Every year, winters arrive at our door with cold winds, woollen clothes, mouthwatering snacks to nibble beside an Angithi, and a perfect time to go for a family vacation. A vacation to rekindle the warmth in our relationships and to make endless memories that we can cherish for the rest of our lives.
Recently, while skimming through my Facebook account, I came across #ErtigaHolidayDiaries campaign by Maruti Suzuki Ertiga which emphasized on sharing the beautiful moments a family spent together during holidays. And frankly, I instantly warmed up to the idea and decided to share about my family trip to Kashmir.
During this holiday, we had travelled around to all the touristy places around Srinagar. As I was going through the photo album, nostalgia engulfed me like fog on a cold winter morning while the feelings deep within were warm!
So, without any further ado, let me plunge into my very own chapter of #ErtigaHolidayDiaries!
The time we spent in Srinagar was magical. An early morning Shikara ride to the famous wholesale vegetable market in Dal Lake gave me a glimpse of the traditional lifestyle of Kashmiris (natives of Kashmir). #ErtigaHolidayDiaries
Predictably, my daughters had refused to wake up early in the morning for the Dal Lake Shikara ride to the vegetable market. But, they were not prepared to be denied the opportunity to do a Shikara ride, all the same. So, here we were… for their Shikara ride! #ErtigaHolidayDiaries
What good is youth if you do not indulge in occasional tomfoolery? A dried maple leaf is a fun adornment for the tousled hair – or so my younger daughter thinks! #ErtigaHolidayDiaries
It was a joy to click my two princesses as they sat on their mock throne in Nishat Bagh. As I click, the younger one is distracted. Well, being the younger one, isn’t that her right? #ErtigaHolidayDiaries
Gulmarg. As we were heading towards the famed Gulmarg Gandola, these pony-riding tourists reminded us of the Wild West Action Thrillers from the era of the original Hollywood Cowboy – Clint Eastwood! #ErtigaHolidayDiaries
As we crossed this vast meadow, wife and I were sharing with our daughters that the famous Bollywood hit song from Rajesh Khanna starrer ‘Aap Ki Kasam’ (Jai Jai Shiv Shankar) was picturised in the temple at the edge of this meadow. #ErtigaHolidayDiaries
Here, the pose says it all – “Yay, we’ve made it to Apharwat (2nd level of Gulmarg Gandola)! While it was sunny here, the wind chill and the snow around made us freeze. Well, almost! #ErtigaHolidayDiaries
Pahalgam, here we come! Little lambs and bunny rabbits in their arms, their expressions seem to say – ”We are loving it!” #ErtigaHolidayDiaries
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. My better half decides to truly live up to the saying. Here she is, in total traditional Kashmiri finery! #ErtigaHolidayDiaries
One is happy, while the other is zapped! As we were climbing down the Sonamarg glacier, my daughters were gingerly walking down the slippery terrain. So, I can’t be sure if she was zapped or it was all concentration! #ErtigaHolidayDiaries
Believe it or not, all of us screamed in unison – “We love traffic jams!” – as we were crossing this adorable herd. As dog lovers, we even loved the Himalayan Sheep Dog who was dutifully keeping step with his master. #ErtigaHolidayDiaries
Dear Readers, I hope you enjoyed this little chapter by me in the on-going fun-filled #ErtigaHolidayDiaries dedicated to celebrating family and togetherness!
For more chapters of #ErtigaHolidayDiaries, visit their Facebook page or check out their tweets (@ertigabymaruti)
December 2016 issue of JetWings, the in-flight magazine of Jet Airways, carried my Cellular Jail image shot in Port Blair, Andaman & Nicobar Islands. This monument holds an important place in Modern Indian History.
Silent, Yet Eloquent – Cellular Jail, Port Blair
Cellular Jail forms an integral chapter of India’s freedom struggle. Commissioned by the British in 1896 and completed in 1906, it was built to exile Indian freedom fighters away from mainland India. It was called the ‘Cellular Jail’ as it did not have any dormitory – only solitary confinement cells – 696 of them.
The reason? The British did not want Indian revolutionists to interact and plan their moves. But plan they did, finally liberating India. In a way, despite not being the centre stage, it continually stole the limelight. Today, this National Memorial bears a mute testimony to the success of the freedom struggle and is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Port Blair.
Share and make it sizzle!
Sharing 16 UNESCO Sites of 2016 in My Hundredth Post
Soon, we will all be celebrating the onset of 2017. Before 2016 bids goodbye, I have another milestone to celebrate – I am scoring a century! Yes, that’s right. This is my hundredth post. I wanted it to be a landmark in more ways than one. Hence, I decided this post would be about the UNESCO World Heritage Sites I visited during 2016. Coincidentally, there are 16 of these!
Instead of keeping this post chronological, I am going to mix it up a bit! Some of these UNESCO sites may seem inane, but each is loaded with solid reasons for inscription. I’ll be going over those too. So, let me start the sharing.
#1. Golden Temple or Cave Temple, Dambulla, Sri Lanka
It lies around 150km East of Colombo, in central Sri Lanka. While the distance isn’t much, it can take you around 4 hours to reach here from Colombo.
While there are many caves sprinkled around the area, most travellers visit the 5 significant adjoining caves in the temple complex. The entire complex is still functional as a Buddhist Temple though it dates back to between 3rd century BCE and 18th century CE. Extremely well preserved, it was inscribed as a UNESCO site in 1991.
#2. Qutub Minar, New Delhi, India
This 73-metre tall minaret is the tallest brick minaret in the world. It was commissioned in early 13th century by Qutb-al-Din Aibak and was completed by his successor, Iltutmish. Along with the other monuments in the Mehrauli Archeological Park, Qutub Minar has been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
You may wonder why I talk of Qutub Minar – a monument near my home. Well, I know of many people who live in Delhi but have never visited some of the monuments here. So, no harm sharing about my visit here during this year!
#3. Church Town of Gammelstad, Luleå, Sweden
Stone church of Gammelstad was built by Sweden in 1492 as the first move to lay lien on the territory, as borders were not well defined in those days. A church town came about around this church.
Here, people would build cottages and would use them for stay during their big feast pilgrimage. Though privately owned, these cottages were not meant for permanent residence. These had no water supply, no heating facility, and no cooking arrangements. All that was and still is taboo as these cottages were meant for a spartan stay during the pilgrimage. And that is what defined a church town. As it stayed true to the initial intent, the church town of Gammelstad has earned a UNESCO World Heritage site inscription in 1996.
#4. Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Considered to be the first capital of Sri Lanka (from 4th century CE to 11 century CE), Anuradhapura lies 205 kms North-East of Colombo. This distance may take up to 6 hours by road.
The excavated ruins consist of three types of structure – monastic buildings, Dagobas (bell shaped masonry), and Pokunas (bathing tanks). The largest Dagoba (Ruwanwelisaya) is 1100 feet in circumference. It got inscribed as a UNESCO site in 1982.
#5. Canals of Amsterdam, The Netherlands
More than one hundred kilometers of canals, about 90 islands and around 1,500 bridges are there in Amsterdam. The three main canals from 17th century – Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht – were dug during the Dutch Golden Age. These form concentric belts around the city, the Grachtengordel.
These canals are the keystone of Amsterdam’s exemplary city planning and were inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010.
#6. Aapravasi Ghat, Mauritius
Aapravasi Ghat (Immigration Depot) or Coolie Ghat has earned its UNESCO inscription in 2006 for being the first port that received indentured labour, many of whom settled in Mauritius, while the others made their way to the plantations across the British empire.
#7. San Agustin Church, Manila, Philippines
San Agustin Church is one of the four Baroque Churches of Philippines that were inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1993.
The church building does not only seem imposing and indestructible, it truly is. It has withstood repeated calamitous damage at the hands of raging fires, enemy attacks and high-intensity earthquakes.
Its flat ceiling has been painted in a magical way to give an illusion of 3D bass relief work, just like what you see in the Gallery of Maps (Sistine Chapel), Vatican!
#8. Sanchi Stupa, Sanchi, India
This Buddhist monument is the oldest brick monument in the country. It was commissioned in 3rd century BCE by Emperor Ashoka and was built over the relics of Buddha.
It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989.
#9. Cultural Landscape of Bali Province
Volcanoes provide Bali with fertile soil. Combined with a wet tropical climate, that makes it an ideal location for crop cultivation. River water has been channelled into canals for irrigation. It allows the cultivation of rice on both flat land and mountain terraces.
Rice, water, and subak, (water-controlling cooperative social system) together have shaped the Bali landscape over the past thousand years. These are an integral part of Bali’s religious life too. As rice is seen as the gift of god, the subak system is considered part of Bali’s temple culture.
Together with their temples, five rice terraces of Bali covering an area of 19,500 hectare, became a UNESCO site in 2012.
#10. Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
After the decimation of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa became the second capital of Sri Lanka. The most illustrious king who reigned was Parakramabahu I. His reign is marked by a distinctly superior irrigation system as he was obsessed with not wasting even a drop of water that descended from heaven. It was inscribed as a UNESCO site in 1982. Even today, Polonnaruwa remains an important Buddhism pilgrimage site in the country.
#11. Kinderdijk, The Netherlands
When you are living 7 metres below sea level and you do not have gills, you need to keep the sea water out of your village. The residents of Kinderdijk, a settlement that is a 25-minute speedboat ride inland from Rotterdam, deployed an ingenious technique to pump seawater out – an elaborate arrangement of 19 windmills.
Though these windmills were commissioned in the mid-eighteenth century, they are still functional. They continue to fulfill the original purpose of keeping the land dry while providing 3-storeyed living quarters to the farmers who own them. A windmill-turned-museum gives you a glimpse into the local culture and lifestyle. This well-preserved traditional innovation has earned the windmills of Kinderdijk UNESCO World Heritage status in 1997.
#12. Singapore Botanic Gardens, Singapore
Created in 1859, the Singapore Botanic Gardens demonstrate the evolution a Pleasure Garden, to a colonial Economic Garden for research, to a world-class botanic garden that is both – a scientific institution and a place of conservation, recreation and education. This site got inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015. Incidentally, this is the only UNESCO site in Singapore.
#13. Capitol Complex, Chandigarh, India
In 2015, the architectural work of Le Corbusier got acknowledged by UNESCO as World Heritage, thanks to its outstanding contribution to the modern movement. This work is spread over 7 countries – Argentina, Belgium, France, Germany, India, Japan and Switzerland. Chandigarh’s Capitol Complex is a part of this UNESCO listing. While the Secretariat building is a typical Le Corbusier structure, the Open Hand Monument is an abstract installation in the Capitol Complex that has been adopted by the Chandigarh Administration as the symbol of the city.
#14. Le Morne, Mauritius
These are two of the most recognisable spots in Mauritius! While Crystal Rock is just a fossilised coral reef, Le Morne Brabant got inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 for an unfortunate reason. This monolith was a hideout for slaves who would run away from their masters. When the Abolition of Slavery Act got passed in 1853, these masters went to Le Morne to give the good news to the slaves. The slaves misunderstood the intent. They jumped and committed suicide from this cliff!
#15. Galle Fort, Galle, Sri Lanka
Built in 1588 CE and further fortified extensively from 1649 CE onwards, the fort is a living, buzzing township with multi-cultural population. The town planning of this habitation is typical of the Dutch (a sterling example being Amsterdam). It survived the notoriously devastating tsunami that hit 14 countries on 26th December 2004. It houses a few churches, one of which has been converted in to a mosque after Muslim accession of the fort. Additionally, the fort has a clock tower and a lighthouse.
#16. Skogskyrkogården or Woodland Cemetery, Stockholm, Sweden
Few cemeteries across the globe can boast being UNESCO World Heritage sites. Skogskyrkogården is one of those. Interestingly, this cemetery got inscribed in UNESCO list because of its landmark architecture that influenced numerous cemeteries across the globe. It is a brilliant blend of terrain, vegetation, and purpose. Interred grave of Greta Garbo, the heartthrob of Hollywood in 1920s and 30s, is also here (she passed away in Manhattan).
Now, while visiting 16 of these heritage sites during the year was fascinating, here’s looking forward to 17 or more during 2017!
Share and make it sizzle!
Avoid Sea View Club Room, The Leela Grand, Kovalam
We had made a Sea View Club Room booking with The Leela Grand, Kovalam in January 2015. The 4-night stay would have left us poorer by approx. Rs.84,000 (~US$ 1,230 – i.e. US$ 307 per night). Around then, due to its financial mess, SpiceJet was cancelling many of its flights and this news was commonplace knowledge.
Our flights on three out of the four sectors also got cancelled and thankfully, the news came to us at a time when we could cancel our room bookings without losing any monies. We did cancel but there was a regret of missing out on staying with a property with one of the finest locations anywhere.
In September 2016, we had another opportunity to visit Kovalam and we were going to stay in The Leela Grand. We stayed there and this stay prompted me to put forth an honest review for money-paying guests who may plan a stay at this property. I want them know the realities of a stay here to make a considered decision.
Sea View Club Room, The Leela Grand, Kovalam
“You’ll come to Kovalam with me?”
My wife was speaking at an IoT-focussed conference in Kovalam. Since the conference organisers were hosting her and they were fine with spouses coming along, she asked me if I would like to accompany her.
Her question was obviously prompted by our earlier cancellation of the Kovalam trip. Also, since Kovalam was just a spitting distance from some of the bucket list destinations, I readily agreed.
We had just returned from a 10-day Lombok-Bali trip. So, the beach was not such a big draw, but when she mentioned that we’d be staying in The Leela Grand, a hotel known for its gorgeous location, that was another ‘plus one’ to look forward to.
We were driven in an Audi Q3 from Thiruvananthapuram Airport to the hotel. The drive was short, but pleasant. We had a separate lounge for check-in as we were booked in their Sea View Club room (higher category room).
Since this property is on a coastal cliff, we climbed down one level to get to our room. As soon as we entered, wife and I exchanged glances and smiled. In our extensive hotel-trotting streak, we had not come across a better view from our hotel room. Though it was dark already, the waters around the property were illuminated by cool temperature LEDs installed by the hotel. And we could see and hear the waves lashing noisily against the rocks.
I knew this property was the erstwhile ITDC Ashok hotel. And by virtue of this being a government-owned entity established much before perhaps the 300-metre no-construction-zone rule came into being, the property was literally kissing the sea.
Instead of unpacking, we just poured ourselves a drink and sat in the balcony enjoying the view and the ambience. The trance lasted a while!
Once we came back into the room, the challenges of this aging property started to dawn on us. The plug sockets were old and hence unreliable – you plug in a device and hope for the best that it will continue to get charged. These sockets were in sunken ports that had wooden lids. Fair enough, except a typical C, E or F type plug would normally stand upright (as against the D & M types that offer a flat plug). Result? After you plug in a device, the lid won’t close.
Interestingly, for some unknown reason, the bedside sockets were Type G! You know, those three flat pin ones? Those! The property happens to be in India, and instead of providing the type D or M, or the more modern type K, they provided type G – useful in China, Malaysia and a few other countries for sure, but rather useless here. (For understanding this weird jargon, please see the infographic).
The bathroom was a sum total of 3 matchboxes – a shower cubicle, a WC cubicle and a washbasin cubicle. The Shower and WC cubicle doors opened outwards, naturally inconveniencing the other occupant – in case he/she happened to be washing hands or brushing teeth.
Are you hygiene conscious?
For the hygiene-conscious, please be warned that washing hands in the washbasin is going to a hairy experience! Try as hard as you may, your hands are going to be brushing against the basin bowl as the faucet has been fixed at an angle that leaves little space for your hands.
The towels and bath mats was another crazy story. Over the next 3 days, the housekeeping would forget to leave either the face towels, or the hand towels, or the bath mat. This routine was followed every day and the entire experience left you in a advanced state of resignation.
While unpacking, my wife realised that the drawer housing the safe would not open. Once we pried it open, it was a challenge to close it. The space provided for the suitcase was barely sufficient for one large suitcase. And, it was a double occupancy room, if you please!
Let’s have some food
It had been a long day. Soon, we were hungry and decided to order room service. That’s when a hunt for the in-room dining menu started. After agonising for a while with various visible and concealed drawers, we concluded that they had omitted to place one in our room. We called the in-room dining and got connected to front office instead. Politely, they asked us to call the room service number again. We tried telling them that we couldn’t find the menu, and were politely told again to call room service. Fair enough!
We called the in-room dining again and again got connected to the front office. Now, we were losing it. In no uncertain terms we told the front office guys to get their telephone system in order and while at it, to send an in-room dining menu to our room.
Food was ordinary. But, we are used to condoning one bad experience – knowing fully well that the cuisine we ordered may be a challenge for the chef on duty. After dinner, we again stepped out into the balcony and once we came in to call it a day, we realised the balcony door wouldn’t get locked. Naturally, we asked the operator to connect us to maintenance. She politely asked us what did we want. Upon telling her, she promised to have someone fix that soon.
After a 15-minute wait, we reminded her and soon had a maintenance guy come in. He took his time while we were quietly amusing ourselves by watching some B channel on the limited menu of channels on offer. Once he finished, I checked if the door would close, and realised that he had done whatever best he could since the door was any case in an advanced state of disrepair, and hence was unlikely to close properly. We resignedly asked him to carry on.
Well, I could go on and on. But suffice it to say that what we experienced during our first few hours was not an exception, but was a norm in this property.
In the morning light, we noticed a few more issues. The coastal dampness had led to a peeling wallpaper; the window glass had permanent swathes of damage that definitely didn’t do much good to your view of the nature outside. The window blinds were frayed. Over all, the indifference in maintenance was glaringly evident.
Any reason for such indifference towards a gloriously located property?
Upon making enquiries with the staffers, we realised the Leela Group had sold the hotel to some Ravi Group. When I checked on the Internet, it showed that though it sold the property in 2011, it is still being managed by HLVL (Hotel Leela Ventures Ltd.). While HLVL still continues to make money hand over fist milking its superbly unique location, they seem to have little or no interest in ploughing back any of this money into the upkeep since the property does not belong to them anymore.
What further surprises me is that this property won the Best Indian Luxury Hotel in India Award in 2015 – an award by Lonely Planet India.
Sooner, than later, the news of their mismanagement is likely to reach the market. The earlier that happens, the better. If it doesn’t, chances are the property reviews by traveller are going to hurt not just this one property, but also the entire chain. And, it will turn out to be a huge PR nightmare for this classy chain.
Why Avoid Sea View Club Room, The Leela Grand, Kovalam
When you stay with a group property of a renowned chain like the Leela that is known for its impeccable attention to detail, you are naturally paying an arm and a leg as room tariff. We were just plain lucky as we didn’t have to pay it since we were hosted. So, as a money-paying guest, the least you expect is that the property will have basic 5-star amenities and fittings in the room would work. When they don’t, and instead begin to fall apart, you get up with a start and take notice.
And after all, in 2015, we did commit US$1230 for our stay there! We were so glad we didn’t end up paying that amount at that time.
Chances are many of my readers would pay a king’s ransom to stay there. It is only fair that they at least are made aware of how things work or NOT work there. As they say, forewarned is forearmed!
In case any of you faced a similar experience here, kindly feel free to share as a comment. I will incorporate your comment as an independent review into this post itself.
Share and make it sizzle!
Discover how it is carved in stone – Rani-ki-Vav, Patan
My image has appeared in Radar section of October 2016 issue of JetWings Domestic, the in-flight magazine of Jet Airways (Domestic sectors).
Carved in stone, Rani-ki-Vav, Patan
It is said that this stunning structure, Rani-ki-Vav (The Queen’s Stepwell), was built in 11th century as a tribute to the king and founder of the Solanki Dynasty by his widowed wife, Udayamati. This 64 metre-long stepwell is seven levels deep and is embellished with over 1,500 statues. The stacking of statues on the levels as you go down the stepwell is conceptually an inversion of a typical temple that pays obeisance to water. These sculptures mostly depict Vishnu’s different avatars and the traditional solah shringaar (16 styles of adornments). Rani-ki-Vav made its way into the UNESCO Heritage List in 2014, for its outstanding architecture and creativity, and is an absolute must-see site in Gujarat.
A week back, I received an invitation from a PR agency on behalf of Ramgarh Heritage, a Rajasthani heritage property in Panchkula – they were going to host me for a couple of nights. Though I accepted the invitation, my mind was throwing up a few pertinent questions. On more than one occasion, I have found myself trapped in the so-called pseudo-Rajasthani boutique resorts; will this be another such instance? Or, Chandigarh folks reserve similar disdain for Panchkula that Mumbai townies reserve for the ‘burbs (suburbs); so, should I even consider visiting Panchkula?
All the same, the deed was done. I had accepted their hosting invitation. So, on the scheduled date, I got on to the 5.15 pm evening Chandigarh Shatabdi – a comfortable fast train that sets out from New Delhi station and takes you to Chandigarh in three and a half hours. The folks from Ramgarh Heritage received me at Chandigarh Railway Station.
Spot of Rajasthan en route Hills of Himachal
A 25-minute drive took us to the resort. Customary check-in formalities followed. The reception was plain-Jane. But as soon as I stepped out of the reception block, an imposing off-white façade with terracotta-red borders and characteristic Rajasthani domes stared me in my face. There was a well-manicured lawn to my left and a huge Bunyan tree to my right!
I was guided past the Bunyan tree to the Dining Area called Diwankhana that also offers an al fresco dining option. Being a smoker, I decided to avail of it. There, two elegant ladies from the PR agency joined me. Over drinks and dinner, they shared some information about the property and the family who had created it with their labour of love.
While the information sounded fascinating, I chose to reserve my judgement till I had personally seen the property, more particularly, the room. A couple of things I did not reserve my judgement on though was the food and the entertainment. The fare was delicious and truly Rajasthani, and the folksinger hailed from a famous Rajasthani folk singer family. His mastery over Ravanhatta, a traditional Rajasthani instrument, was remarkable!
Ethnic Modernity or Modern Ethnicity
After the meal, a resort staffer escorted me to my room. As soon as I entered the room, its ambience and aesthetics struck me as both – elegantly ethnic and comfortably modern. The room was spacious, its furnishings, tasteful, and its layout, utilitarian! A quick peep into the bathroom, and my mind was completely at rest!
The hosts had planned a village visit for me the next morning. But that was changed to a visit to Nada Sahib, a well-revered Sikh shrine close to the resort, as previous day’s unseasonal rain meant that the village roads would be mucky and not fit for a comfortable walk. I was told this village/Sikh shrine visit is an option they offer to all guests who stay with them.
Upon our return, a pleasant and humble young man, Jaideep, greeted us. I was told that the Ramgarh Heritage is his home that he’s opened up for discerning travellers and he is the son of Sardar Sahib Jagdeep Singh, the head of a branch of the Chandail family that has a 900-year history as erstwhile rulers of Bilaspur.
A touch of history
Over the next three hours, Jaideep took us around his ‘home’ that now welcomes travellers. Compared to any large hotel, this ‘home’ may not be too large, but the history that lies sprinkled around here sure is. From ancient, to medieval to ‘Raj’ days to modern, it actually is a mirror that reflects the larger picture of the history of our entire country.
From the 325-year-old Bunyan tree to a century-old kitchen utensils, from the manuscripts penned over 150 years back to the Viceregal invite to the Coronation Hall when it was resolved that the capital of India would formally move from Calcutta (known as Kolkata today) to Delhi, every artifact that adorns this restored home tells a story steeped in history of not just the Chandail family, but our entire country. When I asked about the Rajasthan connection of the family, Jaideep told me that this connection is through his maternal grandmother.
A Labour of Love
This conducted visit through the history of this home made me marvel at the time, effort, resources, and love that had gone into its restoration. To create the authentic Rajasthani feel, skilled Samod painters had worked for months to adorn the walls and ceilings of the various rooms and common areas and had created magic with their art. Since words may not do justice to the kind of art conjured up here, have a look at the images I shot of this wizardry.
While a panel displays the seven generations of the family, the stained glass work in Lotus and Peacock suites demonstrate the aesthetic bent of these multiple generations. Shikargaah, the bar, is adorned with spent 12 Bore shells from the hunting era, its walls tastefully decorated with hunting trophies and the bar stools are made with empty gun shells and saddles. The entire place reflects the lifestyle of royalty over the last few centuries. Additionally, a Victorian building built in 1937 (Jagdish Kuti), also boasts a few heritage rooms that offer a further royal feel to the guests.
In some earlier times, Chandail family used to own elephants. These elephants used to reside in Gajagraha, an area now converted into a banquets area that houses a cute splash pool. The lawns outside, called Baara, are used for banquets, weddings, and corporate dos. This improvisation makes Ramgarh Heritage a well-suited location for destination weddings as well as for conferences.
Grab a surprise
Our lunch and dinner further strengthened my earlier observation that the cuisine was authentic when ‘papad curry’, ‘gatte ki sabzi’ and ‘Lal Maans’ prepared with closely guarded family recipe was served. By the end of my stay in Ramgarh Heritage, I was convinced that it truly is a spot of Rajasthan en route hills of Himachal. Next time, as and when the hills of Himachal call you, do break your journey here and get surprised for yourself and discover this mini-Rajasthan in Haryana, just next to Chandigarh!
This post has affiliate links. While these links help me run this site and provide free content to my readers, my views remain completely unbiased. This post is about Coorg destinations, places to visit, the best time to visit, homestays, etc.
Coorg – Not a Destination, But a Region
I had spent 6 years in Bangalore. Unfortunately, during my years over there, I never visited Coorg. There were many compulsions that led to its omission, but let me not bore you with those. Suffice it to say that I corrected this anomaly and finally landed in Coorg last year!
Since I was primarily visiting Coorg for a wedding reception, I did not do my usual research. In a way, that proved to be a blessing in disguise. I say this since Coorg is not a one-town destination, but an entire region. You are likely to get confused if you were to mount your own research and create a Coorg destination itinerary.
Once there, a coffee planter friend, who also runs a Coorg homestay, drew up a practical itinerary for me. He excluded the places, which are likely to be a disappointment during the winter months. These included the various famous waterfalls like Abbey and Iruppu.
Places to see in Coorg
I was staying at The Tamara. Since my friend is also a photography enthusiast, I knew he had drawn the itinerary, keeping in mind the distances and the light during the time of the day. With that confidence, I decided to strictly follow the itinerary.
My Day-1 itinerary was:
The Tamara – Dubare Elephant Camp – Namdroling Monastery – Nisargadhama – Madikeri Fort – Omkareshwara Temple – Raja’s Tomb (Gaddige) – Valley View – Raja’s Seat for sunset – The Tamara.
It was a 153 km trip and allowed me time for photography at each of the places of interest, snacks and lunch breaks, and relaxation during the drive. I had left at around 8 am and managed to return just after sunset. A perfect day!
On to Day-2:
The Tamara – Nalknad Palace (King’s Summer Palace) – Igguthappa Temple – Tala Kaveri – Madikeri – Ain Mane – The Tamara
Again, the day involved travelling for almost 132 km; it allowed time for photography, a climb atop Brahmagiri hill (a great view point for Tala Kaveri and the surrounding area), snacks and lunch breaks, and time to unwind. Shall we say, another perfect day?
The itineraries above were the places of interest. Let us see what each listed item offered.
Dubare Elephant Camp:
You cross Kaveri River on a ferry to interact with elephants. You can get an elephant ride or even bathe them. The place also offers a tiny-weeny adrenaline fix in the form of minor rafting experience. Just remember that technically, when you go across Kaveri, you would have crossed over to Tamil Nadu.
While many regions in North India are dotted with Tibetan Monasteries, not many monasteries exist in the South. Amongst those few, Namdroling happens to be one of the most important. It is a school of monkhood. Its architecture will leave you awestruck.
Created as a visitor attraction in reserve forest area, Nisargadhama offers varied activities like elephant rides, zipline (flying fox), boat rides, etc. Here, you may also hire a riverside cottage for an overnight stay.
Do not get your hopes high. It is an apology of a fort if you have visited any of the six hill forts of Rajasthan, which have been inscribed in UNESCO Heritage Sites List. But then, the charm is to see how these minor forts also held sway during their heydays.
An almost 200-year old Shiva temple, built in Islamic and Gothic style has a dome in the middle and four minarets in the corners, almost a la Taj Mahal.
Raja’s Tombs (Gaddige):
Though these tombs are built in Islamic style, but the kings were Hindu, Lord Shiva is worshipped inside these tombs. The location is scenic.
Valley View and Raja’s Seat:
Not too far from Madikeri City Centre, Valley View and Raja’s Seat are next to each other. They offer a breath-taking view of the scenic valleys on both sides of the ridge on which Madikeri is situated. Sunsets are exceptional if viewed from here.
Nalknad Palace (King’s Summer Palace):
While it may be called a palace, this tiny abode acted almost as an exile home of the last Koduga Chief before the British deposed him. Serene surroundings and intricate painting on walls & ceiling make the place worth a visit, especially since it is just a small detour en route Tala Kaveri.
One of the two prime deities of Kodugas is worshipped here. This hilltop temple accords great view of the valleys around. Its architecture is perfectly suited to heavy monsoons faced by the region.
Believed to be the origin of Kaveri River (considered holy by Kodugas), the level of water in the holy pond remains constant. A climb atop Brahmagiri Hill accords spectacular panoramic view of the hills and valleys surrounding it.
Ain Mane (Ancestral Home):
Each of the prominent families in Coorg has an Ain Mane and these are located all over the Coorg region. These centuries-old private homes offer a glimpse into the traditional lifestyle of Kodugas. The access is only available if you work out a tour itinerary with a local operator who is connected or if you know a Koduga family who has an Ain Mane.
As you would notice, these places offer a heady mix of nature and the man-made!
Coorg is well connected by road from Mangalore, Mysore, Bengaluru and Kozhikode. Suit your convenience.
Most convenient way of packing a lot on any given day here is to hire a local taxi. The taxi drivers are helpful and most of them may double up as a guide.
Where to stay:
While you may choose to stay at a five-star resort or a budget hotel in Madikeri, remember that Coorg is one region of India that has a huge number of tourist-friendly and budget-friendly homestays.
Best time to visit:
While the weather is mostly pleasant through the year, October to April is cooler and more suited if you are planning a busy itinerary. The waterfalls are likely to be gushing in October, while you may witness a Koduga hockey tournament in April.This hockey tournament is unique as each Koduga family fields a team and these team members may vary in age from 7 to 70 years.
This month, my image of Charminar, Hyderabad has been carried in JetWings’ regular BW section called Radar.
Few structures in the world can boast about being the centrepiece around which a city developed. The Charminar in Hyderabad is one such example. Over 400 years ago, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, the fifth sultan of the Qutb Shahi dynasty and founder of Hyderabad, commissioned this awe-inspiring monument that has now become the city’s icon. It is said that he had vowed to build a mosque in the very place he prayed every day if higher powers wiped out plague from the region — a promise he went on to fulfill.
Today, the Charminar stands proudly in the midst of a bustling bazaar. The mosque occupies the top floor. Each side of the structure is 20 metres wide, while the height of each of the minarets is 49 metres.
My article on Kumbhalgarh has appeared in July 2016 issue of JetWings, the in-flight magazine of Jet Airways.
SURROUNDED BY THE MIGHTY ARAVALLI MOUNTAINS SITS THE SPLENDID KUMBHALGARH FORT IN RAJASTHAN.
A WALK DOWN HISTORY – KUMBHALGARH
Looking at a knee-high stone structure that resembled a small temple and housed a couple of vermillion-covered stone idols, I was intrigued and asked my guide about it. He told me it was the Bhairon Temple, and noticing my raised eyebrows added, “No. It is not the Indian deity Bhairava, but a monk, Bhairon Singh, after whom the temple takes its name.”
A Story of Supreme Sacrifice
This piqued my curiosity. He went on to tell me a tale of extreme sacrifice. He mentioned that when Rana Kumbha, the then ruler of Mewar, was getting this fort built, the construction completed during the day would mysteriously crumble and fall apart in the night. Rana suspected sabotage. He assigned the fact-finding task to his trusted general.
A few nights of vigil later, the general reported that the happening seems otherworldly and no one was indulging in any foul play. Rana asked around to check the probable causes for these weird episodes. The general came across the monk, Bhairon Singh, who told Rana that they would be able to build the fort only if someone voluntarily sacrifices his life for the cause.
Bhairon Singh noticed that Rana was worried and he willingly offered to sacrifice his life, but on the condition that his name be kept alive even after his death. Rana agreed and kept his promise. The spot from where Bhairon Singh started his sacrificial walk was where the main entrance of the fort (Hanuman Pol or Hanuman Gate) had been built; the spot where he sacrificed himself was where this little temple had been built; and the spot where Bhairon Singh’s body finally fell became the main entrance to the palace.
A War Strategist and an Architect
Rana Kumbha is credited with an astonishing feat of having built 84 forts—of which he designed 32! As a brave military strategist, some of the forts built by him have a glittering track record of seldom having fallen to the enemy. Kumbhalgarh is one of the forts that was both, designed and built by Rana.
Rana selected this unique location for strategic reasons—anyone approaching the fort could not see it till he was just about a kilometre from the fort, meaning that when the enemy would get a glimpse of the fort, he would concurrently be spotted by the fort guards—a definite strategic advantage. The fort was built on a ridge that separated the arid side of Aravallis from the fertile pasture. Thus, in case an escape became necessary during a battle, it was easier to flee into the thick vegetation cover.
The Great Wall of India
An astonishing fact unknown to most is that after the Great Wall of China, Kumbhalgarh Fort’s peripheral wall is the longest one in the world. The wall runs around the perimeter of the fort for a modest 36 km and is wide enough for eight horses to stand side by side.
Kumbhalgarh Fort was built in the 1440s and its construction took 16 years to be completed. The fort houses approx. 360 temples—of which 300 are Jain temples and the rest are dedicated to other Hindu deities. Along with five other hill forts of Rajasthan, Kumbhalgarh Fort was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013.
The highest point of the fortress is Badal Mahal (Palace of Clouds). It is here that Maharana Pratap, one of the legendary rulers of Mewar, was born.
Given its vantage, one can see sand dunes of the Thar Desert from the fort on a clear day. Kumbhalgarh Fort has only been captured once during its entire history; this was because the fort ran out of water despite having one of the most sophisticated rainwater harvesting systems in place at that time. It did not fall to a single army, but to the joint armies of Mughal Emperor Akbar, Raja Man Singh (Amer), Raja Udai Singh (Marwar) and the Sultan of Gujarat.
During your next trip to Rajasthan, make it a point to visit this magnificent heritage marvel.
While in the state, you could also make a short trip to Haldi Ghati and the Ranakpur Jain Temple, both detours on the Udaipur-Kumbhalgarh route.
Just a couple of days back, my Photo Feature on offbeat destinations of Kashmir went online on Condenast Traveller’s site. To view it on CNTI site, click here. The Photo Feature is reproduced here:
The Unsung Kashmir:
While Kashmir may have been making the news for wrong reasons lately, it undoubtedly has been Bollywood’s darling location for film shoots for many decades. Little wonder visitors have already explored whatever there was to explore here. Or have they?
Here is a glimpse of hitherto less-visited places in a region that answers to the sobriquet – Paradise on Earth!
In March 2016, I had been accorded the privilege of covering Krishna Ras Times Passion Trail by The Time of India. A much-abridged version of this appeared in TimesLife of 1st May 2016. I bring to you my detailed first hand experience of this trail under the title – ‘Krishna – My Friend!’
In for a shock!
I was at Shrinathdwara. Most of us may know it by its informal name – Nathdwara – a small town around 40 km. from Udaipur.
“Here, you may chide, curse or scold Krishna as much as you like!”
“Yes. This is not a temple!”
Instantly, a million thoughts flashed through my mind! Religion, sacrilege, pilgrimage, lord, taboo, god, incredulity, devotion, belief, blasphemy, and many more – the kaleidoscope of spinning emotions was breaking every conceivable rpm limit! Deep within, these niggling thoughts sprouted from never having been told since I was a child that I could, even in my dreams, be abusive towards our gods.
Let me rewind a little!
Just 3 days before I reached Nathdwara, I had joined a heterogeneous group of about 35 people. This group came together courtesy Times Passion Krishna Ras Trail whose experience architect was none other than Dr. Pushpesh Pant, a best-selling recipe book author, a colourful human being, an academician who spent 41 teaching years at JNU and a Padma Shri recipient. These folks were from all across India. In fact, we later realised that this group represented at least 13 Indian states.
We met at ISKCON Temple in Delhi. It was here that this unusual trail started. The raison d’être of this trail was to visit and partake prasadam from numerous important Krishna temples of North India and experience the various Rasas it evoked in our senses (hence the name – Times Passion Krishna Ras Trail).
Over the next 3 days, we travelled around 800 km. in a Volvo luxury coach, visited 5 towns, took blessings in 7 significant Krishna temples, heard Bhagwad Gita and its interpretations, shared our understanding of various facets of Krishna’s life and generally cut ourselves off from the usual world we lived in.
At ISKCON Delhi, we were initiated into the significance of prasadam and what ingredients qualify for it. It was not just a whimsical discourse, but had its roots in Bhagwad Gita. Thereafter, we honoured (yes, we do NOT eat, but honour) prasadam.
The ISKCON volunteers escorted us through their Vedic Expo – a stunning display of permanent sets, video projections, dazzling play of lights and an impressive commentary that revolved around the fundamentals from Bhagwad Gita.
Next, we participated in the Shayan Aarti conducted in typical ISKCON way, with saffron-clad devotees singing, playing instruments and swaying to the devotional hymns. Honouring the shayan prasadam after the aarti concluded, wrapped up the day. Mr. Mohan Das, President – ISKCON Delhi, had facilitated this remarkable experience.
An early departure and a packed breakfast in bus next morning helped us reach Mathura in good time. We disembarked at a convenient place and made our way on foot to a location where history meets mythology – Krishna Janmbhoomi. An informational signboard told us that the place dates back 5257 years – ostensibly the era when Krishna took birth here.
This place had seen ravages of time and of aggressors. A few demolitions and a few re-builds had raised the level of this location by approximately 20-25 metres, but the trust that manages the shrine has created an access to the basement to ensure that the original place of birth is accessible.
The prasadam here was what Krishna used to steal – makhan-mishri (fresh butter infused with crystalised sugar). It was offered to us in tiny earthen pots (Kulli). Upon enquiring how we should consume it, we were told to do what Krishna used to – lick it clean with your fingers!
Our next destination was ISKCON Vrindavan. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON, had laid its foundation stone. It is spread over a large area and also houses a school run by ISKCON. Besides the usual education, this school also focusses on the education for the soul. Our group was treated to an hour-long discourse and sharing from Bhagwad Gita here. The prasadam experience was in a common dining area behind the temple where everyone sat together and ate.
Evening took us to Prem Mandir. Spread over a large area, there is only one phrase that describes this place – garish opulence. Besides well-manicured gardens in front, the structure is made from marble. The illumination keeps giving it different striking hues every couple of minutes. The precincts have permanent displays from life of Krishna – carrying Govardhan Parbat on his little finger,Raas, Shehsnaag, etc. This place also has an illuminated musical fountains show that tries hard to project Krishna Leela on a water wall.
After this, we proceeded to the holiest of the holy temple in Vrindavan – Shri Banke Bihari temple. We were just in time for the shayan aarti and the temple priest welcomed us here with saffron stoles. Legend has it that the idol of this temple is a merged idol of Radha and Krishna.
A few hours of bus journey next morning took us to Jaipur. Our first stop here was Shri Govind Dev Ji temple. The idol in this temple had been brought from Krishna Janmbhoomi in Mathura after it was salvaged from the debris that were a result of the demolition of Janmbhoomi temple by the Mughals.
We were in time for the Chhappan Bhog (an offering of 56 dishes) ceremony here. This ceremony, though not an everyday affair since it is dependent on whether any devotee has made a Chhappan Bhog offering to the temple, ends up happening on almost 25 days in a month!
Shortly afterwards, we experienced the Rachna Jhanki at this temple. This is an annual ritual that happens just for a fortnight around Holi. It is an unusual Shringar Jhanki wherein the Krishna idol is outfitted in muslin or cotton and the shringar (make-up) is done with Holi gulaal after the idol has been dressed. The experience was celestial!
The prasadam here was divine. Since we sat on the floor and honoured it, to get up off the floor after consuming it we had to dig deep into our will power reserves. The rest of the day was fruitfully utilised by the group variously – filling it with activities like shopping, visits to the monuments in Jaipur, a repeat visit to Shri Govind Dev Ji temple in the evening, etc.
Next morning, we set out on the longest drive of this trail – from Jaipur to Nathdwara. We stopped by near Kishangarh for tea and breakfast and it was around 2pm that we reached Nathdwara. The darshan at the Srinathdwara Haveli (yes, that’s right – Haveli, since this is not a temple!) was at 3.30 pm.
Krishna – My Friend!
It was here that our escort mentioned that we could call Krishna names, swear at him and scold him!
He then went on to explain the reason. This Haveli is where Krishna continues to live in his child manifestation (Bal Gopal) and hence it is not a temple. Devotees come here not as worshippers but as his friends. The way you may complain to and scold a friend, the same way you could call Bal Gopal names for things he may not have done for you or done wrongly for you.
This explanation was a revelation! Having grown up revering and worshipping our gods, seeing him suddenly as a friend was a completely new way of looking at the Supreme Being! With all the mixed feelings mentioned in the beginning, I looked back at the roller coaster we had been through in the last 4 days.
For the first time I realised that Krishna is perhaps the only god amongst the plethora of Hindu deities who is worshipped not just in one manifestation, but in many! He is adored and loved in his child avatar, seen as a saviour in his adolescence, as an eradicator of evil during various life-stages, as a beacon that shows the way in his Sarathi manifestation from Mahabharat and as a consort for all in his Banka avatar (Dandy!).
At Nathdwara, we also experienced the devotional singing of Manasvi Vyas, a prodigy who has not learnt music but has a god-gifted talent.
This journey was not just any ordinary travel. It made my soul richer through experiences curated to touch all senses. Deep within, I cannot stop thanking Times Passion Krishna Ras trail for having evoked such consciousness in me!
Share and make it sizzle!
Expand your travel bucket list by subscribing to TRAVELURENewsletter! It is FREE!