Ladakh: On the Snow Leopard Trail
We drove through Hubli in Karnataka, a dusty, decrepit town with faded shop signs and half-forgotten civic works – the ruins of the industrial age. Hubli’s bleak residential complexes gave way to some spectacular geology and we found ourselves in a ravine fringed by red sandstone crags. We had reached our destination, Badami, known for its ruins of the Chalukya dynasty that ruled parts of south India from the 6th – 12th CE. Badami with the nearby towns of Aihole and Pattadakal, are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, showcasing a blend of architecture from the north and south of India.
The history and the allure of over 150 temples strewn across a stark landscape, had drawn my mother here over ten years ago, when she was working on her doctorate in Indian Art and Architecture. The caves and temples of Badami-Aihole-Pattadakal weren’t just witness to a dynasty, she told me, as the different faiths of Shaivism, Vaishnavite, Buddhism and Jainism swept across the landscape, each carved their own gods and symbols. Today, I was travelling with her to unravel the archaic symbology and to learn about the syncretization of faiths in south India.
Making our way through a busy, narrow road through the town’s market, we reached a brick-coloured rocky outcrop. The Badami cave temples are carved into this crumbling rock face and represent a series of architectural styles. The first cave bears friezes from Shiva’s life; his Tandava-dancing Nataraja form, his half-male, half-female form, Ardhanarishvara, a family portrait with his wife Parvati, and his sons Ganesha and Kartikeya, among other iconic deities like Durga and Vishnu. Beyond the gods represented, there other characters and symbols – animals, birds, lotuses and amorous couples adorn the walls, dwarfish ganas or cherubs are carved into the floor, indicating a world of gods, demi-gods and other creatures.
The second and third caves carved in the late 6th or early 7th CE depict stories about Vishnu in different avatars. The boar-headed Varaha avatar brings to mind the story of the birth of south India’s mighty river, Tungabhadra. His Trivikrama reincarnate appeared before the haughty, wealthy king, Mahabali to teach him humility. A Vishnu reclining on a snake’s back indicates his role in primal creation and sustenance of the universe. Other stories like the churning of the ocean for the famed ambrosia and the fallout between the gods and demons are carved along pillars. The marriage of Shiva and Parvati is painted on the ceiling, one of India’s oldest examples of fresco art. While the statues are damaged by natural factors or by subsequent rulers, and the frescoes have faded and chipped, the rich mythology has lived on. The legends that inspired kings to carve these temples, were passed on through stories told by my mother and grandmother, so that I could stand here centuries later, and vividly reimagine the lives and loves of the gods.
The fourth cave is starkly different in its iconography, as it represents Jain tirthankaras or prophets. Scholars say it was carved in the 8th CE, my mom explained as she pointed out the motif-rich columns and window-like panels peopled with standing figures. Bahubali, Parshvanatha and Mahavira are detailed carvings, whereas other tirthankaras are symbolically displayed. Interestingly, this cave bears an icon associated with Hinduism, the makara – a composite, mythical sea creature with the body of a fish, trunk of an elephant, feet of a lion, eyes of a monkey, ears of a pig, and the tail of a peacock. I remembered this creature from the black-and-white photos in my mother’s dissertation, and it was more beautiful to see it etched in stone, almost like the pages coming to life. Like the curious sculpture of half-Vishnu and half-Shiva in cave 2, such symbols show the classic syncretization of faiths – where subsequent religions merge or borrow iconography to gain acceptance.
On the other side of the Badami caves, across the greenish Agasthya lake, lay another crag with a two temples and a ruined fort wall, now ruled by monkeys. After a quick visit of the rather dull Badami museum that lay at the base, we climbed up to the lower and upper shivalayas – less-elaborately carved temples that overlooked the town. The lower shivalaya retains only its inner sanctum, and upper shivalaya bears some stories from Ramayana, Krishna’s life and Narasimha, Vishnu’s lion-headed avatar. As the sunset painted the skies in hues to rival the burnished rocks, we climbed down amidst the clamour of monkeys staking out their night-time territory.
In the fading light, we walked around the Agasthya lake to reach the temples at the far side – the Bhoothnath complex. The temples also bore a mix of Hindu and Jain icons with the elaborate inner structures juxtaposed against the more geometric outer structures, indicating that they had been completed over a period of time. Historical records concur, the temples date from the 7th – 11th CE.
The following day, we drove to the Pattadakal group of temples, located along the Malaprabha river. The present-day entrance leads you to the newer temples first but to retrace the history, one should start at the Virupaksha temple dating back to 740 CE. An elaborate structure depicting the Shiva – Vishnu folklore, it is said to have inspired the famous Kailash temple in Ellora, near Aurangabad, Maharashtra. The other structures around, the Mallikarjun temple, Sangameshwara temple, Kashi Vishwanath temple, Chandrasekhar temple, Galganath temple, among others were constructed between the 7th – 9th CE. Unusual icons like ducks, numerous Kannada inscriptions that can help trace the evolution of ancient scripts, and the monolithic stone pillar are of particular interest to the historian. Mom and me lamented the state of the Pattadakal museum and the number of sculptures it displayed that couldn’t be restored to their former glory.
A short drive from Pattadakal led us to Aihole. Unlike the compound built around Pattadakal’s many temples, Aihole’s temples are scattered around a little village and one must walk around from temple to tank, from hillside to cave to explore them. Legend has it that Sage Parashurama killed a band of soldiers who were abusing their power, and upon washing his axe in the river Malaprabha near Aihole, the region’s rocks turned red. Aihole’s legacy from prehistoric cave paintings to 12th CE temples has earned it the epithet, ‘cradle of Hindu rock architecture’. Hindu temples, one Buddhist structure and a few Jain monuments in varying stages of ruin, and varied influences indicate that Aihole was a place for creative experimentation. The styles practiced here went on to define north and south architecture, for Hindu and Jain faiths. An inscription mentions a civil war against the Pallavas, a dynasty history chronicles as following the Chalukya. It seems ironic that like their architectural legacy, the decline of the Chalukya dynasty is also etched in stone.
A travelogue on the Sunderbans by Mohan
Common ki Pied – dakho ?!! asked our boat man Manoj to our Naturalist Samar when he spotted a Kingfisher as we cruised the waterways of Sunderbans. Queried with authority, it surprised me that the boatman should know the bird and the species. What blew my mind was the ability of both Manoj and Samar to spot the smallest of birds from the distance of our boat.
Sunderbans is home to 6 species of Kingfishers or Machranga (as called in Bengali). And I call them the “Super Six of Sunderbans”. We were lucky to spot all 6 but could photograph only 5 including the brown winged Kingfisher, which is endemic to the Sunderbans.
Our first glimpse of wildlife on the cruise was the Black Capped Kingfisher. A beautiful bird with a black head, white neck, orange beak, and a beautiful Royal blue body. It looked stunning sitting on the stump of a tree in the background of the brown muddy banks of Sunderbans. It reminded me in someways of the colours one sees in the barren desert landscape of Rajasthan.
We all know Sunderbans as the World’s largest mangrove forest, certified by Unesco as a Natural Heritage site. It’s one of the most unique landscapes of this world. This is also a habitat for the Royal Bengal Tigers that roam around these forests and swim across it’s channels, formed by over 400 rivers that criss-cross to form the world’s largest Delta.
As we continued our cruise, we spot two Rhesus macaques walking along the mud slush. This sight is so different when compared with spotting them in the thick and green foliage of a jungle. While we are admiring the strides made by the Macaques through the slush, suddenly our naturalist Samar points us towards a Monitor lizard. It’s hard to spot it at first and takes a while before we trace its form and location. Our cameras immediately swing into action. As we cruise we go past a watch tower, wondering we haven’t seen any DEER, when suddenly our navigator Manoj calls out, DEER! We come across this small herd of three spotted Deers, grazing along the shores.
While cruising back to our lodge, we spot an Osprey sitting on the branch of a tree with the setting sun in the background. We then come across our Kingfisher No.2, the Pied Kingfisher. A totally different colour combination of just black and white stripes and spots.
Our first day in the Sunderbans ended witnessing the setting sun and rising full moon. The first full moon after the 10th day of Durga Puja in Bengal is celebrated as LAKKHI PUJA or Lakshmi Puja, an auspicious day on which the people of Bengal pray to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. And what we witnessed was a stunning sunset on one side and a rising full moon reflecting bright light on the villages along the riverbanks. It was a spectacular way to end a long day of travel. Back at the camp we watched the documentary “Swamp Tigers” the first ever documentary made on the Tigers of Sunderbans, shot entirely in Bangladesh side of the swamp forests. A must watch for anyone who is planning a visit to this place.
As with most Indian forests, Sunderbans is also connected with many myths. One such story is of the mythical jungle goddess Bonobibi who continues to be worshiped by both the Hindu and Muslim communities in the Sunderbans. Bonobibi is considered by the locals as their protector and saviour from attacks by predators like the Tiger. The lives and livelihoods of people of Sunderbans are dependent on resources from the forests such as honey, crab and fish. As they set out every day into the forests to tap these resources, they pray to Goddess Bonobibi to protect them, for the narrow creeks and the forests of Sunderbans can be extremely dangerous with the presence of the hungry tigers. Amitav Ghosh’s “HUNGRY TIDE” gives a magical perspective of this region and a must read.
The next couple of days were dedicated to cruising on the rivers and narrow creeks of Sunderbans forests. Our explorations lasted almost 12 hours each day with a 5 AM start ending back at the lodge at 5 PM. Day time meals were on board. Breakfast consisted of sandwiches, poha (an Indian dish made out of flattened rice), cucumber and tomato sandwiches, bread, jam, butter, cereals, omelette and fruits while lunch consisted of local specialties such as vegetables, lentils, rice, chapatti, salad and a sweet. The crew was kind and efficient and kept a constant supply of tea and biscuits on request.
The early start and long days on cruise were rewarding as we saw a variety of wildlife. As we would get into a quiet phase on the cruise, some extraordinary sighting would wake us up. Like a swimming estuarine crocodile or a bird of prey or the pug marks of a Tiger that just swam across a creek and disappeared into the jungle.
The best time to see wildlife here is at low tide when the water levels start receding and one starts observing animal movement along the shore. There are some places which are good for birding during high-tide as birds perch themselves higher up on trees.
As our explorations continued, our Naturalist Samar despite poor mobile connectivity got a call on his cell phone from another naturalist. Two Tigers had been spotted on the edge of a creek, ready to swim across. But looking at a boat passing by, they decided to stay away and walked back into the Jungle. Unlike other forests where alarm calls from animals such as Deer, langurs and macaques signal the presence of a predator, in Sunderbans it’s very hard to figure out a Tiger’s presence as the prey base is low. There are practically no alarm calls unless a deer or a monkey is present in the same spot as a Tiger, which is not so common. Therefore reports like this are very critical for naturalists. If they get an indication of a sighting, they tend to spend more time in these areas to wait and WATCH. After waiting for sometime, we decided to move on much to the disappointment of our Naturalist Samar.
Midway through our cruise at the Netidhopani watch tower, we met up with another guest from our lodge who was lucky to have spotted these two tigers. Sunderbans is the 3rd most difficult place to spot a Tiger after Siberia and Sumatra. Back at the lodge, the information board read “Last Tiger Spotted by a guest 6.10.2017”.
We kept moving and were rewarded with sighting 3 more species of Kingfisher. The last one was the Brown Winged Kingfisher which is endemic to Sunderbans. That also brought the end of a long but satisfying day of cruising and wildlife sightings.
The second day of our visit in Sunderbans was affected by heavy rains for most parts of the day. But that did not deter us from going out on the cruise. We ventured out fully equipped with food and water. Our time was well spent with interesting discussions and story telling sessions by our friend and special guest Jaideep Gupta, who has been a travel companion of many years.
Originally from Bengal and settled in Delhi, Jaideep is an avid traveller who is well read and well informed. He kept pouring out stories of local folklore and legend. His references to the comic characters of Tuttu-Buttu and their adventures into the jungles and encounter with Machranga the Kingfisher made it a very interesting experience. Folklore and legend always add an interesting dimension to any place. One such tale connected to Sunderbans forests that Jaideep recounted is the Story of Behula who brought back her husband Lakhinder from the jaws of death after praying to the snake Goddess Manasa.
As we entered another phase of quietude on the cruise, we heard the naturalist call out Dakho, ‘Dolphins’ . It was the perfect place and moment to see the Irrawaddy Dolphins. Our crew kept calling out to us, as the dolphins popped in and out of the water. This game went on for good half hour to 45 minutes with our heads turning left and right, as we attempted to capture those wonderful scenes on our Cameras.
We saw a few more birds of prey, a pair of Brahmini kites, more deer. A monitor lizard which didn’t feel like being photographed moved swiftly back into the forest as we tried to get closer for a shot. The last sighting of the day was another swimming estuarine crocodile, which gave me ample opportunity to capture an amazing video.
Despite rains playing spoil sport we had another great day exploring the waterways. A fascinating part of the experience is interaction with the locals. Talking to them, helped us understand their challenging lives in these harsh conditions. We spoke to a family, who had just finished collecting crabs on a narrow creek. The one thing they all fear is “the Tiger”, yet they venture into these treacherous terrains and risk their lives.
Our day ended at the lodge watching a play on the legend of Bonobibi enacted by the hotel staff and artists from the neighbouring village.
As we prepared to leave the next morning, a Baul singer brought calm against the sounds of the lashing rain with his soulful singing.
Sunderbans is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all nature lovers. The highlight of a visit to Sunderbans is it’s habitat, the wildlife sightings. Interaction with locals, learning about their lives and livelihoods, about the conflicts between man and animal, folklore and legend, social issues and community development brings insight and answers a lot of intriguing questions for the inquisitive traveller.
Accommodation options in Sunderbans are limited to three star levels. Food served is mostly Indian. Staff, at the hotel is mostly local from the villages around the property. Communication skills and service levels do not conform to destinations that experience a large inflow of travellers. I strongly recommend that every trip is led by an English speaking escort from Kolkata or Delhi to carefully monitor every detail and manage the expectations of a guest.
In conclusion, I would add that Sunderbans does tick off everything that we are committed to offer under W.A.T.C.H.
On my first safari, and the month had just turned December. A chilly and cold morning and within less than five minutes a jungle cat was sighted. It disappeared into the tall grass and then further into the woods. Later on the in the day, a jackal trotted along without a care in the world. Amongst all this of course I must mention the multiple numbers of white eye buzzard who had made the woodland their stronghold. When I look back now, I must say that the impatient part of me hoped for the tiger lurking around the corner waiting to show itself and make my first morning special. But it was not to be. Yet, now that I sit and write this I must say that it was hard to ignore the different predators large and small that Pench comprises of including the striped cat above all this in the food chain.
What allows Pench to have a successful number of predators in terms of both numbers and diversity is its high density of prey species including the axis deer. Pench ranks right up there with one of the highest number of spotted deer in comparison to other national Parks, tiger reserves or wildlife sanctuaries. To add to this are langur monkeys which are also found in abundance along with a few rhesus macaque who too seem very much at home in this dry deciduous forest. Larger prey species include nilgai or blue bull antelope, sambar deer and the Indian gaur, a large and impressive wild cattle. Add to this a healthy number of diversity of avian fauna, good fish life on the Pench river running through the heart of the park and a great diversity of insect life that thrive in this teak dominated country. All these facets together make Pench a thriving forest of Eden and a perfectly suited habitat of buffet on offer for the hunters as I found out in my four seasons of winter and summer spent here.
As a naturalist, patience was key and I learnt vey soon that seeking tigers here were going to be a challenge. Yet my eyes kept out for the other details that went around and never did the jungle allow me to let my guard down. Looks can be deceptive and I found that out while on a morning game drive when a rather cute looking jungle owlet was seen with a small sized serpent in its talons. It was not the last time I saw it with dinner. Many other incidents proved that if you were prey, death could come from the sky as much as from the earth. On a different occasion, a different victim, this time a palm squirrel. It had met its death at the talons of a hawk eagle.
Another incident happened by the Pench river where I was busy watching ruddy shelducks and river terns when unexpectedly, there was sudden flash of activity in the waters. Before I knew what had unfolded, a grey headed fish eagle was off with a struggling fish in the grip of its talons. Clearly the poor fish did not see it coming, and neither did I to start with. Buzzard presence could not be missed either and honey buzzards and white eyes dominated in their respective niche of open country and well wooded habitats. While the honey buzzard fed well on the abundance of larvae supplied by bees and at times wasps too, on one occasion I noticed a fascinating incident of a white eye buzzard feeding on a grasshopper. Clearly Pench is one of the best places to see birds of prey and I was fortunate to witness all this first hand.
Many memorable incidents include a special evening while driving back from the park to camp. Dusk had fallen and the lights had faded giving way to nocturnal life to move about. As I winded the jeep through the buffer forests with a group of journalists on board, we caught sight of a huge rock python passing through the road as it slipped away into the darkness of the forest. Its sheer size and constricting muscles seemed intimidating enough when I got down to have a closer look. Hilly and rocky terrain with good leaf cover and plenty of rock shelters give the rock python a perfect chance at becoming a successful predator in this thriving jungle book of Kipling. This particular ‘kaa’ that I saw, deserved every inch of respect. Another reptile which hunts actively and scavenges readily at any given opportunity is the monitor lizard. A miniature form of the komodo, it is easy to forget about their existence in the jungle till summer arrives when they make themselves more visible. Monitor lizards are active egg snatchers by nature but in addition to this, also very skilled hunters of small game.
Amongst all this, it was inevitable that predators would cross paths with one another and it is here where rivalry and competition of predators are seen in real. One such example happened earlier this year when a jungle cat had to make a run for it when it encountered a golden jackal who chased it deep into the woods before I lost sight of both.
The larger predators showed up on few occasions but when they did, sightings were special and all worth the wait. One such incident I can recall happened to be on a hot day in late march. The morning had yielded a male tiger sighting, but my photography guests from Scandinavia rode their luck into the evening when we encountered a tigress cooling off at a waterhole. What followed after this was far from what we had prepared ourselves for. A small pack of five wild dogs trotted towards the same waters where the tigress lay. In a matter of minutes, the calm and still ambience of the jungle changed when the tigress got off her comfortable spot trying to pursue into chasing down a couple of the dogs while the rest flee. The dogs of course were too agile for her, but the whole air filled with cackling alarms of the dogs and the growls of the tigress. The jungle was at its most tense and looking back at that evening now still gives me goose bumps while my guests watched in awe. Something unique, something special had unfolded that evening and we were witness.
Another such incident happened when we encountered a pack of eight wild dogs near a waterhole. The langurs continuously barked their alarm. It got me wondering since langurs unless got off guard are usually calm up on the tress even if dogs are seen in the vicinity. On a closer look at the higher branches and we noticed the reason for the monkey tension. Two leopards on two separate branches had been treed up by the pack of wild dogs, and they seemed to be holding on for dear life. As we sat and watched this go on, wondering about the escape routes for the leopards, out came a jackal trotting on to the scene that saw the dogs chase it with serious intent, the whole scene of the chase disappearing into the thick lantana. Such was the blessing for the cats, as both the leopards carefully climbed down before making a dash for cover.
Encounters of predators crossing our paths and that of one another happened more often than I thought as I spent more time in these jungles. While I witnessed the challenges of each predator unfold before me, their very presence both big and small, is what makes Pench a thriving story of the fictional ‘jungle book’. For as long as we are only witness and nothing more to all the drama that takes place in these jungles, there will surely be more predator stories to share.
We are all mortal until the first kiss and the second glass of wine…
– Eduardo Galeano
Imagine, then the immortality of tasting over 15 different wines in less than 24 hours? But I’m getting ahead of myself, before the immortality, lay a 5 hour journey across a highway under construction. I was heading, not towards the famed vineyards of California or Beaujolais, but in the direction of Nashik, a city a few hours away from the bustle of Mumbai (165 kilometres) and Pune (160 kilometres), in Maharashtra, India.
India, seems like a rather unusual destination for a wine trail yet fruity, alcoholic beverages have been recorded in India since the Vedic times (1500 – 700 BCE). Vedic medical practitioners like Charaka and Susruta even advocated ‘moderate alcohol use’ for better health. ‘Somaras’, mentioned in ancient texts, is considered to be the juice of a high-altitude fruit (as yet unidentified) which was distilled to produce an intoxicating, aphrodisiacal spirit. Surprisingly, one study by F.R Allchin suggests that India might have been the home of alcoholic distillation.
As it is difficult to distinguish floral, fruity, fermented drinks mentioned in older texts with wine as we know it today – wine-making in India is considered to be a rather recent undertaking, and it all begins in Nashik.
Nashik’s wine story begins with a gamble – a farmer returned from education in California, and decided to plant a few wine grape varieties on his family’s plot of table grapes. (Yes, something I learned recently, too – the varieties of grapes for wine are different from those we consume directly which are known as table grapes). He set up the first winery at Sula vineyards in 1999, and the rest, as they say, is history. Over the next few years, several other farmers followed suit, aided by the Maharashtra government’s 2001 policy that ensured no excise would be applied to wines made from grapes in the state. The grape farmers-turned-winemakers learned from one another, sent their kith and kin abroad to learn more about winemaking, and even hired sommeliers from other vineyards in France, Australia or California to create distinct, indigenous wines. Today, Nashik Valley is a patented geographical indicator for wines produced in India.
Apart from Nashik, only the outskirts of Hampi in Karnataka (Krsma vineyards) and Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh (Ambi vineyards), produce indigenous wines in the country. Yet, in global circles, India’s wines are rapidly gaining acclaim, produced as they are in the unusual terroir of our rich, black soil, tropical climate and ample rainfall.
Intrigued by the story and lured by the chance to sample some of India’s indigenous spirits, I found myself in Nashik. On the outskirts of the city, to the west and south-west lie several vineyards, each growing a variety of grapes and producing their own range of wines. To retrace the history of the region, I started my wine trails at Sula vineyards. They run wine trails every hour to cater to their popularity with tourists from Mumbai and Pune, and I duly joined a mixed group of corporates and families as we were guided through their factory. We were explained the fascinating process of harvesting, crushing, fermentation, clarification, ageing and bottling – with the differences that create a white, rose or red wine. The temperatures in every room of the factory was chilly, which are the ideal conditions for wine-making and perhaps, the most expensive overhead for winemaking in India. Sadly, as it was still early in the season for grape-harvesting, we couldn’t actually see the winemaking in action. A visit between January to March would be more ideal to see the entire winemaking process.
Finally, we were ushered into a sombre, tasting room with a large wooden counter with 6 bottles and numerous wine glasses that seemed to be waiting for us. A certified sommelier, then took us through the nuances of the ‘swirl, smell, see, sip and spit’ ritual of wine-tasting, as we were introduced to Sula’s incredible range with 2 white wines, 2 red wines, a pleasant rose ending on a high note with a sweet, Chenin Blanc dessert wine! I’d like to say that I tasted peaches and cherries, smelt woody fragrances and spices – yet, to the uninitiated, there’s a long journey before one can unlock the mysteries of wines. Suffice it to say, that I learned enough to appreciate wines better (and not pooh-pooh at the elitist, swirling wine-tasters!) and promised myself to enjoy them on the palate for longer than the quintessential, quick swig Indian drinker!
The following day, I was determined to scratch at more than just the surface of Nashik’s wine industry and I requested Manoj Jagtap, a self-learned, wine trail expert to guide me through. With his insights into the region’s history, a repertoire of experiences in vineyards across the world and his local savvy, we made our way across 3 other wineries in and around Nashik.
Our first stop, Soma was a humble factory with an incredible production of wines; white, red, sparkling and rose. At Soma, I learned a little bit more about the aromas and flavours associated with different wines; the fruity, flowery flavours of white wines; the woody, oaky flavours of red wines; the bubbly, frothy feel of sparkling wines – and the wide terminology employed to describe them. Tapping into Manoj’s knowledge, I also heard the anecdotal story of how sparkling wines (as Champagne in France falls under a geographical indicator, the rest of the world uses the term sparkling wine to denote the bubbly beverage) were first created by monks. During cold French winters, the natural fermentation process of grape juice and yeast is retarded. The residual sugar and dormant yeast in the bottles, once stoppered with a cork, break down to form carbon dioxide. The buildup of carbon dioxide made bottles explode, much to the curiosity of the cellar monk, Dom Perignon. Upon tasting the foamy, bubbly wine, he continued experimentation till he stumbled upon a production-worthy ‘champagne’. Our tasting session included 6 wines, Soma’s range of 2 whites, 2 reds, a rose and a Chenin Blanc dessert wine – which was similar to Sula’s range in terms of grape varietals and names, but had completely different flavours. Interestingly this time, I did taste guavas and smell pepper, but whether that was due to a palate being honed or a hyper-active imagination, I cannot say.
We drove on towards the south-west vineyards cluster, where the Grover Zampa farms lay. With impeccable gardens, an old-style stone structure and a hillside carpeted with vine trellises, Grover Zampa is an impressive vineyard. The only vineyard with a rugged landscape, I was told, as compared to the others growing on flatter topographies, Grover Zampa is reinventing itself. Once known as Zampa, it is rebranding its range of wines under the name Grover Zampa – with the help of Michel Rolland, the world famous wine consultant. A quick climb up the vineyard slopes cultivating grape varietals like tempranillo, shiraz and viognier, offered a spectacular view of the nearby ridges and the glassy Mukane reservoir. During a visit to the factory, I saw the fascinating process of bottling; a team manually sticks labels onto bottles, then they are mechanically filled with wine, ending with the capping and sealing by another small team, before being put into boxes for storage and dispatch. While swirling and sipping some of Grover Zampa’s wines, I noticed some of their interesting, artsy wine bottle labels. Each year, Grover Zampa hosts artists from across India to enjoy the hospitality of the vineyards in exchange of artwork. Grover Zampa’s bottle labels currently feature the talent of contemporary artists like Sanjay Bhattacharya, Paresh Maity, among others inspired by the picturesque setting of the vineyards.
Lastly, we stopped off at Vallonne vineyards, a boutique vineyard with a smaller production of more nuanced wines. Vallonne’s vineyards are closer to the Mukane reservoir, and their charming south-east Asian restaurant, Malaka Spice looks out onto its blue expanse. Malaka Spice is a well-known brand in Pune and seeing it in a rustic setting like Vallonne, was a pleasant surprise, especially as it was lunchtime. Interestingly, their menu paired most items with a suitable wine and their food was delectable – a must-visit for anyone looking for an unusual culinary experience in Nashik. Later, we traipsed through Vallonne’s small factory and were once more, taken through the winemaking process. After 4 wine trails, it may seem like the same old spiel, but if you listen closely, each vineyard has its own story to tell. Vallonne vineyard’s claim to fame is their Rose created with Cabernet Sauvignon, an unusual accomplishment, as also India’s first wine with the inky-purple Malbec grape varietal. What’s more, as a boutique vineyard, Vallonne allows you to commission your own wine to commemorate a special event, be it a birthday, a wedding or a lifetime achievement. Their special 1o litre barrels can be branded with your name, a logo or any other caption you’d like, and kept to age for as long as you’d like – after which, they can bottle your wine and send it across, along with the branded barrel. Sadly, with little time left before my long journey back to Pune, we had to skip the wine-tasting session at Vallonne.
Eduardo Galeano may not be quite right, as after 15 glasses of wine, I’m still mortal (and I’m not tempted to test that!). Yet the curious expressions of a grape after crushing and fermentation, barrel-ageing and bottling, has surely made me eager to unravel the secrets of wines! For the spirit-tourists and the wine-enthusiasts alike, as also the culinary travellers looking for something different, I would heartily recommend a wine trail through Nashik for an unusual insight into the art of winemaking!
There’s so much to see, do and experience across cities in India – yet, some cities with a well-known landmark or more, are often visited for just a day or two. Is it still possible to squeeze in all the interesting sights and sounds of a city? At Travel Scope, we think so…and we’re starting a new feature on how to make the most of your few hours in cities across India. We’ve already covered 48 hours in Agra in a previous blog feature, now here’s how to dash across Jaipur without missing out its highlights!
Start your day with a climb skirting the ridges that define the limits of the city of Jaipur. These ridges, with their historic fortifications, offer panoramic views of the ‘pink city’ buildings and the patchwork of fields that surround it. Listen to our guide narrate the Story of Jaipur from the nexus of Raja Amer’s rule to the present-day capital of Rajasthan, and learn of the geo-strategic significance of this city through history.
Continue on towards the Amer Fort, one of the 3 forts that overlook Jaipur, and the most magnificent – with its artistic Hindu influences and its pretty Maota lake. Interestingly, Amer was a small place established by the Meenas tribe of Rajasthan, before Raja Mansingh decided to relocate his capital and rebuilt the fort upon the remnants of an older structure. Then tuck into a hearty picnic breakfast, and you imagine the city below changing over time.
For those who’d prefer a less active start to the morning, drive off in our Welcome Ambassador – a buxom, regal car that was once the preferred mode of transport for political bigwigs. While today, the Ambassador is only seen as a black-and-yellow cab in Kolkata, our beautiful, eclectically restored car is in a league of its own. Experience the luxury and comfort of this old-school automobile, as you are whisked off into the countryside for a scrumptious picnic breakfast – with champagne, for that little touch of decadent luxury! We can’t think of a more unusual start to the day.
After a quick stop at your hotel, for refreshing and re-gearing yourself, head off to the Anokhi Museum. Located in a magnificently restored haveli (the local word for ‘mansion’), the Anokhi Museum of hand printing displays a selection of block printed textiles alongside images, tools and related objects, all chosen to provide an in-depth look into the complexity of this ancient tradition. The technique of printing from wooden blocks onto paper and textile, originated in China and spread across Asia. It may have inspired the first engraved woodcuts that lead to the printing press. This technique is still widely used in India, mostly on textiles. If you’d like, you can follow this through with a block-printing workshop, where you can learn the art and skill involved in this textile craft. What’s more you get to take home a handcrafted, hand printed souvenir and some colourful memories!
The Anokhi Museum also has an interesting cafe, and you can opt to have lunch here or at any of Jaipur’s restaurants! Head back to your hotel room for a little snooze, or dive right into our afternoon’s line-up of activities.
Late afternoon, set off on the Old City Walk with our local guide to help you navigate across a city where the history still echoes across time, and where tradition marries modernity. Visit the City Palace, with its royal collections of miniature paintings, armour, royal garments, textiles, and artefacts. Continue on to the ornate Hawa Mahal, the Palace of the Winds, Jaipur’s most distinctive landmark, and listen to how its structure allowed women of the royal household to witness the rhythms and festivities of the city outside.
No travel experience is complete without shopping, and the colourful bazaars of India have something to offer even the most impatient of men! With specialties like local handicrafts, textiles, gems, silver jewelry, blue pottery and carpets, Jaipur’s streets can rival Ali Baba’s cave of wonders. Travel Scope can help you navigate your way across street hawkers and chic boutiques, with a personal shopping expert in search of those perfect souvenirs.
Unwind with a signature ‘Pink Martini’ at the Rajasthan Polo Club in Jaipur – a heady concoction of tanqueray, rose syrup, martini rosso and creme de fraiche, garnished with rose petals! The Pink Martini is considered to be a tribute to the ‘pink city’, and has long been an insider’s secret at the club. For the equestrian enthusiasts, we can also arrange for the company of a horseman and polo-player like handsome Mr Ransher, with whom you can discuss Jaipur’s polo culture and its historic bond with horses! The Rajasthan Polo Club is located in the Rambagh Palace, and their traditional Indian restaurant, the Suvarna Mahal and the Italian restaurant Steam (built in train-like compartments) offer you great dining options.
Head back to your hotel after dinner, and get a good rest before another day of city exploration.
Start your morning on a spiritual quest learning the ancient techniques of yoga. What better stage can we offer than an old, once-abandoned and since-restored haveli built in 1872! Naila Bagh Palace still retains much of its former characteristics, from the time it served as a residence for a former prime minister of Jaipur, and has hosted many international dignitaries. Yoga, comprises of techniques that lead to harmony between the inner self and the eternal environment, between thought and action, between the individual and the world, while meditation encourages self-reflection and self-realisation. Beyond the practice, learn how these traditions form an integral part of everyday spirituality and wellbeing.
For those who love to conquer the skies, start your morning in a Hot Air Balloon. Soar over the countryside with its patchwork of green fields and scrub forests, the blue-greens and browns of the water bodies, dry land and rocky outcrops. Watch picturesque villages begin their daily routines or the ‘Pink City’s bustling rhythm as you float over bazaars, forts and palaces and see excited children waving frantically at you. There’s nothing more magical than experiencing the countryside with a bird’s eye view as you fly, up, up and away!
After a quick breakfast and shower, set off on your sightseeing trail. Begin with the City Palace complex, the seat of the Maharajah of Jaipur, which consists of an impressive array of courtyards, gardens and buildings. Afterwards, head to the Jantar Mantar observatory, built in the early 1700s by Sawai Jai Singh II, Jaipur’s ruler and a keen astronomer will showcase Central Asia’s rich legacy of astronomy. Its sixteen massive instruments are works of art in themselves and some can forecast the weather even today!
Late morning, head off to the Samode Haveli or the Dera Mandawa for unusual culinary experiences; the former offers a coof-off with a chef and the latter, involves a hands-on cooking session!
Cook-off with Chef at Samode Haveli: Samode Haveli’s signature offering is a cook-off with a chef showcasing almost forgotten recipes from an old hand-written manuscript. Here’s to a truly inspirational, mouth watering palatial journey!
Rajasthani cuisine at Dera Mandawa: a hands-on cooking experience: At Dera Mandawa, one can indulge in a hands-on Rajasthani cooking experience. Start with a trip to the nearby market for ingredients, learn the recipes for regional specialties, followed by a scrumptious, regal lunch with the family. The passionate couple, who have converted this property into a heritage hotel, will be your co-chefs and hosts through the session – and the conversation is as interesting as their cuisine!
This afternoon too, you can choose between a quick snooze or a headlong plunge into the evening’s activities.
Did you know that apart from the spices and the tea, India was also at the heart of a roaring trade in precious stones, like diamonds and pearls among others. The Mughal Empire was lured by the promise of these precious stones, and they worked huge quantities of stones into their monuments, much to the delight of future generations of plunderers and thieves. Jaipur’s alleyways are home to some of the craftsmen and traders, who are well-versed with the lore of gems. To know more about the craft and the mythology of stones, Travel Scope can arrange for a meeting with a gemologist, which can offer an unusual insight into one of the many communities of Jaipur. (Psst..to see what other vanities gemstones serve, our Old City Heritage Walk trails past artisans who set jewels into the hilts of inimical, handcrafted swords – once worn by kings and princes!)
For those interested in gleaning an insight into the social fabric of India, perhaps our Women through the Ages experience would be of interest. As with most patriarchal histories, the unheard voice is that of the females. During this interactive session with an academic and writer, who has written and taught extensively in the field of Gender Studies, you can debate at length about issues from female feticide to sex ratios, from infant marriages to widowhood, from political participation to social roles of the fairer sex. The Women through the Ages is a refreshing, intellectual experience you wouldn’t be likely to encounter in any travel guide.
End the evening with sundowners at Nahargarh – another fort overlooking Jaipur, accessed by a winding road through dry, deciduous hillsides. Watch the sunset atop fort turrets over the rim of your cocktail glass or an elegant flute of wine, and the twinkling of the city lights welcoming the night. Light snacks or dinner can also be served from this vantage point.
For luxury travellers, our Welcome Ambassador can take you in regal style and comfort to the City Palace. You can visit the private quarters of this regal residence, before being ushered to the Indo-Saracenic inspired, courtyard restaurant, Baradari. The inlaid marble work, the fluted water cascade, the brass and mirror decor provides the perfect backdrop for a fine-dining experience, and a conversation starter for the history and architecture buffs.
A specially created menu offers you the best of traditional and global cuisine, and the restaurant’s signature drinks are the talk of the town. Surely, the perfect end to your 48 hour sejour in the ‘Pink City’!
The origins of the city of Agra can be traced back to the days of the Mahabharata, the epic poem of Great India when it was called Agrevana, meaning ‘the edge of the forest’. Agra served as capital for the Mughal Empire during the 16th and 17th centuries and flourished as a centre of art, drawing inspiration from Persian, Islamic, Turkish, Byzantine and Indian styles.
Agra’s greatest charm is the Taj Mahal – a magnificent marble mausoleum that epitomises love. Taj Mahal commands the horizon from most parts of the city and its rich history and romance has earned a place on the list of the Seven Wonders of the World. Yet Agra has so many more monuments that tell a rich narrative of the tides and times of Man – here’s how you can take in the city in 48 hours.
Set off from Delhi by train (there are two convenient, fast trains every morning, the Shatabdi and the Gatimaan) or by private cab with a train / picnic breakfast en route. Upon arrival in Agra, a quick hotel check-in and freshen up later, you’ll be ready to explore the city.
Start your Agra trail with a lesser-known monument, John Hessing’s tomb or the Red Taj. The Red Taj in Agra, is a smaller, red sandstone replica sans inlay and mosaic work which serves as a tomb for a Dutch soldier and trader John William Hessing. It was built by his wife, Ann Hessing, and was inspired by the Taj Mahal, and is a symbol of love commissioned by a woman in memory of her husband. In 1792, the 13-year-old Hessing landed in Ceylon, later joined the Dutch East India Company’s army, fought many battles in India, and eventually died as a part of the Maratha forces defending the Agra Fort against the British. At its entrance, are two Persian inscriptions— an epitaph and a chronogram: the former expresses Ann Hessing’s grief and the latter marks the year of his death.
Continue to the Itmad-ud-Daulah, a marble tomb built for the grandfather of Mumtaz (the queen interred at the Taj Mahal) also known as Baby Taj. This name should in no way imply a diminuitive in either skill or splendour, as the Itmad-ud-Daulah, may well have inspired the inlay artistry on the Taj Mahal and is a beautiful monument in itself. With a more traditional structure, the mausoleum was built to honour Itmad-ud-Daulah, the once-itinerant traveller who set foot towards the East in the hope of making his fortune, and later, was the grandfather of some of the most powerful women in the Mughal Empire.
Enjoy a late lunch at any restaurant of your choice, sampling some of the palatial pleasures of the Mughal Empire – from rich meat gravies to aromatic, spiced biryanis.
After a light siesta, follow the Mughal trail to the imposing Agra Fort. Located on the right bank of the Yamuna river, the Agra Fort is one of the most important and robustly built stronghold of the Mughals, embellished with a number of richly decorated buildings. Let our storyteller guide narrate the rich, evocative history of the fort, where emperors like Babar, Humayun, Akbar, among other historic characters held sway. Moreover, through one part of the fort, you can also view the Taj Mahal through window bars and grilles, the emperor Shah Jahan who was imprisoned here by his son during his dying years.
Later in the evening, head to the Mehtab Bagh gardens offer sweeping, sunset views of the Taj Mahal, reflected in the Yamuna river. The Mehtab Bagh is a four garden layout, typical of Mughal constructions worldwide – with beautiful flowering plants, pools and fountains. While legend claims this was to be site of a Black Taj that the emperor Shah Jahan wished to build for himself, facing the monument he’d built for his love – no archaeological remains or historical records give credence to the theory. Amusingly during a recent trip, I also heard a security guard claim that had the Black Taj construction been successful, there would have been a bridge across the river – and I could almost imagine, the ghosts of the lovers, ShahJahan crossing over to meet each other, every night!
Spend the evening at leisure, before turning in.
Early the next morning, set off for the Taj Mahal, the marble mausoleum, which the emperor Shahjahan built for his queen, Mumtaz – universally recognized as a symbol of love and devotion. Beyond the intricate inlay artistry, Taj Mahal’s minarets, floors and calligraphy-embellished doorways create intriguing illusions in stone. Listen to the tales of Agra and the mausoleum, as also the romance between Shahjahan and Mumtaz or simply reflect upon the glory of the monument.
After a shutter-happy morning, tuck into a hearty breakfast before making your way towards Fatehpur Sikri. Fatehpur Sikri was a city capital built by Emperor Akbar to honour a Sufi saint, Salim Chisti, which is perhaps the best preserved vestige of the Mughal Empire. The city complex includes palaces, pools, public audience halls, mosques and other places of worship, and (you guessed it) tombs! Experience the quiet of the queens’ palaces, each with their individual styles and dimensions. With Salim Chisti’s significance to the Muslims across the world, the tomb is abuzz with prayers, rituals and offerings – and offers an interesting insight into the age-old cultural traditions that are still practiced.
From Fatehpur Sikri, one head back to Agra or can drive on to Jaipur. For those heading back to Agra, you can relax in the afternoon. For those who love arts and crafts, try our inlay workshop to learn the intricate laying of semi precious stones into the marble floors to create floral motifs. Learn how the craftsmanship has continued through the ages, its delicate artistry and craft an inimical souvenir to take home!
Or set off on an Agra Old City Walk, past the Agra Fort Railway station with its distinctly European architecture, and the Jama Masjid district surrounded by the city’s old bazaars and fine architecture. Through these bylanes, you can hone your bargaining skills on everything from zardozi embroidery to inlaid marble objects.
For those driving on to Jaipur, stay tuned for our feature on the ‘Pink City’s’ short-haul delights.
There are books that inspire travel, and travels that inspire books. This blog will be both – some books that inspired travel across India, and some adventures that inspired novels, which perhaps in turn will inspire you to chart your own journeys across India. Keeping with this month’s theme, these books also touch upon the rivers of India, as a backdrop or an inspiration – and these tales are woven around rivers.
If you love travel novels based on first-person journeys on the open road, Alastair Humphreys’ There are Other Rivers could be a great addition to your library. The author traipsed alone across India from the east coast to the west along the course of a sacred river. Along the way, he slept beneath open skies or under the roofs of hospitable strangers, and this novel charts his walk across the country, on a shoestring budget. What he lacked in luxuries, he made up for in sheer experiences and adventures – and his journey could inspire other adventure travelers to venture on the road less taken.
Ruskin Bond’s narrative is distinct in its lyrical quality, and his stories usually revolve around simple, everyday lives and incidents. The Angry River, at first glance seems like the story of a little village girl affected by a river flooding. Yet the character of the girl develops, as she deals with maturity and enters adulthood, so the book touches a chord in a hauntingly, evocative manner. While the book forms part of school curricula across India, it can appeal to audiences of all ages – keen on gaining an insight into the everyday trials and tribulations of the rural folk across India.
Set in the 70s against a backdrop of the Sunderbans, in West Bengal, Amitav Ghosh’s the Hungry Tide skillfully weaves together the narrative of three characters, a marine biologist, a fisherman and a translator. The book offers rich details of Sunderbans’ natural history and the vagaries of the mangrove ecosystem, as also the political problems arising from its location on the border of India and Bangladesh. The novel is a riveting inspiration for those visiting the Sunderbans and is full of the emotional drama between the characters, making for an ideal travel read.
India’s giddying history from its earliest civilization to its present-day politics, is best understood in the context of its geography. Sanjeev Sanyal’s book tries to answer some of the many curious questions that define India in his book, Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography. From how the country was named Bharat, to why the highest peak was named Mt Everest, from how the Dutch sailed to the subcontinent for trade in the early days to how the British colony laid down the railway lines – the book offers an interesting, witty look at India’s history and geography. The information gleaned from mythological lore anthropological theories, geological occurrences, historical documents and the author’s travels, serves as a delightful introduction to this rich, diverse country!
Exploring 5 themes through the 5 sacred elements – A River Runs Again is an iconic take on India’s environmental crisis. A narrative of India’s ecosystem on the brink between urbanization, development and overpopulation, it touchingly details the tragedy and offers a small hope against the country’s decline into environmental chaos. Written informatively, yet with a compassion and deep understanding of the short-sighted environmental strategies and their impact on real lives – a definitive work for readers interested in a stark, realistic picture of India’s ecological context.
With Dr Ashok Bedi, a renowned Jungian psychoanalyst who conducts the individual and group sessions, his wife, Usha, who has a rich repertoire of knowledge and witticisms, and Regine Oesch-Aiyer, the once art consultant turned founder of Mindful Journeys – a travel company, who facilitates the trip, there is an interesting assemblage of personalities on board. The trips alternate between the north and south of India, focus on cultural experiences and allow ample time for lectures and discussions – one can’t think of a better way to get exposure to and learn more about Carl Jung’s philosophy.
As Praveen Langham of Travel Scope India sums it up, “Over the years there have been a lot of repeat guests, who have great regard for Dr. Ashok Bedi and seem to enjoy the rich learning of the Jungian discussions”.
This year, the Jungian group ventured into central India with the Satpura National Park as one of their stopovers. As they explored Satpura, by jeep, by canoe, on village walks and night safaris, perhaps they learned a little bit more about this diverse country and its multi-faceted soul.
Here are some images of Satpura National Park with Carl Jung’s quotes to celebrate our years of journeying together!
Across India, January is increasingly being associated with literature festivals. Delhi, Hyderabad, Mumbai and the state of Gujarat, all celebrate indigenous and international literature – each with their inimical selection of authors and other personalities gracing the stage. In Jaipur, the literature festival started off as a small effort and today, is being touted as ‘the world’s largest free literature event’ – and its history and acclaim made us curious enough to attend it this year.
On the foggy morning drive to the pink city – we scanned the festival schedules to decide upon the sessions we’d like to attend, an important stage as with parallel events, one often misses out on more than one would like to. We reached our hotel – the heritage property Narain Niwas Palace, had a quick lunch and headed down the road to Diggi Palace – the potpourri of literary hubbub.
The long queues moved faster than we thought, giving credence to the news of increased attendance per year, as also venue upgrades to accommodate the literature-seekers. The venue was split up into several sections of tents, with raised stages and audience areas – and we weaved our way through the chaotic crowds to reach our selected sessions.
Our first session was by Stephen Fry – the British actor, who spoke about his exposure to the author Oscar Wilde. As often with TV personalities, a real-life encounter creates very different impressions – and Stephen Fry’s sensitive, personal, heart-warming account of Oscar Wilde’s genius, arrogance and personal problems, brought out a different side to the author and actor alike.
The sessions we attended were of a wide variety: a panel on what makes South Asians laugh; a candid, interactive session with Amish – the author of the Meluha series; a political debate on the India Story; a discussion on India’s visual culture; a look at the insensitivity of media; readings by authors of select travel excerpts; a book-promotion by a Bollywood-cum-political figure, and a talk on the legacy of the British Empire, among others.
Over the next two days, we tried to attend as many sessions as possible, bumped into known faces, were overwhelmed by the crowds, learned tricks of how to bag the limited chairs at venues and how to dodge the crowds and chaos, with many impromptu photo-stops along the way! Every evening ended on a high note – discussing the highlights of the day, sharing juicy tidbits from the speakers, with a fair consumption of brews, cocktails and food!
Beyond offering a platform for authors and readers to connect – the literature festival set the stage for cross-cultural interactions. With diverse panels of speakers and an incredible range of topics, each year, it attracts a culture-hungry audience from across the world. This festival, has today, made Jaipur “the literature capital of the country” – and only promises to get better as time goes by.
We couldn’t help but think that the Rajput Maharaja Jai Singh II’s grand vision to set up public institutions and modernize Jaipur, which was responsible for the city being declared the capital of Rajasthan, has assumed a new avatar. Established with lofty scientific and cultural ideals, Jaipur continues to hold a torch to literature and learning. A movement like the literature festival is creating an enlightened, well-exposed, culturally sensitive youth while providing a great platform to disseminate the state’s rich heritage, history and culture – and we hope the literature festivals across the country, create the same ripples of change!
In the rich, cultural tapestry of India – with its colorful festivals and celebrations, the literature festivals would be a great way to understand how the traditions of Indian literature are being carried forward by the next generation. It is a chance to witness a modern-day India in the making – and we would highly recommend attending one of many literary events, from books fairs to literature festivals, from reading clubs to storytelling sessions that are defining the urban culture of the country today!