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.
It was 3:30 a.m. on a Ramadan morning in Bangalore when my phone buzzed next to my ear, announcing the arrival of a message. Whatsapp, I assumed, knowing fully well that the cousins would be up talking youngster nonsense till Seher time – the appointed hour when Muslims around the world wake up to eat, pray and fall back into a sleepy stupor. I had forgotten to put my phone on Silent mode when I passed out for the night and reached out blindly to amend my mistake before more buzzing could stir me awake.
It was a message from my mother. Just got back after a night of shopping at Charminar, finished Seher at Shadab, it read. She was in Hyderabad, yes, but Charminar at 3:30 in the morning? Impossible. I thought she was pulling a fast one – I fall for her pranks all the time. When I spoke to her the next day, she couldn’t stop gushing about the night – and all the other nights that she went gallivanting around Old City at bizarre hours. Why would you do that? Is it safe?, I asked. The whole world is out shopping till Seher!, she countered. I didn’t believe her.
Now I do, because I ventured out to the Old City three days before Eid and witnessed the mayhem for myself.
Let’s just say that I’m a parasite in human form, feeding off of the collective energy of excited, supercharged crowds. The Old City – more specifically, the stretch from Madina building to Charminar and beyond – was a hive, with a sea of black engulfing it, buzzing about haphazardly from one roadside shop to another. Open vendor stalls screamed slogans of encouragement for people to buy from them – “Aaiye, aaiye!” – music blared from the other end of the road and the crowd came in waves and carried one along with it. That frenzy! That madness! That salesmanship! That food! That night! So. Much. Fun.
Everything was selling at dirt cheap prices. I bought myself a gorgeously embroidered Georgette saree (against my better judgement) for a measly sum of 1800 bucks. Had I chosen to buy it from a showroom, it would have cost me an arm and half a leg. “The demand for store stuff is a lot lesser now, because everybody buys online these days”, one shopkeeper told my Dad, “So we have to make the most of times like these.” Fair enough, I thought, as I looked around and couldn’t stop smiling at the sales pitches being screamed all around me: “Hello Aunty! Only 120!”, “Hyderabad ki shaan, Paidaan!” (Hyderabad’s pride, a doormat – it sounds much funnier in Hyderabadi, believe me), “Loot lo, chaat lo, ghar jaake baat lo!” (Loot it, savour it, go home and share it! Basically meaning that it’s a steal at the price, so you can buy lots and then distribute it amongst the family.) One man – I’ll call him the Harsha Bhogle of Shopping – even had a microphone and conveyed a running commentary of his shoppers’ activities to the entire market. “Yes, yes, that is an absolutely fantastic piece of cloth you have in your hand! Close your eyes and go for it! Look at that lady eyeing your shopping! Quick, pick it up before it’s too late! Oh no, too late!” It was a sensory overload, but the kind I thoroughly enjoy. My parents couldn’t keep up and left by around 12:30 a.m. The cousins and I continued enthusiastically, but exhaustion washed over us by 2:30 in the morning. It was time to replenish ourselves with some food and water.
Even the eateries were crowded. The stalls that we managed to locate were tucked away in a corner and surrounded – again – by droves of people. My camera bag came pretty handy in making some space for us, so we could belt Mysore Bajjis, Boti Shorba, Sheermal and Gosh ke kabab. Delicious and thoroughly enjoyable, especially if you ignored how the plates were washed or the food was made. (None of us fell sick, so not so bad after all.) As we feasted, an ominous voice blared authoritatively over the loud speakers: ‘Please close your stalls by 3 a.m. The area needs to be washed and cleaned for Friday prayers.” The announcement only served to put the crowd on Charlie Chaplin movie mode. That was our cue to exit.
Our next hurdle was finding an auto. There was barely space for people to move – autos didn’t stand an atom of a chance. We had to walk to Qilwath, the clock tower near Charminar. The route took us through Laad Bazaar, the infamous bangle shopping lane. Everywhere my eyes rested, they encountered shimmering surfaces and glazed reflections that were occasionally blocked by a bunch of moving, bargaining Burqas.
It wasn’t all glitter and happiness, though. A keychain maker by the roadside, who made etchings on two inch-long glass bottles and sold them at the base of Charminar, counted his night’s earnings as closing time approached. “So much hard work and only 60 rupees to show for it”, he sighed. There was despair and bone-deep exhaustion in his voice. Maybe he would drink it all up. Maybe he would fast and pray for more. There’s no way of knowing.
What I did know was this, as an auto finally agreed to whisk us home: the sea of living, breathing eagerness and anticipation and excitement for new clothes and hairclips and shoes and bangles and Sherwanis and kurtas and Chadaavi jootas would eventually snap the keychain maker out of his reality. Tomorrow, he would come back. Tomorrow, he would work the same way and wish for more. Tomorrow, he would feel alive and live to celebrate another day of Ramadan in one of the oldest parts of Hyderabad. The crowd’s joy would be his. Their excitement about Eid would be his own – and hopefully, their money too.
Getting there: Old City is easily accessible by road up to Madina Building. Be prepared for a massive traffic jam if you’re going during Ramadan.
Go if: You love crowds, bling, bargains, street food and don’t mind staying up all night to see a phenomenon that comes around once a year.
P.S: Another sporadic break of more than three months in blogging – but all for good reason, I assure you. A fair amount of travelling has happened, so be prepared for a string of posts on the blog. Until then, thank you for sticking around and waiting for Potli Baba’s next adventure.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Remember my posts on Bhutan, in which I lamented my decision to trek to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery? Despite my earnest desire to go trekking more often since, my loathing for any activity that combines walking with breathlessness and increased heart rate overcame the enthusiasm.
And like all other times when life has made me eat my own words – especially when they involve ‘hate’, ‘don’t’ or ‘exercise’ – this time too, I had to down my loathing with a generous helping of humble sauce. Kemmanagundi is to be blamed for it. This popular-with-government-officials hill station of sorts in Chikkamangalur district cast its spell on a non-trekker like me as well. And my, what a spell it was – lush green hills as far as the eye can see, grassy pathways formed naturally over the hills, flowers in brilliant reds, pinks and blues, and a freshwater spring or two.
The trek isn’t for very long – at least, not if you take your vehicle up to the most accessible point. One can finish it in a couple of hours both ways. I ventured halfway out, and then decided against going any further because the path involved scaling down slippery patches of mountain and I had a big camera bag with me. (Let this be a lesson to everyone.) I am told, though, that the sun setting over the Arabian Sea makes for a magnificent sight.
The trek’s not the only attraction at Kemmanagundi – there are view points, water bodies, temples and more around the place. The most pleasurable bit, though, is the greenery and serenity that comes with it – winding mountain roads with an overarching canopy of giant trees swaying in the wind.
And that sums up everything I have to say about the place – there wasn’t enough time to explore it more extensively, considering it was weekend trip with more time spent biking than exploring. I do say this, though – if a quiet getaway to connect with nature is your thing, Kemmanagundi is definitely a destination to consider.
Getting there: Drive down or bike it – it takes about 6 hours, with stops. The road closer to Kemmanagundi is quite bad, so that takes a chunk of time to get through. There are also overnight buses available. The nearest train station is Chikkamangalur and there are several trains that run every day.
Go if: You enjoy trekking, need some quiet time and want to feel one with nature.
P.S: There are plenty more pictures on my Instagram feed. Check them out to get a bigger picture of what the place is like.
Think of vivid watercolours fading in and out of each other in different forms and shapes – holy men with painted faces and a headful of braided hair, women in rainbow-coloured sarees and men in white dhotis and kurtas. Think of water – the surface appearance of which is smooth glass – catching the sunlight with a shimmer here and a glitter there, only disturbed by floating yellow marigolds and extinguished diyas; hordes of people lining the ghats, sinking into the shimmering water as if being eaten whole, to wash away their sins and the day’s collective grime, eyes closed in deep devotion. Floral notes from incense sticks mingle with the fragrance of fried foods, steaming kulhad chai and a faint, distant smell of burning, tying the scene together neatly.
That’s Banaras for you – one of the oldest living cities in the world.
One part of Banaras’s story is on its ghats, where people of all religions gather for the evening aarthi or to absolve their misdemeanours and evil. The other is in its streets – the city thrives in its vast network of narrow lanes lined with shops on both sides and bustling thoroughfare in the middle.
There are stories everywhere you look – the erstwhile royal palaces by the ghats that are now home to regular families with regular lives; ancestral homes that double up as storehouses for the locally-made Banarasi fabrics; and temples that make wishes come true. In fact, there’s a story behind the city’s better-known name too – two rivers, Varuna and Assi, come together at this point, so the city that evolved by its banks got christened ‘Varanasi’. When the Mughal rulers came, they brought the name ‘Banaras’ with them.
Watching the evening aarthi is an experience in itself, but to witness it from a boat on the Ganga is an enchanting experience. The boatsmen drive a hard deal, finally carrying you to a vantage point from where the aarthi can best be experienced. Bit by bit, more boats come closer to each other and people begin to rock restlessly as other boats block their view. When the prayers start and the (good-looking) (Forgive me, God) pundits begin with their bells and prayers, the sounds drift out into the dark night over the gentle lapping of the waves and silence even the most noisy feet jumping across boats like monkeys.
The aarthi goes on for a good 45 minutes, after which the people gathered purchase diyas, bind their hopes and dreams and wishes to the burning flame and let them drift off into the vast darkness of the Ganga. And while the prayers go on on one side of the ghat, pyres glow in the darkness on the other as families watch their loved ones turn to ashes.
A boat ride on the Ganga will reveal that the burning ghats are not too far away. “Kehte hain, yahan ki chita kabhi nahi bujhti”, a local told us, referring to the number of cremations that happen on a daily basis. Although seeing a dead body float by was one of my greatest aversions to visiting Banaras, I didn’t spot a single one – not even at the burning ghats. Death is a profitable business here.
History doesn’t just live in Banaras – you can see traces of it in the places around the city too. A trip to Sarnath will acquaint one with the birthplace of Buddha. Sarnath is a quiet town – except for the bustle of tourists, mostly from other Asian countries – but quite unremarkable otherwise, considering it’s home to one of the biggest religious forces in the world. Ramnagar Fort, on the other hand, is a quaint, pretty place with an impressive collection of vintage cars, clocks, and pictures. Unfortunately, little care is taken to maintain the fort and its historic treasures – layers of dust rest on most things. The architecture’s a mix of a couple of styles, of which old-world Kolkata is the most evident. Somehow, this mélange of styles also comes together to create a distinct flavour in the cuisine of Banaras.
Chaats are a must-try in Banaras. The Tamaatar chaat, unique to the city (at least as far as I know), is made of a thick and spicy tomato gravy topped with tiny fried Bengal-gram bits, coriander, masalas, a tablespoon of Ghee and sugar syrup. It’s like the Fourth of July fireworks in your mouth, with layer after layer of flavours bursting forth. Food as a rule is rich and lip-smackingly good in Banaras, and is best washed-down with a Kulhad chai from one of the road-side stalls.
In the three days I spent in Banaras – well, two-and-a-half actually because our train was delayed by 10 hours – my senses were on overdrive: there’s so much to taste and experience and absorb, so much to learn about culture and history. And if this is how much I have learned in such a short time, I can’t wait to go back and see how much more I can get to know over a week.
Getting there: There are direct flights to Banaras from most metros. The alternative is to take a train/bus from Delhi. The train journey is picturesque, but please avoid the Gharib Rath – it is ridiculously late at all times.
Go if: You want to soak in history, wash away your sins, want to experience culture, love stories, love colours, and love food.