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Exquisite Treasures in Ordinary Towns

Hardly 30 minutes out of Gurgaon (just 25 kms) and a comfortable drive along the State Highway 248A, one comes across the town of Sohna. At first glance, particularly when driving into the crowded bylanes around the famed Shiva Temple, the town seems extremely ordinary; just like those other towns one bypasses while driving along the highway.

Famous for its sulphur springs where people from afar come and bathe due to its renowned medicinal values, the town is associated with medieval history. The springs were believed to have been identified in the 14th century. The area around the springs also has a mention in Abul Fazal’s Ain-i-Akbari according to a plank located at the temple here. Currently, in the temple premises, there are separate bathing facilities for men and women, and during festive occasions, the temple is submerged in the sea of devotees.

The most magnificent structure that gives the town a hint of antiquity are the ruins of the Sohna Fort, dated to 1700-1857. Cutting across the winding Highway 71B, on the way from Palwal to Rewari in the Aravalli Hills, the red brick fortress glimmers in the sunset. The highway, in fact, cuts right through the very bastions of the fort, with parts of the ruins lying on both sides of the highway.

It is clear that the fortress is not maintained by any heritage body (the only path leading upto it is a rock-cut path between thorny bushes), but its location on a hill-top is a place where travellers driving across the highway would certainly stop, particularly to observe a splendid sunset across the vast inhabited horizon of the town that is Sohna.

A further 25 kms from Sohna lies the town of Nuh, which is the district headquarters of Mewat, which was once a royal kingdom spanning parts of modern-day Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

The town has been a centre of great importance as far back as the 13th century when it became the site of the Tomb of Sheikh Musa, a khalifa (successor) of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia. According to some accounts, the Mughal king Akbar, whenever on his way up north from Fatehpur Sikri, would make it a point to stop at this revered saint’s tomb.

The structure, that does not appear to be very striking, has a secret within for which it is renowned; its shaking minarets. There is a pair of minarets in the façade of the mosque that has this unique quality. The trick here is that, if one of the pillars is shaken, vibrations are felt in the adjacent minaret. Not many people have been able to explain this mechanism, and for the devotees, this is by the grace of Allah.

The more magnificent structure though stands 3 kms to the west of the town. Chui Mal ka Talaab, a rectangular ancient water tank is believed to have been built in the 17th century by an influential salt trader of his time, Seth Chui Mal. The structure around the pond has a set of ancient cenotaphs (chhatris) – eight of them, to be precise – made of red stone, and have beautiful carvings on its walls.

At a stone’s throw away from the water tank, lies a magnificent two storied structure with multiple chhatris. Resembling the Akshardham Temple in Delhi, although much smaller in dimension, this structure is where Seth Chui Mal’s samadhi has been preserved and the structure was built by his sons. This splendid monument – that can give any other protected monument in the state a run for its money – is surprisingly not protected by any heritage body, and is in fact a private property, owned by the descendants of the salt trader, who live just a couple of meters away from this site.

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Fairy tales and Other Daydreams at the Agra Fort

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[Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Antoine Taveneaux)]

From the outside, one might imagine the interiors of the mid-16th century Agra Fort to be quite bundled up in its two layers of semi-circular walls and its moat, courtesy the Yamuna. Once you are inside however, you spatially experience the same vastness that you imagine when you read of the decades over which its construction was done and redone (from the reign of Akbar to Shahjahan, and even its pre-history during Lodi reign), and the significant influence of this construction over later Mughal architecture.

The walk from the road outside, up toward the Amar Singh Gate is literally an introduction to the massive size of the structures, unending lengths and breadths of the compound, and legend-studded history of Agra Fort. Arch after arch, slit after slit in those sandstone faces rising over 20 m, window after window from where the women of the zenana would peep onto the buzz of life below, the brilliance of sunshine bouncing off the spotless white marble mosques, pavilion after pavilion and lines of fountains, and room after room that have been passages for the air to travel past in a Venturi effect and cool all the inhabitants.

At one point, you even find an optical illusion by which the view of the Taj Mahal does not shrink but only becomes larger when you move away from it. I guessed, when I saw this, that it probably had more to do with keeping an eye on the enemy across the river rather than any romantic connotations regarding the Taj.

Which brings me to the state of mind I found myself in trying to make sense of the surroundings when I visited here last. The grand spread and symmetry of each specimen, the geometrically painted red sandstone, the meticulously planned Charbagh garden layout, and carved marble that looks like lines drawn and held magically in milk, act as a vast canvas for stories. Stories that the more conscientious would have read from Akbarnama and Shahjahanama besides history books (or even a Goodearth guide), and the very colourful stories that the local tour guide tells you, especially if you are travelling with children.

A story perhaps, of how Shahjahan stared sadly out at the Taj from the copper domed Mussaman Burj after Aurangzeb imprisoned him at this magnificent royal residence. A story of the takeover of the British and the later Independent Indian army over parts of the military genius that this structure is, or a story of Shivaji’s brave escape from the fort precincts. Stories of assemblies held at the gleaming white Diwan-i-Khas and warm red Diwan-i-Am, of reigning supreme from the peacock throne with its glittering rubies and emeralds, of the starry eyed dreams at the Sheesh Mahal studded with tiny mirrors, of women behind jaali screens at the Jahangiri Mahal wondering what battlefields looked like, and of being the emperor of Hindustan who from within the gem-inlaid Khas Mahal strategised his next move as he looked out onto the relaxing patterns of Anguri Bagh.

The description here may seem to be too much all together. One has to be present there to know the layers and range of experience that is only outlined in this little piece, and to feel all of what led the Agra Fort to be declared a World Cultural Heritage Site (in 1983) by the UNESCO.

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Ganga Aarti in the City of Light

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Photo credit: Nanda Basu

One evening not long ago, I sailed in a little boat from Ramnagar to Dasashwamedh Ghat. The oars creaked and the Ganga whispered little dreams as a surreal glimmer huddled in the tinkle of bells came closer. Conch shells called out across the water and across its banks, beckoning those like me to the spectacle that was to come.

In a display of the wealth and worth of spiritual light that Varanasi, Banaras, or Kashi, has been known for since time immemorial, the dusk offers its prayers to the holy river, a worshipped deity in herself, in its own distinct style. Holding large metallic diyas in one hand and ringing a bell in the other, a line of priests in bright, uniform silken dhoti-kurtas perform an elaborate salutation in all directions, moving their arms in uniform acrobatic dance in several rounds. A sea of people stood assembled behind them.

In one round, the oil lamps have decorative crowns depicting serpents’ heads; another round is performed with tall layered lamps. It must take a lot of practice to move the huge flame holders about oneself like this, thought the pyrophobic me. They also rotated containers of smoky incense. The fragrance grew stronger, the drumbeats were intense, the gathering swayed to the rhythm of hymns, and the air got more heady.

They say that the way the Ganga loops itself at Varanasi signifies a sort of completion of life, of the point of attaining moksha from rebirth and the worldly sansara. That morning I had seen ashes of the departed floating out into the water. I had seen pyre after pyre at the Manikarnika Ghat. I had seen people taking dips in the river and bowing to Shiv-lingas, their expressions blank. I had seen folks sitting on the steps of ghats shaving their heads to move closer to an answer still elusive.

And in the evening, at the end of the aarti, I saw little diyas lifted from the edge of the ghat and floated out onto the same divine, celestial Ganga, who makes her way down from her home in the Himalayas, on and on for ages and ages as though there was no beginning. Appearing increasingly like stars on an opaque black sky, making their way out of the bounds of those who lit them, the lamps glided away from us. At that moment, all the sounds and the illumination faded. And tomorrow, the whole image would be back- from the beginning, all over again.

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Ujjain Travel Guide

‘In the ancient history of India, Ujjain occupied… a most conspicuous place. Nature ordained that this city of light, with a climate temperate and salubrious and soil very fertile, should play an important part’
(Keshav Balwant Dongray, In the Field of India’s Ancient Literature)

An ancient and thriving centre of Hindu religion, Sanskrit literature, science and mathematics, Ujjain is a shining jewel in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh, set along the banks of the Shipra river. Along with Varanasi, Ujjain enjoys the distinction of being one of India’s oldest and most holy cities, with a history that stretches back at least 2,400 years. Indeed, it is impossible to separate this city from ancient myth and legend, from grand dynasties and immortal poets, from the worship of Shiva and the pilgrimage of the Kumbh.

For more on the holy city of Ujjain, pick up a copy our Travel Guide:http://tinyurl.com/mxw5jlj

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Banarasi sari

Varanasi has always been known for its textiles, especially hand-woven silk. The traditional Banarasi sari, with its silk covered with gold weave, is famous across India.

Traditionally, silk is considered the purest cloth for rituals and was used only to clothe temple deities. In fact, in ancient times, silk weavers used to live within the precincts of temples and perhaps that is how the silk trade came to the temple town of Varanasi.

Silk is woven into the very myth and history of Kashi. It is also said that after he attained Parinirvana, the Buddha’s body was wrapped in silk from Kashi, woven so fine it did not even absorb oil. A variety of silk called gaiser was specially woven for the monks of the Tibetan monasteries.

While in Varanasi, visit the Chowk and Bansphatak area to shop for saris

In India, the silk sari from Varanasi is a legend of beauty. It was called Kassiya or Kashivastra and, even today, every Indian bride craves for at least one Banarasi sari in her trousseau. The silk saris woven here use yarn that comes from Karnataka. It is the processing of the silk that give silk from every region its unique texture.

Silk yardage from the South is stiff as it is polished with wax. In Varanasi, the unprocessed or kora silk yarn is boiled and twisted, and then processed using arrowroot, reetha and flour. This soft skein is then woven into yardage called katan.

The most famous weaves are the heavy jamdani brocades woven with gold and silver thread called zari. Even fifty years ago, the zari was made of pure gold and silver, and these saris, when no longer worn, were sold for the precious metal they contained. Today real zari saris are only made to order, and what is available off-the-rack are saris with synthetic zari. The other weave special to Varanasi is the tanchoi, an embossed weave that is said to have come from China with the traders. The intricate baluchar pattern is originally from Bengal, and the Varanasi weaver added zari to it. The valkalam on the other hand uses only satin thread and many of its designs are taken from motifs seen in miniature paintings.

The motifs used on the Banarasi sari have beautiful names like guldasta (bouquet), ambi (mango or paisley), latifa (flowers), bel-buta (creeper and buds) and badal me phul (blossoms in clouds).

A weaver at work

In 2009, the Weavers Association of Uttar Pradesh secured Geographical Indication rights for the Banarasi Saris and Brocades. This was done to ensure authenticity of the saris and to cut down on duplication by others.

For more information on Varanasi, do pick up our Varanasi City Guide: Revised Second Edition!
(Available at all leading outlets and online stores. Also available on Kindle)

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Our books are now on Kindle!

Two of our bestselling books Varanasi (Revised Second Edition) and Walking with the Buddha (Revised Fourth Edition) are now available on Kindle!

To buy Varanasi City Guide click here
To buy Walking with the Buddha click here

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

A Taste of Kolkata

Food is always on the mind of the average Kolkata resident. Ruminations on the tragic state of affairs of the world, football, or debates on the ideological leanings of different parts of the country may jostle for mind- space occasionally, but even this activity must be accompanied by the munching of some jal-khabar (snacks) such as jhaal-mudi, ‘roll’ or ‘chop-cutlet’. Indeed, Kolkatans look for excuses to eat out, for their city has an enormous variety to offer to the gastronomically inquisitive at prices that are easy on one’s wallet.

Over its history, the city has internalised several culinary influences. While the first coffee houses and bars of colonial origin are still frequented by people from all walks of life, the European food on the menu of hotels like the Grand and exclusive clubs like Bengal and Tolly is considered amongst the best in the country. The colonial hangover continued right into the 1970s with restaurants such as Mocambo, Trincas and Moulin Rouge on Park Street, where live music and star singers such as Pam Crain and Usha Uthup drew in crowds, as captured in the Bollywood film Parineeta. Even today, the upmarket environs of Park Street and Chowringhee are synonymous with dining out in style. Irani hotels, biryani corners and restaurants serving ‘Chinese’ thrive alongside.

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     Chingri maachher malaikari

Though Bengalis will maintain that traditional Bengali food is best prepared at home, in recent years, many restaurants showcasing the cuisine, like Suruchi, Aheli, Bhojo Hori Manna, Kewpies, Taro Porbon and Oh Calcutta! have gradually come up in the city.

Bengali cuisine has a distinct style. Cooking in mustard oil with a judicious use of ghee, or clarified butter, and tempering with the famous combination of cumin, onion seeds, fennel, fenugreek and mustard seeds known as panch-foron, results in dishes ‘where richness and subtlety are closely interwoven’.

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       Vegetable Chop

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          Kebab Rolls

 

 

 

 

 

 

Each dish is savoured separately with a little bit of rice, the sustaining staple of the Bengali, in a typical multi-course meal. The order of courses begins with bitters, which clear the palate, followed by dal, or lentils, accompanied by vegetable fritters. After this come one or two vegetable dishes like ghanto or chachchari, precursors to the inevitable fish jhol, a consommé, and some richer fish preparations like jhaal and kaalia. Bengalis swear by river fish such as ruikatla and iIlish. On special occasions, meat or chicken dishes follow while chutney and papads provide a break before the sweet dishes.

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         Bengali Thali

Islamic rule in India enhanced this repertoire with pulaobiryanikababkormarezala and parantha, common at feasts and banquets today. Restaurants well known for this spread are Nizam’s, Badshah, Aminia, Bedouin, Zeeshan, Royal and Arsalan.

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       Ilish Bhapa

Similarly, European traders and settlers introduced Kolkata to myriad exotic delights. They brought a culture of baking, which culminated in some very popular confectioneries including Flury’s, Nahoum’s, Kathleen, Mongini’s and Jalajoga. The Portuguese introduced cottage cheese, the Armenians contributed the dolma (pointed gourd stuffed with meat, fish or eggs) while the English gave sauces, jams, marmalades and sandwiches.

Recipes were tweaked to suit the local palate, giving birth to chops (fried potato cakes with fish or meat stuffing) cutlets (meat, chicken or prawn, seasoned, pounded and fried) and champ (crumb fried breast or loin pieces).

Kolkata’s Chinese community gave birth to the ubiquitous Indian Chinese cuisine. One finds this curious blend of Chinese, Indian and southeast Asian culinary influences in exclusive restaurants in plush hotels as well as street-side stalls. The largest concentration of Chinese restaurants in Kolkata being in Tangra. Staple dishess like chilli chicken (spicy and fried) and chow mein have become an essential part of the city’s cuisine. 

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        Shorshe chicken

Kolkata’s passionate absorption in sweets is evident in the fact that almost every alternate shop sells them. Some shops such as Bhim Chandra Nag and Nakur date back to the mid-19th century. KC Das is known for its world-renowned tinned rosogolla, and is supposed to have been created by KC Das’ father, Nabin Chandra Das. Bhim Chandra Nag created a new sweet, the ladikanee, for Lady Canning, wife of the then Viceroy of India. Some other well known shops such as Jadab Das, Sen Mahashay, Banchharam, Hindustan Sweets and Suresh sell delectable mishti doinatun gurer sondeshchamchamrasmalaikalo jamlangcha and khir kodombo.

Street Food 

The city has a vibrant street food culture. Every street corner has make- shift stalls of jhaal-mudi (puffed rice mixture), phuchka (gol-gappa, in north India), tele-bhaaja (vegetable fritters, literally, ‘fried in oil’), mughlai parantha, (a stuffed parantha) and rolls (meat wrapped in flatbread). Roadside joints on Lord Sinha Road, Camac Street and Russell Street are popular haunts for chaat. The kachuri (stuffed fried dough), fulkopir singara (samosa stuffed with cauliflower) and peyajis (onion fritters) at Putiram on College Square are also some all-time favourites.

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On SN Bannerjee road are two eateries – Anadi Cabin and Regent – known for making the best mughlai paranthas and kabiraji cutlets respectively.

Although roll sellers are a dime a dozen, foodies in the city swear by Kusum on Park Street, Campari at Gariahat and the Bedouin and Nizam chains of restaurants.

 

For more on the city, pick up Goodearth Publications: Kolkata City Guide ISBN 9789380262154

(Available at all leading outlets and online stores)

Buylink: http://www.flipkart.com/kolkata-city-guide-9380262159/p/itmdf89fhzwrdzgv?pid=9789380262154&ref=cefec5db-1275-4bf3-ad9e-9437fa730969

 
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Posted by on July 22, 2012 in Uncategorized