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.

Hotels and Home stays of Rajasthan

Hotels and Home stays of Rajasthan

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.

Udaipur – The City of Lakes

This trip to Rajasthan has been a much awaited trip for me. Scheduled to take place after the stressful exams, this trip infused in me a lot of excitement. The day of our departure to our first destination, Udaipur, was a wonderful one. It started of pleasantly, by taking a flight to Udaipur as that is the only way. Udaipur, an extremely lively city that is filled with hotels and resorts having people who are commited to serve. Rajasthan is known for its people who have a charming personality and a willingness to serve their guests with warmth. Maharana Udai Singh of the Sisodia clan of the Rajputs,founded this city in 1553 and moved his capital from Chittorgarh to Udaipur. It remained the capital city till 1818 till it became a British Princely State. We(me,my mom and my grandfather) stayed at the Ramada resort and spa, which is a good four star resort. It has spacious rooms with good amenities and the staff here are very kind and helpful. The resort may be a little far away from the airport but it is the perfect one for a short stay of 2 nights.

Ramada Udaipur
The Ramada Resort & Spa, Udaipur

The main purpose of this trip was to explore various high quality boutique and luxury resorts, palaces converted to hotels and heritage homestays to help my mother know more about them, their rooms, service and standard, to recommend them to her clients as per their requirement and affordability. Our first day was a cool and relaxing one as we had just arrived into the hotel. We were invited by some old friends to Hotel Inderprakash, just to meet and greet and spend some time together along with snacks. This place is an oyo premium hotel and is excellent for budget travellers.Later, we went to the Garden hotel for dinner which is located within the vintage car collection. It’s a small restaurant that serves delicious Indian Thali’s . You may not be able to find food upto your taste but good Indian Thali’s are easily available in Hotel Garden and Hotel Natraj.

Vegetarian Thali
A simple vegetarian Thali in Udaipur

There are a lot of sightseeing spots in Udaipur. This is a city that is super-clean and is ranked as the 20th cleanest city in the Swachh Bharat (Clean India)rankings.The Pichola lake makes this city look the prettiest by the night along with the night lighting. In Udaipur, you can visit the City palace which is a majestic palace standing on the eastern bank of the Pichola lake. This wonder was built by Maharana Udai Singh and it has various towers, domes and arches,which add flavor to this heritage site. It is wholly built on marble and granite and is a must-see site. You can also visit the Jag Mandir, which is an island palace in the middle of lake Pichola. It has some striking carvings including a row of elephants that look as if they are guarding the island. This place can be accessed only by boats. The crystal gallery is another fascinating place which contains a breathtaking collection of crystals, that have been collected from the past from antique pieces and artifacts. Here, you can see crystal dressing tables, chairs, crockery, table fountains and also the regal beds.

 

Day 2 – I could officially call this day the beginning of our trip because on this day we started visiting all the palace hotels and resorts which was the main purpose of our trip. We started off by having our breakfast in the resort which was included in our package. We then visited the Lalit Laxmi Vilas Palace, which is a high end luxury palace hotel. It is located in a beautiful location that is surrounded by greenery and is set in a former royal palace and a lakeside hilltop. This is a very good place for high end travellers and it is surrounded by a very peaceful environment. It has rooms facing the fort and rooms facing the lake. The suites here provide an amazing amount of luxury.

Laxmi Vilas palace exteriors, views of the lake and mosaic corridors
The Lalit Laxmi Vilas Palace of Udaipur has an Imposing presence
Maharaja's Painting, an antique clock and a Royal Carriage
The Antiques at the Laxmi Vilas Palace and Hotel
Shrinathji, Candle stand, Wooden Dolls made from Doodhia and cloth paintings on the wall
Shrinathji graces almost every residence and establishment in Udaipur
Marble figurine of a courtier, coat of arms of the Maharaja and an ornate ceiling
Wooden Toys and figurines are made from a wood called Doodhia and are popular buys in Udaipur

We then visited the Leela Palace, Udaipur which is a spectacular boutique property with the majestic location of the Lake Pichola and the fabulous view of the Aravalli mountains. It is beautifully designed to reflect the surrounding styles and influences and wonderfully displays the beauty of crafts and décor,for which leela is known. The rooms are large and well designed and is suited for foreign travellers and couples. The environment here is peaceful and charming and the staff are very kind and helpful.

Portrait of Arvind Singh Mewar, A Ravi Varma, Shrinathji, Floral arrangement, Rajasthani Artwork and Wooden toys of Udaipur
Arvind Singh Mewar Custodian of the Mewar Dynasty and first family of Udaipur and his regal presence
Boat Jetty at Leela Palace, Lake Nichola Vies, Lobby with Musicians, Buggy for transport
The Jetty to transport guests, luxurious interiors and captivating views of Lake Pichola
Ornate candle lamp, Living area, Balcony and bedroom
72 Luxurious grand heritage rooms facing the lake and 8 suites adorn the Palace hotel

Then, we visited the world famous Oberoi Udai vilas Resort which is a place that cannot be described in words. It is a place that has to be visited. The beautiful cultures, intricate Thikri work(traditional rajasthani glass work) and paintings on the walls, will leave any person awestruck. This place is so famous, that many film shoots and advertisement shoots take place here. The suites here are so comfortable and royal that no person would feel like leaving the place on the day of his/her checkout! The staff and the environment along with the lake make this place the best, for a romantic getaway…. Visiting these places literally took a whole day..Seeing the staff, the property and the rooms takes time and makes a lot of difference.

Palace Hotel, Corridors, Domes
The Palace hotel stands on a 200 acre hunting ground and is spread over 50 acres

 

The Palace hotel lawns, lobby and eye catching ceilings
Walkways and Domes of the Udaivilas stream in sunlight in plenty. The Thikri glasswork are spread across the property

After visiting the resorts, we took it easy and relaxed in the evening in our room and got some simple dinner from Hotel Natraj.. We parceled some rice, Khicidi and Kadi which is an all time favourite..That indeed was a long and tiring day!

Getting there – If you are starting your journey in Rajasthan from Udaipur, do note that only the Metro cities and international gateways of Mumbai and Delhi offer convenient connections. Jet Airways, Indigo, Air India and Spicejet all offer direct flights in to Udaipur. Udaipur also has a railhead and Indian Railways offers convenient overnight trains from Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad and Jaipur.

More to come…..

A Homestay and Navratri at Baroda…..

A Homestay and Navratri at Baroda…..

What drew me last to Baroda for a pro-active trip – my better half of course! Having got a number of guided tours of this cultural hub of Gujarat, a Home Stay and Navratri weekend was not to be missed. My host, befriended during our Kailash Manasarovar Yatra threw his doors open for me to experience the Hospitality and the festival.

Baroda is a perfect getaway during the Navratri festival and is easily accessible from Mumbai (5 hours) or Ahmedabad (1 hour). For those Mumbaikars who crave for authentic Ras Garba, Baroda offers the best opportunity to savor one. A morning Shatabdi express from Mumbai gets you to Baroda in time for a fabulous lunch; What else, a Gujarati Thali of course! Families with businesses are continually buzzing with activity and my host and his parents were on their toes fulfilling customer orders, getting on with a home renovation activity, negotiating with a home appliance supplier and even a conference to attend. But, not for a moment did their attention swerve from serving me a wonderful meal and ensuring my comfort. They made it all seem pretty effortless. The lunch was simple but the accompaniments and embellishments made sure that there was enough color on the plate. A lunch such as this does send you to the nearest couch. I was definitely drawn to one and did manage to catch a few winks before i was bundled away to my hosts’ offices. It was a great opportunity to understand their business area and how employees were treated as family, customers were heard out patiently and served with due care. The Rangbhoomi concept of business was in action – viewing business as an opportunity to provide livelihood and Money (lakshmi) walking in wherever there is good customer focus and orientation. Learning Maximized!

Simple and Tasty Home Food served by my Host
Simple and Tasty Home Food served by my Host

Now, back to the Garba hop! Nothing starts before 930 PM in the evening, so one has close to 7 – 8 hours to prepare (incase you are getting in to the ring) or just wander around in this city. According to a pre-travel briefing by my better half The United Way Garba and the Fine Arts Garba were the ones to visit as they attracted maximum participants and an equal if not less, number of visitors. For the United way Garba, the passes i understand were sold out atleast a couple of months in advance. We still tried but were promised some intelligent perching at the Fine arts Garba, MSU. Navratri time is a time for Takeaway dinners as families head to Garba venues in droves, some in cars but many in two-wheelers. The Garba at Fine arts is organised by the students (alumni and current) with enthusiastic participation by the faculty. Rhythm players themselves sing Garbas while playing the instruments. This rare style of Grab is in place for the past three decades. The name given to this category of Garba is Pracheen Garba, tracing its origins back to before Poet Narmad, a Gujarati Poet – Scholar from the 19th Century. Music emanates only from traditional instruments like dholak, Nasik dhol, drumset, kansi-joda, ghugharis, conch (shankh), and temple bells. All this without a single microphone. Fusion in the rawest form – Drum and Kansi-Joda add beauty to the Garba songs. We got a ringside view of the performance, thanks to a few friends of my host. The energy levels of the students encircling the performing instrumentalists and vocalists were driven to dizzying levels. The circle moved to music in a rapid pace and one had to either get in or just stay out. Unmindful of the sultry weather and pouring sweat, the performers were themselves transported and made sure they took the audience along with them. The dresses were traditional with no footwear, as a mark of respect to the goddess. The music reaches a crescendo before dying down in respect to the Goddess and of course, the rules. Once the dance dies down, the stomachs start rumbling and the crowds head out in search of “any” place that serves snacks, food, tea, coffee, soda etc., Coffee shops we visited were buzzing till 2 AM.

New Garbas in town but the classics endure!
New Garbas in town but the classics endure!

Navratri culminates with Dussehra on the 10th day. While many fast, an equal number or more feast. The sweet shops in the city were on an overdrive, preparing the savory Fafda and stacking them till they hit the ceiling of their shops. Deep fried and served with a Raw papaya chutney, it is nice to watch during preparation but tough to digest. The sweet cousin, Jalebi when combined with Fafda are a deadly duo and it ensures that you are within your limits.

Sunday morning Nasto plus Dussehra preparations
Sunday morning Nasto plus Dussehra preparations

Baroda can get oppressively hot during summers but families have their traditional means of keeping their heads, their guests’ heads and the animals’, cool. Cement tanks are very thoughtfully placed outside homes, filled with cool water to provide stray cattle, horses and dogs with a sip. Here, in Baroda hospitality is all encompassing.

Busy Junction, Cement water tanks for animals, Train journey, Eating out and crowds heading out of Garba
Sights of the Journey – Busy, relaxing, journeying, enjoying and chilling out

Now for some dance practice. Targeting to get in to the ring next year.

Bolo Shri Ambe Mata ki! Jai!

Dwarka & Somnath…..Spending a few days in Gujarat 1

Dwarka & Somnath…..Spending a few days in Gujarat 1

Amitabh Bachchan, India’s universally loved movie star in his endorsement for Gujarat Tourism, humbly requests “Kuch Din to Guzaro Gujarat mein…..”(Please come and spend a few days in Gujarat). Such messaging accompanied by rich imagery has spurred the tourism industry in Gujarat.

Dwarka and Somnath offer the perfect opportunity to spend a few days and sample the hospitality of Gujarat. Rajkot is the nearest air-head and for now one can get here comfortably from Mumbai. There are 6 flights out of which 4 are operated by Jetairways and one by AirIndia. The early morning flight out of Mumbai at 510 AM is punctual and gets you in to Rajkot by the crack of dawn. This sets you up perfectly and will ensure that you get to your first destination Dwarka, a distance of 4 hours/225 kms right at the stroke of lunch. Rajkot airport almost feels like a quiet neighborhood and one can expect to bump in to nearby residents who have set out for their morning walks. Our tour was planned with Narmadaholidays. We set out to Dwarka via the Petro-chemical refinery town of Jamnagar, made popular by India’s biggest conglomerate, Reliance industries Ltd. A good SUV (Toyota Innovas are extremely popular), supported by roads of excellent quality make this ride an absolute pleasure. There are trains which take you straight to Dwarka, but with roads of high standards the itinerary flexibility is completely in the hands of the traveler. Drivers (chauffeurs) in Gujarat are fluent in Gujarati (local language), Hindi (spoken widely) and if you are lucky a smattering of english. However, the fellows are friendly and pro-active and will make all the efforts to understand you.

Gujarat - The route along the coast
Gujarat – The route along the coast
The Rajkot Airport - Morning hours
The Rajkot Airport – Morning hours

TIP – Before setting out it will be good to ask your Tour Planner to brief the driver on your itinerary, your preferences, likes and dislikes and what you really want to experience. A good briefing followed by regular calls from the Tour planner to the driver helps iron out any inconsistencies in service. Get a good Data plan (foreign nationals) before setting out from your home country; Helps you be in touch with your Tour Planner and stay connected with your loved ones.

The highway is lined with Neem trees. If you find a nice highway restaurant, break for a cup of tea, feel the breeze hit you and refresh you with the goodness of Neem. A veg puff goes well with a cup of tea on a pleasant morning. Toilets are average in terms of cleanliness so it is advisable to prepare yourselves for the ride before exiting the airport at Rajkot.

90 minutes is all it takes to enter Jamnagar. The city and its businesses surged when Reliance opened the world’s largest refinery in the year 1999. The refinery has a processing capacity of 1.2 million barrels per day. Other refiners like Essar and Gujarat government companies have set up their facilities in the outskirts of Jamnagar. The closest port where these companies have their oil terminals is called Vadinar and is on the coastline of the Gulf of Kutchh. As you head out of Jamnagar on to National Highway 947, the huge entrance gates to the Reliance refinery are on your left. People from all over the country and world work in this refinery and all of them have been comfortably housed in the Reliance integrated township “Reliance Greens” on the opposite side of the highway. The township houses approximately 2500 employees and is fully equipped with schools, Hospitals and shopping amenities. We had the opportunity to tour the township as a guest being hosted by a reliance employee.

Reliance Township and Petrochemical complex
Reliance Township and Petrochemical complex

Gujarat is a textile haven and one should not miss an opportunity to catch a glimpse/purchase cotton fabrics manufactured at Jetpur or Virpur. This circuit offers you these opportunities and you can plan with your tour planner to help you organize.

Cotton Dress Materials - Made in Jetpur
Cotton Dress Materials – Made in Jetpur

Interesting – Speed limit inside the township is 30km/hr. Vehicles caught speeding by the Control center inform the employee and question him on the violation!

Another smooth ride gets you in to Dwarka right at the stroke of Noon. Dwarka has the honor of being one of India’s 4 Shakti Peeth’s (centers for learning- 800 AD) set up by Shri Adi Shankaracharya, one of India’s foremost philosopher and Theologian. The Dwarkadish temple, dedicated to Lord Krishna is the magnet for millions of devotees from across India and the world. The local economy thrives on tourism and production of pulses, ghee and fishing. The temple is over 2500 years old and has withstood invasions till it was rebuilt in the 16th century.

Numerous hotels cater to tourists across price points. We checked ourselves in to the Lord’s Inn, located right on the Dwarka beach promenade. The welcome in the hotels here is not by the reception but by the in-house priest who can help plan your visit to the temple. Basic amenities and cleanliness are met and ensure a comfortable stay.

The temple (history) is said to have been constructed by the grandson of Lord Krishna, Shri Vajranabha way back in 400 BC. The construction is from limestone (able to weather the sea), spire reaching up to 78 meters with the whole structure being supported by 72 pillars. The flag atop the temple is changed 5 times during the day and always has the insignia of the sun and the moon. Facilities at the temple are run in a streamlined manner by the temple management (controlled by the Government of Gujarat. Opening hours are between 6AM – 1PM and 5PM – 930 PM.

Before you get to the temple, weather permitting plan a walk along the promenade which drops in to the steps along the banks of the River Gomti. This point where the river meets the sea is called the Sangam. Peep a little further to get a glimpse of the temple situated on the banks of the river. Mornings are busy with Devotees and cows jostling for space along the banks. Vehicles drop you off about 100 meters away from the temple entrance. Security and facilities to keep your footwear are efficient. Foreigners are allowed entry as well. Special queues and general queues are available for devotees to view the main deity. A lot of Photographers roam the temple precincts and they are super efficient. Armed with instant printers, they dish out family photographs with the temple in the background, branded with the temple logo for a nominal fee of Rs 20. Go for it!

The Dwarkadish Temple - Shakti Peeth
The Dwarkadish Temple – Shakti Peeth

Head to the sunset point to get fantastic views of the vast expanse and prepare to capture the riot of colors that ensue. A sandy promenade abutting the sunset point offers camel rides, ice candies, spicy bhel and other snacks. If you are concerned about the steel plates ask the vendor to wrap it in a paper cone which makes for easier disposal as well. Loiter around till it is time for dinner by soaking in the salty winds. The devout also make a mandatory visit to the Rukmini temple (Lord Krishna’s consort) located about 2kms from the Dwarkadish temple.

Life at Sunset Point in Dwarka
Life at Sunset Point in Dwarka

Submerged city – Way back in the year 2000, archeologists discovered ruins of the ancient city of Dwarka, thought to have been long submerged. Ancient manuscripts are said have indicated the presence of such a city on the river gomti, respelendant with as much as 70,000 palaces decked in precious metals and gems. The ruins are located 131 feet below the surface and are now collectively called the Gulf of Khambhat cultural complex. Quiz your driver or any elderly priest about this city and light your imagination!

Other places of interest near Dwarka include Beyt Dwarka and Nageshwar. Beyt Dwarka is an island 30kms away from Dwarka and is a short ferry ride away. The island houses a temple which is considered to be the original abode of Krishna and his consort Rukmini. Tourists also gather to spot dolphins, marine life and go about picnicking. The Nageshwar temple is considered the first Jyotirling (devotional object representing Lord Shiva) and the main deity has the serpent standing guard over the linga. References to the jyotirlingas are found in the Shiva Puran (Ancient text which guide the devout on the worship of Lord Shiva). Relish some cucumbers sold outside the temple premises followed by a tall glass of sugarcane juice.

Dwarka Beach front and the Nageshwar Jyotirling
Dwarka Beach front and the Nageshwar Jyotirling

Food in Gujarat is a delight! Restaurants in Dwarka are simple and are in the business of serving Thalis (complete meal with Carbs, proteins, fats and other ingredients that meet your nutritional needs). Simple , fast service and relatively clean these Thali restaurants serve fresh food as they open specific hours and have very high footfalls. The rotis (flat breads) are hot and smeared with ghee, the dipping gravies keep getting replenished. Do ask for unlimited butter milk to accompany the meal. The Damji Hotel serves such a thali for Rs 120/- per head. Other establishments cater to people with various budgets. A short walk near the Dwarka beach promenade and one can find carts selling fresh and hot Indian fare, chinese, Dosas, Parathas and of course lot of Ice creams, Sherbets, Faloodas and Kulfis. Carry a bottle of water with you if you want to venture out. The seating is on stools and you can watch the furious pace of preparation and delivery of food to your table. Gujarat is one of india’s largest milk producing states; A hot cup of masala milk will set you up for a good night’s sleep and prepare you for your long drive to Somnath…..

The Gujarati Thali in Dwarka
The Gujarati THali in Dwarka

World Tourism Day 2015

World Tourism Day 2015

A significant public acknowledgement and celebration of World Tourism Day 2015 in India. 1 Billion tourists and 1 Billion Opportunities – The positive intent towards tourism is visible with ease of travel through e-visa currently in place for over 113 countries. 29 states and 7 union territories can combine to offer mind-blowing journeys for which one life time is not sufficient. With Narmada Holidays

Happy World Tourism Day!

World Tourism Day
India Celebrates world Tourism Day