares once; if you decline, they will move away & not pester you again. This is so unlike most other tourist spots where hawkers will make you want to run!
Next stop was the Tashi View Point – a lookout offering an unobstructed view of the Kanchenjunga. As luck would have it, clouds hovered over the peak. I couldn’t get a clear photo, no matter how hard I wished or how long I waited! I cursed my luck for some time but soon realized that even though I’d been unable to click it, I’d managed to see it with my eyes. And that’s what mattered!
Next up was Ganesha Tok – a temple dedicated to Lord Ganesha, perched on a little height, such that you get a clear view of the Gangtok city. A bit of climbing is required; if you’re not keen on the temple, I’ll recommend to skip it, as the view is average. By contrast, the view from the Tashi View Point is spectacular. Or, perhaps, at night, when the city lights up, the view from Ganesha Tok will make sense!
We made our way to the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology. Don’t let the heavy name deter you. It houses a wonderful museum wherein you can find relics centuries old that tell the tale of Buddhism in India, Nepal, Bhutan & Tibet. I’m an absolute museum buff. I spent the maximum time here, & thanked my stars N wasn’t around, for he abhors museums. This gave me time to read every single description, & not leave even one exhibit unseen.
Photography is strictly prohibited here (like most museums in India) but as is wont of Indians, they clicked mindlessly. Why is it so difficult for Indians to follow instructions? I was overjoyed when the attentive museum staff caught hold of the defaulters & made them erase the photographs.
A small souvenir shop outside the museum made me splurge a bit. I picked up a book on Buddhism, a traditional necklace for myself & a tote bag. I barely shop on trips. The max I pick up is a fridge magnet. But for this trip, I loosened my purse strings, also because everything seemed reasonable (so atypical of a tourist place)! And then, you don’t travel solo every day, do you?
A few steps & almost a mountain away was the Do Drul Chorten. The climb is pretty much vertical and it knocked the wind out of me. But I guess travel gives me energy. I huffed & puffed my way to the top, circumambulated the chorten, clicked away & attracted more friends again! It struck me that Buddhism & Hinduism have this aspect in common – all their holy sites are built at almost inaccessible places.
Continuing from Chapter 3, about Baba Mandir, do you believe in the supernatural? If you do, good! If you do not, just keep an open mind when you come here.
Legend has it that Harbhajan Singh, a sepoy with the Indian army, fell into a nullah and was washed away while transporting mules. His body could not be found. Later, he appeared in the dream of his colleague and informed about the spot where his body could be found. He further asked for his ‘samadhi’ to be built there. His body was found exactly where he had mentioned in the dream and thus his ‘samadhi’ was built.
To this day, it is believed he protects the Indian army personnel. Even the Chinese believe in him and revere him; they leave a chair empty for him during flag meetings. Till the time he had not retired, he was given his annual leave; his uniform was escorted back to his village. Faith surely makes us do unimaginable things!
It was now time for me to visit the Tsomgo Lake or Changu Lake as called by the locals. It is a beautiful, small lake surrounded by mountains on one side. The best part is – it just pops up on the main road. No off-road driving, no hiking required to get to it. Despite that, it’s loveliness is worth seeing.
This is also the spot where you will come across dozens of yaks, their owners offering you a ride or photography with the yak. For INR 50, I posed happily with a yak, standing next to it. I dislike climbing on top of animals or taking rides on them, for I do not wish to torture them. The yak owner obliged with the camera.
At times, you think that if you travel solo, you will have to rely on selfies to capture your moments. But you will be surprised how eager people are to help. Thus, drop the hesitation folks! Moreover, is a selfie not a poor way to capture a gorgeous background because the entire focus is on the face?
I found Tsomgo Lake special not just for the gentle yaks, but also for the fall colors I witnessed there. I had thought I would have to go to the USA or Europe to see the colors of autumn. But the same was evident in Sikkim too. I guess India still has miles to go to advertise its full tourism potential.
My excursion for the first day was now complete. I made my way back to the hotel, stopping intermittently to gape at astounding sights and capture them in my camera. Tiny waterfalls, with water tumbling down on rocks, or lakes that popped up suddenly, or faraway mountains covered in mist – my heart could not be more content.
In the evening, I intended to visit the iconic MG Marg, the hub of activity in Gangtok with eating and shopping options. Alas, I fell asleep on reaching the hotel; by the time I woke up, it was late.
The locals had recommended taking a taxi to MG Marg, stressing that its reliability & safety, no matter what time of the day. But, somehow, my north Indian anxiety forbade me from trying this out. This is the only regret I carry from my trip…