Crossing the uncharted territory: Chaari Dhaand

Its 4 am and I am driving on a surface that looks more Martian than that of our planet. The baked, grey earth over which we are driving is the Rann of Kutch. The stars are shining overhead in an ink black sky. We have no maps, no road signs or signals, no GPS coordinates and no roads to take us to the destined place. Our SUV, racing at a speed of 25 Km/hr looked like a space shuttle on the rugged surface of mars.

Being blessed with the beatific sight of huge flock of flamingos at Lake Neruru in Kenya, my yen for catching a glimpse of them in the Indian mainland was fuelled. This brought me to probably the most arid and tantalizingly beautiful landscape in the country – Rann of Kutch. I reached Bhuj with a set goal of capturing flamingos. From the beginning of my trip, the omens were bad. I had landed in the wrong season and this being a dry year hadn’t attracted many birds. But situations like this, often compel you to take the less travelled by route. A grand revelation came when I learnt that the manager of the Royal Orchid resort, Mr. Neeladri Das, was himself an avid birder and adventurer. It didn’t take me much time to rope him in this booty business. And that brought me, at 4 am, in a completely unknown surface with no landmarks, in search of flamingos. I am at Chaari Dhaand, a lesser known wetland in the midst of Rann. It does find a mention in the travel map of Kutch, but looking at the desolateness of the place, one can spot, that it is a less travelled by place.

handofcolors_Flock of Flamingos

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A sip of coffee in Coorg….

Kodaimelanadu or Kodagu or Coorg: the name itself conjures up images of verdure – gushing cascades, babbling brooks, green hills, gorgeous dales, gurgling rivers all together flaunting the munificence of Mother Nature.  Oh! Add coffee plantations to it. A compulsive coffee drinker like me cannot find a better place than Coorg, for a sip. After an hour of drive from Mysore our chauffer announced that we are entering Coorg.

The scenery is mesmerizing. The winding roads take you through a maze of greenery. At every labyrinthine, you meet a collage of colours which explode into shades of greens, browns and yellows. The roads seem to have no particular destination. They just lead you from one part of paradise to another. As we squint though the green fabric, we pass plantations of coffee, cardamom and pepper which merge with forests, foliage and fauna. There are no villages, no people, no shops, and no cars. We deliberately slow down to take in the moment. It is an ode to nature and no wonder it has been attributed the sobriquet, Scotland of the East.

Coorg is all about coffee with a fair amount of cardamom and pepper thrown in.  As we drove in, the sylvan surroundings hit us. Our destination is Siddapur.

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Slow it down at LaRiSa, Manali

What is it waking up in the middle of an apple orchard overlooking snow clad mountains, and a little distance away is the Beas, a tributary of the Indus, its roar filling your ears and its thump echoing in your heart? The beauty of Manali can never be put in some prosaic forms, and I had chosen to miss the hustle-bustle of the town, and settle in some secluded corner to live the rawness of the Himachal. I could feel a sense of adventure as I arrived in the quaint little village of Haripur, heading to the LaRiSa Mountain resort.  Perched in the middle of an apple orchard, spread out to endless horizons, overlooking the electric green fields, with stone and wood cottages seamlessly fitting in this beatific landscape, LaRiSa sent a strong cue. A connection was made the moment I stepped in the resort. And to make things livelier, rain gods played merry. And as the clouds danced in gay abandon, the greens and yellows of the valleys and the strikes of white on the mountain top, came out in their pompous best. And the resort seemed like a magical pot placed in the middle of this heavenly landscape.

LaRiSa Resort_Manali

Perched in the middle of an apple orchard, with stone and wood cottages, LaRiSa sent a strong cue.

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Rokeby Manor – A colonial charm

Cradled by the Shivaliks, encircled by snowy Himalayan peaks, cleaved by silent trails, and interrupted only by sudden gushes of crisp mountain air, a little over three kilometers from Mussourie, uphill, lies a hidden paradise, Landour, a town with an inescapable colonial aura, carpeted with Himalayan flora, and carrying an enticing fragrance of wilderness. As we drove through the circular bridled paths, called the ‘Gol Chakkar’ to reach our destination the ‘Rokeby Manor’, I could feel like turning back the pages of history. The expansive views of the Himalayas, quaint colonial bungalows, a surreal charm in the air, and deserted wooded paths calling for long walks and friendly chats, have made Landour an artists’ getaway. Rokeby manor – an English retreat, dating back to the 1840s, is a prominent landmark, in this hilltop oasis. The manor stands as a symbol of the vintage colonial charm of Landour and still holds the glory of that bygone era profoundly in every nook and corner. The stoned walls, tall arches, thatched roofs, an endearing garden overlooking the Doon valley, fireplaces, wooden staircases, furniture wearing that old, colonial look, and aesthetically designed bookshelves, impart Rokeby the quintessential heritage look.

Rokeby Manor_common room

The common room

Rokeby Manor_Landour_room

A small intimate door leads you to the great room, doubled up as reception, and a resting place, with its log fire and extravagant furnishings, is reminiscent of its colonial legacy, while the rest of the manor draws on contemporary trends. Rokeby stands in perfect harmony with its surroundings, be the interiors of the room or the common room by the reception, it conveys the typical hillside touch. The rooms are set within a wooded landscape, fusing rustic luxe with contemporary design, designed to give an earthy touch through the use of natural materials and harmonious architectural style.

Make history your companion

A property dating back to 1840s is meant to be steeped in history and tales. Rokeby was a house built by a certain Captain GN Cauthy on a two-acre plot of land in 1840 and named after one of Sir Walter Scott’s poems, which mentions the Rokeby castle in England.

“I saw his melancholy smile,
When, full opposed in front, he knew,
Where Rokeby’s kindred banner flew…” – Wilter Scott

Rokeby has passed many hands before coming to Mr. Sanjay Narang, who moved to Landour and came across Rokeby in 2011, and began working on restoring the property to its original design, extracting the history, and almost creating a tale to fall in love with. But beyond the façade of old world, Rokeby has all the amenities of the contemporary world, with an addition of mountain bikes and scooter rentals to set off and explore the dramatic landscape of Landour, which the British fondly called ‘Hamlet in the hills’.

Landour_on Gol Chakkar

Breakfast at Emily’s

The wooden stairs take you to one of the most celebrated places to eat in Landour – Emily’s café, named after one of Landour’s most famous literary affair with Emily Aden, sister of Governor-General Lord George Eden, who wrote extensively on British racist attitude towards Indians. The intimately decored Emily kitchen brings back the tea love of the British. The interiors are reminiscent of a ski chalet with fireplaces, cozy corners, brightly colored walls, lanterns, and a lot of literature. The breakfast spread is welcoming and homely, relish on their tea collection, that’s surely a steal. And one look out of the windows, at the cedar covered hills, and it’s clear this place is a prize. The witty quotes on the walls are unmissable, they make you halt, read, and ponder.

Rokeby is for book-lovers, and Wilson’s chamber where the breakfast is spread would notably the favourite corner of any bibliophile. One can spread hours going through the collection of books, you can comfortably read there or take to your room. This love is reflected in the wide spread of magazines in the common room, and is exemplary of the literary affair Landour is known for.

Emily's kitchen in Rokeby Manor_Landour

Breakfast at Emily’s

Emily's Kitchen_Landour

Taken at Emily’s kitchen in Rokeby Manor

Landour Bakehouse

At a stone throw away distance, is tucked another gem, the Landour Bakehouse, nestled among the pines at the edge of a winding road as it slopes downhill. The green paneled door transport you back to 1940s to the world of the elites of Landour, who would meet every week to discuss social affairs, do proceedings of their reading club, and exchange age old recipes. That goodness still remains. The recipes used here are taken from Landour Cookbook curated by Ruskin Bond. A small and charming place housing some of the best baking secrets, doles of cake, some gooey chocolate goodness, and a hot sipping coffee, doubled up with a great view to furnish a happy touch to your vacation. Though the place only opened a couple of years ago, but its vintage look, antique portraits, and some old Landour culinary secrets, makes you believe that the place has been existing forever. One of the boards here say “We Do Not Have Wi-Fi….Talk To Each Other. Pretend it’s 1895’’. It doesn’t seem so difficult in the Landour Bakehouse.

Landour Bakehouse

Dishing the goodness of the age-old recipes of Landour

Inside Clock Tower cafe

Clock Tower Cafe

The special moments

Being a boutique property, Rokeby is a choice for an eclectic traveler. Small, cozy, and uniquely located, Rokeby ticks all checkboxes of a luxury hotel, but it is the special moments staying in the manor that makes you reconstruct the definition of luxury. While Rokeby may not offer you creature comforts, what it does is offer you unforgettable moments. These are moments of doing absolutely nothing, lost in thoughts, just sipping your tea and looking down the valley, breathing in the moments, letting the chill mountain air embrace you, enjoying the unique experiences Rokeby Manor lets you soak in. These experiences emanate from the tales Landour unpacks for the travelers. Rokeby seems like an attempt to make your vacations more personal, and just perfect.

Spa in Rokeby Manor

The Spa moments

Rokeby Manor_spa

The secret miracles of Landour

Sunlight glinted on the hill-tops, and valleys were half dark and half lighted. Trees yawned as morning hue woke them from their slumber. The still breeze carried an indescribable purity and sweetness, laden with an aroma from the virgin forests. At a distance was this comfortable looking little town extending uphill and eastward. A steep four-five kilometers drive from Mussourie brought us to Landour, a British raj relic, a town, draped by an old fashioned aura, numerous colonial-era bungalows with slanting roofs, brick arches and stone walls, and silence that was interrupted only by the gusts of invigorating cold breezes. We glided over the shining track, going past the little houses with red thatched roofs and backyard, waving to the welcoming villagers who were off to collect the firewood, school kids and the typical heavily built, bush bearded, leather-jacketed Harley Davidson guys to reach the smiling Landour.

Landour_on Gol Chakkar

Life seemed to be taking a deep breath in the town; the natural beauty topped with reds and greens of roofs, extending a colonial reminiscence. We were passing through narrow roads that could barely fit two cars at a time. The driver was delicately maneuvering the car through these needle hole sized turns. Occasionally I had my head peering out of the car window to sap in the pure, cool breeze. There hung a certain, zeal in the breeze, flowing in gay abandon, like a harbinger of good times.

Taking another turn through Landour’s old bridle path, passing interesting sights and the famous St. Paul’s Church, with the endless stretches of pines and willows and the mountain sun filtering through the threshold of trees to accompany us; we reached one of the landmarks of the town, Rokeby Manor, our haunt for the next three days. And the property was everything that could have been expected; colonial touch taking you back to the era of 1840s when it was built, lovingly renovated rooms with stone walls and wooden floors, and cutely tucked gardens overlooking the valley. Continue reading

A syllable of love

You stirred my chaos,

With the trick of your smile,

Where I lost myself;

With the flick of your hair,

That brushed my face

With the strain in your eyes,

And the clamor of your soul.

I need those earnest lies,

Your eyes played on me,

To live the nightmares, that felt a bliss;

And long for your gaze,

To explore me; unravel me,

Piece by piece, thought by thought;

And turn this cauldron of thoughts,

Into an object real,

An artifact of your liking,

A match to your perfection,

Into a thought profound,

A feeling resurrected,

A syllable of love;

Shaped in the little space,

Where two hearts merge,

Emotions boil,

And dreams turn to reality.

 

Blogging to writing novel: A journey of dreams

(Absolutely nothing in life, can be compared to this remarkable journey from blogging to writing a novel. It’s a story of knowing myself as a storyteller, a learner, a listener, and a crafter. In this blog I share the splendid moments that marked this journey of being a novelist)

I hate writing advisory articles. Not that I have ever written one, or plan to write, I somehow hate to tread that path. And only after scores of friends and readers asked me to pen something about my journey from being a blogger to novelist, I got down to sink in this idea of probably writing my first advisory piece. I am a consultant by day, and even in that role, try my best to keep to the more traversed paths of drawing empirical evidences, underlying philosophies and insights. And so, yeah, a big no to ‘off the bounce’ advices. And in this blog too, I will keep to my journey and the many questions I have been posed about the book and my spur for writing a forbidden love story.

The first chapter, an unending passion

I’m sure you won’t be surprised if I say writing the first chapter is the most difficult part of a long journey called novel. Let me pour in a little of editorial advice I got – ‘most readers put down your book, after reading the first chapter, and quite a majority in this majority, after reading the first few pages’. In a novel that is destined to be more character led than narration led, the first chapter should be more ‘tell all, mince no words’ tale. As a writer, I was asked to pour in my individuality in this chapter.

My novel ‘The Other Guy’ starts with a sex scene, and just three pages after that I reveal the gay identity of the protagonists. My editor’s remarks ‘hide no emotions’ came hard and I chose to conceal it all, and as the book reads ‘chose candour over coy’.

Giving a title to the first chapter, that could express the theme of the novel, was another hard put. The idea of keeping it ‘The incomplete man’ came from an advertisement. I remember that moment well, I was in a bus, huddled, when this thought struck me. That was a moment, I was literally, living my work.

The Other Guy“In the last few days waking really hurt, a sullen feeling overcoming me. Mornings are just cold reminders of being alone, another day to drag through. It takes time to be my other self, to unclothe myself from my nightwear, in which I was me, and get into my day attire, in which I am as others perceive and define me – the unreal me. By the time I dress and become the sleek, polished guy in the mirror, I have donned the role I have to play the whole day.

I am gay; I sleep with my boyfriend at night and live the life of a ‘straight’ guy during the day. Looking into the mirror, I see myself; my predicament stares back at me.”

From chapter 1, ‘The Other Guy’

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Pushkar: kaleidoscope of emotions

Pushkar hung in my thoughts like a dream. After having seen several of my plans for Pushkar get cancelled, this time I tried some serious nudging on myself; to be there at the sacred moment of Pushkar camel fair. The very idea of camels and traders journeying across the vast deserts of Rajasthan in a time immemorial fashion to meet, socialize, and trade, found an inkling in me. Pushkar is a complete teleportation from the urbane life to a rustic one, from economy that survives on cars to one where camels form an integral part. The romantic image of camels loping across the desert in Rajasthan, enthused me to plan the plan I had waited for so long.

Pushkar has a magnetism of its own – it’s very unlike the way one imagines Rajasthan. Fair or not, it will never cease to sweep you off your feet. The town celebrates the riddles of life, throughout the year. Pushkar made me rejig the concept of time; moments into Pushkar and a feeling that everything has been stalled, got me. The antiquity of the town is inspiring. The everyday world of Pushkar does more than inspire and encourage well-being, it makes the sordid routine seem novel.

Ghat_Pushkar

Pushkar Ghat

I was in Pushkar, at the annual camel fair, indisputably, the best time of the year to be in. Everywhere I turned, I could hear music, see a riot of colours, feel the exuberance of the fair and sense Pushkar’s ability to engage with tourists pouring from world over; and then there was the rustic hue, atmospheric shots of herders and their camels, trekking past the deserts. Calling the Pushkar fair just magnetic, would be an understatement. It is far more than that, it takes you out of your cocoon, into a world unknown and untraversed. One eyeful of Pushkar, and the reason that made it a favorite among foreign tourists, becomes discernible. Pushkar is everything most Indian cities are not; it’s sleepy, calm, inviting and engaging; a tell-tale of a town that has thrown off its provinciality.

Hot baloon_Pushkar mela

Hot air baloon is a new addition in Pushkar Fair

Pushkar Fair

In the autumn, as the moon starts its journey for the brightest night of the year, tribes from all over Rajasthan, stream out of their ethnic lands, arid landscapes, stubbly fields, thickets, scrubs, and deserts; trudging with their beasts, draped in multi-colored turbans, travelling with rivulets of kaleidoscopic caravans. The women of the tribes, come draped in their gypsy bright skirts swaying in autumn winds like daffodils, sporting bright silver and bronze jewelry rivaling the smoldering sun and big, arresting bindi on forehead; engrossed in little chats. And at certain distance are scattered groups of travelers, some from different corners of the country and more from abroad, lost in the little riddles and proses of this town.

Pushkair fair brings them all together.

pushkar-fair_

Scene from Pushkar mela

Shopoholic@Pushkar

Pushkar, the Brahma’s land

Pushkar, is a legendary town, stretched around the three sacred lakes, and legends say Lord Brahma, the Creator of the Hindu Trinity, while flying over this land, had dropped three petals from the lotus he carried. The three petals became the three lakes of Pushkar. Some say the creator landed on this auspicious land and performed a holy ritual. Others take the tale a little further and claim that Lord Brahma married a tribal girl in Pushkar. Ever since, people gather in thousands, at this holy place to bathe and worship on the anniversary of the Creator’s sacrifice.

Regardless of legendary tales, Pushkar has grown, both as a colourful animal fair and an international tourist destination. While traders throng here to trade cattle, sheep, camels and thoroughbred horses; for tourists, it’s an escape from their world with an added flavor of good deal of craft shopping and café hopping.

A colony of backpackers

The moment our car breast the hill, magic unfolded. It was early morning, wind carried the chill of the night and the sun was in a sleepy state. In the distance the three lakes glinted like jewels, and a little further, through dust and haze, campfires twinkled. We maneuvered our way through the narrow alleys, the morning markets, the hubbub of a touristy town, making our way towards the hotel. And as we drove, a part of us mingled with the razzmatazz of the place. It seemed like a shifting kaleidoscope of emotions, trying to find a balance somewhere between the serenity of the place and the ordered chaos of the fair. The central area of the fair was crowded with visitors thronging the shops and eateries, while the herders and traders took the plains, focusing on their business.

The colonization of backpackers have made this a model town: a place created by and for the tourists, with multicuisine eateries, chic cafes, schools of yoga, massage, Indian music and dance, shops selling herbal cosmetics, perfumes and the inexplicable clothing that characterizes the backpacker diaspora. And it’s all there, shops feasting with colourful textiles, silver jewelry and crafts, town lost in backpacker’s thoughtless party reverie, locals engrossed in their daily chores playfully mixed with spiritual detours, houses with open courtyards with murals to keep you on a click frenzy mode, nomads exhibiting their ravishing dreadlocks and loincloths, and a gastronomic culture that has evolved due to mixing of myriad of cultures and aspirations. The rooftops of medieval buildings with exquisite jharokhas have been turned into cafes, offering new vignettes of the lake with its ghats, the sprawl of temples and the town around the sacred lake. Some ancient courtyards have been turned into meditation centers. It’s suggested to keep enough time on hand to pencil in such moments, after all everything in Pushkar moves at its own leisurely pace. From temple to temple, take your time to discover the cultural and spiritual nuances of the place.

I often ditched the fair to be by the lake, often joined by a group of backpackers with their musical instruments. These are not rare moments, this is routine in Pushkar. And be it any moment, there’s always a spirit of gay abandon, hanging in Pushkar.

craft_Pushkar

Pushkar has evolved as an offbeat and ethnic shoppers paradise

The divine in Pushkar

In the evenings, as the sun slips into the valleys, the lake comes alive with the flickering of the lamps during the scenic aarti. The Pushkar fair ends on a full moon night, and thankfully, I was there, to bear witness to his heavenly spectacle. The ambience with lights twinkling in the twilight was ethereal. Drumbeats, clash of symbols and chiming of bells herald the aarti on the final day i.e. on Purnima (full moon). Lamps are lit and placed all-round the Ghat. This was probably the first time, I was coming in terms with the spirituality of Pushkar. I had seen its jamboree, its gay abandon, the way it has engaged with all cultures and left a part of it in them, and the way it has shaped itself to be a hot tourist destination, but this was different. This was Pushkar, the way it has been for all these centuries, when the travellers had not arrived and it still carries that air.

What else to do

Apart from all the spiritual, culinary, musical, and shopping adventure, you can hire a bike and go to Ratnagiri Hill for sublime sunset views over the lake. Do a one-and-a-half-hour hike up to Savitri Devi Temple. Most times of the year, the skies are fabulous canvasses of delight.

Indian Ocean_Pushkar Mela

Indian Ocean band performing in Pushkar Fair

Rajputana revisited at Nagaur

This wasn’t a well-planned tour; last minute tickets, itinerary gone through in haste, no pre-research done and entire plan charted out on way to the railway station. My first impression of Nagaur, as I landed the next morning, was that of a quaint town. I took a corner in that humble station and rolled my eyes to detail out every corner, to assure me that I was still in this century. ‘The town looks ancient’ I said to myself, coming out of the station. This was Nagaur, in the arid northwest of India’s largest state, Rajasthan. Bordering the Thar desert, most of the cityscape has been painted royal yellow with a magnificent Fort standing in the middle of the city; the city walls echoing the tales from time immemorial and the fort speaking of tales of glory and valour.

Nagaur Fort II

Landscape view of the Nagaur Fort

I was soon drawn into a history lesson by my chauffeur as we drove to the hotel. A major draw for anyone seeking an immersion in courtly history, Nagaur grew from a strategic trade point to the centre of Rajputana power in its hey days. Naguar lived under the influence of conquerors from vastly different cultures. Over time it gained a distinct Rajput-Mughal architectural design as gardens, temples and fountains were added. Passing through the town is like passing through an age frozen and wrapped in time. The city seems as unmoved by changing times. The 4th century Ahichhatragarh Fort, standing in the middle of the city, was originally built by the Nagavanshi clan (hence the name that means ‘Fort of the Hooded Cobra’!) and rebuilt in the 12th century by the Ghaznis to include palaces and mosques. The Nagaur Fort epitomizes the city more than anything else. Continue reading

A Fort with many stories: Chittorgarh

Stories abound in this fort. Wrapped in history, Chittorgarh Fort has been a textbook lesson on valour, honor, sacrifice and never to fade aura of romance. Haunting silence of the innumerable historic episodes, that found a setting here, still echo in the ruins. Every corner seems to have a story to tell. “You must have heard the story of Queen Padmini” said my driver with a toothless smile, as we whizzed past the lanes of this living fort. Chittorgarh, has been a part of history lessons, taken as an epitome of Rajput valor and pride. One of the oldest surviving forts of India, it was actually built by the Mauryas. Over centuries, it changed many hands, seen many battles, but its grandeur only increased with time. Even though it stands in decay today, it gives you a feeling of awe and magnificence of ages and periods of history, these buildings have seen.

RanaKumbha Palace_Chittorgarh

Rana Kumbha Palace, though in ruins, still evokes myriad emotions in travelers.

Chittorgarh was once a fortified city and the capital of Mewar Rajputana (Southern part of Rajasthan), before falling into hands of Khiljis, then ruled by Gehlot and Sisodia dynasties from 7th Century AD until captured by Emperor Akbar. Today this stunning fort is a UNESCO world heritage site. This was my second visit to Chittorgarh, infact Chittorgarh was my introduction to Rajasthan, when I had combined it with Bundi. As I entered the gate (Pol), frames from my first visit, flashed before me. In a minute, Chittorgarh turned into a bouquet of emotions for me. Continue reading

Yogyakarta: Into the heart of Indonesia

Buddhist temple Borobodur, a UNESCO Heritage site in Yogyakarta

An ancient city and the last remaining Sultanate of Indonesia, YogyaKarta has long nurtured the Javanese connection with the outer world and has been a cradle of art and culture. Old ways of life exist in Yogyakarta, side by side with bustling modernity and the city decorates itself with the symbols of traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. From all night shadow puppetry, the age old extraordinary Buddhist temples of BoroBodur and the equally impressive Hindu ones of Prambanan, socially aware graffiti on the wall to the beautifully styled Batik designs; Yogyakarta, Indonesia’s second most visited spot, is a cultural palette on display.

The city comes as a huge relief from the urbane madness of Jakarta, narrow roads lined with trees, old buildings wearing a colonial touch, shops styled as pagodas, slow life, frequent smiles by strangers, alleys lined with themed restaurants, art cafes often buzzing with some performances, random music bands performing on streets and endless boards advertising batik designing lessons; Yogyakarta gives you a feeling of being in a different era.

Prambanan Temple_Yogyakarta

Prambanan Temple, one of UNESCO Heritage sites in Yogyakarta (pic as appeared in HuffPost)

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The regal tale: Alsisar Haveli

It’s rare to find an oasis in the middle of the bustling town of Jaipur. The unabating beeping of horns, drivers cutting lanes and taking inconvenient detours through narrow alleys of old Pink city to avoid traffic snarls, Jaipur is crowded and baffling. And then you take a turn, and enter an arched doorway leading to an open area with tall trees, birds singing and an earthy flavour of the air; enough to leave the frenetic bustle and throb of the city behind. I had found my oasis. A tall arched wooden door separated me from the real world and took me to a world enmeshed in a time wrap of old world royalty. I was at Alsisar Haveli, in the middle of the city of over 5 million, yet so different; quiet and with a feeling, that is meant to linger.

ALSISAR HAVELI FRONT FACADE

My eyes were fixed at the heavy, Belgian chandelier; occasionally drifting to the brightly painted glasses and the elaborate frescoes, while the formalities were performed at the reception. Another door, and there the stately Alsisar Haveli stood, in a golden shortbread, with terracotta coloured jharokhas.

Before proceeding to my room, I wished to catch an eyeful of the Alsisar Haveli. Built over a century back, the Haveli retains the finesse of Rajputana architecture, and no doubt is a sight to behold. Heading up to my room, I was told that each room has been uniquely designed and most of the furniture is the one traditionally used by the family or restored and given the century old look. My room, overlook the pool and still held the charms of the era far gone by; the intricate patterns on the wall and roof, the multi-foliated arches, door of dark deciduous wood and variegated windows. Elements of Rajasthani architecture were evident in the room. The ceiling was embellished with a toran-style design and the arches were in a delicate pink with patches of green floral patterns. The room with its ebony furniture, the Cleopatra dressing table, frescoes and a general warmth, looked like a timeless beauty, with hundreds of tales engraved in it. For a moment I wondered who would have used this room when it was a royal property.

Alsisar haveli_Deluxe Room (1)
My stately room in Alsisar haveli

 

 

I remember a traveler friend once telling me about the way the idea of vacations has changed. He said, “vacationers are seeking an experience, a tale to boast”. To me, definitely, stay very much forms a part of this experience. The way we stay decides our vacation. And Alsisar, not for a moment, left me disappointed. There was a grandeur of scale, a bit of history, quirkiness and an intimate experience, to carry back. The Alsisar haveli literally looks like a distillation of the way of life of the royals. (Read more about havelis and Shekhawati here)

The haveli was built in 1892 and refurbished to a heritage hotel in 1994. Dhruv Singh Alsisar, the owner of this Haveli is from the Shekhawati clan, hailing from Alsisar, where they have a palace (Read about Alsisar Mahal here) which has also been turned into a heritage hotel. The richness in design, the regal texture, and the originality has been well preserved in both the properties.

Little treasures in Alsisar haveli

The real steal in Alsisar Haveli is the Sheesh Mahal, a common lounge area, which was once used by the ladies of the royal family. The walls of Sheesh Mahal, richly inlaid with hundreds of mirrors, richly coloured designs on the walls, the mirrored ceilings throwing uncountable reflections, stunning light fixtures and two kingly sized chandeliers; call for some attention. No wonder I was left in a camera frenzy mood in the Sheesh Mahal.

Alsisar haveli_Sheesh Mahal (Lounge)

The Sheesh Mahal Lounge

ALSISAR HAVELI SHEESH MAHAL

Speaking of heritage, there’s no taking away of cuisines from the cultural palette and Alsisar Haveli has just the perfect settings to abet your gastronomic desires and indulgences and a menu carefully crafted to bring the Oriental and the local Rajasthani flavor together. The dining space is impressive, truly fit for the kings, with a large table in the middle and smaller tables around. The place sports an old world ethnic charm; richly designed pillars, arches coloured with traditional motifs, painted glasses, and a heavy chandelier in the middle (comparable to the one I saw in Fateh Sagar Palace in Udaipur, which supposedly is the heaviest in India). The menu is limited but good to do justice to the fancied dining place. Alsisar’s wood baked thin crust pizza are an absolute delight, and from the Indian shelf, the Rajasthani lal maas brings the earthly flavor and the much sought after classics mutton korma and kadhai chicken, keep you wanting for more. For vegetarians, aloo gobhi mutter and kofta has been brilliantly reinterpreted and given a classic culinary touch and turned into ceremonious delights.

Alsisar haveli_Dinning Hall

The dining hall in Alsisar haveli

Probably the best time in the haveli is the evenings. The Alsisar haveli seems to have been designed for comfortable, long chats. There are spaces everywhere turned into comfortable sitting places. The courtyard is beautifully spaced with vintage iron chairs, facing the swimming pool, all for stealing moments for an impromptu get-together or relaxed moments to sip tea, read or just laze. Even the lounge area in the reception has been designed for a comfortable chat, the ambience is warm and beautifully decorated with murals of Hindu epics and gods. Not even the terrace has been left undone, teeming with traditional chairs, to enjoy evenings or double up as casual patrying place.

Though Jaipur is not a place, where you can or would like to stay in the hotel, Alsisar haveli, with its warmth and antiqueness, does manage to hold you. I believe that is the biggest win for any hotel, to make even the most impulsive of travelers, surrender their heart to it. And that probably is what I loved the most during my stay in Alsisar haveli.

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Alsisar haveli seems to have been made for intimate chats.

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The inner courtyard of Haveli

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The pool area: The granduer in design is unmissable

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The place definitely warranties some special occasions

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On special occasions, at night

Reliving the past at Shiv Niwas Palace

At Shiv Niwas Palace, luxury comes cherried with unforgettable experiences, never experienced before riches, hospitality worth a million smiles, comfort worth longing for and an enviable view of Lake Pichola. The crescent shaped Shiv Niwas palace, built in the early 20th century, in the reign of Maharana Fateh Singh, is one of the two courteous hotels on the banks of the Lake Pichola. The hotel is clothed in authentic royal charm; a big palatial door leads you to the lobby area, with a cobbled path on the right leading you to the imposing City Palace and the left to an area where heritage rooms are decked up. The Shiv Niwas Palace was used as a royal residence and guest house for some time before being opened as a hotel by Maharana Bhagwat Singh in 1982. The hotel shot to fame not long after, being shot in the James Bond movie Octopussy. Bond stayed there on his way to Octopussy’s island. Fans will not have a tough time recognizing the magical patio area with the swimming pool where James Bond was shown relaxing in the movie.

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The grandeur of the FatehBagh Palace evokes a subtle romanticism

I was lucky to be invited for a travel trip to Udaipur by the HRH group and stayed in one of their suits at Shiv Niwas Palace. A long winded road takes you to the entrance gate of this royal charm. The hotel has bagged three National Tourism Awards for best heritage hotel in the “Heritage Grand” category. A look at the hotel and you know your stay here, will be finely etched in your memory lanes. Shiv Niwas Palace takes you to the eras gone by.  It’s a time travel, living the romantics of those ages. Continue reading

On a Golden Chariot

Suddenly, noise fills the air. A band of dancers and drummers had assembled, and no sooner did we get off the bus than they started beating the drums. After a moment’s hesitation, I breathed in the luxury of the moment. Train journeys are inspiring as they whisk you past landscapes that exist in real and in your mind. I was on the Golden Chariot, a luxury train in South India that runs across the state of Karnataka and ends its journey in Goa. The name of the train conjures up romantic images of historical tales, bejeweled scimitars and ornate thrones. History and heritage are its mainstay, but there are moments in the ‘wild’ in the tiger territory of Nagarhole Park and a relaxed time on a Goan beach with glistening white sands.

Golden Chariot Continue reading

Orange County: Doors to History

As I entered the massive gate, modelled on the city gates of Hampi, I got the impression that this was the perfect antidote to the urban madness I left behind. A royal welcome with a refreshing coconut based drink to start with and then I was led to my princely room. I was staying in one of the nine private villas, luxuriously spacious with a pool stretched across the length of the room. The villas have been named ‘Jal Mahal’ (palace on water) as they stand like an island on a pool of water, filled with lotus. Though I hardly spent 10 minutes in the lobby, my gaze had travelled over the expansive artefacts and the detailing in design of the interiors. Breaking away from the traditional reception and lobby styles, the resort had artsy interiors, with the reds, greens, blues and magenta adroitly thrown in over commanding whites, to immerse you in the royal affair you are in. The overall look and feel is of ornate luxury, where elements and arches and corners stand as reminiscence of the royalty of Vijayanagar. It stands as a dazzling epitome of legendary tales with a bold cultural heritage, nestled midst unparallel natural beauty.

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The amalgam of the multiple influences that Vijayanagar kingdom had seen is evident in the interiors of the resort. Open courtyards where peacocks parade, galleries with curved arches, leading from one section to the other, the parapets, a fine mix of earthy elements, the chandeliers modelled on the Vijayanagar design and the wall murals; present a good mix of Indo-Islamic fusion in the design, a cultural leaf taken from that bygone era. And then there is a conspicuous over-use of water and the buildings shaped like lotus petals. I was later explained by my host that the entire design has been inspired from the Lotus Mahal in Hampi, and hence water and lotus mix.

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The luxurious villas

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Each villa had a swimming pool

The room is full of comfortable corners and spots to spread out in a melange of old and new. Dusky wooden beds carved from Mexican ebony, the switches and knobs reminding you of old colonial era, the ornate arches giving a masculine touch to the earthly coloured painted walls, furniture that looks more like taken from some Italian antique shop, a king size contemporary bathroom and the lotus motif finding its subtle presence everywhere from the facade of the bar to the arches in the living room – enahnce the warmth and passion in the design of the villas. Continue reading

Stitching back the past at Badami

A centuries old town at the mouth of a river, nestled between two rocky hills giving you the impression of a wildwest, lakes on other three sides and reputed for its rock cut temples, Badami can take you back ages. I marvelled at the dramatic landscape of the region, as we made way through it. Red sandstone cliffs, with deep fissures, rugged mountainous profile, dusty roads and the mud walled houses splashed with ochre dust; all seeming like a leaf taken from Wadi Rum.

Badami had been the capital of the Chalukyan rulers, a dynasty that ruled over Deccan for almost 200 years between the sixth and the eighth centuries. Chalukyans were great patrons of art and architecture and during their rule architecture took a transition from rock art to free standing structural architecture.

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Cave temples overlook the Adil Shahi Mosque: Religions had always coexisted

Deity secrets

The first look of the Badami caves reminded me of a miniature and a rustier version of Petra. The lowest cave is dedicated to Lord Shiva, evident from the eighteen armed figure of a dancing god Natraj, at the entry point. Not an inch of space has been left untouched in the cave, murals, artistic columns, bejewelled deities, bracketed figures, angels and mythological tales on the pillars and roof make it an architectural wonder. And wonder all of this is monolithic, hewn deeply in the cliff. Up the steps, overlooking the greenish water body, Agastya Lake, are cave temples, consecrated to Lord Vishnu, depicted in his myriad forms. A sculpture sees him seated on a cosmic serpent, while other in his man-lion incarnation and yet a third depicts him raising his leg, a depiction of his yet another incarnation. The supporting beams have beam chain inscriptions, adorned with floral designs and sculptures of angels in close embrace on angles. The last cave is devoted to Jain Tirthankaras, gracefully sculptured, a tall sculpture of Mahavira on the ends and tales and philosophies carved on the walls. One glimpse and these caves seem an eclectic mix of art and spirituality.

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Shiva cave temple

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Jain Temple

We made our move to our next stop, Pattadakal, where ancient temples built in divergent styles waited for us. This coming together of North and South Indian architectural styles is probably due to the geographical position of Badami in the centre of the Deccan plateau.

Road to Pattadakal

Everytime I have been to an ASI protected heritage site, I’ve wished ASI had done a better job with signage and storytelling. Badami comes as a surprise –proper signage and historical accounts, immaculate paperbacks on Badami (including ones of George Mitchell) at the counters and guides who can take you beyond the temple architecture to literature, philosophy and culture as it evolved in the Chalukyan dynasty over a millennium ago.  Standing there, in an incredibly dense complex of ancient buildings, is very close to a feeling of walking through a frozen landscape of bizarre red mountains. An ancient complex, a group of eight temples, carrying a hint of Southern and Northern style of temple architecture, taking you back centuries into a world of mythology, rituals and philosophies some too incredible to even believe they ever existed.

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Mosaic of ancient temples in Pattadakal (notice the distinct designs of the spires in the temples)

Standing on ceremony

As stories embrace you, you wink at the wit of builders and philosophers, smile at the brilliance of design of sculptures and dexterity palpable on every wall of these temples. Pattadakal stands out among its contemporaries and even from other historical structures, for its sheer sophistication.

On a bend of the River Malaprabha, some 22 kms from Badami, the village of Pattadakal served as a ceremonial site for the Chalukya rulers. The Chalukyan style is a unique synthesis of Nagara (northern) and Dravidian (southern) styles which was later adopted by the Hoysalas rulers, further down in south Karnataka. The hall interiors of the temples are divided into multiple aisles by rows of columns, will walls covered with carvings showing hindu mythological tales. The central aisle leads to a central chamber accommodating Lord Shiva lingam, with richly ornamented sculptures of guards on either sides of the chamber. Only Virupaksha temple is still used for worship. The profusion of carvings on the outer wall of Virupaksha is tantamount to a visual encyclopedia of Hindu mythology. All you need is someone to tell these stories.

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Mallikarjun temple in Pattadakal

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Sands of time

The demarcation between the Nagara style of architecture and Dravida style of architecture is very conspicuous in the shape of the spires or shikhara. In nagara style, the tower is shaped as a pyramid soaring upwards towards the heavens and in dravidan style the towers are stepped and richly carved. All eight temples show different styles of architectures; the use of many novel features like aisles, curvilinear spires, roofs with receding tiers, porch suggest that the temples were built as manuscripts to be replicated from. The imposing Virupaksha and Mallikarjuna temples, alike in design, built by twin sister queens of King Vikramaditya II to honour his return from a battle, are graceful examples of timeless architecture of that era. Both the temples sport an enormous gateway, numerous inscriptions on the walls, beaded columns, spell-binding frescos, ornate motifs, rings of elephants and horses at angles to mark the king’s victory, richly carved roofs with floral and animal designs and abundant murals from the epics. No doubt the architect was given the title ‘Tribhuvanacharya’ (the master of three worlds).

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Interiors of Mallikarjun temple

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Sculpture on the wall of Virupaksha temple

I took a step, looked around, once more eyeful of these stone temples, standing like red sandstone mountains, set against the backdrop of azure blue sky, river flowing on one side; everything frozen, centuries pass by as you ponder, amused by this sheer poetry in stone.

Fast facts

Badami is well connected with major cities like Hyderabad, Mumbai and Bangalore via railway network. To stay, there are budget lodges available in Badami city or consider Karnataka Tourism hotel Chalukya for a decent stay.

Pattadakal is approximately 25 kms from the main district, one can either take a local bus (usually crowded) or hire private taxi. Some shared autos also ply on the route but the frequency of these is a matter of concern. Badami caves are approximately 6 kms from the main city and shared autos and buses ply on the route.

Way into the woods II: Dandeli

Well let’s be true to self, one might return without any sighting in Kali Tiger Reserve. The dense foliage and the heavy undergrowth keep the treasure well hidden. But driving through this lush-green forest leaves you well satiated. Though spotting one would always be an icing on the cake, I would feel content hearing the sounds of existence of these indomitable animals against domineering jungle.

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Safari in Kali Tiger Reserve

Endless knee down moments on an endless road to the forest, cold infused air and strained neck as it reacted to the sounds, the safari started with enough action to pack with. Watching the Sun, still draped in its soft orange hue in the vast expanse of dark green mountains, is a moment to go down the memory lane. There was no hint of human intervention in this stretch – all left to nature, a unique floral mosaic. Yes, there were activities; there were sounds, but all too hidden. But being in such a dense forest is itself indefinable. And amidst the cries of Chitals and the growls of Banette Macaque, coming from distance, you almost hear the jungle speaking amongst itself and with you. It is a desired sojourn from the hustle-bustle of life.

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A pair of munia spotted on our way

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The safari was for two hours in the morning. The mist laden air hadn’t shed its chill; the morning mist had lowered visibility, which was anyway restricted. While the famed Nagarhole and Bandipur of the south are known for rolling grasslands, which bolsters the chances of sightings, North Karnataka is dense, dark but equally and differently enchanting.

As we drove, my discussions about the Black Panther started with naturalist Prabhakaran. I had some ground idea about Black Leopard being nothing more than leopards with high melanin pigmentation. If you look closely, you can spot the rosettes markings (of leopards and something that separates leopards from jaguars). The black pigmentation provides a good camouflage in the dense forests of KTR. But I had a flurry of questions and he answered me patiently. So the take-away learning – inter-breeding between the normal and the pigmented leopards is common, hence a lot of inter-mingling of genes, which increases chances of survival of the species in wild. The sightings of this elusive creature are rare and prized, but they are increasingly increasing, which is a healthy trend and these sightings are happening from all over Karnataka now, more in denser habitats like KTR. This genetic aberration which proves a boon in dense forests of Kali, would be bane in open habitations like Nagarhole, where normal pigmentation will be preferred.

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The drive was far from tame as it ribboned through dense to denser forests. And just when we had started to lose hope, we heard a rustle from behind the bushes; the vehicle slowed and then came to a halt. The expert ears stretched, eyes traveled in all directions, five pairs of eyes and ears, all in action to locate the source of sound. Pin drop silence. The sheer adrenaline rush in us had come alive. The forest hushed and then erupted in sound, the birds had come to action, we grinned with delight. “For birds this is like a riot” Prabhakaran added with a hint of both caution and excitement in his voice.

“Some large predator around” I whispered. A slight, assuring nod.

Birds have a whole set of acoustic stuff that is just associated with predators. My first thought went to a leopard as it’s more potent to harm birds than wild dogs or even tiger. Studies have shown that animals recognize alarm signals of other species. Some can even eavesdrop on one another across class. The predator could still be far and disinterested, unlikely in our situation, where we had heard some movement. And then Prabhakaran pointed at one end, there was certain movement behind the bushes, the rustle of leaves loud and clear. It was something as black and sly as shadow moving – a black leopard or a sloth bear. No idea, it didn’t come out. It had probably sensed us and changed its directions. We could hear it moving and a squawk of birds, sending out a warning call. We kept looking in that direction for a minute or two, our gaze held, as if it we were chasing a dream. So close, we consoled ourselves; we smiled at our fortune or misfortune depends on how you perceive this encounter. But sure, even if for a second, we all wanted to get held by the hypnotic charm of the enigma, black leopard.

“Any words, Prabhakaran?” I gleefully asked.

“Consider yourself lucky, you are going back with a story to tell” he smiled.

But deep I knew the story remains incomplete till the time I record a sighting.

Fast Facts:

Kali adventure camp by Jungle Lodges resorts is all about organic rush for untamed terrains – gorges, wild rivers, deep, dense jungles, frothing wild waters and tranquil evenings. Situated on the banks of River Kali, this JLR property inspires you to form a connection with raw nature. The camp is a perfect spot for white water rafting on River Kali. Other activities include Kayaking, Coracle Ride, Bird Watching, Nature Walk, Wild Safari, Sightseeing activities etc. Tariff ranges from INR 4,000 to 5,500 for twin sharing.

Old Magazine House is a favourite among birders, a place to be, to catch breath and evade the urbane madness to be among the winged denizens. Apart from birding, trekking, rafting and kayaking are on the to-do list here. Being on one solitary detour from the main road, deep in a jungle, Old Magazine house lends you the ‘never had before’ experience. Tariff is nominal at INR 2,120 (inclusive of the package).

(Read my experience of birding in Dandeli here)

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Jungle Lodges and Resorts camp in Kali

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Chocolate pansy clicked on our way back