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.


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


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.

(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.


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.

(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.

(image courtesy: Kanha Earth Lodge)


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.


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.

(image courtesy: Jim’s Jungle Retreat)


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.

(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.

(image courtesy: Svasara Jungle Lodge)


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.

(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.

(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.

Food for thought

“Food is music to the body; music is food to the heart,” Gregory David Roberts wrote in Shantaram, his 2003 novel commended by many for its vivid portrayal of life in Mumbai, where the Australian former heroin addict and bank robber lived for 10 years as a fugitive.

But while Bollywood has long included music in its film equation, it has only discovered food in a big way in recent years. Some wonderful food-themed films have left audiences licking their fingers. The most popular is The Lunchbox (2013), which opens in Hong Kong cinemas on Thursday.

The Lunchbox1

Largely set in Mumbai, the film is filled with enticing shots of food that the lovely Ila (Nimrat Kaur) prepares for her indifferent husband each morning, believing the way to his heart is through his stomach. So she kneads the dough, grates the cottage cheese and sprinkles the spices with a dash of hope.

The cinematic repast also resonates with its depiction of how people reach for food when they are lonely.

The LunchboxRitesh Batra’s romantic drama is one of those rare films that wears its art-house cinema label lightly, while charming mainstream audiences. The Lunchbox won some international awards, including for best screenplay, best actor (for Irrfan Khan) and best supporting actor (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival; it also got a special mention at the Reykjavik International Film Festival.

It’s considered a commercial hit in India, where it grossed more than 70 million rupees (HK$376,500) in its first weekend – a respectable sum, given its low production budget.

The lack – rather than the preparation – of a lunchbox is highlighted in one of the best Hindi films of 2011, Stanley Ka Dabba. A small gem of a movie centring on a boy who is bullied at school for not having a dabba (lunchbox), its offbeat theme is best summed up in the peppy number ‘Ae dabba Ae dabba’ that functions as an ode to the joys of simple Indian home cooking – rice, lentils and vegetables, and the occasional sinful but delightful fried snack.

Then there’s the quirkily named Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, a 2012 Bollywood movie redolent with the flavours of rural Punjab and the eponymous “chicken khurana” dish. As film writer Jai Arjun Singh notes, “The film uses the plot device of an old, lost family recipe to comment on such things as love, togetherness and sense of community.”

Food plays an important role in Indian culture: it is sustenance, comfort, indulgence and medicine all at the same time. Parents show their love for their children by pampering them with treats, festivals involve the cooking of traditional dishes as a primary ritual, and guests at a wedding are meant to take home memories of not just the ceremonies but the lavishness of the table.

So it can seem surprising that Indian cinema has not always been so effusive in expressing the culture’s love for food – unlike, say, Chinese cinema with its tasty classics such as Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) or Lee Lik-chi and Stephen Chow Sing-chi’s The God of Cookery (1996). Or Hollywood that routinely pays homage to the gods of food with movies such as Like Water For Chocolate (1992), Ratatouille (2007) and most recently, Julie and Julia (2009).

BawarchiStill, in 1972 there was the beloved Bawarchi, starring Rajesh Khanna as a charlatan cook who dispenses generous amounts of advice along with his garam masala to bring together a bickering family. According to Jai Arjun Singh, “While food doesn’t play a very specific part in the film, there is the motif of the person who prepares food for the entire family also being in the best position to observe them, note their individual traits and weaknesses.”

Bollywood films also include some stock scenes involving food. For instance, the hero and heroine enjoying pani puri (spicy street food) by the beach is a standard shot to show the carefree soul of Mumbai.

MaaaaAnd, of course, there’s the archetypal Indian mother who, in movie after movie, seems to cook but never eats, in a bid to keep her son tied to her apron strings. A special weapon in her arsenal is her son’s favourite dessert, gajar ka halwa (carrot pudding), a dish now associated with being a mama’s boy.

Food has also been used by immigrant filmmakers with ancestral ties to the subcontinent for portraying nostalgia and kinship, as in Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham (2002). The British drama’s young protagonist may dream of becoming a professional soccer player, but her mother prefers that she learns how to make a perfectly round roti and lip-smacking aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower curry).

A slightly different version of this piece appeared in South China Morning Post on March 02, 2014 (without most of these pithy images, of course)

Pearl of the south

As I hand over the small fee to climb up to the top of Charminar, the iconic four-sided tower of Hyderabad, the woman at the counter shakes her head in refusal. “We don’t allow single women to go up alone,” she says. And why please? “Because they jump from there and commit suicide.” Mind you, single women don’t do this as a rule at Charminar; it has happened once, but the paranoia lingers. 400 years of history and the Charminar has come to this? I am finally allowed to climb once I convince her superior officer about my purely non-suicidal intentions.



4From the top, the heart of the city opens itself up to me, the crowds and chaos that mark old Hyderabad all intact. On one side, Laad Bazaar – also known as Chudi Bazaar for the dozens of bangle shops that line the narrow street. On the other, shops selling the pearls that Hyderabad is famous for.

Just outside, there is hardly any space to walk. Autorickshaws with passengers hanging out from the sides, groups of Muslim women covered in black purdah out shopping, cyclists and bikers merrily honking, and vendors of everything from pink cotton candy to sparkly Indian clothes. A man invites me to have my portrait drawn, displaying the one of actor Shah Rukh Khan that he has made. Another tries to sell strands of suspiciously shiny pearls; “just try it on, madam.” I ignore them all and make my way through Laad Bazaar, through the burst of bling from the bangles on display: glass, metal and lac twinkling at me in the sunlight.




Making my way to Chowmahalla Palace from there, I think of what Lonely Planet has said about Hyderabad, one its top 10 recommended cities to visit in 2013: “Elegant and blossoming, but also weathered and undiscovered, Hyderabad’s Old City is ripe for exploration.” The palace is indeed all of that. I have the huge sprawling complex almost to myself, but for a few families braving the midday heat and clandestine couples who have found themselves quiet corners to cuddle in.

Chowmahalla, completed in the mid 19th century and painstakingly restored in the last decade, was the seat of the ruling Nizams of the erstwhile Hyderabad state. Green lawns, graceful arches and cool fountains outside, and inside, ornate chandeliers that hang from every ceiling, collections of exquisite clothing and baroque furniture, old stagecoaches and vintage cars – I can easily believe that Hyderabad was once among the richest states in the country.



Hyderabad was created in the late 16th century by a ruler of the Qutb Shahi dynasty, when he moved from Golconda fort nearby – home to the fabulous Koh-i-noor diamond. Legend has it that the name was born out of a love story; that of king Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah who married the Hindu courtesan Bhagmati. He renamed his lady love Hyder Mahal and carried over her name to his city. Hyderabad later fell into in the hands of the Mughals for a brief while, after which the Nizams, their erstwhile viceroys took over. Currently, it is the capital of Andhra Pradesh, one of the four important southern states and the sixth largest city in India.

However, to experience the real extent of Hyderabad’s prosperity in the past, you need to visit the Salar Jung Museum. Set up in 1951, after Hyderabad state had been integrated into India, the museum houses the collection of Mir Yousuf Ali, or Salar Jung III, Prime Minister of the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad.

I am on a whirlwind tour and decide to stick to old favourites from several childhood visits to the museum. So I head like a homing pigeon to the Veiled Rebecca, a 19th century Italian sculpture by Benzoni (gallery 12 on the ground floor – believe me, you don’t want to miss this one). Every single feature of Rebecca’s face is visible through the gossamer marble veil and you almost expect her flowing garments to flutter when the fan is switched on. And then on another floor, another favourite – the wooden statue of a bearded Mephistopheles, head held high, reflected in the mirror behind as Marguerite, head bowed decorously.


I hum with happiness as these bring back other childhood memories of scorching summer days in Hyderabad; juicy golden mangos, old books at Abids, long days at the zoo, tall glasses of sugarcane juice and above all, a house filled with the raucous sounds of cousins.

If this bit of the old city is entirely Salar Jung’s show, the other face of Hyderabad, with its gleaming steel and chrome buildings, wide road, men and women in sharp business wear is also the vision of one man. The credit for creating what is now known as Cyberabad goes to the former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu. Microsoft, Google, Accenture, Novartis, Facebook, Dell and several other multinational companies have found a friendly home in this city within a city. Also known as HITEC (Hyderabad Information Technology Engineering Consulting) City, this has been giving Information Technology hub Bangalore a run for its money. And close to these mammoth “tech parks” where these offices are located, is Inorbit Mall, a paean to the pleasures of modern shopping.

11If you ask about Hyderabad’s famous biryani, everyone points you to Paradise Restaurant, a legend in the city. I have no time for a trip to Paradise though and grab a quick lunch at a new restaurant inside the mall. The chef-owner of the Dil Punjabi restaurant is everything Cyberabad is: young, somewhat brash, slightly dismissive of the past and confidently looking to the future. As if to confirm this, he disses Paradise biryani as “all hype” and with a wave of his hand, produces his own version of the dish.

Visiting Hyderabad after many many years, I am struck by how it straddles all its avatars effortlessly; the gentle charm of the old city, the legacy of the tombs and palaces scattered all over, the buzz of its modern pubs and restaurants and the cutting edge sheen of Cyberabad.

An edited version of this was published in the South China Morning Post, March 31 – read Pearl of the South here…

Mango mania in India

Here is an idea to spice up a dull summer morning: find two Indians, put them together in a room and ask for their opinion on the best mango in India. Leave them a while, then bring in two more. Sit back and watch the fun.

Indians may agree on other things, on rare occasions, even on politics. But when it comes to the mango, there is no consensus. Regional loyalties, specific preferences for taste and texture, seasonal specialties; the argumentative Indian is at his fiercest while discussing mangoes (and cricket, of course).

India takes the mango very seriously; come summer and newspapers discuss their arrival in the market with more animation than even the skyrocketing price of onions (a perennially favourite theme), neighbours inquire about mango purchase plans for the season and the streets are filled with the sight and smell of this luscious fruit, which is now coming into season.

Naturally, the colour of summer in India is yellow. Not the scorching breezeless yellow of the afternoon heat that saps all energy, but the mild, golden yellow of mango, one of the (few) things that makes summer in India bearable. The highlight of summer evenings in many homes is the aamras (mango puree), eaten with hot roti (wheat flatbread), a uniquely Indian food foible from the north that is popular right across the country.

Rajesh Gowda has been a fruit seller at the Gandhi Market in Bangalore for 40 years. Over the decades, he has seen mango prices soar, even as newer varieties enter the market each year. For Gowda, the four months that constitute mango season are usually the most profitable of the year.

“A kilo of mangoes that used to sell for 20 rupees 10 years ago now sells for 200 rupees [HK$35], but people have not stopped buying,” he says, happily adding, “I have customers who buy 20kg every week.”

Pinky Padmaraj, communications manager at the Oberoi Hotel in Bangalore, recalls how a guest from Denmark responded on tasting his first fresh mango juice: “So this is what the nectar of life tastes like.” Unsurprisingly, the visitor became a mango lover and ended up sampling every mango dish on the menu.

Indian mangophiles will agree, however, that the enjoyment of mangoes involves complete abandon and close attention, so it is best to leave your spoons and knives behind along with your inhibitions; the messier the eating, the merrier the experience. The best fruit are golden yellow skinned, some speckles of red acceptable, but no trace of green, please. The green indicates rawness; tart and crunchy, it is ideal for pickles, to be stored and savoured through the year. The green mangoes are also squeezed into a juice with caramelised sugar and a dash of cumin powder, called aam panna, which is believed to have cooling properties.

The maharaja of Indian mangoes is undoubtedly Kalimullah Khan, a farmer from Malihabad near Lucknow in northern India, who at one stroke paid tribute to two national obsessions by naming his new breed of mango Maestro Sachin (after cricketer Sachin Tendulkar). He has been cultivating mangoes since 1957 and has been awarded one of the highest civilian honours in India, the Padma Shri, for his successful experimental tree that can bear more than 300 varieties of mango (through clever and careful grafting).

Different parts of India host mango festivals through the season, the most famous of them being the three-day festival in New Delhi every summer – this year held in the first week of July. Mango cultivators from across the country are invited to offer their produce for visitors to sample and buy. The other attractions are fun events such as mango-eating competitions, quizzes and, finally, the presence of chefs from five-star hotels demonstrating novel mango recipes

The Ranga Shankara Theatre in Bangalore, apart from regular plays and theatre festivals, hosts an informal mango party in June. Ruhi Jhunjhunwala, from the theatre, says the party is a nod to the belief that the enjoyment of mangoes in India is as much a social event as a personal experience: “We wanted it to be the way it is at home, where families and friends sit together and enjoy mangoes during season.” The only condition for attendance – that guests bring a kilogram of mangoes of their choice, add it to the common pool and then dig into as many as they want for as long as they choose.

The Indian love for mango has had a significant place in Indian history and mythology; the fruit is believed to have been mentioned in Hindu scriptures as early as 4000BC. Its shape has been a popular motif (paisley) in traditional apparel and has made a smooth transition into contemporary fashion. In this case it is the sinuous curve – teardrop with a curved end – and not the colour that is the highlight. Mango leaves are considered auspicious and strung outside doors during festivals and occasions. In everyday cooking, a powder of dried mango (called aamchur) is used in place of tamarind as a flavouring agent.

Amir Khusrau, a 13th-century Sufi poet, paid tribute to the mango in his own way:
The choicest fruit of Hindustan,
For garden’s pride the mango is sought;
Ere ripe, other fruits to cut we ban,
But mango serves us ripe or not.

A few juicy facts worth knowing

When: The peak season for mangoes is from mid-April to the end of June, although mangoes are available throughout the year at some premium supermarkets in fresh, frozen or canned form. A month before the appearance of yellow mangoes in the market is the pickle season, when the green varieties are widely available.

Where: Famous mango markets include Ratnagiri, (also a beautiful coastal town), Hyderabad (of the exquisite Charminar tower and glass bangles) and Lucknow. The freshest and juiciest mangoes anywhere are found with the street vendors or in wholesale markets such as Crawford Market in Mumbai or the City Market in Bangalore.

What: Alphonso (Hapoos), Neelam, Banganapalli, Totapuri, Mallika, Malgova, Himsagar, Kesar and Langra are some of the most popular varieties. Champions of the Alphonso variety may be surprised to learn that this “king of mangoes”, as they call it, is not indigenous to India but was brought in by Portuguese nobleman Afonso de Albuquerque on one of his trips to Goa.

How: Mangoes are consumed in as many ways as possible in India – the common choices are ice creams, juices, milk shakes, lassi (mango beaten with yoghurt), fresh fruit, aamras and aam panna, while the more glamorous offerings include mousse, tarts, cheesecakes, martinis and margaritas.

Originally published in the South China Morning Post, April 2011

The hills are alive

In Salzburg, there are two kinds of people; those who love the movie and those who absolutely abhor it. And oh yes, there is a third type: those who make a living from it. Like the guys at Panorama Tours with whom I am all set to take a Sound of Music tour around the city and the gorgeous Austrian countryside. All this is a bit surprising considering that Austrians themselves had no idea about The Sound of Music before America and Hollywood thrust it down their throats.

The women in the bus are excited, the men slightly embarrassed, while the couple of kids from America keep fidgeting, clueless what the fuss is all about. Then the stories begin. The first is about the lady from Australia who took this tour earlier and ended up in tears while the sound track was played towards the end. It turns out she is used to watching the movie at her home it every Saturday (in the company of a bottle of the best wine) for years now and was overcome by emotion at finally seeing where the movie was actually shot. I have no such emotion but like others in the bus, I have fond memories of watching the movie as a child, and enjoying it just as much when I watch it again as an adult.

The play and then the film Sound of Music actually took a lot of liberties with the real story of Maria Von Trapp and her family. In real life, when the Von Trapps escaped the Nazi rule in Salzburg, they took a hike to the nearest train station and went to Italy. The last scenes of the film shows them getting into Switzerland, a five hour drive away; this was shot near Berchtesgaden, Germany, very close to Hitler’s Eagles Nest, so imagine the Von Trapps heading there. All this is told to me by Vincent, my tourist guide for the day, who dearly loves his mike and keeps his busload entertained through the morning.

And so he continues. Edelweiss, bless my homeland forever is not a popular Austrian folk tune (as the movie would have you believe) but was composed for Broadway by Rodgers and Hammerstein, the last project the duo worked on together before Hammerstein died. If anything, Edelweiss today is a popular Austrian beer. Young men wooing were once required to climb up the Alps to bring their love the Edelweiss flower; today they take with them a crate of chilled beer!

Through all these interesting disclosures, we are traveling through serious Sound of Music country, beginning with the Leopoldskorn Lake with the palace at the side, where scenes of the movie showing the terrace of the Captain’s home were shot. The most interesting story is however, at our next stop, at the gazebo at Hellbrunn palace. It is here that Liesl, Captain Von Trapp’s oldest daughter was on 16, going on 17, with her boyfriend, the Nazi sympathizer Rolf, a year older. The gazebo is now closed to the public, ever since, says Vincent, an 85 year-old tourist (obviously going on 17) broke her hip trying to jump from seat to seat in the manner of young Liesl.

The highlight of the tour is the drive through the Salzkammergut (Lake District) with stunning views of the Austrian countryside so well captured in the opening scenes of movie. There is a mandatory stop at Mondsee to take in the cathedral where the grand wedding scene between the Captain and Maria was shot.

On the way back to Salzburg, the sound track from the movie is played in the bus (for once, Vincent is silent) and people begin to sing along, hesitantly at first and then lustily joining in. The Sound of Music works its smooth magic, or perhaps the magic is that of the countryside but grown men in the bus begin to hum along with “these are a few of my favourite things!” And I complete this pilgrimage the next morning with a visit to the Mirabell Gardens, which I am told, also played a prominent role in the movie.

Salzburg’s other claim to fame is that of being Mozart’s birthplace. And the city does not let you forget that. There is the Mozart GeburtsHaus (where he was born), his WohnHaus (where he lived) and assorted touristy memorabilia (in less kind words, called kitsch) all the way from chocolates to pen holders and fridge magnets with his name and face on them. And of course, there are those on the main streets dressed in what they think of as Mozart costume peddling cheap tickets for classical concerts (friendly word of warning: stay away from these).

All that said, Salzburg is a city capable of charming any visitor, even without the loud signs everywhere that scream of these past glories. It is known to be one of the oldest cultural centers in what is present day Austria and is now the fourth largest city here. The Aldstadt (old state – or the city center) is known for its well-preserved Baroque architecture. The city itself was established as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.

It is today a young city, its restaurants and bars buzzing in the spring air late, late into the night. The Salzach River runs through it, the bridges over it and the lanes by the side now used as spots for locals and tourists to meet and chat and watch the world pass by. On narrow Getreidegasse, the main shopping lane in Salzburg, everything is strictly old world; even the signboard for McDonalds is a graceful arch in metal and muted colours, in keeping with the tone of the area. I spend several hours here, exploring the hundreds of shops and boutiques tucked into its narrow arched by-lanes.

One evening, I trek up to the HohenSalzburg fortress that casts a watchful eye on the city at all times. The sun is setting in the distance casting golden shadows on the Salzach and the city skyline is impressive and mellow in this light. Far down, at Kapitelplatz, I can see people, little ants slowly making their way through the street stalls. The giant chessboard painted on the ground is also active, the giant pieces seeming to move of their own accord.

That instant, I can hear echoes of the sound of music from far far away.

Published in the South China Morning Post, March 11, 2012

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