Nestled in the lap of Kolkata, is a potters’ quarter called Kumartuli which is indeed one of the seven wonders of Kolkata. Durga Puja has become almost synonymous with Kolkata and Kumartulli is the place where the idols of Goddess Durga and her family are made each year and are sent to Pandals across India and to 90 countries across the globe. Interestingly, these idols are not sold off the shelf but are made to order. A guided walk in this potters’ village not only offers an experience of Kolkata away from the ordinary but also enlightens you about a way of life that has not changed much over centuries. On the outside the village has no clear façade; it is just a maze of cramped and rickety structures, mostly, made of bamboo, wooden planks and plastic sheets providing the shade from sun and rain, but the beauty of it lies on the inside where you see hundreds of finished and unfinished idols being worked upon by the dedicated artists who work for long hours creating the wonders that adorn the pandals of Durga Puja. Seeing them work is an interesting sight to capture in your cameras, though the artists seldom look up in curiosity and some of them do not like to be disturbed in doing the task they perform with such concentration and dedication. Infact, some of them are so devoted that they still use water from River Hoogly to mix the clay and make the models, which is not the easiest things to do since the have to hire water carriers, but they continue follow this tradition.
Another tradition still followed is that the finishing touch to Durga’s eyes, known as “Chokhhu Daan” (gifting of eyes) in Bengali, is done by the oldest “Kumar” of the family. You learn about these ancient traditions and the interesting history of these artists and their village, as you walk through the narrow lanes and bylanes, watching the artists at work and listening to stories from your tour escort. From handful workshops almost half a century ago supplying only about 150 idols in Kolkata and nearby regions, the beauty of these works of art has spread rapidly, so much so that today there are about 450 workshops in Kumartulli creating almost 12000-13000 idols each year supplied all over the globe, making it emerge virtually as an independent international brand of Durga-idol makers. A walk of Kumartulli, is surely one of the most enriching experience of Kolkata!
In this present day cosmopolitan Delhi, there exists an ancient walled city which can be rightly called the soul of the city-Shahjahanabad or commonly referred to as purani dilli (old Delhi). Built by the great Mughal emperor Shahjahan, Old Delhi was once a city of imposing havelis with impressive architecture, elegant mosques with beautiful gardens and colourful bazaars each focused on selling specialized articles. The growing population and urbanization has no doubt changed the face of this once beautiful city where you now see crowds of people rushing here and there, hear sounds of the horns of vehicles and modern day utilities coexisting with the ancient architecture. All of this may seem a bit overwhelming but accompanied by the right expert can make this experience an enriching one. Travelling in a rickshaw no doubts gives you a glimpse of the olden character of the walled city but to really get an insight into it we suggest go walking through its bylanes escorted by your expert who has a story to tell for each lane you pass by making you truly imagine the glory of the city as it was in the past.
Seeing the Red Fort, Jama Masjid and the main lanes of Chandni Chowk is definitely a must during a visit to Old Delhi, but there is a lot more to see and experience. Ghaleb ki Haveli (the mansion of the renowned Persian poet); Razia Sultana’s (Delhi’s only female ruler before Indira Gandhi) tomb near Kalan Masjid; Begum Samru’s Palace of 1806; Haveli of Zeenat Mahal, Lal Kuan Bazar, the oldest sweets shop of Delhi, Dariba Kalan-’Street of the Incomparable Pearl’, Dariba Kalan, which used to be the popular market of precious stones, gems, gold and silver jewelry. Till today it is known as jewelers’ street although most of shops in the street now deal in silver and costume jewelry. You also come across “Paranthe wali Gali” (‘gali’ means street that sells ‘paranthas’ – an Indian food delicacy) which has seen almost three passed centuries. It houses descendants of the royal chefs of yore who make Paranthas….and while exploring the wonders of old Delhi on foot, an occasional peep into the erstwhile havelis will offer you not the grandiose of the past but a peep into the lifestyle of the people today doing their daily chores, who will not be offended by your surprise visit but will instead greet you with a smile. There’s a lot more still less explored waiting to be explored!
Stepping into the streets of Fort Cochin is like traveling back in time into the 18th century! Wide tree lined roads carrying names like Princess Street and Rose Street separating the tile-roofed elegant houses from the era of the Portuguese to the Dutch to the British, huge gardens with children playing football, ancient churches and the sea side promenade with the Chinese fishing nets lined one after the other all make for an idyllic setting that takes you back in time! A place where everything is a walking distance away, where there are few cars to disturb the peace with their loud horns and where when you look up to see the sky your view is not blocked by skyscrapers. Fortunately, Fort Cochin has been marked as a heritage area so modernisation of the architecture and buildings is not permitted and that leaves it just as it was in the past, with the only difference being that some of the heritage bungalows have now been converted into charming boutique hotels.
A walking tour of Fort Kochi acquaints you with Cochin’s rich history and heritage showcasing the mixed Dutch, Portuguese, British and Jewish influences that make the city unique. You visit St. Francis Church, India’s oldest European Church; the famous Chinese fishing nets with an opportunity to operate them along with the locals; The Nehru Children Park and the beautiful houses surrounding it; Fort Immanuel-the bastion of the Portuguese; the Dutch Cemetery; Santa Cruz Basilica and the Bishop’s house Road with its beautiful old-style home. Enjoying a hot cup of coffee at local café culminating your story of Fort Cochin, is the perfect end to this heritage walk.
Far away from the hustle and bustle of city life, life at a jungle camp is a life of unhurried living full of nature and surprises! Growing up in a region teeming with wildlife, appreciating the beauty of the natural world is engrained in Yusuf Ansari, an expert naturalist living his life pursuing his passion-Wildlife. We are fortunate to have him share with you his story and his love for wildlife and for Ranthambore:
“I come from a region teeming with game and much of my childhood was spent observing wildlife around the family home in Ghazipur on the Gangetic plain and at my parent’s farm, bordering the Royal Chitwan National Park in Nepal. As children my siblings and I often visited areas like Jim Corbett National Park, (where I was charged by an elephant aged 7), Rajaji National Park, Dudhwa and other such places. The Nepal terai was of course a haven for wildlife and is still salvageable as are the marshes and riverine plains of the Ganges in Eastern UP. It was impossible not to be influenced by the environment around us and stories of great feats of ancestors who were prodigious hunters (hunting was a normal way of life in their own time) and knew their wildlife intimately.
I was introduced to Ranthambhore in 2003, by my close friend Jaisal Singh who had started his pioneering luxury tented camp, Sher Bagh on a part of his family estate in 2000, just bordering the National Park. The first time I visited Ranthambhore, I lost all objectivity about the place, there is a certain magical allure to it, an almost mystical magnetism which draws one back to it constantly. It is a unique habitat; the western most range of one of nature’s most charismatic creatures, the tiger and the only dry deciduous dry thorn forest where it is still found naturally (it has been reintroduced into other such forests). The other unique feature about Ranthambhore – ‘The Place of the Pillars of War’ – is the scale at which historic monuments and acres of history lie entangled amidst the wilderness. Nowhere else can one witness such a profuse scattering of palaces, tombs, temples and mosques, dating as far into antiquity as the 10th century AD whose only inhabitants are denizens of the Indian forests. Ranthambhore compels any human spirit that is sensitive to nature to yield before its charms in a way very few places can.
Life at camp has its own enduring charms. I moved to Ranthambhore permanently in 2007, as General Manager of Sher Bagh and continued in the role until early 2011. I now only manage the wildlife experiences of our guests and work as far as possible with the Park authorities in conservation initiatives. Although a more limited role than that of a GM’s, my present position includes heading our Department of Trackers and Guides at Sher Bagh, comes with its own challenges and offers an exciting albeit unconventional lifestyle. The day never ends and without exception one wishes it wouldn’t. What can beat the experience of coming across some of nature’s most riveting phenomenon and sharing that experience with our guests, many of whom have spent a lifetime in the appreciation of nature but are perhaps making their very first journey to these wilds? An unhindered encounter with wildlife’s most powerful renditions, without barriers, without obstructions, in their own raw element is a moving moment for many of our visitors. Many of our guests have seen tigers and other big cats or wildlife moments only on their television screens or read about them in books; others are familiar with the African wildlife experience, quite distinct to the Indian one. Our first endeavour is to apprise and familiarise our guests with what Indian wildlife has to offer, being a rich and diverse tableaux of species, habitats and ecosystems. Our methods of tracking animals are also specialised and based around the topography and animal behavioural patterns of individual regions. For example, in Ranthambhore, one of the primary ways of tracking our predators is by assessing the behaviour, mood and actions of their prey species. We try to attune our guests to the environment as soon as they arrive here and by the end of a three day stay most of them leave Sher Bagh having learnt certain basic skills of ‘bushcraft’. The Sher Bagh campfire has something of an iconic status in Ranthambhore and countless discussions and stories have been exchanged around its embers which have burned every winter from the time the Camp was set up. They only grow more engrossing with retelling. The atmosphere around the campfire every evening is resonant of a house-party where the day’s gossip about the park and disparate experiences of game drives, encounters with our animals are exchanged and analysed. This is one of my favourite parts of the day and opens up the discussions leading to a wider understanding of wildlife, the environment, history and life in India. Chats are sometimes punctuated by the bronchial alarm calls of a sambar deer and the occasional roar of a tiger resounding through the hills around camp is not unheard of!
Personally, the sense of privilege about living in a tiger habitat and around wild tigers, not to mention all the lesser seen but other iconic species like leopard, caracal, bear and many others, never fades. This is something that immediately filters through to our guests, for no one can ever become jaded by the experience of living in Ranthambhore and that energy is transferred on to even first time visitors. Tiger habitat, by which we mean a space which not only supports this magnificent apex predator, but also the entire ecosystem that thrives under it, is as endangered as the tiger itself. Only 9 per cent of the tiger’s original global range still exists. To visit such a rare, precious and fragile landscape is in itself a marvellous privilege, something visitors to Ranthambhore appreciate. At the same time, one is always keen to draw attention to the host of other species that exist in Ranthambhore; significant among these are the sloth bear, leopard, caracal and the striped hyena as well as over 350 species of birds. The flourishing population of birds really does make the area a ‘twitcher’s paradise’. On many occasions, it is by stopping to observe these, spending time listening to birdsong and their behaviour that one catches sight of the tiger or leopard. I always like to show our guests Ranthambhore in its entirety; the dramatic landscape and its rich biodiversity, the inter-play between different species and their relationship with the earth; for only then can they comprehensively appreciate and understand the enormity and significance of watching what they have all come to see, a tiger in the wild. What makes it all special is that I never tire of sharing the experience with our guests. To pass on awareness about wildlife, share what one has learnt over the years and in some small measure add to human understanding about the wilderness and wildlife is a hugely rewarding experience for me.”
-Yusuf Ansari, Naturalist, Ranthambore
There are two places at any given time – the start and the end. India for instance, is a very different place when you first set your eyes on it; and a very different place when you say goodbye.
When travellers land, they are overwhelmed and exhausted. Next day begins the sightseeing – Qutub Minar, Hawa Mahal, Agra Fort – and bit by bit, they start to unravel a mystery. They drive from one location to the next, observing the stark differences – the infrastructure between Central and South Delhi, for example, with AIIMS marking a very distinct border. They peer into the auto rickshaws, from the driver to the diversity of people on the back seat. Some of them are families – a mother, father and a couple of kids squeezed onto a single bench – and others are professionals in suits, or a group of girlfriends, enjoying a day out. Slowly, in this manner, objects take shape, people find voices and a black & white blurry image reveals an array of colours, in high definition.
Luxury travel adds another layer to understanding. A lot of travellers recognize the many different types of lives that coexist side by side. The hotels offer roof top infinity pools, exquisite views of acres of forest land or a golf course, five star restaurants (Megu, Suvarna Mahal, Ziya – you name it, you can find it) – and then they are transported outside the gates. Through the window, they once again remember the difference between India and anywhere else in the world. People here have a freedom like nowhere else, in goods ways and in not so good ways. They talk loudly, sit together on the side of the road with a hot cup of chai between their palms; it’s a community life. Women as well as men work as beggars, laborers, professionals, entrepreneurs, politicians; and their clothes are different – layer after layer of drapes that seem to gently mold into the environment.
For every traveller, we offer a combination of three exclusive ingredients – the people, the culture and the lifestyle – and believe it or not, luxury only facilitates the process. For we understand, India is unique country. Before 1947 in fact, it wasn’t even a country and now, there are groups of communities living together; sometimes in harmony, sometimes in disagreement. Nevertheless, there is a common understanding, and anyone who spends even a week begins to feel part of it. I can’t tell you what the common understanding is, because they are not words.
This understanding is the essence of everything here – from the Sufi singers at Nizamuddin Dargah and the man sharpening his tools using the wheels of a bicycle, to the women on the roadside selling clay pots or even, the National Gallery of Modern Art. All of them may sound worlds apart and yet they share this distinguished truth. I suppose the only words that can describe it are Genuineness, Authenticity, Sincerity, and the Divine. All of this is an experience – from start to end – it is dynamic and exhilarating. And when it comes to leaving, I guarantee you: you will feel like never before. Like you have a home away from home, because in a place like India – and the history certainly reinforces this fact – there exists a place for All.
This is the Indian Express.
Kochi (Cochin) is among the few cities in India where pre-colonial traditions of cultural pluralism continue to flourish. These traditions pre-date the post-enlightenment ideas of cultural pluralism, globalization and multiculturalism. They can be traced to Muziris, the ancient city that was buried under layers of mud and mythology after a massive flood in the 14th century. The site was recently identified and is currently under excavation. It is necessary to explore and, when necessary, retrieve memories of this past, and its present, in the current global context to posit alternatives to political and cultural discourses emanating from the specific histories of Europe and America. A dialogue for a new aesthetics and politics rooted in the Indian experience, but receptive to winds blowing in from other worlds, is possible.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale seeks to explore the hidden energies latent in India’s past and present artistic traditions and invent a new language of coexistence and cosmopolitanism that celebrates the multiple identities people live with. The dialogue will be with, within, and across identities fostered by language, religion and other ideologies. The Biennale seeks to resist and interrogate representations of cosmopolitanism and modernity that thrive by subsuming differences through cooption and coercion. The event will host around 80 artists, including a sizeable number of foreign galleries. To be held in Kochi, Kerala, the three-month –long Biennale will be held in Fort Kochi and Durbar Hall. Among the artists to be showcased are Subodh Gupta, Ranbir Kaleka, and Bani Abidi, Fiona Tan from Indonesia, Mexico-based Gabriel Orozco and African artist Wangechi Mutu.
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It’s not known when the first inhabitants arrived on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands but their presence was documented in the 2nd century by Greek astronomer Ptolemy. In the late 17th century, the islands were annexed by the Marathas who then ruled vast areas of India and by the 19th century the British took over and used it as a penal colony to send those proven guilty of crimes and also the freedom fighters for India’s independence, to keep them off the mainland India. This resulted in it being called Kalapani – Black Waters. Following independence in 1947, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were incorporated into the Indian Union and since then it is a relaxed tropical island providing a haven for tourists to unwind and soak in the untouched natural beauty.
The original inhabitants of these islands are various aboriginal tribes who live more-or-less out of the mainstream. There are some tribes who have had no contact whatsoever with the rest of the world. Of the nearly 600 islands, only 9 are open to foreign tourists. We would highly recommend visiting Andaman and Nicobar Islands between the months of October and May. Travelers flying here have to first arrive at Port Blair before taking a boat or ferry to any of the other islands. Frequent flights fly to Port Blair from Kolkata and Chennai.
Port Blair: The capital of Andaman and Nicobar Islands sprawls around a harbor on the east coast of South Andaman and is the administrative nerve centre of the islands. There’s plenty to see in town relating to the islands’ colonial past including interesting museums like the Anthropological Museum, Forest Museum, Samudrika Marine Museum and most importantly the Cellular Jail National Memorial.
Neil Island: A beautiful island with lush green forests and sandy beaches. Neil is populated by Bengali settlers involved in fishing and agriculture. This is the place to lie on the beach, jungle-walk, snorkel, cycle through paddy fields and farms, and lie on the beach.
Havelock Island: This island has some of the best beaches for travelers offering excellent snorkeling and scuba-diving opportunities. It is the most developed of the islands, but is still very low-key and simple.
Diglipur: the main town of North Andaman and as far North as you can get in the island chain. It is famous for its oranges, rice and marine life. Saddle Peak, 732 meters, the highest point in the islands is nearby. Kalpong, the only river of Andaman, flows here.
Mayabunder & around: Situated in the northern part of Middle Andaman, Mayabunder offers excellent scenic beauty and serene beaches. Inhabited by the settlers from Burma, East Pakistan and ex-convicts, Mayabunder has a distinct culture. Beach at Avis Island (Karmatang Beach) and mangrove lined creeks are the main attractions. Karmatang beach is also a turtle nesting ground. One can view nesting of turtles during December-February season.
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Let’s be frank – India can be a terrifying place. Recently, a stranger I met at the Sunburn festival in Goa related an interesting story. His friend had apparently decided to visit India; exited New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport and experienced a cultural shock so extreme, she took the next flight back to the States. I can imagine though, that if she had waited, taken a deep breath and re-oriented herself; she would have realized that there’s a place for everyone here. With a population of 17 million people, how could she be the only one in this position? In fact, a couple of days later, she could even have explored that side that once sent her running – in other words, faced her fear, and understood it. After all, isn’t the charm of visiting a new country boil down to the fact that it isn’t where you’re coming from; i.e. exploring the unfamiliar element?
For our clients, every step of the way we offer the necessary assistance. From airport and train transfers and reliable drivers to check-in at luxury hotels; we give you the space to fulfill the purpose of your trip – be it a spiritual or cultural growth, wildlife adventure or a relaxing trip composed of shopping, experimenting with cuisine and Ayurvedic spa appointments. At the end of the day, India has a lot to offer; but that perceptive quality, to understand the daily movement, can be an initial dilemma.
Late December, I accompanied a family from Australia on their Delhi-voyage. Over the course of two days, they visited monuments with scholarly guides, dined at the finest restaurants (all pre-booked and fitted to their dietary requirements), travelled by local transport (i.e. the cycle and auto rickshaws) in the most safest of hands, and relaxed at a museum hotel known for its historical significance, world class facilities and premium location. On the second morning however, upon their request I took them on a unique walk that explores the “scary side” of Delhi– the Salaam Baalak Trust street walk in Paharganj.
The walk familiarizes the traveler to street children – the ones we see everywhere – knocking at your car windows; begging for a rupee, a can of soda, or a packet of chips. Instinctually, we shut the window, neglect the helpless shame and press the accelerator at full force. So, what would we see if we’d catch a glimpse of their lives?
Over the course of two hours, a group of 4-6 people are led by two young adults who had been adopted by the Salaam Baalak Trust (inspired by the must-see: Salaam Bombay). The boys guide you through their journey and explain what it was like to be a four year old boy, abandoned and overwhelmed, struggling to belong in this world. When you think about, it’s not that different from that American girl – except, when there’s no “out”, this is the adventure of getting “in”.
For me – besides learning of lives so different to my own (living at the edges of my reality) – I could empathize with their pain, the joy of finding a home and pursuing a dream, and more than anything else, making friends who could lessen the burden of being self-sufficient. Furthermore, I saw a new area and was shocked to find how lively it was with locals and backpackers from across the world.
The Australian family was inquisitive, and all questions, controversial or not, were welcomed. In retrospect, I think they enjoyed the rustic and royal dimensions of India combined – after all, with so much to see and do, suddenly, there’s such little time!
Coming soon: The Sunburn Festival of Goa and Entering the Salaam Baalak Trust: Who’s Iqbal?
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