Mesmerizing #Cambodia – Valley of Thousand Lingas – Kbal Spean

Mesmerizing #Cambodia – Valley of Thousand Lingas – Kbal Spean

On a trip to any country in South East Asia, it is a rarity to not come across a Hindu Temple – Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia, all of them have benefited from contacts which they have had with India over the centuries.

Map of SOuth east Asia 900 CE showing various kingdoms
THe region of Kambuja had deep connects with India between the 6th/7th century right up to the 12th/13th century. Not only Kambuja, Monstates(present day Myanmar), Champa (central and south vietnam), Annam (North Vietnam), Java and Malaya regions too benefited from Indian influence – all without use of force or economic coercion

Historian RC Majumdar writes in his lecture series, Ancient Indian Colonization in South-east Asia, “The term Hindu is used here in a very broad sense. As is well-known, the word Hindu is derived from Sindhu, the name of the mighty river on the western border of India. The parsis used this name to denote also the territory lying on the bank of the river, that is to say that part of our country which was known to them. Gradually the name Sindhu in its phonetically changed form Hindu came to denote the whole of this country. Advent of the Muslims necessitated the use of two different terms to denote the two distinct classes of people. Henceforth the term Hindu came to denote the people of India other than the Muslims.”

This Diwali vacation, i had the opportunity to visit Cambodia, a vibrant tourist hotspot famed for the UNESCO world heritage Angkor Wat temples, beach city of Sihanoukville, historic capital city of Pnohm Penh and of course the mighty Mekong river which emerges from Tibet and nourishes countries on its way before emptying in to the South China Sea.

With Siem Reap being the only stop in #Cambodia, my effort was to go beyond Angkor Wat and explore the visible remnants of the region and how Indian culture had an influence. One such place of Interest is Kbal Spean, an Angkor era archeological site which is also called as the Valley of 1000 lingas.

Before embarking on a trip to Kbal Spean, one has to purchase the Angkor Pass – One day for USD 37, Three day for USD 62 and Seven day for USD 72. These are available at the complex on the main road to Angkor Wat. Kbal Spean is an hour’s ride from Siem Reap and the access begins at the Kulein mountains. Enroute is another major temple complex of Banteay Srei with Banteay Samre being a detour. The three put together form a day excursion. It is important to note the timings in order to avoid disappointment.

The walk to the valley of the 1000 lingas begins at a checkpoint. It is 1.5 kms but takes a good 40 minutes as one navigates slippery rocks and rough terrain. Stairs are available at steep climbing points but one definitely needs to watch their step at every point to avoid a fall. Pause and take a look at breathtaking views of the forests below, the rainforest canopy, natural rocky outcrops, tough creepers and climbers and of course a few reptiles. There are countdown boards egging you on during the short but tricky trek.

Way to Kbal Spean where nature mesmerizes you
The Walk to Kbal Spean from the base camp is about 1.5 kms and takes a good 40 minutes across boulders, rocky paths, natural rocky outcrops, valley views and beautiful creepers and vines

For the majority of visitors Kbal Spean is a picnic spot with a waterfall to cool off; The first sight of the lingas carved in to the river bed just made me bring my palms in union. It was not just about the reliefs of Siva, Vishnu, Brahma, Lakshmi that were carved in to the river bed but how the thoroughness with which Indian culture and civilization , in all its aspects would have been imbibed in Kambuja (ancient name of the great kingdom of present day Cambodia)

Two bas relief's showcasing the trinity brahma, vishnu and siva
Top above, Siva and Parvati on Nandi; Vishnu reclined on sesha with Brahma emerging from his navel. Below – Lord vishnu, Brahma and lakshmi on a lotus at Vishnu’s feet

Scholars, priests, merchants and persons of various hues who travelled from India to Kambuja desa left a distinct imprint whether it was about a religious, ethical & spiritual life, spirit of piety & renunciation and most importantly the concept of emancipation from birth & deaths. A peek in to texts of scholars, archeologists and historians who have taken immense pains to read through inscriptions (In sanskrit and Khmer) will tell us that all the cultural maturity was achieved between the 6th century and 12th century. The indian influence was without any force or economic colonization. The 700 golden years of Kambuja desa ended as India was trampled upon by the Mughal empire and Cambodia remained a French protectorate till atleast the 19th century.

Images of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva
Brahma, Vishnu and Siva at various points in rocks strewn across the river bed in Kbal Spean

The site at Kbal Spean was discovered by Jean Boulbet, french ethnologist in the year 1969. Cut off during the Cambodian civil war, it was not until 1989 that the site was thrown open for visitors.

4 images of lingams and snanadronis at various places on the river bed
Not only the presence of lingas on the river bed, there are a number of Snanadronis without their lingams. Snanadronis are sculpted structures which drain the water flowing over the lingam

During the period from 6th and 12th century, Kambuja Desa began as a Saivite (rever Shiva as the supreme being) kingdom. The Angkor Wat temple was dedicated to Vishnu (Vaishnavite – Vishnu as the supreme being) around mid 12th century before Kambuja desa embraced Theravada buddhism as its main religion. The Kbal Spean site is said to have been carved during the 11th and 12th century which saw the reigns of some of the greatest kings of Kambuja – Suryavarman I and his successor UdayadityaVarman II. The kings had laid out very clear rules in society – conduct of oneself, treatment of seers & the learned and priests & physicians being held in high esteem.

Lord Siva is venerated across many temples in the world. THe most commonly worshipped form is the linga and the linga is kept cool with a continuous dripping of water at its head. The Kbal spean site with its “SahasraLingas” (1000 lingas in Sanskrit) has a continuous stream of water flowing on top of it. The water having flown over the sacred lingas enters the city of Angkor thereby said to be blessing the city.

Lingas on the river bed and representation of Shakti
The full stretch of the river bed over which the river flows bathing the lingams perpetually and keeping them happy and cool. There is also a grid pattern with the water flowing out representing the Yoni, a representation of Shakti, Siva’s consort

The carving sites have been fenced off to ensure that visitors dont desecrate the holy site. Still, one can reach out and grab a hanful of the cool water that has flown over the lingas and drink up without fear of any contamination. On a hot afternoon it is an absolute delight.

Walking downstream one can watch revellers below a cataract which further flows over many more lingas before meandering its way through the forests and entering the city of Angkor.

4 images of a rainforest stream, waterfall, a chamelon and tree mushrooms
The downstream area of Kbal spean is full of vibrance. Cataracts, reptiles, mushrooms and beautiful Rain forests dot the landscape

Having visited Kailash Mansarovar in the year 2015, the import of the visit to Kbal Spean and the opportunity to be in his presence was not lost on me. The place is pure energy and brought out a determination in my wife who despite a tricky trek was able to make it and savor the moment.

After this visit, i came back and immersed myself in two books by a highly respected historian of India – Shri R.C Majumder. Kambuja Desa – An Ancient Hindu Colony in Cambodia (Sir William Meyer Lectures 1942 – 43) and Ancient Indian Colonization in South East Asia (The Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad Honorarium Lecture, 1953-54). These opened the door to understand the extent of influence of India in the region. Needless to say, i am restless to go back to Cambodia and explore other wonderful places of the Kambuja Empire.

Getting to Siem Reap – Siem Reap is served by major Flag Carriers who also service india. Regular services from major Indian cities to #Bangkok (Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways), #Kualalumpur (Malaysian) and #Singapore (Singapore/SilkAir) will get you to Siem Reap with just one halt. The Visa facility too has been eased with the introduction of e-visas. Hotels are in plenty and one can find hotels to suit one’s budget with the assistance of an excellent ground travel agent. Travel agents offer excellent service right from suggestions on hotels to suit budgets, tying up with a registered guide, park tickets based on the interests and other add ons like a visit to the magnificient Tonle Sap lake.

#Amritsar Memories : Attari – #Wagah border and FarmStay #vacations

#Amritsar Memories : Attari – #Wagah border and FarmStay #vacations

Part 1 of my blog on a rejuvenated Amritsar focused on the newest attraction in town, The Partition Museum, dedicated to the pain and suffering endured by millions during one of the largest and most brutal mass migration in history. The museum has since officially opened for viewing and more sections are being opened in a phased manner.

Part 2 focused on the serene Darbar Sahib (The Golden Temple), Akhal Takht, Sarovar and its surroundings. I spent a whole afternoon exploring the nooks and corners of the Darbar sahib complex, learning about the contributions made by the Sikh Gurus, ordinary folk, Armed forces, Agricultural community and the role of Punjab in shaping the history of this great country.

In the 3rd part, i share my experiences and feelings about the newly minted precincts of The Heritage street, another tragic memorial from the freedom struggle – The Jallianwala Bagh and finally the humble Guru ka Langar.

In the Fourth part, I wrote about various dishes on offer and also introduced readers to other Vloggers who have been covering the Amrtisar food scene with so much of passion

The final part of the Amritsar experience is rounded off by a visit to the Attari (Indian Side village) – Wagah (Pakistan side village) border and a visit to a Farm Stay, a concept that seems to be catching up and should a huge boost to the tourism sector and thereby incomes in the state.

My visit to the India – Pakistan border which falls between #Attari village on the Indian side and #Wagah border on the Pakistan side was planned a saturday. All previous traveller accounts including those of my wife and in-laws spoke of an exciting spectacle comprising of dances, singing and finally the Beating of the retreat finally culminating in the lowering of flags and slam closing of the gates. I was eagerly looking forward to this experience. The ceremony has almost gone on uninterrupted since 1959 except during periods of confrontation on other parts of the border. While the Border Security Force leads from the Indian side, the Pakistan side is led by the Pakistan Rangers.

The drive from the centre of #Amritsar takes about 45 minutes to an hour. With the ceremony expected to start by 5 PM, we assumed that reaching with an hour to spare would help me get an entry and a seat at the stadium.  We were wrong! From the parking area to the entry point it is a mile and to my surprise i found that the crowds that were pouring in far outnumbered the capacity of the stadium. Since entry was on a first come first served basis, the crowds i was given to understand were pouring in from noon and had occupied the stadium unmindful of the scorching pre-summer sun.

Busloads of tourists were alighting, civilian defence personnel were getting in to the stadium with valid ID papers, mounted #BSF horsemen were keeping a strict vigil and were respectfully requesting tourists to maintain order and of course ice cream vendors were busy attending to tired visitors. When it was finally clear that it was impossible to make it in, the left out visitors had to contend with watching the ceremony on a huge but very unclear LCD screen.

Attari border crowds waiting to enter the stadium to watch the beating of the retreat
Tourists and visitors who were unable to get in to the stadium to watch the beating of the retreat mill around the premises and try to get as close as possible to the gate and the LCD screen

Lesson learnt – On weekdays during the tourist season (Oct – March), it is advisable to head to the border atleast 3 – 4 hours ahead of the start. On weekends, one should head there atleast 5 – 6 hours in advance. Am assuming that such a punishing wait is not required during off season and summer months. Carry water, a hat along with optional sun screen. Entrance to the border ceremony is free and if anyone pretends to sell tickets you will know that you are with a tout.

The excitement however is palpable and hearbeats rise as the BSF guards start marching in to the narrow strip leading to the border. On the other side of the border one can see the 400 feet high pole on which the Pakistan flag is flown and a large portrait of Quaid e Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan. Once the ceremonies begin, all the music, foot stamping are drowned out by the raucous crowds on either sides of the border. The LCD screen is blur and does not give a nice viewing experience. I tried to jostle my way up to the barricades amongst young, elderly, children perched on parents’ shoulders but gave up after while. I eagerly look forward to the day when the whole experience could be webcasted on 4K video.

Attari Wagah border images
THe Indian flag flies high. Unlucky visitors milling around the gate waiting for the ceremony to begin. A glimpse of the narrow strip leading to the border. The Pakistan gate is visible along with the portrait of MA Jinnah

On the last day before taking my return flight back to base, i had an opportunity to do a familiarization trip to a farm stay. The farm, owned by a tour operator is located in his native village a 30 minute drive from Amritsar. Within 15 minutes of leaving the city precincts, one is welcomed by lush green wheat fields, swathes of mustard fields identified by the golden yellow flowers, farmers transporting produce on their tractor trailers and local gurudwaras where people congregate. The Farm Stay consisted of a ground level where the guest rooms were located, about 4 of them to be precise, a well laid out dining area offering breakfast and optional lunch and dinner. The owner resided upstairs and the care takers were housed in the staff quarters. Fresh vegetables and milk are from the farm and meat is brought from outside for preparation.

Farm fresh vegetables and villa entrance
Farm stay. Fields with Pea, Radish, Cabbage, Beetroots and just harvested and dried potatoes and peas

It was calming to see the cows lazing around their fodder house.

Cows on the property and the fodder preparation and feeding area
Cows on the property and the fodder preparation and feeding area

Agriculture is Punjab’s mainstay with Wheat and Mustard fields dotting the landscape in and around the farm stay. With the likes of AirBnB allowing holidayers to plan in a jiffy without having to go through the rigmarole of hotels, the concept of Farm stays, if backed up with a clear government policy, could provide tourists with a wonderful option.

Wheat, Mustard fields and a tractor
Wheat, Mustard fields and a tractor

Other attractions in Amritsar include the Gobindagarh Fort built in 1760. It was earlier occupied by the Army but is now home to a museum showcasing Punjab and its glorious history. Be notified of any private events in the fort which may prevent visitors from entering. On the lines of Chokhi Dani in Jaipur, Amritsar now boasts of Sadda Pind, a village themed resort. One could plan a visit to these places based on the interest levels of the touring party. Amritsar is a fabulous Winter destination. An extension to Amritsar is a trip to Chandigarh (5 hours) and further to Dalhousie and Dharamshala. Amritsar on its own is perfect for 3 nights / 4 days.

Getting to Amritsar – Airlines Indigo, vistara and Spicejet fly direct from Mumbai. They also fly direct from New Delhi along with Air India and Jet Airways.

Trains – There are a total of 27 trains between New Delhi and Amritsar. The Journey takes a little over 6.5 hours and one has a choice between day and night time trains. Advance reservation can be done on the Indian railways booking portal.

Go ahead, pack your wollens and head to this fabulous urban destination.

 

 

Discovering Food Trails of #Amritsar

Discovering Food Trails of #Amritsar

Part 1 of my blog on a rejuvenated Amritsar focused on the newest attraction in town, The Partition Museum, dedicated to the pain and suffering endured by millions during one of the largest and most brutal mass migration in history. The museum has since officially opened for viewing and more sections are being opened in a phased manner.

Part 2 focused on the serene Darbar Sahib (The Golden Temple), Akhal Takht, Sarovar and its surroundings. I spent a whole afternoon exploring the nooks and corners of the Darbar sahib complex, learning about the contributions made by the Sikh Gurus, ordinary folk, Armed forces, Agricultural community and the role of Punjab in shaping the history of this great country.

In the 3rd part, i share my experiences and feelings about the newly minted precincts of The Heritage street, another tragic memorial from the freedom struggle – The Jallianwala Bagh and finally the humble Guru ka Langar.

A trip to Amrtisar is not complete without savouring what is on offer. There is plenty to gorge on in and around Heritage Street but the nooks and alleys offer plenty more. The internet is full of info on eating joints in Amritsar; Kesar da dhaba, Chungi’s kulche , Amritsar fish and tandoori chicken joints and many more are well researched and covered by ardent foodies.

One such Foodie and an ardent fellow travel blogger is Mr Harish Bali of visa2explore. His VLogs on Food Trails across Delhi, Agra and now Amritsar will make you want to follow him on his trails. Apart from detailed videos on the joints, he has provided details of all the joints as notes to his VLog. Here is a link to Mr Bali’s delicious journey in Amritsar.

Kanha sweets, another well documented and frequented eatery is one such place that is worth visiting for breakfast. Seems to be located more for the convenience of college going folks on Dayanand nagar; The DAV college is a stone’s throw away. Great pooris, chhole, Alu launji are enough to settle in to your stomach and provide you with the required energy OR sleep. The pickle seems to be a speciality and one can watch fellow visitors chomp away. A plate of two ghee fried pooris costs 80 bucks. Many of them follow up on the pooris with a plate of Sweet Halwa. Two pooris did me in and i felt my trip almost coming to an end. After this, other joints in Amritsar felt like a distant dream.

Unlimited Chhole, Alu Launji, Onions and a sweet n Sour pickle
The Poori Breakfast at Kanha Sweets – Unlimited Chhole, Alu Launji, Onions and a sweet n Sour pickle

They also have a sweet stall right up front selling dry sweets, Bengali sweets and fresh rice firni.

Dry Sweets, Bengali sweets, Rice Firni and a Glass of Lassi with loads of cream to top up
Kanha Sweets – At the store front, Dry Sweets, Bengali sweets, Rice Firni and a Glass of Lassi with loads of cream to top up

Staying on DAV college road, once the street lights come on, a roadside joint comes to life. Made from mango pulp, sugar and sundried, this is a joint that virtually stretches the mango to an all year delicacy. The most interesting part is the variety that is on offer – a sweet variety, a sour variety and when served with a variety of spice powders (chilli, coriander, fennel, black salt) and a dash of lime, it elevates the taste and introduces you to a completely new set of possibilities. Watch people buy by the kilo for their homes and gatherings. A must visit; Dont mind the mosquitoes though.

The Roadside Aam Papar Shop outside DAV college, a take away sour Aam papar with spice powders and a Dash of Lime
The Roadside Aam Papar Shop outside DAV college, a take away sour Aam papar with spice powders and a Dash of Lime

A meal was something that i could not have handled. On such occassions, one can settle for a chaat – many light snacks without feeling light on oneself and the pocket. Brijwasi chats near Crystal chowk on Cooper road is a popular joint. A great place to hangout with friends and share multiple plates of Chaat. Begun in 1958, the second generation seems to be doing a fine job of handling the quality of offering.

Aloo tikkis, bun tikkis and Dahi Bhallas are popular chaats in the North of India
Aloo tikkis, bun tikkis and Dahi Bhallas are popular chaats in the North of India

Spaced out, one can taste them all and enjoy the fares on offer.

Coming up – A failed visit to the Attari – Wagah border and an opportunity for Farm Stays.

 

A Rejuvenated #Amritsar – Part 3 Heritage street, Guru ka Langar and Jallianwala Bagh

A Rejuvenated #Amritsar – Part 3     Heritage street, Guru ka Langar and Jallianwala Bagh

Part 1 of my blog on a rejuvenated Amritsar focused on the newest attraction in town, The Partition Museum, dedicated to the pain and suffering endured by millions during one of the largest and most brutal mass migration in history. The museum has since officially opened for viewing and more sections are being opened in a phased manner.

Part 2 focused on the serene Darbar Sahib (The Golden Temple), Akhal Takht, Sarovar and its surroundings. I spent a whole afternoon exploring the nooks and corners of the Darbar sahib complex, learning about the contributions made by the Sikh Gurus, ordinary folk, Armed forces, Agricultural community and the role of Punjab in shaping the history of this great country.

In the 3rd part, i share my observations and feelings about the newly minted precincts of The Heritage street, another tragic memorial from the freedom struggle – The Jallianwala Bagh and finally the humble Guru ka Langar.

A walk through the Heritage street starts right from the town hall, crossing the installations of parliament, Dr BR Ambedkar, The statue of Ranjit singh ji, crossing the Jallianwala Bagh right up to the gates of the Harmandir sahib.

Town Hall Red sandstone building, replica of parliament building of India, bust of Dr Ambedkar and Maharaja Ranjit Singh ji statue
A walk on the Heritage street begins from the Town Hall, crossing the replica installation of the Parliament of India, bust of Dr. B.R Ambedkar and the grand intersection with the mounted statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh ji

The Heritage street is teeming with visitors at all hours. The place gets a magical feel once the lights come on in the evening.

Heritage street, Amritsar
Portion of Heritage street from Darbar Sahib right up to Jallianwala Bagh. Teeming with life.

Multinational eateries, Indian coffee shops, local dress material sellers, sellers of trinkets and souvenirs, shops selling spices and local delicacies, juices, lassi all vie for your attention.

Heritage street at twilight
The Heritage street now has ample room for people to move around, benches to rest and most importantly numerous selfie points

You will notice that there are no overhead electric cables; They have all been channeled underground. All the shops sport uniform facades and the signboards too have been kept identical. The place looks sanitized and seems to have moved away significantly from its original self. However, given the considerable amount of footfalls in the area, this is a welcome change.

A large square or Piazza
Numerous places to rest and take selfies

The local body, during its revamp of this precinct has now brought out a streamlined package of art, culture, political homage, history and devotion. Maintenance via the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Movement) can bring in increased footfalls and the resulting opportunity.

Bhangra and Gidda performers
Bronze replicas of Bhagra and Gidda by women performers on Heritage street is a beautiful introduction to the Art and Culture of Punjab

Jallianwala bagh was cruelest of the many ghastly acts perpetrated during the British regime. Punjab was under extreme martial law during this period of 1919 led by the extremely oppressive and repressive Lt Gen Michael O’Dwyer. An estimated 6000 to 10,000 protestors were pummeled with over 1500 rounds of fire. Estimated that over 1000 died and many more grievously wounded. The inhuman nature of the regime was such that even the wounded were not tended to and were left to bleed and die. The monument is a painful reminder of sacrifices made by the thousands for the sake of the country.

Images from Jallianwala bagh of the eternal flame, memorial monument and a bullet ridden brick wall
The Jallianwala Bagh memorial. One reaches the garden after walking through the narrow lane which is the only access. The bullet ridden holes and the eternal flame

The Langar is a revolutionary concept and a long standing tradition in place since the time of Guru Nanak Ji since 1521. It was started as an effort to feed hungry travelers and bridge communities divided by caste by ensuring that everyone eats together in front of the almighty. Wholesome vegetarian food is served throughout the year 24 hours a day. Before the food is served, a prayer (Ardas) is recited over the completed preparations and it is blessed with the passing through of a sacred knife (Kirpan).

I had the opportunity to partake of two rotis, dhal, kheer and a cup of tea. Absolutely no dogma that one has to visit the Darbar sahib before visiting the langar. The mind does not rest till the stomach is taken care of.

Community dining hall, meal of roti, dhal and kheer followed by a glass of tea
The Guru Ka Langar Dining Hall. A modest meal of 2 rotis, Maa ki Dhal / lentils and delicious Kheer. A cup of tea

One activity that was hugely satisfying to take part in is the washing of the plates and cups used by fellow devotees and visitors. This is a voluntary activity that almost every visitor performs within the langar complex. They come in silently, pick up a scrub and go about the task of soaping the utensils. Once completed, other volunteers come to pick them up and carry them over for a wash in fresh water. Other volunteers are busy wiping the clean plates dry, women peeling garlic and many more rendering yeoman service within the kitchen and the dining hall.

Volunteers washing used plates, peeling garlic and cutting vegetables. Plates neatly stacked for distribution
Volunteers washing used plates, peeling garlic and cutting vegetables. Plates neatly stacked for distribution

A final walk around the Darbar Sahib complex presents you with various monuments and memorial slabs erected to remember difficult moments in Sikh History, Operation Blue Star being one which my generation has read about. The sentiments are there to read and silently absorb the enormity of the event and the impact that it has had on the history of this country. One thing i walk out with is that for the Sikh, country is the foremost and they rever deeply the land in which they live.

Coming up in part 4 a survey of the food scene in Amritsar and a visit to the Atari (Indian side) – Wagah (Pakistan side) border.

 

 

The Sweetness of Chettinad – Part 1

The Sweetness of Chettinad – Part 1

After a road trip across Rajasthan, my daughter Rashmi takes another shot at blogging. This time she talks about a trip in to Chettinad in the state of Tamilnadu. This road trip, beginning from chennai is spread over 2 Nights and 3 Days. The route traverses through Chengalpattu, Tindivanam, Villupuram and Trichy over a duration of 7 hours. There are a number of clean and hygenic breakfast & lunch joints with toilet facilities on the highway. Hiring a comfortable SUV with an experienced driver-guide is important. The highways are wide and multi-laned with short stretches which may turn narrow. Experienced driver-guides maintain a steady speed with safety as a top priority. Here she goes….

Chettinad, the unexplored part of South India and Tamil Nadu. It is a place which contains the real essence of Tamil Nadu, where one shall discover the glory and heritage of ancient mansions built decades ago and opens us up to understand south Indian culture and their business instincts.

I recently went on a Short holiday to Chettinad in the month of December along with my family, and if you ask why chettinad, it’s because we all our bored of doing the same old Tirupati, Navagraha temples, Madurai, Kodaikanal and etc…So for a change, we decided to explore an unexplored part of Tamil Nadu which is Chettinad.

Chettinad itself feels like a small state like Goa, which is surrounded by serenity, nature, beauty and warmth. We drove down from Chennai to Kanadukathan, which is a district in the Chettinad region itself. It took us about 6 hours non-stop to reach Kanadukathan, where we stayed in a heritage property known as Visalam, which is managed by CGH Earth Group of hotels, which has over 10 properties across India, mainly in Southern India. So we decided to stay there for 2 nights and 3 days and personally I feel that even after spending 2 days in such a small region, I never felt like leaving Chettinad because anyone who ever comes here, gets settled in the homely atmosphere of Chettinad.

So as soon as we entered the district of Kandukathan, we immediately drove to our resort Visalam, where we were given a very warm welcome by the staff, who welcomed us in the traditional south Indian way along with refreshments and bangles for the ladies and angavastra- which is a part of the traditional south Indian costume for men worn like a dupatta.

Visalam by CGH earth
The CGH Earth property – Visalam at Kanadukathan in Chettinad

Sanjeev Sanyal in his recent best seller, The Ocean of Churn – How the Indian ocean shaped Human History, pays glowing tribute to the chettiar business community of Kanadukathan. He writes, “Tamil chettiar merchants and moneylenders spread across South East Asia. In Malaya the lent to Chinese Tin miners and European platers, and in Burma they supplied credit to farmers. They operated through a system of guild-like firms and agencies, usually run by members of the extended family. One of the largest of these firms, established by Muthiah Chetty in the early 1900s was headquartered in Kanadukathan in chettinad”. It was wonderful to visit a part of history and learn of how well regulated Non Banking Financial Organizations were. He also mentions the role temples played in re-capitalizing some of these businessmen who lent to businesses.

Visalam who lends her name to the property, the courtyard and the sitout
The Courtyard or Miththam within Visalam. Spacious and an airy seating area.

As soon as we checked in, we were given 2 cosy and extremely spacious rooms for the 4 of us and we spent the rest of the afternoon by ordering some simple lunch and taking rest. Next in the evening, when we all got freshened up and had some tea-coffee along with snacks, we got dressed for some photography and a visit to the Pillayar Patti Temple, which was about 15 minutes away from our resort. The temple is dedicated to Karpaka Vinayakar (Elephant headed god, Son of Lord Shiva). It is considered as a very holy temple where hundred’s of people come every day to get the blessings of the lord, who is said to be very powerful. In this huge cave temple, there are rock cut images of Lord Shiva and many other Gods and Shrines as well. As soon as we got a beautiful darshan of the Lord, we headed back to our hotel as it was quite dark and there was nothing much to see after sunset. We headed back to our hotel and went around the property, clicking photographs and discovering chettinad heritage- the glorious mansion, Athangudi tiles on the floor and Traditional vessels for cooking and serving.

Kitchen wares - cooking and serving, Radio and a water boiler
Clockwise from Top left – Porcelain pickle Jars, an antique and working Radio, Water boiler, Brass serving vessels, Brass cups and cutlery and brass storage vessels for water and other kitchen ingredients

We were also told about the history of visalam.

It was originally built by K.V.A.L.M Ramnathan Chettiar for his loving daughter Vishala. Except for occasional family weddings, the mansion was rarely used. CGH earth while renovating have spared Visalam from the stress of renovation and have just breathed a fresh lease of life in to it with restoration. Using original materials like Burmese Teak wood, the new managers have retained the original charm while making rooms, polishing the marble floor and putting up exquisite woodwork.

Next, we had a delicious and traditional south-Indian Dinner, which was served on a banana leaf. It was a complete meal with starters, a main course and of course, a desert too, which were all completely prepared in a south Indian way!

Masala Seeyam, Sweet Pongal, Vellai paniyaram
Starters Left – Vellai Paniyaram OR Deep fried Rice Pancakes with Danker, a Dip of Tomatoes, onions and Tamarind Right – Sweet Pongal made from Rice and Jaggery with Masala Seeyam, a deep friend lentil and rice dumpling with Coconut chutney
Main course - rice string hoppers, idlies, Dosa with a variety of sides
Clockwise from Top Left – Idiyappam with a Curry, Idlies with a Mix Vegetable Curry, Idlies with Sambhar and Dosa with a Brinjal Curry

Dessert and warm milk to end the day
For Dessert – Masala Milk and Kavani Rice, a purple sticky rice pudding, a product of south asian influence

After that, we headed back to our rooms for a sound sleep that we needed, to begin a fresh new day!

Getting there: Chennai is connected to all major cities across India and the world. From Chennai, chettinad is a 7 hour drive.

More in Part 2

Traveling to East Africa – Tips, Sights & Sounds Part 2

Traveling to East Africa – Tips, Sights & Sounds Part 2

Did you read about The Migrations of East Africa? If not, read about it here. Let us now help you prepare for this once in a life time experience. Have a sit down session with your travel partner, inform yourself and carve out a personalized itinerary catering to your requirements and budget. We spoke about health requirements and transit points here.  Now to understanding the people and their lives.

It is very well know that workers, traders and merchants of Indian Sub-continental origin found their way to Kenya and Tanzania and set up businesses that are a major source of employment. But, the region and its Indigenous people through their unique skills and diligence continue to make huge contributions to their countries’ progress.

The People of the Region 

It is important and interesting to know more about the country being visited and its indigenous people. Kenya (Kamba, Kalenjin, Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Maasai, Ameru, Samburu, Swahili)

Tanzania (Chagga, Maasai, Makonde, Swahili, Hadzabe, Sukuma, Mbulu/Iraqw people in the great lakes region).

All indigenous people have contributed to various aspects of their respective nations’ progress be it politics, sport, diplomacy, freedom struggle, human rights, agriculture or conservation. The Tea-growing Kalejins comprise the legendary long-distance runners of Kenya, The sukuma tribe who mainly fish in the Lake Victoria are among the most able bodied men and enlist in the Tanzanian military in large numbers. Thanks to tourism and the consequent establishment of lodges, many indigenous people have found year long employment. An example is the decision of Tanzanian government to call for a halt on constructions near the Ngorongoro crater and shift all lodges near the town of Karatu thereby providing meaningful employment. Karatu is dominated by the Mbulu tribe, a large farming community.

There are the big cities of Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam, Arusha but it is the countryside with its small businesses – trading in coal, sweet potato, banana and other fresh fruit etc., which captivates you.

A municipal council office near Isabania, Coal sacks, finished earthen pots and butcheries
Small Business rules across Kenya and its countryside

Wildlife has opened numerous opportunities for the people across the service industry, knowledgable driver guides and as in-house naturalists at many safari camps. James, from the Kichwa Tembo is a much loved and respected in-house naturalist; He conducts awareness sessions for guests where he talks extensively about the Masai Mara ecosystem and human-beast co-existance.

The Masaai tribe cultural session on a cold evening at Kichwa Tembo, Masai Mara
At the Kichwa Tembo camp, James (in the front) from the local Masaai community introduces guests to their culture and also doubles up as the In-house Naturalist

Skilled craftsmen too sell their wares on highways at the fringes of safaris and cities. Your bargaining skills will be put to test as you set your sights on masks, shukas and other collectibles. For the art collector, a lot of these stores also sell oil-on-canvas landscapes.

Shukas and Masks on highway curio shops
Curio shops dot the highway.Bargain hard.

The Impact of Mobile Money

Many households in these parts also have a family member working in any of the big cities and supporting them. Mobile Money has become the newest symbol of empowerment for people across the society.

M-Pesa, Airtel Money – These are the most visible brands;Infact much more popular than CocaCola i reckon. The concept and resulting service has empowered the people of the region and is acknowledged universally. Every small town is serviced by the corner M-Pesa cum general store thereby overcoming the tyranny of distance, often cited as a challenge when it comes to providing banking services. There is an untold trust that has developed as a result of this system.

The service is designed to work on all types of phones. Overseas remittances, money transfer from the husband working in the city, pension transfers etc done over this network can be collected as physical cash at M-pesa centers or paid for via M-pesa money.

If you are running short of cash to tip your service personnel, dont worry, M-Pesa is there!

M-Pesa shops across East Africa
M-Pesa mobile money shops dot the landscape of East Africa. Convenience and Empowerment

Aga Khan contributions to Kenya and Tanzania

As you travel across Tanzania and Kenya, the sight of women and children carrying jerry cans for potable drinking water is unmissable. Access to clean water still remains a huge challenge in many countries in Africa. It is here that the Aga Khan Development Network, part of the Aga Khan foundation runs many programs and diverse institutions to effect social and economic development in Kenya and Tanzania.

Getting there – Kenya Airways is the only airline offering direct service between India and East Africa. They fly twice a day between Mumbai and Nairobi. Other convenient but longer connections are via Emirates, Dubai and Etihad, Abu Dhabi. One could begin their journey at Nairobi or from Dar Es Salaam/Arusha based on the type of activity one wants to undertake.

Staying options – Plenty, but choose wisely after consulting your travel planner and reading reviews of the properties. Budgets, location, amenities, themes are key parameters one should keep in mind while selecting staying options. The hotels offer safari trips of their own. But, if you have planned on your own tour partner it could give you a lot more flexibility and continuity throughout your journey.

 

Hotels and Home stays of Rajasthan – Jodhpur & Ranakpur

Hotels and Home stays of Rajasthan – Jodhpur & Ranakpur

Rajasthan is a popular destination India that gets extensive coverage in foreign countries. Palaces, Desert Camping, Festive colors, Safaris, Fairs, Religious circuits; the state packages everything that ‘The Land’ has to offer. Rajasthan has one of the best road and air connectivity in the country and tempts many in to taking road trips across the state. The blog below, authored by my daughter Rashmi, seeks to capture the beauty of Rajasthan through her eyes and words. The trip was organized towards the closing stages of the tourist season in the month of March. The weather is warmer than usual during the day but the evenings are pleasant with the hangover of winter. This road trip across Rajasthan was done over a period of 7 Nights and 8 Days.

In Part 1 of the road trip, we covered Udaipur. Udaipur to Jodhpur is a 260 Km (161 miles) drive via NH8 and NH65 taking approximately 4 hrs and 30 mins. Jodhpur is the “Sun City”, second largest city in Rajasthan and served as the seat of the erstwhile Marwar Kingdom.

Day 3 – The Drive to Jodhpur

We started off early by saying bye to the Ramada resort, and drove down from Udaipur to Jodhpur. It was a 5-hour drive which was long yet comfortable because of the smooth and single roads along with the good highways. It was easy also because of the 3 stops we had in-between.

Our first stop in-between the journey to Jodhpur was DevShree in Deogarh. It is a boutique homestay. Owned by Mr Shatrunjay Singh and Mrs Bhavna Kumari, this is a small yet elegant property with currently 7 rooms. Inspite of a small amount of rooms, this homestay provides top-class facilities with excellent and spacious rooms. It is an amazing place for a mini getaway. The environment here consists of a lake, trees, birds including peacocks. You can eat food that feels like its home-cooked and experience a heritage stay. In today’s generation, such home stays are coming up rapidly and they are a must-visit. We had lunch here and spent time chit-chatting with the owners who have a charming personality as they were related to some of our old friends.

Devisree Deogarh, Mosaic corridor, The Haveli
Devisee Deogarh. A Heritage Home Stay with views of the Mehrangarh Fort
The Lounge, Dining area and luxurious seating
The interiors of Devisree Deogarh
The royalty, a Stuffed Owl, Water boiler and hot snacks
Interesting artifacts and snacks, of course

We next had a short stop for a property visit in Rohetgarh. This is also a nice place which is a heritage garden resort, situated in the outskirts of Jodhpur. It has got a very rural and rustic flavor and serves as a good base for travellers in the outskirts of the Jodhpur city, wanting to travel in the city.

Handwork and Garden seating at Rohetgarh
The Home Stay – RohetGarh in Ranakpur

We finally ended our drive by arriving into the city of Jodhpur and staying for 2 nights at a heritage homestay know as Ratanvilas. This place may be small and simple but the staff are extremely warm and helpful. The food here is simple and delicious. The property also includes a swimming pool that is set in a garden surrounded by a number of plants and flowers. It is a very peaceful place providing all facilities except for the wifi in rooms but in the common area. It is a very good choice for a short stay of maybe 2 nights in Jodhpur..

Ratanvilas
A Well laid out Meal to end the day

Day 4 – Exploring the Sun City

This was the second day of our stay in Jodhpur. Again, a fresh new day with good breakfast and a day full of hotel visits and city sightseeing.

After breakfast, me and my mother first went to the Mehrangarh Fort which is one of the largest forts of India. It was built around 1460 by Rao Jodha and is made up of thick and strong walls. It is also very high. This place is a very good place to know about the ancient Rajput period.

Mehrangarh_1
Entrance to Mehrangarh – Welcome by Lord Ganesh

 

This place displays a variety of artifacts, paintings and royal objects obtained from the Rajput period. There are several galleries in this fort, that give us information on different things in the empire. One of them was the “Palanquins”- royal means of travel, usually used for the queens and princesses of the royal family, to travel from one place to another. They are also known as “palkis”. Another gallery displayed the armour used in the Rajput period by the soldiers and the kings. They look amazing, as they protect the person (who is wearing it) from being injured by any kind of explosive or harmful objects used by the enemy.

Jodhpur from above Mehrangarh fort
The external Facade of the fort and view of Jodhpur

Another gallery displayed the different paintings made by the nobles and other people during that period. They are fascinating and may be better than the paintings of today’s generation, as they are intricate and display moments that took place in the royal court. Each painting here displays a story or function taking place. This gallery also displays pictures(or I would say real diagrams) showing, how the brushes and paints were made during this period. There were many such more galleries in this fort displaying the other artifacts of this period. This is a wonderful place to visit and it is clean and well maintained. You can also view the “blue-city” from here and buy souvenirs in the Mehrangarh Fort Shop, having mugs, t-shirts and other interesting things related to the royal family of Jodhpur.

Murals of the Goddess
The Devi Murals at Mehrangarh

We then visited a luxury resort-Raas Haveli, a 5-star resort facing the Mehrangarh fort. This place has a romantic setting and is extremely peaceful, unlike the other rajasthani hotels who have cultural performances every evening and are very lively. This place is having a natural environment and is very calm. The staff are very kind and willing to serve and this place is most visited by foreigners. You will not find any board throughout the property, including the entrance, because the owners want their guests to feel as if they are staying at their home and not any hotel or resort.

Luxurious RaasHaveli, Swimming Pool, A Rickshaw and views of the fort
RaasHaveli of Jodhpur

After that, we bought some kachori and lassi in a famous snack shop on the way, and went back to the hotel, as it was getting very hot and I got a slight headache. After a short break in the afternoon, we went out to explore the local markets of jodhpur. These markets are extremely lively, as they are selling all kinds of things, which are bought by the locals at all times of the day. The markets are very long and never ending! You will find the saris, kurtas, western dresses and the traditional suites having the “ghotapatti” (glass like work on cloth materials) work on them, in a separate side. The crockery and cooking utensils are sold on another side of the market. These markets are crowded and big, but they are worth visiting!

Getting there – Jodhpur too is now connected via Air. Currently flights to Jodhpur originate only from Mumbai. Jet Airways and Air India are the only airlines offering connectivity, often with a hop at Udaipur or Jaipur.  Jodhpur also has a railhead and Indian Railways offers convenient overnight trains from Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad and Jaipur.