A day at Chowmahalla Palace and Qutub Shahi tombs, Hyderabad.

Grumpy duck, Chowmahalla Palace.

Grumpy duck seeking cover under a fountain, Chowmahalla Palace.

No matter how much I love the city or how hard I try to capture its flavours in one single post, Hyderabad is flat-out refusing to be captured by my words. So, here it is, another itty-bitty snippet on the home of the Nizams.

One of the inner palaces at the Chowmahalla Palace. This one had all the weaponry.

One of the inner palaces at the Chowmahalla Palace. This one had all the weaponry.

Chowmahalla Palace – middle name, Grandeur
An unexpected delight and an architectural jewel of the history of Hyderabad, Chowmahalla Palace is tucked away in the most unassuming corner of the back roads leading away (or to, depending on how you see it) from Charminar. Despite having spent every summer of my growing-up years holidaying in Hyderabad, I heard of Chowmahalla Palace for the first time a couple of months ago. And of course, because I hadn’t heard of it before, I was itching to go.

The ceiling of the main durbar area.

The elaborate ceiling of the main Durbar area.

The place didn’t disappoint. Chowmahalla Palace is like the Inception of palaces – four palaces within a palace. Each more beautifully crafted than the other, with intricate ceilings heavy with spectacular chandeliers stretching towards the ground. And like that isn’t breathtaking enough, every palace is a museum bursting with relics of the Nizam’s reign – photographs that have been framed with great care, an opulent grandfather clock from a neighbouring king, cutlery and chinaware, furniture, clothes, weapons and the most well-maintained vintage cars I have seen in a while.

The Durbar - made of solid marble and flanked on the sides and from the ceiling by crystal chandeliers.

The Durbar – made of solid marble and flanked on the sides and from the ceiling by crystal chandeliers.

The best part about visiting the Chowmahalla is that even on the busiest days, it isn’t bustling with hordes of people. It’s like a well-kept secret among locals, a slice of the past that the tourists haven’t been able to get their hands on, making the pleasure of experiencing the palace more than a tick mark on a checklist of must-see places in a city.

Most of the Chinaware housed in Chowmahalla consists of elaborate pieces that were gifts from neighbouring countries whose kings visited the Nizam. This one was especially pretty because it had an ornate butterfly in the place of a handle.

Most of the Chinaware housed in Chowmahalla consists of elaborate pieces that were gifts from neighbouring countries whose kings visited the Nizam. This one was especially pretty because it had an ornate butterfly in the place of a handle.

Another place, of course, is the Qutub Shahi tombs. Less popular with the tourists and a better-known retreat for the locals, it hasn’t changed one bit since my teenage years spent exploring the tombs and climbing stairways that were blocked by lush bramble.

One of the many tombs at Qutub Shahi Park. One can still see hints of the enamel work in the facade near the dome. When I was a kid, I used to collect the chunks of fallen Enamel pieces, almost as if it were a part of history that I could call mine.

One of the many tombs at Qutub Shahi Park. One can still see hints of the colourful Enamel work on the facade. When I was a kid, I used to collect the chunks of fallen Enamel pieces, almost as if it were a part of history that I could call mine.

Qutub Shahi tombs – where there’s beauty in death
The only thing that doesn’t make the approach to the Qutub Shahi tombs nondescript is the tourist shuttles standing outside the gates of the tomb park. Once you walk through the gates, though, it’s an entirely different story. Tombs of varying shapes and sizes dominate the area, reflecting the Persian, Pashtun and Hindu forms of architecture that they are based on. The kings of the Qutub Shah dynasty – including next-of-kin and important commanders – are buried here. The tomb of Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah offers a pretty decent view of the Golconda Fort, located about a kilometre or so away from the tombs.

Mughal architecture is incomplete without symmetrical archways. So is my set of photographs! There's something almost poetic in framing a picture with arches and having someone walk through it.

Mughal architecture is incomplete without symmetrical archways, and so is my set of photographs! There’s something almost poetic in framing a picture with arches and capturing someone walk through it.

Every tomb has a story behind it, not just about the person/people buried under it, but also the architecture itself. The bigger the king, the grander the structure and the inscriptions on the walls. Excavation of the Badi Bowli – the Big Well – was underway when I went there. From what I could see behind the sealed-off area, it resembled the step wells of Gujarat. It should be open to visitors soon enough.

The grave on ground-level is just an indicative structure built on top of the actual sarcophagus. Although not considered holy, there are still those who pay the graves a visit and seek blessings.

The grave on ground-level is just an indicative structure built on top of the actual sarcophagus. Although not considered holy, there are still those who pay the graves a visit and seek blessings.

As with all places of death, Qutub Shahi tombs is quiet, serene and somehow, more beautiful. There are the occasional light and sound shows that are held on premise, but otherwise the place shuts down after dusk – and for good reason too. Imagine moving around the place in darkness, with at least two dozen dead bodies that are at least four centuries old for company!

A smaller tomb on the Qutub Shahi Park premises, and also one constructed away from the main tombs. It could mean that the person buried here was of lesser stature than the king and his kins. Still, the craftsmanship is fairly elaborate.

A smaller tomb on the Qutub Shahi Park premises, and also one constructed away from the main tombs. It could mean that the person buried here was of lesser stature than the king and his kins. Still, the craftsmanship is fairly elaborate.

Since the better part of the day was spent roaming the Chowmahalla Palace, I couldn’t spend as much time at the tombs as I wanted to. I did leave with an imprint of a gorgeous sunset on my mind – and my camera – though.

Maybe the next post I write about the elusive city of Hyderabad, I’ll be able to add more to my exploration of it and of the other places that are waiting to be rediscovered.

A glorious sunset against the tombs made the short visit totally worth the while.

A glorious sunset against the tombs made the short visit totally worth the while.

Getting there: Hyderabad is easily accessible by road, air and train. I would strongly recommend driving down because the route is picturesque and the roads, beautiful.

Go if: You love food, history, architecture, attention to detail and a little bling.

P.S: Yes, yes, I’m fully aware that Potli Baba was off the radar for a good two months (or more). We are back now, though, and hopefully will be more regular in posting here! Meanwhile, thank you to everyone who hung around, waited patiently for posts to appear and even reminded me to get back. Sending much love and gratefulness your way.

Down the Rabbit Hole: 10 Italian villages for the perfect summer getaway.

San Gimignano, Tuscany. Picture via Huffington Post/Minube.

San Gimignano, Tuscany. Picture via Huffington Post/Minube.

Think of Italy, and you think of Quixotic men, flowing wine, sumptuous food, candlelit dinners at quaint roadside cafes and a city that is a living, breathing part of history.

We know the country for its romance and architectural beauty, but it turns out that there are remote, undiscovered places in Italy that are way more charming than the touristy attractions usually associated with it. So here’s a list of the 10 Italian villages that one must visit when holidaying in Italy.

I think I’ll just settle for one of these over the cities – or maybe stay in all of them, because as the Italians say, la varietà è il sale della vita – variety is the spice of life.

Via Huffington Post. Read the full article here: http://huff.to/1h3Xrc1

Picture via Huffington Post, who curated it with help from Minube.

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What is Down the Rabbit Hole?

Remember Alice? And how she went slip-sliding down an innocent-looking burrow? And how she emerged into this fantastic, unbelievable world on the other side – one she never thought existed? Well, starting this month, Potli Baba will go down a special rabbit hole from time to time and stumble upon strange, fascinating worlds that have been recorded for posterity by those brave enough to venture into them. Simply put, Potli Baba is going to curate interesting and marvellous articles, stories and photo essays from the Internet and bring them to you as a series (complete with gift-wrap and ribbon) on the blog. Just for your reading pleasure.

To Lucknow for One Wedding and 20 Plates of Tunday Kababs.

A month’s a long time to stay away from writing about my travels, but after a crazy wedding bang in the middle of November, I’ve had little time to breathe normally – let alone blog. But here I am, determined to write about a fascinating city called Lucknow and how it added extra pounds to my flourishing bulk.

Here’s how the sequence of events went.

We arrive in Lucknow. It's afternoon and we head to our hotel and from there, straight to lunch at the wedding venue. For a city that's not so cosmopolitan as Mumbai, I was surprised at the smog.

Day 1: We arrive in Lucknow. It’s afternoon – we head to our hotel and from there, straight to lunch at the wedding venue. I was surprised at the level of smog in the city – quite unexpected. Over lunch, my dear friend Diwa – who had spent several of his younger years in Lucknow – promised to take us Gilauti-eating as soon as we were done with a token lunch at the wedding venue. I can’t tell you how hard it was to stop eating halfway through lunch to save some space for the kababs.

 

A mini lunch at the wedding venue left us craving for some Gilauti kababs. We went to Dastarkhwan - a place pretty well-known for its kababs. Between the 11 of us, we had about 8 plates of mutton and beef kababs. Somehow, our taste buds were not entirely happy. But we had no choice - it was getting late for the Mehendi and we had to hurry back to the hotel.

Here we are at Dastarkhwan – a place pretty well-known for its kababs – mere hours after our lunch. Between the 11 of us, we had about 8 plates of mutton and beef kababs. Somehow, our taste buds were not entirely happy. But we had no choice – it was getting late for the Mehendi and we had to hurry back to the hotel.

 

Lucknow takes its weddings very seriously, as you can see.

Lucknow takes its weddings very seriously, as you can see. This, however, is absolutely no indication of the madness that followed once the Mehendi started. It involved a lot of dancing, quiet corners to occasionally slink away to, and a whole lot of Punjabi-style eating and drinking.

 

Day 2: Heading out to see the Imambaras. One of the archways that leads to the Bara Imambara, a place where the Shia sect of Muslims comes to mourn the passing of their prophet. (At least that's what the guide told us.)

Day 2: Heading out to see the Imambaras. One of the archways that leads to the Bara Imambara, a place where the Shia sect of Muslims comes to mourn the passing of their prophet. (At least that’s what the guide told us.) Before we can go into the Imambara, though, our guide tells us that we should visit the Chota Imambara first. We obey.

 

At the Chota Imambara. In all the time I have spent travelling and looking at Mughal architecture, this is the first time I have come across a structure that uses only black and white as colours of embellishment. The effect is stunning.

At the Chota Imambara. In all the time I have spent travelling and looking at Mughal architecture, this is the first time I have come across a structure that uses only black and white as colours of embellishment. The effect is stunning.

 

Even more mesmerising than the outer structure is the interior of the Chota Imambara. Chandeliers of every kind hang everywhere, and walking in is akin to walking into a dream. Refractions throw soft light across surfaces and the whole experience is pure magic.

Even more mesmerising than the outer structure is the interior of the Chota Imambara. Chandeliers of every kind hang everywhere, and walking in is akin to walking into a dream. Refractions throw soft light across surfaces and the whole experience is pure magic.

 

At a Chikan Factory: Lucknow is famous for its Chikan work - a certain form of embroidery that is as delicate and fine as the language (or is it dialect?) and mannerisms one associates with pure-bred Lakhnavis. Hearing a Lakhnavi talk is like music to the ears, unless they're chewing betel leaves of tobacco - which most often, they are.

At a Chikan Factory: Lucknow is famous for its Chikan work – a certain form of embroidery that is as delicate and fine as the language (or is it dialect?) and mannerisms one associates with pure-bred Lakhnavis. Hearing a Lakhnavi talk is like music to the ears, unless they’re chewing betel leaves of tobacco – which most often, they are.

 

Fancy Tonga: Dhanno (or whatever it is she is really called), was all decked up for our ride.  She patiently took us sight-seeing from one Imambara to another, looking at us with her pretty eyes and nodding her head at our lot. What you see here in the background is an erstwhile entrance into the city.

Fancy Tonga: Dhanno (or whatever it is she is really called), was all decked up for our ride. She patiently took us sight-seeing from one Imambara to another, looking at us with her pretty eyes and nodding her head at our lot. What you see here in the background is an erstwhile entrance into the city.

 

Bada Imambara - a massive structure with the infamous Bhool Bhulaiya - secret passageway.

Bada Imambara – a massive structure with the infamous Bhool Bhulaiya – secret passageway. It’s almost 4 p.m. by the time we’re done here, and we’re famished. Diwa comes up with the idea of going to the original Tunday Kababs. We agree wholeheartedly.

 

And we're here! 100 years old, in the old part of the city, and kababs that live up to our expectations. We just couldn't stop eating, but when we ran out of time because we had to head back for the wedding, we stopped at 20 plates of kababs.

And we’re here! The famous and fabulous Tunday Kababs -100 years old, located in the old city, and food that lives up to the hype. We just couldn’t stop eating, but when we ran out of time because we had to head back for the wedding, we stopped. After 20 plates of kababs. 20. Between 5 of us.

 

And that's how we marry: Good thing we ate that much, because we burnt all of it dancing in the baraat. The groom arrived at the wedding in a cycle rickshaw all decked up with flowers. The best men took turns riding the rickshaw and it was a sight to behold.

And that’s how we marry: Good thing we ate that much, because we burnt all of it dancing in the baraat. The groom arrived at the wedding in a cycle rickshaw all decked up with flowers. The best men took turns riding the rickshaw and it was a sight to behold. Photo courtesy: Diwa.

 

At Janpath Market, where the signage of every brand - big or small - is in Black and White on the buildings. And I mean every brand. It sort of helps retain the old-world-ness of the area, I guess.

At Janpath Market, where the signage of every brand – big or small – is in Black and White on the buildings. And I mean every brand. It sort of helps retain the old-world-ness of the area, I guess. This was also the night we checked out pubs/lounges in Lucknow. Pretty interesting, I must say, with women in teensy-weensy skirts and men in BMWs and what-nots.

 

Day 3: It was time to say bye to the city. I carried back an extra bag full of Chikan kurtas for 18 people, Gilauti kababs for the parents and a whole bunch of really fun memories back with me.

Day 3: It was time to say bye to the city. I carried back an extra bag full of Chikan kurtas for 18 people, Gilauti kababs for the parents and a whole bunch of really fun memories back with me.

Getting there: Lucknow is accessible by air, with direct flights from Bangalore. There are trains, buses and flights from Delhi as well.

Go if: You enjoy history, food, culture, and shopping.

 

No-brainer destinations: Lepakshi

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The courtyard surrounding the Virabhadraswamy Temple.

Sunday dawned bright and sky-blue, and decided that she wanted to whisk me away into the pages of history. There are untold cultural riches, she whispered, stories in stone that you’ve never seen before, and a way of life that’s long forgotten.

And so I found myself on the way to Lepakshi – a small temple town on the border of Andhra Pradesh. Craggy mountains abound on the way, and a massive arched entrance welcomes people to the place that’s home to a gorgeous, albeit fast-crumbling, 15th century Virabhadraswamy temple.

View through the doorway.

View through the doorway.

Stepping through the looming doorway, I was instantly enveloped by the ghosts of a historic period that must have been aesthetically rich – typical carvings of lions, horses, and apsaras are given more depth and character through the masonry that created them. The temple stands proud at the center of the stone-walled compound, with a row of Hampi gold-market-like structures running along it. I decided to explore the outside area before venturing in, and found myself fascinated by the uniqueness of the carvings. They’re nothing like the stone carvings I have seen in temples and caves across any of the other historic sites I have visited.

A section of the kalyana mantapa behind the temple.

A section of the kalyana mantapa behind the temple.

Walking around the back of the temple, I came upon a kalyana mantapa – a space allotted for marriage ceremonies. Despite its dilapidated state, the mantapa is the most impressive part of the temple; stone pillars ornately carved with gods and goddesses surround the central area of the mantapa, simulating the feeling of a marriage ‘blessed by the gods themselves’. A little distance away, a gigantic carving of serpent heads awaits the descent of Lord Vishnu. The contrast of the aged stones against a clear-blue sky dotted with cotton-candy clouds was visually unparalleled.

Murals on the ceiling of the temple's inner sanctum.

Murals on the ceiling of the temple’s inner sanctum.

Inside the temple itself, the visual display is quite the opposite – the ceilings are full of fairly well-preserved murals depicting scenes of hunting, weddings, and visits to the king. Again, the style here was vastly different from any mural paintings I have ever seen. The hall before the deity of the temple is the natya mandira – the space for performance arts. The pillars in the space display careful craftsmanship in the forms of dancers and musicians.

I'm not sure what to make of this lady's pose, but it feels like an 'Oops' moment to me.

I’m not sure what to make of this lady’s pose, but it feels like an ‘Oops’ moment to me, like she’s just lost her balance and is about to fall. Incidentally, this is the first carving I have seen with what resembles slippers on the carving’s feet.

The temple itself is a sanctuary from the outside world, breathing in the surrounding noise and breathing out a comfortable silence. The cool stone slabs offer the perfect reprieve from a burning afternoon sun.

The Nandi in Lepakshi, a little distance away from the temple, faces the temple's entrance and is the only other tourist attraction in the area.

The Nandi in Lepakshi, a little distance away from the temple, faces the temple’s entrance and is the only other tourist attraction in the area.

As I sat in the temple and looked around, Sunday evening glided up to me, whispering that it was time to get back to reality. Reluctantly, I big goodbye to the temple priest whom I was just beginning to be friends with and walked away, mentally bookmarking this particular page so I could get back to it whenever I wanted to.

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The Frangipani that got away from the tree for some quiet time.

Getting there: Lepakshi is 125 kilometres from Bangalore and easily accessible by road. We went on bikes, but it’s a smooth drive by car as well. The roads are wide and the route, picturesque.

Go if: You don’t have enough time for a weekend getaway, want to explore places around Bangalore, like historic places, temples and stories.

Going back in time: Gulbarga and Bidar.

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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.

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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.

Locks as mannats - wishes - at the Khwaja Bande Nawaz Dargah. This was the first time i saw something other than threads being used to ask for a wish to be granted.

Locks as mannats – wishes – at the Khwaja Bande Nawaz Dargah. This was the first time i saw something other than threads being used to ask for a wish to be granted.

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.

A river just outside of Gulbarga. The bridge adjacent to it fell, making it impossible for buses to ply. So people coming into the town get down on one side of the bridge, walk on the pedestrian path to the other side and board a bus that takes them into the city.

A river just outside of Gulbarga. The bridge adjacent to it fell, making it impossible for buses to ply. So people coming into the town get down on one side of the bridge, walk on the pedestrian path to the other side and board a bus that takes them into the city.

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 view of a part of the fort from Rangeen Mahal.

A view of a part of the fort from Rangeen Mahal.

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.

The main fort with the Sola Khamba (16 Pillar) mosque to the right.

The main fort with the Sola Khamba Masjid (16 Pillar mosque) to the right.

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.

Inlay work at Rangeen Mahal, using mother of pearl and precious metals. This type of craftsmanship typical to Bidar is famous and known as Bidri work.

Inlay work at Rangeen Mahal – the part of the fort used by women – using mother of pearl and precious metals. This type of craftsmanship typical to Bidar is famous and known as Bidri work.

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.

The facade of the madrasa. You can see hints of the destruction caused by fire on the extreme left of the picture.

The facade of the madrasa. You can see hints of the destruction caused by fire on the extreme left of the picture. 

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.

Karanji Reservoir on the way to Bidar. Sweltering, vast and still.

Karanji Reservoir on the way to Bidar. Sweltering, vast and still.

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.

Inside the Sola Khamba Masjid, Bidar.

Inside the Sola Khamba Masjid, Bidar.

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.

The colours of Jaipur.

Ever since I can remember, the mere mention of Rajasthan has brought a look of wide-eyed wonder to my face. The royal (and ghostly) palaces, the filigree windows, the food, desert safari, Pushkar – there wasn’t a single element that didn’t fascinate me. Having lusted after it for years, I finally managed to spend two days in Jaipur. It worked wonderfully well as an appetizer, making my wandering feet thirst for a longer, more detailed exploration of the city and its cousins in the near future.

I love Jaipur for its vibrancy, bustle (especially since we went just a few days before Diwali), food, architecture and salesmen. But what I love most are its colours – of streets, people, places, clothes, just about everything. If I could paint the world with it, I would; but I’ll restrict that to this blog for now.

The 7:30 a.m Green

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The train ride from Delhi to Jaipur is a lovely one because the landscape changes from concrete-buildings to sun-kissed fields to patches of barren land and mountains with fort walls visible in the distance.

Hues of hardwork

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The designs true to Jaipur are available in every store, and sometimes within easy grasp on the roads as well.

Thick, sweet White

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Lakshmi Mishtan Bhandar, or LMB as it is more widely known in Jaipur, is a must-visit for foodies. My desire to order everything on the menu was quelled by my limitation of possessing just one stomach. Fortunately, it was big enough to ingest the most amazing Lassi I have ever had, Dahi Bhalla, Raj Kachori, Dal Bhati Churma, Paneer Pakora, Kadi Chawal, Samosa Kachori and Khandvi. (I think I’ve forgotten some of the other things we ordered.) I did have plenty of help from three other friends, of course.

Ageing Browns and Reds

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Johari Bazaar is dotted by street vendors selling fruit and torans and decorative items of all kinds. And since we had gone pre-Diwali, there were even more people.

Ripe Red

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One of the many wares sold on the roadside.

Lilac spread

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These little meringue-like sweet treats, what we call Bataashe (Singular Bataasha), are sold by kilos to people who use it as prasad.

Palatial Pink

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The Hawa Mahal is a straight walk down from Johari Bazaar and right on the main road. That it was on the road killed the romance of the palace for me, but the facade is still quite beautiful.

Moroccan Whites and Golds

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To me, this shop seemed like a slice of the Moroccan markets I’ve seen on TV magically that magically appeared in Johari Bazaar. Cut-glass, coloured glass, mosaic, brass filigreed and patterned-glass lamps were everywhere. I went from one to the other, eyes glittering with the reflected light from within the lamps.

Daylight Orange

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Almost every building in Jaipur is true to the design elements of the region. This one caught my eye because of the concrete meshes that double up as windows.

Dusk Blue

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As we waited outside the gates of the City Museum, we saw it transform from a structure of shadows and green and blue lights into a welcoming, festive place lit with a number of diyas.

Blurry Black and Brown

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Chokhi Dhani is a massive dining property, a sort of private co-op effort where food is served the traditional way alongside performances by local artists. The food was delicious, but we couldn’t do justice to it because we had hogged our hearts out at LMB. That said, I helped myself to multiple Kesar Pista Kulfis – they were the best I have had to date.

Dangling Copper

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Wares on display en route Amber Fort, which we didn’t end up seeing because we spent the day donating all our savings to the cause of shopping at Rajasthan Small Scale Cottage Industries. It’s a clever setup – with everything under one roof, they whisk you away from the clothes section to the jewellery and shoes and art sections one by one, smooth-talking you into exploring each and every part shop. Not a penny’s regret, but we comfortably ran up a bill of over a lakh between the four of us. My advice to you? Don’t make the mistake I did. Spend your days scouring the shops of Johari and Bapu Bazaar – you get great stuff for half the price. We didn’t have enough time for it, so cottage industries was best for us.

Royal Cream

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A view of Amber Fort from outside. We never got around to exploring it because we were busy donating all our savings.

Savoury Silver

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Endless trays of fried goodness beckoned from behind grumpy store owners as we drove past them, faces stuck to the windows, salivating profusely. We didn’t stop, though, because we were broke from having donated all our savings. (See a pattern emerging yet?)

Watery Yellow

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Jal Mahal awaiting the start of Diwali celebrations, standing as still as the water it lives in, with cormorants resting on its domes as they take a break from hunting for fish.

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And that’s how my two days in Jaipur went. I was like a horse with blinders, all my attention focused on shopping for friends, family and myself. That seems to have worked in my favour, though, because not having visited any of the architectural marvels this time gives me a good reason to go back there soon.

Getting there: Jaipur is accessible by road, train and air from Delhi. It’s accessible from most other places by air. If you’re going from Delhi, I would recommend taking a train – either overnight or early morning.

Go if: You love shopping, food, architecture, want to soak in the richness of culture and love a good sales pitch (the shopkeepers and their staff are very, very effective with their selling skills, I assure you).

Experiencing Gujarat: the story continues.

Part Two: Diu, Baroda, Ahmedabad

Night Market, Ahmedabad. Rows and rows of shops sell hand-made clothes, bags, bedspreads, murals and jewellery that are typical to the Kutch style of craftsmanship.

The story so far: The Gujarat Tourism ads lured us into exploring the state two years ago. My previous account of the two week-holiday stopped on the silvery white, frozen desert of Kutch. This is where the rest of the journey took me.

Our travel was planned only up to Kutch. After that, my friend and I were going to leg it as needed to Diu, then Baroda and from there, to Ahmedabad for New Year’s Eve. To act like a couple of backpackers and travel as we thought convenient was half the excitement and adventure of the rest of our trip.

After speaking to one of the organizing committee members at Rann Utsav and weighing the pros and cons, we decided to hire a cab to Rajkot and take a bus – any bus – from there to Diu.

The drive to Rajkot was picturesque – wide expanses of emptiness changing to hillocks with giant wind mills interspersed with patches of fields full of migratory birds. At one point, when I was half asleep, I saw a filed full of Flamingos. By the time I could stop the cab, we’d zipped past and I let it go because I thought it wasn’t possible that Flamingos would be found in this part of the world. I was wrong. Till date, I kick myself really hard for not having stopped.

We reached the Rajkot bus station by 9 a.m, where we decided we would travel by state transport. It was a new place and we had no idea what to expect – the Bangalore State Transport buses serve their purpose of taking people from one point to another faster than private buses and are fairly clean. We didn’t know what to expect with Gujarat State Transport. But we took out chances anyway and boarded the bus to Diu. The next 13 hours were one of the longest of my life, saved by my friend’s song list. People gave us odd looks, thought we were some big-shot photographers, or some weird women from the West.

Stop! The bus to Diu had a bell above the door, with the attached rope going all the way to the back seat. Anybody who wanted to get off the bus at any point of the journey just had to pull the rope, making the bell ring and the driver halt.

My first impression of Diu – you have to cross a bridge to get to it. No, really; I’m not being philosophical or any such thing. Diu is an island, only connected by a bridge with a horribly bumpy road that precedes it. The lights in the distance across are as colourful as Las Vegas, though. (And we did manage to see a fox sprinting across the road as the bus trudged on.)

A random beach hidden beyond a canopy of trees, five minutes away from our resort in Diu.

Once we landed, we took an auto to our resort, dumped our bags and headed out to a nearby shack to celebrate my friend’s birthday. When we woke up late the next day, the beauty of the island smacked us over the head. You can go from one end of the island to the other in a couple of hours. The roads are wide, the air clean, fresh and unpolluted, and Diu itself is as non-commercial as beach holiday spots come. There are lots of natural caves – formed by the retreating sea hundreds of years ago – to walk through and see. Nothing in them except for some spectacular rock formations. The beaches are an absolute joy too. In short, Diu is a place I would return to every year, and I’d recommend people to visit at least once while they’re alive.

The naturally formed caves, Diu.

While Diu is a peaceful getaway, Baroda’s like a blast from the past. The minute I got there (by state transport again), my mind switched to Black and White mode – the architecture, the palace, the courthouse, an apartment building that doubles up as a base for fire trucks, scooters on the road, women in sarees worn the Gujarati way… it was a nice slice of history. We did a bulk of our shopping there, ate home-cooked, finger-lickingly fabulous Gujju food and burped our way back to Ahmedabad.

The Courthouse of Baroda, my city of Black and White.

Exploring history, Baroda.

A bulk of our sight-seeing at Ahmedabad was done before we landed there for New Year’s Eve. We went to Gandhinagar and then to Adalaj – a stepwell that dates back to hundreds of years and is absolutely awe-inspiring with its intricate carvings and dizzying drops.

The step well at Adalaj. This is a view of the top from where the well is.

In short, Gujarat was an amazing – and extremely different – experience. Like a box of assorted candies whose truth will only be revealed once you buy it and pop a candy into your mouth. I would love to go back there someday, because despite having seen and breathed in the cultural and historical diversity of the place, i didn’t cover half of what it has to offer. And that just leaves me to conclude that those tourism ads were absolutely right – there’s so much to experience in Gujarat.

Diu Fort.

Getting there: Get a direct flight from Bangalore to Ahmedabad or Baroda and plan your trip according to where each of the places you want to visit are located on the map. The distances are pretty long, so be smart about travel time. You can either fly to Diu or take an overnight bus from Ahmedabad. For the Rann Utsav, the organizers will arrange everything for you.

Go if: You like being pleasantly surprised by places and people, like history, love types of terrains, are a bird watcher or photographer, love exploring the cuisine  and culture of different places, or crave a very old-world, quiet time by the seaside.

Aurangabad: The Silent Historian.

I originally wrote this post for The Better India, although i’ve made a few additions to the text and pictures.

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Protected by the Ghats: Aurangabad.

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.

Buddha's Seven Avatars, Ellora: There are a couple of carvings of Buddha's transition from a prince to the Enlightened One, but this is the most beautiful.

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.

Kailash Temple, Ellora.

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.

A view of the horse shoe-shaped layout of Ajanta Caves.

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.

Praying by Aurangzeb's grave.

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.

Daulatabad Fort basking in the sun.

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.

Bibi ka Maqbara a.k.a the mini 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.

The crater between the earth and sky: A view of Lonar Lake. The water's green because of planktons, the only form of life that can survive in the high pH level-water.

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.

Cave no.10 at Ellora proudly displaying its generous supply of Jade. Crystals and streaks of stones peeking through the rock is a common sight at the caves.

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.