Thursday, 18 November 2021

The Andamans Travelogue

Swimming with the fish in lovely waters of Andaman Sea

Look at the world map and you may find Andaman & Nicobar islands as a few dots in Bay of Bengal. They appear to be closer to Thailand rather than India. The island of Phuket in Thailand is just 600 km from Port Blair - the Capital of A&N. For those in North India, reaching Thailand was simpler than reaching Port Blair as there was no direct flight and one had to go via Kolkata or Chennai. 

I suddenly discovered that there was now a direct Air India flight at 5.30 AM to Port Blair. It was time to take advantage of Diwali break and discover that part of India which is barely visible on map. 

Getting up at 3 AM is always a challenge and more so just 2 days before Diwali when we got home at midnight after a pre Diwali dinner. But it was worth taking a direct flight otherwise we would have had to leave an evening earlier for either Chennai or Kolkata, spend a night there and then leave for Andamans the next morning. This is because the flights from and to Port Blair only upto a certain time and only during daylight. This perhaps is the schedule during Covid restrictions. 

The other challenge was to spend the time between 9 AM to 2 PM. This is the period between the flight landing and Ferry taking off to the island of Havelock. Port Blair has limited tourism potential so Havelock and Neil islands are preferred by tourists. Once again the ferries are limited nowadays due to Covid restrictions so one has to book well in advance. 

The Cellular Jail (Kaala Pani)

We did well to spend much of this time at the infamous Cellular prison which had been constructed by British to break the bodies and spirit of Indian freedom fighters. An hour or so at the prison gives you the feel of how tough the life was for the inmates here and how badly they were treated. Port Blair was then known as Kala Paani and horror stories about the treatment of prisoners by the warden David Barry have been documented by many historians. 

The cells of cellular jail

Cellular Jail also has an open air 'light & sound' show in the evenings which we were fortunate to see a few days later when we returned from Havelock. It really is worth going for this show as the history comes alive the way it is presented. They have a similar show at Ross island which is a ferry ride away. 

Sound & Light show at the cellular jail

We also spent some time at Anthropologie museum which showcased the lives of several tribes of the islands including the Jarawas. The other tribes of prominence are the Onge, Shompen, the Great Andamanese, the Sentinelese and the Nicobarese. These tribes still exist. 

I had booked Makruzz ferry which runs Catamarans between port Blair, Havelock and Neil islands. Port Blair did have a proper ferry terminal  and one has to reach an hour early for check in's and for documentation. Havelock had no Ferry terminal so one has to wait in sun or rain or whatever the weather has in store for you. There are other companies also which run ferries but at this time the services were limited. The government run ferries are of high capacity but very slow.  All the ferries were full so please do book the transportation well in advance if you do plan to visit the islands. There are many stories of people missing their flights as transport from an island to Port Blair was not available. It took us around 2 hours to reach Havelock and finally to our hotel at around 5 PM. 

The Taj Exotica - Radhanagar Beach

The view from our room at the Taj. Each chalet was 1600 sq ft

Being so much in the East but following Indian standard time (IST), it becomes dark at Havelock at 5 PM. Once it becomes dark - the beach becomes out of bounds. Taj Exotica turned out to be a superb property. Spread over 46 acres , each chalet was huge, luxurious and surrounded by lush green gardens. The resort had a nice gym and an Olympic sized swimming pool. Our chalet was considerably a distance away from the reception and activity area so we had to call the golf cart each time we had to venture out otherwise it was a nice 15-20 minute walk in the evenings and mornings. 

Welcome drink at the Taj

One got a very nice feel of being amidst the nature while staying at Taj. The trees were beautiful and the birds were extra chirpy. I spent an hour in the pool doing the laps on the first evening itself before we went for Devicka's birthday dinner at the restaurant. Our friends Sukrit and Arati along with their son Aditya came over for dinner and it became a mini party. They were staying at Sea Shells which was on the other side of island on another beach. Place they were staying at was in close proximity to all the scuba diving centres and as they had come mainly for scuba diving, it made sense to stay that side.

Devicka's birthday 

Next morning after breakfast it was time to hit the beach. The beach itself was as pristine as it could be. The sea water had different shades of turquoise and the sand was white and soft. What makes the beach very special is the forest cover and the huge trees through which you have to walk to get to the beach. Radhanagar beach has been voted as one of the finest beaches of Asia and though it was not a very long beach, it is very scenic and hordes of people come to watch sunset here. On the first day we went to the beach, the sun was very strong and the reflection from the white sand made the day even brighter. It was good to cool off in the sea water. 

Soft sand and quietness at Radhanagar beach outside the Taj Exotica

We went out for lunch with Sukrit and Arati as they were leaving back for Gurgaon via Port Blair but in the evening we were back on the beach. Taj served us snacks and tea while we watched the sun go down. During the morning hours the beach had been empty but for some hotel guests, but now in the evening, many people from other parts of the island had come to visit the famed beach and watch the sunset. There were no shacks or restaurants so it was just beach ,water and sunset. 

Sunset at Radhanagar beach. Really beautiful and serene. 

The Barefoot Resort - Radhanagar

Our Cottage at Barefoot resort. They had stilted villas also. 

After 2 days of luxury living we moved to another very popular resort on the same beach called the Barefoot resort. It was very different from Taj and had a totally rustic feel. I had meant to book the villa on stilts but had got booking for a cottage as villas had been sold out. These cottages were a 10 minute walk from main area and it was unnerving in the dark as there were no street lights and one had to take a torch. It wasn't easy as due to some rains the path was slushy and slippery. One evening Devicka took a wrong turn and got lost and was very scared as there was just forest all around and extremely dark. The hotel also didn't have much to do in evenings after dark as it had no gym or swimming pool. So one evening I went for a massage which I thought was over priced. 

Path going to the beach from hotel. Imagine how it must be at night. 

Once you got used to such things, it was a nice place and you even had to take off your footwear to go to reception, bar, restaurant and activity area. Once again beach was right next door through the forest. It's a kind of place which grows on you and after a day I was very comfortable. 
Diwali evening was a bit of a dampener as the resort had nothing planned and being a dry day they were not even serving liquor in the bar or restaurant so one had to stick to the room and enjoy one's own tipple.

Diwali Lights

Barefoot had another resort which was scuba diving centre at beach number 3 which was around 15 minutes drive from where we were. That is the main scuba diving belt. As there was not enough time to do a full PADI diving course (which takes 4-5 days) I decided to do a 'Discover Scuba diving programme.' I have done snorkeling a few times but never done deep sea diving.  It was time for a new adventure. 

The Scuba Diving

The reverse dive with full equipment

The day started early as I was transported to beach number 3 to Barefoot Scuba resort. There was a lot of paperwork and disclaimers to be signed before training for the dive started. They had a good team who patiently over the next hour or so trained us in shallow beach water. Breathing was the main issue and there were other things like extracting water out of mask and replacing your breathing nozzle if it were to drop while in a dive. Then it was time for the real thing as you get into full gear, get onto the boat and move towards a reef with marine life. We have seen it all in movies so now it was time to do a backdive into the water with full equipment and then with the help of the trainer get deeper and deeper into the water. 
Equalising the pressure is done at each meter of submergence as that is the most critical process to adapt to increasing water pressure. Soon one becomes comfortable, breathing from mouth through nozzle is not an issue and equalising the pressure is routine. Then you enjoy those colourful fish which dance around you. The Scholl of fish envelope you but ignore you as they move towards their destination. The octopus was the highlight - so large and so flexible. It merged itself to the reef and became as if it were part of the rocks. The large fish and the small were all around and they were so pretty in this blue sea. A 10 meter dive for 50 minutes was a kind of dose I needed to ensure that I do several more dives in near future. I am already waiting for Thailand and Phuket to open to pursue several more dives in that region. 

Underwater meditation 

Life on Havelock Island

We didn't spend enough time in Port Blair for me to comment on it. Havelock was a couple of hours away by Catamaran and looked lush green as you approached the island with dense forests everywhere. As you drove towards the hotel you could see dense and green forests all around with very little signs of big hotels or tourism on the way.  It appears that just 15-20% of island is open to tourism and rest of the place appears untouched. Vijaynagar beach or beach number 5 has quite a few hotels but as you drove towards Radhanagar, the habitat became less and less. 

This is kind of greenery you see from the car as you drive around the island

Not far for Radhanagar beach was the trekking path leading the the famous 'Elephant beach' known for water sports. Many go for this interesting hike. As far as public beach is concerned, the 'Kala Pathar' beach is very popular and as it is a shaded beach with lot of trees - it is quite comfortable to sit and enjoy the sun and sea. We didn't see any upmarket shopping or restaurants as we drove around the island. Most of small shops like vegetables, fruits ,chemist, grocery etc are in vicinity of the ferry area.
So basically there is not much to do on the island. I believe they don't even have a liquor shop. Once it becomes dark the people stay in their hotels and enjoy the facilities. During the day they go to some restaurants and beaches. 

 Talking about is what we experienced. 

Restaurants at Havelock

Taj had its own multi cuisine restaurant near the sea. It was decent for breakfast but didn't have too much to offer for other meals. So after our morning time at beach we went to a famous sea food place called Anju Coco. Unfortunately they didn't serve any beer so we moved on to another known place near the sea called 'Something different.' The place was huge and had a library as well. You could see the sea as you dined and the sea breeze cooled you. 

The restaurant had nice books to read and good food.

The owner was friendly and would take photograph of guests and then print them out and gave to them before leaving. More important - they served good prawns and served chilled Beer ! We ended up going to this place a couple of times. 

A lane takes you to the restaurant from here. They provide free pick ups and drops

Our restaurant at Barefoot resorts served decent food but when I asked the manager if they served good prawns - he produced wonderful Tandoori Jumbo prawns which were huge and wonderfully marinated and cooked. That was our last night at the resort so we couldn't repeat any such order. 

The tandoori jumbo Prawns at Barefoot

Someone recommended Jalakara - a boutique hotel nestled in the hills amongst the beautiful trees and greenery. They had a smallish restaurant and that's why the manager hesitated to book a table for us but he relented. The food variety was limited but it was a nice place to sit and have lunch. 
We saw several hotels and restaurants near the popular beach number 5 (Vijaynagar beach) but didn't have time to go there. 

The Charming Jalakara hotel on top of a hill. 

We did visit the popular 'Amaya' at the Sea Shells at Port Blair on the way back on the last night of the trip as it was next to our ITC Welcome hotel. The place was jam packed and quite happening with loud music and lot of holiday atmosphere. We didn't find booking there so were happy to be back to the quietness of our sea facing restaurant at ITC. It had been a great trip and next morning it was time to fly back to the Delhi pollution which had increased manifold due to Diwali crackers. 

Breakfast view from Port Blair ITC Welcome Hotel. 

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Goa 2021 snippets

This is what attracts me to Goa. 

 - The year 2020 saw us taking no flight at all. The world had come to a standstill. The year 2021 started with a flight on January 1 itself in the morning. Destination was the beach city of Goa. In these Covid times it is sensible to play a bit safe. Slightly expensive ticket is what we booked so that a change was allowed by airline in the event of non travel. Hotel booking was also left for the last minute. But bookings were done before we left Delhi. One can't leave these things for too late. 

-  Safety mattered. We decided on no check in luggage. Didn't eat anything in the aircraft but did so before boarding. We used the covid preventing material (PPE kit) provided by the airline. There were many who would keep taking off their masks but the crew was rightly strict with them. One felt reasonably safe during the journey.

- Dickens came to pick us up at the airport. He is the guy who has been providing me self driven vehicle while in Goa for last decade or so. His cars are generally in good condition. This time also he gave a new Swift vehicle and promised me that next time it will be an 'automatic.' He has progressed quite a bit in this last decade and seem to be now owning a few cars. 

- We decided to stay a night in South Goa. 'Beleza by the beach' at Colva beach was our first destination. It is just a 30 minute drive to Colva from Dabholim Airport. It was a sensible decision as North Goa was buzzing with lakhs of people who had come for new year. South Goa was nice and sedate. Hopefully many would leave North Goa for their homes by the time we reach there the next afternoon. 

- We stopped by at restaurant called 'Fishka' at Betalbatim on the way. It appeared to be popular restaurant in these parts. It had a nice decor and good atmosphere. Food took a long time coming as the place was full and staff was unable to cope up with the new year crowd. Food was average but I wouldn't judge it just on basis of one crowded day. 

- Beleza by the beach turned out to be a nice resort. The rooms were on one side with spa, pool, bar and a restaurant. Our room overlooked the green farming fields. On the other side - which was a 5 minute walk from the room - there was an outdoor cafe which overlooked the Colva beach. Approach to the beach was directly from here. They also had sun beads lined up for the guests. 

Swimming pool is near the rooms at Beleza by the beach. At this time the pool was shut due to Covid19

- There are several nice restaurants in south Goa coastal belt. There are several good restaurants at Margaon/Madgaon as well. Prominent restaurants are Martin's corner at Betalbatim, Fisherman's wharf at Cavelossim  and Mickey's at Colva. There are others like Joecon's near Taj exotica and the famous Zeebop at Utroda which we have frequented in the past. The 5 star hotels are a plenty in South Goa and some of them boast of very famous restaurants, so there is no dearth of good restaurants and food in South Goa. The ITC Grand hotel has really a good Indian & an Italian restaurant. The temptation was to go to Martin's corner for the lively atmosphere and their chilli crab. But as we were here just for a night so decided to enjoy the cafe at our own hotel. The bar was at the centre of cafe and music was good. Food was pretty decent. They did make good fish with Rachaedo Masala and Devicka was happy with her grilled chicken breast. It was an enjoyable evening under the stars.

View from the room. Very soothing. 


We started the morning with a walk on the beach, followed it by breakfast and then I spent a couple of hours at the beach - mainly swimming. Devicka spent this time at the spa. It was then time to check out and leave for North Goa. 

It took just a little more than an hour to drive from South to North Goa at this time of the day. The gigantic structure (Bridge) over Zuari river is coming up fast which would join the highway and that would further connect to the the new cable stayed bridge commissioned over Mandovi a couple of years back. The idea is to have seamless travel from the Airport to North beaches and from Karnataka to Mumbai. It's a great feeling driving on the new Mandovi bridge - it is very high and very elegant. It looks very pretty at night when it is beautifully lit up. 

- The 'O Resort & Spa' at Candolim beach is a long hotel starting from the Candolim beach road to the beach. It has a casino at the entrance so remains popular. Direct access to the beach was our reason for choosing this hotel. There were hordes of guests checking out when we reached for check in. One guy was asking his wife to go back so he could stay for a few days more and gamble a bit more. Apparently casino was providing him a free stay. Casino's know the sources and their deep pockets which provide them of revenue. 

- As you exit on the beach side, the very popular Calamari bathe & binge shack/restaurant was just on the right. At around 2.30 PM the restaurant was full but we managed to get a table. The place was buzzing with tourists and the crowd was upmarket. The music was superb and everyone seemed to be in a mood for fun. There was dance, laughter, cocktails, wine and relaxation. No guest wore any mask or seemed to have heard of 'social distancing.' It appeared from the behaviour of people that at Goa 'Covid19' was also on vacation. 

Calamari bathe and binge. One of the most popular shacks of North Goa

- I have always found the food at Calamari to be good without being exceptional. This is a place where people come for cocktails and atmosphere. The beachfront location helps a lot. You can also lie down on their beach bed and get a foot massage done. Many who come for lunch leave at 6 PM and many who come for dinner are asked to leave at 2 AM. Many come for sundowners at around 6 PM and leave after dinner. When you are on holiday - the time has no value. The place has energy in it and it can be felt as you sit there sipping your cocktail and watching people talk & dance. 

- Candolim is a very popular beach of North Goa. There is one long beach which comprises of Sinquerim, Candolim, Calangute and Baga. It starts from Taj Aguada and ends beyond Brittos at Baga. So the beach is one long seamless coastline but has 4 names at different places. This belt is famous for beaches, food, nightlife and roadside shopping. I like staying on this beach as it offers a lot and keeps you busy. One can always walk out of the hotel and go for roadside shopping. The holiday lane opposite the Le Meridien leading to the beach has some really good roadside shopping as well as some high end restaurant like A Reverie. There are some big stores like Newton's and Delfino's which stock groceries, clothes, liquor and whatever you may require. People often come for a longish period and they either own houses in Goa or they hire an apartment for a couple of months. They can get all their groceries from Newton's. Newton's has a very good variety of liquor. The Calangute junction itself now has hundreds of shops and restaurants. No wonder they say North Goa is lively. 

A roadside stall at Candolim

- On our fist evening at North Goa we took a walk on the beach from our hotel to Taj hotel and back. I managed to swim a bit as the sun went down and then we were asked to get out of sea by the life guard. After a shower we took a stroll down the Candolim road before settling down for dinner at another popular restaurant called the Fisherman's Cove. This roadside restaurant seems to be always busy. They have expanded as well and still remain full. The service is super quick. I like prawn sizzlers they make so one visit per trip has become a norm. As the evening progresses the music becomes louder and DJ does well to get participation from the audience. 

- Indians prefer to crowd the beaches in evening rather than morning/afternoon. The sun is a bit too harsh in Goa during that peak sun period. It can really burn you. I am a beach lover so we find a shack with adequate shade and while Devicka orders her pineapple and coconut water and reads her book, I spend an hour or so in the water. Then it is my time to order prawns in Richadeo masala or butter garlic and chilled beer. This happens day after day. 

Fisheman's hut is near Calamari and is quite popular. This is also open for Lunch and then shuts late at night. The afternoons are quiet at the beach. 

It is the evening time which attracts the people to the beach. The atmosphere is lively with people swimming, jogging or just enjoying sundowners at the shacks.

Afternoon/early evening is siesta time in Goa. Most things shut down other than food places. It gives us also time to recuperate from the sun and sea tiredness. But before that it is lunch time and we headed for highly recommended 'Lazy Goose' restaurant under the Nerul bridge. It was riverside setting with great live music and loads of Sunday crowd. The food was really good here. Butter garlic prawns spanish style and the tandoori pomfret was exceptional.  It was a good place to discover. On this trip The Lazy Goose gave us the best food and the best atmosphere. Highly recommended !

The Lazy Goose under Nerul Bridge is just 5 minutes drive from Candolim. 

In the evening it is time to take another long walk and then decide where the dinner would be. Our room doesn't have too much artificial light so I like to go out as soon as possible. Wok & Roll near Fort Aguada is another favourite restaurant owned by a friend's brother Allwyn. The Pan Asian fare is tremendous and the pork ribs are really delicious. Crab, lobster or prawns in different asian sauces taste divine. Unfortunately we can't order too much variety as there are just 2 of us.  It is a nice and spacious restaurant and in a remote corner where there is peace and quite. Near the restaurant is the famous nightclub Cohiba which comes alive when we had already left after dinner. There are other nightclubs as well. Tito's at Baga was the first to start the trend of nightclubs and I still remember those long queues that used to form outside its entrance. LPK is a bit away but they have pickup and drop facility. Sinq is very near the Taj. Much crowd is swarming at these nightclubs as people have been deprived of these activities since a long time. 

Special Ice Cream at Wok & Roll
Ribs at Wok & Roll are one the best that I have eaten. 

- Next morning we try out a new cafe called the 'Cafe Candolim .' We had gone to have breakfast at the lovely 'Chocolatti' but it appears that it never opened after the lockdown. Cafe Candolim  was quite nice and gave great breakfast. Breakfast was included in the hotel package but Devicka decided that she didn't want to eat there as no covid19 precautions were being observed. So we discovered this new place. The egg I ordered had an interesting name called 'Anda Ghotala' which comprised of scrambled egg, spices and minced meat. It was quite a handful start to the day along with Lavazza cold coffee.

- Fat Fish is another restaurant which remains extremely busy. It is on way to Arpora from Baga. I love their fish Thali. After our usual morning at the beach we headed for Fat fish only to see a long queue. We also overheard that they had run out of fish and chicken thaalis. But we were presented with a solution. The restaurant incharge informed us that they had opened another large restaurant at Anjuna beach which was around 15 minutes away. He confirmed that fish thaali was available there. So we drove to this new branch of theirs and it was pretty impressive. The thaali was available and was as good as ever. It comprises of a large pc of Rava fry fish and accompanied by gravies of prawn, mussels and crab along with vegetables. Its quite a meal. They have a lot of open space so it would be nice to sit out in the evenings. 

The Fish Thaali at Fat Fish

The New Fat Fish restaurant at Anjuna

- As we sat in the hotel lawns in the evening, one couldn't help noticing a couple of mismatched couples. By mismatched one means the man to be a pudgy 50 and the companion to be petite 20. It soon became clear that the companions were the companions just for this holiday. Things are happening in India !

- Taj holiday Village is the most famous and popular hotel of North Goa. It is quite spread out and has cottages as accommodation. Their Thai restaurant is called the 'Banyan tree' as it is next to a 300 year old beautiful Banyan tree. Our last evening was spent here in very romantic settings. The food was as good as ever and the place had a lot of calmness about it. There was some party going on at Taj and music could reach us sitting at the other end of property. The music was good so no complaints.

The 300 year old Banyan Tree at Taj holiday Village. 

It was time to go back home now after a 4 day trip. For me it was a successful trip as I could spend a lot of time on the beach, in the sea and at some lovely restaurants. This is what Goa is all about for me.  Dabholim Airport is always quite messy even though they had built new terminal buildings a few years ago. This must be the only airport without a single restaurant where one could have a meal peacefully. There used to be a restaurant earlier but they have shut it down. So coming early was a waste of time. We could have stopped at Sheela restaurant near the Airport for lunch instead of looking at chaos at the kiosks serving food. So if you are hungry after check in and security, then one has to stand in a long queue at one of the crappy kiosks. So if you want something to eat or drink to sustain yourself before the flight - then forget the social distancing and fight for your idlis or biryani. 

After a lovely trip like this I think we deserved a better send off. Goa requires a much better airport than what it has. 

Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Rajasthan - A Royal drive. Part IV - Kumbhalgarh & Udaipur

 Jodhpur to Udaipur journey could also be called a journey from Marwar to Mewar. Shortly after starting from Jodhpur, the entire topography changed. Desert was left behind somewhere. We were soon amongst greenery, cultivation, forests and beautiful hills. At one point when our google map decided to make us cut through some villages and agricultural fields instead of highway - it seemed we were in some hill station. This was quite remarkable as I never thought Rajasthan would have this kind of topography and greenery. This was also the first time during the trip when we found the roads to be not good as several times the highway was through the crowded villages and many a times we encountered narrow and broken roads. 

When we started from Jodhpur, our intent was to go straight to Udaipur. On the way I saw a signboard showing a diversion for Kumbhalgarh. I asked Devicka if she wanted to visit Kumbhalgarh. She was quite indifferent but had no objection as long as I was driving the vehicle. I promised her that it would be a quick visit but the question one may ask is - having seen 3 major forts in last 4 days and several palaces, why did I want to visit another fort ? 

Kumbhalgarh Fort

The Kumbhalgarh fort is 3600 feet above sea level. It is on top of a hill. 

For those who haven't heard about Kumbhalgarh - it is no ordinary fort. It is built 3600 feet above sea level and has the perimeter wall of 36 kilometers ! This is second only to the Great wall of China in terms of length. In terms of fort complex - it comes just second to the famous Chittorgarh fort. Being so close to this wonder - there was no way I was missing out seeing it and touching it. It also happens to be the birth place of legendary Maharana Pratap. Inside the fort there are 360 temples and out of them 300 are Jain temples. There are famous gates like Ram Pol and Hanuman Pol and most prominent tank is Lakhola tank. We spent just 40 minutes at the fort. From Ram Pol you can see most of the buildings and that is how beautifully the architects have designed the fort. 

View from the Ram Pol

There are plenty of temples inside the fort. 

While we were driving up the hill and going towards the fort, at one point the fort suddenly comes into your view. The view is breathtaking. I had to park the car on the side to appreciate how majestic the fort looked and how its wall kept going on and on till it disappeared into the horizon. That image will stay with me for a long time. 

Length of wall is second only to the great wall of China

Udaipur and Lake Palace

Lake Palace hotel glistens in bright sunshine. 

The Jharokhas. Perfect place to sit and listen to music. 

Lake Palace at night

Inside the palace there are some beautifully landscaped areas. 

Someone had warned me that the charm of staying in Udaipur is to live around the Lake Pichola. I had booked club Mahindra but at the last minute decided to stay at a hotel which I had been seeing in the films since childhood. Lak Palace hotel is in the middle of Lake Pichola and the only way to go is by boat. There are many luxurious and world class hotels around the lake like Oberoi's Uday Vilas and Leela palace but my mind was set on Lake Palace which is run by the Taj group. Many Hindi films have been shot here and I think James Bond movie 'Octopussy' was also shot here. 

The city of Udaipur was quite messy and to reach the lakeside the streets were narrow and very crowded. I wonder how those large tourist buses reach the hotels. Taj has a place where one could park the car and hand over the luggage.  The view of sparkling white Lake palace in the middle of Lake Pichola is a lovely sight.  The city palace had shut down by the time we moved out after lunch but it was nice walking in that huge complex as we walked towards the old town. It had a very rich and historic feel about it. The old town had interesting shops and at times it was difficult to imagine that the shop which seemed innocuous from outside would turn out to be so large and have such exquisite handicrafts and other stuff. 

Welcome with chattri and this was followed by rose petals from the roof. 

Staying at Lake Palce was very refreshing. They gave us a great welcome and chef urged me to have local delicacies. I had earlier during the trip had the famed 'Laal Maas' but that had too much chillies. The chef here prepared the same dish for me having all other spices required for flavour but cut down the chillies. It was amazingly tasty. Then next morning for breakfast I devoured their Pyaaz kachoris and daal kachoris before leaving. These are special dishes of Rajasthan. 

Famous Kachoris of Rajasthan

Once we got back from the walk to the old town it had become dark and the Lake Palace looked very nice lit up. We went up to the roof and sat for a while as some classical music ( Baansuri) was being played there. It was very serene. Our room was lake facing and one could see the city palace from there. So, relax is all we did at Udaipur. This was good as we had been travelling quite a bit last few days and this was a good respite from all the hectic activity. The hotel was not very large but it was very charming. Taj had its own boats so one could go boating and enjoy the lovely November weather. 

We left hotel the next morning after breakfast. Our next stop was to be Pushkar near Ajmer which was around 6-7 hours drive. Going directly home would have been too much driving for one day. As we got out of Udaipur there was a sign saying 'Chittograh - 98 km's.'  Devicka looked at me as if to say ' Don't you dare..................' and we both started laughing. Chittorgarh and Mount Abu would have to wait for another trip. But we did stop on the way to buy some stuff from Arts & Crafts store. 

To Pushkar and then back home

The famed Pushkar was extremely dull and dead as normally it is thronged by foreign tourists. In their absence, the place looked real moribund. Their famed cafes and restaurants were all shut and the shopkeepers seemed to be doing no business. Even the lake looked very lifeless. Normally at this time of the year - just before Diwali - Pushkar is supposed to be a very happening place. In normal circumstances, the really popular Pushkar Mela with all the camels and all would have been around the corner as it normally starts around Novemeber 17th. We took the round of the lake, visited the famous Brahma temple and drove back to our hotel. We were leaving for home the next morning and looked forward to tell all stories about the trip to our daughter who had decided not to come with us. It was also Diwali time so its always nice for family to be together at this time. 

Friday, 27 November 2020

Rajasthan- A Royal Drive. Part III-Jodhpur, the blue city.

Jodhpur is also known as the Blue City. 

 'Zubeidaa' movie was released a few years ago. Directed by Shyam Benegal this film is about a small time actress Zubeidaa Begum who marries King Vijayendra Singh who is already married. King Vijayendra and Zubeidaa are later killed in a plane crash- which was hinted as a sabotage. The movie was written by the famous film critic Khalid Mohammad, who happens to be Zubeidaa's son from her first marriage. Vijayendra Singh of the film is based on Maharaja Hanwant Singh of Jodhpur who plunged into politics after the Maharajas were deprived of their power after Indian independence. Much of the film is shot in Jodhpur and showcases the fort, palaces and opulence of the Rathore family. Hanwant Singh's son is now the titular Maharaja of Jodhpur- Maharaja Gaj Singh II. 

Jodhpur has beautifully been presented in a 10 episode 'Bandish Bandits' on Prime video. The entire setting is at Jodhpur and the series has classical music as main theme but has a lot of things in it to keep everyone interested. Naseeruddin Shah plays an important role in this story but it is the mesmerising photography of the Mehrangarh fort, Umaid Bhawan Palace, the desert and the blue city which excited me as I watched this series after coming back from the city. 

Rajasthan may be one big state now but it was not so before independence. Each big city you know about in the state had an independent ruler with full army and designated territory. At times each province was enemy of another but sometimes they were friends with other Royal families having matrimonial relationships. Most of these royal fiefdoms were friends with Mughals and later with British. This helped them to survive and continue with their lavish lifestyles. 

So far we had traveled to 2 big cities - Bikaner and Jaisalmer. Each had its own rulers in past and each had a huge fort. They had often fought wars with each other. While Bikaner fort is totally conserved and is under a private Trust with a lovely museum, Jaisalmer has a living fort and unfortunately it is slowly crumbling. 

We left Jaisalmer after an early breakfast for Jodhpur. From the golden city we were driving to the blue city. Dominated by Brahmins, Jodhpur initially had Brahmins paint their houses blue to distinguish themselves from others as they were considered to be superior caste. The journey was smooth and soon I realised what Devicka had been talking about when she had said that 29 years ago when she had driven from Jodhpur to Barmer and back, it was all Desert and dunes on the way. We could see the huge dunes but they were not of soft sand but had hardened and become large hills and they had a lot of vegetation on them. This was result of more rain in this region and irrigation facilities provided due to Indira Gandhi canal. 

Traffic was generally smooth but sometimes we had to wait for our dear camels to clear the way.

We did the distance in good time and had reached Jodhpur city in 3.5 hours. So instead of going to the hotel we decided to make the imposing Mehrangarh fort as our first destination. 

The Mehrangarh Fort

The fort is on a hill so attack on it by clandestine was almost impossible

Mehrangarh fort is under a private Trust run by Maharaj Gaj Singh II. It was built by Rao Jodha in fifteenth century on top of a hill. It has several gates and each has a history. Gates were considered important as they were there to thwart the enemy. Some gates were built to commemorate the victories over the enemy. Wars with Mughals and other states such as Bikaner and Jaipur resulted in several canon shots being fired at the fort and you can still see those marks on the walls and on the gates. Cars were going right till the entrance of the fort but we were asked to park 300 m below as the top level parking was for officials and guides. We had to pay for entrance and the guide at the ticket counter and it was a smooth process. The guide was quite good and spoke very good English. He gave us all the time and answered a lot of questions. We spent more than two hours at the fort . Inside the fort also one has to walk on steep slopes so one must wear comfortable shoes. The museum was outstanding and much of it is thanks to Maharaj Gaj Singh who has donated his personal artefacts to the museum as it is run by his Trust. The museum is divided with displays of Textiles, arms and armour, paintings, decorative arts and publications. 

This golden Palki and many other items from royal households are exhibited in the museum

The Jaswant Thada as viewed from the Fort

There are some lovely views from the fort. Jaswant Thada glistens in bright sunlight as it is white. It has a museum of Marwar rulers and is known as Taj Mahal of Marwar. On the other side you can see majestic Umaid Bhawan Palace - now a hotel run by Taj group. It is owned by Maharaja Gaj Singh who has a museum in the premises and his living area in complex. Other than that you can view the blue city from the fort. All this looks quite lovely. 

Being maintained by private trust - fort is well looked after

Jai Pol (Victory gate), Fateh pol, Sheesh Mahal, Phool Mahal and many other such exquisite places inside the fort gives you some idea about the splendour in which these Royals lived. The fort also has Chamunda Devi temple where many were killed and several others were injured in a major stampede in 2008.

The famed Phool Mahal

Sheesh Mahal - the palace of mirrors

 The shop at the exit of museum was quite interesting and was not too expensive so we picked up some mementos from there. We had earlier thought that we would visit the sadar bazar near the clock tower for some mementos but then gave up the idea as we didn't want to go into a crowded place. It was well past 3 PM so we had lunch at their cafe. Food was good there and the chicken I had was made in Rajasthani style but thankfully it wasn't full of chillies. As the fort is run by a trust, the facilities were quite good and toilets etc were very clean. 

It had been a sensible decision to visit the fort before going to the hotel. The hotel called Pratap Bhawan was a big Haveli like structure a bit outside the town on the other side from where we had entered Jodhpur. Had we gone to the hotel initially it would have wasted much of our time. Time was of essence as we were in Jodhpur also just for a day. So we didn't spend much time in the hotel and were off again after a nice bath. We were off to the top hotel and palace of Jodhpur for drinks and dinner.  

Back to the city

The road leading to Umaid Bhawan palace is quite upmarket. There are many top stores and restaurants there. Devicka wanted to check out some ear rings so we stopped on the way at a top jeweller's store. Next we went to the famous Lalji handicrafts but the shop was shutting early as lack of tourists had made business dull. We found another shop nearby and spent some time buying some mementos before I lost interest and walked into a men's garment's shop called the 'Monarch Garments.'  By the time Devicka walked in I had decided that I wanted a Jodhpuri suit from here. Now that we were in Jodhpur - might as well buy a Jodhpur style band-gala suit from here. So fabric was selected, measurements taken and order was placed. The Jodhpuri suit arrived by courier a week after we came back from our holiday. 

An evening at Umaid Bhawan Palace

Umaid Bhawan at night. Building similar to what you find in Lutyen's Delhi

I was warned that the hotel may not allow outsiders ( those not residing at the hotel) due to Covid19 precautions. Umaid Bhawan hotel is rated as one of the top hotels in the world and is run by the Taj group. My friend Suman solved the problem by contacting his friend who is the CFO of Taj group. I got a call from the hotel and they confirmed our dinner reservation. I would have been disappointed had I not been able to visit Umaid Bhawan Palace. 

The story about construction of Umaid Bhawan palace is similar to that of Bara Imambara at Lucknow. Asaf ud Daula had constructed Bara Imambara complex so that workers get employment during famine in Lucknow. In 1920's the Maharaja of Marwar - Umaid Singh, to help the farmers who were facing drought and famine for 3 years, commissioned building of this palace. The architect was Henry Vaughan Lanchester who was a contemporary of Edwin Lutyen. You can see similarities in buildings of Delhi built by Lutyen to Umaid Bhawan. The sandstone exterior and the domes are some of the similarities.

The lobby under the dome was very impressive and had soothing live music 

In 1971 the palace was converted into hotel by Maharaja Gaj Singh. Maharaja himself stays in the complex. A part of the complex is a museum which was shut due to Covid19. It is a lavish building and very rich from inside and has 347 rooms. The hotel has huge grounds and all the facilities possible. The evening we were there, a big party was happening in the lawns and seeing all the fancy cars parked it seemed that all the rich and famous of the city were there. The bar was shut so we sat in the dining room and had our drinks, snacks and dinner there. As certain amount of cover charges had to be paid I ordered a couple of single malts. We didn't have anything fancy for food as snacks were quite filling. The party music made the atmosphere lively. It was a nice relaxed evening and it gave us that feel of being in a very Royal place. 

Umaid Bhawan lawns all decked up for the party

We could have avoided Jodhpur as Devicka had been here a couple of times for work several years ago and had told me that there wasn't much other than Mehrangarh Fort, Jaswant Thada and Umaid Bhawan Palace. But to me it made sense to spend a few hours here as drive from Jaisalmer to Udaipur would have been almost 10 hours. I liked spending the afternoon at Mehrangarh fort and evening at Umaid Bhawan palace. It also gave me satisfaction of visiting the venue of the national award winning film Zubeidaa which starred Karisma Kapoor, Rekha and Manoj Bajpayee.  As mentioned earlier, each city had its own history, its own rulers and its own forts & palaces. Jodhpur of Marwar region also had its uniqueness. It is an important city of Rajastahn and I am glad that I visited it. And I also got my Jodhpuri suit also from here !

The same evening IPL final was going on between Delhi and Mumbai teams. Though heart wanted the Delhi's young team to win, Mumbai proved much too strong for them. We watched the match after reaching back at our hotel and then started preparing for another drive the next morning. Destination was the lake city of Udaipur but on the way we decided to take a diversion.