Travel, Food & Living

Bikkupedia Express connects ~ Amritsar ~ Andhra Bhavan ~ Baywatch ~ Biriyani ~ Connaught Place ~ Corbett ~ Delhi ~ Ganges ~ Golden Temple ~ Hill Fort ~ Jallianwalla Bagh ~ Janpath ~ Kanyakumari ~ Kerala ~ Kesroli ~ Kovalam ~ Neemrana ~ Paan ~ Pakistan ~ Pallugall ~ Pataudi ~ Ponmudi ~ Rafting ~ Ramgarh ~ Rappelling ~ Rishikesh ~ Rock Climbing ~ Shimla ~ Shopping ~ Sikhism ~ Springfields ~ Swagath ~ Tea ~ Tibetan Market ~ Toys ~ Tirchendur ~ Trivandrum ~ Wagah ~ Woodville & more ... Tickets available in Blog Archive.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Amritsar Diary

As our car zipped through the lanes of Amritsar at 11 in the night, I felt a strange familiarity with the city. After sleeping all the way through our journey in the Shatabdi, we were wide awake when we reached.

Our destination, City Heart Hotel came in no time but I was still wondering why does this city seem familiar. In fact, this was my first visit to Punjab ... However, I turned my attention to the place where our hotel was located.

Built amidst a row of shops, our hotel was a small two storey building which could have been easily mistaken for another shop had it not been for the huge banner.

Just adjoining the building was an ICICI ATM along with a shop selling 'punjabi jutti' which was open even at 11.15 in the night! There were people and vehicles still going down the road ... The scene was a far cry from the deserted city that Delhi becomes at this time and they say big cities have an active night life!.

The signs of commercialisation were written bold and clear all over the place. A place which has such a huge slice in the history of the nation and houses one of the most beautiful temples of this country seemed to have kept its pace with the fast moving time. This did not look like the ancient city that we had imagined.

Here, my brain suddenly propped up this answer - this place is like Chandni Chowk of Delhi. Oh yes, the small but well stocked lanes, always buzzing with people was so much like the famous market of Old Delhi. The only difference here was that standing on the road in the wee hours did not make you feel vulnerable to rape or theft at any point.

I again surveyed the city through the thick glass window of my hotel room next morning. At 7 a.m., the lanes had a life and freshness about them. The fruits and vegetable hawkers already seemed to have done good business.

But there was one shop below which caught my eye - bannered Milk Shop, as place was attracting a lot of crowd. The people who came here to have a glass of milk, lassi or any other milk item seemed like localites who were used to this routine of stopping by this shop and then moving ahead for their daily chores.

I saw groups of men and women heading towards the same direction, which I later learnt was the way towards the Golden Temple. Heads covered with their dupattas and pagadis, the kirpans forever hanging across their shoulders, the walk towards the gurudwara also was a daily ritual I presumed.

The first morning

After snacking on butter toast and drinking the milky tea from the hotel, we set out for our city tour. Our hotel, we learnt was very strategically located. While the Jallianwalla Bagh was just a stone throw away, the Golden Temple was at about a 50 meter distance.

The Temple visit (New Year at the Golden Temple), was quite exhausting as the blazing sun ensured that our energies would be sapped out. But when it comes to my husband, the exploring spirit always rules over so we didn't immediately get back to the hotel.

But before we walked towards Jallianwalla Bagh, we had to find a cyber cafe since there was something important to check. Our assumption was wrong and we had no difficulty in finding out a Internet cafe. After paying Rs 20 for ten minutes in the shady place, we walked towards Jallianwalla Bagh.

Memories of 1919

It didn't occur to us that we were visiting the fateful site of Jallianwalla Bagh exactly after 88 years of the massacre. It was April 13, the Baisakhi day when thousands of people had gathered in this park, unaware that for many it would be the last Baisakhi of their lives.

88 years later, the Bagh is a tourist spot. Be it in the peak summer afternoon or the warm evenings, we always found the place crowded. But it was not just the tourists but several localites also who were there for their daily walk.

We started having goosepimples the moment we walked down the narrow passage leading us to the bagh. An engraving in a stone read - People were fired at from here.

Our minds were busy, trying to get a picture of how those unarmed men and women must have struggled to preserve their precious lives. We walked further down and stood at a spot which gave us a good view of the place.

The soil, which was once wet with the blood of many innocent lives is now bed to so many flowering plants. The once barren ground where dead bodies were strewn across is now a lawn for visitors to walk.

It is hard to imagine that this place, now alive with the sounds of children, men and women was once a ground that saw one of the worst massacres.

But the reminders of April 13, 1919 are all over the place. Right at the entrance is a huge board explaining the massacre. Bang opposite it is a narrow passage which serves as an exhibition space.

Showcased here are pictures of some of the people who became the victims of General Dyer's cruelty, who later came to be known as the Butcher of Amritsar.

The narrow passage leads to a small room which houses a huge painting depicting the massacre.

The fountain built at the entrance of the park was attracting a lot of the crowd and also a group of wasps which were buzzing around the pool to keep itself cool.

A walk around the park and we found little boards across the walls reading 'Bullet Mark.' A walk across the Jallianwalla Bagh seemed like reading a chapter from our history books.

Our chapter culminated with a photography session at the shahidi kuan. The martyr's well, from which 120 bodies were taken out is now a spot where people gather and try to peep deep inside the well, as if the bodies will still be there.

The placard on which is written the details of the tragedy has a collage of signatures and messages. We wondered what kind of a show of patriotism was this to spoil the barely preserved historical site?

The houses built on the boundary of the park now have air conditioners to shield them from the scorching heat. As we slowly made out out of the park, I saw a little girl peering through the window of a house bordering the park ...

Culinary tales

We were really excited to taste the famous Punjabi cuisine. So before we headed to the Wagah border (An evening at the Wagah Border), we ordered a heavy lunch. Though the vegetarian paneer and roti were quite tasty, we still have nightmares about the non veg dishes. The uncooked chicken took a toll on my husband's stomach for the next one week!

The one meal we thoroughly enjoyed in the city was the one at the Brother's Dhaba. Thanks to a localite lady, who we bumped into on the street, we were guided to the place.

The tadka dal makhani and the shahi paneer had a typical taste so different from what is made in the restaurants in Delhi. Considering the amount of butter used, the famous Amritsari kulcha is sinful but surely worth the one-time calorie intake.

But it was the lassi which has stayed on to our taste buds till now. The sweet, creamy beverage gave us all the energy that the heat had taken away.

The food might be delicious but we felt quite uncomfortable with the crude serving of the waiters there. After experiencing the warmth of hospitality in Himachal and Rajasthan, this seemed little difficult for us to digest.

Too hot to shop

I sincerely apologize to the compulsive shoppers because I have no inputs to give them about shopping in Amritsar. Though we had heard from someone that the Punjabi juttis are very nice and affordable there, I had absolutely no intention to try chappal after chappal in 40 plus degrees.

The clothes market of the city was a mini version of the Chandni Chowk market. We were told that papars are a speciality of Amritsar and the number of papar shops confirmed it.

Still, we didn't even try to get into any of the shops. Though the sweet shops had nothing different from Delhi, we bought pinni to taste.

So long

Our Amritsar stay ended on the Vishu morning with we getting a taste of the helpful station staff who helped us get a duplicate ticket since we had lost the original one. There was no red tapism and unnecessary delays ... We happily boarded the Shatabdi back home.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

An evening at the Wagah border

A trip to the Wagah border to see the flag lowering ceremony of India and Pakistan sounded quite exciting.

But when I sat on the stadium overlooking both the borders, it was something else that fascinated me.

Here, sitting on each side of the fence were the kind of people I had probably only seen in the cricket matches.

For us, patriotism is a word so completely restricted to the history books that the sight at Wagah border seemed so out of the world.
As the Indian side of the stadium slowly filled up, a BSF jawan in a war cry kind of tone shouted Bharat Mata ki jai, Hindustan Zindabad, Vande Matram and in the backdrop were old patroitic movie songs like Nannna Munna rahi hoon. To give the jawan company were a 500 odd Indians who were more than eager to shout Bharat Mata Ki Jai.

Then began what seemed like a daily ritual run of Indians to the border gate holding the tri colour flag. In no time, around the jawans gathered clusters of men, women, old and young all fighting for a two minute possession of the national flag.

And I was there, wide eyed and jaws dropping in surprise seeing all this. Was it real patriotism or just an obsession to show love towards India in front of the estranged neighbours? I couldn't quite understand ...

A memorable journey

We were forewarned by the staff of our hotel not to reach the border too early. But getting the first chance to witness the daily ceremony at the only Indo-Pak road crossing, we didn't want to miss a thing.

So we set out from Amritsar at sharp 3.30 in the afternoon. While we could have travelled in a shared auto for the 30 km drive, the heat made us opt for a taxi.

The half hour drive took us through long stretches of the golden wheat fields ready for harvest. As I saw the board for the Attari international railway station, my mind instantly went back to the movie Veer Zara.

That was the closest I had seen of the Wagah border. Thoughts were racing across my mind ... it was on Samjhauta Express, the train bound to this very place to pass over to Pakistan, bombs recently took away so many innocent lives. For me, those things were just a part of the newspapers and television. Never did I know that I'll be here, driving across those very places.

We reached the border at 4.15, after stopping on the way to buy cold drinks since our cabby cautioned us that everything will be too expensive there.

We discovered that we were not the only earlybirds. The place was already quite crowded with scores of people waiting for the entry to begin.
At 4.30, people sprinted across the long stretch of road which led them to the stadium overlooking the border.

Almost everyone seemed so fascinated to look at what lies beyond the barbed wire. These fences would have separated the two countries for decades but the eagerness to know more about each other seems ever increasing.

The spectacle

The closest we have seen of the beating retreat is the January 29 ceremony on TV. But this beating retreat across the border was of a different kind. As I said earlier, the two-hour long wait was not uneventful.

The antics of the enthusiastic citizens kept us in rapt attention even as we struggled hard to keep our heads covered from the scorching sun.

Our neighbours were also busy cheering with the patriotic songs of their country. Suddenly to our amusement, we also heard an English track being played from the Pakistani side but we couldn't make out its patriotic connotation.

Pakistanis, though considerably less in number, seemed to be much more spirited. Somehow, their Pakistan Zindabad sounded much stronger than our Hindustan Zindabad.

As my husband busied himself with clicking picture after picture, my mind wandered along looking at the sets of people sitting across the border ... same dress, same language and same history.

We're all here sitting just a walk across from each other but still the distance is too far to be bridged. A man-made catastrophe which has given nothing but blood shed through all those years ...

Well, there was not much time to sit and think because I suddenly heard the songs being switched off and the Indian guards with long, red pagdi taking their positions at about 6 p.m.

A huge cry and we saw a jawan marching across to the gate. Ditto was the scene with the green uniformed jawans across the border.

Turn by turn, the finest fighters marched towards each other at amazing pace with their leg lifts that could tear any normal limbs apart.For about five minutes, the gates were flung open as the jawans from both the sides displayed their martial skills.

A salute and a hand shake and both were back in their own territories. The half an hour ceremony drew to a close as Indian and Pakistani flags were simultaneously lowered, respectfully folded and brought back.

As they dispersed, the Pakistanis could be seen frantically waving and trying hard to draw attention from the Indian side.

The sun had gone down by this time and at the Indian gate was going on an elaborate photo session as more and more people kept turning up and requesting for some more time to click pictures.

Some jawans were very friendly and it was obvious that they are used to entertaining such requests every day.
It was about this time when a White lady came up to me and struck a conversation. Clad in a cotton salwar kameez, the Irish who was accompanied by a Keralite nun seemed curious about our reaction to the gate closing ceremony.

Comparing it to the clash between North and South Ireland, she asked me if I thought this border dispute could ever be solved ... India seemed to have impressed her as she told me, "This country has something different in every place I go. These three months have been quite a learning experience for me."

I smiled at her thinking how even we are learning new things about this country every day ... Our Wagah border experience was also one of them.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

New Year at the Golden Temple

The spectacles of this huge country are far too undiscovered by its inhabitants (which of course includes us). And as we set out with our unsaid resolve to at least be called well travelled Indians, we stand dumbfounded at all the surprises in store for us.

So, I travel from the tip of the country, admiring the sheer beauty of the goddess at Kanyakumari to standing awestruck in front of a thousand odd devotees, ready to spend their lives in service of a Holy book ...

"This is real India," I told myself as I stood on the steps of the
Harmandir Sahib Gurudwara, staring at the devotees, many of whom would be glad to breathe their last in the holy water which cradles the famous Golden Temple of Amritsar.

The marvel

With every step into the temple, I am transported into a world which is so unknown to me ...

The ears are treated to an array of melodious sounds coming somewhere from inside temple ... Is it
Gurbani or Shabd Kirtan, we really can't make out but whatever it is, the sounds are soul stirring.

And as we try to go nearer to the music, our eyes dance with joy - nestled comfortably in the water is the beautiful marble structure, so perfectly capped by the sheet of gold.

Peering into the water from the narrow path leading to the main structure, one would think that an artist has so beautifully carved a reflection of the structure in the water... My thoughts immediately go back to the scene in Rang De Basanti shot at this temple.

Somehow, the spectacle doesn't sink in the first time you see it ... with every glance, it becomes more real and you regret not having seen it for so many years of your existence.

And as we stand inside the temple, the every source of music, the peaceful faces of those singing and praying almost mesmerised us. The melody created by their vocal chords and the harmoniums could have even ensured the attention of an atheist.

There was the Guru Granth Sahib, seated lovingly amidst a group of priests doting on it. The second floor of the golden dome was equally fascinating as we sat at the top and tried to get a bird's eye view of the proceedings downstairs.

This is the only part of the temple where photography is not allowed while at all the other parts, clicking of a camera is one of the most heard sounds.

They say, the temple is best viewed when illuminated at night, but we were very happy with our morning visit as the sun kissed domes sparkled into our eyes. Of course, there is no dearth of photographs of the Golden Temple.

But this encounter with the holiest spot of Sikhism on earth can't be captured in a frame or described in a travelogue ...

A New Beginning

Agreed, climate wise, it was not sensible to choose this time for an Amritsar visit. But then, do we always get a chance to spend the New Year at such a revered place? Between 13 and 14 of April, it was Vaisakhi for the Punjabi's, Vishu for the Malayalis, Poila Boisakh for the Bengalis and Puthandu for the Tamilians.

Well, for a while let's forget the regionalities, it was a new year for all of us. It was almost as if something drove us to spend this time of the year at the Golden Temple ... and though we won't deny that the heat took it's toll on us, never did we regret.

The small walk from our Hotel City Heart to the temple seemed never ending as we strove through people, people and more people to reach the temple on the Vaisakhi day ... Phew it was quite an effort by the time we deposited our slippers and soaked our feet in the stream of water at the entrance of the temple.

Even as we happily cleaned off the dirt and enjoyed the cold water, we noticed a devotee filling their bottle with the very same water ... faith is paramount.

But nothing prepared us for the sight inside. Encircling around the pond were swarms of devotees ... there were the Patiala salwar kameez clad women bathing their young ones, some men taking dips, while the others were busy cleaning the floor, dirtied by the feet of fellow devotees and some just sleeping on the floor listening to the hymns as lullabies.

The temple seemed like a bride, dressed up with a thousand ornaments ... The candles lit up all around the pool just took your breath away.

The ambiance seemed to give out a huge, warm invitation and we were there, sitting on the floor staring at this golden magic. We were back again at the same place at the crack of the dawn (it was 3.15 am).

The first Vishu morning after marriage for me was spent at the Golden Temple. It was the earliest time I had ever visited any temple.

Our Vishu morning was culminated with the yummy halwa which is distributed as prasad at the temple (how I wish it was more than a prasad!) This was quite a New Year's day for me ...

Beyond the golden splendour

In school, we had read chapters on India being a secular state but I saw the real meaning of secularism in the Harmandir Sahib gurudwara. From the moment I entered the gurudwara, my eyes couldn't help wander across the different sets of people.

While somewhere I could see nuns in groups, there were the cotton sari clad Bengali women wading their way through. I could also spot the South Indian women carefully covering their heads with pattu sari as they walked through the temple premises. And of course, there were the white ladies, elegantly dressed in salwar kameez.

Heads constantly covered (it is mandatory for entry to a gurudwara), each and everyone of them could be seen bowing down in sheer respect.

And then, there were the Sikh men and women, smiling warmly and welcoming them to their terrain. They were there, running around, distributing chapatis and dal at the langar (free food at the temple) to all and sundry.

The modest attire and the devotional eyes make everyone look alike- there is no rich and poor at the Golden Temple.

Thanks to a guide of a group of foreigners, we came to know that it was Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh guru who said that there should not be any living guru worshipped in the temple. So it is their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, for the service of which a sikh is ready to spend their lives.

Mentally thanking the group of foreigners, I wished the non-Sikhs could have had more access to the history that makes the Golden Temple what it is.

History beckons

My husband says I don't have an eye for detail and I willingly accept that shortcoming of mine. But had it not been for his keen eye, we would have just missed the Sikh museum which is buried somewhere near the entrance of the temple.

The flight of steep steps took us back in time. We were surrounded by paintings depicting Sikhism in different stages of life ...

Here were the sikhs, their steel bodies bearing the brunt of the cruelties by people of so many different eras. The real swords preserved
from the wars still shone ...

But there was one painting which still seemed to attract everyone - showcasing the brunt of Operation Blue Star, the caption ended with the message which read "the Sikhs took their revenge."

All's well

The loss of Sujith's Adidas floaters at the end of our Golden Temple visit, which was hurriedly left at the gate, didn't quite bother us. We knew that we are leaving behind a major part of ourselves at this place ... that's what the Golden Temple is all about.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

At India's Cape with Good Hope

Many years ago, when I would hear about Kanyakumari, it used to fascinate me. My god, you can see a confluence of three oceans here... I used to think, amazed but strangely, it never dawned on me that visiting the place could ever be a possibility.

And then, many years later, I heard a casual reference of Kanyakumari from my husband whose family is settled in
Trivandrum. I learnt that Kanyakumari is about three hours away from my in-laws home.

I was excited as I asked Sujith if we could go there. "Yes we can try to," was the casual response. I was surprised to hear no excitement and no awe of the place. It was only later when I learnt that going to Kanyakumari is a routine for these people and they are no tourists there.

Though they often plan a vacation to Kanyakumari, they were little amused by my fascination towards the place.

However, a trip was arranged and it was supposed to be a three night and 2 day visit. Thanks to my mother-in-law's job at the
Census Directorate, our stay was arranged at the Central Government Employees Holiday Inn.

Oceans, Shopping and Tranquility

We, my father and mother-in-law and my sister-in-law with her two little daughters reached Kanyakumari towards evening after brief visits to the temples at Pallugal (my mother-in-law's family deity) and Tirchendur (I will write more about this in the posts to come).

As our car approached the road to our Guest House, I saw and heard the waves welcoming me. From a distance, the road we were taking seemed to abruptly end somewhere. But of course, the concrete road gave way to the beach.

First things first, a visit to the beach was an absolute must before settling down. So the car was parked and we walked (I almost rushed) to the beach. Suddenly, there I stood overlooking an expanse of water ... I looked towards my feet and was quiet for a moment. I was standing on the Indian Ocean with the water from the Arabian sea and Bay of Bengal softly caressing my feet.

It was amazing ... the sheer creation of nature. Somewhere in the ocean, I would see the
Vivekananda Rock Memorial staring at us. So this where the Swami swam and came?

The others were busy controlling the 3-year-old girl with us who was insisting to wet herself fully in water without anybody's help! I was of no help to them because I was standing speaking to myself, thanking my in laws for bringing me to this place.

And now, we had to see something which makes tourists shell out potfulls of money — the sunset. It was the perfect time as the sun was about to drown. We drove up to the sunset point (which was just a few meters away from our guest house).

We all badly needed to put our legs to rest and sat around the place with cups of tea. The cool breeze blowing across the ocean acted as a tranquilizer to our bodies.

There were clusters of eager people like me who were going to see this sight for the first time. And suddenly I saw everybody looking to one side.

Yes, there it was, the crimson ball gently going down the water. The sight was truly breathtaking ... the water seemed to open it's hands and cradle the sun so comfortably in its fold. Well, this was some view. Immediately, the crowd dispersed but we sat and chatted for sometime and finally got up to retire to our guest house.

For the others with me, it was like homecoming and even I felt so homely at the place. I was still little lost thinking that i'm actually at the land's end of India...

My meticulous in laws instantly chalked out the plans for the rest of our stay. Next day early morning, we would go to see the sunrise, get back to the hotel, freshen up and then visit the Kanyakumari temple, do some window shopping and return back to the hotel by lunch time (which by the way is 1 o clock for them). After that we were supposed to go to a water theme park for the children's sake.

There was no way I would be lazy to get up the next morning. We were up at five and by six we rushed to the sunrise point. It was quite crowded and very badly maintained. But surprisingly, people still thronged to the place and stayed put amidst the garbage lying there.

After all, who would want to miss a sunrise at Kanyakumari? The wait was for quite sometime and in between a crow nicely released itself on my hand! I had to go up to the water to clean it... and to be honest, I really didn't mind since I got a chance to go near the sea again.

We stood there for a long time as the clouds played pranks on us. We overheard some people saying it will be cloudy throughout the day, the sun won't come out ... no point wasting your time.

Many people even started going... I was so crestfallen as I was just about to lose my first opportunity to see the sunrise I heard so much about.

We almost turned back when Sujith suddenly shouted that sun's coming up... His camera instantly started snapping as we all looked to the direction.

The ocean, which had so lovingly put the sun to sleep was sending it back to wake all of us up. It was enchanting and I found it difficult to take my eyes off. I could hear people saying that because of the clouds, it is not as beautiful as it generally looks.

But to me, it really didn't matter ... I got a chance to see some of the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets.

Sometime after I had marvelled at the sunrise, I stood and admired the Kanyakumari Devi, looking so delicate and lovely in the temple, smiling and blessing all her devotees, her famous nose ring illuminating the eyes of the eager onlookers.

I was blessed they told me, since I got an opportunity to see her being bathed and then the arathi. So many times, I thanked whoever is up there of everything that he is giving me.

This place was full of surprises for me, I realised after taking a walk down the market. The well stocked market would stump any traveller. You get all sorts of miscellaneous things, from saris for Rs 80 to shells curtains for Rs 300.

There were shops selling everything for five rupees and wonderful footwear for Rs 70. Shopping was an absolute must but it had to wait till the evening because no one will be able to take the blinding heat.

Kanyakumari, once a part of Kerala, still has a lot of
Travancore even after years of being a part of the Tamil Nadu. So, most people could speak Malayalam and the food also had similarities.

With instructions from my mother-in-law, our lunch was also typically malayali with the traditional thoran, sambhar and fish. The only difference was that we were served white rice instead of the typical red rice. I enjoyed the meal but was informed later that the non-veg dishes were tastier.

The water park visit was one of the most exciting experiences of our trip. Spread over a huge area, Baywatch, as it was called, was a beautifully constructed water park. After getting a good discount for the tickets, we decided to visit the wax museum first.

Considering that Baywatch has the first wax museum in India, I felt that it deserves more publicity in the North.

For us, it was the
Madame Tussauds of India and we excitedly examined the wax statues. Our hair raised when we saw M.S. Subbulakshmi carved showing tears in her eyes, which often was the case when she used to sing.

The rest of the statues were also quite impressive and I kept wondering why haven't they publicised this one of a kind place.

The kids were getting impatient to get into the water but we decided to sample the other joy rides first. My sis-in-law and mom-in-law were in their enthusiastic best as they got on to all those rides they thought they
could manage.

Here, I have to confess that I was the old lady who didn't dare to get into any fast moving rides fearing I would puke! In between my dear father-in-law treated us to some yummy mango bars.

Now, it was time to get into the water and just then we were told that the waves are going to be started soon in the wave pool. The children were excited as they soaked themselves into water in the almost real looking waves.

But it was the other water rides which made us kids at least for an hour. Doing a big show of bravery, I got into a slide in the kids pool! But I was immediately pulled to the bigger rides by my husband.

Looking at the long, scary slides that would lead us directly into the water, I decided not to try it out. But who am I to decide alone? I was forced to sit into one of the slides with my hubby ... Sliding down we went with me shouting at the top of my voice.

Well, I thoroughly enjoyed it ... But our excitement doubled when we succeeded in forcing our sister to join us. The darling that she is, she not only agreed to accompany me, she also was quite excited! It was great fun as our threesome repeated this till our legs allowed us.

Somewhere down there, we could hear the kids shouting to their mother to come down to the small rides but their mother was kidnapped by us. Mom and dad-in-law were enjoying looking at us and clicking our pictures ... Ah, what an experience it was... Our energies were giving up but the prospect of shopping again rejuvenated us!

We raided the sari and footwear shop. I was strictly commanded to keep my mouth shut as the other ladies with me conversed expertly with the shopkeepers in Tamil.

Kerala House where we had our dinner was an impressive place. The tall ceiling and the ancient feel of it was so soothing. Situated right at the seashore, one could hear the waves lapping up every minute. It was a much awaited Kerala meal for the people with me as we got back to our Guest House contented.

The night there was awesome ... the only sounds to be heard was of the ocean as I and Sujith took a small walk within our guest house. We were supposed to leave early next day but especially for me, a trip was planned to the Vivekananda Rock Memorial.

Why everyone was reluctant for the visit I realised when I got into the boat which took us to the rock. Dilapidated and ancient, the boat was ill-equipped for any contingency.

Carrying about 70 people, I counted exactly 10 available life jackets on the boat. My visit to the rock memorial and the Thiruvallur statue was very ordinary when I compared it to the excitement I felt reaching Kanyakumari.

The one thing which kept crossing my mind throughout the trip was that it will take just a tsunami to destroy all this... what would have happened to all the shopkeepers and the inhabitants of this place on that fateful day when the word tsunami became known throughout the world? Well, one really can't escape the curses of nature ...

Bags packed and smiles intact, we were just getting ready to get into the car, when my husband came and asked me if the little girl had come to our room ... She had not I casually replied and returned back to my phone conversation with mom.

In between I could see people rushing here and there when I kept the phone and rushed outside. The little one was missing I learnt... Just how helpless we are in situations like this...

Everyone, including each and every staff of the guest house was frantically shouting and running around. I stayed back convincing my father-in-law to sit back and relax. I was afraid he will have a heart attack ...

She was found sitting right below her mother's bed sampling every content of her mom's vanity case ...

The little angel was completely unaware of what she had done to our poor hearts ... Thanking God, we were swiftly on our way back home.

Sunday, 8 April 2007

A Villa in the Woods

There is nothing new I can tell about Shimla. The erstwhile British summer Capital and one of the most popular hill stations of the country, this place has no surprises to spring on the discerning traveler.

And yet we decided to go to Shimla... Since we were constantly scolded for going for our honeymoon along with five other people (which included two children), we almost felt pressurised to go for our 'real' honeymoon!

But, why Shimla?

Well, it so happened that during a cleaning process in my husband's office, a visiting card fell on his desk and he by chance looked at it. The card said Woodville, Shimla. Curiosity led to an Internet search and this is what he found -
Woodville Palace is one of those beautiful hotels in Shimla which the town can boast about.

But this is not what prompted us to go there. What really inspired this decision was that Swami (
Sai Baba) had also stayed there (I wonder he had sent the visiting card to us).

Back home, I was offered, "Let's go to Shimla for three days this week." Not being the instinctive decision maker type, I was apprehensive and skeptical. But promptly, the website was shown to me and I was impressed.

One call to Woodsville and the booking was made. We seemed to have got a nice room at an okay cost. Even after the tickets were bought for the to and fro bus journey, till the last minute I kept wondering, "are we really going?" It was natural, considering the way things were planned.

But in no time, I found myself in the bus comfortably seated right behind the driver's seat. The paranthas lovingly packed by mommy were gobbled down at the Delhi ISBT itself. Rest of the seven hour journey was after all, meant to be spent dozing off.

By the time, we reached
Kalka, I started getting jittery and instantly ate the Avomine I had carefully kept in my pocket (I've always hated the ride to the hill stations).

It worked and I peacefully slept straight till I heard some people shouting Shimla, Shimla. As soon as we descended from the bus, we realised we were shivering. The light woollens on our body were doing no good and we wanted to somehow reach our hotel.

Our cab fellow turned out to be a talkative man and we launched our questionnaire. "How is this Woodville Hotel?" I asked. "Arre madam woh to mahal jaisa hai," we were offered. So Internet is reliable, we wondered. But it was still too early to say what our instincts will lead to.

Woodville Palace Hotel, Shimla

The drive through the elevated concrete jungle called Shimla was what really made us greatful for choosing Woodville Palace Hotel to stay. A little further up from the Governor's bunglow was situated this beautiful haven nestled amidst acres of greenery. Very much a part of the city, but still it felt as though we left the bustling city far behind when our car wound up to the entrance.

The reception area was kept warm with the huge heater and the warmth of the people of the hotel was written clear on the faces of the minimalistic morning staff. The room we had asked for was to get free by 12 and we were offered to relax in another room till then.

No advance taken and no background check done, we walked softly through the wooden floor and reached our room. Despite knowing that this wasn't where we were supposed to spend the next couple of days, my dear husband made it loud and clear that we weren't too happy with the room.

We'll talk about that later, let's rest for sometime was my response as I snuggled into the cosy quilt. Sometime later, sitting in the dining hall, devouring the lovely eggs, sandwiches and tea, we admired the tastefully done castle. Looking at some of the pictures put up, we came to know that this place was the palace of the Jubbal royal family and had a colourful historical background.

But everything else had to wait since the most pressing task of the moment was getting into the room we want. The small walk leading to the reception gave us another opportunity to marvel at the beauty Woodville was.

We could choose between two available rooms within our budget, we were told. Rejecting a stylish and modern room on the first floor, we chose an ancient looking place on the ground floor. Our two days can be spent in the sanctity of this room, we told each other happily the moment the hotel staff walked out after dropping our luggage.

Our den was beautiful- two sets of the windows overlooking the beautifully kept garden and the hills overlooking the hotel just melted our hearts. The furnishing was exactly according to our
taste. A huge cosy cot with a bed like sofa right opposite. The dressing table, study table and the big chest were all wooden.

But the two things which gave us the ultimate glee were the tall heater and the larger than life geyser! The bath tub wasn't too big but the heater compensated for all as we excitedly anticipated the elaborate steam bath we could have.

But the Avomine that had saved me and my fellow passengers of my puking session was just not willing to let me do anything else. I was compelled to sleep and so the poor man with me was also forced to postpone his craving for exploration.

The shower after the luxurious nap was blissful. For someone who doesn't even need to walk a kilometer to catch a transport to get to work, the walk to the mall road seemed tiring but relaxing.

Both of us had vague memories of walking down this road as children with our parents. And we went on to check out the places we remembered- "Where is that Chinese shoe shop? Where's Indian Coffee House?" Childhood memories are fond, Aren't they?

No shopping today, I was strictly instructed. So I satisfied myself with window shopping and some phone calls. As the sun went down, Woodville was pulling us back. With no transport allowed on the mall road, we had to depend on our feet to get back as soon as possible.

Home sweet home was how we felt when we got back.

The staff was instructed to call us when the dinner was ready. Meanwhile, it was time to switch on the TV set. Such was the magic of the place that my husband even relented to watch a Shah Rukh Khan movie with me! And we spent about one hour seeing SRK as bhoot in Paheli.

The hotel website isn't wrong when it says Woodville is a gastronomical delight. Each and every meal of the place was a treat to our tastebuds. To add to the flavour of the already tempting meal, the dining space was almost like a private meal hall.

The hotel staff just seemed to disappear when we would start eating. And miraculously appear when we needed something. Our appetite shot up in the cold weather and the wonderful ambiance.

The vegetarian stuff like palak paneer, yellow dal, mushroom curry and much more just melted in the mouth. As far as the non-veg was concerned, it is probably Woodville that prompted Sujith to start eating non-veg again.

Even the simple cheese sandwich tasted yummy in that place. We reprimanded ourselves a thousand times when we decided to have our lunch outside the next day. But considering the walking distance and the absolutely necessary shopping, we didn't have too much choice.

It was time for a brief hotel tour before venturing out to the mall road again the next day. But it was the garden where we got stuck and the tour was forgotten. Taking a small flight of stairs down the garden, we spotted this cottage type looking place called The House of the Rising Sun.

The only source of information there was this worker who was busy painting a placard. We came to know that this is the latest addition to this hotel which was inaugurated by Amitabh Bachchan. The man was too eager to speak about the hotel he obviously loved and told us that this is probably the best located hotel in the town.

We were also told that this is where the movie Black was shot. No wonder the house shown in the movie looked so royal! We understood that we had to end the conversation which could have gone on for hours together.

This time, I was quite excited walking down to the mall. After all, it was the shopping day. We walked past a bunch of school kids walking uphill whose red cheeks reminded us of the pale looking kids back home. Instead of shopping on the mall, we took a road leading us to a local type market.

We still don't know if the rates were actually cheaper but my husband's purse was surely emptied at the shawl shop. This routine was followed religiously and on our way back, we realised that we needed another bag to carry the proof of my extravaganza!

A Tibetan shop was our refuge where we bought a bag and since we had such a huge bag now, I picked up few woolen socks also. I was scolded then for splurging but even now I'm told that I could have bought a few more shawls to gift people!

The hotel still needed some exploration and we couldn't leave it without that. The lobby with comfy sofas had some amazing collection of rare art pieces. On the one hand was the face of an animal hunted by a raja and on the other was a beautiful Maharani Gayatri Devi which was once stolen and then later restored. We thought of having a drink at the Hollywood Retro Bar which has signed photographs of the 1930's stars such as Robert Taylor, Spencer Tracy and many more.

But considering the unnecessary cost involved, we decided against it and climbed up to explore the upper floors. The nights at Woodville were amazingly calm. Even with most of the rooms occupied, as we walked down the garden, it felt as though it was our private space. Sometime in the middle of the night, we could hear tapping on the wooden floor, but that didn't bother us.

But what really struck us about this hotel was the happiness on the faces of each and every hotel staff. At a time when the word contentment is ready to be removed from the dictionary, the
Woodville staff seemed completely out of this world.

At any time of the day, we could stop a staff and they were ready with his stories of the hotel- the stories ranged from their experiences with the pricey Ajay Devgan to the fan friendly Big B. But the most colourful stories were about the hotel owners.

"Every year, some of the hotel staff is taken along with the owner for a vacation," was shared eagerly. The ever-smiling faces dripping with warmth seem obvious when we were told that the staff is given a substantial raise every year. Well, how we wish there were more Woodville in this world!

This information explained us the classy behaviour of the managers.

Settling the bill seemed like a pleasure as we dropped a hefty tip in the box. The concluding part of the journey became a little strenuous as we fell short of cash and a non functional ATM ensured that our BP's rise.

Even after collecting all the change in our wallet, we were Rs 50 short of the full taxi amount. But with God's grace, the cab driver decided to waive the amount and give us our remaining hours of peace. Back in the bus, we talked fondly of Woodville vowing to visit again...

Saturday, 7 April 2007

A date with a 14th Century Fort

To say that we had become sick of our daily routine when we decided to take a break would be an understatement.

The daily chaos of our respective offices had probably got us to a stage of crashing. But to avoid any tussle with our bosses, we decided to keep it for our off day.

One day break it would be, we decided. And the fact that it was the Valentine’s Day eve added the romantic element!

Our decision to explore the
Neemrana property at Alwar was the result of my husband’s hours of web search and then finally on instinct.

Neemrana Fort Palace was already booked and only a suite was available which was to cost something above 6000 per person per night. Well, that sounded little too extravagant.

Our holiday plans almost got shelved when my better half discovered this another Neemrana property near
Alwar. Another call to the Nizamuddin office of Neemrana and we found out that there’s a room available at the Hill Fort, Kesroli costing Rs 3,500.

Again extensive Internet research and we found the fort palace quite attractive. The hotel phone lines were not reachable we didn’t want to make any advance booking at the head office.

So after hours of discussion we finally planned to take the plunge and just embark on our journey in the morning, hoping to get the room.

Off we went at sharp 5. The road instructions written in my untidy handwriting in my diary and some unreachable phone numbers were all we were armed with.

To make the beginning even more filmy, heavy rainfall and an overcast sky greeted us when had just about reached
Gurgaon. Trying to keep a steady conversation with our cab driver, Sujith was keeping his fingers crossed. The huge blanket type shawl I decided to keep came quite handy as we wrapped ourselves in it.

It was sensible not to stop anywhere but of course the driver had to have his tea break and we stopped at a shady looking place midway. It was freezing outside and that kind of increased our excitement for the trip. We started approaching our destination at around 8.15. The diary instructions did come handy as the ever helpful Rajasthani people guided us to the place.

The Hill Fort, Kesroli

12 kilometers away from the city of Alwar, the drive up to this fort turned heritage hotel seemed like a chase to no man’s land. As the car chased a narrow path in a seemingly thinly populated village we wondered if there can ever be a hotel in such a place.

But there was and we found it standing proudly a few meters away in the road we took. It looked quite dilapidated and a far cry from the beautiful photo we found on the Neemrana website.

It didn’t seem quite as dilapidated when we came to know that it is the oldest heritage hotel in the country. Well, this 14th century fort has surely stood the test of time, we thought.

Our driver was given instructions to wait since we were not even sure of getting a room.

A steep staircase led us to the hotel. There was no well groomed receptionist greeting us at the reception there. Instead a kuta pyjama clad, graceful looking man approached us. Out came the big fat register to check the status of the rooms available. But in the ancient ambiance, the absence of a computer didn’t even strike us.

Yes, a room was available which was to cost us Rs 3,500 for a day and night. The food charges were separate of course. The atmosphere had already enamored us and we were ready to shell out the cash. Payment made, we were ready to check out our room.

A twin bedded Papiha Mahal was what we zeroed down on after rejecting a double bedded Tota Mahal. The name was a little deceptive considering the size of the rooms.

At least the two Mahal’s we saw weren’t too big. But one step into the mahal, and we were transported into a different era. Everything from the walls and the furniture had an ancient touch.

The only sounds to be heard were the chirping of the birds, the cow and the tractor. But there was not too much time to sit and marvel as our stomachs growled for food and we rushed to the breakfast buffet.

With huge cane sofa like chairs, the dining space was quite cosy and comfortable with birds giving us company as they kept descending every five minutes to check if there’s something worth pecking.

We filled ourselves to the brink with break rolls, fruit cake and omelette. Nothing traditional about it, the breakfast like a meal cooked by a loving mother.

A selection of tea leaves from the Neemrana tea gardens were there to choose from. Refreshing, the tea seemed like a perfect end to our hearty breakfast.

This time when we went back to our rooms, it dawned on us that here there is no television set to keep us occupied! So, it was just the two of us and the rustic surrounding for company.

Bath can wait, it was more important to discover the place, we decided. Three of us-- me, him and our camera set out to discover the place.

As we explored the property, we found that we were probably the only Indians staying the place that time. All the rest of the place was occupied by people the goras who seemed to have been enjoying a long vacation there in the Indian countryside.

On our little exploration spree, we finally climbed on to a place that gave us a view which is still etched in our memory. Perched on a slightly balcony of the fort, our eyes were treated to an expanse of a lush green field. On the left side was the village Kesroli whose menfolk were now in the field with their cattle.

For us, fed on a daily diet of an air mixed with every toxic element in the atmosphere, this sight almost seemed like a dream. Cattle was the Maruti 800 here and the tractor the luxurious big car!

Well, what else can one ask for? Of course we know that this is not how the place would look like in two months from now. The lush green field would be replaced by a parched land and there would be an ever present look of thirst in the faces of the happy villagers now. It will surely be easy on our pocket, we were told by the waiter later.

But it was the parrots which caught the fancy of my husband who went wild clicking one after the other. Oh yes, I was also obliged to be in some of the frames with the parrot seemingly sitting over my head!

Not his fault of course, in Delhi, parrots can only be found nicely locked up in their cages being trained to imitate the cruel human conversation. But here, they were freely flying around, unaware of the luxury of the freedom they have.

After the photography session, we retired to our room where the elaborate hot water bath soothed our nerv

No fuss over dressing, we marched for lunch almost in our night wear. Forget a candlelight dinner, we’ll have an open air lunch was what we decided.

The food shall be served in our favourite balcony, we ordered as we sat marveling at the quiet around us.

It was no ordinary lunch as we devoured our chapattis with broccoli, paneer, potato, chicken roast, baby corn, cabbage and dal. A little rice and curd for our south Indian taste buds and we were sure that we’ve had one of the best meals in a long while. The cream caramel and payasam ended the meal perfectly.

And now, our only thought was how fast can we hit the bed. Time moves surprisingly slow at such places as it was only 2.30 when we drifted into our sweet slumber.

When my eyes opened, I wondered where I was. It was probably the best afternoon nap, I’ve enjoyed in years. The mobile phone told me it has been three hours since I’ve been sleeping.

Wondering if I’ll be able to sleep at night, my husband was woken up. how sleep starved we were, I discovered later in night!

Since Alwar was just next door, we thought we should at least pay a visit once. Moreover, my mother had ordered me to buy a sweet which is the specialty of that place. What sweet it was, it was left to me to discover.

The 12 km journey was not pleasant as the chaotic roads gave us a trailer of what awaits us in Delhi.

The market was all shut but thanks to the eager-to-help people, we discovered the most famous sweet shop.

Kalakand, the sweet was we discovered that the place has a street dedicated to this sweet which is called Kalakand market.

We found out and reached the 60 year old, famous shop. With the suggestions of the unassuming owner, we bought small boxes.

Curious to find out the reason behind closed shops, we probed further and were told, “It is Tuesday, the day when the shopkeepers go to Sadar Bazar in Delhi.”

We longed to get back to the quiet of our fort, after all, it was just a one-night luxury for us! Night time, the fort looked beautiful. Illuminated with lots of small bulbs, it was a lovely sight.

But now, for the first time, we felt the place was too quiet and some company would have been welcome. The firangs, it seemed felt none of this as they happily downed bottles of wine at the dinner table.

The dinner was not something to boast about but soothing it surely was. It’s probably 12 or something, we thought when we reached back to our room, but it was actually just 10 pm.

We settled in our beds and chatted till what seemed like ages, but it was only 11 we discovered. Surprisingly, we again had a dreamless sleep and got up fresh at 8.

We didn’t feel nostalgic about leaving but we were full of sweet memories of the one day we spend at The Hill Fort, Kesroli.

After another photography session, it was the payment time. Some amount was paid in cash and the rest we were to pay by our debit card. I was having a cheerful conversation with a British lady who wanted to know where was Fab India in Delhi, when I overheard the hotel manager saying we can’t accept a debit card because our phone line isn’t working.

Ah, now we know why no one picked up the phone when we called from Delhi. But here was another problem at hand. The American Express card came as a boon as it saved us a 24 km drive to Alwar to find an ATM. The security check they asked for was only our mobile number. Well, talk about trusting a person!

After checking out the well stocked but over priced Neemrana Shop, we were on our way back to Delhi, dreaming of staying in the Neemrana Fort Palace on the next chance we have.

Friday, 6 April 2007


Bikkupedia will be Bikku & me and the world as we see it.

The places, people, food, our excitements and disappointments.

Read on if you want to be part of our journey ... We promise you it will be exciting by the day.

©2007 & Beyond. All rights reserved.
No material on this site can be used without prior written permission.
Limited permission to quote content from this blog is granted.
The quote should be duly acknowledged and linked to Bikkupedia.