About Puneet Sidhu
Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu, travel enthusiast and the author of Adrift: A junket junkie in Europe is the youngest of four siblings born into an aristocratic family of Punjab. Dogged in her resistance to conform, and with parental pressure easing sufficiently over the years, she had plenty of freedom of choice. And she chose travel.
She was born in Shimla, and spent her formative years at their home, Windsor Terrace, in Kasumpti while schooling at Convent of Jesus & Mary, Chelsea. The irrepressible wanderlust in her found her changing vocations midstream and she joined Singapore International Airlines to give wing to her passion. She has travelled extensively in Asia, North America, Australia, Europe, South Africa and SE Asia; simultaneously exploring the charms within India.
When she is not travelling, she is writing about it. Over the past decade or so, she has created an impressive writing repertoire for herself: as a columnist with Hindustan Times, as a book reviewer for The Tribune and as a contributor to travel magazines in India and overseas. Her work-in-progress, the documenting of colonial heritage along the Old Hindustan-Tibet Road, is an outcome of her long-standing romance with the Himalayas.
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Keshopur Chhamb (wetlands), a one-time swamp-turned-community-reserve on the outskirts of the city has been witnessing much avian activity in recent times with last year’s arrivals (some say 20,000) more than doubling previous numbers.
The 850 acres of this wetland, jointly held by six villages, play host to both resident and migratory birds through winter months. Birdwatchers are likely to spot large numbers of waterfowl here, and if fortunate, rarities like the Bar-Headed Goose, Northern Pintail, and Ruddy Shellduck.The Sarus Crane has so far confined itself to the neighbouring Shalla Pattan Wetland.
Traditionally, the constant conflict between Sikhs and Mughals, and their sundry representatives, had led to many a skirmish, battle, and massacre. Gurudwara Chotta Ghalughara (Lesser Massacre) marks just such an event that played itself out at this site in the year 1746. In order to avenge the death of his brother, Lakhpat Rai, a functionary of the Mughals, is said to have ordered the mass persecution of resident Sikhs, many of whom fled to the marshy forests near modern day Kahnuwan across the Ravi.
They were seriously outnumbered (cornered too when hostile Rajas of Hill States dispelled notions of refuge), some starved, others drowned, the remainder captured and marched back to Lahore for public beheading. A rather grand memorial, recent in vintage, to this genocide stands road-side backdropped by lush acreage en route the gurudwara.
Were you to head west from Gurdaspur towards Dera Baba Nanak, you will have to slice through a place called Kalanaur. This unremarkable town though is home to a historically remarkable 16th century attraction – the spot where a thirteen year old Akbar was crowned Emperor of Hindustan.
The Takhat-i-Akbari, as it is called, is a brick and mortar seat atop a square plinth fronted by a sunken pool (now empty) with cascades. It sits somewhat forlornly amidst verdant fields, fenced-in from the world in general by an iron-spoked boundary wall. Telling, really, of a receding relevance of so much of our rich past, even for the state. A painted sign reveals that the site is maintained by a well-meaning village panchayat, and not as one would expect, the ASI.
All of the above-listed attractions are within 25kms of the delightful homestay I checked into. Were you to do the same, there are plenty of experiential activities closer home. The dusty path along the canal for early morning jogs, for instance. Edged by eucalyptus trees and swathes of bulrush, it lends itself to many moments of reflection as you pace yourself in-step with that latest fitness application on your iphone. Okay, just kidding, leave the darn device home. A seven kilometre trot will bring you to a bridge across the canal in case you wish to get another perspective on your return.
Winter evenings beg for endless cups of piping hot tea – take that nth cup at Toti’s (a real name of a real person, I kid you not) dhaba located at the end of a couple of kilometres in the opposite direction. For the past forty years, he has been happily serving travellers and villagers this sugary beverage with his other speciality – pakoras.
Regardless of time of day, his place – bang on a busy highway – is teeming with people, those in the know of his freshly minted spicy wares, as well as strangers awaiting bus-rides back home. He winds up late evening, just in time for you to catch the sun sliding down into the horizon across the canal.
Amaltas Avenue, Manju Jaidka’s third novel, is set against a backdrop of campus happenings over a period of three days during a sultry Chandigarh summer. The book focuses on a number of characters who share a common milieu, including the eponymous residential neighbourhood, even as they drift through seemingly ordinary lives, playing out mundane everyday roles at an individual level. It is not to be confused with other breezy campus writings as Amaltas Avenue in fact brings to attention more complex issues through its protagonists–often antagonists–when they are confronted by unexpected turmoil in their personal and professional arenas.
An insider for over forty years, the author has had a ringside view of the intrigue, manipulation, fraud and power games that go on within the realm of academia. In contrast, student ragging and indiscipline takes on the reminiscence of a Sunday picnic, while education moves to the backburner in her narrative. Such is the story-teller’s craft that the reader is often found searching for the proverbial fine line between fact and fiction. Borrowing heavily from her own role as student, teacher, warden even, at the Punjab University in Chandigarh, Jaidka is able to flesh out the locales, life-altering events, and her mixed-bag of characters in the liveliest fashion.
Amaltas Avenue is divided into three sections. With the story beginning on a Scorching Sunday, merging languorously into a Muggy Monday before diving headlong into a Torrid Tuesday. Over this timeline the book traces an array of emotions through its characters–joy, love, passion to despair, loneliness, sorrow–followed by a resigned acceptance of reality as it were. Some episodes are indulgently inspired by a subject close to the author’s heart – English Literature. The manner in which a desperate Lachhman Das clumsily attempts to woo his lady through a love potion provided by Mr Chotiwala, the hip tantric, and quite comically ends up being chased by both mother and daughter is likely to evoke the Bard’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Greek mythology makes an appearance too. The quietly despairing Narendra takes his life cues from a painting by Dutch artist Peter Breughel, a depiction of the ‘Fall of Icarus’. He, too, eventually cock’s a snook at fate with the finality of his choices to end a life coming devoid of illusions. Other contemporary protagonists are found in Charu, the teacher who finds cheerful fulfilment on online dating sites; in Atul Agnihotri who is infatuated with a colleague, his neighbour on Amaltas Avenue, and is willing to go to many lengths to get her attention; and in young professionals Sumi and Nagina, the former venting his frustration at his professional compromises on a blog delightfully called bantusapera.com. References to the ubiquitous Facebook are aplenty, as are the carnal energies of ambitious student leaders.
With its engrossing language, refreshing content, well-etched characters and humour-laced narration Amaltas Avenue lends itself to an easy-paced read. Yet, despite a generally appealing storyline, this book will in all likelihood resonate louder with an audience that is either in the know or is associated with the world of academics – whether student, instructor, or administrator. Louder still for readers from the region for whom the laburnum tree with its brilliant yellow flowers dotting Chandigarh at large could well be a nostalgic invocation of sweltering days spent under its sunny boughs. That even scorching summers have a golden lining is clearly the sub-text readers take-away once the last page is turned.
Note: This review has earlier appeared in The Tribune.
The old-worldly Kothi, set at the top end of a tree-lined driveway merging with viridian grounds efflorescent with colour, is a happy marriage between traditional Punjabi and colonial design motifs. It was once part of a rambling ancestral haveli that is today an amorphous result of expanding families and their need for privacy without losing all connectedness.
The rose-blush of the facade is a striking contrast with the ivory of the front porch where polite, nimble-footed retainers usher you into the shabby-chic elegance of the living room.
High, photograph-lined walls punctuated by windows, doors and ventilators enclose deep chintzy seating and period furniture bunched around a fireplace. Glass-topped tables sport personal memorabilia, a bookcase takes up one corner, across from which is a music console nearly always playing soulful Sufi.
The adjoining dining room exudes a classic country air complete with rustic furniture, and a deer horn trophy harking back to a time when shikaar (hunting) was not considered a dirty word. A hand crafted dining table takes up most of the space here, yet finds few takers to eat off its surface.
Most just prefer the delightful nooks and crannies in the sunny outdoors where the hosts will gladly set up at meal-times. Dinners are best served, and partaken, at the kitchen table while a gently fired clay-oven keeps you warm.
Three cosy double-bedded rooms with modern en suite bathrooms come cheerfully furnished. Located on two levels, they are fronted by arched verandas opening onto/overlooking a central courtyard. The roof, once you navigate your way up a step-ladder, provides fabulous scenes of the surrounding village.
Special mention must be made of the food; simply seductive, home-cooked, wholesome food that promises to lure you back to the hospitable charms of the Kothi. Be sure to rise to addictive tea and stuffed paranthas dripping freshly whipped butter, lunch on their signature sweetened rice with aloo-wadi curry, and sign off the day with saag and makki di roti.
The expansive Majithia Farm lends itself to a perfect winter weekend–or longer–getaway. Oozing infinite charm and style, it is set to one side of a massive sprawl of undulating landscaped grounds, and is surrounded by acres of rolling fields.
One of two mirror-image houses offers three spacious and well appointed guest bedrooms – one of which is painted a naughty red! Tastefully furnished with attached dressing rooms and huge en-suite bathrooms, they come kitted out with elegant and eclectic pieces of furniture crafted on the premises.
The lady of the house, Mrs Majithia, is a gracious and thoughtful host, discreetly ensuring her team of trained staff takes care of the guests’ every need. Children are particularly welcomed by all, not least by three resident canines.In true Punjabi spirit, wholesome tasty meals are de rigueur, and the kitchen help will gladly walk guests through the process of rustling up some local fare.
Optimize by coinciding your visit with one of any wellness retreats periodically hosted in the sylvan environs of Majithia Farm. Or you could simply delight in the verdurous nooks and crannies that call for endless cups of tea, pakoras, and sun-soaking accompanied by birdsong.
Hardly forty-five minutes from Chandigarh, it’s also ideally located for those travelling to Manali via Ropar in the summers. Getting here could be a bit tricky for first-timers though.
Directions: Coming in from Delhi, take the road from Shambu (after Ambala) to Kharar via Banur & Landran. At Kharar market, turn left onto the Bassi road and drive six kilometres. Go past the petrol pump at milestone 18th for a couple of hundred metres, and look out for the easily missed signpost. From Chandigarh, exit onto NH21, turning left towards Kharar market; turn right for Bassi, then as above.
As someone who lives in the foothills of the Himalayas, and has traveled much in their higher reaches, I sport a barely veiled disdain for lesser highlands. Particularly those bumps in the road masquerading as “hill stations”. Every now and then though, one of them turns around with a resounding ‘Take that!’ moment.
Pre-travel research on a never visited Chhattisgarh had coughed up numerous spots that garnered my interest, largely sprinkled across its forested flatlands. And one much-touted Mainpat, the state’s only hill destination that a great number of sites kept likening to Shimla. Seriously?
Have they been to Shimla lately? – my first scornful thought. That it is perched at merely 3200 feet above MSL very nearly had me striking it off the potentials checklist. Mighty glad I didn’t! Looking nothing like Shimla, the serene plateau exuded a delightful personality very much its own. See for yourself.
The 2002 Cape Town Declaration on Responsible Tourism in Destinations defined it as one that:
- Minimises negative economic, environmental and social impacts • Generates greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the well being of host communities •Improves working conditions and access to the industry •Involves local people in decisions that affect their lives and life chances • Makes positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage embracing diversity • Provides more enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural, social and environmental issues •Provides access for physically challenged people • Is culturally sensitive, encourages respect between tourists and hosts, and builds local pride and confidence.
Since then, Responsible Tourism (RT) has been an expression bandied about so often and with such unfailing regularity, you would imagine we are devoted practitioners of it. Yet do we really know what it entails; what it requires of us as stakeholders? Are we really ‘creating better places for people to live in, and better places to visit’? At first glance it appears not. A longer look at the increasingly concretised shrug around us clearly suggests we are not. While a detailed autopsy of last year’s Himalayan catastrophe speaks volumes about even governmental inertia in this sphere. Yet no one–individuals, organisations, destinations–can escape the imperatives of the need to practice it.
“Responsibility should come naturally, through conviction and knowledge. RT is not a tourist slogan and just ticking off a list of guidelines to be ‘marketable’ seems hypocritical to me”, declares Frank Schlictmann, initiator and curator at the 4tables Project, credited with placing Gunehar smack centre of the travel-for-art-destinations in Himachal. “Here at 4tables, my responsibility starts with aesthetics; I care for quality and for beauty. That Gunehar is already being associated with quality due to our activities is a good indicator. Taking the village and the villagers at face value is another responsibility. Much too often people associate villages with backwardness and think up projects that are antagonistic in nature”.
Indeed, why should we ‘teach’ communities instead of ‘learning’ from them? Why should we ‘change’ them to suit our concepts? Why should we ‘use’ them instead of making them partners? Sentiments echoed by George Dominic, Executive Director at the family-run CGH Earth, the core values of which are more than evident at their leisure and wellness properties peppering faraway Kerala. “RT is a fancy term used in marketing our kind of products and services, often just a “green wash”. However, in our household it was a way of life – deep rooted and part of our DNA.
In fact we come from a family who for generations were farmers. Respect for the land and her people were the dictum and it becomes part of us in what-ever we do. It was but natural that we ask ourselves what would be the impact of our decisions and actions on the community around us and the natural resources that could be endangered or adversely affected.” This philosophy has justifiably reaped a bountiful harvest of awards, not least the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) for environment and the Green Globe at the World Travel Market (WTM).
Responsible Travel Initiatives (Credit: Wanderink.com)
The traveller is an equal stakeholder of RT and in today’s dynamic travel landscape can hardly afford to shirk or escape his responsibilities. Off-late, a growing number of low-on-intrusion-high-on-experience initiatives have succeeded in adding that extra-mile to Kodak moments. Listed here are a few you could consider factoring into your forthcoming travel plans.
Ecotourism: Any tourism initiative that helps in the conservation of local culture and environment as well as foster community participation and is sustainable commercially qualifies to be an ecotourism project.
Community-based tourism: Community-based tourism includes travelling to natural destinations inhabited by indigenous cultures. The focus here is on giving a hand to help preserve these disappearing communities through cultural exchange, financial assistance and education.
Rural tourism: In rural tourism, travellers are provided with opportunities to visit rural areas and participate in recreational and other activities, events, festivals or attractions that are a part of hinterland life.
Agro tourism: This is a subcategory of ecotourism and rural tourism. Travellers are encouraged to experience the farmer’s life and learn about different agricultural practices. These can be as elaborate as farmland irrigation, crop cycles and harvesting to growing a kitchen garden, and provides an opportunity to work alongside farmers, tea pickers, vineyard growers and fishermen.
Fair trade tourism: This takes fair trade into travel and engages the industry to make the conditions of those in the destination countries fair. It ensures that benefits are shared more equitably between travellers, the tourism industry, governments and most importantly, the citizens of the host country.
Heritage tourism: This is among the commonest forms of tourism in India and respects the natural and built environments of the people and place. Local economies can be vastly aided by heritage tourism and developing heritage trails which link heritage or cultural landmarks.
Geotourism: Coined by the National Geographic, the phrase Geotourism defines a type that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place – its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage and the well-being of its residents.
Pro poor tourism (PPT): PPT is not a specific product or a niche sector but an approach to tourism development and management. It enhances the linkages between tourism businesses and poor people so that tourism’s contribution to poverty alleviation is increased and poor people are able to participate better in product development.
Altruistic travel : This voluntary movement in travel includes donating financial resources, talent and time to protect and positively impact cultures and environments. Travel philanthropy as this is commonly called, helps to support community development, environmental, socio-cultural and economic improvements, providing jobs, educational and professional training, bio diversity conservation and healthcare.
Volunteer travel: Voluntourism is combining voluntary service to a destination with other ‘traditional’ elements of travel like art, culture, history, recreation in that destination. The popularity of this kind of tourism is spreading rapidly and there are opportunities to volunteer all over the world.
The Responsible Tourism Awards were founded in 2004 to celebrate and inspire change in the tourism industry. The Awards rest on a simple principle – that all types of tourism, from niche to mainstream, can and should be organised in a way that preserves, respects and benefits destinations and local people. And to celebrate the shining stars of responsible tourism – the individuals, organisations and destinations that work innovatively with local cultures, communities and biodiversity. Since their inception, the World Responsible Tourism Awards have grown to be the most respected in the travel trade – largely because they attract nominations from discerning members of the public (responsible travel.com).
“It is a matter of great pride for us to be nominated for the World Responsible Tourism Awards 2014. We have been long-listed for ‘Best for wildlife conservation’, awarded to a tourism business or initiative that preserves and carefully manages habitat and wildlife species”, shares Anu Dhillon, Director – Chambal Safari, one of few travel businesses from India to have been nominated this year. Their organisation has been active in the little known National Chambal Sanctuary for the past 15 years. Through promotion of responsible tourism, they have been instrumental in placing the sanctuary on the international birding and wildlife tourism map, thus helping to ensure its continued protection.
This article has earlier appeared in The Tribune.
Images courtesy: 4Tables Project, CGH Earth, Wanderink, Chambal Safari.
With cyberspace all abuzz with the recently concluded Onam celebrations, and sadya images flooding timelines, I am reminded of another enduring Kerala tradition, that of performing arts. During a fabulously timed visit last month (you know, back in the day when it wasn’t all dry), with an evening to spare, and encouraged by the friendly people at my hotel, I found myself part of a motley audience at the Kerala Kathakali Centre in Fort Kochi. I was in for a two and a half hour session; an hour and half of which was devoted to on-stage application of the elaborate make-up that typifies this story-telling dance-drama from the 16th century.
Early versions of Kathakali relied heavily on ritualistic and other performing styles, gradually coming into its own when a scholarly and arts-loving Raja of Kottayam decided to dramatise episodes from the Mahabharata, laying a great amount of emphasis on music and abhinaya. This theatrical form under royal patronage attracted some of the finest playwrights, poets, dramatists and musicians of the time. By the end of the 18th century, it had added plays from the Ramayana and Puranas to its repertoire, intricate make-up replaced masks, billowing costumes the coconut frond skirts, and the tirashila–curtain behind which every actor makes a dramatic entry–was being whisked away even within the hallowed premises of the Shri Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Trivandrum.
Make-up is as essential a part of the character’s persona as his mudras. (I say his, as typically all characters are enacted by males; females are a relatively new entrant on this stage.) Indeed, the former enhances the latter. So while paccha (painted green) denotes godly and virtuous, is sported by those essaying a Krishna or Bhima, kathi (red moustache-like patterns outlined in white) depicts evil, including arrogance and anger; you will see it on a Ravana, for instance. Thatti (the bearded look) is what a Hanuman will wear in white and Dushasana in red. Female characters on the other hand use minimal make-up (in comparison)–a uniform fleshy-pink called minukku. They share this look with sagely characters.
Though costumes remain unchanged for good and evil, the size of a bejewelled and imposing kireetam (headgear) tells an important personage from another. Krishna’s conical one edged with peacock colours, for example, points at his non-royal one. Actors playing women wear a cotton wad on the left of the head; covered with a waist-long veil, it is indicative of hair-dos favoured by Nair ladies in the 19th century. The bulked-up long-sleeved jacket does not just accord a larger-than-life appearance, it also protects against chaffing from the countless wooden ornaments and actors carry on the person. Set to Sopana –customarily performed at temple steps– music, these ‘superhuman’ performances are greatly embellished by an orchestra comprising the maddalam and chenda (drums both), chengila (bell-metal gong) and cymbals.
In Southern India, Chittoor Kottaram is a single key hotel, which means there are no guests but you and your companions. Together, you will be transported back to the time when Kerala was still the Kingdom of Travancore, a feudal land of nobles and princes. Arrive by boat just like they did in days gone by. Live and sleep as if to the manner born.
Enjoy the same performances as the royals did and even eat the same food in the same manner. You would bask in the services of a personal retinue. And even take a pleasure cruise on the backwaters, just to watch the sun rise over your kingdom.
A great place to experience a romantic fairytale lodging experience–the regal way–Chittoor Kottaram is a royal hotel tucked away amidst a glorious verdure.
Fringed by the bewitching backwaters of Kerala, this charming heritage villa masquerading as a palace (kottaram) was built for Rajah Rama Varma of Cochin sometime in the 14th century.
Forced to move his royal seat following an invasion, and much pained at having to remove himself away from the revered Guruvayur Temple in his erstwhile kingdom, he proceeded to build the Chittoorappan Temple in the quietude of Cheranelloor, a hamlet just off Kochi. The ‘kottaram’ a short distance away came soon after and is today a delightful getaway. It calls itself a single-key hotel – in essence, you will have the run of the place, as no other guests may check-in simultaneously.
Reached by a private approach canal bobbing with hyacinth and water lilies, the elegant, many-colonnaded mansion, with its red, aged-tile roof, wrap-around veranda lined with burnished wood windows, and expansive lawns shrouded in palm fronds, lends itself ever-so-beautifully to that solitude you have desperately sought since the merry wedding! Replete with painstakingly restored balustrades and staircases, tiled floors and wooden ceilings, rattan furniture and quality furnishings, the elegant simplicity that Chittoor Kottaram exudes is a quiet reflection of ostentation-shunning royalty of yore.
Yet, luxury is all around you, teasing your very senses at every bare-foot step, every intimate turn. In the gentle boat ride that glides you to the personal jetty. In the sweet-smelling welcome of a jasmine garland; in the palm-frond umbrella held aloft. In the personal retinue of three, four if you count the boatman. In their gentle deference to role-playing guests – they address, serve, and treat you as they would their former Thampuran (king) and Thampuratti (queen).
In the traditional meal, sadya, served on a banana leaf; in the silverware. In the hibiscus-dressed coffee service during the sunset cruise. In the divine blessings the temple priests invoke in person using age-old musical instruments. In the narcissistic swagger the floor-standing vintage mirror reflects as you walk past, even.
Yes, you’re in a palace, but search for gold taps and embroidered pillows, and you will search in vain. In keeping with the minimalistic lifestyles of the kings of Chittoor Kottaram, their furnishings tread a fine line between comfort and refinement.
Natural and traditional styles are the norm here, and while the bathrooms are modern, the towels are simple, pure linen. Lunch in the dining room is served on traditional banana leaves. But Dinner is a more indulgent affair, when you dine off pure silverware, just as the kings of yore did.
What more can one say? Other than – your kingdom awaits!
There are several properties across Southern India, from Kerala to Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and the Lakshadweep.