Sitting on the Tarmac

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We have all suffered waiting endlessly at the airport for our flights. Sometimes for short distances like Delhi to Jaipur taking a flight seem to be longer that the real road journey. You leave early to reach the airport two hours before for check-in then the invariable delays due to air traffic congestion.

But I never thought one day I would  be sitting on the tarmac waiting patiently for my flight to take-off. Traveling with clients who were first time visitors to India, they were unfortunate enough to find themselves in this situation with me. Our Air-India flight from Khajuraho to Varanasi refused to budge even after several attempt to resuscitate it. Was it Karma ? Whatever the case our friends were very understanding and took everything in their strides.

Incredible India !!

(On a serious note since I’m talking about flying to India, if you are coming to India in December-January avoid landing in Delhi late night or early in the morning. During those two months Delhi has dense fog which hampers visibility. Afternoon flights are safe and its logical to fly out from Mumbai after you complete your tour)

 

Street Art

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Pardon me writing here after a long time. But as most of you know photography is my passion and I only write to share something which is close to me or an experience which has touched me.

This weekend I went to Shahpur Jat to experience a walk led by three young architects who blog,study,walk and are interested in not just buildings themselves but the interaction between the people and buildings. The walk is a part of the Delhi Street Festival which aims at making more and more people understand what street art is.

I have always associated Graffiti as being something ugly, something which destroys the visual appeal of a city. But in a sprawling semi-urban village like Shahpurjat I began to understand how art could make a difference and how the local villagers had now something to be proud about. Walking through the narrow lanes of Shahpurjat, towards the back side of the more popular design lanes, gave me a feeling of a place still untouched by time. Although it is an area inhabited mostly by the Jat community, I could also catch a few phrases of Bengali, which as our guides explained was also one of the communities which had made this urban area their home. The facades of most of the buildings here are gloomy with walls almost glued against one another and narrow buildings sticking their necks up, like a young tree trying to break free of the canopy to get some sunlight.

Looking at the art installations, you get a sense of the different backgrounds that the artist come from and what inspired them. Harshvardhan’s work inkbrushnme at the corner building of two forking roads depicting the Sun God is inspired by Amar Chitra Katha. It depicts the seven colours of the spectrum juxtapose with a map of Delhi . Yantr’s bio mechanics graffiti and style could be related to the fact that his father was a mechanic. I loved Alias’s works, brilliantly realistic yet hidden.

The walk was very visually appealing and the idea of a kit with information about ShahpurJat and a walking map to mention a few of inserts was a great idea. It also had a stencil cut out which all the group members used to make their own little wall art. There walk had identified close to 20 major art installations. The village is now dotted with several other smaller piece, commissioned by the local on their walls once they warmed up to the idea of street art. We ended the walk at potbelly , the only place in town that I’m aware of which serves Bihari food. The pakoras were to die for. I would definitely recommend you to stop there ( mind you, you will have to climb four flights of stairs)

Although the guided walks are over you can still head over to Shahpur Jat to see the art works. From here the festival which is on till the end of the month shifts to Huas Khaz and Khirki Village. My only qualm is that the Hero piece ( as explained an artwork which becomes a sort of a landmark ) is a not a dog but a cat ;)

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Harshvardhan

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PCO

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Alias

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Anpu ( Hero Art )

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Temples and More

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2 Day Chola Tour, Pondicherry and more

On my recent trip to Tamil Nadu, I wanted to do a classical tour but at the same time cover places like Mangala Heritage, Nagapattinam and Dindigul which could easily be included in an itinerary to make it (the itinerary) more relaxed.

My first stop was Chennai. Though it had rained continuously the week before, I was fortunate enough to get clear weather. After checking into my hotel, I proceeded for lunch at Sabita Radhakrisha’s house. Sabita is a freelance writer, food columnist and broadcaster. Nowadays she also entertains clients at her house over lunch, where she cooks authentic Tamil Cuisine.  The more adventurous can do a cooking class with her. She has a beautiful house, filled with knick-knacks which the husband and wife duo have collected from their travels. Sabita is also a textile activist and on request shows you her extensive and rare collection. A stop at her place for lunch or dinner makes for a good introduction to the Tamil cuisine and way of life.

To add a twist to the ordinary, imagine learning about the history of San Thome Church, its architecture and the history of the locality from the Father of the Church himself. Sounds interesting doesn’t it? So the next time you are in Chennai get in touch with us to make it happen. Before proceeding to your next destination, whether it is Mahabalipuram or Pondicherry I would recommend that you make an early morning stop at Koyembedu Flower & Vegetable market. The sheer size of the market and the riot of colours make it a sight not to be missed.

Going back to Pondicherry after 2009 I was dreading that the juggernaut of modernisation would have changed this quaint little town. I am happy to say that the French Quarter (White Town) hasn’t change much. Pondicherry is a one of the few cities in India where walking is such delight. I will not talk much about Villa Shanti here again since I have already covered its excellent food and the hotel in other sections of this magazine. Instead I will talk about Palais de Mahe. As usual CGH Earth does not disappoint.The service was excellent and the rooms are very spacious. Palais de Mahe boast of a pool too, which is rare amongst the smaller properties in the French Quarter. The inclement weather meant I didn’t have opportunity to use it though. Over the years there have been a few Bed & Breakfast which have mushroomed all over. Two of these which are worth mentioning; Gratitude and La Closerie Bay of Bengal. Gratitude is a lovely heritage home restored by INTACH from a French colonial home. The owners of this chic, eight-room B&B are passionate about textiles and pottery. The property’s highlight is its central courtyard and the giant mango tree which dominates it. When you enter the property a sense of calm and peace envelopes you. La Closerie onthe other hand is much more contemporary. A water body in the center of the property draws your attention and (like Gratitude it) has only six rooms, each having a different character and price. Both options can be looked at for the value conscious traveller.  I came upon both these properties on my walk with INTACH who not only tell you interesting stories about the town and buildings but you also step inside a few of the buildings to see the restoration project. For me the only way to enjoy Pondicherry is to stay inside the French Quarter and discover the place on foot. Get in touch with us to know more about an exclusive product that we have created – A French Day in Pondicherry; where we try to create the feel how a French local would spend time in the city.

Sometimes we are in a hurry to reach the final destination and miss out on places of interest on the way. Tranquebar (Tharangambadi) makes of an ideal stop in your Tamil Nadu itinerary. If Pondicherry is distinguished by its French legacy, Tranquebar is distinguished by its Danish past. Its relics include a gateway sporting the Danish Royal Seal, a fort that’s Scandinavian in appearance rather than Dravidian, a string of imposing colonial bungalows and two early 18th-Century churches(.) Start early from Pondicherry covering Chidambaram enroute and then stop to take a sneak peak at Danish history at Tranquebar, once a Danish trading post, that lies 100 miles south of Pondicherry on the Coromandel Coast. The Neemrana property “Bungalow on the Beach”  is right next to the sea and worth an overnight stay. I would recommend the rooms on the first floor (Crown Prince of Denmark and Queen Anna-Sophia) for the refreshing sea-breeze and veranda to enjoy the view of the sea and Dansborg Fort.

The other possibility is the stop for lunch at Bungalow on the Beach and proceed to Mangala Heritage homestay. It is a 100 years old Chettiar house with five rooms. One ofthe rooms does not have a bathroom. All the rooms are painted in an earthy colour giving them a warm glow under the tungsten bulbs at night. Even though it’s an old house you do have uninterrupted electricity courtesy of power back and hot water. The property is located in the back drop of a village surrounded by paddy fields and in front of the homestay is the temple tank. Arun is the caretaker who speaks good English and is always around when needed. The food at Mangala Heritage is an all vegetarian affair but if you let them know in advance about your meal plan they make a conscious effort to serve different local dishes to mix it up. I really enjoyed the food here as well as the filter coffee. Even though I’m a tea drinker, when traveling in South India I become a coffee drinker because the local coffee is so good. As for the activities, in the morning you can go to Nagapattinam Port to see the fisherman bring the fresh catch of the day. Later go with Arun for a walk around the village and to see the Mucukunda Murals which I have already spoken about.

From Mangala you can either proceed towards Kumbakonam or Tanjore. Just before reaching Kumbakonam you cross a town called Nachiyar Koli which is famous for Brass making. Don’t go to the big factories but enter any one of the houses (close to 500 )which are involved in Brass making. They are very happy to see visitors and you can spend as much time as you want watching process.

Finally let me come to the highlight of my tour – The Two Day Chola Tour. All of us do the major temples of Tamil Nadu, be it the Big Temple, Darasuram and Gangaikondacholapuram. But in this two days the tour proceeds a little differently. Keeping Tanjore as the base for your exploration you trace the rise and fall of one of the most important dynasties of Asia – The Chola Empire. The Chola Empire ruled close to 500 years from 8C – 13C AD and build close to 5000 temples spread all over South India with a few temples in Sri Lanka and further East. Of these around 250 temples still survive. To understand the flow of events, we cover five temples chronologically each corresponding to one century of their rule beginning with the Vijayalayacholeswara temple of Narthamalai, the first temple built by this dynasty and ending with Kampahareswarar, the last temple built by a Chola king . The tour is conducted by a professor who used to lead the British Museum Tours to India. The highlight of the tour for me was the rare sculptures that we saw in some of these temples, especially in Gangaikondacholapuram which was about the family lives of the gods with their wives and children. Here we also re-enacted pouring of Ganga water into the temple well as was done by Chola King Rajendra a thousand years ago. On the last day of the tour, we end with a Chola dinner–  a 12th century menu but cooked in the 21st century kitchen and see some Chola period coins which the professor carries for us.

 

For more information about my trip drop me a email.

Change of Guard at the President’s House

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There are few times when the corridors of power open for the commoner. The Change of Guard is one such ceremony open for all which happens every Saturday inside the President House. It is held in the forecourt of the vast official grounds.

I reach short of breath from running up the Raisina Hill. I can vaguely hear some announcements happening inside the palace gates. Although I was there at Raisina Hill in time, we are only allowed to walk up to the gates sharp at eight. It takes about 5 minutes to reach to the top of the hill followed by the customary security screening. I am pleasantly surprised that it is not a tedious process. There are no stringent restrictions about what you can carry inside. I see a group of foreigners with hand bags, mobiles and even photographers entering with tripods. Fortunately I didn’t miss much and it was only after everybody has settled into their seats that the Army Brass Band starts to play.

The ceremony starts with sleek, muscled and well-groomed horses flanking both side of the gravel path performing in perfect unison to orders belt out by a baritone voice. The riders – President’s Bodyguard (PBG) regiment are all taller than 6ft and are in their ceremonial regalia. The crisp white uniform and the coat of arms shimmer strikingly in the early morning sunshine. The brass band played beautiful and is not averse to a popular reworking of the traditional. The band’s playlist includes patriotic Bollywood classics. Expect all the pomp that is customarily attached to such spectacles: flashing swords, lances, ear-piercing roll-calls, bugles and much stamping on the ground.

The half an hour spectacle ends with a request to the viewing audience to stand up for the National Anthem. Time seemed to have passed too quickly. Like me, the rest of the audiences hangs around for some time clicking pictures before finally starting to disperse.

Back In One Piece

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I think I’m very lucky to have friends who are so enthusiastic about travel. But sometimes such enthusiasm puts me into a spot of bother. For instance, our last trip to Pushkar on bikes. Now you would say so what – people go to Ladakh on bikes. For one I don’t know how to ride one and secondly, I sleep very well in anything that moves. As usual our trip was planned on the spur of the moment. We started early morning, on a Saturday and reached Pushkar late in the afternoon. The Pushkar fair was on, so we spend the entire day at the fair ground soaking in the riot of colours.

The next morning after an early lunch it was time to head back. On the way back we kept getting delayed. Once one of the bikers lost his keys and we had to back track some of the way. To make up for lost time we decided to try a smaller road off the main highway which looked shorter on the map. By now the sun had set. Everyone was pretty exhausted since we hadn’t slept more than a few hours at night before.

Not having to do anything sitting at the back, I just couldn’t keep my eyes open. The road we had taken didn’t have any street lights and was pitch-dark. The entire landscape would briefly be lit up with the light of our convoy of bikes and then again become clouded in darkness. All this while my friend riding the bike was trying his best to keep me awake – asking questions, signing songs and talking non-stop. Thinking about it now, it’s a mystery how I didn’t fall of the bike. There were long periods in-between where I opened my eyes and it took me a brief second to grip where I was.

This post is an entry for a contest by CupONation, an online retailer of discount coupons, and The Shooting Star travel blog.

Leafy Tip

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For people who do their vegetable shopping once a week, I found this a really neat trick which my grandmother uses to keep her greens fresh. Before keeping the likes of mint, coriander, spinach etc in her fridge, she wraps them in some newspaper. This absorbs all the moisture which forms and even thought the leaves might get dry after a while they do not rot.

Breathtaking Scandinavia – Helsinki

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The first thing that caught my eyes as the plane came down from its soaring height were the little red houses scattered across tiny island, as if build and forgotten by its owners. Later I came to know that these quaint little houses in the middle of no-where were the summer cottages where the Finns rush-off to relax in the summer holidays – most probably to escape the hordes of tourist that flock to Finland in summers. After flying across green landscape dotted with pine trees our plane finally made a soft landing at the Helsinki airport. I don’t know whether it was the time we landed or is it generally the case, the entire airport only had Finn air planes of different sizes. 

De-Boarding our plane we started walking toward what we hoped was the exit. Reading the sign for directions was a problem; here English took a back seat. Fortunately the airport is too small to get lost. I know T3 is grand and all, but landing here seemed so homely and welcoming. Immigration was a brisk affair. A few questions about the purpose of our visit, travel duration and we were clear. I was travelling with my family; my Dad now a retired government servant had done all the planning, burning midnight oil, rummaging through endless websites and reviews. To cut a long story short, we were well prepared. We had found out the cheapest way to travel from the airport to our hotel was to take a shared taxi. Traveling to & fro from Gurgaon the thought of shared taxi brings to mind scary images of people packed like sardines and haggling for space. After waiting for 10 minutes we were escorted to our taxi by our driver – a Mercedes minivan. There were just 4 of us traveling. It’s Right Hand Drive in most countries of Europe; so it’s odd seeing you whizzing past on the wrong side of the road.

Helsinki has a character quite different from the other Scandinavian capitals, and in many ways is closer in mood (and certainly in looks) to the major cities of Eastern Europe. For years an outpost of the Russian empire, its very shape and style was originally modelled on its powerful neighbour’s former capital, St Petersburg. Yet throughout the twentieth century the city was also a showcase for independent Finland, much of its impressive architecture drawing inspiration from the dawning of Finnish nationalism and the rise of the republic.

Our hotel was an apartment- Hellsten Parliament. Walking in, the first room had a dining table, a kitchen, a television and a big sofa cum bed. This was to be my room. The adjoining room, smaller in size had twin beds & a study table. (A special mention about our hotel Hellsten Parliament. Great location and lovely large apartment rooms. Just be careful about the lifts. They don’t work most of the times). After resting for a while we took our maps and walked to Kamppi. Now imagine a Delhi map- waking two inches according to the map would mean at least half an hour of brisk paced walking. Here we were at our destination before any of us had warmed up. Kamppi was an open square buzzing with activity. People relaxed, enjoying the sun, sipping a cup of coffee while others rushed to catch the metro or a bus. Helsinki is a paradise for people who love to eat. The only reason we did not gain weight was due to the fact that we did a lot of walking. I went in July and everyone was lapping up all the sun they could in the few month of summer that Finland has. It’s also the time for fresh fruits (June onwards till end of August). Just look at the girl standing behind strawberries. Someone asked me if they were tomatoes. On the entire trip I’d become a fruit bat. Strawberries, peaches, plum, kiwis, passion fruit….

Spend a Day on Tram- The extensive tram network is the best way to cover all the corners of the city. We bought a day ticket which cost €7/person and allows you travel on all the public transport and it is valid for 24 hrs. Explore flea markets with their eclectic collection of items on sale. The city is full of parks. Toolonlahti is a nice walk along the bay. Kaivopuisto is beautiful park in the south of the city. One could spend hours enjoying the view of the sea with small yacht disappearing into the horizon.

Cityscapes- Visit the Helsinki Cathedral, probably the most prominent building and symbol of the city, Parliament of Finland, Central Helsinki, Helsinki Central railway station, Uspenski Orthodox cathedral and enjoy the views from Elaintarhanlahti.

Visit Poorvo- We took a bus from the underground of Kamppi to Poorvo – a small old town about an hour’s drive from Helsinki. It’s a tourist town with beautiful old part with delightful small houses & picturesque lanes. The river front is full of cafes and places to dine. From here take the road under the bridge to reach the rows of quaint red houses. This is actually the old town with its famous cathedral & the local chocolate factory manufacture Brunberg’s outlet.

I believe that women in Finland are tremendously happy, since I don’t think anyone eats at home. There are countless little restaurants throughout the city and I can honestly tell you that I never once saw them empty. Finns eat healthy. Lot of salads and ice-cream (I would put it down to the extremely hot summer that they were having) and minimum of fried food. And I’ve never seen a nation so crazy about running. The city is safe. I didn’t once see any problem related to law & order. 

Do make a visit to Finland and if are going give me a tinkle I would definitely go back again…