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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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 Hampi. One for the new age carefree tourists seeking tranquillity, crammed in a side which is strangely defended, where new world sets in, of open roof restaurants, budget hotels, funny fags and smokey sticks. Initiate a conversation with anyone there and a quaint 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 and biking on sun-baked roads leading from nowhere to nowhere, boulder rappelling and almost everything you ever had 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 standing as gruesome reminders 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 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, and where you can be yourself for days, weeks or even months.

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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 jewelers 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, and 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.

“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 center, 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 center 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 in my history books, 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;”. 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 centers 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 granite which were later shaped, the three shiv-lingas on rocks indicating the three power centers 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 to the hill 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 travelers, 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.