Monday, 30 March 2015

Orchha - Pranpur - Chanderi

We thought we were headed for a quiet Holi getaway to Madhya Pradesh. Orchha-Pranpur-Chanderi. We anticipated the grandeur of the Orchha palaces and a restful Holi in the mango orchards. But were completely unprepared for the breadth and depth of experience that Travel Another India and Gouthami curated for us.

Four days and a flood of stories, sights and encounters. Sample some:

-        A guest house walled in by mango trees, designed and managed by farmers, village scientists and community-tourism entrepreneurs. The Amraee quickly made us their own. It has swept all awards possible for responsible rural tourism. The Bundeli thaali served on Holi swept us into a minor culinary exploration.

-          A day-long tour of Chanderi (one must spend three to fully immerse in the stories of its 300+ historical monuments). My favourite was the walk through Sadar Bazaar - an ancient market frequented by Khilji rulers and Mughal royals and chronicled by Ibn Batuta.

At its prime, the Bazaar was a three-tier retail hotspot - the lowest tier of shops for customers on foot, a second level for consumers on horseback, and the highest storey for royal shoppers on elephant back. The same goods were sold at three different price tags for the three customer segments. A super example of inclusive commerce!

-       A drive through sandstone quarries to the 1000-year old Nanoun caves. We spotted crocodiles sunbathing on the banks of the river Urvashi. And witnessed the chronicling of life through cave paintings from the chalcolithic age. Across the banks, not far away, lay burial grounds from the Mesolithic age.
Cave Paintings in Nanoun
River Urvashi had crocodiles on its banks!
 -    A walk across Asia's largest earthen dam that submerged 85 villages (all re-settled in Chanderi) and temples and palaces of the 14th and 15th century. When the waters of the Betwa recede in June, the submerged monuments re-emerge, with paintings on their walls still undiminished. Massive flocks of migratory birds conference on the lakes of this dam. You need to be here at sunset.
Sunset from the Rajghat Dam
-          Lunch in the balcony of a 13th century royal hunting lodge, ensconced in the winding ghats and forest's of Katighati. The verandah flanks out into a massive lake with boatmen plying iron boats. Here, Babur's troops had taken shelter for months and planned their strategy of attack on Chanderi. Here, we ate guava curry, and fish freshly fried on the banks of the lake.
Lake of the Royal Hunting Lodge

14th Century Royal Hunting Lodge
View from the Lunch Table

-          Conversations with metal workers, potters and weavers. A family of metalworkers invited us into their home in Pranpur and walked us through the intricacies of their practice - a forgotten metal art form, which has probably not been documented. Mud over wax moulds through which molten metal is poured and baked in earthen ovens. The two layered mould is then cooled and cracked open to produce intricate metal jewellery. Do not contest the prices fixed by the village tourism council for this master craftsperson’s wares. Because you pay not just for the product, but for an art form that may disappear in the next decade of your life.
The Charkha in Pranpur

Weaving the Chanderi fabric in Pranpur

-          And finally the showstopper- an impulsive plunge into the flowing, rocky pools of the river Betwa with Surendra bhai and his daughters, who are part of Friends of Orchha - a network of village home stays in Orchha. The extended frolicking in the cold waters delayed us by several hours to the next spot on our map. But did we care?

Betwa River in Orchha
The oxygen that breathed colour and life into our trip was the indomitable Kallebhai. A school drop-out, self-taught, barefoot historian, who has published four books on the history of Chanderi, and is at the forefront of working with UNESCO to have his town declared as a World Heritage City. If not for anything else, visit Chanderi to just hear his story of life entrepreneurship.

Oh! And we did play Holi under the mango trees. And purchased a Chanderi stole or two. Thank you Travel Another India for this largess.

Manisha Gupta
March 2015
The Mango Orchard at Amraee Guest House

Doorway of the Jama Masjid in Chanderi - the designs continue to inspire the weavers!

My favourite- children of the 1000-year old village, nestled among stone quarries, play holi with adandon and chase us with cowdung balls in their hands

Rajpal - the farmer-scientist- inventor with three patents to his name. He manages the Amraee guest house out of his passion and love for the region he was born in. Not often is he photo-bombed by guests.

100-year old mud home in Orchha

An ancient metal pot discovered by the Archeological Survey of India. Displayed in an open museum at the Raja-Rani palace in Chanderi.

Baodi or step-well in Chanderi

Frescoes in the palace in Orchha

Jahangir Palace, Orchha

Jama Masjid, Chanderi

Mango blooms, Amraee Guest House, Pranpur

Wednesday, 25 February 2015


I don't know you too well,
But I'd like to change that.
It isn't the way you dress
Or even the bronze tan you’ve acquired.

Your hair hasn't been washed in ages                              
And your skin has a layer of grime.
But your eyes have that faraway look,
The distant wondering, that I love.
Can you teach me how to have 
A spring in your step, without seeming fake?
And the ease with which you befriend strangers,
Please tell me that's contagious?

You've perfected the skill
Of soaking in the present moment,
Something I've yet to master.
I wonder, what’s your secret?

I can tell from the way you walk
That you've moved beyond mundane questions.
Instead you sit and think of how sheep get to sleep
And whether shepherds are lonely.

You’re always prepared for any situation,
That we have in common.
But the way you let things happen to you without getting in the way,
I’m still to learn.

You hum to the tune of the river,
You hop on the first bus you see;
Favour moonlight over torches
And puppies over humans.

Trying new foods, collecting rocks,
Ignoring the souvenir shops.
Letting cuts heal themselves
And pathways lead you where they will.

I've caught glimpses of you before                                                                                                              
On buses and trains.
You’re familiar, yet not familiar enough.                                                
You always slip away too quickly.

I try to stop being in awe of you
So I can focus on being more like you.
But the train pulls into the station,
The suitcase is unpacked, and you disappear in the shadows.

I know I’ll only see you
When the next ticket is purchased.
Traveller me, I’d really like to know you,
Please don’t play hard to get.

By Mihika Mirchandani

Monday, 23 February 2015

Juggernaut of Happpiness - Sikkim Diaries

The moment I stepped into Sikkim, I instantly knew that my first post in the brand new year would be about Sikkim and no other place. There are a few places that you may like, a few places that you may end up falling in love with, but there are only a handful of places which you can actually connect to. You know the feeling of owning the place, the feeling that only your home can bring it to you. This is what I felt when I visited North Sikkim. Yes, I did travel West, South and North Sikkim. All of them equally enchanting and having different things to offer but it was North Sikkim that cast its spell on me. So, the title had to be what I felt while I was there - Juggernaut of Happiness that is and this post is all about North Sikkim.

We started our journey from Gangtok towards Lachen at about 8am in the morning. It  is a good 6-7 hour drive. It takes a long time to get from one place to another due to the high altitude, terrain and some of the roads aren’t in a good shape.

These vibrant flags are so totally synonymous with Sikkim region. It indicates the divine power and it is believed that as wind blows, the prayers that are written on the flag will have effect on people and surroundings. The colorful ones are the prayer flags and all white flags are set up in order to pray for the peace of the deceased.

This is Tashi viewpoint where you can catch the breathtaking view of Khangchendzonga a.k.a Kanchenjunga. Tashi viewpoint is on the highway en route to Lachen.

The snowcapped mountain peak that you see is Khangchendzonga. You get to see it literally from all the places in Sikkim. Best view can be found from Pelling, West Sikkim.

After a very beautiful drive, where we was totally engrossed in taking pictures, we reached Lachen village. As you can see in the picture, mineral water bottles aren’t allowed here. This is done to reduce plastic usage. They provide boiled water to drink. Don’t come here thinking about big fancy hotels. Most of the houses are converted into home stays and they completely ensure that they take good care of you. No dearth of hospitality here in Sikkim. Overnight stay at Lachen would be needed if you’re heading towards Thangu and Gurudongmar Lake.

Lachen Village is run by a self-governance system called as Dzumsa, where a headman is elected to settle the disputes in a democratic way. Shot this picture in a place called Thangu, which is the last civilian settlement that you can come across before heading towards Gurudongmar Lake. Ensure that you take permits before entering these places. At every place, including Lachen, checkpoints are present. Without permits, no one is allowed to enter these zones.
This is the magical Teesta River, lifeline of Sikkim. She is there all along the journey and in more ways than one, she makes the journey very special. I can’t pick whether it is the amazing sound that she makes while flowing or whether it is about the very distinct green color that she possesses or whether it is she along with the surroundings that make it all very enchanting.
This was a local’s house in Thangu where we had breakfast. Thangu is at an altitude of 13000 feet. What you see in the picture is actually a form of stove. They use it to cook food as well to get some relief from the cold. This stove apparently has been got from China and it costs about 10-12k.The best part in this North Sikkim trip was that we got a chance to interact with so many locals and we got to know their way of life. 
Of course dogs had to be there to make it so memorable for me. It just made my day. These two munchkins were in the same local’s house. Chai, Maggi and doggie - Amazing combination isn’t it? 
On the way to Gurudongmar lake from Thangu. If you do not wish to see snow, best time to visit Sikkim would be April-May. If not in these months, visit from October-December 1st week. Post that it’s dicey as roads may be blocked due to snowfall and Army won’t give permission to get to many of these places. Even otherwise, roads would be filled with snow and there is no way to get past.
I think Sikkim visit, in particular North Sikkim, has had a lot of impact on me personally. It was more like I got as close to nature as possible. It made me feel that I should get down there and explore more places within India. It also helped to know that people of a region can be so warm and nice to fellow Indians. Content in life and bereft of selfishness.
Getting closer to Chopta Valley. In winter, it is completely snow covered. But if you get there in summer, you get to see a riot of colorful flowers, mainly the famous rhododendrons.
This is how Chopta valley looks. When we went to Lachen, the temperature was -3 to -4 degree Celsius. It was freezing cold and no heaters were available given the electricity fluctuation at Lachen. To top it all, no mobile network other than BSNL [Vodafone and Airtel may come up in few months] and sorry, no TV also in the rooms. But that was the least of our concerns.
This is Chopta Valley and foreigners are not allowed beyond this point since it gets closer to Indo-China border from here. In winter, Gurudongmar lake is completely frozen. But it is also said that at any point in time, there would be some part in the lake that would not have frozen.
This is the water coming down from the snowcapped mountains, now frozen !
It was now time to head towards Lachung, 2-3 hours’ drive from Lachen. This is yet again a Kanchenjunga view in the evening from our hotel in Lachung. Overnight stay at Lachung is required before you head out the next day towards Yumthang-Yumesamdong.
This is how it looked as we entered Yumthang Valley or popularly known as “Valley of flowers”. Yumthang Valley is actually a rhododendron sanctuary. It is at an elevation of 11,800 feet.
This is on the way to the hot spring present in Yumthang Valley. These hot springs are rich in Sulphur content and the average temperature is around 50 degree Celsius.
Aren’t these roads absolutely stunning? En route to zero point, Yumesamdong. Some of the places are so surreal that you may end up wishing time to come to a standstill.
Yeah reached Zero Point!
It’s called Zero Point as this is where the road ends and you would find some snow over here throughout the year.
This was at Zero Point where you get to eat amazing chana, maggi and not to forget coffee and old monk ! 
One of the local people who was kind enough to let me take his pic at Zero Point
This has to be one of my best trips till date. So thankful to all the people who I could get to interact with for not only making me feel one among them but also for the amazing hospitality given to us. I already miss Sikkim! I’m not sure when I can get there one more time, but I know I will, for sure!
Surya Raju
January 2015