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Boundaries are often fluid but also forbidding, whether it’s the ones we draw, or those that nations create and bicker over. But crossing them, both literally and metaphorically, can lead to un-expected, wonderful adventures. This is something I discovered on my four-day trip to Sandakphu in March 2017, a journey that put me out of my comfort zone and made me break a self-imposed rule or two.
“Sandak—who,” you might ask. And you’d be well within your rights to be bewildered. For a place that straddles two nations, it keeps a relatively low profile. Sandakphu is the highest point on the Singalila Ridge and the tallest peak in West Bengal (11,930 feet), lying on the border between Darjeeling in West Bengal and Ilam district, Nepal. The ridge lies in Singalila National Park, where magnolias and rhododendrons make mountain views doubly special. Sandakphu’s calling card, however, is the view—four out of the five tallest peaks in the world (Everest, Khangchendzonga, Lhotse, and Makalu) can be seen from the ridge, luring trekkers from around the country and beyond. I, however, decided to go to Sandakphu by road.
British-era Land Rovers add drama to the drive up to Sandakphu, but trekking the peak is equally popular. Photo by: Dinodia Photo/Passage/Getty Images
I flew to Bagdogra airport, where a flaming orange jeep lay in wait at noon. Behind the wheel sat Hero, my companion for the next few days. I clambered in and we drove out, whizzing past lush tea gardens. As we drove to the hamlet of Tumling for the night, I had no inkling about the adventure that lay in store.
Three hours from Bagdogra airport, we stopped at Manebhanjan for some repairs. I took the opportunity to walk about the market. And there, in this modest transit town, I witnessed a prime example of jugaad.
Tourists were boarding old Land Rovers by the dozen. Brought to the country by British planters to navigate the inclines of the tea gardens, these vehicles have been in this region since the 1930s. Once the colonisers left, locals souped them up to use them as local transport to and from Sandakphu (Manebhanjan is the gateway to the ridge). It fits—not much else can take on the roads that time and tarring have forsaken. And these ancient Land Rovers make for an unforgettable drive.
Tumling is around 13 kilometres northwest of Manebhanjan, but the (lack of) road took us nearly two hours. The route runs almost completely on Nepal’s side of the border—but don’t reach for your passport just yet. This line between the two friendly neighbours sets no limits on the passage of its people. In fact, Tumling lies in Nepal, which meant I spent the night in another country without having to even show ID. That night, I pondered over this fluidity of borders at our homestay, Shikhar Lodge, over several glasses of freshly brewed tongba, an alcoholic beverage made by pouring hot water over fermented millet and served in a bamboo glass with a bamboo straw. The best part? You can repeatedly top it up with water.
The next morning, we set off for Sandakphu, backs braced for a drive that would show us how the road to hell might be paved with good intentions, while the road to heaven might not be paved at all. Yet, serendipity led us to an unplanned adventure. As the road to Singalila National Park’s gate was under construction, we took one that turned left from Tumling. An hour later, we stopped to ask for directions, only to discover we were at Jaubari, well inside Nepal! But thanks to that mistake, we ended up taking a lesser-known, stark but beautiful road down to Gairibas, from where the ascent to Sandakphu began.
A sign en route to Tumling, Nepal, is proof that travellers indeed cross a national border on this thrill-packed trip. Photo by: Manan Dhuldhoya
It takes two breathless hours to cover the 13 kilometres between Gairibas and Sandakphu. The road seems like a path hewn from the slope and strewn with stones; its inclines mimic the peaks shimmering in the distance. It was here that Hero proved his parents’ prescience in naming him. Like the consummate cowboy, he had the measure of his steed. I’d be staring at a series of hair-raising hairpins, wondering if we’d have to walk up, but Hero would use gear, clutch, and brake like wands and coax the car uphill with a smoothness that had both me and the engine purring. He’d even nonchalantly balance the car by the edge of road so I could take photos. Later that night, as I took in the valley from my homestay in the village on Sandakphu peak, it occurred to me that I had easily entrusted a stranger with my safety, and not regretted it once.
Day three dawned like it does during the perfect test match—with an unforeseen twist that threatens to queer the pitch for the chasing side. In our case, it was the rain from the night before. The water froze overnight, sending our car’s engine into hibernation. I used this delay to walk around and find the perfect vantage point.
A few locals directed me to a path that led to the bushes across the town square. A 15-minute walk took me to a place I will never forget—four of the world’s five highest peaks, divinely arranged for viewing. The snow-clad Everest, Makalu, and Lhotse loomed in the distance. The Khangchendzonga massif, known as the Sleeping Buddha because of its shape, dominated the landscape. It takes a lot to shut me up, but there I was: silence was around and inside of me. Only after an hour did I suddenly remember Hero waiting back by the jeep. On the way back, I was struck by how easily I’d surmounted another boundary of mine—a Mumbaikar’s almost pathological need to keep moving, within and without.
The drive to Sandakphu is the stuff of off-roaders’ dreams. With hair-raising bends and steep inclines, the journey crosses the India-Nepal border and is an adventure in itself. Photo by: Manan Dhuldhoya
Drives to Sandakphu also include Phalut, West Bengal’s second-highest peak (11,810 feet). It lies 21 kilometres from Sandakphu along a mostly flat but bone-rattling road. It had its advantages—we drove along dreamy meadows and forests of oak, fir and rhododendron. Bare branches wore beards of moss and the trees formed a guard of honour above the road. The picture was completed by the horses trotting over the knoll to consider our rumbling ride. Phalut felt more like Fangorn. We turned back so we could reach Sandakphu before nightfall (even the foolhardiest Hobbit knows better than to brave Fangorn after dark). Later that night in Sandakphu, tucked into bed with a hot water bottle, I flipped through my camera to confirm if I had indeed seen a Tolkienesque vision come alive in a way that had nothing to do with Peter Jackson.
Goodbyes are never easy. At Sandakphu, they’re tougher still. On the last morning, as I nuzzled goodbye to Dombey, the resident puppy, I finally understood why. After all, who wants to go back to navigating boundaries when you’ve spent a few days discovering that they needn’t exist at all?
Depending on which part of India you live in, it could take you almost all of your daylight hours to reach the island of Havelock.
Accessed exclusively via government ferry, from the capital city Port Blair, Andaman and Nicobar’s Havelock Island is delightfully cut off from the range of mobile phone networks. With pristine beaches and clean cerulean waters, Havelock looks like your phone wallpaper come to life and it is here that much of India comes for quality scuba diving.
While there are enough dive sites to go around and visit at all levels, some warrant a special mention:
With numerous pristine, largely untouched diving sites, the island of Havelock can easily be dubbed the scuba capital of the country. Photo by: Sourav Saha Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images
The Wall, located in the channel between Havelock and Peel Islands, is a must-visit site for divers of any proficiency level. Below the cool, blue surface, the underwater plateau of The Wall has a sudden steep drop. Accessible to entry-level divers pursuing open water licenses, the reef is a visual treat from a meagre 10 metres underwater. Packed with purple, yellow, and red soft coral, you can expect to see octopus, scorpion fish, and schools of brightly-coloured pelagic fish. The conditions at The Wall can change fast with visibility going from clear and blue to overcast and murky, making each visit here unique.
White House Rock
Similar to The Wall in terms of accessibility and variable conditions is White House Rock, a circular reef offering multiple vantage points between depths as shallow as eight metres to as deep as 50 metres. Based on weather and water currents, the visual palette underwater ranges from a bright, sun-kissed white to dark and almost eerie (think Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” music video). At this site you will find a mix of soft and hard corals, including large gorgonian soft corals, commonly fan corals, and the branch-like whip corals in vibrant colours. Large schools of tuna, trevally, and barracudas are staple sightings, but you can always expect more.
Brothers Johnny, Jackson, and Dickson Poayasay, members of the local Karen tribe, each have the distinction of having a top dive site named after them. These are accessible only to those pursuing an advanced open-water license, owing to their depth of 18 metres and more.
Leopard-spotted moray eels and even stingray can often be seen in the depths of the Andaman Sea. They are commonly spotted when diving at Dickson’s Pinnacle. Photo by: Gunnhild Sørås
Dickson’s Pinnacle, in the east of Havelock, is the shallowest reading between 16 and 35 metres on a depth gauge. On descending, one can see three rocky pinnacles and a rather expansive reef. The flora here is mostly soft yellow corals and barrel sponges, but the fauna will have your head darting in all possible directions. On an average day, you can trail native species of batfish and almost-transparent Indian glassy fish, or spot surgeonfish—most often seen solo than in schools—eating algae off bright corals. Leopard-spotted moray eels and stingrays are a common sight, as are schools of giant trevally and generously-lipped humphead wrasse or Napoleon wrasse. On a lucky excursion, you may even find yourself chasing the widely photographed, neon-blue and yellow emperor angelfish.
Johnny’s Gorge, the next of the triumvirate, is about 15 kilometres away. The deep dive begins at 20 metres and descends to 34 metres across circular reefs with colourful soft corals and 1,200-year-old, almost human-size barrel sponges. The site is even mentioned in the notes of Jacques Cousteau, a French scientist and filmmaker, often referred to as the father of modern scuba diving.
Fish are abundant at Johnny’s Gorge. You can wave to schools of sweet lips, fusiliers, mackerel, trevally and giant trevally, snappers, and barracuda. In diver lore, Johnny’s Gorge is known as a likely spot for spotting whitetip shark. Such claims are difficult to prove but certain dive sites attract divers keen to spot a shark and Johnny’s is top of the radar at Havelock.
Outfits such as DiveIndia and Barefoot Scuba have a team of trained divers and diving enthusiasts who conduct lessons and dives in and around Havelock. Photo by: Gunnhild Sørås
Jackson’s Bar has the deepest starting point of all five at 25 metres. What it lacks in fauna, it makes up for in being a bright site with typically high visibility. Diving in a deep reef with strong currents such as Jackson’s is as much for the small fish as bigger predators. Though certain species of shark and stingray are often spotted here, you are more likely to see of smaller fish—including cheery yellow Bengal snappers— their large schools forming a silhouette against the sunlight that tears through the water.
The Pindari Glacier Trek, a 90-kilometre trail through the Himalayan oasis of Kumaon, has both awe-inducing views and stories. The gushing Pindari River accompanies trekkers on this journey through rhododendron forests, while the Nanda Devi, Panwali Dwar and Maiktoli peaks loom overhead. Little montane villages along the route look straight out of drawing boards, their stone-and-wood homes displaying intricate carvings of mythological stories and their people reciting legends drawn from the the Mahabharata.
When Mayank Soni decided to explore a forest on foot, he was convinced of his own insanity. But the call of the wild is irrefutable, and the photographer responded with a guided jaunt around the Dachigam National Park near Srinagar, where he set out in search of the Himalayan black bear. With some good luck and the “best guide” in town, he found them—some right in the middle of their pre-hibernation feast, some lurking behind the forest’s rich foliage and others, clambering up and down oak trees. The action found place in his photographs, along with the other treasures of the forest.
An aura of despair hung inside the quivering tent where six of us were huddled late in the afternoon. A snowstorm raged on outside, in a desolate glacial valley surrounded by Himalayan peaks. A few kilometers ahead of us, obscured by the blizzard, lay Auden’s Col, a daunting mountain pass deep in the hallowed mountains of Uttarakhand. Suddenly, one of our guides, Happy Negi, peeked into our tent, and offered hot halwa as prasad with a reassuring smile, unperturbed by the lashing snow and freezing winds. Our frayed nerves began to calm down; after all, these prayers had worked so well over the past six days.
Last June six others and I were attempting to cross the col, an 18,000-foot saddle between the Gangotri and Jogin peaks that provides a rare passage from Gangotri to Kedarnath. Owing to the tough terrain and a long trudge across a crevasse-ridden glacier, few have attempted the trek to this pass after it was first crossed in 1939 by John Bicknell Auden, an English geologist and explorer then working with Geological Survey of India. Our group however decided to tackle two more passes—Patangani Dhar and Mayali—along with Auden’s Col over a span of two weeks; an ambitious plan that put us right at the centre of the monumental landscape of the Garhwal Himalayas.
For the longest time, I couldn’t fathom what has made Uttarakhand the cynosure of mountaineers and geologists for decades. Crowded pilgrimages, overdeveloped hill towns and holy shrines were the only things I associated with Uttarakhand. But a few years ago small hikes introduced me to the state’s vast Himalayan range peppered with magnificent peaks such as Trishul, Nanda Devi, Panchachuli, Chaukhamba, and Shivling. The peaks were not all particularly tall but their forms were deeply mesmerising.
I find it rather shameful that after nearly a decade of trekking in the Indian Himalayas, I had only just found my way to the mother ship where countless peaks and endless glaciers prevailed in relative isolation, protected by inclement weather and the torment of the rough landscape. Trekking to Auden’s Col meant days spent gawking at the glistening granites and snow-covered massifs in the Gangotri group of mountains.
Sunsets are stunning at the Kedarkhadak campsite in Kedarganga valley (top left). The triangular peak of Thalay Sagar looms over Kedartal (top right). Trekkers returning from Kedartal to Gangotri, a popular short trek in the region (bottom left). Pristine snowfields are common on the trekking route in early June (bottom right). Photos by: Neelima Vallangi
The trek begins at Gangotri and ends at Kedarnath. While most expeditions enter via the Rudugaira valley right below the peaks of the Gangotri group of mountains, we forayed into the adjacent valley, alongside the raging waters of Kedar Ganga, a tributary of the Bhagirathi River. Kedartal, a high altitude glacial lake at the base of mighty Thalay Sagar peak (22,650 feet) beckoned us into this valley. At 15,585 feet, Kedartal is a vision in blue, set amidst oversized boulders and flanked by Brighupant and Jogin peaks on either side. But it was the allure of Thalay Sagar that left me spellbound, a glistening rock soaring skyward. Thalay Sagar was a mountain I hadn’t heard of before but it was love at first sight.
On day two, a teammate affected by altitude sickness made a hasty descent to Gangotri. At the same time, the weather worsened, leaving us stranded in the Kedar Ganga valley. We stayed holed up inside our tent all day. It was then that we received two pertinent gifts—the gift of faith and the gift of camaraderie. We learnt that a heartfelt prayer could go a long way, as far as clearing up the foulest weather. Our staff’s solution to any untoward development was to rustle up delicious prasad—mostly piping hot halwa—and perform puja. Their unflinching belief in the benevolence of mountain gods was oddly reassuring.
It was also on that day that the six of us truly came together as a team. Over countless rounds of poker games and dumb charades, we found common ground and safe distraction that prevented our minds from wandering to dangerous places, as it can often happen in isolation over long periods in the mountains. We believed we could carry on and cross hurdles despite the occasional flaring of tempers and exhaustion-induced anxiety.
The next morning, it was finally time to go where there were no trails, guided only by a sense of direction rather than a tangible path. On expeditions where trails often do not exist, a working knowledge of the region forms the thin line between a successful crossing and a doomed undertaking. Evidently, the most valuable member of our group was our local guide Deepender Pun, a short man from Uttarakhand with a weather-beaten face, chapped lips (a parting gift from his last mountaineering expedition) and years of guiding experience.
The climb towards Mayali Pass, a 16,400-high crossing connecting Bhilangana and Mandakini valleys, is a vision in white. It is the third mountain crossing on the challenging Auden’s Col trek that begins in Gangotri and ends at Kedarnath, in Uttarakhand (top left). The group wades through bone-freezing waters to reach the campsite at Chowki (bottom left). On the last climb before the end of the expedition, the trekkers pass Vasuki Tal, a lake near the Kedarnath shrine which attracts plenty of pilgrims (right). Photos by: Neelima Vallangi
Scrambling over a 16,730-foot wall of rock and scree called Patangani Dhar, he led us into the Rudugaira valley. After two more days of plodding over slippery slopes and loose rocks, we arrived at the basecamp before crossing the col, where the freak snowstorm caught up. Strong winds blasted our tents and the brown campsite transformed into a white canvas within minutes. Naturally, it was time for puja and halwa prasad. Our loquacious cook, Lokesh, assured me that the expedition would go on with the blessings of the gods that be.
In the wee hours of the following morning, Lokesh flashed a wide smile as I readied for the big climb. The morning was clear as crystal just as he’d predicted, the only sign of the storm being the blanket of snow. It was a lucky break—fresh snow is good for traction; it buries the troublesome hard ice. I followed Deepender as he measured each step towards the saddle of Auden’s Col, finally visible after the storm. Four hours later, we had huffed and puffed our way atop the col, ploughing through mounds of snow and skirting gnarly crevasses.
I stood up there like an insignificant speck, amid a hidden kingdom of snow-clad mountains and fields that held monumental glaciers; a sacred space, where entry felt like winning a lottery. I began to believe that there were invisible forces at work, that getting here needed more than expertise and capability. To thank those forces, obeisance was paid, incense sticks lit, and prasad distributed.
After 30 minutes, it was time to call upon those forces once again to guide us out of the ice fortress. In the mountains, it is always the descent that poses greater threat than the ascent. Using a rope fixed in a near-vertical gully, one by one we began descending onto the massive Khatling glacier, the source of Bhilangana River. Ginormous walls of ice with huge cracks in them flanked the snowfield. A long and frighteningly lonely trudge along snowfields, over bottomless cracks under the feet, upon deceptively slippery shards of hard ice, got us across Khatling Glacier by the end of the day. None of us were in the mood to celebrate—premature celebrations are often avoided in the mountains due to the looming fear of unexpected disaster. It’s not done until it’s done. It was definitely not done in our case. We had a whole mountain range to cross.
Any adventure worth its salt is incomplete without existential enquiry.
‘Why did I sign up for this?’
‘Why am I here instead of a cosy bed somewhere warm?”
The team descends from Auden’s Col onto Khatling glacier after fixing a rope in the steep gully. It was made a bit easier by the tons of fresh snow brought on by the previous day’s snowstorm. Photo by: Neelima Vallangi
These were the thoughts running through my mind as we proceeded to cross the 17,390-foot-high Mayali Pass to reach Kedarnath over the next few days. As a standalone trek, Mayali Pass is an easy trail through forests, meadows and two mirror-like lakes. However after eight days of navigating treacherous moraine and a technical mountain crossing, it felt anything but. My body had nearly given up after trekking for eight days in thin air, and my mind had taken over the lion’s share of the work for the last push. Three long days and three steep climbs later, Kedar Dome (22,415 feet) appeared over the horizon, marking the beginning of the end—the final descent into the holy settlement of Kedarnath.
Given the scale of this expedition and the number of things that could have gone wrong, I hadn’t allowed myself the joy or relief of each milestone crossed during the trek. But, finally safe on the crowded path out of Kedarnath, I let the feeling sink in. A sense of accomplishment and gratitude at having been welcomed into the Himalayas washed over me even later; only once I rested my head on the proverbial familiar pillow. I realised I had successfully (and inadvertently) completed one half of the Chardham yatra. As a non-believer, it was rather strange that I was this invested in a pilgrimage, albeit one of a different kind. Millions of people find their gods in the mountains. To a select few, mountains become their god. In the vast nothingness between the two of the country’s holiest shrines, it seems I had found my temple of worship.
It was that time of the year when the annual family trip was to be planned. This year, we wanted to do something different; the idea was to travel through India and discover a whole lot of new cities. The kids were excited and so were we. Our Club Mahindra memberships were utilized to their maximum when we started putting together a blue print for our “discover India” family holiday. Our first stop was Ooty.
Club Mahindra’s Danish Villa Resort in Ooty was the perfect space. Surrounded by lush nature and located right in the heart of the city, this dainty place, with its colonial architecture and tree house dining facility was everything we could have imagined.
Photo Courtesy: Club Mahindra
Our stay in Ooty was just about five days and that was enough to explore the tiny town. We spent a day in Madhumalai National Park and the kids had a gala time; they spotted some deer and my younger one claimed that he glimpsed a sloth bear among the thick deciduous forest trees. On one of the days, the resort organised a traditional Badaga dance for its guests and that was just a wonderful experience. Our other days were spent boating in Ooty Lake, walking through the lanes of the town and eating delicious food. On our final day, we decided to hop on to the famous Nilgiri Mountain Railways’ blue toy train that would take us to Mettupalayam, the closest destination to Coimbatore. The toy train ride was, by far, our favourite experience. Snuggled in the heart of nature, the ride beautifully encapsulated the mountains and lush green forests around. Overall, we had a fun filled family vacation in the lap of nature at Club Mahindra Danish Villa resort in Ooty.
We didn’t want our family holiday to end but we wanted some change in weather. Ooty was chilly and we did want some sun tan and vitamin-sea. So, on our last day in Ooty, the family made a collective decision to make an impromptu post vacation holiday to Goa. Lucky for us, Club Mahindra had some great properties there too and we were spoilt for choice.
We picked the Club Mahindra Acacia Palms, a boutique resort located near Colva Beach in South of Goa. Just about 100 meters away from the beach, this resort was among the best in Goa. Our plan was to hang around just for a weekend. While most travellers visit Goa its beaches that dot the coastline, we were more about the beautiful churches, heritage monuments left behind by the Portuguese, flea markets and the delicious local cuisines.
The hotel’s restaurant was a good mix of everything including Goan food. Our room had a sea facing balcony, which was a delight to wake up to. Colva beach was right around the corner, which also meant we had easy access to some of the best food spots around, including Martins Corner and Fisherman’s Wharf. Moreover, the hotel had tie ups with water sports at the beach. We spent a wonderful afternoon cruising on a motor boat followed by jet skiing. The sea was calm, the beach was quiet and everybody, including the kids, who had a great time building sand castles and then splashing in water, was a happy bunch.
Jet skiing in Goa. Photo Courtesy: Club Mahindra
Acacia Palms Resort, Goa. Photo Courtesy: Club Mahindra
Compared to Ooty, Goa was a quicker affair. It was just a weekend filled with water sports, Prawn Balchao and Pork Sorpotel and a great hospitality. The fact that we had barely planned Goa but had such a wonderful time spoke volumes about Club Mahindra resorts in Goa and their facilities since they were able to fix everything for us is less than 24 hours, just before we were leaving Ooty. We returned home extremely happy and with plans for a vacation in the next couple of months.
Time passed and the kids were still raving about Ooty and Goa. We decided that it was time to hit the road again and take a quick trip. My husband and kids insisted on staying at a Club Mahindra property since everything was so perfect the last time. This time, the plan was to hit Udaipur, one of my favourite cities.
Udaipur holds a special place in my heart; I love its heritage and delicious food. Although I had taken a couple of trips to the city, I had never stayed at the Club Mahindra Udaipur Resort. With a long weekend around the corner, the plan was hit to this beautiful city with my family.
The Club Mahindra resort in Udaipur was nothing less than royalty; it was like living in a palace. My favorite bit in the hotel was Aravali, the multi-ethnic cuisine restaurant. On the very first night, between mouthfuls of delicious local delights, the children declared that they wanted to see the whole city because it made them feel like royalty. Their wish was our command and our resort organized the perfect two days for us.
City Palace, Udaipur. Photo Courtesy: Club Mahindra
Our sightseeing in Udaipur began with the famous Saheliyon-ki-Bari, a garden built by Maharana Sangram Singh. With its flowers, beautiful fountains, lotus pools, and marble artifacts and pavilions, Saheliyon-Ki-Bari had many birds, especially peacocks, and the kids loved it. We spent the rest of the day by Fateh Sagar Lake, one of the four beautiful lakes in the city. We boated around, gorged on delicious chaat and then made our way up the Sajjan Garh Palace, to watch the beautiful sunset. Our next day was spent shopping from Bada Bazaar, Hathi Pol Bazaar and Chetak Circle. Handicrafts, colourful fabrics, hand stitched papers and paintings were bought in large quantities. Most of our daily sightseeing recommendations came from our hotel concierge at the Club Mahindra hotel and we were amazed at how well informed and helpful they were.
We left Udaipur with a heavy heart but with a promise to come back, or, better yet, visit another city and discover its local beauty with a Club Mahindra resort.
That year we realized that we love travelling and love all Club Mahindra Resorts too. That’s our travel story, what’s yours?
Also, read through these Club Mahindra reviews and know how Club Mahindra members are spending their family vacations at popular holiday destinations of India.
If you were told that you can spot sundry marine creatures on the greasy Juhu-Chowpatty stretch in Mumbai you would be right to be sceptical. I know I was. Nonetheless, at 5 pm on a Saturday, my colleague and I met members of Marine Life of Mumbai (MLOM), a collective of ocean enthusiasts who’ve taken the city’s shores in their stride.
“We’ll be covering three different kinds of beach habitats—sandy, muddy and rocky,” explains Shaunak Modi, with the air of someone who’s made the effort to study his hobby. Modi, who runs a travel business, also helps rescue and research marine animals. Not everyone in MLOM’s 12-member team come with a background in marine biology. But that does not hinder the initiative founded by Pradip Patade, Abhishek Jamalabad and Siddharth Chakravarty in 2017.
On the beach, Modi points at what I’ve always assumed to be wedges of gunk—scraps of plastic, dirty rags, shells stuck around fine, branch-like structures. Turns out, these ‘reef systems’ indicate the existence of subterranean shell-binder or decorator worms, named so because of a tube-like structure they create with certain secretions around their burrows. These reefs attract snails that lay eggs and trap other organic material, which in turn provide the worms sustenance. At Juhu, it’s natural that the system would also trap man-made waste. Our walk begins on an ominous note with Modi pointing out that the worms, which feed on organic waste, are indicators of pollution.
The revelation has us paying closer attention to the ground. The number of tiny snails I suddenly spy make me watch my step, like a Gulliver in the land of Liliputs. “It’d take a lot more to hurt them,” Modi laughs. What we see next is part of an organism—the tips of siphons, an appendage in aquatic molluscs—squirting water. Once you focus on the action, it’s like walking through a maze of mini-fountains.
Grooves across the beach are actually ‘reef systems’ indicating the existence of decorator worms. Photo by: Rumela Basu
We soon arrive to an area populated with shells of that typically feature on the enthusiastic vacationer’s mantel. Some are bivalve shells (two valves, hinged together), while others are perfect cones. The shells, in purples and whites, are just the kind you’d pick up on a whim. But don’t. “There’s a popular saying: ‘If it’s a cone/leave it alone,’” Modi reveals. While usually, they caution against venomous gastropods known as conus, we discover the other reason for the saying when we spot teeny claws poking out of a cone’s furrows. The hermit crab is a frequent usurper of these shells.
Moving on to the muckiest part of the beach, towards the jetty, we spot smaller soldier crabs, and their quirkier cousin, the fiddler crab. The orange-bodied creatures, that scramble faster than eggs, are distinguished by the disproportionate claws of the male. At this point, I’m thrilled to spot the mudskipper, an amphibious fish commonly known as walking fish or goby. On a closer look, the goby, with its close-set googly eyes, reminds you of a cute cartoon fish, the sort to make haters sigh. Far more sinister looking is the burgundy anemone, with its flower-like body quivering in the pool of slush inside the sewage pipes.
Shoes caked in filth, we make our way to the craggy edge of the beach. The rocks have shells of oysters that have lived and perished on them. Other rocks have yellow-orange-green sea sponges plastered to their edges. Limpets, chapatti-shaped sponges, mollusc eggs, barnacles and mating snails dot the rest of our trail. The sight of youngsters hunting crabs makes for a jarring diversion and the mood lightens only when my partner gets her feet tangled in a fish net. (Greater karma, we joke!) Soon we approach the area that was famous for a bioluminescence phenomenon back in November 2016. It’s also where the MLOM team spotted an octopus this April. “Sometimes the sea throws up these surprises,” says Sejal Mehta, a consulting editor who has honed her sea-spying skills over walks across Haji Ali, Carter Road and Girgaum Chowpatty.
We see none, but that’s okay. The beauty of such walks, I realise, is not so much in a grand parade of creatures, but the awareness of a vibrant, chaotic and complex microcosm existing within metres of your favourite roadside Chinese stall.
The G.R. Sharma Memorial Museum turns out to be permanently shut—with a big chain and padlock on the door. Located at the University of Allahabad’s department of Ancient History, Culture and Archaeology, it’s been touted as one of Allahabad’s grand attractions, housing rare finds from the excavations at nearby Kauśāmbī.
I am disappointed to see the lock. I’ve heard so much about it and travelled far to see it. Kauśāmbī was one of the greatest excavation projects in India, right after it had achieved independence, and was overseen by legendary archaeologist Govardhan Sharma throughout the 1950s.
The city is mentioned in the Ramayana and other epics, and referenced by dramatists such as Kalidasa. The Buddha is known to have lived and preached here in the early years after his enlightenment. It was once a capital of ancient India. And then, it just vanished.
For the longest time, the lost city’s location was a matter of dispute with several plausible candidates being fielded by sundry experts. However, the site of a village named Kosam was where Alexander Cunningham, director of the Archaeological Survey of India in the 19th century, observed impressive 35-foot-high earthen ramparts and even taller mounds of earth, some more than twice that height. He also found clues in a travel journal by Chinese monk and scholar Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang) who visited the city in the seventh century.
Cunningham didn’t make test digs, but did note that Xuanzang’s geographical description seemed to match. But it was only in 1949, when G.R. Sharma took it upon himself to explore the area that Kauśāmbī’s lost glory came to light.
Upon seeing my despair, Professor Pushpa Tiwari, the current head of the archaeology department, explains that I must submit an application one week in advance, so that she may depute somebody to unlock the museum. I tell her that I’m only spending five days in town.
“Come back tomorrow at 9 a.m.,” she says, “and I’ll see what I can do.”
The next day she graciously shows me around the museum herself. Tiwari is a much-respected expert on ancient Indian art and outlines the finer points of the collection, in which the oldest sculptures date as far back as the second century B.C. She shows me a mysterious statue, perhaps mistakenly labelled as a horse. Because of its missing head, the sculpture is tricky to interpret. Tiwari’s theory is that the animal must be a bull. The Vatsa kingdom, which Kauśāmbī city was once part of, was one of the 16 great mahajanapada (states) in North India during the Buddha’s lifetime and carried the name of the bull. It could well have been their royal insignia.
Among the museum’s other gems are a pair of defaced, seated Buddhas, made in the A.D. 160s, in the Gandhara style. As Sharma writes in his book History to Prehistory, “The Gandhara tradition is writ large on the heavy drapery with prominent folds on the two inscribed Buddha images.” Then there’s a carving in which one spots a double-humped camel. I look at Professor Tiwari in amazement. She confirms my suspicion, “Indian camels only have one hump.”
“It’s a Bactrian camel,” I exclaim. To me, the presence of foreign camels—or images of them at least—suggests far-reaching trading connections, as these double-humped creatures were the favoured mode of transportation along the Silk Road in those days.
Kauśāmbī was an important river port located where the Yamuna crossed a major overland route that connected Ujjain, the capital of the Gupta empire, with Magadha. It was also not far from the auspicious spot where the Yamuna meets the Ganga.
Illustration by: Sumedha Sah
After that quick but magnificent lesson in interpreting archaeological finds, I head off on a tour of the Allahabad Museum, the main museum in town. Although there are fewer Kauśāmbī sculptures here, there’s a treasure hoard of beads that testify to an Afghan, or Bactrian, connection. What’s more, there’s a substantial assemblage of elegantly carved rock weights made of chert, suggesting that significant business was going on in Kauśāmbī. There’s a remarkable display of terracotta—elaborate toys as well as pictures of social scenes such as picnic parties, drinking and romancing, ladies shampooing their hairy legs, and a truly unique anatomical study in 3D of the human abdomen, with intestines laid bare.
By the time the Buddha walked the earth, Kauśāmbī was among the six biggest towns of the subcontinent, a transhipment hub inhabited by wealthy merchants. It was sufficiently prominent to support four Buddhist monasteries funded by rich bankers, and it remained a great city for more than a thousand years—older than Rome, it lasted at least a hundred years longer. The Roman empire ended in A.D. 410, while Kauśāmbī was destroyed in about A.D. 515. by a central Asian tribe of White Huns.
Kauśāmbī continued to produce fine sculptures until the 10th century, some of which are on display in Allahabad. Xuanzang, who visited the city a hundred years after its destruction, saw a Buddha statue that had been commissioned by King Udayana, who ruled during the Buddha’s time. He bought a 33-inch replica of it to carry home to China, where it became the source for nearly all subsequent Buddha images.
Suitably fired up to explore more of Kauśāmbī after my museum stop, I go to the hotel reception at the tourist bungalow in Allahabad where I’m staying and book a taxi for the next morning.
The 51 kilometres from my hotel to the site takes around 90 minutes by road. Initially, the taxi crawls through an unrelenting cityscape, on streets with the most potholes that I’ve ever seen. Then, all of a sudden, I find myself surrounded by tiny villages. After an hour’s drive, the FM signal grows weak and the taxi no longer rattles with the latest Hindi hits. We’ve obviously travelled back to a pre-radio world, dominated by green ponds, grey donkeys and brightly painted huts.
The archaeological site is heralded by modern monasteries inhabited by monks from various Buddhist countries. I stop at the Cambodian one which, though small, is quite charming. Chatty monks are cooking chicken stew in the yard and tell me they have spent two years here while pursuing degrees at the Allahabad University.
From the monastery, it is a kilometre-long drive to the colossal base of an Ashokan pillar that must have stood tall back in the day. Presumably it’s the one that was later shifted by the Mughals to the Allahabad fort (off-limit for tourists). Surrounding it are the ruins of a city block. The pillar was erected at a crossroads and one of the streets leading to it can still be made out.
Residential houses, built with sturdy brick walls and fairly standardised in their design—as apparent from their foundations that suggest there were inner and outer chambers—stand on either side of the street. I even spot some highly advanced drainage systems. They seem superior to the leaky piping that I have in my own home today.
Further east, across a field, the remains of an immense fort wall with a gateway looms large, beyond which there would have been a moat, keeping out the hubbub of the suburbs. Living here was like owning a 2BHK with excellent plumbing in a secure gated community, surrounded by all the shopping options one might have dreamt of.
People fled famine and epidemics to seek refuge in Kauśāmbī where rest houses for travellers had been set up at the city gates. When the Chinese monk Fa-Hsien (Fa-Hien) visited in the early A.D. 400s, he wrote about seeing the Buddha’s residence, his exercise area, and that the place was maintained by 100 monks.
Just 800 metres down the road stands a massive monastery ruin which once contained stupas, the biggest of which was partly built by Emperor Ashoka himself, and chapels from which the finest antiques in Allahabad’s museums were unearthed. An inscribed stone slab found on the eastern side of the main stupa names the monastery as the Ghositarama. The stupa was funded by the merchant banker Ghosita, a vaishya by caste who became one of the Buddha’s main benefactors, and who was possibly also in charge of King Udayana’s treasury.
It strikes me that while other tourist sights such as the Buddhist shrines of Sarnath in Varanasi or Bodh Gaya in Bihar were built long after the Buddha shifted into the nirvana phase, this is one of the few remaining structures in which one can imagine him walking about, speaking, and taking shelter during the monsoons as described in the ancient texts. Weak-kneed at the idea, I walk about the ruins of the hallowed complex that witnessed the first schism in Buddhism—before the eyes of the Buddha himself. And it was also the place where the Buddha decided to restrict insobriety among his followers, for in those days downing pegs seems to have been an accepted practice among holy men.
On his last visit to Kauśāmbī in 520 B.C., the Buddha encountered a drunken monk snoring by the city gate. That gate can still be seen a hundred metres to the south of the monastery. As it happens, he was returning to town for another semester of teaching philosophy, and this fine monastery had just been built in his honour. Perhaps in order to celebrate its inauguration, the monks thought they’d treat the Buddha to a special welcome drink of potent beverage known as Pigeon’s Liquor.
Illustration by: Sumedha Sah
A venerable old monk, Sagata, went around sampling the drink which had been brewing in every devotee’s house in town, and got so sloshed that he either fainted or decided to nap in the shade under the gate. He ought to have chosen a better place. While he was slumbering, the Buddha happened to pass through the gate and the plastered monk was the first thing he saw that day.
Worse was to come. At that time the monastery was home to over a thousand monks and a fight broke out in the ranks. The issue— the flushing of a convenience facility—was so petty that it is often not even mentioned in books otherwise narrating the philosophical implications of the schism in great detail.
As far as I’ve been able to put the story together from tales and legends that have been documents and from translations of scriptures, it seems that a leading monk had left half a jug of water in the bathroom, unaware of the monastic rule about flushing the toilet properly after relieving oneself. Other monks complained that it was a sin which would promote mosquito breeding. Soon the whole community was polarised. As I prowl about the ruins, I notice several drainage outlets—in fact, Xuanzang mentions finding the remains of the Buddha’s bathhouse here—and I peek into one wondering if it might have been the same that nearly caused the collapse of Buddhism. The Buddha tried to mediate, but when the monks instead exchanged blows, he is quoted as saying, “With fools there is no companionship. Rather than to live with men who are selfish, vain, quarrelsome and obstinate, let a man walk alone.”
He was rather young to retire, only in his 40s, but he grabbed his begging bowl and walked into the jungles where he spent that rainy season in the company of a friendly elephant. Meanwhile in Kauśāmbī, the population stopped giving alms to the arrogant monks. Eventually, they begged for forgiveness. The Buddha then asked them, “If the brethren, even now, while I am yet living, show so little respect and courtesy to one another, what will they do when I have passed away?” As predicted, they continued to quarrel for centuries until Ashoka, in the third century B.C., deemed it necessary to erect his pillar here, with an edict prohibiting any future schisms.
Buddhism was often protected by kings. Upriver, about 1.5 kilometres away on Yamuna’s banks, stand the regal remains, 320×150 metres, of the palace of Udayana. Although the southern side, abutting the river, appears to have had parts of it swept away, much still remains—arched openings, secret chambers and doorways to balconies facing Yamuna.
According to most sources, the king endorsed the building of monasteries here, but according to others, the queen poisoned his mind against Buddhism, as she had once been besotted with the Buddha, but had her marriage proposal turned down. Now the ruins are a hiding spot for lovers who lurk in the excavated chambers. The view of the river is… well, romantic. This fort as a nest for local lovebirds is appropriate since the Sanskrit drama Ratnavali, set in Kauśāmbī, is the first ever literary depiction of Holi, the day of love. The drama is believed to have been penned by Harsha Vardhana, a king who ruled over the Kauśāmbī area in the A.D. 600s and who was also a patron of Buddhism. In this convoluted rom-com, the aforementioned king Udayana manages to confuse the identities of his queen and her maid, falls in love with the maid, Ratnavali, who turns out to be an amnesiac princess from Sri Lanka. She had journeyed to Kauśāmbī after having been shipwrecked on her way to marry the king in the first place!
From the palace I drive to the nearest hill to view the area—Professor Tiwari at the university had recommended I do so. About four kilometres away from Kauśāmbī, Pabhosa Giri or Prabha Giri has several Jain temples, and caves that have been hacked out of the rock—including one known as ‘Sita’s Window’ and from where Sagata had chased away a dragon, the reincarnation of a drowned ship’s captain. This is also where Padmaprabha, the sixth tirthankara of Jainism was born. His nickname seems to have been Prabhu Ji, so it is after him that the hill is named. Some also believe this to be the spot where Lord Krishna died of an arrowshot.
This, too, is nowadays a hotspot for mettlesome men and vivacious women using it for recreative purposes. They scamper away tying their pyjama cords when I climb up the last few steps. On top there are traces of brick buildings, perhaps a monastery either for Jains or Buddhists. Here and there stands the odd solitary statue. I go across to the edge from where I command a sublime view of the Yamuna. To the east, Kauśāmbī basks in the mild beams of the late afternoon sun.
I already miss leaving this place, perhaps the most tranquil tourist sight in all of India, but my spirits are boosted by a roadside snack, a Kauśāmbī speciality that my taxi driver stops to get for me while driving towards Allahabad. He says the snack is called mungauri, deep-fried balls of ground dal served with delicious garlic chutney. Did the Buddha ever eat this local delicacy?
He must have, since he kept returning to the place. Back in Allahabad, visiting a friend’s home, I am shown terracotta figurines and seals from Kauśāmbī on their living room shelves, which would make any museum proud.
“How did you get these?” I ask as I handle a delicate terracotta face.
Allow yourself a glimpse of the intriguing rituals of Buddhism in Sikkim on 29 May. Marked by the full moon in the fourth month of the Tibetan calendar, Saga Dawa celebrates the birth, life and salvation of Lord Buddha. Held in high regard by the locals, especially the Mahayana Buddhists, the festival brings to life the gorgeous spectacle of lighting of butter lamps in the monasteries of Gangtok. Following this, a grand parade of monks commencing from Tsuk-La-Khang monastery moves along the streets, reading holy scriptures called ‘Kajur Texts’ and chanting hymns. Known as Buddha Purnima to the rest of the country, in Gangtok this religious event metamorphoses into a cultural extravaganza, made evocative by traditional music, drumming and the burning of incense.
(No entry fee; sikkimtourism.gov.in)
The Hadimba Temple in Manali, nestled deep inside a deodar forest, offers a gorgeous premise for the Dhoongri Mela. Photo by: Abbie Enock/Dinodia Photo LLP
Dhoongri Mela, Himachal Pradesh
If a temple fair in the middle of a forest sounds exciting, Dhoongri Mela, in Himachal Pradesh, offers a quick fix. Held between 14 and 16 May in Manali, the annual event at the prominent Hadimba Temple draws worshippers and travellers alike to the deep-nested forest park of Dhoongri Van Vihar. The three-day fair commemorates the birth anniversary of Goddess Hadimba, wife of Bhima, from Mahabharata. Idols of local deities are decked and paraded in a procession leading up to the four-storey wooden temple dating back to 1553. Food vendors and carnival rides add to the merriment, coupled with the visual delight of Kullu Nati, a folk dance performed by the locals.
(No entry fee; himachaltourism.gov.in)
Bob Dylan Festival, Shillong
Dylan’s Café in Shillong is one of the many venues in the hill town that celebrates the music legend. Photo by: Anurag Banerjee
If there is an Indian state that can turn American music legend Bob Dylan’s birthday into a full-blown celebration, it has to be Indian rock capital of Shillong. Celebrated every year on Dylan’s birthday on May 24 since 1972, the tradition started out as a fairly intimate group of music aficionados getting together to perform and listen to Dylan’s greatest hits on his birthday, but has evolved into a city-wide celebration of music since. Various performances and live gigs are held at different venues across Shillong on the day, spearheaded by Shillong’s grand old man of music, Lou Majaw, known for belting out impeccable renditions of Dylan’s songs at local cafés on the day around the year—the closest Dylan fans can get to experiencing the Blowin’ in the Wind star’s melody and madness of spirit. Shillong even has a designated music café named after the musician (Dylan’s Cafe) whose works and memory the beautiful hill station has been obsessed with for decades. Simply land up in the north-eastern city and follow the trail!
(For more on Shillong’s evolution as a cultural and music hub, read our story here)
Moatsu Festival, Nagaland
Celebrate the Moatsu Mong festival in Nagaland with the Ao tribe, where fire rituals and sumptuous meals of beef and pork await. Photo courtesy: Moatsu Mong Festival, Facebook.
Head to Nagaland between 1 and 3 May to experience the Moatsu Mong festival. Observed by the Ao tribe, this Naga extravaganza is celebrated in the villages of Mokokchung district, particularly in Chuchuyimlang (roughly 173 km from Kohima). Marking an end to the sowing season, the colourful festival sees locals refurbishing their houses, exchanging gifts and dressing in their traditional best. Tribal folk gather around for Sangpangtu, a fire ritual, and feast on sumptuous meals of pork and beef, from livestock reared especially for the occasion. You can indulge in locally brewed rice beer while dancing with the locals. Indigenous artefacts and handloom shawls are some goodies you can bring back home.
(No entry fee; tourismnagaland.com/)
Summer Festival, Tamil Nadu
Summer Festival in Tamil Nadu sees the Government Botanical Gardens in Ooty deck up in floral glory. Photo By: Dethan Punalur/Getty Images
Surrounded by swathes of lush rolling hills, Udhagamandalam, popularly known as Ooty, reigns supreme as a holiday spot. What better time to visit the natural haunt than in summer, when the annual Summer Festival is in full swing? Tour the 22-acre Botanical Garden, where exhibitors from different countries come together to display an eccentric variety of flowers, or head to the Government Rose Garden to marvel at rose petal rangolis. Sim’s Park in Coonoor hosts the Fruit Show, while canine lovers may head to the Government Arts College ground in Ooty to be amused by the Dog Show. The Indian map, replicated with capsicums in red, yellow and green, is must-see at the Vegetable Show held at Nehru Park in Kotagiri. Adding to the revelry are other events from the festival, including a boat race and pageantry at Ooty Lake, hot-air balloon rides, eco-trekking programs, painting exhibitions and a host of cultural performances.
(Check tamilnadutourism.org/ for dates and ticket prices)
It gave us a form, a way to express ourselves,” says Godavari Devi, remembering a time gone by. I am sitting in the modest living room of her home in the small, quiet hamlet of Ranti, near Madhubani town, while she regales us with tales from her travels as a National Award-winning Madhubani artist. Behind her, an entire wall is covered by one of her works—one of the largest paintings we have ever seen. She laughs when we marvel at its size. “This is nothing. You should see the ones I made for the Mithila Museum in Japan, many of them were almost 10 feet long.”
The only other large Madhubani I have seen before was on the wall of the Bihar Museum in Patna. My exposure to the style has only been through paintings in museums and homes. Now, I furiously scribble as I listen first-hand to this artist talk about her extraordinary life, which saw her travel from a small village in Bihar to Germany, the U.S., and Japan. The octogenarian belongs to a generation of pioneer women who brought attention to this unique art form in the 1960s, showcasing their talent and heritage around the world.
Although traditionally painted on the walls of homes to mark festivals and other important occasions, Madhubani art has since moved to paper, cloth, and other surfaces. The style originated in northern Bihar, specifically in the Mithila region, known as the birthplace of Sita; and drew inspiration from the Ramayana, nature, and folklore.
Madhubani district’s Ranti and Jitwarpur villages are craft hubs where families practising Mithila Art also paint the walls of their homes in an age-old tradition. Photo by: Hoshner Reporter
Ranti’s clean, narrow lanes are hemmed by tall palm trees and large homes, most of which are decorated with typically Madhubani images of village life, religious figures, and wedding celebrations. Almost every home has an artist in residence, and the colourful art on the walls gives the hamlet a museum-like atmosphere.
The history of the style likely dates back to the early 1800s, and Ranti, like many other villages in the region, has seen generations of women bring alive their villages through their art—often passed on from mothers to their daughters—many, using it to express their hopes and dreams in an otherwise conservative land.
The precision and deftness of Madhubani art is fully realised only when a painting is seen as a whole. Upon closer inspection, however, you discover a lattice of fine black strokes that come together to create every masterpiece. The distinct, black double lines, which cover every inch of the canvas, were traditionally drawn freehand, using a bamboo stick wrapped in cotton. “Nature inspired us; even the colours we used came from nature,” says Dulari Devi, another award-winning artist from Ranti, whose home I visit next. Black, the predominant colour, came from mixing soot with cow dung; yellow from mixing turmeric or lime with the milk of the banyan leaves that are strewn across the region; blue came from indigo; white from rice powder; and red from the famous kusum flower. Today however, one can see Camel paintboxes and an array of brushes in the hands of younger artists, though many of the older ones still use the bamboo sticks. “The brush doesn’t quite allow for all the tiny lines that make up an expression or an elaborate wedding dress,” declares Godavari, echoing a sentiment I’ve found amongst other traditional artists across the country.
Madhubani art is now seen as a legitimate means of livelihood, and in Jitwarpur, a new generation of women and men is being trained in workshops run by the Ministry of Textiles. Many hope to get into the Mithila Art Institute, established in 2003 in Madhubani town with the help of the Ethnic Arts Foundation of California. The institute selects 30 students, through an annual competition, for a two-year programme taught by world-renowned artists. Dulari Devi, who went from farm labourer to celebrated painter and exhibitor, is a strong advocate of this programme that encourages artists.
In October 2017 over 100 artists worked for 20 days to transform the once drab Madhubani railway station into an art gallery. Photo by: Hoshner Reporter
Dulari’s life has been captured in a book, Following My Paint Brush, and she now teaches at the institute. She proudly shows us some of her students’ works. The pieces are stunning, raw and evocative, many exploring new themes, including the perils of climate change, unchecked development, dowry, and other social ills.
Walking through Ranti, Jitwarpur, and other villages, and talking to the artists, I realise that Madhubani is not merely a homogenous local craft or village tradition—there are distinctive sub-styles and traditions, many of which can be traced back to the caste system. Partly as a result of their access to raw materials and sacred texts, the Brahmins traditionally used more colour and religious motifs; meanwhile, the Kayastha style tended to focus on representations of fertility and celebration; and the lower castes, banned from using religious motifs, found inspiration in nature—a style known as godhana or tattoo, predominantly seen in Jitwarpur. Today, however, it is all changing and the boundaries are less rigid. At the government workshop I learn that godhana, once used only as tattoos on women, is now seen on canvas as well, and the forest has become an overarching background in almost every painting, crossing village and caste lines. “That’s what Madhubani is,” pipes a young girl in the workshop, as she effortlessly brings life to the empty canvas, “a forest of honey.”
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