In the heart of Delhi-6, Haveli Dharampura brings in fine-dining, Mughal-style

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Lakhori, the restaurant. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

This piece was first published on IndianExpress.com

The 200-year-old haveli is not that easy to find, as you walk through the narrow bylanes of Old Delhi, though the landmark is pretty popular. It is the Jama Masjid police station.

Probably not the best of places to think about when your objective is to be treated to a smorgasbord of gastronomic delights. But those who respond to the lure of Matia Mahal, Karim’s, Al Jawahar and Dariba Kalan, would happily brave through much more for a taste of Mughal-style meats and treats. It’s an area where you get your hands dirty, that is, with your food — and blissfully too. So, when someone talks about a fine-dining experience right in the heart of Delhi-6, it’s not unnatural to be sceptical.

But that’s exactly what Haveli Dharampura offers. In fact, it’s Indian restaurant Lakhori can lay claim to an array of vegetarian options that would warm the cockles of a ‘green’ heart, while satisfying the meat-eating variant as well. The restaurant presents Delhi diners with an option that may as well be the first of its kind in the Capital — an old-style haveli resort with the food and comfort to match the demands of the ethnic luxury traveller.

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(clockwise from top) Trio of kheer, Chai biscuit, Dahi Puri, Aloo Gobhi deconstructed. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

As I said, it’s not easy to find the very first time, but once you have, you’re unlikely to forget (the large signages help too, but let’s face it, how long will those survive in Old Delhi). Once described dangerous, the building — owned by BJP member of Parliament Vijay Goel — has been restored and converted into a heritage hotel over six painstakingly long years. In a walk-through organised by the owners and managers, members of the food and travel media community were taken across the three-storeyed building that houses 13 rooms (of three sizes), a spa, two restaurants (Indian and Continental — although only the Indian one, Lakhori, is currently functional), a small art gallery, a terrace with a fascinating view (speak to the managers, and they will point out the Jama Masjid, Red Fort, Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib, Gauri Shankar Temple and St James Church, all in one panoramic stretch), and those wonderful little stories and passages that old havelis such as this always have abundance of.

We started with a sumptuous meal at Lakhori. Chef Pradeep Kumar and the owners had brainstormed for weeks to come up with a menu of nearly 50 dishes (down from an initial 85, I was told), and we approved of the hard work. The menu stays true to Indian flavours, while the presentation is modern and sophisticated. We started off with a round of bite-sized Cucumber Chaat Canapes (a long cucumber slice roll filled with chaat masala and yogurt), followed by Dahi Puri (gold-gappa puris filled with yogurt and spices, and accompanied with sweet saunt water or tangy jaljeera) and Palak Patta Chaat (spinach leaves covered in chickpea batter, fried with chaat toppings). The Palak Patta Chaat was particularly flavourful, crisp, and the cool yogurt and spices really play well on the palate.

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(clockwise from left) Palak Patta Chaat, Kadhai Chicken, Kofta Dogala (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

Moving on to the starters, there was a Kadak Roomali Masala (a huge roomali roti baked upside down over the tawa to form a bowl, and sprinkled with ground spices, onions and tomatoes) which would be great with drinks, but since the restaurant is still to get its liquor licence, the dish was a tad bit bland. The veg and non-veg Gilouti Kebabs were just as they should be flavourful and melt-in-your-mouth, the rather exotic sounding Murg ke Paarchey (aka chiken tikka) were spiced well and did due justice to Lakhori’s presence in Purani Dilli.

All this was accompanied by a series of smoothies and mocktails — I highly recommend the Jahan Ara (khus and chilli), Kiwi Strawberry and Lakhori Manzil smoothies and the very surprising Chai Biscuit (this was a revelation for a chai-hater like moi). The Banarasi Paan (had without the straw) is amazing, provided taken in small sips between courses.

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Haveli Dharampura. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

The main course showcased Chef Kumar’s international experience in form of the Aloo Gobhi Mutter Deconstructed, which brought in a mix of textures melding together the very familiar taste of the staple North Indian dish aloo gobhi. Mutton Korma (it’s Delhi-6 after all) may lack the punch of greasy oil and overwhelming spices, but the flavours were all there and would work well for international visitors; and the Kadhai Chicken, tangy, succulent and worked really well with the assortment of flavoured naans (olives, dates and kalonji). But I must mention the Kofta Dogala (cottage cheese koftas with two gravies — tomato and kaju), which was a visual delight (and some might even say, patriotically so, given the current socio-political scenario). The bowl was separated into halves with the green, wrapped koftas acting as the divider, and the flavours complemented each other with the tanginess of the tomato being rounded off by the creaminess of the kaju paste. The fact that the owners are vegetarians shines through in the care with which the veg options have been created, giving the lost vegetarians of Purani Dilli something to look forward to.

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Mutton Korma. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

After brief moment to drink in the 200-year-old brick-finish lakhoris (as the bricks are called, and which inspires the name of the restaurant), colonial-style furniture and the courtyard with the fountain -later, the desserts walked in. And, in the spirit of greater good, we took a deep breath and dug right in. A trio of creamy kheers (beetroot, paan and fig) and rose-flavoured kulfi (presented in a chocolate cone) were a perfect finish to a modern Mughal Delhi meal.

We dealt with the calorific guilt soonafter by walking up and down three floors exploring the haveli. For those historically and architecturally inclined, each room — named after Delhi’s famous gates like Kashmiri Gate, Delhi Gate, etc. —  talks about the history of its name, some of the mosaics and decorated arches on the windows and doors date back to beyond the 1880s, and are an interesting mix of Hindu-Mughal-European influences prevalent during the 19th century.

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Trio of kheers. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

There are little nooks and cranies on each floor for guests to relax, a small balcony that looks out — well, to not much, since outside here means a VERY narrow, dusty, overcrowded lane that’s typical of the area. But draw the cane blinds and sip your coffee like a nawab, and you won’t even notice it. You can brag about the Old Delhi charm later. The Goels occasionally organise musical and dance evenings featuring Kathak groups. Interestingly, all three levels are visible from both the ground floor as well as the terrace, which gives the audience different vantage points. The evening is when the magic of the haveli would really mesmerise you. Dimly lit, classical music streaming into your ears, the setting of Purani Delhi, food of the nawabs and quaint ethno-modern rooms, there is much to savour.

On the whole, Haveli Dharampura presents a nostalgic experience of Mughal-era Chandni Chowk in modern times. Those who have visited Rajasthan may find much in common, but in the Capital, a haveli resort in Delhi-6 seems to be a first of its kind. It also shows the way forward for other such dilapidated havelis peppered across Old Delhi. But, mind you, the experience comes at a price — but one that’s worth it.

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The courtyard at Haveli Dharampura. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

Tariff details:
Jharokha Rooms – Rs9,000 for double occupancy
Diwan-e-khas Rooms – Rs15,000 for double occupancy
Shahjahan Suites – Rs18,000 for double occupancy

Lakhori
Lunch/Dinner: Rs3,000-4000 for two people, without alcohol
(All rates are exclusive of taxes)

Body language

A walk through The Body in Indian Art exhibit with curator Naman Ahuja, as he guides visitors through 4,000 years of corporeal depictions

(This piece was first published in BW|Businessworld)

A 4th Century depiction of Dvilingi 'Lakulisha' at The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum.

A 4th Century depiction of Dvilingi ‘Lakulisha’ at The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum.

 

The thing about being culturally inclined – but clueless – and attending an art exhibition is that one walks through the gallery feeling amazed but lost. Over the past month, I’ve managed to visit the Subodh Gupta Retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, gaze at Amrita Shergill’s revolutionary work also exhibited there, and take a walk through history and the understanding of the human body in art over centuries at the Body in Indian Art exhibition currently on at the National Museum in New Delhi.
But the differentiating factor between my visits to the first two exhibitions (countless ones before them) and the Body in Indian Art was that my walk-through in the latter was led by the show curator Naman Ahuja, who is also an associate professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. And, quite honestly, that’s what made a universe of a difference.
How else would one appreciate the layout of the exhibition across 14,000 sq. ft in a circular fashion, as a body that’s wrapped around you? Starting an exhibition on the body with a display on ‘death’ may be counterintuitive to most, but all art is in some way a record of death, says Ahuja as he stands between two memorial stones at the entrance to the exhibition on the first floor of the museum. “Every work, after all, is a death of the artist. A moment that can’t be recreated,” he says.
The exhibit explores the artist’s interpretation of the body in death, birth/re-birth, in rapture, or even what may be the Indian equivalent of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. The whole exhibition is divided into eight galleries — (1) death, and the end of the body, (2) birth and re-birth, (3) how astrology and cosmology determine the fortunes of the body, (4) the nature of divine bodies, (5) heroism and ideal bodies, (6) asceticism and the development of practices of healing and yoga, (7) the body in rapture or possessed, and (8) the body as a symbol.

Artist Mrinalini Mukherjee's stunning work in dyed hemp, called Basanti, at The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum. The gallery where it was displayed -- on birth and rebirth -- was inspired by the womb of a yogini temple.

Artist Mrinalini Mukherjee’s stunning work in dyed hemp, called Basanti, at The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum. The gallery where it was displayed — on birth and rebirth — was inspired by the womb of a yogini temple.

It was fascinating to hear the thought behind the conception of the exhibit, which starts with memorial stones — first, an evocative sculpture of a warrior disembowelling himself with a sword (reminiscent of Japanese warriors performing Harakiri), and alongside is a rather rare sculptor of a female warrior performing a similar ritual, both being serenaded by apsaras.
As one moves to the gallery of death of the body, and remembrance, there is a huge Sanjhi Tree cut out by Payal Khurana that arrests your attention. Take a walk through the various symbolisms of ‘death of the body but the continuance of the soul’ — from a beautifully craved crypt, to a series of Buddha footprints, etched, painted or sculpted, spread across the centuries that act as a substitution of the physical being, just like Rama’s slippers were kept on the throne while he was on vanavas in the epic Ramayana.
What strikes a chord with the viewer is the juxtaposition of sculptures and paintings cutting across centuries, religion and gender. Ahuja talks of the birth and rebirth gallery as being designed to resonate a woman’s womb, with all the energy directing you towards Mrinalini Mukherjee’s Basanti — a powerful vision in dyed hemp, weaved suggestively as a flower or even representative of a woman’s reproductive organ. This is contrasted with the strangely erotic ancient goddess Lajja Gouri giving birth with her legs spread wide and a 2nd century red sandstone headless sculpture of Hariti — the Iranian ogress who turned from eating babies to a protector of children.
Leading us to the third gallery, crossing imageries of the happy families of Shiva-Durga-Ganesh-Kartik, Yashodhara-Krishna-Nanda, among others, Ahuja commented on the irony of such iconic families of Indian mythology actually being quite unconventional in their formation — with the birth of the children in the first family happening during the absence of the father, and the latter of a child living with foster parents. As Ahuja said, “There is no norm in mythology as to what constitutes a happy family.” Now, although, these are summations that would seem fairly obvious to some, for others — such as myself — one has to admit to the deeper insight gained due to these observations by the curator, whose “‘thing’ is supposed to be his vast knowledge of which artwork is housed by which museum across the country”, according to one of the organisers.
From birth to cosmology and the divine, the exhibition evokes the mysteriousness of the body and that of the universe. From the corporeal to the spiritual — what controls us? WHat is the role of destiny? One can debate the existence of free will as influences from Buddhist, Hindu, Jain and Tantric schools of thought are represented through the human form so as to contain the whole universe within it. Which is probably why, then, there is a rather easy transition to that of the ‘ideal’ form — that of the supernaturals — gods and deities. Though, Ahuja does take a sceptical point of view on the immortals, saying: “Gods aren’t just immortal, public relations turn them into immortals”, while simultaneously and appreciatively pointing out the nuances of the imagery, down to the reasoning behind the selection of a particular stone that would naturally look like flakes for a sculpture of Nagaraj.

Naman Ahuja, curator of The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum

Naman Ahuja, curator of The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum

The iconography is further accentuated as one walks through walls covered with graphic depictions of superheroes in the 21st century in comics, and their ‘ancestors’ as humans or ‘mere mortals’ who were immortalised in ‘stone and paint’ as Heroes. From the evocative video of a towering Buddha statue being bathed to the quiet and meditative, headless nude female yogini Mallinatha — shorn of all accessories — strategically ‘facing’ the Dvilingi Lakulisha, it’s amusing to be a participant or voyeur to the various silent conversations Ahuja has initiated between the art pieces.
The Body in Indian Art exhibition is by every means vast, but Ahuja does achieve what he sets out to do — steadily depict the echoing of similar concepts of death, birth, sex and existentialism across the ages and in varied vocabularies. In end, if it’s the pure rapture in a woman’s ‘angrai’ or the attempt to search a commonality between ragas that have been recorded to accompany the 16-17th century raagmala paintings, the exhibition is a journey that is definitely worth experiencing for yourself.

The Body in Indian Art is on till 7 June, 10am-5pm (Mondays closed), at the National Museum, Janpath, New Delhi. There are regular walks conducted by the museum, which is highly recommended, and another curator’s walk with Naman Ahuja is scheduled for 9 May 2014. Call 011-23019272 (extn 273) for timings and further details.

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The Pondicherry ADVENTURE

(Pic from the Net; Source unknown)

(Pic from the Net; Source unknown)

I walked up the creaking metal stairs. Initially painted bright red, but which have faded over time to a dirty brown with spots of rusts spattered all over. I tried holding on to the railing for support, but the rickety tubes of steel did nothing to ease my nerves in preparation for what was to come next. Oddly enough, at that moment I felt a special connection with Rose Calvert (played by Kate Winslet) in Titanic as she climbed towards the ship’s Starboard, trying to save herself from drowning. A Rabbi behind her, morbidly murmuring, “…As we walk to the valley of the shadow of death…” Those were the very thoughts going through my head. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my Jack Dawson saving me; instead, I had seven heartless friends who’d make me walk the plank if it gave them enough amusement. And the knowledge that a ten year old child was in charge of the controls didn’t help much.

We were in Pondicherry for the weekend, and on our way back to the bus stop. Already late for catching a bus to Chennai, it was then that Srijoy had an ‘aha moment,’ “Let’s go back to the fair…I want to go on the Mary Columbus.” Now for the uninitiated, ‘Mary Columbus’ is a huge boat that swings 35 feet into the air, from left to right to left to right and on and on and on. Bad memories. Something always went wrong when I boarded any of the ferries wheels in the fairs.

The last time I boarded a Columbus was when I was 12 years old. Appu Ghar in New Delhi is a famous children’s amusement park and a must visit for any child living in or visiting Delhi. I was not to be left behind. The prospect of boarding a huge ship that swings in air can be a very daunting thought for anyone, but for a 12 year old, it seemed as if her life was in peril. The Columbus in Delhi is painted in beautiful vibrant colours of red and blue, with a base of black, and three layers of gold coloured waves painted on both sides. On one side is a gorgeous red dragon head breathing fire…not a heart warming sight…but magnificent nevertheless. While at the other end is its tail beautifully painted in red green and yellow fiery designs.

Sitting in this behemoth with at least forty other screaming children, securely pinned down to my seat with a handlebar, life wasn’t at its best, but it wasn’t at its worst either.

Wait…

I spoke too soon…

The ride was to be for five excruciating minutes right? Why wasn’t it over?

A throb of fear stuck in my throat, I looked down for some explanation. Something had gone wrong with the machinery, and the mechanics could not be found.

We were stuck in a perpetual purgatory upon a swinging boat!!!

.

.

.

I don’t know why these boats have to be called “Columbus.” No one in my group knew why. After all, Columbus didn’t fling himself 35 feet in thin air when he set out to look for India– ramblings…but that was all that I could do sitting squished in between Shutapa and Leon. It was all I could do to stop reminding myself of my last ride in Appu Ghar.

I held on tight to the handlebars, which were uncomfortably a little far from the seats. Oh! How I wished these people had the Delhi handlebars, which would pin you to your seat. The four rows of seats in front of us were empty, and I could see straight into the eyes of a middle aged gentleman, wearing a yellow shirt who was with his son.

The ride started with a slow and ominous prolonged screeching sound.

Screeeeeeeeeech….Once….we went left…10 feet in the air

Screeeeeeeeeech….Twice…we went right…15 feet in the air

Screeeeeeeeeech….Thrice…we went left again…more than 15 feet in the air

And suddenly without a moment’s notice the boat lunged upwards at angle that was as close to 90° as it could get. Gravity was taking over as I was slightly lifted from my seat. For a terrifying moment I thought I might fall, when the boat went the opposite way, but the relief was short lived, as I was once again thrown up in the air, in a precarious position of half hanging on a rickety handlebar. One…two…three…four…five…that was supposed to be it.

Stop…

Stop it…

Ohkay….this is enough…

Just Stop…

Why isn’t it stopping?

Oh My God!!!

C’mon stop already…

Looking down towards the controls, I couldn’t see the boy who was supposed to stop the swinging boat and get me down. I panicked…my knees were knocking…my voice was hoarse with all the shouting…

“Look at the light,” said Leon, and I did. It was so beautiful. The huge lights…reminiscent of the fairy lights that are supposed to beckon you when you’re dying. The thought was NOT comforting. I looked down to the seemingly flimsy strip of rubber that was responsible for the machinations of this particular Columbus, only to see the boy who was supposed to be handling the controls, climbing on the engine and tinkering with the rubber strip. Life did not seem promising as I once again looked at the incandescent light alternating it with the eyes of the gentleman with the yellow shirt sitting in front of me, seeking solace in both.

Screeeeeeeeeech…the boat slowed down…

I looked down at the controls again…the darling little boy had returned to his position.

Screeeeeeeeeech…he pulled one of the levers and the boat slowed down a bit more…

Screeeeeeeeeech…he pulled another lever and we almost stopped…

Screeeeech….he pulled the final lever and we stopped.

My legs wobbly and hands shaking, I carefully got out of the menacing boat, holding on to Shutapa for support. Walking down the creaking tin faded-red stairs and onto terra firma…I vowed never to get on a Mary Columbus again.

Time had never passed so slow, making myself aware of each passing moment as it did from 8:30 pm to 8:40 pm on January 29, 2006.

First published as Agateophilic on 7 February 2006.

The Fasting-Feasting Month

The Jama Masjid is brightly lit up at night

The Jama Masjid is brightly lit up at night

It’s funny how certain events mean completely different things for different people. Take, for instance, the month of Ramzan. For Muslims it’s 30 days of sombre remembrance and spiritual reverence. They fast all through the day, and eat only after sundown and after doing their namaz/maghrib prayer. For me, and there is absolutely no disrespect meant, it’s about “iftaar” — the first meal of the day. This is ironic because it’s never the first meal of the day for me, but then who bothers with technicalities.

But then, given the fancy iftaar parties that grace the numerous Page Threes and Fours and Fives, at least I’m not the only one with the following ‘chemical’ equation:

Ramazan = AWESOME FOOD!

There's nothing to beat the traditional Tandoori Roti and Korma!

There’s nothing to beat the traditional Tandoori Roti and Korma!

 

Traditionally, the fast is broken by consuming dates (because Prophet Mohammad was supposed to have broken his fast with three dates), following which there is a feast of the most delectable kinds of foods, had together in a social gathering of sorts. So, in a way, it’s actually 30 fancy dinner parties in a row!

This makes it all the more imperative for a true foodie to visit the brightly lit gully of Matia Mahal, in front of Delhi’s imposing Jama Masjid as the angled rays of the sun give way to the blue hour. The evening azaan pierces through the air, calling out to devotees who scramble across the vast courtyard of the 357-year-old mosque offering their prayers. Within minutes, though, the same courtyard is filled with numerous picnic spreads.

After the maghrib prayer, there's a whole community picnic, where families spread out to break the day's fast together.

After the maghrib prayer, there’s a whole community picnic, where families spread out to break the day’s fast together.

Friends get together to chat before the maghrib prayer

Friends get together to chat before the maghrib prayer

Step out, and the entrance of the famous Matia Mahal (of Karim fame, among other things) is brightly lit up to rival Diwali, as people call out to each other — wishing them, hugging them, crowds gathering around the various hotels shouting out their orders, the air full of the delicious smells of chicken fry and mutton qorma (that is also SO characteristically Old Delhi), towers of soft and fluffy tandoori rotis grace the countertops, the sizzle of marinated meats being tossed into massive woks of bubbling hot oil, mounds of freshly fried, golden brown, succulent chicken wings glisten in the festive lights — beckoning, making your mouth salivate.

There are different types of tikkas available for your choosing

There are different types of tikkas available for your choosing

Succulent meat balls are freshly fried and served piping hot!

Succulent meat balls are freshly fried and served piping hot!

As you cut through the stream of bodies, adopt the robot pose (both arms on the side with the fore-arm jutting out like an L), keep a lookout for anything and everything that strikes our eye, and triggers the palate in anticipation.

Ideally I would recommend the vegetarians to stay away from this part of town, especially during Ramazan because, let’s face it, there isn’t much to have. Except for the absolutely brilliant Shahi Tukda. If Marie Antoinette had savoured this delicacy, let’s just say, history would have been a tad bit different. Made from the rather proletarian bread, bumped up the tasting order with a generous dosage of ghee and malai and all things nice, these bites of heaven simply melt in your mouth (while the calories head straight down south!). There are, of course, quite a selection of dry fruits, a fusion version of the roti with coconut filling and fresh hot pakoras to choose from as well. Although, be warned that the latter just about lasts 20 minutes after the evening maghrib prayer. So you’ll have to stand ready to jump at them the minute they’re up for sale.

Take your pick from potato, spinach masala, paneer and a host of other pakodas

Take your pick from potato, spinach masala, paneer and a host of other pakodas

Give in to the hevenly taste of the Shahi Tukda

Give in to the hevenly taste of the Shahi Tukda

During this month, Matia Mahal is open till the wee hours of the morning as the smells of haleem waft through the air — the traditional “suhoor” fare, which is had just before dawn. Of course, the festivities keep ascending in lights, choices and decibel levels closer to Eid, but that just means you can pace yourself and your stomach out over an entire month.

So, as-salamu aleikum and bon apetit!

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99,99,999 — The god number

Unakoti entrance

When I first took the decision to visit Tripura — the smallest of the Seven Sisters of the North-East, even India — it was primarily because no one I knew had ever gone there. Somehow that made me kind of sad, because I have the privilege of knowing many people who keep going to offbeat places, and here was this one, whole state where no one I knew had been.

So, basically, that did it. In the December of 2010, my parents and I set off to Tripura — which means Three Cities (quite like the Greek word Tripolis), or maybe it takes its name from Tripura Sundari, the presiding deity of the region, and also a Shakti Peeth (more on that later). It was an extended road trip which took us through the length and breadth of the little state.

As strange and whimsical as the reason for trotting across India, right to the other end, was, it was not one that I regret for even a moment. Because hidden in the deep recesses of the Twipra Kingdom is one of the most magical and majestic places in the country. In fact, I insist on calling it India’s answer to Machu Picchu. Okay, so maybe a slight exaggeration, but any amount of reading does not prepare you for what you will find at the Lost Hill of Unakoti.

Around 178km from state capital Agartala, Unakoti — meaning one less than a crore, or 99,99,999 — is a Shaiva pilgrimage spot which is unlike anything you’ll find in India. Imagine MASSIVE images of Lord Shiva carved ON the hill. And when I say images…there aren’t just 20-30 of them. There are supposedly 99,99,999 of them. Arguably dating back to the 7th-9th centuries, these carvings have some interesting tales associated with them.

Shiva and Parvati

Story 1

Legend has it that Lord Shiva with his entourage of other gods was headed towards his heavenly abode, Kailash, and decided to spend the night at the point, which is now known as Kailashahar (8km down the hill from Unakoti). He warned his fellow travellers that they would have to leave before the break of dawn, but after a night of revelry, Shiva was the only one who managed to get up. Known for his rather short temper, Shiva cursed all the late sleepers (I shudder to have him as a travelling companion) to an eternity on Earth and walked off to Kailash in a huff, all by his lonesome self. That entourage now adorn the hills of Unakoti.

Story 2

The second story is a classic one about god and devotee. According to this version, the images have been carved by a sculptor by the name of Kallu Kumhar. He was a great devotee of Parvati, so when Shiva-Parvati and the whole entourage were passing through this region (again en route to Kailash), Kallu Kumhar asked to accompany them. Since the big man was fairly wary of this proposition, Parvati made a deal with him. She suggested Kallu Kumhar make 1 crore images of Shiva (to appease him) overnight, and should he be able to do so, he would accompany them, if not, then tough luck! As it would happen, as the sun rose the next day the Kumhar fell just one short of a crore — and that gave Shiva the loophole he needed to rid himself of this unwanted fellow traveller. (Although, if Mr Kumhar was supposed to make different forms of Shiva, don’t know how Parvati, Ganesha and the rest of them got on those hills.)

Whatever the story behind these carvings, the logistics of how they were actually made is a mystery quite akin to that of the making of the pyramids. Most of the bas-relief sculptures are around 30-40 ft high, and have a rawness that differs from the classical Indian style, and is more tribal. I found it to be similar to statuettes from the Aztec civilization — especially the way the eyes, teeth and headdresses have been depicted. Several still grace the sides of the hills, some have given in to the ravages of time and broken off and now lie as wounded soldiers, others apparently are buried and need to be excavated. I counted around 130 of them. There’s one with three Ganeshas, which appears to have a rivulet flowing atop it — making it seem as if he’s bathing.

Unakoti priest

Ganeshas 3

Unakoti bridges

As we walked from one side to other, navigating our way through the staircases (hundreds and hundreds of steps!) and bridges joining the two hills over which the statuettes are now scattered, I felt as if I’d chanced upon an old worship place that was supposed to be hidden from the rest of the world — a secret domain where entry had to be earned. One could see signs of springs and rivulets criss-crossing through entire area, and I couldn’t help but imagine how beautiful the place would have looked centuries ago with the flowing water, verdant hills, incense smells, sounds of the temple bells, chanting of mantras, kings (possibly from the Pali dynasty) and tantrics… the mind wanders further.

Even the main priest over there (they have a daily puja, morning and evening) was quite forbidding in his attitude. The most he did was give me some prasad and glare at me. The other two sadhus, who live higher up in a hut, seemed a lot more interesting — especially considering the sweet smell of weed emanating from their rather humble abode. Jai Bum Bhole! 😉 Such saffron-robed citizens are a delight and must-have any religious place to make it mysterious. What makes them even more interesting is the folklore that these two are, in fact, a famous dacoit and his aide who had gone missing from the hills of Tripura around a decade ago — just a couple of years before the two ‘sages’ were seen at Unakoti. It is said that once they disbanded and were running from the border forces and local police, they went into hiding and then resurfaced as ‘babas’ at Unakoti, where they have been living ever since.

A house of bandits or trapped gods and goddesses, think of Unakoti as you will, but it is a definite fixture on the must-visit sites in India. Pity, that neither the state nor the Centre has been able to successfully put it on India’s popular tourist maps. But then again, maybe too many tourists would just spoil the rather pristine, untouched, secret allure that this place has.

So, have I managed to convince you to visit 99,99,999 yet? Let me know.

(The usual travel specs are at the end of the photo gallery)

How to get there: Tripura has just one airport, in Agartala, the capital city. Unakoti is around 178 km North from there. (I believe Kailashahar, 8km away, has a private runway. So if you own a plane, you can fly down there instead!) You can take a cab from Agartala to Unakoti/Kailashahar. If you prefer the train, then Kumarghat, around 41km away, is the closest railway station. Check out IRCTC (https://www.irctc.co.in/) for the train time table.

Tourism website: http://tripuratourism.nic.in/ (PS: We found the guys at the Tripura House in Delhi most helpful)

You can also see: Agartala (ehhhh. I would just use the city as a stopover), Jampui Hill (lovely place. The highest tourist place in the state. Try and go there during orange season, which is Oct­–Dec), Udaipur (Check out the Neer Mahal, the Light & Sound show there is particularly BRILLIANT; Tripura Sundari Temple, where you can see goat sacrifices, so it’s not for the faint-hearted; Bhubaneswari Temple is an interesting location); Sepahijhala Forest Reserve and National Park (for us, this was a waste of time, but you may think differently)

The route we took: Agartala – Kamala Sagar – Sepahijhala – Udaipur – Neer Mahal – Unakoti – Jampui Hills – Agartala (6 Days in December 2010)

Also, another post on Tripura will come up soon! So keep visiting.

The Incredibly Strange India

An interesting installation by Anant Joshi has all-outs emanating wonderful scents while the inner sanctum of the temple with Rama's slippers.

An interesting installation by Anant Joshi has all-outs emanating wonderful scents while the inner sanctum of the temple with Rama’s slippers.

Although I thought I wouldn’t bring in outside content till the 10th post in this blog, but the recent mid-year special cover story by The Week, called “We, Quirky Indians was just too brilliant not to be shared.

I’ve been a huge fan of The Week’s reporters, reporting and story selection ever since my family started subscribing to it more than a decade back. Oddly enough, the reason for taking the magazine was not because of its brilliance, but because we wanted the phone that the group was being given free with its three-year subscription. Then, of course, I fell in love! But, I’m digressing… Back to Quirky Indians.

Now, as much as we gallivant around the world, not many of us have explored the wonders of our own country — India. And WE are delightful. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Initially I thought I’d introduce everyone to the bizarre Indians over a period of time, leetle by leetle… But The Week went ahead and did this cover, so I figured, why not feature it. They chose over a dozen villages with various idiosyncrasies, from one where the bride and groom cross-dress before the wedding, another which is built to facilitate the movement of snakes, and yet another where the people are named Coffee, Hotel or Court.

So, without much, ado…we present to you Incredible India…

Bhadrapura and Guaripara, Bihar — Now there are people who crowdsource the names of their children, while others go through elaborate astrological calculations, but there’s a place where a newborn’s name can be dictated by something as simple as the parent having recently bought a ‘cycle’, or because the kid was born near a restaurant or ‘hotel’. What does this give you? A village full of people in the Hakki-Pikki tribe called everything from Court, Coffee, Shaadi, Laayu (short for Love You), Congress, Pistol, Japan, and Cycle and Hotel, of course.

Shani Shingnapur, Maharastra — Now, this is one that has been written about before as well. It’s the village where trust rules all because there are no doors. (Of course, if they simply own a locker each in the bank and/or have all their money locked up in Swiss accounts, we don’t know about it!) Apparently the local deity, Shani, doesn’t like to be in confined spaces, so to appease him, the inhabitants don’t lock their doors. Even the UCO Banks’ doors aren’t locked.

Gunalli, Karnataka — Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada would have loved this place. If she didn’t like the botheration of having to remember her secretary’s name, chances are, if they came from Gunalli, she wouldn’t need to because for most people, it’s a case of one name fits all. The men are called Gynappa, the women Gynavva, and these names belong to at least one member of each family. So, should you wish to visit this small village, make sure you know the surname too, else you’ll probably go around knocking on various doors trying to find the right guy.

Punsari, Gujarat — This is probably what Village 2.0 would look like. Wi-Fi at Rs 10, areas demarcated for shopping complexes, schools fitted with CCTV cameras, 24×7 water availability, a centralized sound system, among other basic (or not so basic, if the rest of the country is to go by) amenities.

Khejuri, West Bengal — I’m guessing this can be called India’s doctorsville. According to the report there are around 40 ‘orthopaedic doctors’ in this village. And before you start imagining a sea of white lab coats walking around, farming, etc., please note that none of these have even seen the inside of a medical college, nor do they know what a “gigli saw” is. Their method includes traction and massaging to set the limb, with support from a boiled rice and white cloth wrap, followed by bamboo sticks and string. There’s the involvement of a coconut oil-based paste somewhere, but let me not give out the WHOLE secret!

Sathyamurthy Nagaram, Tamil Nadu — After 40 doctors, it’s 40 days (and how many times have I said I wanted to research this recurring No. 40 phenomenon in different cultures? I should do something about it soon!). The inhabitants of this village just stop by for 40 days a year to celebrate a festival dedicated to the local deity, Jakkamma. The rest of the time, the nomadic tribes move around the country, with their families, to make a living. This annual get-together is when all the important decisions and rites and rituals take place, marriages are solemnized, etc. The cool factor is that when a man and a woman want to get into a relationship, they simply start living and travelling together (*sigh), and get married the next time they get to the village! Now, how COOL is that!?! 😛

Mattur, Karnataka — Now this is a place that’s been written about before, but since I’m particularly partial to Sanskrit, I thought I’d make end my list with this. A hamlet in the Shimoga district of Karnataka, Mattur is (in a way) stuck in the classical times of Sanskrit. The residents are all masters in this ancient language, which is also hailed to be the most scientific language in the world. Although the local language here seems to be Sankethi, people from across the globe come by to learn and understand the scriptures here.

As I said, the cover story covered many other villages, but it’ll be unfair of me to give you the list here. So, if you like what you read, I suggest you either buy a copy or just check out the piece online. In the meanwhile, I will write about the village below… Do you know where this fantastical place is? A hint — 99,99,999.

Guess where this place is.

Guess where this place is.