Kaziranga Chronicles

Woken up at an ungodly hour in the morning by a shrieking alarm clock, I shivered in the icy winter air of Northeast India. My mind entirely focused on the warm bed that stretched out invitingly, I wondered aloud why were we going out into the cold morning in search of the rhinoceros, of all things. And then I remembered – was reminded by the husband actually – that we had travelled across the country, all the way to Kaziranga in Assam, just for a glimpse of these animals in the wild.

The one-horned rhinoceros once thrived across the flat plains of north and northeast India, but uncontrolled poaching has left it endangered, almost at the brink of extinction. Today, the best (and possibly only) place in the country to spot the Indian rhino is the Kaziranga National Park, just a few hours drive from Guwahati.

This forest had been on our travel list for years, but somehow every time we planned a wildlife holiday, it was the siren song of the tiger in the Indian heartlands that prevailed. This holiday, we had set aside sufficient time for this pursuit, after which we were to make our way across other parts of the state. Funnily enough, this forest is also officially known as the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve, although the hero here is undoubtedly these thick-skinned mammals that have survived several rounds of evolution that eliminated other weaker species.

A grey mist hung low in the air as we drove up to the Bagori Gate of the Western Range in the semi darkness. There was already a large crowd waiting at the watch tower from where the elephant safari begins; a scene of utter noise and chaos despite everyone holding prior bookings for a specified time. “I hope we don’t end up sharing this safari with people who think it is fun to play music in the forest and yelp at the sight of animals,” I muttered wearily, thinking of the bane of wildlife enthusiasts who go out regularly into the Indian jungles.

Fortunately for us, we had a quiet morning in the forest, with birdsong as the only background noise. Kaziranga is not really a dense forest in the way of those of central India, but almost entirely flat. While the grasslands make it the perfect habitat for the rhino, it also sometimes grows tall enough to hide the entire animal. Luckily, the grass was still short and dry in parts when we visited, making it easy to spot the animal even from a distance. And we were anyway on elephant back, which meant both a vantage point of view as well as access into the grasses and marshes where jeeps cannot go.

Crossing the shallow stretch of water a few minutes into the safari, I turned back to capture a picture postcard moment; half a dozen elephants silhouetted against the golden rising sun. Up ahead, there was a minor commotion, with all the mahouts guiding their elephants towards the cluster of bushes, a sure sign that a rhino had been spotted.

As it turned out, it was not one but three rhinos grazing peacefully, ignoring the admiring crowds with great aplomb. Eager tourists around us were urging their mahouts to get closer and closer, but nothing seemed to faze the trio. There was a tree in full bloom right behind them, and for a moment, framed against the pretty pink flowers, it was almost possible to think of the rhinos as beautiful animals. And then one of them turned around to show his back to us, and the spell was broken.

The rest of the safari was a vain search for more of these mammoths, with the mahout claiming that we had been lucky, since sightings had been low this season. By the end of it, I was lulled into sleep by the gently rocking motion of the elephant. Unlike the thrill of the tiger chase, where every moment holds a possibility, and every animal noise sounds like an alarm call of the deer, this safari was a mellow and slow affair, with enough time to admire the stunning landscape, bounded by the mighty Brahmaputra river.

It was only on the way back to the guesthouse that I noticed how the roads were lined with lush tea estates, from where Assam tea was possibly exported to the world. The sun was up and workers had already begun their tasks for the day, wicker baskets hanging on their backs, into which the tea leaves went steadily. The plan was to head to the village of Panbari, a few kilometres away, for a glimpse into rural life in this part of the country.

On the way, we stopped for a quick look into the CWRC (Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation) campus to see the way injured animals, including elephants and rhinos, are given medical care. Over the last 14 years, CWRC has treated over 3500 cases of animals (over 230 species, they say) in various kinds of distress. The sight of a baby rhino being given milk through a feeding bottle was particularly endearing, one that left me smiling for the rest of the morning.

After lunch at a local home in Panbari, we headed back to the forest for an afternoon safari, this time on a jeep from the Central Gate at Kohora. This ride was an exercise in bounty, where we spotted over 25 rhinos in the course of two hours. “This rarely happens,” our driver Uttam exclaimed, adding, “sometimes tourists have even asked me for a refund because we did not come across any rhinos!”

In our case, we saw them solitary and in small groups all along the route, resting, grazing, taking a dip in the cool water. And right at the end, when the sun was about to set, and I had put away my camera, we had our best sighting for the day; a mother and kid rhino frolicking together in the grass, the adult making mock charges with the horn pointing at the little one. “Madam, this is a lucky day for me also,” Uttam smiled warmly, as he dropped us back at the main gate.

Kaziranga has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1985, one of the seven natural sites in India, the continued status of which is dependent on the conservation activity in the park. This forest has an interesting history, from the time Mary Curzon, wife of the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, returned disappointed from the Kaziranga area without sighting a single rhino in 1904. As a result, she urged her husband towards rhino conservation, thus leading to the formal creation of this forest spread over 232 square kilometres in 1905.

It was only seven decades later, in 1974 that it was extended to cover 430 square kilometers, and given protected National Park status. It somehow feels fitting that over a century after Lady Curzon’s visit, British Royalty, in the form of Prince William and Princess Kate chose to visit the far-flung forest of Kaziranga, listening to stories of wildlife conservation efforts in the area.

Whenever we head to the forests, the husband and I keep our eyes peeled for not just the big fauna but also the smaller ones that form a significant part of the ecosystem, and the birds. This time, however, the attention was all on the one-horned rhino, which graced us with its presence several times in the day. May its tribe increase!

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Published in the Weekend supplement of Khaleej Times in May as ‘In search of the one-horned rhinoceros’

Song of the marble rocks

It was only during my seventh or eighth visit to the heart of India – remember that catchy ad ‘Hindustan ka dil dekho’ – that I discovered its heart. Or at the very least, its lifeline. The river Narmada. Flowing softly between the Satpuras and Vindhyas, the Narmada becomes a stunning spectacle near Jabalpur, as it winds between towering limestone cliffs.

This is Bhedaghat, one of Madhya Pradesh’s lesser known gems.

The first time I saw Bhedaghat was as a child, through photos my parents had taken when they visited as newlyweds. I am not sure whether it was the mesmeric quality of the water, or the unmatched charm of black and white, but I remember being fascinated.

Many years later, I came upon more images of Bhedaghat – this time in colour – on a popular photography networking site. A couple of young boys were standing on the cliffs, poised to dive into the water to pick up coins thrown by pilgrims (in the hope, I am guessing, of having their sins washed away).

It took me a while to make the connection between these vignettes and those black and white images from my past. But when the penny finally dropped, I knew that it was time for me to go there. I got my chance a few months ago, when I made a detour to Bhedaghat on my way back home from Kanha National Forest, via Jabalpur.

Winter was approaching, and even in the bright warmth of the afternoon, there was a nip in the air as we approached the ghats. The moment we entered the Bhedaghat area, it became obvious that we were in marble territory; from five feet tall images of gods and goddesses to miniature Taj Mahals, there were rows of shops lining the main road and the narrow steps going down to the river. I resolutely ignored all offers to have my name engraved in marble or buy carved candle stands to take back home as souvenirs.

It was utter chaos by the banks, as large groups of holidaymakers shouted their way to the best bargain rates on the boats waiting to ferry them around. We finally managed to get a boat for just the three of us for what we were assured was a reasonable fare. The boatman went so far as to suggest that we would be so delighted by the end that we would offer more money on our own.

Given that kind of promise, it was difficult not to be excited.

The boatman kept up a steady stream of commentary in verse form through the ride, pointing out interesting shapes on the rocks and boasting of the various Hindi movies shot there. From Jis Desh Me Ganga Behti Hai to Ashoka, this location seemed to have captured the imagination of filmmakers.

He also kept up a steady stream of jokes on diverse topics from the wonders of nature to the travails of married life. This was interspersed with snippets of information about the geography of the place. One of the unverified stories about Bhedaghat is that once upon a time, these marble hillocks were close to each other, slowly drifting apart as the Narmada cut her way through.

Through the ride, we saw the shape shifting rocks through his eyes – human faces, elephants, Ganesha and much more. Most stunning were the colours of the marble, mixed with volcanic rocks that created a range from sparkling white to various shades of pink and yellow.

By the time we turned back, the sun had descended from high up in the sky, and in the muted sunlight everything seemed different, including the shapes and hues of the rocks.

Much later, when I was back home, I read explorer Captain Forsythe’s words on this marvel of nature. Upon sighting these rocks for the first time, he had waxed eloquent in his book ‘Highlands of Central India’, “The eye never wearies of the effect produced by the broken and reflected sunlight, now glancing from a pinnacle of snow-white marble reared against the deep blue of the sky… Here and there, the white saccharine limestone is seamed by veins of dark green or black volcanic rock; a contrast which only enhances, like a setting of jet, the purity of the surrounding marble.”

From there, we walked towards Dhuandhar Falls, literally meaning “misty”, a name it lives up to completely. We trudged up to the viewing platform for the most spectacular views, enjoying the cool spray of water on our faces and the thundering roar of the falls. After all, the Narmada takes a dive here from a height of 98 feet.

My mind kept going back to the marble rocks, and the fact that there are special boat rides on full moon nights, when the marbles shine like pearls. Given how stunning the experience was during the day, that was something I immediately put on my travel list (which only keeps growing). Next time, perhaps.

INFORMATION

Getting there

The nearest airport Jet Airways flies to is Bhopal, from where Bhedaghat is 280 km (5½ hours drive) away.

Accommodation

While most people make Bhedaghat a day trip from Jabalpur, staying overnight provides a better experience. Choose from the MPSTDC run Motel Marble Rocks or the slightly more upmarket Vrindavan Gopala Resort that offers great views of Dhuandhar Falls.

Travel Tips

~ Plan your trip around the cooler months after the monsoons, when the rivers are in full flow and the days are not scorching hot.

~ It is best to club Bhedaghat with a visit to Bandhavgarh or Kahna National Park, or the lush hill station of Pachmahri.

~ At Bhedaghat, make time for the 10th century Chausath Yogini temple on a hill close to Dhuandhar Falls.

My fascination with Indian stepwells

My fascination with stepwells started when I first heard about Agrasen ki baoli a few years ago – an ancient stepwell hiding in plain sight in the heart of modern New Delhi. I finally got a chance to see it two years ago; we were living in Gurgaon then.

It was an unusually balmy winter Sunday morning, and my husband and I decided to make the best use of it by heading to Connaught Place for a south Indian breakfast at Saravana Bhavan, followed by a leisurely stroll around the neighbourhood.

I suddenly remembered that the baoli was supposed to somewhere in the area, so why not make a visit? It was tucked away in a small lane, with the wall in front of it decorated with an exquisite Ganesha mural.

Unfortunately, the site was undergoing restoration work when we visited, so thanks to the scaffoldings everywhere, I could not take any photos. But during a recent trip to my alma mater in Ahmedabad last winter, I squeezed in a quick trip to Patan – rightly considered the queen of stepwells in India, fittingly built by a queen – stopping at Adalaj and Modhera on the way.

Here is a photoessay on a few of these stepwells – but before that, do read my story in BBC Travel on these ancient engineering marvels.

The kalyani at Hampi

A classic temple tank at Modhera

The steps of the tank at Modhera

The dramatic vav at Adalaj

Multiple levels of the Patan stepwell

Peering down into the well

The exquisite carvings at Patan’s Rani ki Vav

The complete guide to Shillong

The small capital city of Shillong, tucked away in the north east of India, is an absolute study in contrasts. While some of the most stylish young men and women in the country (think coloured hair and calf length boots) can be spotted on its streets, the region is also home to the Khasi tribal group, with their traditional Jainsem robes.

Shillong came into its own under the British as a garrison town, and retains a laidback colonial charm, with its cathedrals and cottages dating from that era. Although at first glance, it feels like any other noisy, overcrowded Indian town, all it needs is a gentle scratch under the surface to see its innate beauty. And if the commotion gets too much to handle, there are plenty of easy getaways from town, from day trips to weekend vacations.

Here are a few of my suggestions on what to see and do in Shillong to get the best out of this city:

Go on a Dylan pilgrimage

Shillong is aptly known as the rock capital of India, boasting of even an annual Bob Dylan festival on the legendary musician’s birthday in May. The city is a great place to pay homage to this artist, beginning from the newly opened Dylan Café in the busy Laitumkhrah neighbourhood, an ode to the rockstar. Complete this experience with a live concert at night by Lou Majaw, known as Shillong’s Bob Dylan; he usually performs at Café Shillong or the Cloud 9 Restolounge.

Window shop at Bara Bazaar

From fresh meat to a few dozen varieties of chillies, punctuated with stalls selling colourful winter wear and quilts, Bara Bazaar promises a sensory overload. The best time to visit this local market is in the morning, around 9 am, just when the bustle is at its peak. Apart from window-shopping, this is a great place for street photography and people watching, especially the animated interactions between the locals.

Visit the Don Bosco Museum of Indigenous Cultures

For a clear understanding of the history and culture of the north eastern states, collectively known as the Seven Sisters (along with one brother Sikkim), there is no better place than the Don Bosco Museum of Indigenous Cultures. Spread over seven floors of interesting and instructive exhibits, this museum presents glimpses into this fairly unexplored part of the country. From agricultural practices to natural resources, from handicrafts to musical instruments, there is a wealth of information in these rooms.

Enjoy a bird’s eye view

It is an easy drive out of the city through the towering evergreen trees of Upper Shillong towards Shillong Peak. Visit early in the evening for panoramic views of the city in the distance, just as the twinkling lights of shops and homes get switched on. Before this, make sure to turn off at the road leading to the Air Force Museum, and go further on to the popular Elephant Falls to see how lush Meghalaya really is. Fuel up with coffee and sandwiches at the ML05 café on the way, cleverly themed around bikes and cars. Or carry a picnic basket to indulge in from the quiet environs of Shillong Peak.

Watch an archery lottery

In this unique and fascinating local sport called Teer or Siat Khnam, groups of archers who are members of the local Khasi Archery Association gather at the Polo Grounds every evening around 3.30 pm. At a signal from the leader, the archers let fly dozens of arrows towards the cylindrical bamboo target in the middle. The shooting stops in four minutes, and the arrows are counted; the last two digits of the number of arrows is the winning number for the day. Stay back after the match to watch the process of counting and announcing the results.

Head out to Umiam Lake

In the heart of Shillong is the picturesque Ward’s Lake, a favourite evening rendezvous spot for locals and tourists alike. With small fountains and flowering trees everywhere, this is a quiet oasis in the midst of all the urban chaos. For an even more pleasant experience, make your way to Umiam Lake, a quick 45 minute drive away on the road to Guwahati. Sprawling over 200 square kilometres, the soothing blue waters of this lake lend themselves to a range of activities, from kayaking to angling.

TRAVEL INFORMATION

Stay

Royal Heritage Tripura Castle is the converted summer palace of the erstwhile royal family of Tripura, and one of the best luxury stay options within the city. For a calmer experience by the waterfront, stay at the Ri Kynjai Resort right on the banks of Umiam Lake.

Eat

Café Shillong always has a youthful buzz, along with food for the soul and live music on weekends. Dylan’s Café also has an interesting vibe and great food, along with dozens of Dylan memorabilia, from rare posters to cheery wall paintings. For Indian food, the restaurant at Tripura Castle is one of the best options.

Shop

Glory’s Plaza at Police Bazaar is the shopping hub of Shillong, where all the local fashionistas go for the latest trends. Pick up shawls and scarves in typical north-eastern designs and cheerful colours, or local bamboo and wicker handicrafts from the Meghalaya Handloom and Handicrafts Development Emporium or any of the smaller shops in the area.

A heart cooler for the heat

Some people have called it a ‘heart attack in a glass’. They are terribly unkind. I prefer to think of it as ‘heaven in a glass’. How else would you describe a concoction that has almond resin, Sarsaparilla syrup, cold milk, sugar, finely chopped dried fruit and nuts, and all of this topped with a generous scoop of ice cream.

One summer morning in the temple town of Madurai in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, I headed out with a friend. The plan was to have a street-side breakfast of idli (steamed rice and lentil cakes), accompanied by a piquant chutney of coconut and chilli. And chase it down with jigarthanda. After all, I couldn’t really visit Madurai and not have this “heart cooler” (literal meaning of jigarthanda). Nobody can.

While jigarthanda is today considered a local Madurai beverage, it has an interesting history. Thanks to its name, a combination of two Hindi words (the language of state is Tamil and not Hindi), it is believed to have been brought into India by the Mughal rulers several centuries ago, and slowly made its way down to Madurai.

In this swelteringly hot city, it is so strongly associated with cooling properties that it has come to be known as jil jil jigarthanda in the more popular outlets (jil being a local corruption of the word chill).

While jigarthanda is popular in these parts, it is relatively more under the radar than its famous north Indian cousin, falooda (which food historians claim started life at Mughal emperor Jehangir’s court).

My plate of idlis was delightful, fittingly known to be as soft as Madurai’s famous jasmine (flowers). And then the jigarthanda, the man behind the counter filling up glasses with practised ease. Somewhere between vanilla and light chocolatey in colour, thick and inviting, the jigarthanda beckoned to me.

I took a tentative sip. And my world immediately turned into a happier place.

In other words, this was an explosion of tastes and textures – the sweetness of the syrup and ice cream, the crunchiness of the nuts and the chewiness of the jelly-like almond resin. My friend and I drank this in almost one gulp. Then we looked at each other. Another one?

By the time I gestured to the shop assistant, he had already prepared two more glasses for us. A second round seemed to be par for the course at the shop. This time, I sipped slowly, savouring the flavours, and feeling much like a kid in a candy shop. I knew I was going to have to skip lunch that day, but who was complaining?

Tip: although several places in Madurai claim to have the best jigarthanda, foodies know that Famous Jigarthanda is the real McCoy.

Published in Roads & Kingdoms

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