Saturday, February 27, 2016

Panchgani - A Getaway in Sahyadris

Shades of light at Dawn!
Cool breeze, early morning dew on grass, chirping birds and hues of dawn animating a valley – ready for a peaceful wintery morning!

Amphitheatre at New Era School
Winter has practically ended in Mumbai and is on the verge of vanishing from other places around. Maybe it is the onset of summers, or just a yearn of getting lost in the hills again (read travel withdrawal); whatever be the reason, I find myself browsing through pictures of mountainous areas these days. No I do not stay far away from mountains – in fact my home in Mumbai has a pleasant hilly view, but yes I miss the fresh air, the rejuvenating charm and the societal calm that lingers in hill stations. While unfortunately a lot of hill stations are highly commercialized these days the tranquility of Sahyadris lets you bask in that hilly calm anyways. One such hilly town that I simply love for its simplicity is Panchgani – usually known as the twin of Mahabaleshwar.

Valley Near Panchgani
Known for some of the oldest and best boarding schools of India, Panchgani is anything but touristy. In fact it is one of those place people visit – just visit - while holidaying in Mahabaleshwar, but the place in itself is anything but touristy. Panchagani came into existence in early 20th century when a British Officer established this town around a flat plateau which is now known as the table land. Panchgani was established as a retirement resort town, but a lot of locals from close by villages were invited to settle in the new town. Eventually these locals started farming in the surrounding area and now Panchgani is famous throughout India for its strawberry farms.

Local farms in Panchgani
Though strawberries have put Panchgani on the tourist trail, for me its closeness to nature is what makes the place a worthwhile getaway. Overlooking a valley, where Krishna River flows languidly Panchgani surprisingly has beautiful dusks and well as dawns. Apart from the trek trail to Pratapgad Fort, Panchgani has numerous hiking options. Moreover, biking is highly promoted by the Municipal Corporation and the resorts in Panchgani to keep the place pollution free, as the place is recognized as a convalescence centre.

Krishna River, Dhom Dam - View from New Era School
The best spots to gauge the beauty of Panchgani are actually the boarding schools and if you do have an opportunity to enter one of them – do not let that chance go! If not the boarding schools, make way to Strawberry Inn – one of the best views of the valley and undoubtedly the best Parsi Restaurant in the town. A lot of Parsi’s made Panchgani their home in 1950’s and since then the community has been thriving there so Strawberry Inn is more of a local delight.

The Chapel at St. Joseph's Convent School
Panchgani was never a native to anyone but within a century it has become home to so many, that tells you of charm of this tiny town in the Western Ghats. Next time you plan to take a vacation in Mahabaleshwar spend a couple of days in Panchgani and you will know why Panchgani needs exploring and not just a visit.

Meandering Koyna 
What else to do in Panchgani:
  1. For adventure junkies, Panchgani has paragliding near table land, but better place to be at is Tapola – about 30 kilometers from Panchgani – less crowded and way better than Venna lake, with options of kayaking, speed boating and much more.
  2. Do something touristy by visiting Mapro Garden because it is totally worth it – especially for the pizzas made with local veggies and in wood fire and the sizzling brownie!
  3. Go Strawberry picking in local farms. Yes you can do it - Lot of options around the place! Just be sure of asking the price to the owners of the farms well in advance and asking them for guidance too during picking.

Koyna River at Tapola
Where to stay:

Ravine Hotel – Just next to Sydney point, this place flaunts amazing view of the Dhom Dam Valley and the hotel itself is an amazing structure with interiors heavily inspired by Egyptian Architecture.

Ravine Hotel and Me!
How to get there –

It is better to get a sleeper bus from Mumbai or Pune and explore the town on bike or rent a local car.

View from Table Land
P.S. - All pics are personal.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Four Hours of Nawabi Tales

Huge green V at Airport!
I did something very exciting last weekend! I was in two states at one time for 3 days!!! Before you guys make any assumptions – neither was it the momentary standing on some state border line nor am I lying. I did it, and believe me or not there are two places in India where you can do this and not just for days but weeks, months and even years! India has 2 pairs of states that share their capital – Punjab and Haryana share Chandigarh, and Andhra Pradesh and Telangana share Hyderabad – and I was in Nawab’s land last weekend! *Drum Rolls* Plus I visited an acoustic marvel of the ancient world!

Sunset at Hi-tech City - that is how late I was!
I visited Hyderabad last weekend on an official purpose – a corporate sports event – and was office bound or well sports-ground bound for most of the long, hot, sunny and tiring weekend. But to visit a new place and not wander around, my wanderlust alter ego would never let me rest, maybe for eternity. So after managing to gain exactly four hours of ‘free time’ from my crazy schedule, I did manage to submerge myself with the Nawabi feel and some old tales.

Just outside Golconda
Last Sunday, February 21, 2016, after a weekend of sports drama under the harsh Andhra sun, we (the whole contingent) returned to our hotel at 5:00 clock and I was lost about where to go because sadly all the historical and cultural places in Hyderabad close down by 5:30 PM and everything worth visiting is at least 40 mins away from Hi-tech city. Given the time dilemma, I decided to go the tourists’ way this time and did a google search for ‘places to visit in Hyderabad’ and guess what, I did find a place! Yay! Qutub Shahi tombs – 9:00 am to 6:30 PM. So without wasting much time, I called up two other folks and we set out to see the heritage area of the Qutub Shahi rulers! But all we discovered after reaching there was that Google needed a serious revision of its database because the guards at Qutub Shahi told us the place shuts down at 5:30 and did not allow us to enter the place even though the first of the seven tombs was visibly 500m away from where we were standing.

Lights on the ruins of Golconda
Our next stop was Golconda fort, but only for the sound and light show. Touristy yes but trust me it is so worth it if you love history! Golconda fort, about a couple of kilometres away from Qutub Shahi Tombs is one of the largest and most renowned forts of India, thanks to the world famous Kohinoor and Hope diamond and the light and sound show is one of the best ways to understand its glorious past specially if you are pressed for time.

Domes and Arches

Series of Arches every where
Golconda fort, though recognized as a marvel of the Qutub Shahi period, had its foundations laid back in late 12th century by the Kakatiya Dynasty and was a mere battlement back then. Lost and occupied by Bahmani Sultanate next the fort saw a lot of ups and downs in terms of management, economy and status as it was the capital for Bahmani Sultanate till it fell under the administration of Sultan Quli Qutub Mulk and was the ground of foundation of the Qutub Shahi Dynasty. The light and sound show tells you the whole story of the fort and the Golconda Kingdom till the very end when the Qutub King was betrayed to Aurangzeb and was destroyed. The forty minutes long show leaves you with wonder but also makes you feel for the kingdom that once flourished in art, architecture and culture.

Walls near Rani Mahal

Though you do not get to explore upper levels of the fort during or after the light and sound show, you can freely roam around the ground level if you were in for the 6:30 PM show and that is exactly what I did. The show had left me with a thirst of seeing more of the ruins that silently tell you about the place and more than anything leave you under a spell. Not using any metaphor here, but the place is such that any history lover would see or weave a version of ‘what happened there’ while wandering in the dim lit ruins. Qutub Shahi rulers had beautified the fort and modified the architecture with a lot of Indo-Persian elements, developing a sound communication system that makes Golconda fort a one of its kind acoustic marvel of India.

Light Show
Golconda Fort has dome like structures in the corridors and the surrounding palaces and due to the extensive use of clay, the walls have ability to reflect sounds. The Qutub Shahi rulers leveraged these advantages of the fort and developed a communication/warning system called the old phone system by the guides there. I had seen a show regarding the clap system of Golconda and also heard a guide explaining it to a tourist that day. 

This was the first time I had heard about the acoustic system!

Golconda Fort has a clapping portico followed by a series of arches diminishing in size, which enables a sound wave generated under the dome of the portico to get compressed and then bounce back amplified enough to reach a significant distance. The best way to experience this is to clap under the Fateh Darwaza aka the entrance gate and you can hear the clap faintly near Taramati Mosque and clearly at Ballah-Hisar which is almost a kilometer away from the gate.

The huge entrance or the Fateh Darwaza
Also inside the domes whispers travel through the columns and I tried this in the corridors near Rani Mahal – whisper to the wall at a corner of a dome and the whisper is audible at all diagonal corners, loud and clear. Experiencing this was probably the best part of my visit to Golconda and it makes the whole visit so worth it. Imagine the intelligence and the level of science people understood back then!

The domes corridors that make the acoustic system.
There architecture of the fort is very well thought of otherwise also. Situated on top of an hill, water needed to be transported to the whole area and Golconda had an efficient system of clay pipes devised for the purpose, which if you notice carefully you would still see around the corridors. 

Taramati Mosque 
The raised patio in front of the gate has strategically placed vents for pouring hot oil and shooting arrows giving the guards enough time to send out warning using the warning system. You also see a lot of curtain holders and storing chambers in the high domed passages and I noticed all of these without a personal guide in dim light!

Raised patio infront of the entrance
I am sure I have missed out a lot at Golconda, but I am glad I could gauge the brilliance of yet another kingdom of country. I decided to visit Golconda and Qutub Shahi tombs over Charminar because of the amount of history and architectural skills associated with them. Hope this article helps people like me who have really less time to wander in Hyderabad!

Ornate entrance
How to reach and what to do:
If you have considerable time to explore, reach Golconda by 4:30 PM explore the upper areas by 5:30 PM and take tickets for the 6:30 PM show. This way you get spared from the harsh day sun, cover the whole of the fort and also get to see half of Hyderabad at sunset.
For the sound and light show, buy the INR 80 ticket and wear full sleeves to save yourselves from mosquitoes. They do provide an Odomos with the ticket, but it is better to be safe than sorry right?
It is better to take an Ola or Uber from Hitech City, else you will really need to haggle with autos (auto charges are crazy) – Ola/Uber rate from Hitech city to Golconda range from 160 – 175 depending on traffic.

Darwazas outside Golconda Fort

Where to eat:
There are no good restaurants in 2km radius of the fort. And carry enough water with you because the hike is draining.

And I really hope Telangana Tourism increases the visiting hours to atleast 7 or 7:30 PM for places like Chowmahalla palace and Qutub Shahi Tombs. But for now, Golconda and Charminar are the only options for late evenings.

P.S – All pics are personal.


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Whispering History

Whispers in the corridors -
Flaming lights one sees,
Across the arched high halls
Voices echo deep…


People who know or have visited Golconda Fort in Hyderabad would know the meaning behind this picto-poem. To know more wait for my next post!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Wandering in Pondicherry

Dainty cafes, hues of white blue and chrome yellow, cobbled pathways, sun accompanied by cold sea breeze and sound of breaking waves as you go close to the edges – Welcome to yet another beautiful colonial corner of India – Pondicherry! A friend of mine is currently in Pondicherry and so my Instagram feed reminded me of this beautiful union territory of India.

Pondicherry or Pondi, like it is colloquially called is one of the oldest colonial parts of India which still remains under a wrap of time painted in shades of modernity. It is a perfect place to experience the blend of Chettinad and French culture while wandering around languidly in the clean, almost empty streets.

I spent just a day in Pondicherry, but the positivity of Auroville and the symphony of waves at the Pondi Promenade is something I think I would never forget. Driving through the picturesque Eastern Coastal Road from Chennai for two hours is not just a drive but a transition in time, as it takes you away from the hustle bustle of the city life of Chennai to an 80’s setup town still reminiscing in its own glorious past.

The best way to explore the city is to walk or cycle around the lazy organized lanes fenced by white and yellow houses with bougainvillea laden gates. But if the tropical sun seems too much for you to walk around, fear not you can always take old rustic rickshaws to explore.

To hear the chiming wind chimes greet the morning at Auroville or to see the hues of sunrise spread on the deep blue Bay of Bengal at the Pondi Promanade? It is a very difficult choice, trust me. So get your Auroville tickets in advance and enjoy the sunrise peacefully by the sea – you don’t want to miss it!

While the sea lets you connect to the sound of nature, Auroville welcomes you to a different world altogether, a world where you can connect to yourself if you try. For me Auroville visit – the peaceful 10 mins in Matrimandir, the lost and found feeling under the great Banyan tree, meeting and talking to people from around the world and helping with gardening for half an hour learning more about the surrounding gardens than cover in the tour was highlight of the Pondi trip. And you also get an extended dose of Auroville in the heart of Pondicherry at Shri Aurobindo Ashram. I have tried many a times to pen my experience of Auroville, but guess some experiences are truly beyond words.

Back to town after the inner connect? You are in a French town so look out for some amazing churches! Be it the Immaculate Conception Cathedral or the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, it is French legacy when it comes to their architecture and the interiors are a must see. But I did say it is a Tamil blend with French right? So for the Tamil bit of spiritual and religious touch, visit Manakula vinayagar Temple for Laxmi’s blessings. Laxmi is an elephant by the way and now Goddess Laxmi.

Pondicherry has a lot of beaches to quench your beach loving souls, but just before the nightfall, I resorted to spending some quiet me time at the dim lit, quaint cafes, that dot the lanes of Pondicherry. A perfect end to a perfect day of exploring and I made my way back to Chennai with a freshness in my mind.

I had a great me day at Pondicherry - losing my way happily in the French quarters, sipping cold coffee at Café and rejuvenating in the rendition of the cracking waves.

Have you been to Pondi? How was your experience? Are you planning to visit anytime soon? Let me know in the comments.

P.S. - All pics used in the post are personal.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

From a Goan Kitchen - Mum's Kitchen

The Place
The First weekend of February seems to be an art and culture weekend in the west! Kala Ghoda festival is on in Mumbai and it is Goa Carnival time in, well, Goa but I decided to not write on either of them. Yes, I wanted to write about the carnival actually but every time I thought Goa in the past week I thought of food and not just any food, I day dreamed about authentic Goan cuisine. And so today instead of writing about the huge festival of pomp and show, tradition and celebration, I will tell you about a classy little place where you can go and drift away to Goan Foodie Wonderland after a long day at the parade.

Old kitchen right?
So some months back, when I was in Goa (Courtesy Tourism Goa), I visited a quaint little restaurant called Mum’s Kitchen. Just off the Miramar Road, right on the highway the place is almost hidden in trees, but then a shiny brown and yellow placard lets you know the place and greets you to this amazing place. Amazing why you ask? Well, the outside of the restaurant is all ‘forested’ and also has water tile combination giving the place a very modern look from the outside but when you enter it transforms into this earthy, old villa style kitchen that kind of transfers you back in time. Full marks to the blue tiled, earthly kitchen that gives you a warm welcome as you enter it and promises food like Mum’s cook.

Our Spread

Chicken Xacuti
Yes! The place stands true to its name. Mum’s kitchen is not just an all show place, the food here boasts authentic Goan flavours and believe me, in some cases the traditional way of cooking too. I am scared of extremely spicy food. My friends often joke that my spice intake is limited to Gulab Jamun (if you get the joke) but Goan good with its strong tangy and peppery flavour has always enticed me and I love it! Of all the things we ordered (the entire menu really can’t recollect now) I still remember the mouthwatering Chicken Xacuti which was served with oven fresh Goan bread basket. Oh! And also the rich and very very traditional Prawn Hooman curry with steamed rice – literally proclaiming the Goan way of coconut curry with intense flavours of variety of spices – a must at Mum’s kitchen.

Prawn Peri Peri
Mum’s kitchen, with its sophisticated Goan-Portuguese menu, is a delight for non-vegetarians but that doesn’t mean vegetarians are left without the experience of Goan food. They have limited vegetarian option to be frank, but the dishes won’t disappoint you in terms of flavours and taste. Don’t believe me, see what my friend Divyakshi had to say about the veggie bit of the place.

Divsi's Veggie Delight (Source)
And never ever forget the dessert! We had our fill of Bebinca with Vanilla Ice cream but well you have enough options there to put anyone in a sugary dilemma.

Bebinca - I finished my share before realizing I had to click my food, thank God Divyakshi had the patience and control needed
So still wondering where to have you dinner today? This is some food for thought, ooo wait, thought for food! Cozy interiors, vibrant yet earthly ambience, extremely friendly staff and amazing food – worth every penny you pay (the place is a bit heavy on your pocket but totally worth it).

Yet another traditional bit that added to the ambience
And since I could not give you information click HERE to know about the Goa Carnival from official India Tourism site.

P.S. – All pics are personal unless source mentioned.
We were invited to the restaurant but the views in the post are completely honest and mine. :)