Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ghats of Narmada - Maheshwar

Yes a ghat. No it is not Varanasi
A quintessential old town with old buildings, narrow lanes, dusty or old stone cobbled pathways, an aura or religious and spiritual existence and inextricable part of the shores of a perennial river, existing since almost forever – Maheshwar. For many the description might seem to be that of Varanasi and you wouldn’t be wrong to think so because Maheshwar would remind you of Varanasi every minute but it was much more than Varanasi for me.

Where does that door lead to?
Maheshwar, in Madhya Pradesh, is one of the lesser known ancient towns of India and for similar reasons is an offbeat destination but it is a gem of a place! This ancient town has been prominent on the map of India since the time of Ramayana and Mahabharata when it was known as Mahismati. But it was during the 18th century when Maheshwar peaked in glory. It was Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar who decided to make Maheshwar the capital of the Maratha Kingdom and eternalized this small quaint town. Now the only way people come to know about this town is when movies like Bajirao Mastani and Asoka promote them, but there is so much to see in this town and so much to explore!

Ahilya Dwaar
From the moment you enter Maheshwar, you are greeted by a whiff of history and an air of Royalty at the glimpse of Ahilya Dwaar. Traveling through the nearly barren Malwa under the hot 2 ‘o’ clock sun had drained me off all the energy and made me wonder why a kingdom would change its capital from Indore to some out of the blue, dry place where temperatures are above 40 degree Celsius even before May! But soon, all the questions drowned when I saw the huge fort wall and the number of cars parked outside. 

The hot, almost barren land
The moment I stepped out of the car the cool winds ruffling my hair got me energized again. Whether it was the elegance of the Maratha structure, or the aura of the bygone era, or just the cool air telling us of the river close by, I don’t know, but Maheshwar sure greeted us in just the right way.

My love for windows!
On entering the fort one can see a very well preserved wada and a large life size statue of Maharani Devi Ahilya Bai Holkar who chose this place over Indore as her capital for the spiritual appeal it had. The Wada stands out for its simple appeal, flowered wooden windows and the typical Maratha wada’s wooden work that dominate the interiors. 

The typical wada - one of the traditional house styles of India
Though only the Durbar hall and a part of the courtyard is accessible to locals (rest is part of the Ahilya Hotel), you get an idea of the average lifestyle Ahilya Bai had despite being a Maharani. And if that wasn’t enough to prove the simplicity, you would be amazed at the amount of hours she spent praying in a day.

At the entrance of the Durbaar
Close to the Darbaar hall is the worship chamber of the Maharani where all I could see was Shiv Lings and Shalagrams (black stones consider sacred in Hinduism). The watchman over there told me that according to common lore, Devi Ahilya used to spend 5-6 hours daily over here praying and cleaning the room herself. The room also had a golden infant Krishna statue, a gold cradle, 1001 Rudraksh and a lot of other valuables due to which the place is under supervision all the time and photography is not permitted but since it was a temple in the end people are allowed to visit.
From the stairs
The Wada was hardly one fourth of the fort. The actual wonders were yet to come. From there I descended down the ghat exit of the fort and was in awe of the sight in front of me. Auburn structures with slight blackening due to time, adorned with carvings that speak of the skills of craftsmen back in those days, standing peacefully next to the wide blue Narmada. 

Vitoji Chattri
And this was just the description of what I saw from the stairs while coming down. While the Shivalaya sure was the largest temple in the complex, the one that stood out with its work was Chhatri of Vitoji Holkar. 

Yes, every inch is carved skillfully
A Maratha Chattri with ornate carving on every inch, Vitoji Chattri is dedicated the younger brother of King Yashwant Rao Holkar, and is not part of Ahilya Bai Holkar Era.

The Shivalaya though belongs to the great queen’s era and the growing plants and ferns on the structure would tell you that. The lamp stands, the temple levels, the Jharokhas – ornate windows, all witness to a great era, now withering away with time due to negligence.

Inside the chattri, the heavy carving!
The ghat was a flurry of activities even on such a hot day. People were praying to the numerous Shiv Lings built randomly at the footsteps; Locals chatting, playing cards, weaving, discussing life – totally oblivious to the tourists in the area; boats and boatmen busy with their duties and me just randomly looking around. The ghat had it all, but it was quiet, peaceful, and so breezy that I lost track of time. I don’t even know how much time I spent there doing absolutely nothing but soaking in the feel of this quaint town and occasionally glancing the half drowned temple in Narmada.
It is all about faith everywhere
When it was finally the time to leave, I saw remnants of the bygone era that were almost unseen and gone – Havelis. Maheshwar was a seat of art craft and textile back in those days and hence was home to many well to do houses. Yes, Maheshwari saris are still famous all over India but art and craft now seems lost. All you can see are the dying dilapidated havelis that are struggling for survival but are strong enough to tell you their glorious past.

Havelis just wait to lose it all

The whole area in fact just tells you of things, of the past we are forgetting and kind of makes a silent and moving appeal to remember the days and save the legacies. Maybe not very well known but far from the commotion, crowd and commercialization of Varanasi, Maheshwar was my kind of place and is undoubtedly one of the most peaceful historic Ghats of India.

Some gone, some remain

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The New Social Bee in the town - Travelibro

Did any of you notice that big orange logo with the white suitcase on the blog?
A couple of months back a friend of mine told me about a new site specifically made by keeping the travel community in mind. Frankly I thought it would be something like Yatra or Musafir, but I am glad my assumptions were totally wrong! Welcome the new, cool, travel friendly social networking platform of the web-o-sphere –

Travelibro in their own terms is a ‘portal and app, conceptualized and developed for the ones who love to travel.’ It is a platform where you can browse, plan, save, share and treasure your travel memories, while helping many like-minded people create memories like you. The site gives you a chance to connect with experienced travelers and backpackers around the world to help you find a trip to suit your taste, budget and holiday duration. Planning a trip from scratch with no help, or using a standard trip offered by a tour agent – in both cases you miss out a lot, don’t you? But on Travelibro you can get all the help and insight you want along with the standard agent support and of course book your entire trip on the same platform! Just like they said – it is for people who love to travel.

But as a blogger my expectations from the portal went in a totally different zone. As a travel blogger, I always shared stories from my travels but when it came to my full fledged itineraries, I somehow found myself in a fix always before sharing them on here, my blog. The flow, the planning, cost details, stay options – it was always too much to accommodate in a post and more often than not I ended up scrapping that post. But Travelibro literary changed that. Within weeks I was able to complete so many itineraries over there and with a lot of ease thanks to their four step template.

Step One – Mention the destination, Date and Duration.

Step Two – Mention the cities or places you visited during the trip.

Step Three – Stay, Food, Place, Must dos – I could write all that I did and all that the place was about in a very organized format hence no scrapping this time!

Step Four – Pictures!!! Don’t we all love travel pictures.

See sounds simple right? Trust me it is and this is what turned out to be the make or break deal for me. The only issue I had while filling the data was the order of the cities but when I took a close look at the form on the page on the right hand corner I found my solution! Like I said – well planned and well organized.
Apart from letting you create your personalized travel itinerary and sharing it with the community, Travelibro also lets you share your blog posts or any random travel related thought on its Travel Feed. It’s a Social Networking site after all.

And not just that, it lets you follow the biggies of the travel community – More experience, more traveled and the best people to ask about any place in the world. I already follow two of them and am glad to finally get their complete, done and dusted customized travel plans and not just a sneak peek into their travels.

One of the Biggies!
I was planning my Odisha trip recently – that starts this week by the way – and I discovered that on Travelibro you can also pre-plan your trips and create tentative itineraries. For people like me who have so many things on the to do list and limited time due to my regular job, I found this to be a big help. Pre Plans that are tentative, editable and easy to make help you keep track of things you can and would be doing and of course create the final post trip itinerary with ease because, well you already have it all right?
And on the go checkins and pics – this portal has it all. Would be trying out this feature during the trip now and I am pretty sure it won’t disappoint!

Anyways, the whole point here was - to follow my travels with my day to day plan, follow me on! And if you love travel please share your travels there so I get to know more about your trips - after-all we all could use a bit of help, right? Also if you do join the site give me a shout there or here and let me know if you like the site or if you want more details in my itineraries!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Mohammed Ali Road - A Foodie Affair

Ramadan Kareem!

*Disclaimer – This post is going to be a bit non vegetarian affair*

As many of you know, the holy month of fasting – Ramzan started early this week and believe me, Ramzan perhaps is the best time for foodies travelers to visit any Islamic country. I remember our guide – Jeevan, in Malaysia, telling us how lively Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya get during Ramzan, and lively in a very traditional and cultural way. And though I haven’t travelled to any foreign countries during Ramzan, I can vouch for his statement based on my local experiences during iftars. Did you think this post was about some foreign nation? Sorry, I am just going to take you through a famous lane of Aamchi Mumbai.

Iftars aka the time post the evening prayers is when people break their day long fast and indulge in some gastronomical affairs; and this is the time when lanes near masjids come alive with all kinds of food – street food, traditional food, sweets and what not. A lot of places in Mumbai have this culture during Ramzan but the one known for it is Mohammed Ali Road.

Named after Mohammed Ali Jauhar, this lane in South Bombay is one of the oldest Khao Galli aka street food lane of Mumbai. It is perhaps the Sarafa of Mumbai but for non-vegetarians. Leading to a Green Mosque called the Minara Masjid, this lane preps for Iftar or iftari since morning and just past the Maghrib prayers one can smell the essence of spices and tandoors.

The place is flocked by people and every shop has waiting. Mumbaikars love Mumbai’s street food but at Muhammad Ali Road it is more like the street food culture of Lal Chowk, Srinagar has met the Hyderabadi flavors and won over the standard Mumbaiya Bhaji Pav. Kebabs and tandooris make sure you notice and crave for a taste the whole time, the whole time but sure give vegetarians a hard time. Most of the food available is non vegetarian, yes but there are some surprises too.

Worry not! You can always indulge in scrumptious servings of pav bhaji and abundance of sweets! Yes sweets! While for most Muhamad Ali road has been about the bountiful non vegetarian options, for me it is about sweets, sweets and more sweets. (That is all I like actually; I just can't take a lot of spice!)

Malpuas, Firni, Aflatoon, Cham cham and god knows what all – crazy number of options and at crazy number of shops, but the most crowded ones were Noorani Sweets and Suleman Usman Mithaiwala. These places have been a part of the lane since early 20th century, with Suleman Usman Mithaiwala dating back to 1936!

The hustle bustle of the place is infection and the sweets turn out to be the highlight. If you love to experience a place like a local, soak yourself in the culture and of course love food – this season you should visit Mohammed Ali Road if in Mumbai!

 P.S. - Unfortunately there have been considerable health concerns around the food there and for obvious reasons – the unhygienic area and unclean roads. For new experiences and for food lovers, this place sure is a must try but being cautious has also become a mandate lately. Please keep a course of pro biotics in handy and avoid spicy food if you have a weak stomach. Be safe and have fun!!!

P.S. – Thank you to my colleagues Sameer and Jayesh for introducing me to this place. 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Unconquered Wonder - Murud Janjira

The mighty citadel
Creepy silence, cacophony of sea gulls, constant hum of cracking waves against aged walls and a barren reminder of the strong hold of an ancient kingdom. Welcome to Murud Janjira Jal Durg (Sea Fort).

Some in ruins, some remain
I have found myself gaping at old architectural wonders almost everywhere I go but eventually I do get over the awe because I feel it is all possible with some mere civil and structural knowledge. But some places are way ahead of their and our time. Murud Janjira is one such place I still fail to decipher.

Imagine this has happened in 50 years or so!
As a kid I used to watch a show called “Son Pari” (okay, you can laugh a bit but I was a kid!). Anyways, there was a stretch of some 5-6 episodes in that show where they showed this freakish looking dying fort in raging sea, in the middle of nowhere – kids stuck, a kid dying of viper bite, others starving and scared of darkness , ghosts etc. Basically my friends who saw the show said they were scared of that place, and the silly ghost loving me wanted to know if there was actually a place like it. No one could have made a humongous, old-ish set, even I knew that as a kid! Little did I know, how close I stayed from that place! In my 11th grade I visited Janjira for the first time and unfortunately, I didn’t carry my camera around much back then, but the stories the guides told us there were kind of stuck with me. Many years later, I made another visit to this Sea Fort, this time with a lot of information to wander and wonder about the place and of course my dear camera. 

All waiting for their trip
 About 50km from Alibaug, in a village called Murud you would find arrays of boats and ferries lined up at the Rajapuri jetty, all waiting to make their hourly trip to the gigantic sea fortress locally called as Murud Janjira. As you approach the fort, all you would think about is “where exactly is the entrance of this mighty island wonder?”, and that is just the first of the many questions you would ask yourself on your visit to Janjira. Be ready to be stunned when you see the high gate strategically hidden behind 2 bastions. There is a reason it is called one of the architectural marvels of India and the only undefeated fort of India. (History buffs - Nope Tughlaqabad fort was lost once, this not even one time!)

The door is close, but where is it?

Notice the tiger?
The current structure was complete during the 17th century after planning and structuring the place for 22 years. Malik Ambar had initially set the wooden foundation of the fort but it was Siddi Sirul Khan who broke away of the Adil Shahi rule of Ahmednagar and fortified this island the way it is today, ultimately laying the foundation of Siddi Dynasty. The entrance itself tells you the might the Siddis depicted with this unconquered citadel of the sea. 

Let's enter

The might!

Along with numerous tiger looking emblems in the fort, there is one at the gate which shows a tiger overpowering a herd of elephants. Though it is unsure which kingdom is depicted by the elephants the Siddis won every battle that was fought for the fort, defeating Shivaji and Sambhaji numerous times, along with Shahs, Portuguese and Bristishers, and standing true to their sign.

Still standing in the ruins

Look at that hidden way
Along with the hidden gate the fort had just one more postern gate that could be used during low tides and lead to a tunnel that led to the main land. This 22 acre large island is fortified with 40 feet high walls that have stood for almost 400 years now and are still strong but unfortunately the village inside is almost lost to the encroaching wilderness that has claimed more than half the island in less than 50 years. 

There was a palace here someday
After you go inside, it is difficult to imagine the place did have a full-fledged village with houses, a temple, a mosque and also a part of the original palace, till the late 1940s. But what will leave you in wander is the sweet water ponds inside a fort that stands amidst saline Arabian Sea. You can still see the village passages and the royal passages around the ponds with some perfectly intact servant quarters.

One of the ponds and its vicinity
But everything else is in shambles. You can see the ruined mosque, the almost nonexistent temple, just a towering wall of the palace and broken houses. No one really knows how all of that was destroyed when no one could ever harm the fort. What still is intact is the bastions and the cellars, and three cannons (from the original 500 in the fort) of which one is the largest one in India – called Kalalbangdi (named after the sound and intensity of its attack). These cannons are believed to be of British design made in India – of 5 metals – and transported to the fort from the mainland which was not Siddi Area. Smart people right? Also you would be surprised to know that these cannons haven’t rusted away even after being exposed to sea breeze all the time and do not heat up at all in the sun.

Waiting to whither away
Anyways people flock around the cannons to click pictures with them (hence I have no pictures from there) but I loved the fort that was silently speaking of its fate over the period. Sambhaji built another sea fort facing Janjira but it was lost but Janjira has a different story to tell. Janjira is that wonder of India that stood against all odds to stay unconquered for more than 400 years but was defeated by time.  

Making a journey back