Visiting a Historic, and Hidden, Area of Mumbai

Khotachiwadi, a historic area of Mumbai, is like Platform 9 3/4 in the Harry Potter series: invisible to all but those who know exactly where it is or are determined to find it. The narrow lane leading into the wadi, or hamlet, does nothing to inspire confidence and, like Harry and his friends, you need to take a leap of faith and enter.

Inside, visitors are well-rewarded: Khotachiwadi is a colorful, quiet and quirky world, a maze of crumbling 19th-century bungalows and chawls (communal living quarters typical in Mumbai) painted in bright colors, with latticed windows, overhanging balconies and winding wooden staircases. Walking through the area gives you a glimpse into old Goa, or even a forgotten part of Portugal.

Or closer to home, Khotachiwadi is a throwback to the times when Mumbai was only a collection of small villages.

One of the most attractive homes inside Khotachiwadi, very close to the main gate, belongs to the Felizardos, originally from Goa. Stop by the house to admire the stunning mosaic floor and chat with young Willy Felizardo about his adopted city. Or drop into designer James Pereira’s beautifully preserved home just across the lane; Mr. Pereira himself is a storehouse of information about the Khotachiwadi community.

The wadi is believed to have sprung up around 1840, developed by Dadoba Waman Khot from the Pathare Prabhu community (a group of strict Hindu Brahmins) who sold plots of land to the growing group of East Indian Christians. It was declared a Mumbai Heritage Precinct in 1995 as part of a serious conservation effort across the city.

Khotachiwadi, though, sits on prime land in one of the most expensive areas of Mumbai, and property developers have been eyeing it for many years now. Residents are slowly giving up the struggle to maintain their homes, anachronisms in the age of steel and concrete.

So the time to visit Khotachiwadi is now; as it is, only 28 of the original 65 bungalows inside the gated colony have survived. The best time to go is around Christmas when the houses are lit up and authentic East Indian home cooking is on offer. The group Bombay Heritage Walks (91-22-2369-0992; www.bombayheritagewalks.com) conducts walking tours inside Khotachiwadi.

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Read online about Khotachiwadi here – my first piece for the New York Times travel blog…

Of Kipling and goblins

The petite Indian city of Bundi has played muse to artists – most famously, writer Rudyard Kipling, photographer Virginia Fass and poet Rabindranath Tagore – but it has managed to deflect the prying eyes of the tour groups and backpackers. They have come, seen and conquered the rest of Rajasthan – pink Jaipur, blue Jodhpur and golden Jaisalmer – but overlook sandy, brown Bundi, despite its palaces and great fortress.

Perhaps for that reason the town’s rough charm remains undiminished. Tucked into a valley at the foot of the Aravalli mountain range, Bundi, which dates back to the 12th century, remains a figurative crevice in the folds of time.

Bundi streets

Water is the most precious commodity in this desert town but is easily shared; young and old alike sit on the roads ladling out cool drinking water to passers-by.

Bundi has more than 50 ancient stepwells, called baoli, which served not just as reservoirs but also as social hubs for the women of the palace – places to meet, bathe, chat and catch up on news. Most have fallen into disrepair but even today women meet at the common wells to gossip as they draw water, before walking the narrow streets, delicately balancing pots on their heads.

The most famous stepwell is Raniji ki Baoli, the queen’s well. The gate is locked and the watchman is asleep under a tree when we arrive just after noon. He slowly comes around as we shake him awake, his breath reeking of alcohol. He informs us that visitors are no longer allowed to see the baoli and that the gate will remain locked, and would we mind going away so he can sleep in peace.

Built in 1699 by Rani Nathavatji, this 46-metre-deep baoli is one of the largest in the area. It is said to have served as a private swimming pool for the royal ladies, a fact illustrated by exquisite arches and delicate carvings that seem too elaborate for commoners. But today, the stepwell, which was once said to hold enough water for the entire kingdom, is dry. Even without water (and even when seen through locked gates), Raniji ki Baoli presents a pretty sight, complemented by flocks of pigeons taking flight from their perches above the columns on hearing our voices.

Raniji ki baoli

There’s little doubt that Kipling – the Mowgli man, as he is referred to here – is Bundi’s favourite son.

Referring to Bundi’s Garh Palace, he wrote: ‘To give on paper any adequate idea of the Boondi-ki-Mahal is impos- sible. Jeypore Palace may be called the Versailles of India; Udaipur’s House of State is dwarfed by the hills round it and the spread of the Pichola Lake; Jodhpur’s House of Strife, grey towers on red rock, is the work of giants, but the Palace of Boondi, even in broad daylight, is such a palace as men build for themselves in uneasy dreams – the work of goblins rather than of men.’

The words, from Kipling’s From Sea to Sea and Other Sketches, Letters of Travel, are repeated on the signboard of the palace.

Bundi palace

The steep, cobbled path leading up to the complex must have been rough once upon a time, but has been trampled into a resigned smoothness over the centuries by the feet of elephants and soldiers. Indeed, the tall, arched entrance is named Hathi Pol, the gate of the elephant.

Inside the palace, there is a stunning silence and our voices and footsteps echo through the empty chambers. Through the broken stained-glass windows, sunlight filters into the rooms, throwing out technicolour shadows on the dusty floor. Only a part of the palace is open to visitors, with the rest locked and largely ignored by the royal family.

Windows

There are several smaller palaces built by various kings strewn across the grounds; Chhatra Mahal, Phool Mahal and Badal Mahal, in particular, are home to fine murals. The most captivating of all is Chitrashala, the chamber of paintings. The walls and columns are covered in scenes from Indian mythology, the gods and goddesses in their more playful moments. There are also a number of works on the splendours of the Bundi kingdom, snippets of court life, animals and birds of the region, hunting scenes, local festivals. Blues, aquamarines and turquoises dominate – perhaps a reference to a romance with water in this parched desert land.

However, it’s not Garh Palace that first greets the visitor to Bundi; it’s Taragarh Fort, or the star fort, described by Kipling as ‘an avalanche of masonry ready to rush down and block the gorge’.

We scramble up the thorny path to the fort – or what remains of it. Built in the mid-14th century and named after its distinctive shape, it was renowned for its labyrinth of tunnels. Standing on the battlements – isolated on top of a hill, overlooking the town on one side and the roads leading in and out of Bundi on the other – it is easy to understand why this city was never captured. However, time has managed to do what invaders could not. The fort’s impenetrable walls have crumbled in large parts while the palace exudes a sense of abandonment, as if all the people left in a hurry. Several massive cannons sit rusting and the fort’s stepwells, built to supply residents in times of crisis, are mostly dry.

As we wander through the ruins, there are no other people present, just langur monkeys and pigeons. And as we make our way through the dry, overgrown shrubs surrounding the fort, down the path towards the town, I can faintly hear Kipling’s goblins laughing in the distance, as they scamper back to their secret hideouts in the tunnels.

In this place and at this time, it is easy to believe they are there.

Getting there: Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) flies from Hong Kong to Delhi, and from there to Jaipur. Hire a cab from the airport to Bundi, which will take about four hours. Alternatively, take the Rajdhani Express from Mumbai or Delhi and get off at Kota, 40 kilometres away.

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Published in the South China Morning Post, August 21 – read the full Bundi travel story here – Living the dreams

Straits ahead: Malacca in Mint

Iam trying hard not to laugh at my guide. He has been very friendly, chatting in Tamil on the bus to Malacca. He has also organized a vegetarian lunch for me, after he’s recovered from the shock of encountering someone who doesn’t eat meat. The reason I am having trouble is, talking about the history of Malacca, he keeps mentioning the Chineast and the Portugueast. Finally when he says, “After this, you all get into the bust”, a giggle escapes; I hastily turn it into a cough and end up choking.

Malacca (or Melaka as locals call it) is one of Malaysia’s few Unesco world heritage sites. There is a lot of dispute over when the city was founded but my guide authoritatively says it was in the early 15th century. It flourished as a trading port, attracting the attention of invaders. In many ways, Malacca reminds me of Fort Kochi: Portuguese, Dutch, British and Chinese influences are scattered around the city.

The walls of Malacca

Prayer

Say hi to Bob!

More here on Mint – this appeared a few weeks ago – forgot to post it here… Have a nice day, lah!

Vienna: My Kind Of Place

Why Vienna

Palace

Vienna consistently tops surveys as the best city to live in (most recently the Mercer 2010 “Quality of Living” survey of 215 cities). Vienna also keeps you guessing: classical or modern? Eastern Europe or unabashedly western? The glorious past or the vibrant present? The answer lies in the way Vienna has embraced all these avatars with ease and created its own identity as a world-class city.

With more than a hundred museums and palaces, it is hard not to be impressed by all the grandeur on display. Yet all this history and heritage sits lightly on Vienna. There is no better proof of this than the quirky Hundertwasserhaus, an explosion of curves and colours. Set in a quiet lane away from the buzz of the city centre in the Landstrasse area, this apartment building designed by Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser seems to be Vienna’s way of thumbing its nose at the world that once thought of it as stuffy and boring.

A comfortable bed

Stay in style at the new Ring Hotel (+43 1 22122), which echoes Vienna’s current vibe of “casual luxury” perfectly. The hotel’s At Eight restaurant offers something called “aroma cuisine” that promises the experience of fresh, discernable and yet subtle flavours. Double rooms start from €219 euros (Dh1,142) including taxes.

Or indulge yourself with a room at the venerable Sacher Hotel (+43 1 51 4560). The Sacher checks all boxes: luxury, location, service. And food, of course. Even if you cannot afford to stay here (double rooms start from €395 [Dh2,060] including taxes), drop by the Sacher Café for a meal, or at the least for coffee and Vienna’s famous Sachertorte, a sinful concoction involving huge quantities of chocolate and apricot jam.

sachertorte

Finding your feet

The best way to see Vienna is on foot, since the city that visitors seek is enclosed within the compact ring of the Innerstadt (central district). Begin with the Hapsburg Palace and make your way from the rear exit through the maze of pedestrian streets. Walk on till you find the tall towers of St Stephen’s Cathedral looking benevolently down on Stephensplatz, the busy square that marks the centre of the town.

There are other ways of doing this too – the expensive choice (€40; Dh209 for a half-hour ride) is to clip-clop your way through the tourist sights in a horse carriage, with your driver doubling up as tourist guide. Or hop on to the yellow ring-tram that takes you on a round trip along the inner ring (€7; Dh37 for a single tour lasting 25 minutes or €9; Dh47 for a 24-hour pass) so you can mark spots that you find interesting to visit later. In the summer months there are cruises on the Danube, even going all the way to Budapest and back if you are up to it – but do not expect to see the Blue Danube: inside the city, dull brown is more like it.

The tourist information centre is behind the State Opera House, at the corner of Albertinaplatz, and has several counters with friendly and helpful staff.

Clip clop

Meet the locals

There is no question about this – head to a cafe, pick up a newspaper (you can ask for an English one if you don’t find it on the stand), order Melange mit Schlagobers (coffee with that mound of cream that screams calories and decadence) and watch the world come and go. Vienna is the original home of cafe culture – though Parisians would hotly contest this statement. Café Central at Herrengasse is where the movers and shakers of Vienna once used to hang out – and discerning locals still do.

A little German goes a long way in Vienna – so brush up on your basics.

Cafe Central

Book a table

The Le Ciel (+43 1515 809100) on the top floor of the Grand Hotel is known for its Austrian and French cuisine and comes highly recommended. A standard three-course evening meal would cost €48 (Dh 240).

However, the fashionable place-to-be-seen in Vienna is Fabios (+43 15322222) which is said to have brought “Italian chic” to the city. Its signature pasta dishes are between €16 and €20 (Dh 80 to 100) while their dish-of-the-day recommendations (stir-fried carpaccio of beef filet, for example) start from 25 euros (Dh125).

Shopper’s paradise

The long stretch of Mariahilferstrasse houses all the big brands and labels. Not surprisingly, it is one of the most crowded streets in Vienna. To see where and how locals shop, head to the 500-year old Naschmarkt (closed on Sundays) near Karlsplatz. It began life as a market for fresh fruit and vegetables and is now the place to buy cheeses, breads, olives, herbs and goodies from all over the world. When tired, rest your feet at one of the trendy restaurants and cafes inside the covered market for some authentic home cooking – Italian, Turkish, Indian, Japanese and local dishes. Also make sure to nip into Demel’s on the Kohlmarkt road to take home a box of Viennese chocolates.

Shopping

Naschmarkt

What to avoid

Concert tickets sold on the street by people dressed in Mozart costume – you can imagine the quality of the music peddled in fancy dress at bargain prices.

Don’t miss

Instead, go to the opera. The best thing is that you do not need to know anything about opera – just go for the experience or even simply to gawk at the opulence of the Royal Opera House. Locals book seats in advance (at the State Opera, tickets begin at 50 euros [Dh 250] and go all the way to 300 euros [Dh 1,500] and above) and dress up for the occasion while tourists have the option of walking in with jeans to buy inexpensive standing tickets for as little as five euros (Dh25) just a couple of hours before a performance.

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Read more here… Vienna: My Kind of Place in The National, July 02, 2011

Meanwhile…

So it’s been over a month since Itchy Feet had any updates. Been on holiday in Europe for my tenth anniversary – 22 days in Vienna, Salzburg, Prague, Paris, Provence, Bruges and Amsterdam. Spring was in the air, flowers along the streets and the sun was shining, with just that slight nip in the air. Photographs and post updates soon.

For now, quickly, links to a few articles that have appeared elsewhere in the last couple of months:
~ Time: 5 reasons to visit Colombo
~ South China Morning Post: Sketches of the past, Mango Mania
~ WSJ blog: Dimsum in India

Back with more soon, promise!

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