Thursday, December 31, 2015

Are you ready for the 2016 phenomenon?

First off, I would like to thanks all my readers for their continued support and feedback, I had no idea I could get the ball rolling so soon and get so far. And as the year 2015 comes to a close, I would like to reflect on some of the stories that caught my attention and yours. I promise to give you better stories next year and keep in touch.

2015 saw a record number of visitors to the region who left a trail of plastic and rubbish behind, despite knowing that there is no one to clean up after them. Our little initiative to encourage travellers to be more responsible is close to my heart and was well-received by you as well.

The few remaining graffiti works left in Delhi urban village, Shahpur Jat, are fast fading. It is not just the loss of art and soeone's hard work that I rue. I see the lack of empathy on the part of the residents of the village who do not value the art. They are proo that art does not, in fact, affect everyone.

One of the most memorable adventures of the year that I have shared with you was the journey to Haryana. It was my maiden trip to the infamous state. I returned humbled, not only by the people but also having stood at the site of the largest Harappan site in the world. Ongoing expeditions will reveal the true extent of the heritage hidden in the folds of this hamlet.

One of my biggst disappointments of the year, was the realisation that we have failed the Royal Bengal Tiger. While the government keeps announcing new buffer zones around the National Park, loud and irresponsible tourists have been scaring the animals away from their natural habitat. Not to forget instances of poaching and illegal felling of trees.

My effort at looking beyond the myths that surround the fort came as the blogpost which was read by many friends and made for great conversations as well. Instead of looking for ghosts, it might be a batter idea to look into the history that fort holds within. The fear you carry with you is all that will keep you scared.

Looking forward to keeping you engaged through 2016 as well! Happy responsible travels!!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Bengal beyond Kolkata

No. Bengal is not about Kolkata. Although the magnificent city is the capital of the state, I feel that the true stories of Bengal can be discovered in the sleepy villages and towns away from the Mahanagar. The stories from Bengal are as varied as its cuisine, and just as overlooked. At a Bengal Craft Fair recently organised in New Delhi, I had the opportunity to meet some amazing artisans from the state. It was a humbling experience because I learnt that art is a gift and as a human, it the duty of those blessed with artistic abilities to hone our skills over a lifetime in homage to the Almighty.

The simplest facets of a Bengali household comprise of lovingly handmade items, like the humble "madur" or carpet. At the Craft Fair, I realised that the women of Medinipur district have been crafting the madur and other items from the leaves of local trees to be used across Bengali households in the state and beyond.

I had the great fortune of meeting Tuli, an artist from Bankura district where painting on various materials is the preferred handicarft. She is the mother of a five-year-old and learnt the craft from her mother-in-law after marriage. In time, she has become a well-known artist in the region and travelled to a big city, New Delhi, to showcase her art. I was attending the first major showcase of her talent! She went back to the painting she was working on after telling me that most of the designs were inspired by folklore and the technique has been handed down from one generation to the next through practice.

I stood by, amazed. At a time when the India around me is clamouring for better space for women, here is a woman from a village in West Bengal who demonstrated the perfect work-life balance. Once back home, she goes right back to being a mom and a home-maker along with being an artist.

The ordinary hall was lit up by so many colours with stories both of folk and reality springing out from every corner. I was not able to capture the image of the masks from Purulia, which I must add were a prized section of the display. But I intend to. At the Bengal Art and Literary Festival at the India Habitat Centre from December 25-27. Do step in for your share of folktales from Bengal.

WHAT: Bengal Art and Literary Festival
WHEN: December 25-27
WHERE: India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road

Monday, December 21, 2015

Bhuli Bhatiyari Mahal: All are invited!

Phew! Nothing like December for new launches and such has been the launch of the latest "haunted" destination in New Delhi, Bhuli Bhatiyari ka Mahal in the Northern Ridge at Jhandewalan. Drum rolls!

I have not been able to confirm it from any historian as yet but the structure clearly seems older than the time of Bu Ali Bakhtiyari, after whom this structure is rumoured to have been named. Another rumour claims it was named after a queen, Bhatiyari. But the essence is that the structure was used as a hunting lodge by Feroz Shah Tughlaq. It has clear references to Rajputana architecture, although even Mughal and Slave dynasty rulers had hunting lodges similar to the Rajputs.

The fame of the place seems to have preceded the long line of visitors to follow as a signboard clearly instructs visitors to leave by 4 pm (not wanting to wait till sunset!). The same seems to have been the thought behind any visitor who strays into the grounds. An overgrowth, brown and rotting when we arrived, added the element of morbid to the surroundings. The ruins are very exciting to explore with some of th walls and pillars still standing. Some efforts of renovation show in places like the little outback on the elevated level inside the Palace. Although scribbled on by some hooligan with a sense of humour, "I AM WAITING", there is clear evidence of more than fair share of visitors to the structure.

Much of the spread lies covered by the overgrowth and is quite distracting to a curious eye. I was more concerned by the presence of snakes than spirits at the Mahal. In fact, I believe I could have enjoyed the ambience a lot more had the place just been cleaned up a bit. Haunted or not, this is a new playzone for Delhi's adventure seekers. Do make time for a visit to the Mahal.

How to get there: Exit from Delhi Metro Jhandewalan Station Gate number 2. Cross the iconic Hanuman Statue and take a left. First cut into Bhuli Bhatiyari Park. Landmark for the cut: Bagga Auto Link. There is no entry fee but I would recommend people gullible to ghost stories and those with a weak heart to kindly keep away.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Bhangarh: Beyond the curse

It has been a little more than five years since I visited Bhangarh. On most days, I still remember every detail of the experience. What I remember most is that I was heart-broken by the loss of a great city and all the stories it held in its fold, the ruins that remains have been painted many times over with vivid imagination and rumours of curses and hauntings. While we don't know for sure as to what happened at Bhangarh, the reality of the residents who still live around the fort, is painful.

I was already terrified when I arrived at the gate of the ruins. Much had already ben said in the five-hour long journey from New Delhi to Bhangarh. There were no markers to the ruins along the way and we had to stop, frequently, to ask for directions and we were almost always met with locales suggesting us not to go there. Some had even misdirected us, leading us away from the Fort. It had all gotten on my nerves by the time I arrived. There was no entrance fee but rumours told us there was no guarantee of getting out alive as well. We passed the ominous signboard by the Archeological Survey of India warning visitors not to stay back after sunset. The mood had been successfully created. First, we crossed a long cobbled lane with structures on both sides. The structues, as was evident, seemed to have been cut at the exact height from the ground, creating an evenly creepy image. We paused several times, to take pictures and to speak to the other visitors walking about. Most of the visitors ere locals who had come to pen the day on the Fort's rolling green.

At the far end of this meadow was the Fort. Below the fort, at one corner of the meadow stood the only living temple in the compound. A Shiva Temple. We found the priest and spoke to him at length about the possibility of spirits and the story of the haunting of Bhangarh. He rubbished the stories. He had been the head priest for several years now and his father had been head priest of the temple before him. There had been no instances that he could recollect of any "supernatural" kind. Encouraged, I now made my way to the Fort. As I entered the arched dome of the gate to the main fort building, I froze.

It is easy to see why the stories of Bhangarh's haunting are so believable. The Fort, perhaps is designed, to trigger the imagination. It seems obvious that someone will peek out of the balcony (which was impossible to get to at the time, although renovation was in progress). The cobbled road narrowed into a wide lane leading up, steeply, to the Fort.

The scene within the Fort was like any other ruins you can find, except the nauseating smell of bat droppings. The wind is surprising cool at the top of the Fort and provides a great view. Yet, there is something positively eerie and it is not uncommon to see visitors suddenly looking back as if to check something. In the garden/meadow below, families can be seen enjoying a picnic with the family. Everything seems normal and the image truly allays any fears one may have. Until, someone says, "This is where the guard was slapped by the ghost that evening."

I sent a fairly good amount of time at the Fort, hoping to see some "activity". Thankfully, nothing happened and I decided to walk back to the garden. The sun was beginning to set. I realised that the Fort was positioned at the conjunction of two hill slopes (for better protection against a possible invasion) and instead of the sun setting on a horizon, it would merely drop behind the hill ushering in darkness before the dusk actually fell. In the pockets that had already been hidden from the sun's direct light, I saw a strange sight.

The roughly cut stone structures seemed very different in the reflected light. The wind was now cooler, almost chilly. There was a sudden stillness in the Fort and every one of the visitors who had been clicking pictures and exploring the ramparts, now lined up after me to leave. Once in the garden, I struggled to stay back for a little longer. I took a seat on a bench in the still sunlit areas. The people who had been frollicking around me, now started to head for the gate. No one spoke about it being time to go or showing any signs of being told to leave. Neither did I. We all just knew that it was now time to leave. I watched as some monkeys that had been scavenging in the garden now sped up to take shelter in the trees, on the other side the birds started to disappear, seeking refuge in the ruins or in the many trees. The wind started to pick up speed even as I basked in the last rays of the sunlight. The urge to get up and leave was mounting within me and my imagination was adding a lot of colour to the scenario before me.

I was still seated when I spotted a shepherd with hsi cattle heading for the gate. He stopped on seeing me and walked towards me. "My child," he said in a coarse Rajasthani voice, "it is not the darkness of the fort that you should fear. It is the darkness within all of us that will do the damage. Come, let us go out and have some tea." I was not able to fathom what he had said but I decided to move. A gush of wind seemed to push me on as I made my way with the shepherd to the gate. "Dilliwale?" asked the shepherd once we had left the Fort. He didn't explain his comment or ask about much. He had the tea that I bought him and left.

In my mind, Bhangarh still remains cursed by the rumours that precede it. It has a reputation. You either return scared or you feel nothing at all. To me, Bhangarh is best viewed as a chance to explore the darkness within me. If I hav something to be afraid of, I will be scared by the unseen spirits of Bhangarh. If I do not, then I will not need to visit the place at all and I have not, not in the past five years.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Down the creepy alleys in Ajabgarh

One of the key facets of travel through Rajasthan is knowing that you can always expect the unexpected around the corner. The same occurred when some friends and I got together to unravel the huge mystery around Bhangarh, which as you already know, is supposed to be one of the world's most haunted places. We raced back, with cold sweat pouring down our backs, from the experience at the ruined fort, in the evening to get back tot he normalcy of the budget hotel we had checked into at Alwar. That night, we slept very little and spoke even less. The following morning, we were back to being our chirpy selves, avoiding any references to what we had seen or felt the previous day. Our way back to Delhi beckoned but we had a full day to plan the return. We decided to head out early, stop along the way to fill the car's fuel. It was at the station that we were informed of a place, scarier than Bhangarh. Without a word, we agreed to head to Ajabgarh in daylight and leave for Delhi before dusk.

The first view of the Ajabgarh Fort was all we needed to renew the shivers in our spines. The village, in shambles and seemingly empty, offered quite the setting for our light-hearted attempt at reviving the mood. Only the house right at the start of the hamlet, straddled across the state highway in two neat rows facing each other, seemed inhabited. There was a family event taking place here and upon asking we were informed that the family was trying to sell off the house and relocated to the nearest city. Apart from the warm and friendly family at the first gate, the rest of the houses seemed desolate and we spent most of time peaking in through cracks in the old wooden doors.

Our worries ceased as we witnessed the activity at the first house from a distance and sat and watched the bullock carts, tractors and buses come and go along the state highway. As the sun stood strong over our heads, I walked a little distance out of the village. I felt a sudden silent threat from behind me and swung around. There was no one there but in the distance, I saw something like a shadow swiftly move away from a window in one of the buildings. The sense of dread from the previous day returned with a vengeance. I turned my back to the window and pretended to look down at the ground and there, out of my sense of rising fear, my imagination starting seeing shapes in the stones scattered on the ground.

I was still staring at the stones and feeling the creepy distant eyes roaming on my back when I heard my fiends call out my name. I walked back to what the new fuss was about and saw them pointing to something. There was forgotten path between the houses an my friends and I decided that we would see where it led. And I am glad we did. It led us straight to what remains of a 14th century monument, the Raghunath Temple now stands abandoned. A long flight of steps took us to the main temple structure and though the gates had been locked for years and keys forgotten, it offered a great view all around. The sun was losing its strength by the time we reached the top and we realised it was best if we started the long journey back. We were met at the lane with a elder woman with a wristful of ominous looking red thread bands. She asked where we from and when e intended to return. She was not threatenign in any way but as she spoke to us, we could sense the abandoned village around us sudddenly stirring to life. Sounds of clanging pots and pans and heavy objects being moved was alarming. We had been so sure that the village as abandoned! We informed the lady that we were apologetic for having caused any discomfort to her or the other residents and that we were leaving right way. I don't think any of us stopped to look back at the village or the woman who had appeared from nowhere with a smile on her face. As we drove way, it was hard not to feel that the growing shadows of the houses clinging on to the car a little longer than they should have. I promised myself never to return.

P.S. - My friends and I have since parted ways. The road trip was in 2010 and I have been told that not much has changed since then. I still have not returned to Ajabgarh and wish you well if you choose to head that way.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Put India on your plate

In a conversation with Raman Preet Singh Ahluwalia, Executive Chef at Park Plaza Zirakpur, I realised that most of the things I grew up on made complete sense to me and that my logical mind had completely failed me when I hoarded food in packets and cans. The Chef who demonstrated his skill by helping me cut back 2 inches of flab in the two days that I was with him. He spoke about the need to enhance the Indianess on our plates. Here's a few bits from our conversation:

Me: There has been a lot of emphasis on changing the oil we use to cook in every six months or so. What oils do you prefer and why?

Chef: There is no uniform rule to cater to people across the world. In India, we often tend to misinterpret international trends and follow things blindly. The olive oil that is sold in India, for instance, is actually the industrial oil with olive flavours in it. How can that be a healthy option to add to food? In the rush to adhere to international trends of eating, we are totally ignoring centuries-old tried and tested kitchen modules to suit our palettes. I use only the freshly procured mustard oil (kachchi ghaani sarso tel) for cooking at home. Not only is it the freshest oil, it really complements the vegetables and lentils that we eat in this country. Given our climate and weather, our bodies require a certain level of cholesterol to be generated. Th whole market-driven low cholesterol oils are actually doing you more harm than good.

Me: What to you is the best breakfast that one can have?

Chef: Not paranthas. The problem is that instead of adhering to what the actual tradition is, we have moulded our conveniences as tradition. It is not healthy to start the day with fried food anywhere in the world. The best breakfast to have in India is a bowl of fruit with roasted or beaten wheat/barley/ragi or any carbohydrate rich cereal served with milk. If you actually are talking about tradition, stop drinking milk tea and fruit jams and fried food. The ideal meal is always light and nutritious.

Me: But fast food is a necessary evil in our times. How can one avoid junk food?

Chef: Who is asking you to avoid junk food? Eat the burger, leave the fries. In India, it is considered stylish to waste homemade food. How many people leave their fries? We feel ashamed in leaving behind a glass of aerated drink, knowing that it only damages us but we don't mind throwing away glasses full of drinking water. Home-made vegetables are discarded with little concern but pizza is always finished mostly even without having to ask. We have cultivated very irresponsible food habits and we are suffering because of them. The trick that I have learnt and incorporated is to stay true to Indian basics and finish with an international touch.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

To loo or not to loo!

Today's article comes on the lines of World Toilet Day. At a time when the Indian government is paying so much attention to tourism and revenue and jobs that can be generated through Tourism, the question I put forward is: Where are the toilets for women? In the years of my travelling through the country I have suffered (physically and mentally) for the lack of proper toilets along the way. Just a few tips to make everyone's travel through India a "smooth" one!

1. We all know that the key is to know when to drink water. Drink loads of water the day before you travel to avoid using a public restroom (yes, Indian public restrooms are mostly unclean - exceptions do not make this rule).

2. Use the restroom in your house before you start your journey.

3. If undertaking a long train trip, always enquire about the "cleaning" stations on the way. The loos in Indian trains usually get a hose down somewhere along the journey and pantry boys and TTEs are aware of the stations and could share the names so that you can use the loo after it has been washed. Or you could stick your head out of a door AFTER the train stops at a major station (five to ten minute halt) and check.

4. Bus journeys, especially the 10-12 hour ones, are a pain. Not all buses stop at dhabas/restaurants offering clean restrooms. Always know that you can ask the bus driver to stop for a few minutes while driving through a town where you can spot any clean restaurant that you can hop into. Do not be ashamed to request passengers to urge the driver to stop at a place offering a clean loo.

5. Please try not to take nature's call to nature. Going behind the bushes/rocks is neither safe nor hygienic. Most women in rural areas face assault on their way to open spaces where they go to defecate owing to the lack of proper sanitation system in their homes.

6. Whenever you find a clean toilet, please make a note of it and share information (like Alpaviram's facebook page: for other traveller's to benefit.

7. Use the toilets in a hotel room than the general toilet in the lobby of the hotels. In case you are being hosted at someone's house, kindly leave their loo clean after your use.

8. The restrooms near the boarding gates are always cleaner (in my experience) than the ones just before the security gates. Although there are some airports that have just one loo so whenever you have the option, use the restroom closest to the boarding gate before taking a flight.

9. If you are driving down in a car/taxi, it is advisable to stop at state-run institutions (even museums) for a loo break. Most heritage sites have loos that are regularly cleaned (thank you Swachch Bharat Abhiyaan, Clean Indian campaign). Cafe Coffee Days are a better pit-stop tan petrol pumps in India. It was mandatory for petrol pumps to

10. Try the "pee-buddy". It is a unique innovation that does not require you to squat to relieve yourself. You can stand and do your business and reduce the risk of infection. A lot of wayside amenities do not have working flushes. Kindly ask for water or tip the cleaner to clean up before you.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Why I chose not to go to Ladakh...

More than 100 of the 400-odd friends on my social network profile visited the Leh-Ladakh region in Jammu and Kashmir this year alone. Be it attractive pricing (still very expensive) or something high on everyone's to-do list this year, the region witnessed that largest number of visitors in 2015. Along with the tourism boom, came cab wars, new dhabas and... plastic. Lots and lots of plastic waste left behind by visitors too busy clicking pictures and selfies in the pristine landscape than noticing the damage they leave behind.

Image by Eric Lon via Flickr

It is wonderful that tourism is thriving in Ladakh have we stopped to wonder at what cost? In an earlier interview with Michelin star chef Vikas Khanna said he had a tough time trying to locate a household that would serve him local food. "Whenever I asked the people what food I could have around in Ladakh, they would serve me butter chicken! For the people of Ladakh who live off tourism for better part of the year, the needs of the tourists defines them. Since the tourists demand butter chicken, they make butter chicken. I mean, who wants to have butter chicken in Ladakh? Why can't people sample the wheat nuggets in vegetable broth made in local homes there?"

Image by Plastic is rubbish via Flickr

The people of Ladakh are fading away. Fellow travellers who had visited the region much before the tourist influx began, share experiences that actually altered their lives. The warm and kind people took travellers into their homes offering them food and consolation against the harsh terrain outside. Ladakh is truly magical and we have a responsibility to protect it. This blogpost is an effort to make the travellers and the government realise that there is an urgent need to regulate the number of travellers to the region in a manner not to affect the fragile ecosystem of Ladakh. Also, to highlight the need to clean up after oneself. It is shameful that we, as travellers, often do not pay any heed to our responsibility towards the destinations we visit. International agencies have been sending volunteers for years, to help clean up Ladakh but Indians have failed, quite largely, in contributing to the effort.

Image by Brett Cole

As travellers, we need to let go of the show-off attitude. Just because we have the money doesn't mean that we grab whatever we can. What do we leave behind for the next generations? Nature nurtures us, we can... in the least... be respectful. To emphasise what I said at the start, I did not choose to go to Ladakh, I decided to share this thought with you and pray for better sense to prevail.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Paradise found at Paragad, and lost!

Not too late I hope, I left my account of the visit to Karjat at the Sparsh resort and now over to the day of destiny.

The Western Ghats have mesmerised me with their allure. Unlike the mighty Himalayan that I have always cowered under, the Western Ghats seem a lot more dynamic, a lot more alive and green. The slopes change colour with the passing of every cloud and ith the slightest change in the sunlight. It is absolutely marvellous.

So, I head off with the resort team to a little trek that I could attempt. I must add here that I am strictly forbidden from trekking or hiking on account of my weak bone structure. I need to get my calcium right and will be sprinting around soon enough. Being new to the region, I had no idea what to expect and kept staring at every scene unfolding before my eyes. We crossed a village called Khandas and suddenly a strange sight made me want to stop, and we did.

As you can see, it was cloudy with a heavy chance of rain and yet, something seemed to b calling out to me. As I franctically clicked pictures of the hill before me wit the setting of the river beneath, the clouds parted and I saw the light. The top of the mountains seemed like Shiva (complete with the jata and a snake coiled at his neck)... The hills is called Paragad and lies above the Bhimashankar temple.

It stayed cloudy for better part of our stay there... and after a refreshing break at the stream, we started the last leg of the drive towards the Bhimashankar temple.

But, first a tea break at Patekar's tea stall... the image above is of trekkers returning after a day's trek to Bhimashankar hills. I sat leisurely to sip on a tiny steel cup of the sweetest tea.

And then, I decided to the do what I do. Disobey the doctor! Okay, not all the way. I went up little bit to get feel of the trek. The path was slippery.

I was quite out of breath even as I crossed the first shamble, remains of a tea shop at some time. My ankles were wobling, something that doesn't happen to me easily. I do not know if medicines work as much as fear of the doctor and so I stopped. Not before I spotted this.

And that's where the magic disappeared. I returned walking slowly, measuring my steps with a cool, logical head - now that the romantic notions of divinity were lost on me. I decided to journey home and write this article. Hoping that someone somewhere can help me bring about a change. Nature trails are meant to explore nature, not swim through plastic waste. What are we to do?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Paradise found at Paragad

This was a simple one. A visit to Karjat in Maharashtra - a seat of several interesting and scenic treks in the Western Ghats. So I took, yet another weekend away, first to Mumbai (with all its usual 'khich khich' and 'mach mach')...

As soon as we left the city and headed further, the scene started to change.. here's a few pictures of the the drive...

We stayed at Sparsh resort by the Expat Group that has made quite a name for themselves in the business of building holiday homes in Maharashtra. On the flight to Mumbai, I had read about the poor rainfall and how the farmers were affected by it and was more than happy than to have arrived as a guest to the state just when it had started raining, quite heavily.

After enjoying the afternoon thunderstorm, I headed out to a neighbouring village. The warm people were clearly not acustomed to shameless writers like me, probing in their kitchen and watching them as the ladies went about evening prayers. A few snapshots of the pretty village...

The next day was a showaround in the property and I loved every bit of it...

The next part was the miracle... so you're requested to wait for it.

P.S. - Sorry for not formatting my images well for this post, really rushed but I wanted to keep you in the loop. Love.