THE KHYBER HIMALAYAN RESORT AND SPA IN GULMARG, KASHMIR IS THE ULTIMATE LUXURY EXPERIENCE.

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The snow flecked Grand Exterior of luxurious The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa, Gulmarg, Kashmir

THE KHYBER HIMALAYAN RESORT AND SPA in Gulmarg, Kashmir has been one of my most luxurious stay with an unparallel view of snow clad mountains. I arrived in the second week of April which made Gulmarg a perfect snow destination. We passed through magical roads, the either sides of which were covered with snow. Fresh snow broke loose on the landscape of Gulmarg few days prior to our arrival. This was the second time I was seeing so much snow after the Roopkund trek and my visit to Rohtang Pass with parents.

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Snow everywhere in the luxury property- The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa in Gulmarg, Kashmir

As I arrived at The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa in Gulmarg, Kashmir I was impressed with its grand entry. We were ushered into Chaikash for snacks, kahwa (Local Kashmiri Tea) and of course hot towels. The welcome drink kahwa was so good that within few minutes of my arrival I had decided that I will be drinking their kahwa every day during my 3 days stay. Here is my review of The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa Gulmarg, Kashmir.

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The grand lobby of the luxury property- The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa, Gulmarg, Kashmir

THE ROOM OF THE KHYBER HIMALAYAN RESORT AND SPA, GULMARG, KASHMIR.

I stayed in the Khyber resort’s Luxury Balcony Room with Himalayan view. The moment I entered my room (Number 1015) at The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa, what struck me the most was the sheer size of everything. Be it the size of room or bed or the mirror next to it, the size of washroom or the huge balcony, everything was grand. The large bed was soft and comfortable and decorated with assorted pillows. A pillow menu was also offered as part of the turn down service.  The many lighting options helped me alter the lights as per my mood.

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The Luxury Balcony Room with Himalayan View. At The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa, Gulmarg, Kashmir

I never switch on TV whether I am traveling or not. And if the property is so gorgeous I would rather spend time enjoying the property than waste time on TV. That said, the TV installed in the room had huge screen and an added advantage for those who like to catch up on their favourite shows during travel. My favourite part of the room though was the foldable writing table fashioned out of wood from walnut tree. Every day, I would spend 2 hours (7 a.m. to 9 a.m.) writing my travel pieces in this place in absolute peace. I would keep the balcony open while writing to ensure that the fresh air and the chirpings of birds kept me inspired. The complimentary kiwis, apples and bananas kept me fuelled before I hit the buffet breakfast at 9:30 a.m. every day. The room was also stocked with crisp and delicious cookies. I am not a cookie person but I couldn’t help but devour all the delicious cookies during my stay. Cold Drinks and high quality nuts and chocolates were also stocked in the room.

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My luxurious bath tub with a view of snow clad mountains. Where else but in The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa, Gulmarg, Kashmir.

 

THE WASH- ROOM OF THE KHYBER HIMALAYAN RESORT AND SPA, GULMARG, KASHMIR.

The first thing that attracted my attention was not the room but the huge bathtub and the large balcony. But then that is what I check out the first thing in any hotel. As I entered the spacious dressing room and moved towards the washroom area, I was delighted to see the bathtub with a view of snow clad mountains. The bath tub was big enough for 2 people. Every morning, I used to lie down in the warm water, gazing at the white beauty dotted with conifers from the window. The washroom was well compartmentalized into W.C area/ shower area/ Bathtub/ wash basin and dressing room. The well lighted dressing room had big storage space to keep suitcase, making it easy for me to retrieve anything. There was ample wardrobe in the dressing room. The slipper provided was soft and warm. The toiletries stocked in the washroom were fragrant and of high quality.

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My balcony at the luxury property- The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa, Gulmarg, Kashmir. Yes, its all snow. Bollywood Film Actress DEEPIKA PADUKONE stayed in the adjacent room.

THE BALCONY OF THE KHYBER HIMALAYAN RESORT AND SPA, GULMARG, KASHMIR.

The balcony in the rooms of Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa needs a special mention. The views from here are so breathtaking that it makes the resort a destination in itself. I would sit here gazing at nothing but vast swathes of snow laden mountains with neatly arranged conifers. Small colorful huts in a distance would make it all the more picturesque. The size of the balcony made it a perfect place to chat with my friends who were staying in the other rooms. During my first night, as soon as I entered the balcony, I was so impressed with the view that I called up my friends in the other room and asked, “Have you checked the view from balcony in the night?” Beautiful lamps had lit the entire resort. The full moon made the white mountains look like silver cones. The entire setting was too gorgeous to describe in words. For a moment I thought if it’s for real. Having travelled to 150 destinations across India since 2008, I am still excited about travel because it still doesn’t fail to surprise me.

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View of snow clad mountains from the swimming pool. At the luxury property- The Himalayan Resort and Spa, Gulmarg, Kashmir.

 

THE L’OCCITANE SPA AND THE SWIMMING POOL AT THE KHYBER HIMALAYAN RESORT AND SPA, GULMARG, KASHMIR.

The L’occitane spa at Khyber Resort turned out to be a pleasant experience. I had availed leg massage on the second day because it claimed to be ‘the best option for travelers’.  I loved the massage but somehow it left me craving for a full body massage. No wonder, on the third day, I opted for the Revitalizing Aromachologie Massage by L’occitane spa on recommendation by the personnel at the reception. The massage was a perfect combo of Swedish strokes, Balinese massage techniques and Chinese acupressure. The soothing music, dim lights helped me relive tension and lose myself in an hour of de-stressing  session. The essential oils like Tea Tree, Lavender etc helped me relax. The massage session calmed both my overactive mind and body. It also induced sleep in me. Though I didn’t swim but I spent good amount of time just admiring the views from the swimming pool of Khyber Resort.

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The Bath tub and the couple massage room with a view of snow clad mountains. Managed by L’occitane Spa at the luxury property- The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa, Gulmarg, Kashmir.

RESTAURANTS AT THE KHYBER HIMALAYAN RESORT AND SPA, GULMARG, KASHMIR.

Chaikash at Khyber resorts: It was a casual dining space which has the best views of the Khyber resort covered in snow. We always hogged the window seat for our leisurely conversations over almond rich and aromatic kahwa , the local Kashmiri tea. I sampled assorted fritters, many pastries and cheese chilly toast (My favorite) in snacks. Just opposite it is a cozy sit out area on the floor. We spent much of our time sitting here cross legged.

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Kashmiri Wazwan Platter. Includes Doon Chetin (Walnut Chutney), Nadur Yakhini (Lotus Stem curry), Muji Chatin (Radish Chutney), Dum Aaloo (Potatoes curry), Haak Saag, Rajma, Hara Bhara Kebab etc. It was served in a traditional Tarami platter in Kashmiri style. At Cloves restaurant. The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa, Gulmarg, Kashmir. Luxury at its best. Incredible India!

Cloves at Khyber Resort: The lively restaurant is the largest F & B outlet in Khyber resort. It is open for both buffet and a la carte. Of the 3 breakfast buffets I enjoyed here, my favourites were South Indian delicacies like masala dosa, idli and vada. I stuck to these because it was filling without compromising on my health. Poha and Upma were my other favourites.  The fresh juices (Cucumber, carrot etc) kept me refreshed. On one of the lunches we were served Wazwan platter. The sheer variety offered to me was overwhelming. A big plate of steamed rice was served with doon chetin (walnut Chutney), Nadur Yakhini (Lotus stem in white sauce), Muji Chatin (Radish chutney), cottage cheese (paneer) in rich tomato gravy, dum aaloo (Whole potatoes in rich gravy), onion salad, haak saag (local green leafy vegetable), Rajma (Curried Kidney beans) and hara bhara kebab (With an innovative flaky crust). It was followed by a saffron rich Firni, a sweet dish par excellence. Needless to say, it was one of my most royal lunches. The vegetarian Wazwan was served in a beautiful tarami (meaning large plate)

The buffet menu was just as varied and rich. My favourite picks were: the exceptional kadhi-rice, mushroom do pyaza, assorted salads and mezze platters (Hummus, tabbouleh, baba ganoush served with pita bread) Desserts comprised of a variety of cakes, mousse, cut fruits and Indian sweets.

Note: I did not avail any service at the other F & B outlets Nouf and Calabash but they sure looked like a refined experience.

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The Cloves restaurant. At the luxury property- The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa, Gulmarg, Kashmir.

THE FRIENDLY STAFF OF THE KHYBER HIMALAYAN RESORT AND SPA, GULMARG, KASHMIR:

I reiterate, it is rare to find charming and genuinely warm staff at most luxury properties. Movenpick resort in Aqaba, Jordan was the last time I was impressed with the staff. Likewise, the staff of Khyber Resort exudes warmth, attentiveness, courtesy and a natural zeal to serve. Each of the staff members left a lasting impression on me. Whatever I demanded was presented to me within minutes, as if by magic. The staff spent quality time with me explaining the local dishes, crafts, culture etc. All my needs were taken care of with a big genuine smile.  Many of the staff is locally hired talent who stay near property.

THE CELEBRITIES WHO STAYED AT THE KHYBER HIMALAYAN RESORT AND SPA, GULMARG, KASHMIR:

I was told that Bollywood superstar Deepika Padukone stayed in a room adjacent to the room I was staying in. Other celebrities such as the Ambanis, Adanis, Raj Thakrey and Bollywood personalities like Saif Ali Khan and Sunny Leone had stayed in Khyber resorts.

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I stayed in one of these rooms facing snow flecked mountains. Luxury Balcony Room with Himalayan View. At The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa, Gulmarg, Kashmir.

HOW TO REACH THE KHYBER HIMALAYAN RESORT AND SPA, GULMARG, KASHMIR?

Khyber Resorts is just 50 kms away from Srinagar. It took us around 1 hours and 15 minutes to reach Khyber resorts by cab from Srinagar airport. Khyber Resorts is located in the heart of Gulmarg. It is walking distance from the famous Gondola ride in Gulmarg. It is also nearby major attractions of Gulmarg.

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The beautifully lit resort bathed in full moon night was ethereal. This picture is a big injustice to the real thing. View from Luxury Balcony Room with Himalayan View. At The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa, Gulmarg, Kashmir.

THE BOTTOMLINE

I found The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa, Gulmarg (Kashmir) to be an unparallel experience. I was told most of their guests are repeat customers and word of mouth customers. It has rooms which suit the budget of different travelers. The entire property is done up stylishly using the local elements. The wooden khatamband ceiling is made up of small pieces of Deodar fashioned in geometrical pattern. Wagu mats are creatively used as curtains of windows of L’occitane spa. Wagu mats, the native Kashmiri mats are made up of dried straw. Deodar wood is used in the construction of the hotel as it can withstand water and snow. Kashmiri style windows or jharoka, locally called dab is incorporated in the design of lobby. It reminded me of a real Kashmiri house I saw during the Heritage Walk in the Leh City.

I should sum it up with this: Every time I mention Khyber to people, their eyes light up. It is a dream for many. It is a habit for many.

The View From My #SoulWindow Is Classy!

Related Blogs:

Stories of Kashmiri Migrants in Leh, Ladakh

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View from my Luxury Balcony Room With Himalayan View. The Building on extreme right houses swimming pool and the L’occitane Spa. At The Khyber Himalayan Resort And Spa, Gulmarg, Kashmir. Incredible India indeed!

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Ever sweated it out at a more scenic location? The Gymnasium with views of snow laden luxury resort. At The Khyber Himalayan Resort And Spa, Gulmarg, Kashmir.

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Offbeat Goa: Unique Boat Festival during Tripurari Poornima aka Dev Deepawali!

This November, I discovered a totally different side to Goa. Not many know that Goa has a sizeable Marathi population and they celebrate their festivals with aplomb and in style. I got the opportunity to attend one such festival. The boat festival celebrated as Tripurari Poornima is one of its kind festival close to the heart of Goans. Its North Indian counterpart is called Dev Deepawali. But the rituals and celebrations are as similar as Bebinca and Gulab Jamun.

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Tens of boats were lined up at the temple campus before their owners decided it is time to carry them to the lake for the final grand ceremony. These boats were lovingly crafted by the artisans from all corners of Goa for the final grand rituals. All roads led to the nondescript Vithalapur in Sankhali which came alive with festive fervor. It is an hour drive away from Panaji. The designs on the boats were unique and quirky.

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My favourite were: A weird looking ‘ugly duckling’, a new age monster and a dragon threatening to spew fire. The largest boat however stole all the thunder. It depicted the tough life of the fishermen of Goa. Life size human figures flanked either sides of the boat and one stood above captaining the boat. Most of such boats were made up of local materials such as coconut shells, palm, paper, wood, thermocol etc.

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All of a sudden my attention was won by a Marathi music concert going on nearby. A fan of all things Marathi, I couldn’t help but run towards the venue to catch local ‘lavani’ songs. I am a huge lavani fan. I thought these were limited to Maharashtra but I was proven pleasantly wrong. I stood there enjoying one song after another, enjoying the camaraderie and rapport of the performers, so characteristic of Maharashtrians. I was overjoyed like thousands other when they played the famous lavani chartbuster, ‘Mala jau Dya Na Ghari, Ata Vajle te bara!’ (Let me go home, it’s midnight!).  Sadly for me, there was no lavani dance, just the songs.

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Next, a food stall nearby attracted my attention in no time. I ran again in search of vada pao and samosa pao. I got both and like an overjoyed kid, filled my face with it. More than I should have. The one thing I miss the most after having shifted to Ghaziabad from Navi Mumbai is the Maharashtrian food and culture (festivals/people/language). The other journalists and the guide with me were Marathis speaking and I spoke in Marathi with them for the 3 days I was in Goa. It was my way of switching on my Marathi soul once again; funnily in Goa.

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This was my 9th trip to Goa and for the first time it was not from Mumbai. When I used to travel from Mumbai, I didn’t notice the Marathi presence; perhaps because I was so used to all things Marathi that I lost all objectivity and didn’t notice the similarity between Goa and Maharashtra. Or perhaps because my stay in the last 8 trips was almost always limited to the touristy spots! Never mind, I am determined to spend my next Goa vacation off the touristy trail.

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After having my Marathi fill (and grinning foolishly from ear to ear about it!), I along with other bloggers and journalists veered off to the main venue where all the boats were waiting for us, calmly floating in the pond. We passed many Maharashtrian style homes. The locals had displayed their own versions of small boats outside the main gates of their house. Rangolis and Kandeels (lamps) added to the home décor.

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Diwali in 2016 fell on 30th October and there I was celebrating Diwali like festival all over again on 14th November. Saree (worn in Maharashtrian style) clad women sat in their lawns scented with customary ‘Tulsi’ planted prestigiously in the middle. Tulsi aka basil has medicinal properties and is much revered by Hindus across India. The venue was filled with people, most of them locals along with few tourists and international media. Within few minutes, the palanquin (palki) procession of Vithal Rakhumai pierced the crowd, stealing all the limelight.

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We settled at a pedestal reserved for media and watched the intriguing proceedings unfold. The looming presence of a benevolent Supermoon made it all the more delightful. Supermoon occurs when the proximity of Earth to Moon is the least. This makes the Supermoon the brightest and largest. The next such moon will appear in 2034. A Ravanasque effigy stood in the middle of the pond, slightly away from the congregation of boats. A drama of good versus bad ensued on a boat and the effigy was burnt. It triggered a series of fireworks up in the sky. This gave the festival a touch of North Indian Dussehra. We looked at the massive crowd and left before everyone started to leave. This saved us from traffic chaos.

Enriching experiences like these unfold in the unknown corners of Goa and India all the time, away from the tourists who are focused on the tested and tried. You know who is at a loss here!

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When: This festival happens during Karthik Poornima. It occurs 15 days after Deepawali, on the full moon.

Where to stay: Hotel Miramar, Panaji. Walking distance from the beach, it is a no nonsense hotel with sprawling lawns, a swimming pool and room in cottage style buildings. The rooms are air-conditioned, basic and neat. It has a restaurant and a bakery nearby.

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NORTH GOA: YOUR QUICK & EASY GUIDE IN TO THE HEART OF INDIA’S PARTY CAPITAL PLUS AN ITINERARY

Pic above – Calangute and Baga stretch 

WHY GO TO GOA NORTH? Goa is the smallest state of India. Yet every few kilometers the character of this beautiful land changes. There are quieter havens in Goa but North Goa has retained the undisputed status of ‘Party capital of India’ where the only time people sleep is in the afternoon, for their mandatory ‘susegad’ (Afternoon nap). North Goa is the most popular Goan retreat especially for the first timers and for those whose idea of a great time is dancing away to loud music at a shack by the beach at 3 a.m.

As a child growing up in nondescript small towns of mofussil India, Goa was the stuff my fantasies were woven of. Adulthood came with financial freedom and opportunities to turn fantasies into reality. After I landed up a job in Mumbai, access to Goa has been a cushy perk. Many of my friends from Pune find it easy to go to Goa too. The flights on this route are cheap. Thanks to good air connectivity, it takes very little time to reach Goa from Pune or Mumbai.  No wonder, I made 8 trips to different parts of Goa in a span of 6 years discovering different aspects of the most unique Indian state. It certainly boosts my ego when Hotel owners, vehicle rental owners and restaurant waiters recognize me and wave at me even if I visit the place after a gap of 1 year!

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Sunrise at Baga Beach

HANGING OUT AT BAGA BEACH:

Baga Beach has the liveliest shacks and offers an amazing variety of international cuisines. Facing the swim friendly beach, the shacks are operational till the wee hours. There’s a lot you can do at Baga beach. Get a tattoo(Permanent/temporary) done, try the many water sports, shop for knick knacks, swim in crystal clear waters, read a book, work on your tan, make new friends, binge on lip smacking food, get drunk (How can you not!), indulge in karaoke night or impress your better half with a late night al fresco candle light dinner often accompanied by live acrobats and breezy air. Baga and Calangute beaches are efficiently patrolled by baywatchers and rescue workers.

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Para sailing at Baga-Calangute stretch

IDEAL FOR A WALK: CALANGUTE BEACH 

Calangute beach is the sister beach of Baga. You will not even realize when Baga ends and Calangute starts. Yet it’s easy to differentiate both beaches at their tail ends. Calangute is as good as Baga beach but a bit more crowded. Rest, it offers everything which Baga does. A leisurely sunset walk by the beach from Baga’s tail end to Calangute’s is rejuvenating.

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Pasta at Anjuna Beach

THE SECRETS OF ANJUNA BEACH:

The scenic Anjuna beach is an easy 6 kms (3.5 miles), 15 minutes ride away from Baga and Calangute beach. Anjunais better known for its parties, picturesque beaches guarded by hills and lastly for its Wednesday flea market. A sunset dinner at the sea facing restaurant at the hill top completes the Anjuna trip.

SOME COOL, ECONOMICAL AND STRATEGICALLY LOCATED STAY OPTIONS

Luxury 

Estrela do mar beach resort : Conveniently located at KhobraVaddo, Calangute, it is just 1 kilometer away from Baga Beach and 500 metres away from Our Lady of Piety Chapel. Most places of attractions are at walking distance from here. It is just 41 km (approx.) away from Goa International Airport and 50 km (approx.) from Margao Railway Station. It boasts of a variety of rooms such as beach cottage, swiss cottages, standard, luxury, executive, family. Rooms are air conditioned and stocked with tea/coffee maker, mini bar, color television, safe, and telephone. What’s more, you can also expect live performances. Think banjo, tabla, guitar, sitar, Rajasthani folk dance, Goan dance, movies, DJ nights, the works! Address – KhobraVaddo, Calangute, Bardez Goa – 403516, Goa.

Budget 

Hacienda Hotel : What attracts me here time and again is the very warm owners, no nonsense accommodation, amazing proximity to all places of attractions and reasonable tariffs. It also has a cozy garden, ideal for breakfasts and lazy book readings. You can return to the room at any time, even at 3 a.m. On the flipside, the restaurant menu is very limited but you don’t mind since most of the pubs, restaurants, discos, bars and beaches are hardly 5-10 minutes walk from the hotel. Its run by Mrs.Lobo, her husband and her son. They make a great host and will even guide you around without you asking for it! That said, be warned it is not a luxury property.

Contact :Bardez, Baga Beach Road, Calangute, Goa, India . Phone : 0832 227 7348

Shelsta Hotel at Calangute is another of North Goa’s affordable hotels. The rooms are cozy, comfortable and you have the option of AC and non AC rooms. The location is its best advantage as its walking distance from all the major attractions. Owner Ms. Sheila is an ever smiling helpful host

Contact : C/o Subway, Cobravaddo, Calangute-Baga Road, Bardez, Goa, Calangute, GA, India.

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GO SLURRP HAPPY IN GOA:

Brittos: Brittos remains the most popular shack on Baga stretch. Often frequented by Indian celebrities, it is known for its sea food and an upbeat vibe. Though a bit pricier than its counterparts, a visit is a must to Baga’s most popular shack. Despite the fact that it’s the largest shack at Baga, it can often become difficult to get a table here. For vegans, salads and some basic pasta, pizzas save the day.

Shree Sagar, Calangute, Goa. : If you are craving for some Indian food or are on a shoestring budget, then Shree Sagar on the main Baga-Calangute road is your ideal find. Not only the food is good and hygienic but it’s one of the cheapest restaurants you will find in the location. A breakfast of South Indian Idli/Dosa/Utthapa is a must. It’s also good for North Indian cuisine. The seating is comfortable but don’t expect much of an ambience.

Infantaria : It’s easy to miss this gem of a restaurant on Baga-Calangute road. But the owner has ensured you take notice with their huge “ALL DAY DINING” banner. It’s great for Italian food but the lesser popular Goan dishes will leave you asking for more. You can round off a sumptuous meal with Goan dessert Bebinca and few glasses of Feni, the local liquor.

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Nice Pasta and Goan food at Infantria

THINGS TO CARRY: Goa is a backpacker’s delight. All you need to carry is few clothes, flip flops, a camera, sun block and an open mind.

HOW TO REACH GOA: Many cheap flights run to Goa from Pune and Mumbai. Thanks to the geographical advantage, one can fly to Goa from Pune and Mumbai on a whim. There have been many instances where I have just showed up in Goa in one day’s notice,sans any planning.

GETTING AROUND WITHIN GOA: Cheapest (but time consuming) way to reach Baga is taking a bus. Taxis are expensive. Best way is hire and self drive a scooter (Honda Activa available for as low as Rs.200/day), Royal Enfields, open jeeps, cars. Not only are they economical, they give you the liberty of enjoying the Goan streets at your own pace and whims. They are easily available at road sides and rentals are always negotiable.

MONEY AND TIPPING: Thanks to the huge foreign footfalls, it’s easy to exchange foreign currency in Goa. ATMs are commonplace too. A 10% Tipping is highly appreciable since the waiting staff at most Goan restaurants are attentive, quick, cheerful and friendly.

PLAY SAFE: Goa is largely safe. I have often loitered around Goan streets and beaches as late as 3 a.m. To 4 a.m. without losing my money or limbs. Still some stray cases of rapes and drug trafficking is reported every few years. Stay away from pimps, dubious drug paddlers. Roaming in group late night shall see you through. Be wary of touts approaching at you promising wild parties and Russian dancers.

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My parents at Anjuna. Lunch is scenic here!

A 3 DAY ITINERARY

DAY 1– Reach Estrela do mar beach resort, relax. Hit Baga and Calangute beaches. Take it easy the first day as most places of attraction can be covered on foot. Walk and explore the nearby area maybe shopping on the way from road side vendors. Indulge in lunch and dinner on one of the sea facing shacks. Take a bare foot walk by the beach from Baga to Calangute. Don’t hire a vehicle yet but check and negotiate vehicle rental rates for next day. Check out party scene in Tito n Mambo, the discos, walking distance away.

DAY 2– Get wet in the beaches. Go food hopping or pub crawling. Indulge in water sports. Get drunk. Have a susegad (afternoon nap). Wake up. Repeat! Stay till late night on Baga/Calangute beach.

DAY 3 – Time to get sober and a bit romantic! Experience sunrise at Baga/Calangute beaches. Have lunch/evening snacks at Anjuna Beach. Return and stay till late night on Calangute beach, indulging in a more sober al fresco candle light dinner. A must!

Tip – You can also visit Alorna Fort, Amthane Dam and Ancestral Goa Museum

The view from my #SoulWindow is upbeat!

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Anjuna Beach

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Gudi Padwa in Dombivali – The Grand Carnival Of Mumbai called Shobha Yatra

Everything in Mumbai is ‘Maha’ (grand) in size and stature. Be it the buildings, the vast expanse of sea, the industries, the heart of its citizens or the way they live their ‘larger than life’ despite the several personal and professional demons they struggle with everyday.

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Ain’t less than a carnival!

Mumbaikars never skip an opportunity to celebrate their life extraordinarily. And most of Mumbai’s celebrations spill on its roads and streets! Yes, Mumbai knows how to celebrate life on roads! Apart from Dahi Handi and Ganeshotsav, one major festival which is close to every Mumbaikar’s heart is Gudi Padwa. Gudi Padwa marks the beginning of the new year as per the Hindu calendar co-inciding with the harvesting season. The first day of the Chaitra month of Hindu calender is celebrated as new year amongst the Maharashtrian community.

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Sweat it out!

A Gudi is hung aloft in homes, shops, temples etc to mark the festival. A Gudi is

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Gudi

enthusiastically made by family members. A long bamboo stick is washed, dried
and its one end is covered with brightly colored and neatly tied zari Saris. Neem leaves, mango leaves, sugar crystals (gaathi) and Marigold flower garlands are also tied alongwith it. The top of the tied sari is covered with an inverted copper vessel called ‘lota’. The gudi is hung high to announce the universal theme of triumph of good over evil. It is also supposed to bring in good luck and prosperity. The preparations of the festival starts a day or two earlier with spring cleaning of the house. On the day of the festival, very early in the morning, the women and children of the house make ornate and colorful ‘Rangolis’ on the ground! However, the Rangoli is removed late evening on the same day.

 

People scrub themselves clean early morning, women smell of gajra (a fragrant flower garland tied on hair!) and wear new traditional clothes on this day. Men wear white ‘Dhoti’ and brightly colored (mostly saffron) ‘kurta’. The look is completed with saffron colored ‘pheta’ aka ‘patka’, the traditional Maharashtrian turban. While the women adorn themselves in brightly colored traditional 9 yard saaree and a short sleeved blouse. It’s complimented with flowers and jewelries especially the traditional ‘Kolhapuri Saaz’. A small pooja (ritual) is performed after launching the gudi.

Now its time for the dieters to let loose and allow themselves to give in to the gastronomic indulgence, mostly sweet dishes. Strangely, the first thing the family member eat on this auspicious day is an odd bittersweet mixture of coarsely ground bitter Neem leaves, ‘gud’ (jaggery), and dhana (coriander powder). The highly medicinal properties of Neem strengthens the immune system and purifies the body while the sweet jaggery offsets the bitter taste of Neem. A wide range of sweets such as Shrikhand, Poori , Sanna, Basundi, Kheer, Jalebi, and most importantly Pooran Poli ( A kind of sweet lentil paratha) is cooked at home.

Once the celebrations at home wraps up, the festive fervor spills with full vigor on the narrow streets and roads of Mumbai. The ever busy and infamous traffic of Mumbai comes at an abrupt halt as the city witnesses multiple ‘jhaanki’/ ‘Rath Yatras’ / parades in different localities of Mumbai. However, the parade in Dombivali steals the show with its grandeur, pomp and show. It attracts the maximum audiences, photographers, media, politicians , the usual suspects! And for good reason!

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Dombivali based Ganesh Mandir Sansthan’s Nav Varsha Swagat Shobha Yatra Sanyojak organises the annual procession better known as Shobha Yatra every year. Contrary to the popular belief, the tradition of taking a Shobha Yatra , much carnival like, is a recent phenomenon. It was started in the late 1990s and has inspired similar procession not only in Mumbai but all of Maharashtra. The tradition is not only entertaining but also displays the cultural and religious richness of Maharashtra in its full glory. And in the process it unites the citizens by instilling in them a sense of belongingness, cultural and ethnic unity and brotherhood. The bonhomie, goodwill, geniality and camaraderie amongst complete strangers here is to be seen to be believed.

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You can expect to see myriad themes and performances in the parade. At one moment you will be treated with a power packed and well synchronized dhol performance then at other you will be amused to see dogs dressed up as dolls and sitting pretty on moving motorbikes. And then the next minute you go ‘wow’ when kids as young as 10 years old flex their agile bodies and perform ‘Mallakhambh’ as if it was actually a ‘child play’. Lavani perfomances are also big attraction and so are the participants dressed up as mythological characters on horse driven ‘raths’ (chariots). Maharashtrian celebrities also throng the parade and add more glamour to the festive milieu.

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Volunteers are appointed every few meters to offer free water and ‘sherbets’ (Refreshing sweet drink) to not only the performers but also the audiences.

Where else you can have so much fun and not spend a single rupee? Only in Mumbai!

(Oh come on, you can afford that local train ticket!)

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Lavani – Maharashtra’s folk dance

P. S. I was accompanied by my good Maharashtrian friends and colleagues, who were also the volunteers in the processions. Ankita Gawade, Manjiri Joshi (She is a fab Tabla Player) and Sameer Naik enriched my experience by giving me the local’s perspective. This blog is based on conversations with them. I thank them for inviting me to see the festival in all its glory. If you want to see the processions live, Dombivali carnival I have been told are the best. I went in April, 2013. More pictures here :

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Me and Maharashtrian actress Mrinal Kulkarni

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Have You Ever Experienced The 4 a.m. Mumbai? It Is My Favourite Mumbai

THE SINISTER PLAN:

When I lived in Mumbai for 7 years, I often did this. There were Saturday and Friday nights when I used to be sleepless and restless. So it was 4/11/2012, a Saturday, 3:15 a.m. and I was watching my favourite scenes and songs from the ‘soul’ film of my life: INTO THE WILD for the Nth time. Every time I see this film after 12 am, I am unable to sleep. Thanks to the semi autobiographical theme of this film, it does something to my brain, makes me think, brood, reflect, cry and smile. (More on that, in a later blog)

And then there is this huge ‘soul window’ in my flat from where I can see local trains pass by. I know that in half an hour the 1st Vashi to CST aka VT bound train will start at 4 a.m. Impulsively, I decide that I have to take this train and spend some ME time at the God’s hour.

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Fisherwomen waiting for cab at VT. Yes, it’s Rush Hour at Dawn!

In a jiffy, I got down, took the 5 minutes walk to Vashi station, punched my ticket coupons and waited for the train. There were 2 more men seated on the ghostly and deserted platform, one of them playing my favourite soulful songs Faya Kun and Nadan Parinde from Rockstar. More food for my soul! (I can’t help but chew on the thought that the protagonist of Into The Wild and Rockstar are so similar in their spirit and bad ass attitude) The mood for introspection is set!

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THE RIDE:

It was a 45 minute ride and I was happy to see an empty train. That meant I could stand at the door and let the early morning cool breeze caress me.10 minutes into the ride, and people started filling up the train.

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Lesson learnt: There is no such thing as an empty Mumbai local train 4 a.m. or 4 p.m.!

But I fiercely latched onto the middle rod of the door like a novice striptease dancer. The commuters were mainly the fish vendors on their way to Bhaucha Dhakka, Dockyard Road and the ubiquitous pao (Mumbai bread) vendors and flower sellers. The contrasting smell of fresh flowers and decaying fish combined to emanate a funny sick sweet smell. Then soon a bunch of young punters (aka tapori) broke the silence as they hopped on to the train. No prizes for guessing what happened next: I got to see the famous Mumbai local stunts (which claim many lives every year) by the self styled and trained teenagers. The jaw dropping bonus: One of the performers was a burqa (Islamic veiled dress) clad teenaged girl. It happens only in Mumbai! Enveloped in the soul stirring melodies of In To The Wild (Eddie Vedder, I can’t thank you enough for these songs!), and intoxicated by the sweet November feeling, my soul is transported to some other world!!!!!

 

VT (Victoria Terminus) aka CST STATION (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus):

Soon I am at VT station, I get out and behold the sight of the iconic BMC building (Big hug, British folks!!) All lit up, it looked great in early morning. Bang opposite it, fish vendor toting huge empty cane baskets were struggling for a seat in taxi. It’s 5 a.m. and its serious business time. Lighting up a cigarette (Of course, its injurious to health), I ordered a tea and bun – maska (bread-butter). Simple yet tasty!

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Me at VT (Pic : Jeetendra Sharma)

Satiated, I move on to find myself intrigued by the frenzied activity of newspaper vendors. There were scores of them arranging newspapers (and inserting those irritating advertising brochures) on the supposedly busy VT to Kala Ghoda road. I had to take out my camera to capture this rare moment. Click click click, I went. Next stop in my ‘pilgrimage’: The Flora fountain. My dad is obsessed with this fountain (and to think, he last saw it in the 1970s) and thanks to the genetic disorder, the tradition to obsess about this remarkable piece of public art has passed on to me! I take the ‘darshan’ and move on. By the way the ‘Amar Jyoti’ (Eternal light) is still going strong! (There is this small ‘mashal’ aka firelight which is lighted 24 * 7, 365 days, come what may, be it rain, storms, or even Kasab – (the 26/11 terrorist!)

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Me salivating over Bun Maska (Pic : Jeetendra Sharma)

Churchgate

Then as I move towards Churchgate station, 4-5 bikers whizzed off past me in a jiffy at a mind boggling speed. The need for speed and empty Mumbai roads : perfect combination. All I could manage was a ‘chaunk gaye’ (surprised) expression. They were probably coming from their biking session at Marine Drive.

On the way to Churchgate, I see people sleeping on pavement sans a care in the world. But what struck me the most was that most were sleeping with a dog as if they were the part of their family. I even saw one guy hugging the dog as they slept in eternal bliss. The bonhomie and bond shared by them was very palpable.

Pic above : We saw some turkeys on road, In Local Train , Tea at 5 a.m.

As I reached Churchgate, I indulged in the second round of cigarette (Yes, you are right…..I am wrong!), bun-maska and tea. Interestingly, I could see I was not the only eccentric chap there. There were also many ‘advertising types’ brats who hung around.(Read : the standard wild Afro hair, a goatee, a Bermuda, sandals and black tee with whacky prints and voila the advertising wala look is done) They parked their super expensive sports cars and bikes and high maintenance girl friends and indulged in this humble ‘eating out’. Anything for the love of 5 a.m. Mumbai!

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Churchgate

As I savoured the ‘Ambrosia’, I was interrupted by another divine intervention. All the walking and eating built up the pressure on me and I had to defecate ASAP. Thankfully, the God sent Sulabh Shauchalaya (Public toilet chain of India) was nearby. So, I sat pretty as a king on the HOT SEAT and admired the erotic art and literature on the jarred wooden door (both hetero and homosexual in nature, ugh!) Thanks to the free XXX action on the door and walls, as I began fantasising about ‘things’ and possibilities, I was soon shaken from my fantasy world. As soon as I entered the loo, within 2 minutes a rude knock on the door was accompanied by a crass, “Ae nikal re, kya ander hi baitha rahega?’ (Aye, get out, will you keep sitting there all day?) I wound up my performance in a jiffy, exited, but not before giving an intimidating eyeful to the ‘Yeller’.

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Me at Marine Drive (Pic : Jeetendra Sharma)

Marine Drive

The next stop was Marine Drive. Though at 5:30 a.m. you don’t have to fight for a seat on the promenade but it was still surprisingly buzzing with activities of different kind. There were joggers, time-passers, ‘life-livers’, Yoga lovers, dog walkers, road sweepers, the works! Most of them were rich SoBo (South Bombay)/Colaba gentry. Then there were a bunch of oldies whiling away their time; the overtly LGBT group busy in their own little happy world; the girl who looked like a prostitute; the traveller who was perhaps passing his time, before he can board his long distance train from VT; the foreign couple, perhaps from the adjoining Oberoi hotel.

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Me at Marine Drive (Pic : Jeetendra Sharma)

The great leveller this egalitarian megacity is, it’s the only city I know where people share a common platform , regardless of their class, caste, color, income group, sexuality, gender, region, religion, ideologies whatever. I soaked in the seductive ambience and perched on the promenade, sipping tea and observing. (Yes, you have those cycle tea sellers at 5 a.m. in Marine Drive! Now squeal like a teenaged girl and say yippee!)  Soon, the streets light went pfft and the whole area was illuminated with soft early morning Sun. I have seen many sunsets here, it was one of those rare sun rises I have ever seen in my life.

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Churchgate

I soon received a scandalised SMS from my room mate. “Dude, where are you?’ he asks. I couldn’t help but smile. He was worried to not find me at home so early in the morning. Soon I received another SMS from an office friend Sagar Surve asking me to join him on the Walkathon (Walking marathon) in Bandra. I still had one venue left to complete my pilgrimage circuit; i.e. Bhaucha Dhakka. I was in 2 mind, as I had not slept in 24 hours. But soon, I put aside ‘Will I be able to pull off the 5 kms walk after remaining awake for 24 hours’ with a sporting, ‘Lets do it. Lets push the limits and test my stamina.’

BHAUCHA DHAKKA :

I still had time left, so I rushed to VT to take a local to Dockyard Road station for Bhaucha Dhakka. Come here at 6 a.m. and you will see thousands and lakhs of fishes of all kinds and sizes lying on the roadside.

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The smell will wear on you. The place lived upto the term ‘fish market’ There was chaos, bad ass behaviour, petty fights, screams and mixed human noises. (If only the dead fish could make noise to appeal for mercy!) And then a hand cart puller rudely admonished me while I was standing in the middle of the super busy road, admiring a huge and gorgeous sting ray with a child like curiosity, mouth agape. “Ae Lambu, hat re…”,

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Ae Lambu, Hat Re….”

(Hey tall man, get off my way) he screamed. I move on to discover more secrets of the sea. Alive Crabs, Bombay ducks, pomfrets, prawns etc filled every empty space.

By this time, I had managed to click some good pictures, but soon a Mr. ‘I Own Bhaucha Dhakka’ (and maybe even Bombay) accosted me aggressively: Photography not allowed here. When I asked why, I was subjected to 100 year old history of India.

 

The Britishers made this rule! Blah blah (Sad, we are still following the archaic laws!) Wake up Sire, Raj is over. After ensuring that I deleted all the pictures, the man voluntarily escorted me to the taxi stand so that I do not return back. (The pictures in the blog is from a different visit)

 

 Pic Above – Bhauchcha Dhakka

WALKATHON AT BKC, BANDRA:

I moved on to Bandra Kurla Complex for the Walkathon. After ogling at all the celebrities, especially my personal favourite, Anurag Kashyap, (Other celebs were : Kunal Kapoor , Gowatrikar sisters, Jacky Bhagnani (yawn!), I began the litmus test. I finished a 5 kms walkathon on 4-11-2012 in 45 minutes. Not a big deal, but a somewhat big deal when I have not slept for a single minute in past 24 hours and took the 4 am VT bound train, roamed like a vagabond at 5 am in the streets of Mumbai and then took this last minute impulsive decision to take the walk. Thanks to my friend for putting a pistol on my head and forcing me to take the walk. The perks: free snickers and crackers and water bottles and safety pins (Ugh).

Pic above  – Pic 1 – Kunal Kapoor, Anurag Kashyap, Rajat Barmecha , Pic 2 – Me after finishing Walkathon, Pic 3 – Me with Aditi Gowatrikar

Pics above : Tired me (Shot by Nishant Bajpai)

I returned home at 11 a.m. As soon as I hit bed at my bachelors’ pad, my roomie says, “Lets go to the new James Bond movie, Skyfall, I blabbered in my half sleep, “Dude, I am too tired. I ain’t a James Bond! Ever seen me with a martini? Put the light off, sell my tickets, and see the movie alone”

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Important Points If You Want To Do It Too :

 My 4 a.m. Mumbai darshan got so famous and envied that later many of my friends nagged me to take them along. The pictures here are from many of my early morning walks in So Bo. Here are some tips for you :

  • I won’t recommend this pilgrimage to solo women.
  • Even men should be aware of their surroundings. There have been some cases of chain and cellphone snatching early morning.
  • Don’t flash expensive gadgets and jewelleries.
  • The fish smell from Bhaucha Dhakka just grows on you. It might take a day or more to get the smell out of your nose and clothes. Yes, even after a bath.
  • Eat Pao Bhaji at the Churchgate station main gate. It is very unlike the regular Mumbai pao bhaji.
  • There might be some drunkards or lunatics around. Beware.
  • Carry paper soaps, you know why!
  • Walk, don’t take a cab.
  • Best months to do it- November to February, even monsoon if you can brave the Mumbai rains.
  • I enjoyed doing it solo and also with friends. If you are a girl and you want to do it. Do it like we did. We went in a group of male and females.

Other fun places you can do this in Mumbai:

  • Dadar Chowpatty
  • Bandstand, Bandra

I wrote this post in 2012 but sharing today for the first time with all of you. As I sit and edit (I was a horrible writer in 2012), the piece in Delhi , I get deeply nostalgic about Mumbai and want to catch the first train to the maximum city. I have never felt so deeply for any city (and I have lived in 7 cities). I shifted permanently from Mumbai to Delhi in Nov, 2015 but my heart still lies in Mumbai. 

 

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HOLA MOHALLA – Why You Should Be here next Holi!

I was walking curiously through the open fields and residential quarters of Anandpur Sahib, filled with Nihangs (Soldier wing of Sikhs) wielding weapons and arms. Some of them ran towards me with swords, maneuvering their way skillfully in the narrow lanes of the kloni (colony), their blue and orange blending well with the stark white buildings. I froze in the moment, goosebumps jostling for space on my body.

Suddenly, the fictional Mano Majra of Khushwant Singh (Train to Pakistan) came alive. So did Saadat Hasan Manto’s Punjab (Thanda Gosht aka Cold Flesh). The Punjab I saw was similar and yet so different from the Punjab I read about in the above mentioned stories. The men in my story ran with swords out of the enthusiasm and festive fever which gripped the town during Hola Mohalla. The men in Thanda Gosht and Train to Pakistan (TTP) were fueled by communal hatred set in the backdrop of an agonizing partition of India in 1947. As I ran the slide show of past and present alternatively in my mind, my thoughts were disturbed by the ever swelling crowds rubbing me gently, as if shaking me back to reality.

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I started hallucinating again in the night. The (almost) full moon danced lyrically on the gentle waters of Sutlej river; against the backdrop of green fields bathed in soft glow of moon. The air perfumed with all things earthy, I imagined the doomed Juggat Singh and Nooran (TTP) making love in the fields for one last time.

The next day, I focused on Hola Mohalla, the annual rural festival of Punjab. The sleepy but historically important town of Anandpur Sahib is inundated with lakhs of Nihangs and Sikhs from not only just Punjab but other parts of India too. I was told that many villages in Punjab turn into ghost villages during the 3 day long revelry. All of them head here, a reason why they bring along their cattle and livestock along. It’s a small town with a population of merely 16,000 approximately.

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Despite poor infrastructure and limited space, the town handles the sudden surge in the demographics with elan. I was amused when I noticed that they camped up in open fields called ‘dera’ in their trucks or tents. Some are however tractors masquerading as trucks (madhuji quipped it’s ‘truck over tractor’). The trucks were customized to turn it into bunk bed of sorts. A wooden plank divided the spacious insides of the truck horizontally. A wooden stair was tied roughly to access the upper deck. Both decks doubled up as their bedroom/living room/entertainment room/kitchen and what not. Dried straws of wheat were creatively used as mattresses. These also served as convenient places to socialize and rest in the afternoon. The main festivities last for 3 days, though camps last more than a week or more. I was told once the festival is over, the rain Gods sanitise it all with a default rain every year just after the festival.

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Many of such mobile homes boasted of a woofer, playing energy filled Punjabi songs in full volume. I got a vague idea from where Yo Yo Honey Singh (Rap artist from India) gets his inspiration from. Thanks to the self discipline and admirable civic sense, the streets were shockingly clean for an event of this mammoth scale. There was no pushing, shoving, pick pocketing attempts or arguments, just a little nudge to move ahead in the sea of humanity, crowned with turbans and dupattas (Long piece of thin cloth worn at neck/head/shoulders) of bright hues.

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Most of the action is centered around Gurudwara Takht Sri Kesgarh Sahib. It’s a much revered pilgrimage for Sikhs around the world since this was the place Khalsa Panth was founded by Guru Gobind Singh. Though Holi is a Hindu festival, Hola Mohalla was invented to co-incide with Holi on 7th March, 1701 by Guru Gobind Singh. It began as a festival for poetry contests and mock military processions at the nearby Holagarh Fort. Much of the tradition retains its flavour, give or take a random ‘Facebook’ Golgappe wala or punters roaming around in bizarre masks playing loud music.

 

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The Flying Sikh – 1

It was a pleasure to the senses, walking through the stark white lanes of the holy town. The whole town around the Gurudwara was painted in white much like the pink/blue/golden cities of Rajasthan. Not many know, it’s the first White City of India. The entire city was painted white (symbol of peace) in 1999 when Khalsa Panth turned 300.

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The White City of India nobody told you about!

I spotted many youngsters carrying placards, preaching all things good (and quirky). My friend, Sakshi Sharma, an ex Radio Jockey, helped decipher the Punjabi script for me:

  • I have come here to take blessings of Guru or just to stroll around
  • My tongue should be useful only to take the name of my Guru. My tongue should never be used to speak swearwords or indulge in substance abuse.
  • Haaye kahan gayi meri soni dastaar aur kahan gaye mere sone baal’ (Oh, where have my nice turban and hair gone?) I like this one the most. It’s a harmless taunt to youngsters who are giving up beards and turban in the name of modernity.
  • Donate 1/10th of your income to the ‘have nots’ and then see how you rise in life.
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Promoting Goodness

A group of Nihang, excited to see my camera, invited me to their tent. They introduced me to a Babaji who had participated in the 80th Kila Raipur Rural Olympics in horse racing. The tent was buzzing with activities. Young Nihangs were busy bullying each other in good humor and tending to their horses, cleaning and feeding them. Older ones took care of more skillful chores like churning the Bhaang (Buds and leaves of cannabis ground with mortar and pestle and turning into a hedonistic drink, fit for holy men) and preparing the dinner. I also met a man who made licenses for Nihang men and women. These Government licenses allow them to travel anywhere in India via train for free.

Not very far away, a group of singers grabbed the mikes to fill the air with devotional songs, rural Punjabi pop (Yes, I coined it) and tales of the courage and valor of Sikhs. The young girl, barely in her 20s (I am confused about her age. Look at the picture and you decide) belied her age and spoke passionately and authoritatively about the glorious Sikh history. She spiced it up with moral policing. What ensued was a long lecture on why women should not enter the holy places in Jeans and shorts. The elders listened to the kid obediently as she announced that women are responsible for crime against them. I squirmed in horror as she continued her tirade in a tone of finality a la dramatic protagonists of Hindi soap operas. Never mind, I also danced (in my mind) when they sang quirky fun songs in Punjabi.

Next day, as soon as I reached the stadium where Hola Mohalla events were scheduled, I was spell bound when I bumped into a holy man wearing the heaviest turban I have seen till date. He claimed it weighed 80 kgs. Soon he was surrounded by a group of curious bystanders turning him into a Demi God of sorts. The turban embellished with decorative accessories simply stood out in the wide ground.

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The Flying Sikh -2

The precocious young boys, rubbing dry colors on each other’s face reminded me that it’s the festival of Holi too. The short lived clouds of colors floating in the air made the event more unique. The open field soon filled with countless horses, few camels and elephants and thousands of Nihangs, performing martial arts and mock battles in their own small groups.

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There were sword fighting, demonstrations of the many traditional weapons and of course the ostentatious Horse racing. Unlike Kila Raipur, where Horse racing was done away from the crowds for safety reason, here all the action is bang in the middle of the crowd. The jockeys pierced through the crowds skillfully and at such amazing speed that it left the audiences agape mouthed. Despite all the organized chaos, the participants cum audience were well behaved and self disciplined. And do you really want me to tell you that there were jockeys who handled 3 to 5 horses at a time at a ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ speed? It’s Punjab after all!

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Food :

Dieting should be made a crime in Punjab!

How can I come to Punjab and not fill my face greedily with its sinful food? I was told Chola Bhatura and Samosa Chaat of Pal restaurant is best. I was so overjoyed with the taste, I had to eat extra. Ask for sinfully spicy potatoes and fresh chilli pickle on side.

The thick sugarcane juice I had near stadium was nothing like I have had before. It came with a subtle flavor of mint. Just Rs.10

Tip : When in stadium do pack some food and water.  When in the city area, don’t worry about Food and water. It’s available for free every few steps. All day long! Carry water bottle though if you are not comfortable drinking from community water dispensers. Carry food too if you are the hygiene snob types!

WHERE IN WORLD WILL PEOPLE COMPETE WITH EACH OTHER

SO YOU CAN EAT WITH THEM FOR FREE :

As I wandered around, many young adults and even kids stopped me, almost pulling my hand and dragging me to their ‘pandal’ (tent) to feast at their ‘langar’. Langar is a noble tradition in Sikhs where people can eat in the tents as much as they want for free. Caste and religion no bar! Here, the huge cost of food and infrastructure is borne by the villagers themselves without any Government support. Generally, I have had only simple food of Chapati, Daal (Lentils) and Kheer (Sweetened rice in milk) at langars elsewhere. But the langars here were special. They were more lavish. I tried many langars and was bowled by the variety. Matar Paneer (Cottage cheese and peas curry), Kadhi-rice, jalebi, halwa, Chaas, Lassi etc kept my taste buds happy. The loudspeakers were literally trying to lure you into tents requesting all to ‘try our matar paneer at least once’. I was told there were about 200 langars in town during the festival to cater to the huge influx. From what I saw, I believe them. Then there are the many langars on the Chandigarh to Anandpur Sahib highway, who literally try to stop the car so you can have food with them, yes, for free. In fact, one langar member managed to fill my car with plates of spiced chanas (Chickpeas) despite our protests that it’s more than I can chew.

The activities at langar was so well co ordinated and flawless that many 5 star hotels will fail in comparison. Old men and women, kids, young adults co operated to cook huge amounts of food, serve, wash utensils, the works. All this, without seeking any monetary benefits!

Where in the world but in India will you experience such hospitality and charity without any hidden agendas?

Virasat e Khalsa Museum :

I got lucky to catch the architectural wonder that Virast-e-Khalsa museum is, during the golden hours.

 

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The museum at sun -down

As the brochure suggests,

“ Virasat-E-Khalsa showcases/embodies the rich heritage of the Khalsa and its influence on the history and culture of Punjab.”

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Inside the museum

Designed by internationally acclaimed architect Moshe Safdie, Virasat-E-Khalsa is one of its kind buildings in India. Moshe is the man behind the famous Holocaust Museum. Read more about this must visit museum here.

My Host

I was invited by Punjab Tourism to experience the Hola Mohalla festival. The press trip was organized by #TCBG_Trips led by eminent travel writers Mrs. Alka Kaushik and Mrs. Puneetinder kaur Sidhu.

We stayed in the Heritage Haveli of the very humble Mr. Vikram Singh Sodhi and his wife. It was a 300 year old Haveli with a rich history. The British often used to hang out at the Haveli when Bhakhra Nangal Dam (nearby) was under construction. Since the mother of Mr. Vikram was the only lady in the area who could speak good English, the British women loved to spend their time talking to her.

Mr. Vikram Singh Sodhi  is the Managing Trustee and members of the Anandpur Sahib Heritage Foundation.

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Mr. Vikram Sodhi at the polo match. Pic : Kanwardeep Singh Narula

In the evening the Sodhi couple and Ms. Madhu invited us to their resort by the Sutlej river for dinner. The resort, which is yet to open to public, won my heart. It’s location was a winner and so was the tastefully landscaped terrains.

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Mr. Vikram Sodhi at the polo match. Pic : Kanwardeep Singh Narula

I happened to meet the very talented wedding photographer Kanwardeep Singh Narula who was excited to shoot the polo match. The polo match pictures above are clicked by him.

As per the press release shared with me by Anandpur Sahib Heritage Foundation,

” The 3rd edition of Sodhi Kishan Singh Memorial Polo Cup, 2016 held during Hola Mohalla was a grand success. The cheering crowd that had gathered to witness this ancient royal equestrian sport at the 120 year old SGS (Sodhi Gurbachan Singh) Khalsa Senior Secondary School ground await Hola Mohalla every year to see Polo in action.

The polo tournament was held under the patronage of Shri Madan Mohan Mittal, Cabinet Minister of the Punjab Government and Prof Prem Singh Chandumajra, Member of Parliament, Government of India from the Anandpur constituency. The tournament also has the support of the Chief Khalsa Diwan, one of the premier Sikh institutions based in Amritsar.

Among the several initiatives of the Foundation, this annual horse polo event was introduced to add an international flavor to the traditional martial arts display by “Guru Ki Ladli Fauj” (beloved army of the Guru) from various Dals and Jathas who still follow the traditions started by Guru Gobind Singh Sahib ji. As nearly an estimated 2-3 million pilgrims & visitors from all parts of India and abroad converge for the celebrations from a week before Holi, it is the most opportune time for the Foundation to draw attention to the holy city’s history & unique traditions. The endeavour of the Foundation also seeks to strive for a Drug free Punjab and wean the youth towards sports for a healthy and productive life-style.”

 

 

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Mr Vikram is Managing Trustee at Anandpur Sahib Heritage Foundation, Owner at Delhi Polo & Riding Club. He is passionate about polo and himself a Polo player of international repute. He has introduced the sport to Holla Mohalla in collaboration with the Delhi Polo and Riding Club.

The next day, I started the day with Ms Madhu singing old Bollywood classics over breakfast in the dining hall of haveli. I nagged her to sing since I knew she’s a trained singer.Ms. Madhu is Media and Event Consultant & Coordinator

Many thanks to Mr. Gursharan Singh and Mr. Kamlesh from Punjab tourism board, for their hospitality and guidance. I am also thankful to Mr Sukhwinder for making life easy by transporting me throughout on spacious Innova.

 

RESPECT:

  • Nihangs and locals are very well behaved and mostly busy in their own world. Even if you get into a conflict with them (99 % you will not), avoid arguments. It’s their domain. Set your ego aside and respect the people you are shooting.
  • Carry a scarf/handkerchief or buy a headgear (Rs.20) on the spot. You need to cover the head when you enter Gurudwaras, langars, poetry sessions, even stadium. Warning : If you forget to carryone, be ready to end up looking as ridiculous as I did (See picture)
  • Wear appropriate clothes. Avoid shorts, revealing clothes.
  • Don’t harass people when you click them. Mostly, they will harass you to click them. I shot many people none of whom objected. Take permission before you shoot.

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How to Reach :

It’s 2.5 hours on road from Chandigarh. Alternatively, take up a train till Anandpur Sahib if the timings match yours. Look out for sunsets and Veer Zara wala Gurudwara.

 

 

When :

The dates keep changing every year. Google the Holi dates for the year.

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Got any questions? Ask in the comments below.

 Feel free to share on social media if you liked the blog!

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 The content produced here is original and its copyright stays with Abhinav Singh. The same can not be reproduced without permission.

Rediscovering Chandni Chowk beyond the obvious!

Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi needs no introduction. Or maybe it still needs. Did you know Chandni Chowk is not the long lane (leading from Red Fort) cluttered with shops and decaying buildings of all kinds, many think it to be.

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TCBG_Trip with TCBG members

The original Chandni Chowk was just the crossroad in front of Town hall and not the entire lane or area. British, unable to understand  the meaning of ‘Chowk’ , erroneously called the entire area as Chandni Chowk and the name has stuck on. Originally there used to run a canal in the middle of the roads to facilitate water supply. The real Chandni Chowk was just a square where a pool was built, in the water of which the moon reflected in all its glory. It’s just this area which was called Chandni Chowk originally. Interestingly, not many know, there was a clock tower built by the British near the said pool. Unfortunately the pool, canal and the clock tower (Damaged and demolished) are lost to unstructured ‘development’.  There were also many ‘kehwakhanas’ (Tea Shops) which lined the streets. An equivalent of present day Baristas and Café Coffee days. Also, in early 20th century many banks had set up shop here.

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At Town hall, people love to feed pigeons

Shah Jahan’s favourite daughter Jahanara Begum had worked extensively in building the walled city of Shahjahanabad. Said to be intelligent, creative, influential and very powerful, she commissioned many buildings (Hammam/mosque/ Chowk/ Serai) in Old Delhi. Most remarkable o f which was a Caravensarai (Inn) The famous French traveler Francois Bernier spoke eloquently about this building. In can be compared to the modern age 5 star luxury hotels. It had a Mughal garden in its backyard. It catered to traders from Uzbekistan, French and other European noblemen, mercenaries, travelers, rich entrepreneurs etc. Unfortunately, the British destroyed some of the buildings like hamam and this serai, which was later replaced by the existing Town Hall.

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Notice the sun in ‘sooraj wali masjid’ Sun is a Hindu element traditionally.

Thankfully, British writer/photographer Felice Beato (1830 – 1904) has documented much on the old Delhi through his valuable pictures and book. He visited Delhi in 1858.

The heritage walk took us beyond the usual suspects. Madhulika and Swapna took us to nooks and crannies of Dilli 6 and enriched us with many fascinating facts. Here , I am sharing some of the highlights

The Town Hall : As we were trying to imagine the lost treasures of Old Delhi, the Town Hall, still in its top form , vied for our attention. The incongruous yellow building guarded by lines of palm tree and its large open spaces stood out as an oddity in the congested, wires infested, oxygen starved old Delhi.  It was early morning and passer byes fed the pigeons the grains sold by vendors on the roadside, as (the statue of) Swami Shraddhanand looked on nonchalantly. Not many know, before his statue there used to be a statue of Queen Victoria in the same space.

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Townhall

Chunnamal Haveli : Rai Lala Chunnamal belonged to the ‘Agrawal’ community, traditionally ‘baniya’ aka merchants. In the upheaval of 1857, the area saw a marked change in population.  It was feared by the British that the blame for the unrest will be directed at Muslims in the vicinity. It was a time when British confiscated Royal property along with general ones and sold at throw away prices in auctions. Lala Chunnamal made a killing by lapping up this golden opportunity. He bought properties at low prices and made huge profits later during a boom in real estate prices. The sheer size of the Haveli is a tell tale sign of the massive wealth he had amassed.  Spread over 1 acre, it consists of 128 rooms in 3 floors , not to mention 139 shops circling it on the ground floor. It is not open to visitors. From the maze of entangled wires, I saw a dust coated colonial clock hanging precariously from its balcony. The architecture style of the green white mansion is European from outside. However, its interiors are Indian in style as can be seen in the Google images.

 

KATRA NEEL :

Moving a little ahead, we turned right and entered the main gate of Katra Neel. You can find many gated colonies in old Delhi, which reminded me of ‘Pols’ of Ahmedabad. Katra neel is one such colony. The term ‘Katra’ stands for business district while ‘neel’ (Indigo) for dyes. As the name suggests, the area was inhabited by traders who worked in the dyeing business. They, worked, lived and socialized here. Khatri (Hindu) cast were the main occupants here. The area has gone many changes over the years, most notably the demographics. The people who once called it home (Homes above shops) have moved out of the place and travel here every day for business. There are many ‘koocha’ which literally means the narrow lanes crossing the buildings.

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Swapna Liddle explaining about Shivalayas

One interesting character of Katra Neel is the many Shivalayas, built over mid 19th century. We entered the most notable Kunniji Maharaj Shivalaya which stood out with its neat purple exteriors (Painted over original red sandstone). Shivalayas were the personal temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. These were built in the courtyard of old havelis (Mansion) and mostly visible from the koochas. What makes these structures curious is its architectural style which is a blend of Hindu and Islamic tradition. Instead of a Hindu ‘Shikhar’ the Shivling is protected by an Islamic Gumbad/Chatri (dome) The scalloped arches are another Islamic feature. The one we saw was built in white marble and was maintained by the family living in the haveli.

 

Pics above : (L to R) An Otla, A Shivalaya (Notice the Islamic dome in Hindu temple) , another Otla. (Click to enlarge)

The entrance of Shivalaya has its own characters. ‘Otla’ is an interesting feature. It is the small square space built on either side of the door. It overlooks the ‘koocha’ and its main purpose is socializing or just lazing around. One can sit, have tea, read papers, or chat with neighbors sitting on it. It builds a sense of community amongst the residents. However, presently many ruin the ‘otlas’ with slanted structures to discourage strangers from sitting on it. Many such entrances have interesting motifs of sun, moon, snakes, lotus etc and ‘ala’(Decorative racks) to keep night lamps in old times.

Haveli Hopping :

Next on our radar was the huge courtyard of an old Haveli (Mansion). The courtyard was surrounded by many houses and it served as a common place for families to socialize. The balcony/corridors locally called ‘dalaan’ connects the many homes and faces the courtyard. It’s another important socializing platform. It’s also used to dry clothes. It is said, in those times, wealth was buried in the walls or ground.

The rooftops commonly called ‘Chchat’ is another important part of houses in old Delhi, shown effectively in the movie Delhi 6. It’s a great place to chat/romance with neighbours, dry your spices, oil your hair or simply doze off in the winter sun.

Interestingly, most havelis mimic the Red Fort. So much so , that they even had a quirky throne like structure in while marble, mimicking the one in Diwan-e-khas of Mughal forts and palaces.  A Hindu temple and a parrot looking at us curiously from its cage added to the typical ‘mahaul’ (atmosphere) of the Haveli.

Interestingly, some havelis also have a basement area which is used as an escape in hot summers.

NAUGHARA :

Soon we found ourselves in the famous ‘parathewali gali’ and ‘itra’ (Perfume) shops. Suppressing the desire to binge on food we focused on the next destination.

 

Pics above : Details of exterior at Naugharana

Also known as Naugharana, this gated colony near Kinari Bazaar is a cluster of 7 Jain havelis facing a neat narrow lane. What set these havelis apart is their delightfully colorful exteriors. Everything from doors to windows to ‘otla’ are tastefully jeweled with motifs of flowers, birds, mammals and other designs.  It’s an incredibly quiet place amidst the organized chaos of old Delhi.

Pics above : Exterior of havelis at Naugharana, notice the jewelry shop in middle

The exterior also has Mughal influences with own personal stamp of the resident. The descendents now live there and these are not open to visitors. Kinari Bazaar was originally called ‘Dareeba Khurd’ (Small dareeba) . Dareeba Kalan is the larger version of it. The Naughara lane has a Jain temple of its own and a Silver jewelery shop. Dareeba Khurd was known for the trade of silver, gold and precious stones under the reign of Mughal emperor Shahjahan.

Sheesh Mahal (in Katra Kushal Rai) :

This 3 story Haveli from the 18th century, built in Mughal architectural style is relevant for its historical importance. Who would have thought that the iconic St Stephen’s College (One of the oldest in India) had its foundation in this building. The college was started here with just 5 students and 3 teachers in 1881.

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The old and new at Sheesh Mahal

The old glory of the building has been destroyed with the unplanned ugly addition in recent years. The difference in architectural styles (The latter is just brick and mortar) is an eyesore.

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A Tradition to feed birds at haveli

At the end of 19th century, a campus at Kashmiri gate was established while 1940s saw the college shifting to the modern North Campus. Some of celebrity alumni include the likes of Barkha Dutt, Rahul Gandhi, Konkana Sen Sharma, Siddharth Kak, Khushwant Singh, Amitav Ghosh, Richa Chaddha, Kabir Bedi, Shashi Tharoor amongst a long list.

Koocha Ustad Hamid

At last, we visited Koocha Ustad Hamid. Ustad Hamid who?  He was the architect of The Red Fort and not many know, he lived beyond the red gate which marks the entrance to Koocha Ustad Hamid, walking distance from Jama Masjid. His was a big estate, almost like a mini colony owned by him. The red gate is one of the few edifices from yore still preserved.

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Entrance to Koocha Ustad Hamid

The Walk was conducted by #TCBG_trips led by Alka Kaushik and Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu in association with SALT (society for promotion of Arts and literature) and author sisters Madhulika Liddle and Swapna Liddle.

Madhulika, whose new novel Crimson City has just hit the bookstands, read out excerpts of the book (which is set in Chandni Chowk) during the walk, making it a unique experience. You can read her blogs here :

You can buy Crimson City here :

Swapna Liddle has written a book packed with information on Heritage walsk in Delhi. It is called delhi : 14 Historic walks

You can buy her book here

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How can you come to Chandni Chowk and not attack food
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Liddle sisters enriching us with information