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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On a Golden Chariot

Train journeys are intriguing, inspiring thoughts and handing you soft moments as they whisk past one landscape to the other. And a thought of a journey of a week on this moving luxury ‘The Golden Chariot’, can entrance the dreamer in you.

Suddenly more noise filled the air. A band of dancers and drummers had assembled and no sooner did we get down from the bus than they started playing drums. After a moment’s hesitation, a bit unnerved by the grand welcome and the petals showered on me, I breathed in the luxury of the moment. Such moments are rare.

I was in the ‘Golden Chariot’, a luxury train in South India, running across the state of Karnataka, taking you from one incredible spot to the other. The train name conjures historical tales, bejeweled scimitars, ornate thrones and a romantic tale of history long lost. History and heritage are its major stay, with moments dipped in wildlife in tiger territory of Nagarhole Park and relaxed moments in an unperturbed beach of Goa with glistening white sands to end the journey with. The train pays tribute to the cultural and regal panorama the state of Karnataka is. Each coach is named after a dynasty that ruled the state or a part of it, and detailed historical accounts of the dynasty hang in lounges in every coach. The train is glossy velvet on the outside and inside guests stay in the cabin, well detailed and treated with carved wooden paneling and carpeted floor, to give an upscale hotel room touch. Every coach has a valet and is equipped to supply coffee addicts (like me) with their umpteen amounts of coffee cups every day.

 

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On return from excursions, Shiva would greet us with fresh juice or mocktails.

Travelers feast off fine china and heavy silver, seeing the world slide past them, landscapes and lifestyles changing. Each day the train would stop at one destination and we disembark to get on the Volvo bus to see the sites. For lunch, we would be back on the train. Sitting in one corner I captured hundreds of everyday moments in Indian life, as it played out on the station while working through my pitcher of coffee or a bowl of cereals or dosa and Pongal. Our first stop was the Heritage city of Mysore, the city of palaces and temples, and ancient buildings with outlandish domes and turrets. Our first stop was the Mysore Palace, a grand spectacle with some splendid eye-popping art in the interiors. From there we headed to Jungles lodges and resorts, Kabini for our wildlife refuge and an overnight stay. The itinerary was packed with a Jungle safari in the evening and a boat excursion the next morning.

Our first stop was the Heritage city of Mysore, the city of palaces and temples, and ancient buildings with outlandish domes and turrets. Our first stop was the Mysore Palace, a grand spectacle with some splendid eye-popping art in the interiors. From there we headed to the Jungles lodges and resorts in Kabini for our wildlife refuge and an overnight stay. The itinerary was packed with a Jungle safari in the evening and a boat excursion the next morning.

The next three days were particularly tempting, like a roll-call to India’s greatest cultural hits. From ancient stone temples of Belur and Hallebid in Hassan, we moved to the deeply romantic remains of the Vijaynagar empire in Hampi, a UNESCO world heritage site, running for over 10 square miles and then to the rock temples of Badami, another world heritage site.

 

On return from excursions, our coach staff would greet us with fresh juice or cocktail and a cool cloth to wipe the dust off our faces. Our beds would be folded, room arranged, laundry cleared and sweets or cakes or chocolates left on the table.

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The Ruchi restaurant

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The Madira Bar

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The executive room

The Golden Chariot is the first luxury tourist train in Karnataka and is run by Karnataka State Tourism Board in partnership with Maple Group of Hotels, who manages the hospitality on and off the board. The train has eleven guest coaches, two restaurants, one bar and one coach with a gym, spa and business center. I was staying in the Chalukya coach, named after Chalukya dynasty which ruled over Deccan in the 8th and 9th century. The room had twin beds, a built-in writing desk, a teeny wardrobe, attached bathroom (with all modern amenities) and a large glass window for a look through. The other coaches are equally lush and inspired from state’s rich architectural heritage. The two restaurants Nalapaka and Ruchi reflect the intricacies of the VIjaynagara and Hoysala architectures. Madira, the bar, bears semblance to the Mysore palace. The furnishings on the walls are resplendent; deep red and gold in the bar and violet in the restaurants. The deliberate overuse of gold in the floral designs on the walls, impart everything a regal look.

The service is impeccable. The executive chef on the train Deepak Acharya personally inquires your taste preferences and suits your meals accordingly, Mr. Mahendra Rathore, the F&B Manager, overlooks all your needs as a friendly guardian and almost doubles up as your guide on the field. The results of the details paid to know each guest personally. The soups are adventurous classics — mulligatawny, roasted bell pepper and tomato, carrot, and coriander, it’s rich and unmissable. The meal times were glorious, fruits and salads fresh, the main courses, outclass any 5-star buffets and the effort paid to serve guests what they desire is unmatchable.

It’s a tryst with the colourful romance of unseen India on a moving train, absorbing every moment as you live, moving past rustic landscapes, the sky painted with myriad hues, incredible sunrises, and sunsets as you see it from your cabin’s window.

As the train moved, I could hear the creaks of the train wheels, the whistle of train engines and the noise as it rattled, while in the lounge (inspired by the art and architecture of an era passed by), our group of travellers sat, stealing moments from their wandering life, living moments in conversations, planning new routes to cover. And as I felt the train move, I felt pampered and privileged, cocooned in luxury, both materialistic and philosophical.

The route: Bangalore-Mysore (excursions to Srirangapatna and Kabini)-Hassan (Belur-Halebid and Sravanabelagola)-Hospet (Hampi)-Badami (Pattadakal and Badami rock temples)-Goa (Old Goa and beaches)-Bangalore. For the excursions, air-conditioned buses are used.

For more information, go to Golden Chariot site.

Read more about the places covered: Badami, Hampi, Old Goa, Goa

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.

My host Abhishek, the resort manager, was nice enough to show me around. Perhaps this was also a great work up for the sumptuous lunch that was to follow. “One thing is very clear in the design of the resort, an attempt to make you feel you are in Vijayanagar empire” he said as he took me from one section to the other. In rooms you can see the alchemy of Indian royalty and the Victorian influence. While the detailing in the room gives you a feel of the bygone era, the design is very contemporary with stylish bathrooms, Jacuzzi, a spacious living space, hard wood furniture and balcony opening to the lush greens. We walked to the Lotus Mahal which houses a Mughlai restaurant, a shop to buy artefacts designed by locals, a reading room with a great view and laden with books on Indian culture and Hampi (do spare a evening for reading there, with some insanely awesome brewed coffee and a view to take back with you) and a spa. Back in the main building is the infinity pool, next to the Tuluva restaurant, insanely huge and on one side of it is tucked a special corner where a romantic candle-night dinner is laid. The entire side on the pool is often doubled up as space for an open sky dinner, spent in gazing the stars in the clear sky.

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Tuluva restaurant

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The porch area

And now it was the lunch time. And over these years of travelling, I have developed a notion that lunch tables are the best place to review a hotel. Nothing can make your stay more memorable than good food. And when Abhishek told me that the head chef has been experimenting with local cuisines from Hospet, Raichur and Belgaum, it raised my expectations. Having spent months in Karnataka, I am fairly acquainted with the regional flavours. That doesn’t make me a connoisseur but that certainly makes me a little more discerning than others. The aroma of tempered red chillies and curry leaves hit me as the buffet was spread and I gleefully lifted each cloche to discover the culinary sojourn I was led to. It was a feast, to be modest with my words –  the earthy flavor of country chicken in a thick gravy (saru), the palle (vegetable of water melon), the unique flavour of  sambhar, beans served with authentic local breads made of bajra and akki (rice flour).

And what makes you feel more personal to the resort is the pampering you get, right down from entering the hotel, keeping the tables, escorting to your rooms to delightful conversations on dinner table. Orange County ensures that all go smiling from the resort.

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Living room in Jal Mahal

The Hampi trails – Remember you are in Hampi and though the history lessons start from the resort itself, there is always more to know here.

(About Hampi: – Hampi was capital of Vijayanagar Empire and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The empire reached its zenith under the reign of Krishna Deva Raya and hosted a population second only to Beijing, making it one of the largest and wealthiest kingdoms of India. Eminent historian Robert Swell has compared Hampi to Western cultures in terms of monetary and cultural wealth. The kingdom was completely devastated when Bahamani forces of Bidar, Birar, Raichur, Gulbarga and Golconda attached and vanquished the Vijayanagar forces and laid the city to waste. Not much is documented about the empire in history and it was so sordidly ignored, that it won the sobriquet ‘The forgotten empire’.)

Read my story on Hampi to acquaint yourself more with the area.

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

Way into the woods – Dandeli

It was pitch dark and I had come out in the open and followed the eerie glow of the lights from the other side of the River Kali, to get to the river. The water gleamed under the spell of the full moon. There was a sound of rustling leaves as if something was lurking behind the trees in the dark, a startling heart-stopping sound and then queer silence. My mind started making wild guesses – a civet, crocodile, some nocturnal bird or Malabar flying squirrel. Such moments are ephemeral and the transience of these moments makes them worth packing with you, a token of nostalgia that is destined to grow more memorable with repetition. I was in Kali adventure camp of Jungle lodges and resorts, next to Kali River in Dandeli and such moments were warranted.

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A pair of grey hornbill spotted near timber area, Dandeli town

Even arriving to the camp, covering a tiring journey of hours through the forests, from Yellapur, has had its own picks – deers and a pair of civets had been a tick and some unrecognizable jungle sound had been captured. Though located in the Dandeli town, which hosts the largest paper mill in Karnataka, wildlife is never too far from this resort and my first intimation has been ‘There are crocodiles in the river’. Ah! So safari starts with coracle rides, quite a humble way for wildlife spotting. You must have understood, it was difficult holding me. And being allowed as an invader to enjoy the sounds of the jungle in the gathering of the night was both soothing and inspiring.

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The next day I woke up early to the sound of a whistle, a similar sound which had woken me in Sharavathi camp in Jog falls. I knew the sound; it was a Malabar whistling thrush. The day was on and we set off for our bird watching session near the Dandeli Timber depot. A little quaint to know, but a splendid place to spot some rare and beautiful birds, including three species of Hornbill – Malabar greater Hornbill, Indian Grey Hornbill and Malabar Grey Hornbill. My guide Vinayak told me that Common Indian and Malabar Hornbills differ in the shape of their beaks. Vinayak identified birds just by listening to their calls, I wasn’t bad too and proved my mettle as a fast learning birder by finding coppersmith barbets and the grey fronted green pigeon (both endemic to Western Ghats). And I was soon caught in the play as I lurked around mysteriously, trying to avoid noise, chasing the Golden breasted wood-pecker for one nice shot. The Hornbills proved better hosts and the plum faced parakeets, as playful as expected. Wood-pecker proved too nimble for me. The early morning sunshine was painting the forest in its golden light, piercing through vines and high canopy, it created magical panoply. As I looked around to catch this beautiful panorama, adroitly painted, my ears picked a familiar, teetering sound. I knew it, having met years ago; it was time for our second meeting. My limbs followed my ears. It was Shekharu – the giant Malabar squirrel, high on the canopy, just the ears and the bushy tail visible, turning for mili-seconds to give a fleeting glance. So familiar and so exhilarating.

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Green bee eater spotted near Kali river, Dandeli

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The white canvas of Rann

Surreal and seemingly eternal, strangely mesmeric, lifeless, ghostly stretches of white salt pan with an odd musicality, making a peculiar connection with the onlookers. I was at Rann of Kutch and could feel the salt as big as marbles from childhood memories, crunch under my feet. It was all white and barren, as far as eyes could trace, without any markers. The silence was inviting and I was finding myself getting lost in this white wilderness. I looked at the full moon, looking as inviting as a big pie kept within your reach. The white sand shone as it reflected the gleam of the full moon, inviting certain poetry in mind.

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Rann of Kutch (from Gujarat Tourism advertisement)

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Come winters and the salt marshes of Rann of Kutch turn into a white salt desert and then burst into myriad colours of bedecked camels, brightly coloured tents and shimmering costumes and lights, as Rann Utsav sets in for three months from November to mid February. Vibrant bazaars are set up, local music resonates in the air, colours of multi-cultural Gujarat finds resonance with the white wilderness and magical nights and the rather desolate Rann becomes all about sounds, smells and sights. A riot of colours gets sprinkled in barren white land. Continue reading

Hampi: The Empire strikes back

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Be at Hampi for these coloured evenings

There are two sides of tourism in Hampi. One for the new age tourists, carefree and seeking tranquillity, crammed in a side which is strangely defended, where new world sets in, open roof restaurants, budget hotels, funny fags and smokey sticks. Initiate a conversation with a new age tourist and a different picture of Hampi is portrayed, one that of a laidback and soothing town, away from urbane madness, a place no short of novel experiences, of endless trekking, night-outs on boulders, scooter renting to bike on roads leading from nowhere to nowhere, of boulder rappelling and almost everything you had sometime noted in your list of ‘to-do once in life’. A new age hippie backpacker’s paradise, Hampi lives upto your expectations.

And then there is this second side, which lives in its own mystic, narrating the confusing stories, telling tales of things forgotten and no more itched in most history books. I was on the other side; the side of stories, forgotten past, temple ruins, gruesome reminders of past, of history and mythology; the side marked with charming eccentricity.

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Gates to the forgotten Vijayanagar empire

Sitting upon the Mathunga hill on a large expanse of flat rock, I looked down on Hampi. A splendid view of ochre coloured boulders, the mighty Tungabhadra snaking its way through them, life living its course on coracles as they sailed from one end of the river to the other, oases of green palms and plantations on the sides, little lost temples clinging to the hillside and the mystique and splendor of the impressive Virupaksha temple piercing the azure blue sky. The boulders are enormous, mysteriously held in their respective position, defying gravity as if some magical spell has kept them from falling. They stretch for miles, great to wander and hold many secrets of the great empire of Vijayanagar that flourished here. Everything seems frozen, the history, the mystique, the culture that refused to die, the carvings that lived all war, the hundreds of temples nestling themselves away from prying eyes and also the people, who came here as tourists and merged with the silence of the place.

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Virupaksha temple from Hemkunta hill

They say Hampi is like an unfulfilled dream; serene, splendid and some laid back, where you can lounge about restaurants overlooking the river, where marijuana is in abundance, where you can be yourself for days, weeks or even months. As I sat on the edge of the Matanga hill, waiting for the Sun to dip beyond the horizon, I could notice the ruins of the empire, the traces of the deft in Vijayanagar architecture, from temple, aquaducts, raised platforms, the mélange of Indo-Islamic style in palace ruins to the bazaars; all spoke of adroit craftsmanship, urban planning and the grandeur of the empire.

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The king’s platform in Hampi’s royal enclosures

We trekked down to the Achyutaraya Temple and wandered silently among the ruins. It’s a place to sit, contemplate, think and reflect on whatever you want to. Only a handful of tourists venture here and those who do chose not to spend a lot of time. Take moments to get an eyeful of the crumbling walls, walk down the old Bazaar outside the temple, it conjures up images of the forlorn era, when merchants would shout their wares from the stalls. Now it’s deserted, but never fails to invoke images of those long gone days. But during its heyday in the 1400s, Abdur Razzak, a Persian ambassador to the kingdom, wrote: “Each class of men belonging to each profession has shops contiguous the one to the other; the jewellers sell publicly in the bazaars pearls, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds.”

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Remains of the King’s palace

As I walked, I grew more knowledgeable of the intricate religious and historical sides of Hampi. From a distance, the behemoth red granite boulders, shadowing the town, looked like an overgrown childhood collection of marbles. It had gone dark and we tried to take in as much as visual treat as we could, dodging spiky cacti, unscathed of the numerous stories of bear and leopard, my guide Rajesh had laden me with. A small flame flickered inside a temple, sandwiched between the large boulders, one of the many temples strewn around. This one showed signs of life and our only source as we walked along the Tungabhadra River, spell bound by the majestic silhouette of boulders and derelict structures on them, as they shone in full moon light.

I broke for the day, but Hampi still hung on me. ; I lived the munificence of the Vijaynagar kingdom every minute, in the award winning design of the Orange County Resort.

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The elephant stables at royal enclosure. Notice the Indo-Islamic design in domes and arches.

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The lotus Mahal, another piece of Indo-Islamic fusion with feminine arches and lotus marked crown

The next day we set off for the royal enclosures, walking among the ramparts of what once used to be the fort walls, halls and irrigation channels, under the baking sun. A maze of platforms, little passes, hidden chambers, broken pedestals, water channels leading to step-well and ruins that could have once been a temple; everything takes you back ages. My guide Rajesh pointed at another set of ruins that was once the mighty ruler Krishna Deva Rai’s palace. “What triggered Hampi’s destruction?” I asked.

“Actually the Bahamani kingdom, which included sultanate of Bidar, Birar, Raichur, Gulbarga and Golkonda came together and attacked Hampi. After defeating Hampi, when they didn’t find much treasure, they burned the entire city down” he answered.

I strode towards the Queen’s bath, an immaculate, now empty pool where the royal ladies once used to bath. There was a deep trench ringing the building. “The king filled it with crocodiles so that no one could watch the queen in her bath” explained Rajesh. Ah! so no peeping inside.

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Queen’s royal bath, the buildings with a touch of Islamic designs are more intact, probably for the same reason

A little further are more intact buildings, the lotus palace, the royal stable and guards place, buildings with conspicuous eclectic mix of Indo-Islamic design in their architecture and probably the most plausible reason for these buildings to be spared the destruction. We strayed further to more ruins, along an out of the way path, to take rest under one of those impossibly balanced rocks, which in the real world shouldn’t have been standing, but then this was Hampi, a chapter taken out of a fancy tale. The wind roared again. I have seen many desolate places, but there is a certain peculiarity here, an unparalleled charm, something that grows and stays inside you. It was my second time to Hampi, but I still feel unsatiated, I feel some corners are still to be discovered, the grandeur requires some more eyeing.

The four’O clock sun had started to shade the landscape redder, the wind blew hard as it swept the barren landscape, shadows were thrown longer; we made our way to the Vitthala Viman temple. The Sun chariot in the centre, stood as indication of the flourishing past, this city had seen. The ornate pillars of the Kalyan mandap, had scriptures of a mythological animal Yali, with a body of a horse, head of a lion with a trunk of an elephant indicating qualities of agility, responsiveness, power and geniality as leadership traits that every ruler should have. The outer walls have eloquent carvings of Hindu spiritual tales, King’s administrative systems, social orders and carvings depicting Hindu beliefs and philosophy, indicating that temple in those days doubled up as a centre of social learning. Frankly I was taken in by the Sun chariot in the temple. Looking at it and the grand spectacle that was before me, words of Nicole Conti, the first European to see the Vijayanagara Empire when he arrived in 1420, rung in my ears “I never saw a place like this”. I wondered where was Hampi, for which British Historian Robert Swell wrote in his book Hampi: the forgotten empire “a city with which for richness and magnificence no known western capital could compare;” in my history books. I read Alexander, Marathas, Guptas, Cholas but was the Vijaynagar empire missed. I could recollect a slight mention of Krishna Deva Raya, but looking at this marvel, I knew I hadn’t read enough. This discovery was both humbling and exhilarating. One look spared at the bazaar, a common thing outside any temple, and we moved on. As my guide told, temples were the centres of the city and it was usual to have market place around temples. Thus, the city was broadly divided into a royal complex, the sacred or market complex and the residential complex which housed the citizens.

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Vitthala Viman Temple – British Historian Robert Swell wrote in his book Hampi: the forgotten empire “a city with which for richness and magnificence no known western capital could compare;”

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I was completely taken in by the Sun Chariot in the Vitthala Viman Temple

The story of Hampi is fascinating. Harihara Raya, in 1336, decided to make this place his capital when he saw a wild hare chasing away his hunting dog. He was so amazed with the ferocity of this soil that produced a hare which could quiver his dog into submission that he decided to build his empire here. For almost 200 years Hampi continued to grow, attracting trade from all across the globe. Krishna Deva Raya’s reign was the Golden period for Hampi, when it prospered and grew into a powerful empire mustering million-man armies, and housing 500,000 people, second only to Beijing then. Trade relations were established with traders from far-off Portugal, Russia and Italy, as well as Mongols, Persians and Arabs. The pillars on the monolithic Ganesh temple, prove a great learning point for trade related aspects of the empire. The wealth of the empire invited enemies and in 1565 an alliance of Muslim invaders known as the Deccan Sultans laid waste to the empire. The city was destroyed, citizens slaughtered, temples razed, monuments trounced; all for whole five months. Swell writes “Never perhaps in the history of the world has such havoc been wrought, and wrought so suddenly, on so splendid a city.” But even all this carnage couldn’t erase the grandeur of Hampi. It still lives in its scattered empty monuments.

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With its randomness Hampi is an incredible place for photography

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Some more randomness thrown in – five Shiva lingas denote five elements of nature

Hampi draws you. Every corner is full of stories. I learnt as I moved, the interlocks in the pillars of the temples, the marks in the large granite pieces where wood was fixed and then watered and expansion of the moist wood resulted in mechanical weathering of granites which were later shaped, the three shiv-lingas on rocks indicating the three power centres of Hindu philosophy and the five shiv-lingas, indicating the five elements, the small temples built by traders, the numerous pillars as we reached the Virupaksha temple, everything had a tale to learn from. From a distance, Virupaksha temple, looked like some lost Mayan or Egyptian wonder, pyramidal cone with intricate carvings, open sanctorum area, frescos and ornate pillars; an absolute wonder. And right outside the temple is its living treasure, Lakshmi, the town’s holy elephant, who taps a blessing on your head, once offered a coin. I stood in delighted awe as I glanced on the intricate work on the pillars and the roof in the temple. Rajesh told me the meaning of each painting on the roof, some pertaining to social order and some to religion. I listened patiently.

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Getting blessed by Laxmi, at Virupaksha Temple

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The interiors of Virupaksha temple

Hundreds of years have passed and the ruins can still take you back to that forgone era, as if everything is alive. It’s a feeling that nothing has changed, just frozen, wrapped in time in the nursery of nature. It’s like all the fighting stopped yesterday. As you wander through the royal enclosures, you get the feeling that all the art, the smell of Vijayanagar cuisine, the rhythm in orchestrated steps of the courtesans, the clink of coins, the subtle fragrance of sandalwood in the air, rustle of silk, the beating of drums as Krishna Deva Raya enters his palace, the festivity of the bazaars, grandeur of the hundreds of temples which lie wasted today, the tap of horses’ steps, elephants trumpets in the stable, the playful laps in the bigger than Olympic sized pools, the giggles of royal ladies as they play – are all hidden beneath the surface, ready to sprint back to life, if you wish to read it. This is the grand stage of Hampi – immortal.

(Hampi has a huge connection with the Hindu epic ‘Ramayana’. According to Ramayana, this place was Kishkingdha, the birthplace of monkey God Hanuman. Even the Matunga hill has its story. Legends say that once an ascetic Matunga was meditating in the hills when Bali (King of Kishkingdha) came here looking for a demon. This angered the ascetic and he condemned him that he would die if he ever stepped on the hill again. When the two brothers, Sugriva and Bali fell off each other, Sugriva took refuge in the Matunga hill to keep himself safe from Bali. Lord Ram met the monkey king and his army in the Matunga hills.)

To go – Hampi is in North Karnataka, 6-7 hours journey from both Bangalore and Hyderabad. The nearest railway and bus station is Hospet (10 kms from Hampi).

To stay – For budget travellers, scores of stays available. For Luxury seeking travelers, visit Orange County resorts.

Hornbill Festival: A cultural cauldron

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Hornbill Festival (taken fron Nagaland Tourism site)

Nagaland hung in my mind like a dream. With all its history of cordite and crackle of gun, Nagaland is a compelling place, a cultural cauldron of 16 tribes and numerous sub-tribes, hiding the world of animism: head heading, feathered, bearded, horned with warrior mettle; in their sleek jeans and chic hairstyles. But the warrior in them rises, drums are beaten, alarms are sounded, feet tapped and war songs hummed, come every December. A festive air engulfs the capital city of Kohima, tribes assemble, melodious songs and the rhythmic thumping of feet becomes the constant backdrop to the otherwise quiet region, and a massive bonfire is arranged as festivity reaches a frenzied crescendo. The state celebrates the beloved ‘Hornbill Festival’ not just to mark the statehood but also to take pride in the cultural extravaganza Nagaland is.

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Konyak warriors performing their traditional dance

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Ao tribesman interacting with a guest

First the facts – Hornbill Festival is organised from December 1 to December 10 every year in Kisama Heritage Village, very close to capital city Kohima. The festivity and fervour of the festival is equally complemented with Night Bazaar in Kohima city. These 10 days are marked with assemblage of all 17 tribes and numerous sub-tribes and is a great window to gain insights of tribal rituals, cuisines, lifestyles and beliefs. And then there are endless activities – from local beverages and exciting cuisine, display of assorted traditional Naga culture in the form of dance and competition, a heritage motor car rally, Naga wrestling, a pork-fat greased pole climbing contest, great public art, exhibitions, handicrafts, fantastic momos and rice beer – a colourful cornucopia of all things Nagaland and North-East India. There is no dearth of options – guilt free shopping of Naga handloom and arts and endless moments of photography. For any traveler, Hornbill festival is like living a long nurtured dream. It’s like closing your eyes and be lost to the camaraderie and joy of the Naga people and opening your eyes to get astounded by the sheer amount of colours and sights of this enthralling festival.

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Women giving rice beer to male warriors

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A Naga dwelling

The festival itinerary is beautifully set. Tribal dances amaze you, the reds and oranges and yellows of tribal dress, with beatific tribal war masks, explode into a commanding unison, as they present their traditional dances. The evenings are usually set for the Hornbill Music Festival where artists collaborate to give away the most awes trucking songs and gala music and The Hornbill International Rock Contest and music festival, organized by the Music Task force.

To add more thrill to the festival, there is a World War 2 Car rally and also a Hornbill Motor Rally. There’s also a beauty pageant and literature festival. And for the daring travellers, the tenth day has a Naga chilly eating competition. Mind you Naga chillies are the hottest in the world and can literally take your senses away.

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Shop some Naga art in Hornbill Festival

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Woman selling machettes

The itinerary is well packed and however, little time you feel like spending in the festival, do pencil in some time to relish the Naga cuisines. Every tribe has a different preparation and often you will find these outside the tribal huts. They continuously cook the stuff that they make for themselves regularly at home. Try the various preparations of pork and beef and wash it down with some tasty rice beer. And for adventurous eaters, there are preparations of snails, worms and various insects. And food just doesn’t end with a walk around the Kisama village; head out to the Night Bazaar in Kohima for a range of exotic food to try.

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Collage of Naga cuisines

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Display at a Naga hut

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Undoubtedly a must try – Rice Beer

ao-tribesmanTo stay: – There are numerous small budget hotels in Kohima, you can also opt for staying in homestays. The official website of Nagaland tourism lists this information.

Food: – Try as much as you can, Naga food is mostly water based, hence light for belly and could keep you going for long. If you relish non-veg, you will love the chicken preparation of Angami tribes. Do try pork with bamboo shoots.

What else:- Read my blogs on Khanoma (20 kms from Kohima) and Longwa (village of the head-hunters) to explore more. Spend a day in Kohima for the local attractions.

Ahobilam Temple: Trek in the Nallamala Range

The idea behind a trip to Ahobilam, was out of the blue, out of some casual talk, idle browsing on internet, and then sealed by Andhra Pradesh tourism. And some moments of reading travelogues with accounts of trek experiences, gave us the required brain waves to extend the Kurnnol trip and take a long detour to cover Ahobilam. The road trip to Ahobilam, wasn’t very appealing, the roads were desolate, but with a rustic hue.

Let me accept here, I am not a great temple-goer person. I study temples, there architecture, the finesse in their design, the rich carvings on the pillars, the entire character. The art and design put on display, turns these temples into an age old chronicler for me. I love the touch and feel of the old rocks, the ever-lasting gleam on the sculptures, the floral designs following some geometric manner and the endless tales narrated to on-lookers through carvings; appeal to me.

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Upper Ahobilam temple

Before planning to Ahobilam, I had almost no idea of what was in display for me. I was inspired of the trek to the Upper Ahobilam temples. Ahobilam has two main temples – Diguva (Lower) Ahobilam, located at the foothills of the Nallamala range, housing the Prahalada Varadha Temple and Eguva (Upper Ahobilam) located in the hills on an 8 km ghat road and houses the Ahobila Narasimha temple. There are 8 other temples for Lord Narasimha and two other spots associated with the Hindu Mythology – the entire set forms part of the Ahobilam trek. While 4 of the temples are accessible on road, for the other 5, one needs to trek a total distance of 32 kilometres.

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Lower Ahobilam temple

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My ‘earthly’ experience: Kurnool escapade

It was more like an urge – to take the open road, the uncharted ways, to make no itinerary and make headway off to somewhere, halt at the first stop and explore, either ride into the sunset or melt with it. These were my first thoughts when I started my course of journey in the Eastern Ghats – starting with Kurnool, often referred to as the Gateway to Rayalseema – a province with a rich and varied history, a place of hot passions, of violent factionist loyalties, a land that was once the stronghold of Krishna Deva Raya and was once a cultural pot of the Vijayanagar empire.

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The imposing Buddha statue at Belum caves

I started my day with Belum caves. I have to say, I liked the place almost instantly. Surrounded by hillocks (which I mistakenly took for caves), impossibly calm and serene surroundings, the desolate roads, fragmented habitation, an unusual chill in the morning breeze and an imposing Buddha Statue before the caves, my brain kept registering the unusual charms of the place. The caves were explored some 130 years back and came to AP Tourism’s notice in 1980s. This is an underground cave, some 3.5 km long with an underground river. Well the caves are well maintained – they are well maintained and illuminated, timings are maintained, no food item is allowed inside and guide service is mandatory to look after the naughty types. The entrance is a circular pit and right away, one descends and then moves into a spacious chamber with a circular opening overhead. I craned my neck to see a deep blue sky at the rim of the crater! That was our last glimpse of the sky for a while.

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Belum caves

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Not just another walk: Fontainhas, Panjim

A visit to Panjim’s Fontainhas neighbourhood is nothing less than a journey through a postcard from a European city. This small little atmospheric place, squeezed between the hillside of Altinho and the banks of Ourem Creek, with its colonial aesthetics, winding narrow lanes, tilted roofed houses in spectacular shades of red and blue with overhanging balconies and a quaint Mediterranean air, is an open door to Goa’s Portuguese past. Though Fontainhas can be covered in two-three hours, but to do more justice to these alleys, pencil in some more time.

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Wood framed houses in saturated colours in these haphazardly designed narrow streets predominate Fontainhas

Fontainhas has taken its name from the fountain of Phoenix, which stands near the Maruti temple, leading upto the Altinho hill. Wood framed houses in saturated colours in these haphazardly designed narrow streets predominate this area and the 17th-century Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception stands like a jewel in Fontainhas Latin-style crown. Built atop a hill, it stands like a giant torch of faith guarding the aesthetic riches of the neighbourhood. Built in 1541, it is believed to be one of the oldest churches in Goa. The four tiered zigzagging stairway was added three centuries later.  The magnificent bell of the church weighing over 2000 kgs is second only to the golden bell of the Monastery of St Augustine (now in ruins) in Old Goa.

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17th-century Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception stands like a jewel in Fontainhas Latin-style crown.

Mediterranean culture pervades every street in Fontainhas; houses are painted in bright cheerful colours, beautifully written nameplates outside homes, galleries, neighbourhood bakeries, churches, blue petal curls in white ceramic tiles and residents greeting each other in Portuguese. Fontainhas is full of such delights, to be explored at leisure. Old wooden bakeries trickling the aroma of Goan breads, often doubling up as a work of art of the bygone era; small cafes at the corner of some alley to sit and engage oneself in casual talks with residents over some handmade ham sandwiches, with Goan music in the background and cheer of a world which is unimaginably open to strangers.  Sample street food there, everything that is accommodated in carts from sweet beef samosa, prawn cutlets, squid soup to grilled ham sandwiches or pop into some random bar or old taverna with live music, great food, random strangers ready to open up for a talk.

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Tilted roofed houses in spectacular shades in Fontainhas

There is a kind of amusing history overflow in the streets – there is a Rua 31 de Janeira (31st January Road) street which relates to the date of Portugal’s independence from Spain in 1640 and Bustling 18th June Road named after the date in 1946 on which Ram Manohar Lohia (an Indian independence activist) called a meeting that led to the end Portuguese rule in India. So if you find a differently sounding street name or a street named on a date, don’t hesitate to know the history behind its naming.

Art Galleries – Undisputedly an obvious reason to be in Fontainhas. One shouldn’t miss the Gallery Gitanjali, adjacent to the Panjim Inn. It has a collection of contemporary art and Scandinavian lithographs, lino prints and etchings from the 1950s and 1960s, plus it often doubles up as a cool venue for poetry readings, art discussions, launches, movie screenings and numerous courses on movie and art. Plus there is a cafe.

Velha Goa Galeria is another beautiful place to stop by to shop for gorgeous traditional hand-painted ceramics, including azueljos (tin-glazed ceramic tiles).

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A little towards the main city is the Gallery Attic, where period furniture, pottery and antique glassware are painstakingly restored to their original glory. Here the new sits alongside the old to put to display the rich multi-cultural heritage of Goa.

To eat – Ah! How can I miss this? While the thin, winding streets of Fontainhas are an open invitation to shrug off your beachy itinerary and explore; the aroma from the decades old establishment perched in old buildings, provides the eclectic chronicle of the past and the present of the place. It is said in Fontainhas past and present lives under the same roof. So let your exploratory mind do some more work to find these hideouts.

One must stop should be Hospedaria Venite, marked with its graffitied walls and beer chandeliers and authentic Goan and Portuguese cuisine. On 31st January Road, Venite is one of the oldest lodging and boarding establishments in Panjim. Their sea-food and chicken steak is recommended.

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Graffitied walls of Venite, Fontainhas

The next on my list is an old ancestral home of Linda D’Souza, converted into a restaurant, tucked away in a rather small, unassuming corner of Fontainhas. The place retains the old world décor, the rich dim interiors, pop music of the 60s and 70s, makes dining so different like taking you back to an era long gone by. Tables are also set on a patio, from where you can see all the activity of the street. And the food is delicious and not heavy on pocket. Try their crab xec-xec and kingfish steak or just any sizzler, and be assured you will not stop with one. A repeat of the order is quite common here.

Confeitaria 31 De Janeiro, anytime for sweets and savouries. The oldest bakery on 18th June Road in Fontainhas is famous for its sweets, pav and traditional Goan cake called bebinca.

Panjim Inn – achingly serene and steeped in history, this is perhaps the best place to immerse yourself in the never ending love with Goan cultural charm. On 31st January Road, overlooking the Ourem Creek, this is undoubtedly the prettiest buildings in Fontainhas. Sit in the verndah restaurant here, soak in the intimate interiors, and take in the seconds and the rich cultural heritage that it stands for. Then think of the food, which is an absolute desire here, no wonder if you feel like taking one of each from the small menu. Kingprawns and Pork is recommended here.

Baba’s wood café – No one can say no to pizzas and Baba wood café brings the Italian taste and intimacy to you. The colonial atmosphere, the earthen appeal of the décor and the furniture, rare Italian wines brought straight from the Mediterranean and above all the enticing aroma of wood oven pizzas – is irresistible. The prices are a little on the higher side but this place offers a rare dining experience.

To stayPanjim Inn will always be the first name on this list, a heritage property with every room different in style and décor and a promise to take you back by an era.

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Gallery next to Panjim Inn

La Maison, with only eight private heritage rooms, this promises a place all for yourself. The elegant interiors, informal atmosphere and spacious rooms with expressive works of art and gracefully minimalist, makes La Maison a good place to settle in.

Want to ditch the hotels altogether, welcome to the old quarter hostel, light on pocket and eclectically on par with its European counterparts. Set your holidays with lively smiling faces, backpackers from different corners of the world and a refreshingly different experience. And there is a little organic café too and a wide assortment of teas and morning yoga classes too. So, sink in, take a break, sniff the aroma, and share room and smiles with strangers.

Say a morning prayer in Old Goa

The Portuguese arrived in Goa around 500 years ago and left their unique footprints. Their influence can be felt in every corner of the state, in the cuisines, architecture, heritage and lifestyle; but nowhere it is felt more than in Old Goa.

Old Goa’s effect was purely transcendental to me, my pace changing from brisk hops from one point to the other to a more languid, circuitous, absorbing stroll. It seemed my legs clamoured for a long walk in this heritage town where number of tourists at any point of the year can outnumber the number of residents. The town is so steeped in history that it is best to slow down and admire the details.

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A simple combination of mud stones-straw and the seat of archdiocese of Goa, the Se Cathedral.

Once a city of 200,000 (more than the population of London at that time), Old Goa was the epicentre of all trade for the Portuguese. Over the course of a century, Goa became one of the important trade centres outside Europe. One Dutch visitor compared it with Amsterdam for its wealth; and the grand churches won it a sobriquet ‘Rome of the East’. However, its fall was just as swift as its rise, epidemic of plague and cholera led to abandonment of the old town and what remains today of this Portuguese legacy is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Church of St Francis of Assisi

Not much of old Goa is left today but you absolutely must take a day to explore the flaking churches and crumbling colonial mansions. Along any winding back road, you will find colonial mansions and villas, painted in vivid primary colors, with bright-red tiled roofs and lacy wooden trim, hidden behind banana or coconut trees. Goa still maintains its cultural exceptionalism, a part of it explained by the fact that it became an official Indian state only in 1987; almost 40 years after greater India coalesced.

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The highlight of the trail of Old Goa is the Basilica Bom Jesus, which enshrines the mortal remains of St Francis Xavier.

The highlight of the trail of Old Goa is the Basilica Bom Jesus, which enshrines the mortal remains of St Francis Xavier.  Its towering facade, inlaid marble floor, ornate altars and an otherwise simple interiors, make Basilica Bom Jesus, one of the finest examples of baroque architecture in India. Marty, my guide, detailed out the finer nuances of the church, I pretended to listen, but was more lost in absorbing the astounding beauty and the detailed interiors of the church. Portuguese had lavished their pride and alacrity upon Goa – towering buildings that could shame the giants, richly gilded work, put to show probably by the greatest artists of that time and richness and warmth in designs and patterns; all spoke of the opulence Goa enjoyed in that bygone era. The church also houses the remains of St Francis Xavier, a Portuguese missionary charged with evangelising the Indies, who became Goa’s patron saint. His remains lie in one darkened corner near the altar, in a jewel studded casket. Crowds congregate to catch a glimpse of the Saint’s remains. The face is a rusty shade of orange now, greatly contorted but mysteriously there is still flesh on the body. No doubt, pilgrims flock from around the world to look at this miraculously well preserved body of St. Francis, who died more than 450 years ago. And if you think his body must have been embalmed, the church proclaims that nothing has been done to the body. So what should it be called – miracle, as pilgrims call it or just some unsolved mystery.

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Chapel in the Basilica Bom Jesus

Right across the road, is Asia’s largest church, a simple combination of mud stones-straw and the seat of archdiocese of Goa, the Se Cathedral. The huge interiors are surprisingly plain, there are four chapels on either side of the nave, with the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, which is richly gilded and decorated, quite contrast to the otherwise plain interiors. Every ten years, remains of St. Francis are raised from its home in the Basilica and brought to Se’ and kept here for 44 days. At the back of Se’ is the Church of St Francis of Assisi, which is now an archaeological display.

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Chapel in the Se’ Cathedral

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St Augustine, with broken stones, nameless tombs and probably left with only an outline to speak of.

A short walk from Basilica is the holy hill, a different territory from the much crowded Basilica. It’s a leisurely walk uphill, followed by hypnotic chirps of birds and whiff of coconut oil from the mission. There is Museum of Christian Art, midway on the hill, with a rich display of art works salvaged from the old churches. As you walk further, remains of a vast, ruined bell tower come to sight. This complex dedicated to St Augustine, with broken stones, nameless tombs and probably left with only an outline to speak of, now turned into a large space for wildflowers to blossom and stray dogs to doze, was once a home to a saint; left to crumble, after the Portuguese packed their bags and moved to Panjim.

Another haunting beauty is the St Cajetan’s church (on way to River Mandovi), standing as a lofty imitation of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The dome is not as vast as the one in Rome, but it has some exquisite Islamic masonry on the front door to boast of. Standing close to it is a lonely arch propped up in the churchyard, a reminder of Adil Shah’s palace, the ruler of Belgaum, who was defeated by the Portuguese to gain control of Goa. Enroute to the river, you cross the Vasco de Gama arch, built by his grandson, Francis de Gama, the then Viceroy of Goa. Halt a minute there in respect of the great explorer, who told the world about India and brought the Portuguese to our doorstep.

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St Cajetan’s church, an imitation of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

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Vasco de Gama arch, built by his grandson, Francis de Gama, the then Viceroy of Goa.

Old Goa can easily be done in a day, but it remains with you forever. It has stories to fascinate you and its slow life and timeless charm binds you. The churches stand as raconteur, eager to share stories of a time when Goa was among the wealthiest cities in the world and the wood-framed row houses in saturated hues in the winding lanes, promise an experience of an organic indo-Portuguese culture.

Dwarka – of Krishna and Meera

A long drive across flat, featureless, arid landscape of west Gujarat brought me to Dwarka. The last stage of drive from Rajkot was material less, offering nothing to capture my attention. My interest pecked up as we passed salt panes and our guide announced that we are in ‘Dev-bhoomi’. As you cross a rivulet, the road rises, and the town is suddenly in front of you. The bus halted and I popped my head out of the window to take a shot of the temple. Sheer excitement!

I am not a very religious guy, I had gone there to find stories, to release the bond of love between Meerabai and Lord Krishna, to live stories that are eternal and to find a city, historians call India’s Atlantis. The remote seaside is one of India’s holiest places, where Krishna lived for over 100 years and where Meerabai met her eternal love when she mysteriously vanished in front of thousands who had thronged to offer prayers to Krishna with her. Dwarka’s soul lies in these stories and the bond of spiritual love, this place has seen between a devotee and her deity. Dwarka, is otherwise, a flat, barren land, washed by both sun and sea, and very tranquil, unlike other holy cities of India. The colours are few here – limited to beige sand, blue sky and silver sea. The frenetic pace of Indian towns especially the holy towns is missing here. Minutes in this place and you find yourself in warm embrace of the sun, sea and spirituality.

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I took in the spirit of Dwarka instantly, the spiritual air hung over me, had started working magic on me. I took to the seaside, mostly colourless, lined with concrete wall, dotted with temples and bespattered with cow dung. You won’t call that picturesque, but it is inviting in its own way. I started my journey with the Meerabai temple.

“Meerabai’s love was different; she never expected to be loved. She wished a bond, a holy bond between Aatma (soul – mortal) and Parmatma (God – Immortal). There were no boundaries in that love, she forgot herself to remember the divine.” Harish our guide told me and the other foreign tourists who were with us.

We walked through the modest town of Dwarka to reach the point that defines this city Dwarka (Dwar = gate and Ka = moksha (salvation)). Even on the stairs, far from the main building, you can feel the sacred air. One look at the spire covered with ornate carvings, and a flag fluttering in the breeze, makes you feel a bit special about the place. I went directly in to the heart of the temple, the inner sanctum, to see the black idol of Krishna, in colourful garments, decked on a recess with frames of gold and silver surrounding the idol. The whole experience is overwhelming. There are many smaller temples that surround the main temple, all in grey sandstone, with the same medieval charm, giving a very dreamy look in unison.

Dwarka Temple

I took a quiet corner for myself to look at the activities. Lulled by the evening sea breeze, I tried imbibing the calm of the place, somewhere in my mind, picturing Meerabai singing for her Krishna.  Harish had another story for me, again of the eternal love of Meera. When she disappeared in Dwarka, a piece of cloth of her saree was left behind on the Krishna idol. She had merged with the god she loved and prayed. Some say she fled away, and it is only those ‘some’ who believe in their saying, for the masses she had found her love.

Three kilometers away from the main temple is the Rukmani temple perched on a breezy stretch of backwater. Mythology puts that Goddess Rukmini opted to stay here and bless the devotees. The temple is an architectural masterpiece. Taking religion out of the story, Dwarka teaches you the different forms in which love existed in Krishna’s life – there was Radha’s ecstatic love, then Rukmini’s love which existed as commitment, Draupadi’s love which was respect and then Meera’s love which was devotion. Only a feeling like love can exist in so many forms and still be worshipped.

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I went further in search of ‘Atlantis of India’, Bet Dwarka. Various marine excavations around Bet Dwarka have indeed revealed a good and planned city. I shared glances with Harish, he looked eager to share the story. Vedic scriptures say that Lord Krishna settled here with his Yadav clan to save them from Jarasandha, the evil king of Mathura (Krishna’s home place). Since Bheema was ordained to kill Jarasandha, Krishna had to leave Mathura with his clan and establish a new fortified city. With the help of Viswakarma, the divine architect, a dazzling Golden City was erected and christened as Kushasthali or Dwaravati. It later became Dwarka. After the death of Krishna, the city was submerged, only to excavated centuries later.

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I looked at the temple again, the steeple towers, the huge flag and the throng of devotees on the stairs – images of bhajan singing saffron dhoti clad boys, women in long queues who must have travelled distances to come and offer their offerings, children who had been told stories of Krishna and men for whom God is the only one they can trust, flash before me. What had they all come for in this remote western town? Isn’t there one thing that binds all these stories and images? Devotion or say faith or call it love. You feel that buoyant joy here, a feeling that you have been dragged out of the stream of life, the continuous time and space continuum you live in, to a place where everything has settled, where you find calmness in roaring sea and pace in the mystic stories of Meera and Krishna. And standing in the midst of this divinity, staring at how all the life processes condense into devotion or love, you realize that love is the central force where all forces mingle. Love is devotion. Love is awareness. Krishna is awareness, Meera is love.

Olaulim: Your own private space in Goa

It’s eight in the morning and I am driving past the misty coastline of Goa into the lush green terrain of Pompurpa, riding past verdant paddy fields, desolate roads and sleepy hamlets. Church services are coming to an end, the congregation would soon aggregate among the palm trees, gossiping and giggling; men in their dark suits and well ironed shirts and women sporting their satin dresses. It’s still early for shops to open except for the local bakery, where the baker has started getting the hot pois (wheat breads) out of the earthen oven. Soon a steady stream of customers will enter the front room to collect their orders. Slightly distracted by these feelings and the silent commotion that is on play, I am following the GPS directions, winding my way into a Goan village called Olaulim.

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Endless green cover, birds chirping, meandering paths, , a lone chapel at a distance draped in pure white – this is Olaulim in first look

GPS brings me to my landmark, Mhambre shop, and I can see Savio Fernandes, waving his hands to guide me to his house. “You are too well dressed for Goa” he exclaims looking at the denims I am sporting. I smile, inside cussing myself for looking so ungoan.

His home looks like punctuated between the serene backwaters of Mapusa River and the greens of Goa. Music is flowing in the mountain winds dutifully mixing with the rapture of the calm waters. And Savio and Pirkko aren’t the only ones to welcome me, Richard Parker, their cat, purrs her joy and Max, the silent giant, a cuddly Labrador, welcomes me with his strutted bark. And if you think, two forms a company, this charming little house, has a party waiting for you. There are four dogs to get playful with, three cats wearing an expression of ‘mind your business, I am happy being myself’, a goat to take care of the unruly weeds and an obstinate donkey Mantra, ready to nibble your fingers. And the couple are a great host, ready with their stories, maps and travel books to set your itinerary in Goa, tell-tales of Goa’s best hops and their never-fading, courteous Goan smiles.

“Do you have any plans to increase the number of cottages?” a guest from Mumbai asks Savio.

“Four is good; I don’t want to make it a hotel, anything more than this will make it over-crowded, something Olaulim doesn’t stand for” he answers. And ask him what Olaulim stands for; and with a quaint smile, set on his face, he would say ‘deafeningly quiet and so different you can’t believe it’.

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Hornbill cottage_Olaulim resorts

Endless green cover, birds chirping, meandering paths, gushing stream, an infinity pool extending into the stream and an amazing view of hills beyond that, a lone chapel at a distance draped in pure white – this is Olaulim in first look. I set out for my cottage – the Golden Oriole, perched on top, the brilliant view complementing the eco-design of the cottage. There are only four cottages, all named after birds, Golden Oriole, Hornbill, Sun bird and Indian Pitta: easy to guess you can see the birds’ play from these cottages. A staircase takes you to an outdoor wash-room below, from where you can watch the hornbill pair at play.

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My den for two days – Golden Oriole cottage_Olaulim resorts

A cool shower and then off to lunch, something that Savio says, is the most family thing to do in Olaulim. Sitting in an open dining area, overlooking the stream, food gains a whole new epicurean meaning in these settings. And then the food itself: wholesome organic and fresh, cooked over traditional wood fire, typically Goan veneered with fascinating siesta, topped with Pirkko’s smiles and hospitality. In an instant you become a part of the family.

I don’t think I have ever seen Goa look more beautiful, bathed in rain, the countryside is a shade of green, yellow, oranges, bright reds and blues all thrown in, commanding a unison. The roads are inviting, winding and wet and I am out on a bicycle, draped in my poucho, looking around for activities. Men in their oversized raincoats go about the normal business; women shyly look at me and children giggle, their monsoon plays are on. The rain bathed, beautiful Portuguese styles houses and drizzle dappled cathedrals look more inviting than ever. The lovely winding hilly village streets, oh, I can trade them any day for miles and miles of boring highways.

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The lovely winding hilly village streets, oh, I can trade them any day for miles and miles of boring highways.

The entire village is a birder’s paradise, set out with your camera; every corner is a revelation, life reaching out to you with open arms from every branch, the whole village blossoming with colours. Go for a walk along these narrow roads, lined by greens on both sides, with magpies hovering over you and cuckoos announcing your arrival, venture out to nature, to a small hill standing tall, keeping a guard on Olaulim or just relax on a hammock by the backwaters, letting nature to extend its reach upto you – there’s so much you can do here to satiate your longing soul.

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Weaver birds at play. Olaulim is a birders’ paradise.

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Golden Oriole. The entire village is a birder’s paradise, set out with your camera; every corner is a revelation, life reaching out to you with open arms from every branch.

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Oriental Magpie @ Olaulim village

I choose the next morning for a kayaking session. Pirkko excitedly instructs me and says “If you reach the extreme end, you might get lucky to spot otters.” Otters, now that excites you. As Pirkko says evenings and mornings are the best time to get your boat and rows and leave out for a spin in the waters, and if lucky enough, with the otters.

Now something from sheer experience – don’t miss the gorgeous evenings here. Back from a village tour, I decide to lounge around in the dining space; the chill wind caressing me and just then Savio comes and says “Should I make a drink for you?” His feni cocktails are a must try. Soon other guests join us for long conversation over drinks and snacks, Max and Shibu are playing in the background, Richard Parker in the distance with her same ‘Mind your business’ look and Mantra, watching us with some classic singer’s warmth on his face. The sun comes down, turning from grey to shades of orange (dominated by grey) to ink black, no trace of moon or stars, a downpour starts; we sit in the shade of ‘Taverna Hama Hama’ or the ‘honesty bar (where you can drink as much as you want and whatever and are expected to honestly note that down in a register), drinking and chatting, before getting down for a sumptuous meal of fresh catch from the fish, fresh vegetables from the farm, Goan rice and warm smiles.

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Indian Patita cottage at Olaulim resorts

Being in Olaulim, you realize, that it’s not just a bend in river or a creek, there’s more to it. It’s poetry of life, its silence is music to ears, there’s pleasure in losing your way in the winding streets, there’s  story in swinging paddy fields and grazing cattle and above all, it’s God’s gift to you to honour your own privacy.

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The inviting Portugese houses in Olaulim.

Fast facts

To reach: Olaulim is only 12 kms from Panjim. Riding is the best option otherwise you can take a bus to Mapusa that goes through Pomburpa village and get down at the old ice factory; Olaulim is a walking distance from there.

Know more about the Olaulim homestay.

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The Golden Oriole cottage

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Taverna Hama Hama or the honesty bar

Jodhpur: Drenched in blue

An intensely romantic city, filled with history and memories of a glorious past, Jodhpur rides high on every traveler’s mind. I had first set foot in this blue city more than a decade back as a child. A lot has changed now, yet the intensity of this place has somewhat remained the same. Though, the winds of modernity has taken away some of its delectable taste of a small, historical town; it still entices with its charm. Everything was colourful, a typical trait of the city. There are things which have not changed; the traditional homes pained in pale indigo, locals wearing artistically designed multihued costumes, women dressed in wide gathered skirts and men with colourful turbans on their head. This regal city of Rajasthan still echoes with antiquity in the vacuum of the desert.

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Though, the winds of modernity has taken away some of its delectable taste of a small, historical town; Jodhpur still entices with its charm.

While climbing the staircase to go out of the railway station, I caught sight of the formidable Mehrangarh fort looking down from its imposing height on the hillock. A 15 minutes drive, and I reached my hotel. ‘Khamma Gani, Ranbanka hotel’ welcomes the comely receptionist with a diaphanous cloth as garland. Khamma gani is a term used to greet the guests whereas Ranbanka attributes to ‘the invincible’ or ‘master of battles’. Continue reading