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

Meghalaya’s living root bridges

I ought to actually say ‘bridge’ and not ‘bridges’ since I visited only one of them. But hey, these are one of the most famous attractions of Meghalaya, so let’s not split hairs. On my recent visit to Assam and Meghalaya with my husband, we stayed over at Shillong for a couple of days and then headed towards Cherrapunjee.

The plan was to see the crystal clear Umngot River at Dawki village on the Bangladesh border, then visit Mawlynnong, which has the distinction of being Asia’a cleanest village and the hike the short distance to the living root bridge close to the village. After all of which, we would head on to Cherrapunjee for the night.

However, by the time we had reached Mawlynnong, we had decided to stay on there and skip Cherrapunjee altogether, heading to the root bridge on our way out the next morning. Which turned out to be a great idea.

This one at Rewai village is a single level bridge, unlike the more famous double decker one ]near Cherrapunjee. That however, involved a tough 3-4 hour trek, and given that I was still limping from a recent foot fracture, was completely out of the question.

The Rewai bridge was an easier hike than I expected, a few dozen stone steps and then uneven ground. On our way down, we came across a local from Mawlynnong who helpfully pointed out that there was an even shorter route that led straight to the car park. Tucking that piece of info away safely, we headed towards the bridge.

We reached the Rewai bridge by 8 am, when there was absolutely nobody around; no locals, no tourists. Visitors usually go there after lunch at Mawlynnong, which meant that afternoons and evenings were a chaotic, noisy time. But in he morning, we had to wait for ten minutes before the first locals came into sight; a couple of women out for their morning wash at the river flowing under the bridge.

Walking across the bridge, we crossed the cluster of bamboo trees and headed towards a spot down below from where we could get a full view of the bridge, as well the activity near the water. But for a small tea shop with a young girl minding it, there was nobody else there. After asking for chai and Maggi (the perfect mountains combination), we perched on one of the big boulders near the stream, dipping our feet into the cold water.

It was perfect silence down there, and we sat there quiet and content, sunning ourselves in the mellow morning heat. Soon, a few locals including children on their way to school appeared, a vendor set up a table with a few biscuit and chips packets and bottled water near the entry to the bridge. The peace was still not shattered; it was not like tourists cawing away without any consideration to the space, it was everyone doing their own thing.

What a perfect morning it was!

Wind beneath my wings

paragliding1

The takeoff itself wasn’t particularly tough; it was the decision to board that took courage. This happened on a recent whistle-stop tour of Kumaon’s “lake district,” with Bhimtal as my base. Stopping on the hill roads one evening to stretch my legs, I was drawn to the bustle of people milling around a large parachute spread out on the flat surface of the cliff-top. And in front of my eyes, a young couple took wings, each tethered to an instructor who would help them stay in the air for the next few minutes of their paragliding adventure.

I knew that paragliding was popular in Himachal Pradesh, but I hadn’t expected to find it in this remote corner of the Uttarakhand hills. After a few minutes of watching, as I was ready to get back into the car, my cabbie fired the first salvo by inquiring if I had done this earlier. I mumbled sheepishly under my breath, hoping he would drop the subject, but that was not to be.

A moment of hesitation – rightly interpreted by them as a sign of weakness – was all it took for the paragliding team itself to take his suggestion forward. And they went at it non-stop, slyly suggesting that it was silly to be afraid, when even a five year old child could do this easily.

The clinching argument was made as a joke by the instructor who would fly with me – “Oh madam, remember, it is my life also.” So, before I knew it, I went from curious bystander to intrepid paraglider, all harnessed and ready to soar. One, two, three, four steps forward – and the wind force carried us up into the air.

Courage on the ground was all fine, but my first minute up in the air was one of sheer terror. I confronted that with a volley of questions to Vir Singh, who hailed from Himachal and had been doing this for seven years. Vir was remarkably patient as he explained – yet again – that he had all the controls in his hand, direction, altitude and speed included.

paragliding2

I closed my eyes for a moment to take a deep breath; perhaps it was the feel of the wind on my cheeks or the sound of absolute silence, but when I opened them again, I had begun to actually enjoy the ride. There may have even been a brief moment when I let go of the straps and spread my hands in the air a la that classic scene from Titanic. I had been on a hot air balloon ride a few years ago but this exhilarating sense of flying, strapped on to a massive parachute and perched on a makeshift canvas seat was like nothing I had ever experienced earlier.

When it was finally time to land, Vir decided to test my nerves one final time with a few trick moves – and whoosh we went, swinging treacherously to a side, dipping low and high, and almost upside down. Forgive me for not describing it in great detail, for all I remember is holding on tight and pleading for my life to be spared. And unlike the ride itself, I didn’t have time to get used to this and begin enjoying it. But by the time we landed, I had managed to rustle up a halfway genuine smile for the camera that was capturing the flight all the way.

paragliding3

That night, I had adrenalin fuelled dreams of sprouting wings and flying high. My last coherent thought before I fell asleep was that I couldn’t wait to try paragliding again.

TRAVEL INFO

Distance: 307 km from Delhi

Time: 7 hours

Route: Take NH 24 from Delhi towards Ghaziabad and Moradabad. Connect to NH 87 going up north towards Haldwani and Nainital. Or take the overnight Ranikhet Express to Kathgodam and hire a cab for an hour’s drive (Rs.1000) to Bhimtal

Stay: Fredy’s Bungalow; tariff for double room starting from Rs 6053, inclusive of breakfast and taxes.

Essential Details: My flight was with Eagle Eye Adventure (http://www.eagleeyeadventure.com/; Rs. 1500 for the flight from a height of 1500 feet). There are dozens of local operators, so ask around before signing up.

Published in the ‘Weekend Vacations’ section of Mint

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