Many, many feet above sea level, the wind whipped my hair. Was it angry that I was cloistered in a closed space all this while, shutting out the world, face buried in a laptop? Or was it just a friendly whack to the back of my head that said it was glad I was finally out in the open? Questions, always so many questions. This need to find an answer to everything – to know for sure – when did it start taking over?
I shook my head and focused on the moment, the here and now. Massive rocks overlooking a sparsely populated landscape hundreds of feet below with patches of glittering green and brown fields… and I was standing on top of the highest one. I was high metaphorically as well – I had just climbed a mountain stacked with sharp, gigantic boulders just to prove to myself that I could. I breathed heavily, but it was a welcome sensation as the invisible chains around my soul came off. Travelling anchors me, but these days, I don’t travel as much. And I feel uncertain, unanchored. A piece of driftwood in a world that constantly pushes one to prove one’s abilities and work more, play more, live more. Live? Really?
The wind whirled around me again. While my cousins were busy taking selfies and swinging from trees, I took a moment to gather my senses. To see if I could reach out and find myself. “Get away from the edge! Don’t be a fool, sit back a little!”, my aunt said, looking at me. “I won’t fall”, I assured her, the wind still whipping my hair. I won’t fall. Into this rigmarole. This pattern of waking up, working, coming home, passing out, managing family expectations, social expectations, not finding time to reorient myself. Not finding the time to travel. To be me. About time I broke this pattern. I need to. I cannot live without hitting the road, driving past paddy fields and waterfalls and fishing boats and islands and processions and waving to strangers on the road guilelessly. I cannot live without driving through lonely forest roads in dark nights on the way to Goa or wondering how I’m going to trek to a monastery two mountains away from the starting point. Without feeling the sand tickle my toes and the water terrifying me. I cannot not travel.
So, I made up my mind and shut out my everyday existence. Took two days off – days that seemed like a lifetime – and went away with the family. I walked, ran, slipped and slid, climbed rocks, sang, bathed in moonlight, got kissed by the sun, lived in the fear of a close encounter with some wild animal, slept like a log, laughed hard, talked, sang, danced… I lived.
And in that moment, as I stood there on that magnificent rock, revelling in the pleasure of feeling anchored again, the wind changed course and made its way through my hair and into the curves of my ear. “Welcome back, stranger”, it whooshed.
Over the third weekend of October in the heart of Bengal, people gathered by the dozen to worship Durga, go pendal-hopping and indulge in a lavish spread of Bengali fare.
Approximately 1,800 kilometers away, I was busy with my own celebrations: a weekend away from the city with family.
It wasn’t just the parents and I – it was the three of us plus six cousins – all younger – and two aunts. That’s one big family do, and after over a decade. Even then, the headcount wasn’t complete, with three uncles, another aunt and two more cousins – younger again –missing. And that’s just on my mother’s side.
Anyhoo, now that I’ve made you unnecessarily privy to my family tree, let me tell you more about the holiday itself.
Unlike all the other times when you holiday to untangle yourself from the world and everyone you know in it, a family holiday sort of strengthens the strings that tie family to one another. The time you have can go either way – morose and unhappy and full of family politics and cribs and complaints, or totally chilled out and mindlessly fun and full of camaraderie. Fortunately, I belong to a family that falls in the latter category, minus the occasional outburst of preferences and cribs, which is only natural. Oh, and the best part? By the end of it, we had our hair intact, vital organs in the right places and no blood on knives. And here are five things we did right, that helped us have a relaxed couple of days.
#1 Allot a SPOC (Single Point of Complaints)
Food not good? Travel arrangements not up to the mark? Beds too comfortable? Find the family a neck to put on the line. It works to your advantage to outsource the arrangements – that way, everyone can have a good time pointing fingers, without having to worry about hurting sentiments. Be warned, though – sometimes, one single person will have taken the initiative to choose the planner and that person may risk having been bitched about anyway. Don’t worry, just join the others and point away as well!
By default, the responsibility of arranging things fell on my shoulders because I’m the only one in the family with strolley wheels for feet. And because I’ve done it so many times, the whole thing was a cakewalk – except for the part where we decided on the travel dates 24 hours before travelling, on a long weekend when every resort I called was booked out or didn’t have accommodation available for 11 people.
#2 Choose a location/resort with provisions for group activities
You probably haven’t spent more than seven hours (including loo breaks and meal times) with your family since you were a toddler (read too little to comprehend family dynamics). So, living together for the next couple of days is fertile breeding ground for discord. By going to a place that has lots to see/do, you automatically give everyone something better than each other to be involved in – flowers to pluck, monkeys to chase or skimpily-clad women on the beaches to ‘observe’.
Discovery Village was our chosen destination. The place is not too far from the city, yet feels like it because it’s surrounded by mountains. Their usual guests are corporates who want to hold team outings or families that visit for a day-trip. We stayed overnight, and had much fun trying our hands at pottery, archery and target shooting. They even have a high-ropes course, but that needed to be booked in advance and we hadn’t.
#3 Stay away from controversial topics (including “When are you getting married?”, “Why do you spend so much money?” or even “What do you think of our Prime Ministerial candidates?”)
I’ve seen talks on Big Boss eliminations end in fist fights, so trust me when I say that I know what I’m talking about. Controversial topics may give people something to occupy themselves with, but they also usually divide people into three groups – those arguing, those supporting arguments and waiting for an opportunity to take a personal dig, and those who stand far away and enjoy the drama vicariously. Isn’t it better to spend time doing other, more interesting things (refer to #2) instead of debating if Salman’s new movie name was a gimmick to get more TRPs for the show?
Here’s what happened to me: Our holiday had precisely three minutes of focus on when I was going to get married. I deflected the question by drawing attention to my cousins and their problems –is so-and-so’s teacher discriminating based on religion? or Ohmigod you’re wearing that to go exploring? When both failed, I resorted to randomly jiggling to beats from “Lungi dance”. It worked beautifully.
#4 Don’t let how old you are affect how much fun you have
Being in a similar age group can give you lots of dots to connect, but when the years range from 10 to 75, you have to keep age aside and get together to have fun. Since the older generations have problems with the younger ones growing up (metaphorically and briefly) to their age, they just have to get down to the level of the youngsters. Which means, keep throwing in phrases like ‘Cool!’ and ‘Whatever’, get on Instagram, use the resort space to advantage to come up with age-neutral games, or just have a bonfire and play Antakshari.
We just came up with an impromptu game around pillars outside the rooms at Discovery Village. It was great fun, with all of us conspiring to get my mother out while she cheated her way through every round.
#5 Go with the flow
There’s nothing much to explain about this, is there? Go crazy, have fun, keep an open mind and try out new things.
So there you have it, my little secrets that will make a big difference in having a fabulous time with family. Use them, share them, turn them around and by all means, adapt and modify them as per your convenience. And if none of them work, get my number on speed dial and I’ll give you fantastic cheats to get out of sticky situations.
Getting to Discovery Village: Driving down is the best way. It’s about 60 kilometres from Bangalore and if you follow the directions to the T, then easy to find too.
Go if: You’re planning a family holiday or team outing, want to treat the kids to a day out, like being among mountains or want to stay within easy access to the city.
What makes some of us travellers? I prefer to believe that it’s genetic, even hereditary, although this may be an exception rather than a rule. Back in the day when I was a youngling and my grandfather was a civil engineer with the Indian Railways, he used to take us all on impromptu holidays at least once a month.
My earliest travel memories are associated with him and his white Fiat, the only car number I remember to date; as an only grandchild (then), I would be squished between my aunts and mother or sitting daintily on someone’s lap, concentrating all my weight on my little hands resting on the front seat rather than the lap of the person on whom I was sitting. Many wonderful years passed exploring Karnataka and the surrounding states. Drives down to Hyderabad, spotting foxes crossing the road near Baba Budangiri Hills, buying melons fresh from the river from farmers by the river bridge, picnicking under a massive tree by a random stream in the middle of nowhere, exploring fields of sunflowers… my grandfather had us experience it all.
The older he grew, the fewer holidays we took. By the time he passed away, travel was not a conscious ‘thing to do’ in my life. Yes, there was the occasional holiday from college or work, but never a burning passion to go see places and meet new people. It took a few more years for the dormant gene to stretch awake. Since then, there’s been no looking back.
I like to believe that this itch to travel is something I’ve inherited from my grandfather, a legacy of sorts that I’m carrying forward and that I will hopefully pass on to coming generations. That’s why this post is dedicated to him – the greatest traveller I have known and the man who introduced me to the abundant pleasures of travelling. Oh, and food.
I started my holiday with Gulbarga, a bustling town in North Karnataka, close to the Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh borders. Also known as Kalburgi, the town was a major pawn in the game of thrones, changing hands with every passing dynasty. There are decent-sized medical and engineering colleges in and around the town with students coming from all over to study, and yet the place has been culturally untouched by time. Traces of the old world remain in every facet of people’s everyday lives, in what they eat, wear, think and talk.
As a tourist place, Gulbarga doesn’t have much to offer. The Khwaja Bande Nawaz Dargah – a shrine built for a great believer – is one of the main attractions of the place. Legend has it that wishes asked for here are granted in no time at all, so people of all religions and from all walks of life can be found here. Gulbarga also has its own fort, but I was discouraged from going there because it’s ill-maintained, dirty and a place where youngsters go for a little private time away from prying eyes. By implication that means that a ‘good girl’ should not be spotted anywhere around the area.
I did manage to binge on local cuisine, though. Jolada roti, pathar gosht (meat cooked on stone slabs) and susla (a dish made out of puffed rice).
The best thing about Gulbarga is that it has many historic places around it that can be seen in a day. Bidar is one such location.
A one and a half-hour drive from Gulbarga, Bidar promises a peek into life during the Bahmani Empire, and delivers on it. I vaguely remember visiting the town when I was much younger (and crawling through secret passages that even my limb won’t go through anymore), but I don’t remember being so moved by it. Getting affected by ruins is a phenomenon I cannot explain, but I find my peace in the midst of the rubble of forgotten dynasties.
Despite its state of despair, the fort is beautiful and commands a fair bit of land as its own. I managed to get the resident ASI authorities to let me in to see parts of the fort that are being restored and was blown away by the skill and precision of the craftsmen back in the days. The architecture is different from any of the forts I have seen across India – I’m told its modelled on Turkish palaces and stands mossy and stark against a scorching sky of blue and sunshine.
You could spend an entire day just sitting under the shade of the walls that seem to touch the sky, or walk around exploring the many mini-palaces inside the fort. But I’d recommend you leave some time for the other attraction of the place – a school that was struck down by the wrath of God.
So this is how the story goes: a man of God, Khwaja Mahmud Gawan built a madrasa – an Islamic school of sorts – and proclaimed that this was the greatest structure in the entire world and that nothing could bring it down. No sooner were the words out of his mouth than a bolt of lightning struck the school down. I’m not sure about the casualties, but the Khwaja’s ego sure must have hurt like hell. Of course, the ASI board there will tell you differently – a gunpowder explosion caused a good chunk of the structure to collapse. One can still see the remnants of the fire.
Visiting Gulbarga and Bidar has whetted my appetite for exploring more of Karnataka. I realised that there’s so much to see, but I’ve been fascinated by so many places for so long that my own state has taken a bit of a backseat. So here’s to starting the new year with a new hope – that I can explore more of my own state in the coming months.
Getting there: Gulbarga is accessible by road and rail. There are many buses and trains to Gulbarga every day. Bidar can be accessed by car or bus, but I’m not entirely sure about trains.
Go if: You like history, want to experience life in towns, need a break from urban living and are the ‘I like local foods when I travel’ types.
I originally wrote this post for The Better India, although i’ve made a few additions to the text and pictures.
My reaction when I was first told about travelling to Aurangabad for a holiday was, “What? Why Aurangabad? What’s there?” By the end of the trip, though, I was urging everybody I met to go and experience the place for themselves. Consider yourselves victim number 35 or upwards.
Aurangabad is a dry, humid place in December. Actually, Aurangabad is a dry, humid place throughout the year; what we found to be scorching heat during the time, citizens of Aurangabad thought to be pleasant weather. But there’s more to the place than just that, even if the heat wave hitting you is the first thing you’ll notice when you land. Truth is, the city is a melting pot of culture and history. Let me illustrate with examples: there are about 200 Mercedes cars in Aurangabad and the population is mostly very well-to-do. Like all other cities in various stages of evolution, it has the old side and new side to it. There are malls and multiplexes everywhere and a number of restaurants that are testimony to people eating out more than they eat in. Agriculture is booming because the black soil is perfect for coaxing crops like cotton, various pulses, chillies, ginger, turmeric, onions, maize and oranges to grow in abundance; so is the industrial sector, which boasts of companies like BMW who are opening manufacturing units there. Aurangabad has seen kingdoms come and go just as patiently as it has seen religions change hands and evolve.
Start your trip with Ellora caves because they’re closer to Aurangabad and can be covered in a day. And trust me, you will finish it in a day because it’s tiring to walk the distance between each cave and crane your neck as you see wonderful carvings and paintings one after another. Ellora consists of a series of caves that were carved out in different centuries by Hindus, Jains and Buddhists. One wonders about the kind of patience and dedication that must have gone into creating each one of those caves, and then the gigantic carvings inside of them. This, especially when you hear of the process that goes into making a cave: the artisans and sculptors used only a hammer and a chisel, chipping away at the stone from the top of the cave to the bottom, and then from the front of the cave to the back. You’ll even see sculptures and caves that were abandoned because the stone wasn’t good.
You’ll find the Kailash Temple, one of the world’s largest monoliths, at Ellora. The detailing of the carvings here is fantastic – every mythological episode has been sculpted in stone, sometimes entirely on one wall.
Try making it to Ajanta on a weekday, although I doubt that it will make much of a difference. The place is packed with people of all ages and cultures. Even the elderly get to experience the caves, thanks to their chairs-tied-to-two-wooden-poles in which a person sits and is carried to the caves. Compared to Ellora, Ajanta is much, much more beautiful, although it doesn’t have the religious diversity of Ellora. The caves at Ajanta were created by Buddhist monks in mountains that are laid out in a horseshoe pattern and overlook a stream (when it rains) and a forest. The caves were accidentally discovered by an Englishman named John Smith while he was out hunting for tigers, but instead spotted a white patch of a door in the distance. For caves that are over 800 years old and defaced because of rainwater and wild growth and sun, they are fairly well preserved and exquisite. Most of the paintings and carvings are intact, with attempts underway to restore and excavate more. There are mandala patterns, apsaras and scenes from Buddah’s life everywhere, with the Buddha always being at the core of each cave in one of his three most common positions – teaching, meditating or protecting. There’s only one cave where you’ll see him reclining, occupying seven feet of space in the process.
There are also the Aurangabad caves, abandoned because the stone was not of sculpting quality. But I did notice something weird in one of the temples and I’m not sure if it was someone just trying their hand at sculpting: Buddha and Ganesha were in the same cave, almost side by side.
Not many people know that Aurangzeb’s mausoleum is in Aurangabad. Compared to the likes of Humayun and Shah Jahan, his grave rests in a tiny square space made of marble in a mosque in the old city, a few steps away from his mentor’s grave. I’ve heard it said that he was a kind-hearted man and in his old age, insisted that his resting place be made using whatever money he earned by making skull caps and selling them.
The Mad King, Tughlaq, was the exact opposite of Aurangzeb. He named Aurangabad Daulatabad because of its riches – gemstones, mostly. Precious stones are everywhere, and sometimes in the caves, you’ll see jade and white crystal breaking the monotony of plain rock like marbling in meat. I believe Daulatabad Fort to be the work of a genius, and maybe at some level, that’s what Tughlaq was. Here’s why: if I were the enemy, I would be confused at every step I took into the fort, not knowing which way to go, unaware that the elephant carvings on the top of the fort walls were indications of the route I should take; I would be killed a thousand times over by soldiers hiding in spaces that I didn’t know existed; but worst of all, I would die a frightful death in the Dark Passage, which eats up light for breakfast, lunch and dinner and spews out darkness in its place. The passage is almost a kilometre long and so pitch-dark that there’s absolutely no question of your eyes cannot adjust to the darkness and help you see shapes or forms of any kind. The path of the passage is circular, but you wouldn’t know because you can’t see. There’s no air circulation whatsoever, so if I were carrying a torch, it would go out in an instant. Should I have made it to the other side of the Dark Passage, I would have been slain instantly by waiting soldiers and my body would have rolled down into the moat infested with snakes and crocodiles.
You could leave all that unpleasantness behind and move on to admire the beauty of the mini Taj Mahal. At first glance, it looks exactly like the Taj Mahal, but it’s not. To begin with, it’s not made entirely of marble. Only up to two feet of the base of the main structure is marble and everything else is limestone. The Maqbara was made by Aurangzeb’s son for his mother, but since he was a prince and didn’t have the treasury at his disposal, he had to keep himself content with a structure of limestone. But what he lost for in quality of construction material, he made up for with the carvings and motifs because they are absolutely gorgeous. In fact, I like them more than I liked the motifs of the Taj Mahal.
The last leg of the trip was to Lonar Lake. I first heard of it a couple of years back when a friend went on a road trip to the place. The base of the lake is a crater formed by a meteor that hit the Earth over 50,000 years ago. The water trickled in from several fresh water sources but now has a pH level of 10.5 because the minerals from the meteor are mixed in it. Rumour is that the meteor is 60-70 metres below the crater still, but it can’t be confirmed because the pH level of the water makes it impossible for a person to deep-dive. The rim of the crater is almost two kilometres in diameter, and the base of the crater has rich biodiversity, with migratory birds often flocking to it during season time. The descent is 170-odd metres, with no defined path to take one down to the base. The magnetic fields in the area are strong – several temples, built at the base in homage to the gods that people thought were responsible for the miracle, are living examples of the magnetic fields; I’ve seen the compass change directions like crazy there. Lonar town is also full of ancient temples, but the townsfolk are quite unaware of the importance of the crater and use it as a dumping ground for sewage water. The government is taking measures to stop it, but it may take a few years before they achieve the desired results.
On the way back, don’t forget to stop by at one of the many fields growing the crops of the region. And if you’d like to see more places, you can always ask the people of Aurangabad. My experience with them has been charming – they’re extremely friendly, courteous and respectful of everyone. And I believe that to be one of the most important aspects of a great journey – local people, after all, can make or break a trip, and this time I had the good fortune of finding people who shared amazing stories and incidents. Most of everything I learned about Aurangabad, I learned from them. I hope you will too.
Getting there: There are direct flights from Bangalore to Aurangabad. I don’t think there are direct trains or buses because it’s a fairly long journey. We flew to Mumbai, spent the day there and took an overnight train to Aurangabad. There are quite a few hotels and some really nice resorts. I highly recommend Meadows Resort – it’s slightly outside the city but very quiet and comfortable. I’d give them two thumbs up for organizing my itinerary without a glitch and taking care of everything we needed.
Go if: You’re looking for offbeat places of history, want to avoid the usual tourist spots, like connecting with nature, want a family holiday.
Holidaying in Kodaikanal is like stepping into a camera and seeing the world for what it should be – vibrant, colourful and bursting with life. A hill station tucked away in Tamil Nadu, it’s the first place that comes to mind when I think of the word ‘peace’. That said, here’s my list of things you must do. Apart from doing nothing, that is.
1. Stay at the Villa Retreat. It’s right next to Coaker’s Walk which offers a breathtaking view of the Kodaikanal valley. Clouds throwing shadows over looming mountains, with homes, alternating patches of forests and crops dotting the mountainous terrain. Villa Retreat is a quite, cosy place constructed with stone and a whole lot of love. Husband, wife and son run it. The food is good, the scenery absolutely picture-perfect and the routine of doing next-to-nothing is just what your therapist will recommend.
2. Trip on the blooms everywhere. The Kodai weather drugs insects into spreading pollen from plants and nudges little buds into full-blossoming adulthood. There are flowers everywhere – massive blooms of vivid purples, oranges, pinks, whites, reds, blues…it’s like a painter’s paradise. We went in the last week of June and the weather was perfect – rain and sunshine, with plenty of rainbows thrown in for good measure.
3. Visit the Pine Forest. The fragrance of the pine forest is one you won’t regret when it fills up your lungs and pervades your senses. Pine cones are scattered everywhere. The ground is a bed of soft, sharp pine needles that drown your footsteps. The sun plays hide and seek but you’ll catch it by the shadows it casts on the ground. The place is usually crowded but it’s worse over weekends, so pick a weekday to visit. And walk around. And soak in the atmosphere.
4. Eat magic mushrooms. I asked people, but they either didn’t know about it or pretended not to.
5. Catch at least one sunrise/sunset. It’s worth two hours of lost sleep, I promise.
6. Visit Berijam Lake. It’s a slightly long drive from Kodai town, but the journey will be nothing compared to the picturesque setting. I was asked by a friend to visit Berijam Lake, in memory of her great grandfather who owned the property and gave it away to the Government before he passed away. The good thing is, not too many tourists know about Berijam Lake and so the place is almost people-free except for the forest officials manning the entry post.
7. Buy lots of chocolates and Eucalyptus oil. Kodai is pretty well-known for its home-made chocolates. You’ll find all sorts there, and in abundance. The Eucalyptus oil is so pure that one whiff will cure you of your worst flu. The test for authenticity is pretty interesting – the shop keeper will dip a handkerchief in a bottle of Eucalyptus oil until the kerchief has soaked up generous amounts, and then he’ll light it on fire. You’ll see the flames alright, but the hanky won’t burn. That’s when you know that the oil is unadulterated.
8. Walk around. The people are friendly, the roads are near-empty and inviting, and the weather perfect for it. You’ll see lots of old English houses, churches, squares and cyclists.
9. Visit the boathouse. Not for anything else but for the fact that it’s a really old, really quaint location with lots of little duckies going quack quack and paddling away rapidly from cruising boats. Nice place for pictures.
10. Enjoy the quiet. It’s the kind of silence that you want to be surrounded by. The only thing you’re likely to hear are your own thoughts, the crackling fire, chirping birds and cicadas, rustling leaves and maybe a few pots and pans clanging in the process of getting food ready.
Getting there: Drive down if you’re in Bangalore or TN, or opt for the train.
Go if: You need a quiet vacation to spend quality time with yourself, your better half or with parents. I chose the last option and it was so worth it. They still gush about it like two kids after visiting a fair bursting with joy rides and cotton candy.
Pictures: All pictures shot using my friend’s Nikon D40. I didn’t own a Digi-SLR of my own then.