About Sambrita Basu
Sambrita Basu is a food-fascinated travel writer and photographer based out of Bangalore India. A background and a degree in hospitality and restaurant management paved her interest in food. As the secretary of the institution’s editorial club, she contributed regularly and wrote about food in their annual magazine, A la Carte.
Sambrita has published interviews of celebrity authors and business veterans in international publications like Infineon. Her contributions also include photographs on foods and restaurants of Bangalore for DNA—a leading newspaper publication in Bangalore. Sambrita’s creative expressions transport readers to alleys, hotels, hide-outs, restaurants, attics, and spice markets in several cities across the world.
Sam (as she is popularly known by her friends and family) doesn’t write for a living, but she lives to write.
Latest Posts by Sambrita Basu
I don’t know whether it was the visual of the carelessly strewn frangipani flowers everywhere, the moss adorned statues of the dewas and the dewis that have red hibiscus flowers tucked behind their ears, the perennial scent of incense, the sublime spell of the monsoon evenings, strolls through untouched paddy fields, the heart-warming hospitality or the stunning sunsets at UluWatu and Tanah Lot that still makes me yearn for a visit to the island.
Brilliant colours from one street, leading on to an alley to the next, exuberant ornate architecture, scents of massage oils and sounds of gamelan, seemingly endless processions and ceremonies, Gods and Demi-Gods peering from under every canopy, and delicious Indonesian fare!
A sunrise that left me breathless while my flight landed in Denpasar. Pristine, postcard-like, picturesque roads that led me to the little hamlet of Ubud. A whispering rivulet that ran below my balcony. Tales from Ramayana and Mahabrata painted like frescoes above my bed-posts. A lotus pond and a cluster of moss laced temples in the terraced rocky courtyard..
There were the rain-soaked afternoons at exquisite cafes. Hot, curried chicken soup, flavored with intense kaffir lime and galangal. Warm home-made ravioli with a delectable meat sauce. An orchestra of tap-dancing raindrops, passionately twirling the pink and shy plumerias into a love-frenzied dervish..
There were people I met, as incidentally as I sipped my aloe-vera, coconut and hibiscus juice on a hilly road…who made me wonder how people who chase their secret dreams can actually take the plunge to lead a life they have envisioned for themselves. Like Tridib Nandy. An aviator by profession, a entrepreneur of several online businesses, but at heart a true Bengali in love with his bohemianism, music, poetry and art. A sprawling bungalow facing the Sayan Ridge; a piano in his patio; a four poster bed, covered with blue and white linen sheets; a weathered bookshelf stacking books on poetry, history and philosophy; a guitar and cigars on his dining table and a kitchen that shelters empty wine bottles and beer cans; serving dishes and rice cookers that host his artist and musician friends, feeding them with the exotic Indian food that he cooks!
Seriously, how can anyone not fall in love with this place?
Legend has it that Ubud really began as what was surely the most exotic art colony in the world at that time, with the arrival of Walter Spies, a Moscow-born German artist and musician who came to Bali for a visit in 1927 and stayed there until the Second World War, when he became a prisoner of war in the Dutch-controlled East Indies. In Ubud he encountered a culture as graceful and refined as anywhere in the world, where child dancers in mystic trances enacted the fables of the Hindu classic Ramayana. He couldn’t leave Ubud and go back, of course for this or the other reason!
Let me not hide this from you: Ubud is anything but virgin. Every rain soaked afternoon that I spent on the main streets, most of the faces I noticed were foreign, and most of the Balinese I bumped into were offering transport or other services. Yet it’s still a possible enigma for the lazy traveler – and I would even say that Ubud will have failed you if you don’t soon lapse into a tranquil languor — to stray from the touristic path and discover the enchanted place, the back streets, the smell of the burning incense, the carpet of the frangipanis and the stolen moments when you meet eye to eye with the woman carrying her offerings to the neighboring temple, her eyes twinkling with devotion and dedication; all of which, I am convinced, seduced Walter Spies to stay back!
Settling into Ubud, you need to pick one of two choices: an array of gorgeous, expensive, exclusive, secluded and luxurious resorts perched above the river some 10-20km away from town, or an even bigger selection of family-run guest houses and hotels closer to the main town, offering a comfortable local experience, pretty views and impeccable hospitality.
The elegance of Balinese architecture and hospitality flourish at Tjampuhan Hotel , located just west of Ubud. Here, Prince Tjokorda Gde Agung Sukawati and Walter Spies began Pita Maha in 1934, an association and cultural movement that brought the painting and artistic talent of Ubud into the forefront of world art.
Surrounded by a rich assortment of tropical plants and flowers, the hotel provides a natural sanctuary for vividly-colored birds and butterflies, and the perfect base for a visit to Bali’s artistic heartland. Its the melodious chirping of these feathered companions that sometimes break the spell of sleep and summon you to the realms of reality every morning. You might be a tad bit annoyed to have disturbed your reverie, but when you step outside into the balcony with a hot cup of tea, you will realize that the world outside , in this little slice of heaven was just as beautiful and enchanting as the one you have woken up from!
Much of the romance of the bamboo- and teak-finished rooms derives from inadequate lighting, when the sun, like a shy bride with reddened cheeks, plays a flirty game of hide-and-seek with the wooden interludes!
Sixty-seven individual dwellings built in traditional Balinese style are scattered among landscaped terraces and gardens, offering private views of the tropical river valleys and the 900-year-old Gunung Lembah temple complex which marks the meeting of the sacred Oos and Tjampuhan rivers.The hotel’s bungalows and guest rooms are arrayed along a steep ravine overlooking a turbulent river that rushes between rocky crags to meet its mate. Winding paths lead through the hotel’s lush, sprawling garden, past lily ponds and shrines. On the opposite bank, perched just below terraced rice fields, is the ancient temple where the royal family of Ubud worships and performs its rituals. (Officially, there’s no royalty in Indonesia now, but Bali doesn’t pay much attention to rules.)
Ubud is not a village where you should be up and running…the order of the day is to relax and live in the now. It is more a place where you’ll want to stroll around or just sit with a book and watch the colourful and delightful pictures pass by. An incredibly charming thing about the Balinese is their capacity for getting right into the thick of things with you, without battering an eyelid! They are so friendly and are amazing at turning “Can I try this on?” (if your are in a shop buying art-jewellery, for example) to “When are you having your next child?” . And they do it with such panache that you actually feel totally comfortable having this conversation with someone whom you just met seconds ago! We ended up having a 45 min conversation with the gorgeous lady at a shop selling local art work, and by the end of it she and I were exchanging notes on our college romances! By then you also know that all Balinese have four first names. Everyone. The first child is Wayan or Putu, the second child is Made or Kadek, the third is Nyoman or Komang and the fourth is Ketut. The fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth will be another Wayan, Made, Nyoman, Ketut and Wayan again. So, it’s all pretty cool and very easy. But, it also means that every second person on the road is called Wayan or Made. And often, the easiest mistake you make is trying to identify (or hold accountable)which Wayan promised to pick you up at 6am, and which Made said he will offer that 10% discount on your next massage!
Befriend one or two of a Wayan or a Made(pronounced: maad-ey) while you are there.. and they serve you delicious stories! Take this: Each stage of Balinese life is marked by a series of ceremonies and rituals known as Manusa Yadnya. For example, with birth comes a ceremony in which soon after they are born, a child’s placenta (yeah, you read that right!), is buried in the household courtyard. Specific directions for a girl child, and a boy-child. And worshiped everyday by the ladies of the household. And why? So that when they grow up and probably venture into greener pastures, or take cross-ocean flights to the US of A, there is the ‘pull-of-the-placenta’ that will eventually bring them back home at some time in their life! Elders are treated at par with Gods. In a typical Balinese home compound, beside the pertinent family temple, will be the room that hosts the eldest members of the family. This room is the second holiest, in the order of importance. And because of that, the first night a newly married couple spends as husband and wife is hosted by this very room- the emblem and the most ‘fertile’ room of the household, from which the other generations have sprung into existence.
This is a country which treats the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, not as mythology, but more as religion. But, its almost astonishing how different it is from the Hinduism that we know is practiced in India. Dances are merged with stories and history in Bali, and deem almost religious in their presentation. Among the several dance forms that can range from ornamental to feisty, we soaked in vibrant Legong. A Legong is the most graceful form of Balinese dances. Usually performed by teenage girls, the dance depicts stories from local folklore, and what we watched was a quaint story from the Mahabharata on a hidden chapter in the life of Bimanyu(Arjuna’s son), known in India as Abhimanyu! The girls were dressed in colorful costumes, accessorized with intricate head-dress. With the trademark numbered, jerky movements of Balinese dances, they danced to the music of live Gamelan ensemble.
This was another discovery. The Gamelan. Gamelan is a term for various types of orchestra played in Indonesia. It is the main element of the Indonesian traditional music. The Balinese believe that the gamelan is sacred and has supernatural powers. It is also believed that each instrument in the gamelan is guided by spirits. Thus, your footwear needs to be removed while you play the gamelan. It is also forbidden to step over any instrument in a gamelan, because it might offend the spirit by doing so.
I come from a state in India where paddy fields are places of love and labour. Never does it feature in an article or a tourist map, or made to sound exotic. But the paddy fields in Ubud, aren’t the siblings of this parent! They are flamboyant and love to flaunt their greens. They are lush and luscious. And they are almost second in their order of importance after the ceremonies and religion. Every family in the village owns paddy fields. They inherit, gift, share and buy land that can be converted into rice fields. Rice is sacred. Fields are worshiped and protected. Possession of rice fields ensures a secured status in society. Or marks out a higher caste. But,they are indeed pristine, picturesque and absolutely deserves a mention!
A little away from Ubud, Bali’s shores are dotted with about 20,000 Hindu temples and shrines, and each of them, apart from the gorgeous locations that host them, offer spectacular visuals of the sky and the celestial. Like the setting of a sun. In Bal,i the temple is only used for particular ceremonies and festivals, sometimes only once in the 210 day cycle, when the temple’s birthday (odalan) ceremony is held. The two that I could allow my lens to gawk at were the Tanah Lot and the Ulu Watu, both at a time,when the crimson, bold and handsome sun mellowed into the pink of the twilight, casting shadows and silhouettes that left me lens-struck and spell bound!
Ubud is so much and so little all at the same time. But, when at night, you sit in the teak and bamboo nested balcony and watch the fireflies in the distant paddy field, hear the chants in the village temple and see the stars in the clear night sky… you will be once again hypnotized, and you will know that you have lived the vacation that you truly deserved!
As human beings, I strongly feel that we were made for relationships. We were made to know each other and exist in a reality where we interact and connect and live in the spirit of camaraderie and community. Some of us shun to enter this realm of relationships. We would rather hide away and ignore the fact that we live in a world with other people. We would rather be “safe”, ignoring a life where we experience the adventure of indulging in a life with people who truly matter to us, are around us. This is not a lesson I have learned, but I feeling that I have harboured for very long. So naturally it is sometimes involuntarily that I end up in situations and experiences, where I know this fancy of mine will be patronized. A market place is one such hub. A place, I feel where we can experience this life of relationship, simplicity and connection. Enter and you get lost in a world of color and a world of creation.
Kolay market is located in the under-belly of the Sealdah Bridge; Sealdah Station being a prominent landmark and one of the most important rail-head terminals of the city of Kolkata. My memories of this train terminus have been quite a few. This used to be the same place from where I would board the familiar Bongaon Local (train), or the Madhyamgram Local (train) to Birati- a small muffasshal hamlet which housed my warm and affectionate grandparents. The visit to Sealdah would always be filled with a perfume of musk and memories. Of a pertinent vision of green mango trees and large jackfruit trees. Of my childhood and pranks. Of my innocence and growing up. Of family and happiness.
Never have I had the opportunity to see Sealdah in any other light. Yes, it was always bustling. There were porters and hawkers and salesmen of every kind and form all around. But to me Sealdah was always a starting point of a happy journey.
Several years later, inspired by a few photographs on social media, I was enticed to re-visit the Sealdah area. This time with Manjit Singh Hoonjan, who runs the popular Calcutta Photo Tours. I had a choice either to walk through the bylanes of a Cultural Kaleidoscope or get lost in the arteries of the largest wholesale market in the city: Kolay Market.
I chose the latter. And I returned with a similar bag of happy memories and colorful takeaways.
This post has been due for the longest time ever. The recollection is slightly faint- since I am no longer a prancing young girl in ponytails and white canvas shoes! But here are some images which might end up telling you a story which my words might not be able to justly convey. The sensory memories are still very active, but so is the warmth and patron-ship of Manjit. The tale below is a mish-mash of both these subsets of memories.
Kolay market is one of the oldest and thriving wholeslae markets of not only Kolkata, but India. Meat, fruit, vegetables, tea, grains, dried fish, fresh fish and spices converge here from across provinces of rural West Bengal,before scattering to smaller market aisles or local homes. As one weaves through the the narrow stalls, dodging vendors, porters, buyers and sellers you discover the sights, sounds, and flavours of one of the last remaining large scale markets in Kolkata.
Did you notice how bright and vibrant the vegetables are? As much as they are really fresh and vibrant, the sellers have their own indigenous ways of highlighting their stuff: Carrots : they get more red and are always red; spinach and chillies: They make even the jealous wife green with the green of their envy; sweet potatoes: as pink as the house a Barbie doll will build- shockingly fuchsia! Say hello to the cellophane wrapped light bulbs sparkling and shining bright atop, matched to the color of the vegetables that they decorate!
I have been a shameless photographer; almost always. When I say that, I mean that I photograph without inhibitions,shame or neighboring remarks and comments. So, when I had company like Manjit, it just made it easier for me to continue the way I function. The photo-tour began with a smile, and ended with a grin(possibly also, because I could shop for a long awaited ‘shutki mach‘ purchase,during the tour!). Manjit was delightfully social with the vendors and the porters in the market,which completely helped. The magical marriage of sights, sounds, smells and lights that begin almost at the crack of dawn is an experience that I keep revisiting and cherishing in my memory. Not only did Manjit know the agenda of how the world of wholesale unfurls, he also seemed completely comfortable with them. In the bargain, I felt harbored and safe in an otherwise alien environment.
But the market tour is not for the lovers of luxury. The path is dirty, mucky, slippery. Often I would have random vendors passing remarks(well retorted by Manjit, hence the assured comfort!). Each person I aimed my camera at, seemed unique.. ending up in interesting portraits of people with distinguished character personalities written on their faces. Age, experience, wisdom, knowledge, impatience, anger,smirks and smiles are the top few emotions that get captured, if your frame is ready and your finger on the shutter is nimble.
A bulk of Calcutta’s vegetable supply from the rural areas passes through this market. Supplies keep coming and the market never sleeps. Inside, it is organized chaos. There are separate sections for onions, potatoes, chillies, pumpkins and seasonal greens such as cabbages and tomatoes. Choc-a-bloc with buyers, the narrow lanes are slippery with rotting vegetables. The smell of fresh and rotting greens, along with those of chilli and garlic make it an overwhelming experience.
While there is happiness in the colors, and a sense of sensory appreciation, a little has been told about the rigmarole, dependencies and compromises the workers here go through.
The “turban-wallas“: On the congested road just outside the gates of the Kolay Market, one often comes across group of well built men in colourful turbans. Wrestling bundles weighing hundreds of kilograms onto the turban-wrapped heads of fellow workers, they deliver bushels of veggies from the trucks and carts outside to the wholesalers. Life for these human forklifts is tough. Each team generally has 15-16 men, mostly from the same extended family or village. They are aspirational migrants from the neighboring state of Bihar. This is the largest incidence of migratory workers from Bihar who try their hand in income through labour in the ‘big city’ of Kolkata.
There is no respite. . They sleep in dormitories in the first floors of the warehouses just above their workplace. The noise and ruckus created by the early morning arrival of trucks is unavoidable. That noise is their alarm clock, for days on end. Wake up, rush down and start to work.
There is a strategy they deploy to distribute the weight, which is a feat to watch. As the load gets hurled on their heads, they move in serpentine precision, aligning their sinews and bodies almost in a manner that a caterpillar does. Have you observed how they move? Closely?
Turns out they move with their gut. Literally. A groundbreaking study conducted last year in which scientists have the intriguing critters walking on treadmills while x-rays scanned their wormy bodies indicated that the first step in a caterpillar’s stroll is taken by its gut.When caterpillars walk, their guts move first, with the rest of their bodies following behind in a rippling motion. Now transfer your imagination back to a group of muscular legs moving in a rippling fashion; an endearing act, wobbling, crawling, and creeping on dirty slippery road, twisting their torsos like trapeze artists at Cirque de Soleil! Fascinating!
You will capture some truly great market scenes in action, and some very interesting activities during bargains and transactions that you will witness. If these are things that tick you right as a photographer, this tour is definitely not something you want to miss. It carries no stories(as Manjit repeatedly kept telling me!), but if you can make your pictures tell a story, like I usually attempt, you just need to identify interesting subjects. And Manjit completely helps you with that. To the last-T, he checks for your comfort..complete with a text message asking if you have reached home safely.
My fascination with markets is from a very early age. Thanks to the virtue of being a Bengali, and having a father who treats food like religion. The markets in India are very different than the farmers market or the Chelsea markets of the western world. The colours are always enticing in both cases but Indian markets, with the smell of fish, garlic, muck and swamp and rotten foliage in parts, is not for the faint hearted. You need to have a acquired taste and an olfactory for that. Am glad I am imbibed with one!
Mesmerizing Markets, is a highly recommended trip, for true-blue lovers of sensory food addictions!
Many things serve as a muse to artists. People, countries, landscape or lovers. Many things motivate poets to rhyme their thoughts. Coffee, rains, hearts or smoke! And, there are many things that can spark an idea for a story. Words, pictures, films or food. In my case here, it was a piece of music. When you are lying down, under a blanket of stars, partitioned narrowly by the thin polyester sheet roof of your camping tent, snuggled thoughtlessly in your sleeping bag, and a fleeting whiff of a Miles Davis streams in, you know you couldn’t have got it all that wrong!
When Davis and Victor Feldman composed ‘Seven Steps to Heaven‘, they wouldn’t have had Triund in mind, for sure. But personally, if there there was anything as close, or as high that I have ever reached, it was this. A nomadic, pastoral hilltop, 6 hours uphill from a village called Dharamkot, on the outskirts of the more popular McLeodganj.
The Dhauladhar range is a southern branch of the main Outer Himalayan chain of mountains. It rises from the Indian plains to the north of Kangra and Mandi.
We stayed in a cozy but relatively strict, homestay! The McLeodganj Homestay is run by a family from Delhi, housing about six rooms, slightly away from the main square on the Jogiwara Road. The brick house with a tiny gate and a verdant home garden is around a bend, and about a kilometer away from the Dharamkot. Sahil was always agreeing, and hospitable. The cook made a good north Indian meal, and the parents were concerned about our safety.
Our room had a small terrace attached, with a view, that cannot be really termed as spectacular, but more of a ‘ not that bad’ category. It was a question of a night’s stay, and hence we did not create much fuss over the nitty-gritties. We slept all afternoon, woke a little late, walked to the monastery, walked back to the St. John’s church, and ate momos for dinner. Packed savories made with yak-cheese and some fruits that could come handy for the next few days. The little town unfortunately didn’t charm me as much as it had done, the first time I had visited it in 2003.
I was saving my energy for Triund. A trek that we started the next morning.
Triund happens to you, suddenly. One moment you are puffing up a steep, rocky path with only rock-spiked walls to your left and a forested , unforgiving valley to the right . And then, with one last nimble step where the path takes a sharp turn, you are upon a green meadow at 2842.26 meters (9326 ft) above sea level, surrounded by snow capped peaks of the Dhauladhar range, all seemingly an arm’s length away.
The only way to reach Triund is to trek. And when you step into Triund, there is no option but to pause. Partly to catch your breath, and mostly to absorb what is clearly a breathtaking sight. If there is a seventh heaven, you can be sure you have left even that behind. The feeling is one of being on top of the world, surrounded by ranges even higher than where you stand.
The first innocent few steps on a trek are always difficult; and the unkindest part of any trek in the mountains, is the hard realization that there is always more peaks to scale, in front of you. Walking through the wooded trail, series of rolling hills in front of you to conquer, you lose track of how much you have walked already. The fact that these hills are not visible at one go makes you feel whether you will ever reach the summit. You reach the high ground and think you have done it, only to be deceived by another hill in front, which is the one you have to climb. The peak continuously retreats making you think whether it will arrive, at all! But it does; and when it does, you feel awesome! You peek below, and immerse yourself with the contentment of victory. A small height, but a personal triumph. Climbing up a higher height, leaving a lesser height below. If that doesn’t call for a adrenalin rush, nothing else, will! The joy of exhausting yourself physically, reaching the top of a mountain and then looking down to see where you came from is one of those most unadulterated, pure joys of life.
The last stretch takes your breath away, and so does the first view of Triund. And while each of these lasts and the firsts fight it out, your tired feet get permission to have a conversation with the late afternoon dew. Your sore back is allowed to lay itself down on the green carpet of grass and flirt with the little wild flowers. The little child in you is coaxed to roll on the grass, and glee in delight!
Once on top, the only reminder of the world left below are some branded packets of chips and munchies being sold at the shacks. These have been set up by enterprising locals. Radio Mirchi FM channel constantly hums from a radio set in the biggest of these shacks. This one is owned by Sunil Kumar. Mobiles don’t work here, but surprisingly the radio frequency does!
Our tent was pitched, and at twilight we had visitors. A nomadic shepherd taking his sheep across. To greener pastures or returning from one. Hundreds of them. Like woolly yarns! In fifty-shades-of-grey! And brown, coffee, white and beige! Sheep who bleat. Mountain goats who playfully entangle their horns and tussle! A cacophony of bleats..a symphony of sounds. The highest form of free entertainment, at that height!
And then dusk becomes the night! There is something I feel passionately about sunsets turning into nights. There is something about that limited time in the day, when the blue sky turns orange and occasional hues of purple and scarlet emerges into some cocktail of colors… that only be described as breathtaking! From Triund, the Dhauladhar mountain looks tantalizingly close; you are sometimes fooled to believe that you can touch it, with just a little extra effort! While, you are lost in this thought of the impossible, the grapefruit sun makes the mountains change color from shimmering white to golden jackfruit yellow to supernatural red, electric pink…grape violet, and then with the promise of a perfumed darkness, and the color of a musky night!
Ashish was an effervescent, energetic, sensible and an accommodating man. He was our guide. Fit, because he treks this trail at least 3 times a month. Responsible, because he voluntarily took my heavy camera and placed it in his own bag, so that I could carry minimal weight, while I struggled uphill.Well-humored, because he never said a ‘no’ to the 55+ breaks and stops we took along the trail. And, resourceful, because he cooks you a fair meal! As the night descended, the stone benches near Sunil’s tuck shop glittered and glowed. A bonfire pit had been created; and fellow-travellers were basking in the warmth. On offer, as dinner-fare, was ‘roti-subzi’ -should be badly made chapatis with a nondescript mixed and curried vegetables, we thought- but, we were wrong, and pleasantly so! A quick peek into the shop, and I saw Ashish humming a Bollywood tune, and effortlessly rolling out chapatis for us. A mass production of a spicy, warm potato ‘subzi’ was waiting in a huge steel bowl. Minutes later, we were licking our fingers, and asking for the third…and the fourth chapati! I can tell you today, that a spicy, watery, potato curry, and the fresh-off-the-gas chapatis, have never tasted better!
There is plenty to do at Triund and nothing at all, depending on your choice. You can eat, drink, read, walk, trek further, hang out with sheep, click photographs, eat, roll on the grass, meditate, attempt a ‘head-stand’, sit by the bonfire and gaze at the numerous stars, once night settles in. Or you could just borrow a blanket from the dhaba and laze around indefinitely, listening to the sounds of cricket.
I was very tempted to be cynical while writing this post. We are(at least, I am) a patron of luxury, if it comes at an attainable price! Its tempting, not to crave for one, when you take a break from your usual work-routine. But, here you are grounded. Triund is that more-than-welcome flat bit of land at 2890 metres, that sure makes you work hard to get there. Reebok shoes give way, knees turn wobbly, backs turn sore, shoulders become stiff sleeping overnight on a slope, ankles have scratches and mouths turn parchment dry. But it does have a liberating affect on you. Sometimes even psychedelic!
It’s not everyday that one gets the opportunity to be closer to the Himalayas and being from Bangalore, its probably a dream. But, I have to sheepishly admit, that even with the unwanted stretches and stresses, the trek brought in, I loved it!
Trekking back from Triund was like being in a time-warp of a Monday morning. You know exactly what you have just left behind, and you are not particularly looking forward to what you think your week ahead will look like; the tingling of a luxurious weekend to muse on,and the frenzy of a back-tearing week waiting to engulf you!
We all know what that feels like. And Triund feels just like that.
Ramadan is on full swing. I can see it on the henna-decorated hands and feet of the women; at work, on roads, in neighborhoods, fashionable skulls caps, wholesale markets in Chickpet crowding up with men extensive purchasing fabrics for their entire family. Moreover, my loyal tailor has started laboring day and night, desperately trying to finish everyone’s new outfits before the festivities.
Resulting, much to my dissatisfaction, being in queue to get my garments delivered! Depending on when the first sighting of the crescent moon occurs, the big celebration that will conclude Ramadan would be either Friday or Saturday. It amazes me how it always seems to be a spirit of festivity, considering each day of the month includes a day-long fast! And in other cities like Delhi, a fast, in the sweltering heat of summer! But the end of each day has a feast to lure. Almost like light at the end of a tunnel- and a delightful light at the end of a food-addict’s tunnel!
Bangalore boasts of pretty summer showers. When summer showers no longer hinders two friends to get together and explore a food-laced walk, you can be assured that they consider food spiritual. My meat-ing with Partha was exactly on these premises. I will be brutally honest here: most aftermaths of a social media acquaintances (from my end at least) do not generally end up in personal interactions.
But I was almost convinced that this one required a logical next step. So we decided to meet. One rainy evening, last week for an Iftar walk. It would have been quite difficult to spot the Albert Bakery, had I come alone. This elusive centurion bakery, dated way back from 1902 has all the reasons to be the first of a food-pilgrim. It opens at 3.30 p.m. and is legendary for its chicken and mutton keema samosas.
Notorious for causing traffic bottlenecks, by the huge crowds that cause much chaos to gormandize its much-loved keema naan, khova muffins and bheja (goat-brain)puffs, this 111 year old bakery is run by a Muslim family and was apparently named Albert simply to make it easier to serve the British Empire’s aristocrats. In reality, it is actually quite a nondescript hole in the wall kind of a place, tucked in a cozy nook, away from a logical straight line on the road. I was taken there to taste the ‘world famous’ bheja puff and the khova naan, made especially for the festival.
At the strike of a hunger pang anything can taste good! So, honestly, since the first seven bites (comprising of 2 brain puffs), were made with a responsibility of filling my pang, the taste of the puffs did not quite register properly.
It was rather good, I am guessing. But what melted in my mouth and melted my heart alike were the triangular shapes of sinfully slow cooked khova(a mixture of sweet condensed milk and semolina), packed irresistibly within flaky slides of naan- the khova naan! As if almost on purpose, the satin khova glided carelessly on my fingers, tempting me to lick them clean even after the actual piece was devoured.
A tiny walk away, Mosque Road looked like a bride on the way to her Nikaah. Resplendent! The Iftar stalls were hosted in rain proof shamiyanas. Stalls selling khajoor, enticing people with fish and crabs, stalls that sold Teetar (Quails) and even Camel meat! And then stalls that specialized and sold only Haleem (the one single thing that defines Ramzan for the food-worshipers)
In terms of promotion, the one item which was clearly the man of the match, had to be the Patthar ke Gosht (Stoned Mutton, if you translate it literally!)- and, literally there was one, every stone’s throw away! A big block of granite hissed and sizzled , while spiced up marinated meat kept piling up one after the other, every time with a louder crackle and sputter, sending into the air wires of electric red threads and hazy aromatic smoke.
It also meant that the Patthar ka Gosht was getting ready for all the greedy bellies around. The meat can be chicken, goat or beef. So,if it is beef, or veal, the kabab gets a nick name.. the ‘Wheel’ Kebab’! The huge block of granite could easily take upto 5-6 hours to be heated, I am told. the meat is placed on these slabs and charred, seared to cook and render an earthy smoky flavour to it. Considering every kabab in the world can be placed on this slab and made into Patthar ke Gosht, I am not sure, which really is the authentic meat for this dish.But, it is definitely a very popular tag-line and a dish very well promoted!
For those who arent so much a meat glutton, there arent too many options. The area is infested with chops and chaps, rolls and bowls, cutlets and sherbets and jabelis, and rabdis. Various kababs, Afghani,Safed Mirch, Irani, MalaiTikka and Boti.
The Baida Roti is also a big draw at Ramzan and is essentially a big paratha stuffed with meat, folded over to form a nice square pie sautéed in oil again. It is then cut into little squares and served with a hot chutney for your eating pleasure. You can have your pick from beef, chicken, or mutton mince.
Till now, we had feasted on camel meat sheeks, quails, malai kababs and was looking for the last bit that would complete a Iftar food regime: The Haleem!
Haleem is a sublime dish used to break the fast, because at once it is both delicious and nutritious. The high calorie haleem is an ideal way to break the Ramzan fast. Haleem means patience, because it takes long hours to prepare (often a whole day) and served in the evenings. Traditionally an Arabic dish, it has been adapted and localized as part of Dakhni or Hyderabadi cuisine. The wheat is soaked overnight, then simmered in water along with meat and butter. Any remaining liquid is strained and the mixture is beaten and seasoned. It needs to be garnished with fried onions, ginger and coriander leave, and a dash of lemon to provide you with a taste, that is hard to forget! And, of course, the generous topping of spiced ghee, which brings the whole mixture to dizzying heights of awesomeness!
I agree, we ate less, but to me a foodie-walk need not necessarily end in consuming. It is a 360 degree sensation, I often consider spiritual in nature. I feel connected to the universe, and the feeling of contentment is like no other!
I might not be a big eater, but I worship the food gods! Partha said ‘I was a half-foodie’!
It was quite a sweet ending with a dunking cup of Suleimani tea. And while I maneuvered my home that rainy evening in an auto-rickshaw, I giggled thinking that a celebration of peace is in the form of chaos and quite a bit of pandemonium!
Partha was a great companion. We had a great adda, catching up on several things under the sun, along with food. Sensible, talkative, funny and spontaneous. I couldnt grasp much about him, but I could safely say, he is one of those, you would like to relax with on a Friday evening, having a 18-yr old Glen(Morangie!),talk about Dali, Shirshendu, Hitler,the Moorish influence on Andalacian food, maska paos and keema paos of Mumbai, the genius of Tagore, the haunting poetry of Rumi, Michelle Obama and Himesh Reshamia with equal panache!!
I have always been disillusioned with the dynamics between siblings. Having been a spoilt only-child myself, it is almost difficult for me to excavate this mystery. Ever since my twins surfaced, one of my hardest challenges had been to understand and live with the fact that every time T and N pull each others’ hair out, they spell love all the way! Through the years, I have predictably grown wiser.
Apart from that I have also realized that there will always be a balance of characters between the two. It will balance out and compliment each others’ personae like two open ends of a perfect jigsaw. Two distinct and different entities, that will seamlessly bond with unconditional love for each other. I have discovered that amongst most siblings, the older one is filled with verve and exuberance, with an I-care-a damn of an attitude tuned in. And, the younger one is often the most under-estimated– full of restore, bold,poised and not the least bit reluctant to take their place in the sun.
Varkala is like that. Varkala is a coastal town and municipality in Thiruvananthapuram district situated in the Indian state of Kerala. It is the suburban town of Thiruvananthapuram.
Unlike to its elder twin, Kovalam, it is not just about the sunshine.It’s markedly intrepid, and in your face. The handsome cliffs and the rugged shoreline is anything but sophisticated. It has a raw appeal, almost sensuous in character. If you are all about sophistication, luxury, pampering and spa-treatments, and driven by the idea of the brand a place tags itself with rather than the place itself, give Varkala a pass. Not your place, one morsel.
The month of May is sweltering; almost blistering. At this time of the year, the tourist season is winding down. Towards the middle of the month, we went as a family to the beach cliffs of Varkala.
The parents, who wanted a getaway and experience the scenic wonders of Kerala; the twins, who were excited as a rocket-ship shooting off; and us because we have always loved to travel! I had been pining to see the sea, and in spite of heat warnings I was ready to bear the searing of the summer sun. The crowds had been thinning out perceptibly; and we could make it out in the distraught faces of the trinket vendors, that the money trail will soon end. And then, written on their faces was the endless wait until September, when the first backpackers start to trickle in again.
Compared to Kovalam, Varkala is less gaudy, the people are more human, the bonhomie and innocence of a place that is new to the scene. Having said that, I do not want to say anything adverse about Kovalam.
If you visit Kovalam you need to be equipped to handle luxury and stay at the The Leela Kovalam. Nothing , and nowhere else will you get to see and soak Kovalam the way you can if you have stayed there!
Every early morning for the next three days, we stepped out of the cozy, well landscaped resort, onto the amiable beach, and took the graveled steps upto the red cliff. The jerky and craggy cliffs offered an imposing view of the ocean.
The contrast of the maroon soil, alongside the verdant green grass and palm fringes along the walkways, the teal and turquoise waters of the sea against the backdrop of the blue-grey skies- was like an artist’s palette! The patches of dew-washed polka greens on the sides, brushed its cheeks with the tall and handsome palm trees. Cottages and resorts on rent appeared all along the cliff. Purple, ocher, and rama-blue.
Sometimes fuchsia pink with inviting paintings adorning its barricades! We spotted a farm. A cow. Several sea-gulls. Fisher-women hanging nets that the menfolk of their household would have brought in, as early as day-break. Bed and breakfast owners washed their white linen. Deep yellow marigold gardens; the rusted path in between, with that lashing sea pushed our hearts to beat a tad bit faster, wanting us to emote and captivate the ‘screenshot’ so that it can remain in our souls forever!
A 45 minutes walk away from where we were staying was the Kappil beach- a haven where backwaters meet the sea. Beneath a propped-up wooden fishing boat, colourful paint peeling off in strips, two men sat musing over untangling their fishing nets.
The frenzied activity of Kappil beach swirls around them: fish were laid out to dry and bartered over, long chains of humans with shining lean muscles laboriously drew the fishing boats to the home-shore. To the right, beyond the boats and fishing nets, the Keralan coastline disappeared into sea spray, fading into coconut palms as the last visible markers of where ocean meets the land.
The resort was a homely affair. Run by the friendly duo Gopal and Babu, the Palm Tree Heritage is a cozy and comfortable place to spend a few unwinding days. The have a small sandy cove right in front of the entrance which is very convenient. However, this spot wasn’t very close to the hip and happening cliff top location, nor the real Papanasam beach, for which Varkala is famous for. If early long walks and swims in the sea to increase your appetite, are not your cup of tea, all you might end up doing, is to relax in the cane chairs, sipping on a cooler, staring out at the miles of ocean ahead, the sun relentless, palm and Casuarina leaves fluttering in the incoming breeze, and, possibly, a spaced-out conversation with the strangers next to you.
The actual ‘touristy/backpacker’ part of Varkala is sprawled across the top of cliffs directly above the sea, about 3-5km from the main town itself. A place great for an evening stroll. If you are there, try the food at Clafouti. Have a cuppa Americana in Cafe Del Mar. Along with restaurants, hotels and guest houses line this side of the cliff, facing the sea together with shop after shop selling jewellery and textiles like clothes, bedsheets, wall hangings, etc. And this is just the first row. Further back among the coconut palm trees you can find many more rows of hotels of every price range (there is road and vehicle access back there) and occasionally more shops too.
The feeling you have while in Varkala is a bit surreal, probably due to the extremely high cliffs. As we casually strolled along the coconut palm lined path, we didn’t have to worry about traffic, crowds or our twins although we did have to give them a stern warning about not going too close to the edge as at times it comes precariously close, often without any barriers to separate us from definite disaster. Even the locals are wary about using the path at night, when many parts are not lit. But the night views are incredible, with dotted twinkles of boat lights far ahead in the horizon, and the sound of the misty waves crashing below.
Varkala was beyond anything that we had envisioned—in a good way. Trustworthy; considering it had avenues for all of us to explore. The parents were happy with a private beach, the slow-paced candlelight dinners, a place where the only disturbance was the sound of sea-breeze. The dumplings loved playing and building castles in the autumn sands and the friendly sea, and the younger parents(us) loved the long walks across the ruddy landscape at a height overlooking a breath-taking sea. And, did I say,time-alone?
This is the kind of a vacation that leaves an after-taste and wants you to come back for more, and explore. And, while you linger with that taste, the thought invariably segues into your day-dream wishing it wouldn’t end, but just go on and on…
If only we could have gone for a few more days of swimming, more of that Tandoori fish we had, it would have been perfect.
There we were…. a little apprehensive, a little unsure and a little paranoid, considering we were driving off track. We began to drive towards a spot that wasn’t part of our original schedule – in other words, off the beaten path.
We were heading to the Great Rann of Kutch, which is a seasonal salt marsh located in the Thar Desert in the Kutch District of Gujarat, India and the Sindh province of Pakistan.
Taking a turn from the smooth highway into a rough patch of cracked mud and dried grass , we followed a track left dented by camel pugs, perhaps bullock carts and sometimes wheel tracks of an 4-axle vehicle. But something kept us re-assured that this experience would be somewhat worth it.
We were promised migratory birds, flamencos and hundred of camels in herds, that would head to a watering hole, at that particular designated time, and cater to our lenses and vision alike.
Trusting our all in a local driver in, who was draped effortlessly in a white cabbage-like turban, with the color of skin as brown as caramel;lines on his face as wise as a miracle, we drove down the middle of nowhere. A stray camel snorted back at us, as we took a sharp turn towards a heaped mound of dried mud. Minutes later, in the middle of nowhere, we found ourselves staring at herds of black cranes in the distance, flying over what looked like a vast blue sea, except it wasn’t the sea….
It was a salt marsh.
We were in Kutch, the largest district of India that lies, in all its charm and poise, in the western most corner of Gujarat. Ever since we stepped out of the over-night bus, in the strangest episode of chance and luck, and boarded the random one auto-rickshaw to our destination in Bhuj on a chilly morning, I was drawn in completely by the rustic vibe. The little chai-shop, at the corner of the triangular footpath, at the edge of the railway station pampered us with cups of highly sweetened tea- almost expressing it’s sugar coated hospitality.
When we first told people that we were headed to Kutch for a holiday, their reactions made us believe that the global fraternity, at large can be segregated into two categories of people — the ones who say ‘Wow, Kutch!’ and the others who say ‘Why Kutch?!’ As much as that amused us, I have to admit that the uncertainty was exhilarating!
The Rann of Kutch. Located at the far Western edge of Gujarat, Kutch is not part of the usual tourist trail. Whilst many wander through Rajasthan for a glimpse of the desert, far less venture over to the other side of the Thar desert to explore this spectacular region. This in itself, makes it a wanted place to be at. It isn’t just a desert you see, but rather a marriage of senses, something that the Gujarat tourism has now tried to bottle in its annual festival of Rann Utsav.
One of my fondest associations with this unique landscape has been K.N Daruwalla’s ‘Love Across the Salt Desert’, where this barren backdrop effortlessly and effectively symbolizes the thirst that the lovers feel for one another; where the scorching sun becomes a metaphor for their parched lives desperately aiming at a point of satiation. Romantic, that I am it would have been absolutely facile to dream away and imagine a Fatimaah and a Najab..
What would it have been for the ‘dreamy eyed and diffident’ Najab to cross the border on a camel, across this unruly patch of wilderness, ‘for the sake of love’? What was life like on the other side of the Thar? Do cinnamon traders still bargain in the markets? Will it still rain if today another Najab carries his Fatimaah over the threshold of a village that hasn’t seen a drop of rain in three years?
“What would he not do for her, the daughter of the spice-seller; she who smelt of cloves and cinnamon, whose laughter had the timbre of ankle-bells, whose eyebrows were like black wisps of the night and whose hair was the night itself? For her he would cross the salt desert.”
But this was the real Rann. A landscape so rich in its diversity yet filled with common salt. So white, yet shadowed in its persona of ambiguity. Sensational yet restrained in its presence. A reality. A mirage. A vision. A balm. A retreat.
The tent city in itself was a spectacle on its own. 400 tents, hand made with traditional weaves and indigenous block printed tapestry in each. After we checked in to our tents, what was the most impressive was the elaborate set up and reception arranged for the tourist.
The hospitality had been out-sourced to the Marriott in Ahmadabad. 300+ servers and staff had set camp for three months in this tent city, treating visitors with utmost care and concern. In between ghee soaked theplas, fluffiest dhoklas, nippy khakras and spiced chaas, we found ourselves pleasantly pampered in a large air-conditioned dining tent. A server, with roots in Kolkata, was amused and thrilled to hear his mother tongue being spoken, while we exchanged ridiculous banter at our table! Ravi sat at the concierge desk, agile in his thoughts and quick to reply to our queries.
As we planned our excursion for the next day, amidst chaos and cacophony of other tourists, I overheard a story. The story of a vision. The story of how this tiny village of Dhordo came on the tourist map, thanks to the vision of Gulbeg Miyan. His chance meeting with Narendra Modi, 30 years ago gave him a chance to germinate his idea of hosting a festival in the village, considering it was the nearest civilization to the Rann; thus offering a prospect of business through tourism, as well as a chance to promote its native art.
And, thus it began with a small-scale day-long festival began in the early 90s. It was only in 2008 that the festival really kicked off here with its iconic tent city life. Gulbeg died in 1999 at the age of 78.
His son, now the village Sarpanch has now taken upon himself to promote the festival and the indigenous art that is bringing progress to the remote village.
Later that evening, on a rather bumpy but thoroughly enjoyable camel cart ride, we visited the White Rann. As much as I could have visualized a sea of white, I realized I was far from prepared for the most celebrated vision of Rann of Kutch that lay in this tiny village of Dhordo. While walking towards what looked like a ocean of milk, slippers in my hand, and the rays of the slant sun on my face, almost carefully placing my bare-feet on the salt pan, it was easy to believe that the world stood still right there in that moment. It took me a while though to believe we weren’t walking on star dust, but salt, thick layers and miles and miles of it. And yes, I did taste the ‘soil’ under my feet, for assurance!
There, watching the sun set, I was taking in a sight that I had been building up in my head for months now. Laid out at a horizon, that seemed to drop into nothingness from my view-point, was a ball of perfect crimson …it was all too surreal to be true. All I was missing there, was ‘my moment’.
And that was slightly impossible to attain, considering that there were three busloads of people, to steal the same moments! As the sun came down in a stupendous blaze of tangerine, I couldn’t help but reflect on just how large the world was, and what a speck of size we were in comparison. I felt as if I had finally seen a part of the world that was right on the edge, where if I took just one step past the horizon, I could fall right off! Few hours later, we were back to watch the moon rise in all it’s fullness and bloom. And this time, I was eager to find ‘my moment’. It was my final chance.
The moon rays and the whiteness of the Rann merged into each other creating an ethereal environment. I sat there on the ledge of the road, staring into the moon and enjoying the infinite beauty of the Rann. As I was getting moon washed with the purity of moon light , I felt a sense of tranquility that urged me to wish that I could be sitting there till eternity; moon beams on my face, and the musical breeze of the February night playing with my hair .. One deep breath, and I knew THAT was ‘my moment’.
A two-hour strenuous bus ride took us to Kala Dungar, the next evening.At the height of about 2,000 feet, it offers some picturesque views, including crimson sunrises and magenta sunsets. This is also perhaps the only point where you get a panoramic view of the wide expanse of the white-sanded desert from the peak. It is undoubtedly beautiful. But the Black Hill has a legend…
“Over four centuries ago, there lived on these black mountains a saint named Pachmai Peer. One day a pack of wild jackals appeared in his ashram and stood expectantly in front of him. Looking into their eyes, he realized that they were famished. All that he could offer them was a spartan meal of rice and daal, the staple diet of the ashram. And offer he did, and the jackals went back with their tummies full.
He brushed it aside as a one-off incident, till he saw them at the same time at the same place the next day. The ritual of feeding continued for months till one day when there was no food in the ashram. The boy who had gone to get the provisions hadn’t returned, but the jackals reached at the appointed time.
Realizing that his guests will have to go back hungry, the Peer, in a gesture of unimaginable generosity, chopped off his hand and offered it to the jackals, saying ‘lo anng’, which meant ‘here, eat my hand’. The jackals, as on every other day, went back satiated. But from that day onwards, the inmates of the ashram have made sure that the jackals of Kala Dungar are fed, not once but twice a day. And they haven’t missed it even once in the last 400 years.”
We left the camp city two days later for Bhuj, en route visiting the tourist village of Hodco. Somewhere between walks through dry bajra fields, split ended shrub tips and mawa devouring breaks in highway tea shops, I had fallen in love with the rustic life of Kutch, and wasn’t really looking for more surprises.
A pretty sight, this village was. Tiny children with innocent smiles and blonde rustic hair ran about wearing glass bangles and colorful trinkets.
Artisans had opened their doors, and basking in the afternoon sub, sitting on rugs and dhurries made with their own hand- some sold their creations, while others took pride in the display. Everything and everyone wore a costume! Their circular houses wear a conical hat and their women, colorful garments and bold metallic jewellery!
Bhuj was an eye-opener. Destroyed to a large extent during the massive earthquake in 2001, the commercial capital, Bhuj, had visibly fought back and rebuilt itself into a much bigger and populated town than it was before.
The few towering buildings, however, contributed very little in altering the old-world charm that it had held onto since the time of royalty. Amidst the hustle bustle of a hundred local shops and eateries, Bhuj veiled the scars of the life-altering natural calamity very well. But pay a little attention, and you can overhear the turmoil still lingering in the voices of the old locals. Rahman, our auto-driver was no exception.
We had a rushed one hour to indulge in the best therapy ever. Honest to our purses and budgets alike- retail therapy! We started focused like the bull at Bhujodi, a weaving town, famous for its intricate woollen shawls. It was a Sunday afternoon, and while most of the houses had shut doors and closed shops, I could imagine, what the village would be like in all it’s life. The entire village would be like a living museum.
The bhungos — circular mud houses with mirror work decorations- would be bustling with gossip, rumors, and bustling of local women. We could have been invited to any of the houses, shared a chai and explored the intricacies of pit-looms and figured out the physics of weaving.
We could have drank sweet milk sweets, and loomed over quilts that were being given finishing touches. What a lazy, divine afternoon it could have been! But instead, like bulls in an arena, we ran, shopped at the pace of lightening and boarded our bus back to Ahmedabad!
The Rann is still with me now. In times of silence I return to its silence; in a strange way I find it comforting and reassuring. We should all carry a Rann somewhere in our minds. A place of refuge and utter peace. A place of the mind but far beyond the mind.
I never did see the asses or the flamingos nor the jackals. But that was fine. I’d found what I’d come looking for.
As I stood in the ornate balcony of the palace, in a sea of rooftops and minarets below me, balmed in the hue of the pink twilight, and heard a myriad voices chanting the ‘Adhaan‘, my eyes closed in reverence and my lips curved into a reflex smile. I have never heard the ‘Adhaan‘, with an intent of listening to it. If I have, it has been always while passing by a way side mosque, or over hearing it from a friend’s room, while trying to catch up on tales friends share. This was a new experience.
It is said that for every three minutes you walk in the old city of Hyderabad, there is a mosque. While I stood there at 5pm that day, imagining the voices of hundreds of muezzins reciting the beautiful verses, I transported myself to a few hundred years back, during the time of Mohammed, the prophet, the first muezzin was Bilan Ibn Ribah who walked the streets to call the believers to come to prayer. I could see why the ‘Adhaan‘ was considered an art form, reflected in it’s melodious chanting. I imagined centuries later, how during the rule of the Nawabs, the lead would stand up in the minarets chanting the ‘Adhaan’, and reminding people of their religious duties. I imagined the Hyderabad belonging to those times. I imagined a Hyderabad belonging to the Nawabs. I imagined an indulgence with royalty. I stood at the widest porch of the Falaknuma Palace and soaked in my tryst with royalty.
*Once upon a time, the palace was one of its kind.If you are quiet enough and hold your breath, you can probably still hear the giggles of handmaidens, private conversations between the master and his aide-de-camp and footsteps that marked the approach of the Nizam and his trusted entourage.
Falaknuma Palace is also known as the ’Mirror of the Sky‘ because at 2000 feet, it was built in the clouds and reflects the ever-changing moods of the sky. Set in 32 acres of land and spread over 19400 square meters, the Palace was commissioned by Sir Vikar-Ul Umra, the Nizam’s Prime Minister from the Paigah family. These noblemen were the rulers of their own courts, built their own breathtaking palaces and each commanded their own private army. For more than two centuries, until the mid half of the 20th century, the Nizams ruled Hyderabad State . They had their own mint, which produced their own currency, hoarded millions in gold bullion, and even more in precious gems and currency. Majestic Rolls Royce cars glided galore and their love for palaces and building one better than the other grew manifold!
The luxury bandwagon came to an abrupt halt in 1948, when the princely states were abolished by laws governing the newly Independent India. Personal Treasuries were confiscated, and no longer was there any cash to encourage a lifestyle that has gone down in history as one of the most decadent and opulent of all times. The vintage cars were left to rust in the garages, or were sold off and throw-away prices. The gems and the bullion were to foreign traders and ‘Sirs’ to pay for the astonishing taxes levied by the Indian state. And, as for the palaces, most of them were simply sealed shut.
While Vikar-Ul Umra, conceived the Falaknuma as a fantasy home for himself,he had spent a fortune on the construction, the furnishings, and not to mention a decade of his life . Built in 1894, it took ten years and four million rupees for its magnificent, physical evolution in the shape of a scorpion. Designed by British architect William Mard Marret, a Scorpion, himself… the Palace took a rumored 22 years to get near perfection. Halfway there, struck by a ray of practical intelligence, Ul Umra realized that he would never be able to complete it. And so, taking advice from his wife, he invited his master, the 6th Nizam, Mehboob Ali Pasha, to stay.
From the first moment his eyes set on the palace, it is said, the Nizam fell in love. He extended his stay, and extended it again. Seeing this and, desperate for an end to his financial woes, the Prime Minister presented it as a gift or ‘nazar‘ to the Nizam. And, as the story goes, the Nizam’s treasurer was given the order to repay the Prime Minister every penny of the cost. After all, to a man of such limitless wealth, the cost of any luxury , was easily within budget!
Bought over in 1895 and used as the residence of Nizam VI until 1911, Falaknuma Palace later went on to be used as a royal guesthouse for dignitaries, including free India’s first President Dr. Rajendra Prasad who availed of its famed, lavish hospitality in 1951. The echoes of visiting European monarchs, the Duke of Windsor, heads of state and distinguished governors can still be heard if you tread softly on the carpeted grand stairway in the inner atrium. Since 1995, The Taj Group of Hotels has sensitively restored the palace not only to accommodate the privileged in 60 glamorous rooms and suites, but also to accommodate the extravagance of the ‘then’ with all the comfort of the ‘now’.*
(*Content Source: The Taj Hotels)
This is the only hotel in India with a residing historian. I start my walk at the hour of sunset but end up in an altogether different time zone. Living vicariously at a time when the Nizam was rumored to be the richest man in the world. A time when polo playing royalty, martini-soaked lunches and princesses in billowing chiffons with emeralds the size of chandeliers played a part in tales of royal debauchery, extravagance, drama and deception. The knowledgeable historian recounted astonishing legends and myths about a dynasty mired in romance and mystery, set in the fitting milieu of palaces, wealth and women. It is here that I learnt that the palace interior includes 18 types of marble, 16 types of wood and 10 types of chandeliers. That the Gol Bungalow was modeled after the White House on one side, and Buckingham Palace on the other. That there’s a palace library with 5,970 books of which guests can actually read 150 of. And that the 8th Nizam is still alive and lives in Turkey. His daughter Princess Ezra (who helped with refurbishing and restoring the Palace)lives in Santa Barbara, CA!
Fortunate that I was offered this grand personalized tour, here is a recap through a photo-story.
Down below the ‘Palace in the Sky’, lay the old city of Hyderabad. It is believed that the city of “Hyderabad” was named after the people as their residence as “City of the Brave” from the Persian words “Hyder/Haider” (Persian and Urdu meaning ‘lion’ or ‘brave’ and “Abad/Abaad” (Persian and Urdu meaning abode or populated) after surviving the plaque epidemic that ravaged Golconda. The Old City , three square miles of original Hyderabad around the majestic Charminar, from which the city grew outwards, is a treasure trove of sights, smells, traditions and tastes.
This area constitutes the heart of the historic city of Hyderabad. This part of the city encompasses reminiscences of the past reflected in popular Hyderabadi eateries, ornaments and attar.
Despite its long and chequered history, the Old City is unpretentious. Known and absorbed, it remains in the mind not as a memory of monuments and ancient sites, but of utterly simple things: the bustle of Mir Jafar’s mandi, where fresh vegetables have been sold for years and years; the surma man standing ajar the door of Gulzar Hauz, who will apply various kinds of kohl to your eyes depending on the ailment and discomfort for which you have come to see him; the hazy innards of the little shop, with gauzy glass shelves,and dim twittering lights- where you can buy milk and curds and malai, the likes of which is probably not available elsewhere; labor-aged hands of busy men in tiny shops on the road to Falaknuma, flattening small pieces of sheermal for the neighborhood; the bread shops next door selling naans and kulchas straight out of tandoors ; and great flights of pigeons, fluttering and twisting over the ash domes and minarets of the vintage buildings.
Today, the old city is bursting at its seams with people and traffic. The main thoroughfare is Patthargatti – a street, a locality, or sometimes a raunchy mix of both. Hard to say, but named after the stone-lined buildings on either side of the road,pearls shops line this famed avenue.
But it is not only pearls that the Old City has to offer. It is a fantastic bazaar, with numerous wares. Generations of Hyderabadis, visitors and tourists have come here to look for silks and saris, brocades, itars and perfumes, silver ware, jewelry, velvet, tobacco, caps and handmade slippers. And they have been served by the descendants of families that have carried on the business generation after generation. Ancient links have been established that bind shops and customers even today.
Some of the eateries here are landmarks by themselves. Shaadab, past Madina Building and on the road to Bangalore, serves excellent Nahari (tongue and trotter curry) throughout the year. Shah Ghouse Cafe pots up a fantastic Haleem (broken wheat and lamb/mutton porridge) during Ramzan, the Muslim month of fasting. Try the Biriyani at Nayaab, again past the Madina and on the Bangalore road. Madina Hotel will brew up you a good cup of tea. So will Asif Miyan, standing proudly outside the Machli Kaman. The second cafe is also known for its malai lassi and falooda. Apart from these main road establishments, the narrow lanes and gallis of the city are dotted with little specialty places where the locals buy particular snacks and sweetmeats.
Hyderabad wasn’t a stranger to me. My last visit was 17 years back! Yet, this time it made an impression. An impression that will probably dilute my notions about the city, formed in juvenile years of my life. I have always associated Hyderabad with two distinctive characteristics – the leisurely Nizami lifestyle, very similar to a historic ‘Babu Culture’, belonging to my very own Calcutta, and the quintessential Dakkhani or Hyderabadi language. Those dialects used to be a source of entertainment and intrigue for a very long time, and I was equally amused and happy that even today, the sound of those words don’t surprise me..
I know now, however, that there is much more than what the ear hears. But like they would tell me in the Dakkhani/ Hyderabadi accent.. “Baataan bahut ho gaye, ab thoda kaam karo miyaan!”
Sometimes I cook, without an available story for it. It is just a result of a gut feeling that creeps through my system for a consistent number of hours. I slowly sense “things” about the dish I want to make, trying to fill in vacuum places within my cells,muscles and brain. The look, the taste, the smell…its a unavoidable package. And almost in an animated form my eyes dilate, and I spring up from whatever I have been doing, perked with an irresistible rush of energy, and make a dash towards the kitchen, as if it is the last opportunity in my life to cook!
Although, I have to admit, these cravings to cook get spruced up when I have new cookbooks in my kitty. Or, when there is some subtle emotional blackmailing done by family, who haven’t seen me step into my kitchen for a while. I don’t cook everyday. Either, I select occasions, or weekends, or wait for “those” pangs of craving to arrive.
So, here is the (non-story) story of this dish.
Hari’s book had arrived a couple of weeks back. Almost when fall was in season in New York. Sadly, along with the parcel, my promised packet of fallen leaves, couldn’t make it to Bangalore. The strict US postal system carved a neat little hole, in the parcel and took out the zip-lock packet that had my four auburn leaves in it. It made me really sad. Even depressed for a few days. It had become almost an yearly affair by now. Last year, when my cousin had arrived from Boston, I had made her carry the fallen leaves for me. This year I nagged so much, that Hari finally agreed to handpick a few fallen leaves from his backyard and send it along with the book! But, all was in vain. The leaves couldn’t leave the Atlantic shore. Perhaps it was this depression that made me scorn at the beautiful book for a while(likewise, for no fault of its!). But, that scorn couldn’t last for long.
A few Sundays later, I picked up the book, sat on my favourite corner in the terrace, and flipped through the pages that seemed so familiar. Even while I was working on the book with Hari, some of them had become my personal favourites. So, once I decided the pairing options I started work on it. My version of the recipe has a few improvisations, something which Hari always encourages every home cook to explore. As far as my world of food is concerned, I trust him without any “fuss or fear.”
As for the recipes I tried out. Easy Indian Cooking-101 Fresh & Feisty Indian Recipes.
Proving you can make enticing Indian food in minutes, Hari presents 101 recipes to prepare for busy homemakers and owners of lifestyles who have very less time to afford in their kitchens. He uses lots of easy-to-measure spices but few ingredients that need chopping or other prepping (Except for a few of them, where the focus can shift from preparing to “impressing”). Still, follow his suggestions and food pairings to make one Indian dish plus a green salad and you’ll whip up aromatic, mostly-Indian meals with ease.
Recipes for poultry,meat, legumes and vegetables, and the chapter on salads, relishes, chutneys (accompaniments) and pickles are especially appealing. And after all these easy-to-believe pragmatic reasons, I am still biased. After all, I am part of book, and if I have helped in the content development, it’s glory and it’s stories of success are my stories too!
” Traditional Indian cuisine has its own charm, its own signature dishes and its own stories. When we add a twist of contemporary presentation, a touch of native sensibilities and a dash of global bounty, what you find before you is a kaleidoscope of delectable, modern,yet soul-stirring cuisine, I affectionately call Easy Indian Cooking.”- Hari Nayak
There are several favourites of mine in the book. A quick starter for the monsoon clad Wednesday dinner: Grilled Chicken Wings with Ginger & Lime; Curried Malabar Squids, for quenching that yearning of licking your fingers pretty and clean till the last morsel of rice and the yellow curry leave the plate; the Yellow Lentils with Baby Spinach and Garlic, when you have had an overdose of restaurant food, and want to detox over the weekend; and last but not the least, the quickest dessert, which can also leave you non-guilty- Sweet Yoghurt Sundae with Saffron & Pistachios.All of them can sensibly claim to be a culinary union of the East and West.
Mains: Mutton Chops with Mint & Lemon(Inspired by Roasted Rack of Lamb with a Mint Crust)
1 kilogram mutton chops, trimmed of excess fat
2 table spoons fresh lemon juice
1 table spoon peeled and minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced/sliced garlic
1 teaspoon freshly crush whole garam masala
1 slice of whole wheat bread, toasted on a medium heat
1/4th bunch chopped fresh coriander leaves
1/2 bunch fresh mint leaves
2-3 fresh green chillies
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
4 tablespoons olive oil to brown the mutton chops
4 table spoons mint-chutney mayonnaise
Pre-heat the oven to 230*C. In a large bowl combine lemon juice,ginger,garlic,garam masala and salt. Place the mutton chops in the bowl,mix and coat the marinade well, and refrigerate for about 1 hour. Place the toasted bread in a blender, add fresh mint leaves, coriander leaves, lemon juice,cumin seeds, green chillies and a little water to form a very coarse masala/paste. Take out the marinated mutton chops, and brown them in a heavy botton skillet, until both sides of the meat look sufficiently tempting! (About 5 mins for a batch). Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool. Take a generous dollop of the mint-chutney mayonnaise, smear the rounded and flat surfaces of the meat, and coat it with the ‘bread-masala’. Roast the meat in batches in the oven. For a medium-rare outcome, keep them inside for about 20-25 minutes. Keep them aside for a little bit of plate-art!
Vegetables:Sweet & Sour Asparagus and Yellow Zucchini with Cashews(This is verbatim from the book, except for the addition of the yellow zucchini)
500gms Asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2 inch pieces
1 large yellow zucchini, cut in 2 inch strips
3 tablespoons oil
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon black mustard
2 small onions-sliced thin
1 teaspoon peeled and minced fresh ginger
1/2 a green capsicum
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Salt to taste
1/2 cup yoghurt(which I replaced with a chilli-lime tahini sauce!)
1/2 cup toasted cashewnuts, coarsely chopped
1/4th spoon garam masala
Par-cook the asparagus in boiling water in a wide pan or microwave on high for about 3-4 minutes. Chill in ice-water, immediately to keep the green intact. Drain and set aside.Heat oil in a medium non-stick saucepan over medium-high heat, and then add the cumin and the black mustard seeds.Once they sizzle, add the onion,and cook till they and translucent and golden brown.Add the ginger,garlic and capsicum, and stir for about a minute. Add coriander, cumin and salt to taste.Add the zucchini, and then the asparagus and cook till all the flavours and mixed. Add the chilli-lime tahini sauce and give it a good rounded stir to marry all flavours. Add the toasted cashew nuts and take it off the pan. Keep aside for the plating.
Sides: Easy to make Microwave Herb Risotto(Not from the book!)
3 tablespoons butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
1 and 1/2 cups vegetable broth
Mixed peppers: green,yellow and red-thinly sliced
1 cup uncooked Arborio rice
3/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
In a microwave safe casserole dish combine butter, garlic and onion. Place dish in microwave and cook on high for 3 minutes.Place vegetable broth in a microwave safe dish. Heat on microwave until the broth is hot but not boiling (approximately 2 minutes). Add in the multi-coloured peppers. Stir the rice and broth into the casserole dish with the onion, butter and garlic mixture. Cover the dish tightly and cook on high for 6 minutes.Stir wine into the rice. Cook on high for 10 minutes more. Most of the liquid should boil off. Stir the cheese into the rice and serve.
Place the bed of vegetables of a broad plate. Rest 3-4 mutton chops on it. Heap in about 2-3 tablespoons of risotto, in one corner of the plate and with the back of a spoon, mash it with a gentle stroke, so that it can corm a fading curve on one side of the plate. That’s it. Simple and pretty.