Tag Archives: India

Hometown Discoveries: An Avian Wonderland in Delhi


Delhi-native Abhishek Gulshan introduces the city’s many aerial residents to city dwellers, and gives away his favourite bird-watching spots.

 


Birds in Delhi NCR include Indian paradise-flycatcher (left), short-eared owl (top right) and painted stork (bottom right). Photo courtesy: Abhishek Gulshan

“If I don’t know what’s in my backyard, how will I know what’s out there in the world?” wonders Abhishek Gulshan, a naturalist and avid birder based out of Delhi. “Did you know that with over 400 species reported historically, Delhi is the second-richest capital in the world for avian diversity?”

Gulshan’s enthusiasm never seems to waver—not for Delhi, the city he has lived in all his life. “My love for birdwatching started in Kolkata in 2011 with the common kingfisher, but it is the diversity of Delhi that I truly chase,” he maintains. Armed with mind-boggling bird trivia and a thirst for knowledge, Gulshan began his birding journey by quitting his job in 2012 to take a sabbatical. In 2017, he started a company that organises on-field birding tours for kids and adults in Delhi.

Delhi was historically a scrubland, and had an arid habitat, he explains. “There are so many places you can visit to see diverse birds. The Aravalli Biodiversity Park in Gurugram is a good place to start.” Once a heavily mined area, the land was eco-restored and rejuvenated with flora native to the Aravallis (dry scrubland). Now, visitors can spot habitat-specialist resident birds like common babbler, rufous-fronted prinia, sirkeer malkoha, Indian eagle owl, and more. Gulshan also loves to frequent Bhondsi Nature Park (also a scrub forest), for unusual sightings including the migratory fire-capped tit and other resident birds like plum-headed parakeet, and large grey babbler. But his favourite spot is Mangar, off the Gurgaon-Faridabad Highway. “It’s known as Mangar Bani, or sacred land, among the locals. You have to be sensitive to the surroundings—not litter, and be respectful of the space while birding here. Also, be careful while taking photographs,” he points out.

A common misconception, says Gulshan, is that migratory birds only visit in winter. “Monsoon is actually my favourite time to go birding. The Indian pitta or navrang would have already reached Mangar by now,” he sighs, remembering its two-note whistle to attract mates through the canopied forest. “I can’t wait to go spot the Indian paradise-flycatcher too, with its magnificent white tail and black plume (male). Monsoon walks are also fantastic to spot butterflies and insects, and watching the arid land turn green during the rains,” gushes Gulshan. He also loves spotting the yellow-crowned woodpecker, blue-cheeked bee-eater, and the Jacobin cuckoo.

Hometown Discoveries | An Avian Wonderland in Delhi

Gulshan (left) started his tour company Ninox in 2017, and continues to introduce unsuspecting city-dwellers to their avian neighbours; Mangar (bottom right), off the Gurgaon-Faridabad Highway, is one of Gulshan’s favourite spots to go birding. He especially loves taking groups there in the monsoon; Delhi was historically a scrubland, and the Aravalli Biodiversity Park (top right) is a good replica of the diversity. Photo courtesy: Vijay Dhasmana (landscape), Photo courtesy: Abhishek Gulshan (self and children)

Within the city, he has a strong affinity for the Basai wetlands near Sultanpur. The water comes from an overflowing water treatment plant, but it feels like home to Gulshan. He visited it almost every day during his initial birdwatching days to spot a few proud birds like clamorous reed warbler, pied bushchat and the migratory moustached warbler, a warbler he watched for eight hours just to observe behaviour. “A seminal turning point for me was when I dropped the camera and picked up the binoculars. It has shaped me into the birder I am today,” he says. Gulshan also recommends the Surajpur Wetlands in Greater Noida. “The light falls on the birds beautifully here, highlighting different glossy patterns on the ducks. All ducks don’t look the same, you know,” he quips. Surajpur, he adds, is great to spot the black-necked stork, one of the biggest storks in India, the red avadavat, knob-billed duck, black-headed ibis and the migratory cinnamon bittern in monsoons and bar-headed goose in winters.

For urban diversity, go to Lodhi Gardens. “I’ve even spotted the Indian scops owl here—they come out late at night or early morning. I got lucky because I heard the call and went looking while on an early morning run. I don’t run with music, only bird calls,” he smiles. Unknown to many, this garden in the middle of the city is a great place to spot the coppersmith barbet, rose-tinged parakeet and the migratory Hume’s leaf warbler. “There’s also Jahanpanah City Forest near Greater Kailash II, a scrub forest where grey francolins are quite vocal during the day,” says Gulshan.

 

To read and subscribe to our magazine, head to Magzter or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here. 





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Readers’ Responses: Hometown Discoveries in Indian Neighbourhoods

Readers’ Responses: Hometown Discoveries in Indian Neighbourhoods

Bhopal’s hammam that houses secret scrub recipes, Rajasthan’s lake that served as a seaplane base in World War II, Andaman Islands’ waters that offer chance sightings of dugongs—we’ve compiled a collage of hidden gems from the hometowns of our readers.

The picturesque Radhanagar beach in Havelock Island offers surfs, calm and sea-breeze. Photo By: click_o_flick/Shutterstock

Ticking off trendy neighbourhood cafés or checking out the iconic hotspots of a destination might seem like the obvious thing to do while travelling, but ask an insider, and your itinerary will change. Indian cities and towns brim with relatively obscure treasures when it comes to travel, and as it turns out, our readers are also keepers of the best-kept secrets of their hometowns. We’ve assembled anecdotes of off-beat hiking trails and secret beaches, remote ruins and birding delights, all from your backyard.

Aftab Ahmed, Jaipur, Rajasthan

In Rajasthan’s Aravalli hills, there is a less-trodden hiking trail that starts from the pond in the premises of the Galta Ji temple (monkey temple), winding straight for a few 100 metres, after which one must chart their own way. This trail is locally popular as a route where dacoits lay in ambush in olden times, and the ruins of a palace on the top of the adjacent hill, named Chor Mahal (Thieve’s Palace), account for the stories. Climb up, and you will be rewarded with a stunning panorama of the the Aravalli range on one side, and Jaipur city on another. The region’s wild aura is amplified by the presence of deciduous forests, and the waves of wild, chirruping birds that sometimes emerge out of them.

Mohil Kapoor, Bhavani Island, Andhra Pradesh

Bhavani Island, on the Krishna river—which flows through Vijayawada—is considered one of the largest river islands in India. Named after one of goddess Durga’s 108 names, it is your veritable ‘Isle of Adventure’. Reach after a pleasant boat-ride, park yourself at one of its resorts, and head out indulge in some water sports. Lush green views and the calm of lapping of water makes it the ideal getaway from those looking to escape urban chaos.

Niyati Shah, Vadodara, Gujarat

Back in the 1950s when cafe culture wasn’t common in Vadodara, Canara Coffee House was the only coffee hub in the city. To the day, the cafe, despite its name and origin, remains famous for a flavourful Marathi delicacy called Puna Misal. And although the place has undergone renovation recently, its menu and prices are delightfully stuck in time.

Another historic element to the city are a series of old bungalows near the Vadodara railway station, known as the Contractor’s Bungalows. The buildings are said to have been built by contractors close to the royals of Baroda at least a century ago—and are fully-functional till date. Currently privately owned, one of them has been recently converted to a heritage cafe, showcasing its proud Parsi heritage.

Once you’ve had your fill of the city’s obscure icons, turn to Rasalpur. The small, scenic village lies a short drive from of the city, and offers a backdrop of laid-back rusticity by the Mahisagar river.

K. Rohan, Havelock Island, Andaman Islands

If you’re at Radhanagar beach in Havelock Island, part of the Andaman Islands, a brisk 2 kilometre/15 minutes walk along the coast will bring you to the beautiful Neil Cove. Rustling sea-mohwa forests fringe one side of the rock-ringed, concave beach, and freshwater streams gurgle out of the wilderness. If you are lucky you may spot dugongs and sea turtles swimming in the crystal-clear waters of the bay.

A hike through the famous Galtaji or Monkey Temple in Jaipur not only presents scenic views, but also offers the curious traveller with ancient lore. Photo By: AlexAnton/Shutterstock

Richa Chaubey, Champawat, Uttarakhand

Uttarakhand’s touristy areas belie the beauty of its more pristine pockets—like my hometown Champawat. Believed to be graced by the ‘Kurmavatar’ (Vishnu turtle incarnation), this picturesque town in the Kumaon Himalayas is a sight for sore eyes. Come winter, rows of pine, deodar and oak trees stand like silver sentinels at the base of snow-laden mountains, and its dewy mornings are a sublime dewy affair. Abbott Mount (named after 20th century English businessman John Harold Abbott), an hour’s drive from the town, is a serene location populated by beautiful wooden cottages, forests, wild mountain birds and even an ancient church. If you are one for spooky thrills, Morris Hospital, established in the early 1900s, adds an element of alleged mystery to the hill station’s already-haunting beauty.

Lakshmisha Kerekoppa, Gerusoppa, Karnataka

Chaturmukha Jaina Basadi is situated deep inside the evergreen forests of Sharavathi valley on the banks of Sharavathi River in Karkala. Although the place is largely inaccessible to common tourists due to inadequate information and lack of public transport, Jain devotees do visit using private vehicles.

The Jain temple is located near the town of Gerusoppa, which functioned as the capital of Saluva family of Vijayanagara empire. The shrine is built during the reign of Queen Channabhairadevi in 1562 AD who was known as ‘Raina de Pimenta’ (the Pepper Queen) by the Portuguese. Chaturmukha Basadi is made up of grey granite stone and is open on all four sides (chaturmukha) which leads to four statues of Jain Thirtankaras. All in all, a rare, gorgeous find for history and architecture buffs.

Khushbu Singhal, Basistha, Assam

Basistha is a rolling, green suburban landscape, located in southeast part of Guwahati, Assam. The hilly area is contiguous with Meghalaya, the neighbouring state of Assam. Expect groves of deepest greens, tall trees swinging with native flora, wild animals like jackals, monkeys or even elephants, and a stunning variety of birds that go well eyond the usual mynah, cuckoo and cattle egret. Not surprisingly, the area is a part of Garbhanga Forest Reserve.

Through the wilderness, a road leads up to the Basistha temple. The ancient edifice is situated in one of the hills near the Basistha or Bahini river, a trickling arm of the Bharalu, which in turn is a tributary of the Brahmaputra river. The ancient temple and the gurgling rivulet make a formidable combination for travellers drawn to nature, and regional history.

Despite it being a small town in Madhya Pradesh, Mhow is packed with a plethora of unique experiences and landscapes. Photo By: Rjsngh55/Shutterstock

Burhanuddinn Nagpurwala, Mumbai, Maharashtra

Not so far from the daily hustle of the Maximum City lies a meandering trail of wilderness. Starting from the last village of Aarey (Bangud), it winds towards a lake, situated in the thick of the forest.

On some lucky occasions, usually around dawn, I have seen spotted deer, scampering, a crocodile, and even a leopard near the lake. Camping, star-gazing and connecting with nature are some great options.

 

Karma Tenzing, Mysore, Karnataka

In the city of Mysore, stands Hotel Original Vinayaka Mylari, a part of the city’s gastronomic history since 1938. Their highlight—soft, crisp, melt-in-mouth dosas that you will not find anywhere else. Served with a dollop of white, unsalted butter and creamy coconut chutney, the dosas alone are worth a trip to the eatery. That is not to say that their fluffy, cloud-like idlis are any less of a treat. Prepared on woodfire, the taste is unforgettable, making the 10-12 seater establishment a humble but proud legacy of the city.

 

Deepjyoti Paul, Naihati, West Bengal

Located about 40 kilometres north of Kolkata, Naihati is the hometown of Bengali poet and novelist Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay. The creative force credited with shaping modern Bengali prose as well as penning the Indian national song, Vande Mataram—Chattopadhyay lived and created in what can be described as an architecturally precious mansion, now turned into a museum and research center for his works. His abode is located in a peaceful, green area of Kanthalpara, a 10-minutes walk from Naihati Railway Station. Travellers can buy a ticket and enter the complex, which has retained its gorgeous medieval-style facade over the years. See the study room used by the writer who gave birth to Vande Mataram in his novel Anandamath (the song eventually used as a rallying cry by Indian freedom fighters), to bask in the palpable history of the place. Every year, a Rath Yatra fair adds colour to the landscape in front of the Jagannath temple of the house, filling the area with the scent of delicious mela-food.

 

Harsha Kumawat, Udaipur, Rajasthan

Reasons to visit the Ahar Museum in Rajasthan are many. The Ahar civilisation, dating back to around 2500-500 BC, was an ancient settlement along the banks of the rivers Ahad and Banas, in the Western region of India. Think present-day Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

In this lesser-known museum, discover characteristic white-painted black and red pottery pieces, some of the excavated water pots similar to those found in Iran. On your visit, learn about their well-equipped houses, made of stones with bamboo roofs and with chulhas (earthen ovens), or admire recovered statues of lost deities, ornaments, and ancient coins from the advanced civilisation.

The Ahar Museum is a must for all history enthusiasts, especially for those looking to gain knowledge around the Ahar civilisation. Photo By: Christina R Miller/Shutterstock

Rahul Jain, Dandeli, Karnataka

In Dandeli, where I grew up, a unique experience is the white water rafting which provides the adventurous with a healthy dose of adrenaline rush. River Kali is ferocious and rocky and hence there are lots of ups and downs through the journey, which offers tourists a thrilling challenge. 

Shraddha Gandi, Raigad, Maharashtra

Raigad lies at the heart of the Sahyadri Mountains which is a dream for photographers, birders and travellers of all kinds. The Raigad Fort, which is 23 kilometres away from Mahad, served as the capital of all forts under Chhatrapati Shivaji’s rule. The architecture here is remarkable, with a vast expanse of greenery. En route to the fort, are some spots like the Koturde Dam and local strawberry farms that make for leisurely pitstops. Nearby lies the Gondale area, which is a small forest-like reserve area where biodiversity is abundant. To understand local culture, I visited the village of Taloshi, also on the way to the fort. Interacting with the locals opened up a treasure trove of history and information. 

Anushree N, Visakhapatnam, Aaraku Valley, Andhra Pradesh

Aaruku Valley is one of the most verdant valleys in the Eastern Ghats. One must dig deep through its deep forests for startling discoveries. Hailing from Visakhapatnam, I had travelled to the valley on an organised trekking event, guided by none other than the tribes of the valley. Here, we set out on the Gosthani Cave Trek within the Borra Caves, towards the end of which lies the Gosthani River. 

An intriguing story is linked to the river’s nomenclature. According to locals, residents of the region were initially unaware about a river flowing beneath the cave, and it only came to light when a cow fell from a hole in the Borra Cave but managed to stay alive by landing up in the water body. Thus the river was given the name Gosthani (Abode of the cow). 

Another secret spot in the valley is the Aradakota Waterfalls. Only known to the locals, this beautiful waterfall is the perfect halt for those planning a short trek in the region. 

Anushree Joshi, Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh

Lakdi Bazaar (wooden market) in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur is a place full of colour and character. Usually brimming with crowds, the narrow alleys and wide roads of the market are open every day save Friday. From small shops selling select items to big showrooms with an entire floor or two dedicated to export goods, the market has something for all age groups. 

As a kid, I learnt about this place from my family, a rite of passage as a local. Whenever anything made of wood had to be bought or repaired, Lakdi Bazar was the place to go to. During one of my summer breaks, I had convinced my mother to accompany me to this famous market. There, I was fascinated to see the woodwork hanging on both sides of the road. 

I was spoiled for choice with wooden toys, photo frames, carved furniture, shoe racks, magazine holders, combs, cutlery and a whole lot more!

Dandeli in Karnataka is the perfect place for the adventure-junkie, offering challenging rafting experiences. Photo By: Bubz/Shutterstock

Sharayu Jakhotiya, Jawhar, Maharashtra

Jawhar, 130 kilometres from Mumbai, was once the capital of the princely state of Jawhar, ruled by the Mukne family. It is the nodal point for 80 tribal villages. Jawhar is known for its natural beauty and mixed cultural heritage. A huge population of Jawhar has migrated from Maharashtra and some parts of Gujarat, enhancing the rich tribal culture it already had. 

The Jai Vilas palace of the last king of Jawhar is well known and a sought after destination. But before the royal family moved to this palace, they lived in a stone and wood palace right in the centre of the town. After they relocated, the old palace was abandoned and left to the forces of nature. The palace walls have been taken over by huge Ficus trees, it’s roots running deep through the walls and merging with the palace’s foundation. 

The entrance to the main hall is now framed by the living roots of trees and is a sight to behold. On closer inspection, one will be able to see the minute and artistic wood carvings on the pillars inside the wall. Thick roots now run alongside the ancient flooring. The main palace wall has also been claimed by nature and one will be able to see trees at different angles jutting out from rocks. The well, situated just outside the palace grounds, is now surrounded by thick foliage and one would think twice before venturing too close as the area is now an abode of snakes. The old palace which is hardly ever visited by tourists, is a marvellous place to witness the magic of history and nature. 

Sayan Sil, Satgachia, West Bengal

I live in a small village in West Bengal called Satgachia. During monsoon, my village looks like a green carpet, as local farmers cultivate paddy. In the lap of nature, you can enjoy simple but delicious regional cuisine like the traditional Bengali fish curry with rice. From here, you can also visit the Burdwan Rajbari and 108 Shiva Linga Nawab Bari, which is approximately 30 kilometres away. Nabadwip, the birthplace of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, lies close by. 

Soni Bhumika, Kankroli, Rajasthan

I’m from Kankroli, which falls in the Rajsamand district of Rajasthan. Kankroli has one of Asia’s largest man-made sweet water lakes—Rajsamundra Lake. During World War II, the lake was used as a base for sea-planes and mammoth iron shackles from that time still lie deep within its waters. The holy temple of Dwarkadhish Ji and Nau Chauki, which lie on the banks of the lake, have beautiful carvings and irrigation gardens–a must-see for all visitors. What’s more, the gorgeous royal city of Udaipur is just an hour’s drive away. 

Chayan Das, Digboi, Assam

Amid the lush landscape of Assam hides a small town. It’s name originated when an engineer named Mr. W. L. Lake in the late 1800s had shouted “dig, boy, dig”, after having discovered stains of crude oil under the feet of elephants. ‘Digboi’ is an unassuming town where time seems to stand still. A walk down its clean roads will lead you to uncover a host of colonial architecture, starting with the Chang Bungalows standing over low hills, its sprawling lawns and golf-course maintained to this day, and its gardens swarming with bees and butterflies. 

The Raigad Fort served as one of the central forts under Chhatrapati Shivaji’s rule. Photo By: Satish Parashar/Shutterstock

Abhishek Jotwani, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh

Bhopal hosts a 300-year-old Qadimi hammam (a kind of Turkish bath) which is in the Kamala Park area of the city. The women of the city use the hammam during the day, while the men use it at night. Oil massages and steam bath options are available, however the recipes of the scrubs remain a secret. The hammam opens every year on Diwali and functions till Holi. 

Dhrubangshu, Siliguri, West Bengal

Not many have heard about Latpanchar in West Bengal, a beautiful mountain hamlet offering stunning views of the Kanchenjunga. It is also home to a diverse range of wildlife such as the barking deer, wild boar, leopard and elephant. To make matters greener, Latpanchar contains cinchina plantations used for curing diseases like Malaria. 

Also in West Bengal, Lamahatta is another calm and peaceful village surrounded by alluring pine trees. It has beautiful gardens, blossoms of orchids and Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the wind, with an encompassing view of the Kanchenjunga. Manebhanjyang serves as the gateway to the Singalila National Park, which is the highest altitude park in West Bengal and offers several trekking routes towards Sandakphu. Sprawling within the lush green valleys of an alpine forest, Tinchuley is another delightful and hidden gem near Siliguri. The alpine forest is a dream for birders between the months of September and December. 

Reshmi KR, Kozhikode, Kerala

Kozhikode is known for its food culture, where age-old restaurants serve everything from spicy regional delicacies to pasta and falafel. However, the hidden gem I would like to talk about dishes up delicious views of nature. Mango Park, situated in Govindapuram, near the Kendriya Vidyalaya school, was a barren land on top of a hill which was in time converted into a mango grove by a group of dedicated morning joggers. With benches dedicated to passersby, it is an ideal spot to spend an evening, with a view of the rumbling Arabian Sea in the distance. It is said that during the British Raj, soldiers used to camp here as it served as  vantage point to observe the whole city and the sea. For those who visit Kozhikode for a gastronomic holiday, this sweet little spot should be on the list, for equally sumptuous sunsets. 

Mandvi Mankotia Rawat, Mhow, Madhya Pradesh

For a town that is all but five kilometres from one end to another, Mhow in Madhya Pradesh packs a punch. A melting pot of culture and faiths, it has churches of all denominations dotting the undulating vistas. Temples in the main market street stand cheek by jowl, with mosques and even a Parsi fire temple tucked in a back lane. I discovered the interiors of a church I’ve crossed a million times only this last Christmas, always having observed its needle-sharp spire kissing the sky from afar. The pews of the church, which was built in the 1820s, contain brackets to hold rifles, an additional structure added after the 1857 mutiny, when the mutineers on their way to Indore burnt the outhouse that was the residence of the priest. 

Bhaskar Ramani, Shimla, Himachal Pradesh

The famous ridge just above Mall Road in Shimla is actually a continental divide. If you spill water on the left side of the ridge, it will eventually go into the Arabian Sea and if you spill water on the right side, it will flow into the Bay of Bengal.  

To read and subscribe to our magazine, head to Magzter or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here. 

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Chawal Ke Cutlets | Sanjeev Kapoor Khazana

Chawal Ke Cutlets | Sanjeev Kapoor Khazana

Got leftover rice from last nights dinner? make these delicious rice cutlets today!

CHAWAL KE CUTLETS

Ingredients

½ cup leftover cooked rice (chawal)
3 medium potatoes, boiled and peeled
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon red chilli powder
¼ teaspoon turmeric powder
½ teaspoon garam masala powder
1 teaspoon chaatmasala
Salt to taste
¼ cup chopped fresh coriander leaves
1-2 tablespoons cornstarch
Dried breadcrumbs for coating
Oil for shallow-frying

Method

1. Grate potatoes into a bowl. Add rice, cumin powder, coriander powder, chilli powder, turmeric powder, garam masala powder, chaat masala, salt and chopped coriander and mixwell.Add cornstarch and mix well.
2. Divide the mixture into equal portions and shape them into cutlets.
3. Spread breadcrumbs onto a plate. Coat each cutlet with some breadcrumbs.
4. Heat a non-stick tawa. Place each prepared cutlet, drizzle some oil and shallow-fry on medium heat from both sides till golden. Drain on absorbent paper.
5. Topeach cutlet with onion rings, sweet chutney and green chutney and serve hot garnished with parsley sprigs.

Preparation Time: 8-10 minutes
Cooking Time: 12-15 minutes

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Social Distancing Travel | 11 Healing Hideaways in India for Your Tired Soul

Social Distancing Travel | 11 Healing Hideaways in India for Your Tired Soul

Beachside solitude in Ganpatipule, lost-in-time architectures in Melkote, birdwatching along the marshes of Mangalajodi—seek out these secluded places of beauty for a post-lockdown getaway.

A short trip from Murguma village in West Bengal would lead you to the enchanting world of chhau, a masked tribal dance form. Photo by: My Image / Moment / Getty Images

The wait to break free—bob along rivers and wade through wildflowers—is going to be long. But when the time comes, well be ready to rejuvenate. A pandemic demands staggering human resolve. If getting by from one day to another has frayed your nerves, bunched up your heart into dirty, matted knots, here are secluded places of beauty within India you can head to, when all of this is over.

In the North

Chitkul, Himachal Pradesh

The highest and the last settlement of Himachal’s Baspa valley is also one of its most serene. Perched on the right bank of the Baspa river in the Kinnaur district, life in Chitkul simmers slow and sweet, away from prying tourists who generally stop 20 kilometres short in popular Sangla. The village, as green as a sky full of parrots, opens up the view to majestic Himalayan peaks. Flowering fields of buckwheat, a staple of the region, grin pink in the harvest season. An assortment of olden temples and a monastery shine light on the village’s amalgamation of faith; residents practise Hinduism, Buddhism and sometimes, a mix of both. The village offers an ideal base for several scenic treks and the meditative company of pine forests and starry skies. 250 kilometres/8 hours from Shimla by bus, Chitkul also offers Zostel accommodation.

Nathukhan, Uttarakhand

A relatively new pin on the map, Nathukhan is a comely village in Uttarakhand, not far from the holiday classics of Nainital and Mukteshwar. Dressed in velveteen pleats of oak, birch, deodar and kafal trees, it boasts almost-180 degree views of the Himalayas, including the Trishul, Nanda Devi, Nilkantha, and Panchachuli peaks. Relish nippy temperature and hissing hot shikar-bhaat (rice with chicken/goat curry) here, with heady side-helpings of DIY nature walks and bhang chutney. Infrastructure is scant and vistas abundant in this village, a 65 kilometre/2.5 hour-drive from Kathgodam railway station. Woodnotes Foreststays, with its mud-walled rooms and pahadi kitchen, offers a taste of local life.

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In the West

The Bhimbetka rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh are a reminder of human perseverance. Photo by: ImagesofIndia / Shutterstock

Social Distancing Travel | 11 Soulful Spots in India to Forget Your Trouble 4

Marvel at sand dunes untainted by overtourism in Rajsthan’s Khuri. Photo by: Robmeador.com / Shutterstock

Khuri, Rajasthan

That star-gazing in the Thar Desert is a cure for taut nerves shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the sweet seclusion of Khuri village, a 50 kilometre/l-hour-drive from Jaisalmer’s tourist scramble, catches one unawares. Spend your afternoons scaling sand dunes, or chasing splatters of pomegranate-pink sun. Come nightfall you can revel in the grandeur of skies punched with silver holes, and even the Milky Way, if you’re carrying a telescope. A stay at the clay-walled Badal House, run by local man Badal Singh Ji, offers both rustic hospitality and intimate desert excursions.

Ganpatipule, Maharashtra

A 30 kilometre/1 hour-drive from Ratnagiri railway station will take you to the sleepy Konkan town of Ganpatipule. The town’s name is derived from the Hindu deity who is said to have taken abode here, and is worshiped at the 400-year-old Ganpatipule Temple centred on his Vermillion, monolithic idol. White sand lines its beach, along with cobalt waters and groves of coconut trees. While a rocky terrain makes swimming at the Ganpatipule beach difficult, water sports such as paragliding, jet-skiing, snorkelling, and banana boat rides temper its tranquillity. The Jaigad fort and lighthouse offer rambling views of the Arabian Sea, and the Thibaw Palace, an insight into the region’s links to India’s colonial history. Drive along the coast to the Aare-Ware beach, ideal for quiet swims or walks of the solitary kind. Marinate in the afterglow of salty sunsets with a side of fish curry, kokam rice and ambapoli (mango pancakes). The MTDC Beach Resort at Ganpatipule offers reasonable accommodation.

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In Central India

Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh

A UNESCO World Heritage Site covering 10 kilometres of the Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary, the Bhimbetka rock shelters offer a portal to our collective past. Bhimbetka boasts 760 rock shelters and caves cut into seven hills, with prehistoric rock paintings adorning the walls of 500 caves. The rock art is said to offer insights into life in the Upper Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Chalcolithic, Early historic and Medieval eras and has been compared to in those in Kakadu National Park in Australia. Although only 12 of the painted shelters are accessible to the public, inside them persists the seed of human imagination— the Boar Rock showcases the outline of a boar, “Nataraj” is the painting of a man dancing with a trident-like staff, and the Zoo Rock depicts bison, deer, and elephants. Bhimbetka does not have any accommodation; MP Tourism recommends Banyan Tree Farms in Bhopal, 50 kilometres/1.5 hours by bus.

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In the East

Mangalajodi, Odisha

Social Distancing Travel | 11 Soulful Spots in India to Forget Your Trouble 6

Mangalajodi’s bird-dotted marshes are one of Odisha’s hidden delights. Photo by: Wirestock Images / Shutterstock

If marshlands flanked by typha grasslands and migratory birds suggest a calming visual for you, the Mangalajodi wetlands, located north of Odisha’s Chilika lagoon, will manifest that dream. A birder’s delight for the wealth of wildlife that inhabits its languid waters, it is also a fulfilling experience of nature for those without binoculars. Not that you will have much use of binoculars here; gliding through slender stretches of water on wooden boats made cosy with thatched canopies, you will be at arm’s length of purple moorhens, ruddy shelducks, bar-tailed godwits, and other wetland beauties. Expect deep silence, ruffled only by bird calls or the sound of oars splicing open still waters. Mangalajodi village lies 70 kilometre/1.5 hour southwest of Bhubaneswar, off NH-5. Mangalajodi Ecotourism, a community-managed wildlife conservation venture, offers elementary lodging and boating packages.

Murguma, West Bengal

Swaddled between the ancient Ajodhya Hills and a tributary of the river Kangsabati, Murguma village in West Bengal knows nature’s soliloquy by heart. To listen in, drive 46 kilometres/1.5 hours west of Purulia station until you’re ringed by red hillocks, lotus-streaked ponds, and groves of sal, bamboo, and flaming bastard teaks. Soak in the panorama at the Murguma dam, or visit the nearby tribal settlement of Charida, where generations of mask artists create flamboyant Chhau masks, used in the eponymous dance form. The wild expanses of Peacock Hill, Bamni Falls, Khairabera, Turga Falls and the Ajodhya Hill and Reserve Forest Area are some adjacent attractions. A stay at Murguma’s Palash Bitan Jungle Huts offers basic facilities and a deluxe brush with nature.

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In the Northeast

Yuksom, Sikkim

Social Distancing Travel | 11 Soulful Spots in India to Forget Your Trouble 3

Visit a forest cradling a sacred coronation throne in Yuksom, Sikkim. Photo by: Nigel Killeen / Moment / Getty Images

Divorced from the din at 5,840 feet, Yuksom in West Sikkim is revered as ‘the meeting point of three lamas’. The name should perhaps be an indicator of the town’s proximity to monasteries such as the Dubdi, Tashi Tenka, and Tashiding. Having served as the first capital of Sikkim, where the foremost chogyal (ruler) of the kingdom was consecrated, Yuksom’s culture is best experienced in symmetry with its natural beauty; you will eavesdrop on the rustle of indigenous trees while visiting the Coronation Throne of Norbugang. And it is the peaceful waters of the Kathok Lake that form the backdrop of the seat of the three lamas. Vistas cannot possibly disappoint at the ‘Gateway to Mt. Kangchendzongha’, as pleasing hikes leading to the Goecha La trail or the Kangchendzongha basecamp testify. Expect farm-to-table dining at Yuksom’s ample homestays, run by the local Limboo tribe. Bagdogra airport is a 160 kilometre/5 hour-drive away from Yuksom, but cabs are best availed from Siliguri Junction, half an hour from the airport.

Mawphlang, Meghalaya

Drive 26 kilometres/40 minutes southwest of Shillong to reach a junction of Scotland-ish greens, and a village whose name translates to “grassy stone.” The name is a nod to the many monoliths in the culturally distinct East Khasi region. Mawphlang is also the gateway to the Mawphlang Sacred Grove, one of the biggest sacred forests in Meghalaya. The forest, stitched together by an intertwined network of flora and medicinal herbs, has but one rule. Nothing can be taken out of the enclosure, believed to be home to the local deity— not even a dead log. Tune into the harmony of nature and ancient faith, and learn about indigenous culture at the Khasi Heritage Village, a model village located opposite the grove. The historic David Scott Trail stretches from Mawphlang to Ladmawphlang village, a system of woods, rocks, waterfalls, bridges, and the beautiful Umiam river. A stay at the family- run Maple Pine Farm allows ample access to the attractions.

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In the South

Social Distancing Travel | 11 Soulful Spots in India to Forget Your Trouble 1

Melkote in Karnataka is a treasure trove of architecture (right), lost in time; Easily accessible from the Maharashtrian town of Ganpatipule, the Aare-Ware beach (left) promises deep blue solitude. Photos by: Pritesh Bhosle / Shutterstock (woods), Nila Newsom / Shutterstock (carvings)

Melkote, Karnataka

Sunsets have a mystical quality in monument-riddled Melkote, but they do nothing to accelerate time. If you’ve ever wanted a ticket back to lost kingdoms, glimpses of Hoysala-era architecture in this hilltop town offer a fix. Trust the slowness in the air as you fritter away days that begin with plates of special puliyogare (tamarind rice) and end amid the stunning stucco sculptures of Cheluvanarayana Swamy temple. The dramatic ruins of Raya Gopura and a smattering of stone pavilions and maths accentuate the sense of time-warp. Small- scale dharamshalas and lodges are common in the town easily reached by bus or cab from both Bengaluru and Mysore.

Valiyaparamba, Kerala

Valiyaparamba is a fishing island in Kasaragod district. Separated from mainland by the Tejaswini river, the secluded isle—about 62 kilometres/1.5 hour by road from Kunnur International Airport—houses the Valiyaparamba Backwaters, third-largest in Kerala. Made accessible by a bridge, an alternative way to reach the island is to take a ferry from Kottappuram or Edayilakkad. Once there, hop aboard a traditional kettuvallam (houseboat) to glide through placid waters, swirling in native flora and fauna. To the west of the island, the Valiyaparamba beach is serene. Fish using rustic tools, sample seafood, and soak in the cool breeze of coconut lagoons. 30 kilometres/one hour-drive away, the Bekal Fort affords heart-stopping views of the Arabian Sea. The Tyndis Mangrove Trails, 10 kilometres from the island, offer a plethora of hiking, boating and birdwatching activities. Kerala Tourism recommendations for stays include Kavvayi Beach House and Avisa Island Homestay, among others.

The article features inputs from Sambit Dattachaudhuri. 

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Waiting for Tourists at the Taj Mahal

Waiting for Tourists at the Taj Mahal

India’s most iconic tourist attraction is bracing for a tough season ahead, perhaps made a little bearable by the prospect of local travellers.

With World Heritage monuments like the Taj Mahal being closed down due to COVID-19, tourism in Agra has taken a massive hit. Photo Courtesy: Lalit Rajora

In mid-February this year, I was among hordes of other tourists who had flocked to Agra to witness the Taj Mahotsav, an annual fest for those uninitiated to the city’s cultural majesty. There was hardly an inkling in my mind that it would be my last trip anywhere for a long, tormenting period. A few signs of the alarm that dominates our public life now had begun to seep in. At the airport, a handful of faces were masked, as a precaution against the coronavirus pandemic, which back then seemed to be far removed from Indian shores. After a smooth flight during which I drooled on the shoulder of an unknown, but gracious old lady, I hit the road in a spacious bus along with a couple of other writers, spending the next three hours swooning over the city that had once served as the golden capital of the Mughal Empire.

As we navigated our way around the ‘Old Town’ quarters, consuming platefuls of freshly made petha and jalebi, visited unsung colonial neighbourhoods and finally walked up in awe to the white-marble façade of the Taj Mahal, we didn’t spare a thought to the thousands crowding behind our shoulders or tripping over our feet. ‘Social distancing’ hadn’t yet made its way into our daily lives.

From Bustle to Bust

Agra witnesses an average footfall of eight to 10 million tourists in a year. Tourists from across the world arrive in Agra to visit the mausoleum of love. Photo by: Don Mammoser/ Shutterstock

On March 16, as the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic grew near, the Indian government announced the closure of the Taj Mahal and other landmark monuments in Agra, much to the disbelief of tourists and locals alike. Overnight, thousands lost their means of income, while the barely fortunate were furloughed.

“Nearly five lakh people in Agra are directly and indirectly tied with tourism,” says Rajiv Saxena, Vice President of the Tourism Guild of Agra. “Their livelihood has been completely challenged as a result of the pandemic. Job losses are predicted and a lot of travel organisations, emporiums and hoteliers are looking to send people on furloughs.”

On an average, Agra receives about eight to 10 million tourists a year, both domestic and international, the latter travelling challenging distances to fulfill their bucket-list goal of visiting the exquisite mausoleum of love. However, according to Saxena, there was already a 10 per cent dip in tourist footfall in the 2019-2020 season. This year, with the government announcing the nationwide lockdown from March 25, the season was forced to be cut back by half.

“With this went all our hopes of making up the drop in tourist footfall. Now, if we manage to get even something like six to seven million tourists this year once tourism resumes, we should consider ourselves lucky,” Saxena says.

A Shroud of Uncertainty

Agra 1

Homes in Fatehpur Sikri are adorned with patterned stone-screen windows (right); The city’s oldest lanes (left) buzz with vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Photos by: Remy P/ shutter stock(people), Clara_C/ Shutterstock (window)

As normalcy—whatever that comes to be in the next few months—resumes, local travel business are hoping for some improvement. To Saxena, this calls for a ‘new normal.’ Working in collaboration with the Archeological Society of India (ASI), which looks after the maintenance of most of the world-renowned monuments in the city, the Guild has begun to formulate new guidelines for tourist visits.

“Our suggestions include social distancing tours and possible time slots for group visits. We’ve also asked the ASI to reopen strategically—first the World Directed Monuments such as the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri, then the National Monuments such as the Haveli of Agha Khan and Akbar’s Tomb and finally the local tourist attractions such as the Roman Catholic Cemetery and other such spots on our colonial walks,” Saxena clarifies.

Along with this, the ASI will also incorporate thermal screenings at the most iconic tourist spots, which will be sanitised.

The new social distancing guidelines apply to hotels across the city as well. While most hoteliers are hoping to open shop by August 1, they’re taking the time to strategise and become more ‘COVID-19 compliant’ for future bookings.

The Courtyard by Marriott, which witnessed a 30 to 40 per cent drop in bookings in mid-March, had enjoyed a 100 per cent occupancy with all its 189 rooms filled until the end of February. While the hotel waits to welcome visitors again, it is laying out new safety protocol measures. “The new measures will include things like a mandatory six-foot-distance between tables in restaurants, and a limit to the number of guests occupying each table. We’re also looking to change the layout of the banquet halls,” says Shilajit Banerjee, Duty Manager of Courtyard by Marriott.

The sentiment is echoed by Hotel Clarks Shiraz, a major tourist hub with its enviable views of the Taj Mahal. Even before the nationwide lockdown was announced, hotel bookings had begun to drop, with a 95 per cent cancellation in the days before the city shutdown. The only hope now, says the hotel’s Account Manager Sanjeev Kumar, is for domestic travellers to start trickling in once the lockdown is relaxed and it’s safe to travel again.

Pinning Hopes on Domestic Travel

Agra 3

The city’s royal culture is deep-rooted in the red-sandstone splendour of the Agra Fort. Photo by: Roop_Dey/ Shutterstock

The hope of domestic travellers reviving the trade isn’t limited to hoteliers alone. Saxena too is of the belief that with international travel to India now possibly experiencing a backlog of a year or more, tourism in Agra will, in the near future, depend on Indian tourists alone. Local tour operators too will have to remodel their packages with domestic travellers in mind, he says.

However, this focus on domestic travellers is worrying for a few. Prashant Jain, who obtained his license from the Ministry of Tourism in 1996, has worked as an official guide in Agra for the past 24 years. Well-versed with the tricks of the trade, Jain is doubtful of whether this influx can revive business for those in his profession.

“The thing is, Indian tourists rarely hire a guide, at least here (in Agra). They assume that they don’t need one because they’ve read about the Taj Mahal in their history books. Admittedly, a lot of Indian tourists are also budget travellers, so for them to be spending even Rs800-900 on a guided tour could be more than they’d wish to account for. So, most of us will have to wait for international tourism to resume in the city,” he says.

The wait will be a tough one for Jain, as by his own admission, guides only get paid on the job. On an average, Jain says he earns approximately between Rs2,200-4,500 a day, but not every work week amounts to seven days.

Gauri Pauchari, a guide for the past 13 years, too is not as optimistic. “This is my full-time occupation. But going forth post-lockdown, a lot of people like me are going to have to also take on part-time projects, considering that tourism in the city may not pick up for the next couple of months. We do need to survive.”

For now, even with misgivings, the hope for the revival of tourism in Agra lies with domestic tourists. Perhaps it might take the Taj Mahal, ever present but also ever resplendent, to remind Indians of the unmissable beauty of being a traveller again.

AGRA BEYOND THE TAJ MAHAL

Agra 2

Akbar’s Church (left) and the Roman Catholic Cemetery (right) stand testament to Agra’s lesserknown colonial history. Photo courtesy: Sanjana Ray (church), Kevin Standage/shutterstock (tomb)

The city has always been associated with the golden age of the Mughal Dynasty. The Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri and Taj Mahal are usual suspects sought after by the average tourist. However, what’s often left undisclosed, is Agra’s compelling colonial history that dates back to the 15th century and begs for discovery.

Abdul Karim’s Tomb

Hidden far from view, the fading mint-green tomb of Abdul Karim, Queen Victoria’s munshi, is impossible to find without help. To reach the tomb, visitors have to make their way through the Panchkuin Kabaristan littered with stones and weeds. After Victoria’s passing, Karim returned to Agra, where he built two statues and a school in her name.

Roman Catholic Cemetery

A small slice of catholic heritage lies contained within the red-sandstone domes of the Roman Catholic Cemetery, believed to be the oldest Christian burial ground in North India. The most striking tomb on the grounds belongs to Mr. John Hessings, and is called the ‘Red Taj’ due to its uncanny resemblance to the Taj Mahal.

St. George’s Cathedral

Established in 1828, this protestant church was built in neo-gothic style by Colonel John Theophilus Boileau, an army engineer who sailed to India in 1822. Having stood the test of time, the cathedral’s interiors, such as the altar, are built in expensive marble while the exterior stands tall with its yellow-ochre stucco-and-white dressings.

Akbar’s Church

Emperor Akbar’s association with the Jesuit Priests of Goa led him to allow the latter to build the Catholic Church of Agra in 1598, which served as the Cathedral of Agra till 1848. Flanked by a well-maintained garden with pretty yellow flowers, the church’s lime-yellow exterior is elegant in its simplicity.

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Dahi Bhalle | Cooksmart | Sanjeev Kapoor Khazana

Dahi Bhalle | Cooksmart | Sanjeev Kapoor Khazana

This North Indian delicacy is a perfect side dish that can be easily prepared using some easily available ingredients in your kitchen. This curd dish makes for a nice summer dish which is easy to digest and is a delectable.

DAHI BHALLE

Ingredient

1 cup split skinless black gram (dhuli urad dal), soaked overnight and drained
500 gms yogurt
Oil to deep fry
Salt to taste
½ tsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp raisins
1 tbsp gram flour (besan)
¼ tsp asafoetida (hing)
2 tsps sugar
Black salt as required
Roasted cumin powder, as required
Red chilli powder, as required
Green chutney, as required
Sweet tamarind chutney, as required

Method

1. Heat sufficient oil in a kadai.
2. Put the grams in a large mixer jar and grind with a little water till smooth. Transfer the batter into a bowl, add salt and whisk well so as to incorporate air into the batter.
3. Add cumin seeds and raisins and mix well. Add gram flour and mix well.
4. Dampen your fingers and drop small amounts into the hot oil and deep fry till golden.
5. Put water at room temperature in a large bowl. Drain the fried bhalle and drop into this water. Add a little asafoetida to the water and let the bhalle soak for a while.
6. Put the yogurt in a muslin cloth, gather the edges together and squeeze out yogurt into another big bowl. This way it will be absolutely smooth.
7. Add sugar and salt to the yogurt and mix well.
8. Squeeze out excess water from the bhalle and put into the yogurt mixture and let them soak for a while.
9. While serving break the bhalle slightly and put equally into 4 serving bowls. Sprinkle a little black salt, little roasted cumin powder and little red chilli powder. Drizzle green chutney and sweet tamarind chutney and some of the yogurt remaining in the big bowl. Sprinkle some more red chilli powder and serve immediately.

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Luxury RVs offer safe holidays in Karnataka :: Lonely Planet India

Luxury RVs offer safe holidays in Karnataka :: Lonely Planet India



Luxecampers are safe and comfortableImage courtesy: ©Karnataka Toruism Board

Travellers venturing out now find the option of a road trip in a vehicle for family and friends a safe one. Karnataka state tourism board is planning to lure its travellers for safe holidays along the state’s many heritage, wildlife, hillsides on road trips.

Luxecamper has teamed up with the Karnataka Tourism Board and Jungle Lodges and Resorts Ltd to offer personalised road holidays in the state on luxury vans fitted with all comforts.

Luxecamper provides private holidays on wheels to travel safely and maintain social distancing. The vehicles can accommodate four travellers.

“Our trips are highly personalised so that we could focus on creating a safe travel environment throughout the journey on these motor homes”, says Ramesh Govindan of Luxecamper.

Travellers can enjoy curated holidays

Travellers can enjoy curated holidaysImage courtesy: ©Karnataka Toruism Board

These recreational vehicles (RV) called Luxecampers provide certified drivers and experienced guides who have their personal cabin and are medically certified to take on the trip accompanying the travellers. They also have the app Aarogya Setu in their phones for health safety and tracking.

Their cabin is isolated from the guest-dwelling unit. The guest cabin is fitted with comforts like a dining cart and sleeping arrangements with 2 queen-sized beds for four guests. The bathroom and toilet are sanitised and the vehicles are equipped with heaters for warm air circulation and hot water is available in the kitchenette sink and bathroom. The upholstery and linen are treated with high steam and the interior surfaces are wiped with sanitizers.

Travellers will have the option to bring and cook their own food

Travellers will have the option to bring and cook their own foodImage courtesy: ©Karnataka Toruism Board

Food served is provided by the Luxecamper team to avoid travellers from joining in on busy restaurants and eateries along the way. Options for guests to bring their own food along to cook are also possible. Crockery and cutlery will be washed in hot water and sanitised.

Travellers can choose curated trips based on their interests in Karnataka including heritage sites of Hampi, wildlife safaris in Bandipur and Kabini, and short breaks from Bengaluru to Bheemeshwari or curate their own personalised trips. The company has chalked halting sites that “are not crowded”.

“We have also taken care to ensure that the activities are personalised and no sharing of the same with third parties”, says Ramesh who plans to replicate the private holidays on wheels in other states too.

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