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)
It was summer of 2012. My elder daughter, who was just 20 then and was doing her graduation with an offshore London School of Economics-affiliate (LSE-affiliate) college, got selected to do her summers in London. It was going to be a 6-week residential programme.
Like most Indian parents, while we were proud, we were also concerned about her first-ever solo stay in an alien town. So, after some intense family deliberations, my wife nominated me to accompany her and see if the stay and other arrangements were satisfactory.
Here, let me just remind you that summer of 2012 was Olympics-time in London! Though a popular phrase goes – “All roads lead to Rome”, around that time, the world had replaced ‘Rome’ with ‘London’. This little fact ensured that my trip cost was going to be through the roof.
As a travel photographer and writer, I naturally wanted to make the most of this… er… opportunity. After all, it was going to be my first-ever visit to London!
All the same, with due consideration to the budget, I decided to keep my stay in London short. So, three nights it was. In this city packed with places of interest of all hues. But then, something is better than no something!
After settling her in, I started my brief sojourn with London. The more I saw, the more I fell in love with it. Besides the usual day-long London city sightseeing trip, I explored the city on my own too. I was truly on the move there!
So, let’s see what all I managed
The city has 4 UNESCO World Heritage sites – The Tower of London, Kew Gardens, the site comprising Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster, and St Margaret’s Church, and the historic settlement of Greenwich where the Royal Observatory marks 0° longitude, the Prime Meridian, and GMT. I managed to visit three of these, but ran out of time and had to skip Kew Gardens. A pity, really!
At the Tower of London, I took a Beefeater tour (Yeoman Warder tour) and visited the Crown Jewels vault and saw the Koh-I-Noor diamond. I took a Verger Tour of the Westminster Abbey and clicked a photograph (with Verger’s permission) of the first grave in the Abbey – that of Edward the Confessor. I stood astride the brass (or is it copper?) strip that marks the Prime Meridian.
I did a ride on the famed London Eye. I did a short cruise over Thames. I took a walk through Hyde Park and swung past Royal Albert Hall. I admired the artists and their gorgeous art near the National Gallery. I saw a unicyclist perform at the Covent Garden. I also witnessed the ceremonial change of guard at the Buckingham Palace.
I spent some time in Trafalgar Square; though, the pigeons I saw Amrish Puri feeding in ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’ (the biggest hit Bollywood has ever produced) had gone missing by then! I had a pint of beer at Sherlock Holmes – a pub on Northumberland Street that was established in 1736! I watched the Spain vs Italy Euro Cup finals at Buckingham Arms in Westminster area.
Heck… I even managed a day trip to Salisbury and checked out Stonehenge – another UNESCO World Heritage site.
Well, I did manage a lot, but I have some regrets… regrets of not being able to do many more things.
Let me share some of those
I missed out on visiting Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. I also did not have enough time to make it to the Museum of Brands (this one is of special interest to me as I have spent 27 years in Advertising!). Though I am an avid Hard Rock Café T-shirt collector, I could not find time to visit this iconic destination in London.
I did go past Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, but I could not see a show there. I missed out on seeing the great displays at the Tate Modern and the National Gallery. Remember that popular TV show – Crystal Maze? I was a big fan of the show. And naturally, I wanted to take on the Crystal Maze in Zone One. But, I couldn’t.
I also did not manage Ripley’s Believe it or Not at Piccadilly Circus. Or the London Zoo. Or the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221b Baker Street. Or the Royal Opera House. Or even the Museum of London. Or… well, there is so much more I wanted to do in London that this list can be endless!
Why this post now?
I chanced upon the British Airways (BA) page recently and discovered they had unleashed some bonanzas – exclusively for their customers. BA customers enjoy special shopping discounts at multiple outlets across London (for the whole list, CLICK HERE). They are offering their lowest fares – with hotel stays thrown in! I found a return ticket with a 5-night hotel stay, breakfast included, for just Rs. 54,106!!!
They have also suggested some real cost-saving itineraries under various heads. Check these out HERE.
And, the icing on the cake – British Pound that used to hover around Rs. 100 is now at Rs. 82.
I feel this is too good an opportunity to let go. So, I am going to book a trip right now! Those of you who have always wanted to visit this great city but have been deterred by the high costs should also do the same. As they say, opportunity knocks but once!
Like I said – A good time to visit London? Now! Happy Travels!
Pack up is a jargon that photographers and filming crews use. It is a bold announcement of ‘end of the work for the day’. It also means that the equipment may now go back to the storeroom, as it won’t be required again till the next work shift starts.
Even as a travel photographer and a solo worker, there is a time of the day when I announce ‘pack up’ to myself. The ‘pack up’ time may vary. If it is a city destination that I am covering, it could be late in the night as my plan may include shooting low-light shots of city life or night cityscapes. But if I am doing a road trip to a nearby attraction, the ‘pack up’ may happen as soon as I finish shooting the attraction and am on my way back.
After ‘pack up’, most photographers follow an unwritten rule – No Camera! And, I am no different. Even I follow this rule!
But then, not all photographers are travel photographers. As a travel photographer, there are times after the ‘pack up’, when I wish I were prepared to capture the moment because my trip may present unusual photo-ops! These photo-ops may be a chance meeting with a celebrity, a spontaneous get-together at my hotel, a breathtaking sight that catches my eye as I turn the street corner, or any of a million more eventualities that may throw themselves at me! These are the times that leave me with a regret – the regret of being unprepared.
Additionally, being a professional photographer also puts some extra pressure on me – the pressure of capturing even my casual images in acceptable quality. Sub-optimal images won’t do!
So, when Vivo approached me with their V5 (a stylish smartphone with a camera) and requested me to do a field test, they specifically mentioned about its 20mp front camera and its moonlight selfie capability. Have a look at this beauty HERE.
Now, what does that capability mean?
For the photographer in me, it spells freedom – freedom of lugging around my gear after ‘pack up’. And still having the option of capturing decent images in those after-hours, even in low-light situations. I readily accepted the offer of doing this field test!
I shot some low-light shots that would normally turn out to be pathetic. I shot erratically moving subject, some still life, neon lights and other signage and the results were satisfactory. All those worked well for me.
May be you should also give it a shot?
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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!
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Delhi-Perth return for only US$250 (Rs.16,856). No Kidding!
In case you haven’t booked your year-end travel yet, read on and save!
Delhi-Perth return for only US$250 (Rs.16,856). No Kidding!
Lately I have been flying around a lot. Now, how much is ‘a lot’? Well, this year, I have done a little over 85,000 kilometers till now and the year is not over yet!
Earlier, like you, I used to pay what any of us would be paying for a normal air ticket. But it is not so any more.
And what’s my secret? It is…
Well, not so fast! We’ll come to it soon enough!
My Normal Cheap Air Fare Search Methodology
I would decide on a destination. I would decide on dates. I would decide on the acceptable basket of airlines. And hit Google Search. Google Search would throw up fares on those dates and would point me to the sources. I would head out to those sites, make some fine-tuning and book!
Sure, I was getting relatively cheaper airfares. But nothing came close to what I have started getting now.
My New Cheap Air Fare Search Methodology
A Caveat: Be Flexible. You can book and then apply for leave 🙂
So, what’s that secret source of savings? Well, I just discovered a magic bullet called ‘Everywhere Search’ on the Skyscanner App.
Download the app by clicking on the links below (While you could download this app from anywhere, please do so from here; it may win me a free ticket. Thanks for your help!):
Briefly, in just a few clicks. See below the step-by-step guide to using it and making those elusive destinations come closer to you.
Step 1: Fill in your airport of origin (in the example below, mine’s New Delhi)
Step 2: Fill ‘Everywhere’ in the destination field
Step 3: Click on the calendar to fill in the dates of travel. It gives you two options – ‘Specific Date’ and ‘Whole Month’. Click on ‘Whole Month’ option.
Step 4: A drop down menu open underneath ‘Whole Month’. In the options offered, click on the option that says ‘Cheapest Month’.
Step 5: A long list of countries with the fares in ascending order opens out. Select the destination that you like (of course from amongst the top few cheapest destinations).
Step 6: A drop down list opens under the destination country that further gives you the destination cities in that country and the respective fares to that city. Click on the one you like and airline options open up.
Step 7: Select the journey start date with the cheapest airfare (it would be shown in green) and then proceed to select the return date (again choose the fare shown in green). The total will appear on the bottom grey panel. This total may vary a little from the lowest shown in the previous screen – depending on the selected journey dates (the lowest will actually total up to what was shown in the previous screen).
Step 8: Click ‘Show Flights’ and you’ll see your cheapest option on top. Click on ‘Select’ to book.
TBEX Asia 2016 was recently held in Manila. Just before it commenced, Tourism Promotions Board, Philippines organised a pre-TBEX tour for us to Corregidor Island.
As the first line of defense for Manila (Luzon Island), Corregidor was of strategic importance during WW-II. Additionally, it was an important WW-II base for the US Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE).
Eerie, not abandoned – Malinta Tunnel, Corregidor Island, Philippines
Besides other ruins that tell the WW-II story of Far East, Malinta Tunnel bored as a shaft under Malinta Hill, is an important landmark here. Interestingly, sparse resources were used to build this tunnel. These included expired TNT, obsolete equipment, convicted labour, and Japanese cement. Its construction finished in 1932.
Architecturally, the general layout of the tunnel comprises the main artery (similar to a petiole of a leaf) with numerous laterals branching out as the veins of a leaf would. Overall, despite an all-pervading eeriness of this tunnel, it has not been abandoned given its historical significance. Instead, the Philippines government has accorded it the status of a national historical treasure.
While the tunnel was constructed as a bombproof shelter for the army personnel and ordnance, it was used as a 1000-bed hospital during the heightened action of WW-II. Here, many soldiers died before the Japanese army forced the US and Filipino soldiers to surrender on May 6, 1942.
How fierce was the Battle of Corregidor?
Very. The WW-II records show that in a single 5-hour stretch, 1.8 million pounds of explosives rained on the island. And an estimate of the loss of life here during this battle? Over 900 Japanese soldiers and over 800 US and Filipino soldiers.
Subsequently, the island was retaken by the US forces on the night of February 23, 1945, by blocking off the tunnel exit through continuous gunfire. As a result, over 3000 Japanese soldiers committed mass suicide by detonating explosives inside the tunnel – one of the largest instances of a mass suicide. Till today, the Philippines government has not excavated the laterals damaged by these detonations.
Attention! Ghosts Ahoy!
Today, legend has it that ghosts haunt the tunnel – thanks to many traumatised people having died here. In fact, Corregidor Island features amongst many ‘top 10’ lists of haunted islands.
Today, Malinta Tunnel is the venue of a Sound & Light show that recreates the events of WW-II. For this purpose, many permanent dioramas have been placed here. These depict the routine life of soldiers in the tunnel, their pastimes, the important events that happened on this battle stage, the conversion of the tunnel into a 1000-bed hospital, etc.
These days, only Sun Cruises can organise a trip to Corregidor Island. They conduct a day/overnight trip to the island. Cost-wise, the day trip is PHP 2100 approx. while the overnight trip sets you back an additional PHP 1500.
Traveller friends, if you are fond of exploring the WW-II sites or are fascinated by the paranormal, do visit Corregidor Island. After all, It is just a stone’s throw away from Manila!
My story, A Tucked-Away Town – Gammelstad, has appeared in October 2016 issue of JetWings International – the in-flight magazine for international sectors of Jet Airways.
Exploring Sweden’s best-preserved church town, Gammelstad
As we approached Gammelstad, the imposing Nederluleå Church filled the horizon. Our guide, a summer volunteer, pointed at the imposing structure and said, “This church was built by the Swedish to stake a claim on the territory rather than with the intention to propagate religion.”
We had driven from Luleå, a city on the coast of northern Sweden, to Gammelstad to see its deep-red cottages, over 400 in number. The church town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
In 1323, a peace treaty was signed between Sweden and Novgorod Republic, a medieval Slavic state that extended from Baltic Sea to regions of modern Russia. In those days, the boundaries of the two countries were not clearly defined, thus resulting in attempts of colonisation. The first move to assert its lien on the territory was made by Sweden in 1492 when the stone church was inaugurated.
Across the road from the church is the Visitor Centre, a good place to start a tour of the town. The Centre regales the town’s history with an exhibition, slideshows, and brochures. Our guide took us through the architectural model of the town, complementing it with stories from the medieval times – the narration was nothing short of a period drama!
The church town tradition
Nederluleå Church was the pivot of community life for villages within a radius of 15 kilometres. Though privately owned, the cottages were not meant for permanent residence – the pilgrims resided in these wooden cottages during religious festivals, when owing to the distance, travelling to and fro from their village was difficult.
These cottages had no water supply, no heating facility, and no provision for cooking. Even today, these church cottages are used in the traditional way – there is no running water, no open flames are allowed, and the cottages can be used for not more than one night. This spartan lifestyle continues to define the church town, even today.
Things changed in 1621 when the town got its city rights. Luleå was initially founded here and it transformed from being a temporary church town to a town of residents. That worked well for a few years but, in 1649, Luleå was moved to its current location, 10 km away from Gammelstad, to meet the growing demands of an expanding maritime trade. This development led to Gammelstad re-assuming its church town role. A beached ship that we discovered during our walk through the town is a telltale of the times when Gammelstad was a harbour.
Around the town
The construction of the Nederluleå Church started in the 15th century and continued into the early 16th century. The church has a huge organ that was inaugurated in 1971.
During our visit, we engaged in baking bread using a flat stone oven and making butter. The pilgrims, during their stay, made their own bread here. Making butter entailed churning buttermilk in a tall wooden barrel – a rhythmic process emitting sounds akin to a traditional percussion instrument.
At one of the eateries, you are served the bread you have baked with evening tea – a tradition practiced in Gammelstad for the last 400 years. Interestingly, it is said that while all pilgrims baked bread, making butter was restricted to the well-heeled as butter was used as currency in those days.
We had another culinary surprise in store for us. In the heart of the town, we savoured a seven-course exotic meal at Kaptensgården. A fine dining restaurant, Kaptensgården serves preparations made from local meats and ingredients. The menu ranged from ptarmigan to quail, white fish to salmon, reindeer to chicken and much more.
After lunch, we visited the Hägnan Open Air Museum – a town cottage converted into a museum. A walk through Hägnan, along with its large vintage key, takes you closer to the lifestyle of the town. Amidst the small red cottages, stands a fairly sizeable farmhouse, which is Gammelstad’s mayor’s house.
Gammelstad, with its humble cottages, is a remarkable example of the traditional church town of northern Scandinavia. Instantly allowing you to travel back in time, this is indeed a travel experience not to be missed!
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!
Outlook Group is a leading media house in India. They are normally on the leading edge of innovation in the field of news and communication in India. This year being their 21st anniversary, they have launched another ‘first’ in the country – the Outlook Social Media Awards (OSM Awards, pronounced ‘Awesome Awards’).
More details about these awards are HERE and more details about Outlook Group are HERE.
Social Media Oscars – OSM Awards
The industry observers have already labelled these awards as the Social Media Oscars and this being its inaugural year, the prestige associated with winning it is unparalleled.
I was nominated late into these awards in ‘Shutterbug of the Year’ (‘Photographer of the Year’) category. I know some friend of mine had nominated me, but despite asking around, I still haven’t figured out who.
Besides me, there are 12 other photographers in this category – some known, some unknown (actually, there were more, but some names were removed by the award screening committee as they felt those nominations did not meet the basic criterion of the category/awards).
I discovered about my nomination on 1st September 2016 and realised that I am at a princely ZERO PERCENT votes, while some contenders had already surged ahead with over 20% votes.
To escape the ignominy of being at zero percent, I appealed to my online friends through my Facebook profile, Facebook page, some Facebook groups, Facebook Messenger, and Twitter. As a result, I started inching ahead. My friends have been good to me – they have voted repeatedly. Three weeks later, I found myself ahead of all the other contenders in the category.
That is when I was approached by the Outlook Group and was invited as a frontrunner for the Award Ceremony scheduled for 5th of October 2016.
Catch Up Game
The day before yesterday, I realised that another contender had crept dangerously close in terms of the percentage of votes. I renewed my appeal to my friends and they again responded in hordes. In fact, I am touched as many of them have taken it upon themselves to ensure I remain ahead. They have been sharing my ‘appeal for votes’ posts, retweeting my voting link tweets, posting the appeals for votes in some more groups, their own Facebook walls, their friends’ Facebook walls – in short, they are leaving no stone unturned to ensure that I continue to lead.
This has resulted in the gap between me and the nearest contender widening again.
Why this post?
Since the voting closes tomorrow, my friends may still VOTE FOR ME twice – once today and once tomorrow. The link for voting is HERE.
Please vote to ensure I win this inaugural OSM Shutterbug of the Year Award. If you have voted, shared this link, or have retweeted, please do leave a comment. Many thanks in advance!
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.
In August 2016 issue of JetWings International, my image from Wailing Wall, Jerusalem appeared in their regular BW section – Radar. The text was by editorial team from JetWings International.
Conversations with God. Old City, Jerusalem
A holy place for Jews, the Kotel HaMa’aravi or Western Wall located in the Old City of Jerusalem is a 187-foot-high section of limestone wall— a remnant of the Temple Mount complex, built by Herod the Great, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Devotees come here to pray, lament the loss of their temple and also pour their hearts out to God; these conversations with divine powers are sometimes so heartfelt that it is often referred to as the ‘Wailing Wall’.
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