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.

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

Vegging it out in Myanmar

When the husband and I were getting ready to travel to Myanmar earlier this year, the only thing I was dreading was the food I would find there. Or, not find. As a vegetarian, I was expecting Myanmar to be a tough place to survive in, and I readied myself for bland salads and the odd pizza, where I could find it.

But being vegetarian in Myanmar turned out to be delightfully easy. The country has a wide repertoire of vegetarian dishes, perhaps because it is culturally closer to South Asia (think Nepalese lentil curries and Sri Lankan coconut gravies) than South East.

And given that it is wedged between countries with rich culinary traditions, like India, China and Thailand, something is certain to have rubbed off. What I discovered is that despite borrowing from these kitchens, Burmese cuisine has its unique flavours.

moon

yarpyi

The magic word

Although vegetable based dishes have always been part of their diet (and vegetarian dishes are served at almost all eateries), vegetarianism as a concept is not understood in Myanmar.

But the magic word “tha tha lo” (thatalo, literally meaning ‘lifeless’ – taught by a traveller friend) opened up the doors to meat-free cooking everywhere in the country. In fact, it made sure that there was never even a hint of the fish sauce that is the bane of vegetarian travellers in South East Asia.

The Burmese thali

A typical restaurant meal that popular among locals is a spread of side dishes, including raw salads, slightly sautéed veggies and soupy curries, served with plain white rice. This was our first introduction to Burmese food in Yangon, where our guide also ordered dal on the side for us, which came coarsely mashed and lightly spiced; Indian but not quite.

She also got us small plates of green tomato and tealeaf salad, the latter with the warning that the tart taste could take some getting used to. But no, for me, it was love at first bite.

In general, we found the salads and soups so enjoyable that most meals, we skipped the main course and stuck to these.

Through our ten days in Myanmar, we never had to go seeking a pizza place or an Indian restaurant (although some mainstream cafés in touristy towns like Bagan serve Indian food as part of their menu). And to my vegetarian soul, that made Myanmar pure heaven.

Soup time

Soups in Myanmar can range from the thin clear broth derived from Chinese kitchens (used as palate cleansers and often sipped through the meal), to thick and creamy stews.

The most distinctive one is the Shan Tohu Nuway, a specialty from the Shan region in the eastern side of the country, near Inle Lake. In this soup, the tofu (tohu) is made out of ground chickpea, instead of the more traditional soya.

This mash is kept warm in a semi-liquid form through the day, and poured over the basic noodle broth, finally topped up with coarsely ground peanuts, roasted garlic, finely sliced parsley and cabbage, and for those who can bear the heat, crunchy chilli paste (in my opinion, a must).

soup2

There is also the clear Shan noodle soup, served even at breakfast in most hotels and restaurants. Ask for the tha tha lo version, which comes with a topping of coarsely ground, thick red chilli sauce, spring onions and toasted sesame.

soup1

Salad days

The Burmese have a special skill for taking just about any ingredient and turning it into a delectable salad. Tealeaf, avocado, ginger, lemon, pennywort, eggplant, tomato – the list goes on.

The basic ingredients remain more or less the same – the key ingredient, with crushed peanuts, roasted sesame, finely chopped onion, garlic, coriander, tomatoes and a squeeze of lemon. But each salad somehow manages to taste distinctly different.

The undisputed star among these is the fermented tealeaf salad (lahpet thok) – slightly tart and tangy with a distinct crunch, the Burmese love this and eat it at all times, including with meals and as snacks, with the crunchy bits served up separately.

salads

The other must-trys are the pennywort salad (Myin Kwa Yuet Thote), the spicy ginger salad (Gyin Thote) and the Tohu Thote, which has the chickpea tohu in salad form.

Main course

This area is where the culinary influences of neighbouring countries are most strongly felt.

There are a variety of vegetable curries available, including usual suspects like basic green and red curries Thai-style, Indonesian masamman curry and the more unusual ones like tamarind leaf curry.

mains

While these are typically served with white rice, there is also the choice of vegetable fried rice with tofu or tossed noodles.

Street food

Typical street food in Myanmar is fried and spicy, very Indian in nature: from masala dosa to samosa and bhajiya, these are to be found everywhere, and are considered Burmese.

snacks

There are also street vendors who specialise in a particular form of dessert – definitely try the deep fried dough sweet (paleada / palata – a corruption of paratha), sprinkled with sugar, or topped with banana slices, the banana cake (napyo bao) and sticky rice ball with coconut (kauk nyinhtuh).

In general though, Burmese sweets are likely to feel too bland to Indian palates, used to the stinging sweetness of laddu and jalebi.

For those looking for a more wholesome al fresco meal, there is the Vegetable Hotpot (Myae Oh Myi Shae), available almost through the day, especially in Yangon.

Street food in the country is almost always hot and fresh, and therefore safe; follow your nose to the ones with the most locals crowding the plastic tables.

***
This story was published in Conde Nast Traveller as A Vegetarian’s Guide to Myanmar – read it online for suggestions on where to eat in each major Burmese city.

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

6 best Indian forests for tiger spotting

Tiger spotters in India have cause for jubilation this year.

After years of depressing reports about poaching, shrinking habitats and overall alarming reduction in the number of tigers in India, there is finally good news. The latest tiger census, completed towards the end of 2014, shows a 30% increase in numbers from the last census in 2011; up to 2226 from a rock bottom figure of 1706.

October is the beginning of wildlife season in India, going on till June. Most National Parks have just reopened after the torrid monsoon months, making it the perfect time to go in search of this magnificent, elusive beast.

Although spotting a tiger in the wild is a matter of luck, here are a few dedicated tiger reserves that offer the best chances to get up close and personal with them. Apart from tigers, these forests are home to other animals, including the langur (monkey), chital and sambar (deer), wild boar, wild dog, gaur (Indian bison), blue bull, fox and sloth bear.

Ranthambhore
rajasthanwildlife.in/wild-life/Ranthambhor-National-Park.htm

This is one of India’s largest national parks, and thanks to its easy accessibility from both Delhi and Mumbai, also one of the most popular. The landscape here is usually dry and brown, bounded by the Aravalli and Vindhya hill ranges. Sightings in this forest are made easier by the presence of three lakes, which tigers frequent regularly to drink water. Once you have had your fill of the wildlife experience, head to the 10th century hilltop fort close to the entrance.

How to get there: The Rajdhani Express train connects Mumbai and Delhi with the station of Sawai Madhopur, 20 kilometres away.

Where to stay: Enjoy the pleasures of glamping at one of the plush air-conditioned tents at Aman-i-Khas

Bandhavgarh
mpforest.org/bandhavgarh.html

Once the hunting ground of the Maharajahs of the region, Bandhavgarh is today counted among those reserves with the highest density of tigers. It gets its name from a hillock in the park, which is also home to the Bandhavgarh fort, believed to be over 2000 years old. This central Indian park, spread over 100 square kilometres, is also dotted with small temples and shrines. Go on a conventional jeep safari or climb onto an elephant for an exciting forest foray lasting 1-2 hours.

Bandhavgarh
(image courtesy: Samode Safari Lodge)

How to get there: The nearest airport is Jabalpur, a four-hour drive of less than 200 kilometres. Or take an overnight train from Delhi to Umaria, just 35 kilometres away.

Where to stay: Samode Safari Lodge comes with 12 private villas and a spa to unwind at after a hard day of tiger tracking.

Kanha
kanhatigerreserve.com/

This forest is where Shere Khan’s descendants from the well-loved classic The Jungle Book roam. With its splendid diversity of landscapes, especially the large open meadows, Kanha is considered one of the most beautiful forests in the country. While this forest is known primarily for tigers, the other significant animal is the hard ground swamp deer known as barasingha. In one of India’s most successful conservation efforts, this species was revived from the brink of extinction.

Kanha1
(image courtesy: Kanha Earth Lodge)

How to get there: Fly to Jabalpur from Delhi and hire a cab for the 3 hours / 170 kilometres drive to Kanha.

Where to stay: Kanha Earth Lodge has won awards for its sustainable architecture, and combines the best of rustic charm and city comforts.

Kanha2
(image courtesy: Kanha Earth Lodge)

Corbett
uttarakhandtourism.gov.in/utdb/corbett-national-park

Jim Corbett National Park, established in 1936, is India’s first and named after the legendary British hunter (of man-eaters) turned conservationist. Corbett has a stunning location, at the foothills of the Himalayas and right by the Ramganga river in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand. Corbett is a favourite among bird watchers, sheltering nearly half of all the bird species found in India. Early morning safaris are also a great time for sighting large herds of elephants by the river.

Corbett

How to get there: The best option is an overnight train from Delhi to Ramnagar, less than 15 kilometres from the park.

Where to stay: Jim’s Jungle Retreat is committed to ecotourism and is situated right by the edge of the forest.

Corbett1
(image courtesy: Jim’s Jungle Retreat)

Tadoba
mahatadobatiger.com/

It is said that in Tadoba, the question is not if you have seen a tiger during the safari, but how many. Tadoba stayed off the popular tourist trail until a few years ago, when it came to the attention of wildlife lovers, with its excellent sightings of entire tiger families. This is one of the few forests in India to stay open through the year, even during the monsoon months.

Tadoba2
(image courtesy: Svasara Jungle Lodge)

How to get there: Fly to Nagpur from Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore, from where the park is 100 kilometres away by taxi.

Where to stay: With only 12 guest cottages, Svasara Jungle Lodge comes with warm hospitality and personalised service.

Tadoba
(image courtesy: Svasara Jungle Lodge)

Nagarhole
karnatakatourism.org

In the latest tiger census, the south Indian state of Karnataka – where Nagarhole is located – has come up tops in the number of tigers. Nagarhole (official, but unused, name Rajiv Gandhi National Park) also has the largest concentration of Asian elephants in the world and is an excellent habitat for Indian leopards. Keep your neck craned up to spot them perched on tree branches. Head into the jungles on a jeep or explore its fringes with a unique boat safari on the Kabini river.

Nagarhole
(image courtesy: Orange County)

How to get there: Nagarhole is an easy six hour drive (225 kilometres) from Bengaluru. The closest railway station is Mysore, less than two hours away.

Where to stay: Right by the Kabini, the décor at Orange County is inspired by the tribal villages around the forest.

Nagarhole2
(image courtesy: Orange County)

Quick tips for tiger tracking

~ The official forest guides who accompany every safari jeep are experienced and astute. Follow their lead and stay patient through their many starts and stops inside the jungle.
~ Keep your eyes and ears open for signs of the tiger, like pugmarks, alarm calls and territorial markings.
~ And finally, go for as many safaris as possible during your time at the destination to increase your chances of sighting a tiger.

***
This story was published in the 48 Hours magazine of South China Morning Post in November 2015.

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