Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Chokhi Daani - Jaipur

Welcome to Chokhi Daani - the Kala Gram or Craftsmen's Village.
While at Jaipur, don't miss this crafts resort.  You will hear it from the locals too as a must visit place in the city.

Try the lavish dinner spread on environmental friendly dried leaf plates being served in an open area. It is a sit-down dinner. The food is arranged and served neatly on small cups placed on a small, wooden table. The 'lassi' or buttermilk is served in an earthen pot.


One thing I really like about traditional Indian food is the recyclable plate on which it is served. In the coastal belt of Karnataka (where I come from), we still use plantain leaves.


It is a pleasure to eat on fresh banana leaves or as in most Soutn Indian temples on dried plants leaves strewn together. They are easy to dispose off too. What the world woke up to in the 21st century India has been doing since centuries.

The meal though was totally and boringly
vegetarian. The famous 'daal-baati' was so hard we couldn't break it.

90% of Rajasthanis are vegetarian. The locals told us not to eat non-vegetarian dishes because it is usually not fresh.


The funny part was the circulation of the Rajasthani petas! Everyone got to wear it and got their 'look like locals' moment.



The resort has all kinds of entertainment.
Camel rides, elephant rides, bullock cart rides,

There is tight-rope walking too and a live dance performance of Rajasthani folk dance.

You can join the dancers swirling around in their long, round skirts full of bead and mirror work, the 'ghunghat' nicely placed on their heads.

There are lots of places to shop and eat
But one thing you will realize is almost everyone is prompting you to tip them generously - whether it is the waiter at the open meal counters or the dancers or any of the other entertainers.

The ethnic atmosphere of the village - whether it is in the buildings or the costumes of the different staff or the overall ambiance makes you feel like you are right in the middle of a typical Rajasthani village.





The beautiful model houses dotting the entire property of the Kala Gram is a visual treat to the eyes. You can spend the whole day here - clicking pics, eating, shopping or just relaxing watching others.



















And while you are there, don't forget to have a shot of hookah with this wise, old man.



Monday, June 5, 2017

The Nahar Garh Fort - Jaipur

Manaharaja Sawai Jai Singh, the founder of Jaipur built the fort in 1734. 
Among the three forts in Jaipur, the Nahargarh Fort is said to be the smallest. And yet it took us a good half day to explore it! 

It gives you a wonderful view of the Man Sagar Lake in the distance. And that is the famed Jal Mahal in the center of the lake. 

From the fort, you can also catch a sight of the vibrant city of Jaipur and its pastel buildings. 

Along with Amer Fort and Jaigarh Fort, Nahargarh provided a good defense for the city. Luckily the fort was not attacked during the course of its history.
Below are the pictures of the insides of the fort. 

Every 5 steps there is a door that opens into a room.  





The rooms are all linked by corridors and still have some beautiful frescoes on its walls.

All rooms are connected and lead to the other.


The fort was first named Sudarshangarh.


Later it came to be known as Nahar Garh which means home of tigers.


Movies such as Rang De Basanti and Shuddh Desi Romance have been shot here.













The large terrace of the fort with the domes. 

Below is the water reservoir with the steps leading down to it.
The planning that went into the construction of the fort, the years it took to complete it, the immense labour involved and the end result so majestic, and all this some three hundred years ago - it fills you with awe and admiration for the Kings who built it. As you walk around the fort, you know you are taking a little bit of history with you.

The Jal Mahal Palace, also called the Pleasure Palace. Jal means water in Hindi and Mahal is Palace.

Palace and the lake surrounding it were renovated in the 18th century by Maharaja Jai Singh. It is built in red sandstone as is common in Rajasthan. It is actually five storied but four floors remain under water when the lake is full. Only the top floor is exposed. 
Tourists can only see this pleasure palace only from far. We are not allowed to go in. It is belieevd to have two structures in the front of the mahal, in the lake, for security guards to keep watch!

The road connectivity is excellent between the various tourist attractions in Jaipur and because of the ease of access and proximity, you can cover many spots in a single day; provided you can tolerate the heat. The city is very "hot".

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Jaipur

I had visited Jaipur during the last week of September in 2014. It was an official visit for me. I had gone to an engineering college as part of the Campus Placement Team. My flight and hotel expenses were covered by the company. It was our first time to Rajasthan. I completed my two days work in the college and then extended the stay to explore the city and to visit Taj Mahal. Sathya and Tan accompanied me.
  
We stayed at Hotel Amer View. The host was very friendly and treated each guest like family.
The only negative thing was the complimentary breakfast. One week of eating aloo parathas and bread-butter drove us nuts.

There was just no other option. When we requested for a change in the menu, we would be generously served omelette!

It took several months for us after we returned to Bangalore to be able to even look at parathas again without being disgusted.

It was reasonably priced, and had comfortable, spacious rooms with beautiful wall decors and traditional paintings featuring kings and queens adorning the corridors.














The first morning I went to the hotel terrace and witnessed this beautiful sunrise.

And just as I stood there soaking in the atmosphere and savoring the slow break of dawn, I noticed something in the sky.  I was shocked to see, in the distance, a hot air balloon in flight. When I inquired around and realized hot air ballooning is held in the city, the first thing I did was arrange money (Rs 10,000 for a one hour ride). But the office that handles the bookings was located somewhere else and even though I tried very hard to contact them and make the payment and go on the ride, I couldn't.

The hotel was walking distance from the take-off site of the balloon ride. As a last resort, I thought Chalo, let me request them and pay at the spot of the take-off. Early next morning, I woke up, (what I thought was in the middle of the night), got ready and literally ran the whole distance to the site. But the staff refused to take me on saying the ride had to be booked through their office. I remember begging them. I remember crying the whole way back to the hotel. I was so sad that morning. I missed going on such a unique adventure.

From our room, we could see the famous Amer Fort. That's why the name Hotel Amer View. It was a mere stone's throw away.
The palace and Jaigarh Fort are one complex connected by a passage. The passage was used as an escape route during war to help the royal family and others in the Fort to move to the Jaigarh Fort. 
The Amer Fort is a must visit.The fort overlooks the Maota Lake, the main source of water for the Palace. 
It was built from red sandstone and marble by Raja Man Singh during 967 CE. Imagine that! So long long back! It is laid out on four levels. Each level has its own courtyard.  
The Fort is known for its beautiful Hindu style elements. It gets its name from Amba, the Mother Goddess Durga. It houses the Sukh Niwas where a cool climate is created artificially. The winds blow over a water cascade inside the palace. It was the residence of the Rajput Maharajas.
Nearly 5000 people visit the Fort in a single day. 1.4 million visitors were reported during 2007.  In 2013, the Fort was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with 5 other forts of Rajasthan.

Across our hotel, was the site of the cremation ground of the Kachwaha Kings.  From 1733 onwards the final rites of every Kachwaha king were done here. It is now used for morning walks.

Jaipur is a historical city founded by Sawai Jai Singh in the 17th century. The Kachwaha rules built many wonderful monuments dotting the length and breadth of the city. Indulge in a casual stroll through the streets and you are most likely to bump into some monument or the other. The city throws back history at you at every corner. A must visit for all lovers of Indian history. Truly, the land of the Rajas and Maharajas. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Darjeeling

The last lap of our 7 day Sikkim tour package was a day of sight-seeing in Darjeeling. And the first event was the famous sunrise over the Kangchenjunga peak over Tiger Hill. To see the sun rise over the majestic Mount Everest is a surreal experience. Kangchenjunga is the third highest mountain in the world. It lies partly in Nepal and partly in Sikkim.

We had to wake up at 3:30 for this. We were at the hill by 4:30, one of the first ones to be there.

We were shivering in the cold.

There was nothing on the hill top except for people selling gloves and scarves and coffee. 

But in less than an hour, the whole place was teaming with people and there was not an inch of spare space to set foot.

The construction of the new observatory is under way and the outcome sure looks exciting. 





The Kangchenjunga peak glowing with the first rays of the sun. This pic from my mobile camera does no justice to it. Wish I had a super fantastic professional camera.

The sight of the changing hues of the peak in the span of 30 minutes or less makes it worth the suffering in the early morning ruthless chill and the dazed eye from lack of sleep.



The reverence to Kanchenjunga is palpable. Hotels and houses are routinely named after it. As tourists, every place we stop, every bend we take, we catch ourselves constantly trying to catch a glimpse of the peak. 

While in Darjeeling, the adventure sport you must try is white water rafting in the Teesta River. 


Entrance fee to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and to the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park is part of the MMT package but we had to pay from our pockets as they did not inform us. Both these places are worth a visit. The zoo is very well-maintained and quite unique in the way the cages are built. As we walk up the hilly slopes of the zoo, we peer into the cages that are dug out far below. It's an interesting view for us even as the animals are blissfully unaware of people staring at them like fools.

This gorgeous tiger gave us all the sighting of our life by pacing back and forth and roaring.


I hardly saw any clinic and hospitals both in Sikkim and in Darjeeling.

The driver said there are actually very few.

They mostly use traditional herbs and the rest is taken care of by walking. 'Pahadi log' (mountain people) do not have much use for the doctor. So I couldn't resist taking a pic of this clinic that I found inside the premises of the Tsuk Druk monastery.




Darjeeling is famous for 3 T's - Tourism, Tea and Timber. Justifiably, Happy Valley Tea Estate is a spot in the MMT itinerary.
Here is the picture of the cup marking the marriage of Princess Diana sent to the Tea Estate.




Japanese temple built in 1972. There is a large prayer room upstairs. We were lucky to be just in time for the ongoing prayers. We were given a small drumming pad and a stick. We chanted a Buddhist verse to the beats of the drum. The temple was founded by Fuji Guruji for world peace. He is believed to have witnessed the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.


The Peace Pagoda is the tallest structure in Darjeeling and gives a beautiful view of the town surrounding it. It is believed to have taken the Japanese architect three years to build it. 


The Peace Pagoda has four avatars of Buddha - sitting, standing, sleeping and meditating. All the statues are polished in gold color. This one below is my favorite:


The Tibetan  Refugee Center is on the itinerary too. Skip this in case of shortage of time or if you are not too much into the history of the Tibetan-Chinese territorial conflict. There is a display of photos tracing the events of the illegal Chinese occupation of Tibet & the tragic loss of Tibetan way of life.

You can buy lots of interesting things from here but all the items are expensive. It is better to buy from any of the shops in the town selling almost the same things. However, a board like this will melt your heart and you will be tempted to splurge for the 'cause'


India has been a land of acceptance. Many of those who suffered from religious persecution the world over have sought solace here - from the Jews who settled in Kerala to the Buddhists. Many Buddhist refugee camps dot the length and breath of this great nation.

The Druk Sangag Choling Monastery is a must visit. It is a beautiful structure. You can be a part of the prayers or simply watch the monks and pupils as they scurry around their daily work in their long saffron robes. The monastery houses an orphanage. Poor parents leave their little boys on the footsteps of the monastery to be raised as scholars and monks. 




The beautiful women selling mostly non-vegetarian fare in the evening market.



Most of the small shops, hotels and eateries are run by Nepali origin people. The ethnic tribes like Lepcha, Nepali and Sherpas run the show here and it is evident. Eve-teasing is almost not heard of here.

Darjeeling is already partially autonomous and there is a demand to be separated from West Bengal. They harbor a great disdain for Mamata and her cronies.

You might hear from other people that Darjeeling is congested, a modern slum, too commercialized and so on. But from what little I saw of the city, I didn't feel that way at all. Maybe that's because as tourists on a short visit, we stick to the main lanes and rarely venture into the squalor of the city's underbelly.

I actually really liked the place and if Kubera (the Hindu Money God) continues to smile upon me, I might go back there again. I enjoyed the food, the walks, the tourist attractions, the people's smiling faces and just the fact that I was so far away from home and family and yet the place felt all too familiar and easy to get along with. Except for the cold! The cold is treacherous! 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Sikkim - Final

Despite the MMT fiasco, the Sikkim trip was worth the time and definitely worth the money. The overall cost actually worked out cheaper because of the package. We paid 37,000 to MMT and spent another 7,000 for food, entry fees, shopping, airport to residence taxis and other expenses like paying extra to the driver to take us to Zero Point and to the paragliding venue. If we include 3000 that we paid for paragliding, the 7 day trip cost us 47,000 in total, per person. 

This final post on Sikkim traces the tourist spots covered in the MMT itinerary.  

Visit the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology to trace the art, culture and religious practices of Tibet.  

Wear the traditional Sikkimese dress. For just Rs 50/-. They are available at all the places frequented by tourists. It's a nice, colorful, wrap-around dress. They even give you matching neck-chains and a hat to go with the dress so that your picture is 'complete'.
I remember doing this is Dehradun, in 2003. I had worn the Garhwali traditional costume with a big matka (pot) in hand. 

We don't have this very "touristy"  'try-the-local-dress-and-pose-for-photos' thing in any of the tourist locations in the South. I guess, a saree doesn't lend itself to such touristy gimmicks. 

This is the Seven Sisters Waterfall. There are seven distinct points at which the waterfall drops. You can see each one as you climb up the steep hill. You have stairs and little benches kept along the climb. We girls went up half the way, saw there wasn't much water (someone remarked "there are only 2 sisters, bhaiya"), got dizzy by the sight of the upward climb in the hot sun and got engrossed in the Sikkimese dress photo session, instead. 

The remarkable thing was the elderly couple from Delhi climbed right up, all the way! And they did this everywhere - whether it was the icy slopes or the hills or the 100+ steps climb! At every spot where the taxi stopped, the couple would rush right ahead, uncle clicking pics of his wife and the scenery.  We would huff and puff but not they. Naah! Age truly is just a number. We three 40ish women couldn't match the pace of the 60ish couple. 

This was a common sight in Sikkim, no matter where you went. The cold demands the drink. This tiny shop at least had a glass shelf. In most places, it would be nicely stacked on just a pushcart, hawker-style, an Old Monk standing cozily next to a Blenders Pride. Even the  smallest, hole-in-the-wall shop had an enviable stack of liquor. 

And I thought Goa was the only liquor paradise. 

This is something I found in a magazine in one of the shops - the 2012 tourist inflow statistics. A whopping 5 lakh Indian tourists visited Sikkim as compared to a very low turnout of just 23,000 foreigners. That's a huge and rather surprising gap between the domestic and international travelers to the state. 

And that shawl on Chiranjeevi. I too have it. It was gifted to me by one of my Assamese students. It is called a gamcha, I think. It's worn by both men and women in most North Eastern states. 




The statistics regarding the crime rate.  Sikkim is ranked the lowest at 30 in the crimes against women index with just 55 cases. Something for the other states to mull over and emulate. 







The sights that will stay with you long after you have left the state.
 
The Bhim Nala Waterfalls also called Amitabh Bachchan Falls because of its height! 
Another beautiful waterfall. 
 
The Seven Bowls. In Buddhism, each bowl stands for a particular aspect of prayer. The offering encourages the spirit of giving & water is the purest & the easiest material thing that we can give. 
The view from the Gangtok rope way. The rope way ride costs you Rs 200 and gets over in less than an hour. If you have been on more exciting rope way rides, in other states/countries, pass this up. But if it is your first time on a ropeway, lap it up because it provides you with a stunning view of the town and the hills surrounding it. And a new, unique experience.

We stopped at a memorial in the woods where there was an annual feast going on. The men were busy preparing for the festivities. It was an occasion to pay homage to their ancestors.
 (aside: isn't the chakli on that plate a typically South Indian snack?) 
The  stream, the mountain peaks and the breeze. Beautiful combo!
The sight of the snow - fresh and soft - is by itself worth the money spent on the trip, so says the woman who grew up in the hot and humid coastal belt of Karnataka.
 If you ever get a chance, to plan or be a part of a trip to Sikkim, don't think twice. Say yes!