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.
Latest Posts by Puneet Sidhu
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.
Kailash 1 is part of a cluster of three cottages by the same name, and sits prettily in the middle, overlooking the magnificence of snowy Pir Panjals in India beyond a deep valley. Located far from the madding crowd at Upper Bakrota, Dalhousie’s most alpine hill, this colonial-era cottage is your answer to a home-away-from-home. It comes equipped with two bedrooms & en-suite bathrooms, separate drawing and dining rooms, a fully functional kitchen, a veranda as well as a lawn running along two-sides.
Bright chintzy furnishings, colourful carpets, gleaming white windowpanes, their sheers all a-flutter, and a slide-show of nature’s many moods. What more could one ask from a vacation home in the majestic Himalayas? Kailash 1 does not offer meals as part of its package, but will gladly conjure up a cook for you at a nominal charge. If lazing and self-help is all you have in mind, do stock up on daily needs and groceries, as the closest take-away is a few kilometres away. Though a caretaker is nearly always close at hand to trouble shoot should the need arise.
If some form of activity is an imperative, the cottage setting is perfect for a ramble now and then, particularly the popular Bakrota Loop, a 4km even-path hugging the entire hill-side. Then, there is Dainkund which includes a short drive uphill followed by an easy walk to a temple atop the hill; Kalatope Sanctuary Rest House, a drive or walk (mostly even) through litter-free deep woods will get you here.
The privately-held Darang Tea Estate, roughly midway between Palampur and Dharamsala, is synonymous with warmth, hospitality and heavenly home-grown, home-cooked organic food. For pretty much every ingredient that goes into your meals comes freshly produced from their farm: fruits, vegetables, juices, dairy products, you name it.
The gracious hosts, Neeru and Naveen, leave no stone unturned to ensure your stay is completely comfortable.
They are assisted in no small measure by their three friendly canines: Layla, Simba & Brandy. And that lovely machaan that Naveen has built for his grandchildren is bound to be a big draw for other kids, too.
All meals are served in the family dining room in the main house, though guests are welcome to enjoy a cuppa in the veranda, or snacks around a cosy fireside. Neeru’s finger-licking cakes, sandwiches, jams, pickles, preserves and cereals are the kind legends are made of.
As accommodation, the 70-acre estate offers two quaintly rustic cottages with two bedrooms each, as well as, one room in the main house that justifiably claims heritage status. A tiny old-fashioned factory, woodlands, forested hillsides, tea-gardens, and a mountain stream variously dot this 150-year-old plantation.
Lovingly maintained and invitingly decorated, the foliage-enveloped cottages are placed at a convenient distance from each other, and the main house, to provide maximum privacy to guests.
When visiting Palampur last summer, at the urging of those at Norwood Green I found myself headed for a day-trip to village Gunehar, hitherto unheard of. Located in close proximity to Bir, largely known as a paragliding destination when twinned with Billing - an activity I have not yet had the desire (read courage) to experience. You see, my sense of adventure extends far beyond the pale, to the palate. Wolfing down meals at all sorts of dubious places works just as well for me, if not my innards. Indeed my aim even that day last year was to locate this cafe, supposed haven of culinary treats that its owner Frank Schlichtmann created himself. In that sense, it was a wasted effort; a hot coffee and hurried chat across the cab boot was all I got.
On a repeat visit this year I discovered there was a lot more to this sleepy Himalayan hamlet. Listing here, in no particular order, the 4reasons why it is worth every minute of the near-eight-hour drive from Chandigarh. For one, the 4tables Cafe dishes out some truly divine, home-cooked, wholesome fare in order to justify its worth and popularity. I confess the conjurer had me at first bite…of a delicately herbed baked chicken in a beer reduction served with potato and spinach gratin. His breakfasts - a variety of cheese, fruits, freshly baked buns, choice of eggs – all designed to take you through the day with nary a sign of hunger pangs. Greed yes, pangs no. The presence of a wood-oven out-front points at his willingness to play pizzaiolo-with-aplomb when it takes his or the guests’ fancy. Yes, Frank can cook.
The 4rooms Hotel is new, a welcome addition to Gunehar as part of the 4tables Project. Housed in a mud-walled and low-roofed traditional home with a wraparound veranda, none can tell by looking at its gaily painted walls and cheery furnishings that it was once a charred shell – an inferno victim - before receiving its present makeover. The restoration has been thoughtful and in step with environmental concerns. The comfortable rooms on both levels are real cozy, outfitted with all the essential thingamajigs, and en suite bathrooms with modern plumbing. A spacious courtyard lends itself to much stargazing or sun-soaking depending on time of visit. Recommend you catch a full moon on its trajectory across the inky sky some day.
Why I didn’t get a chance to review his skill in the kitchen last visit was Frank’s involvement with ShopArt - an initiative to fill empty shops with art wherein participating artists were to incorporate the village and villagers into their creations. The ‘studios’ would open each day from 9-to-5 while artists went about their business as usual under the often watchful, sometimes wary, now admiring, then questioning, but mostly curious gaze of villagers as they went about their business as usual. The endeavour was to exhibit at the end of a three week retreat not just artistic creations but showcase the process of creation itself. That it was a success can be measured from the numbers that showed up during the week-long ‘exhibition’ after. That a majority were locals and residents of neighbouring villages made it a resounding one. The next edition, slated for summer 2015, is a worthy third reason.
Last on the list is a tad personal in nature. An affaire de coeur, if you will, for someone not usually in the habit of leaving her heart behind. A large frame, floppy white hair, beautiful black eyes, and a friendly becoming manner, even the most stoic would be hard pressed not to fall prey willingly. Her name is Peaches, is a six-month old sheepdog from the Bara Bangal area, and for me, it was love at first drench. She came bounding out of her bath, shuddered herself free of soapy water, and leapt up to plant her slimy welcome across my face. She is the pet-in-residence – who thinks she is human. How could I resist? Afflicted as I am with love for all kinds of dogs…
Note: Unmarked images courtesy 4tables Project.
Undoubtedly Dharamsala’s most charming heritage, it is set at the top end of a large family-owned tea estate, far from the madding crowd.
It was once owned by adventurers Robert Shaw, first European to set foot in the Central Asian city of Kashgar, and John Younghusband. The tea gardens are said to have been planted by them in the mid-1800s. The White Haven Estate–oozing character & equipped with the most enviable views–has been with the owning family for over 100 years now.
A short, well-marked forested path just off the main road will bring you to this pretty, flora-rich colonial manor. Still, it would be prudent to call ahead for directions.
Gleaming white balustrade-flanked steps usher you up to the front porch, and into the wood-floored hallway and library beyond. Where, you are likely to be greeted by the chatty manager of the property, Mr Sidhu–Sid to friends–a font of local information. And cartographer of any number of accurate hand-drawn maps of the surrounds, were you to ask!
The under-stated and spacious rooms in the main house are complemented by two cottages out back, and share a large shady lawn with excellent views of the valley & Mcleodganj. Replete with balconies and cozy sit-outs at every turn, the place has been thoughtfully crafted to endlessly soak in the verdure or gawk at the snowy Dhauladars.
The food served is delicious and freshly-prepared; ergo, the kitchen staff will need a heads-up of arrival time and meals required. Unlike other hotels, there may be very little on offer, other than beverages, in case you show up unannounced.