May 24, 2016

Agra : Waah Taj !!!!


A wonder is finally struck out from my bucket list. Obviously it was a bit agitating within my living system, for not having visited the wonder of the world in my own backyard, even after proclaiming myself as someone who is passionate to explore the world. One of the reasons I would generally give to any person willing to hear, is that I had saved visiting this symbol of love with my better half, ofcourse that made more sense :D.

Bulland Darwaza- Fatehpur Sikri
So after covering Amritsar and having come back to Delhi, it was time to explore Agra. The foremost monuments in our hit-list were THE TAAAJ, Agra fort and Fatehpur Sikri. We had hired a zoomcar in order to self drive from Delhi to Agra and back. There are 2 routes/highways between these 2 cities and they are worlds apart. First one is the Yamuna Expressway which is truly world-class and the second one is the normal 4 lane highway passing through towns and cities. Hence for the onward journey we decided to take the Yamuna expressway and boy-O-boy we were impressed. It is 6 lane access controlled expressway and unlike any tolled highway found in India, wherein you can still find the local livestock roaming on the pathway, or people crossing at every drop of the hat. It was a smooth 2 hour drive via this highway and we reached the city of Agra. But since I was driving a self driven car, I was mandated to pay UP state entry tax, but fortunately or unfortunately I couldn't find the RTO checkpost to pay the visitor tax.


Finally reached Agra and directly went to our hotel, The Gateway. Spent time indoors in order to escape from the sweltering heat, and saw Taj Mahal for the very first time from the roof of the hotel. Majestic :).  By the time the heat had dwindled in intensity we decided to head towards Fatehpur Sikri. We had reserved the following early morning for Taj in order to avoid the crowd and the heat , so that it can be enjoyed in peace. The distance between Fatehpur Sikri and Agra is just 35 km, but half of this distance is via very bad and congested roads. Had a tough time navigating the car through chock-o-block roads. Another piece of advice when visiting these tourist places is to be beware of touts , who pretend to be a guide and take you around on a ride from one shop to another trying to force you to buy things which you are not interested in.

Entrance Gate to the Taj
After parking our car in the parking lot, we were inundated with people claiming to be guides and we had a hard time trying to escape from them. Finally we settled for a guy, who looked the least evil of them all to take us around (since he seemed to have a Govt issued tourist guide ID, Duh !!!! :P). This guide took us to the Bulland Darwaza which was constructed by King Akbar, as the gate for the common masses to enter his palace. This gate is very majestic and with the steep stairs looking up this giant piece of art, makes it all the more intimidating.  Once you enter this gate, there is a huge courtyard and in the centre of the courtyard is the Salim Christy's tomb and the Jamah Masjid. This is one spot where they try to dupe a lot of tourists by their smooth talk and emotional blackmail. They try to sell clothes as offering for the tomb/dargah and these shockingly range from 2k to 11k to god-knows-to-what limit. Anyway we managed to navigate around without much damage. The tomb of this sufi saint made from white marble, was like a jewel sitting in the centre of the huge courtyard made of brown sandstone. After our visit of these places we had to return back since it was already nightfall and the other places of interest would be closed at sunset.

Next day we were up very early, bcoz it was Taj Mahal day. Infact we were the first set of people to have breakfast at our hotel at 6.30 am. There are 2 entry gates to this wonder, east and the west. For those having their own set of wheels, east gate is always recommended because of lesser crowd at the ticketing counters. Further we had read that Taj starts to get crowded once the Shatabdi from Delhi arrives at 8 am. Hence our sole aim was to enter the Taj Mahal complex before that.


We parked our car at place known as Shilpgram. From here you can buy entry tickets and then take an electric vehicle right upto the entrance gate. At the entrance gate there is a security check and do remember to get a ID card with address proof (atleast soft copy in your phone..phew !!!!).  After the ticketing gate comes the main gate of the Taj Mahal wherein you get some great first views of the monument. We employed our own personal photographer who conducts a shoot of sort keeping the monument of love in the background. Charge was 30 bucks a pic (includes printing and softcopy). No words can describe this serene and beautiful monument. The architecture used was simple , but still elegant and majestic. The only complain was the scaffolds covering 3 of the minarets for restoration, but in-spite of this the monument was just a big WOW. Fantabulous, excellent, extraordinary, monumental, impressive are some of the words which can be used to describe this monument. This complex houses the tomb of Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal in its central chamber. Frankly speaking the interiors are a tad dull when in comparison to the outer view. However the centre of attraction inside the complex are the mesh curtains made from marble.  This complex has a wooden foundation and is said to be custom built so that the water from the Yamuna, flowing just a few feet away from the building keeps it moist and free from rot.  

Agra Fort
We spend close to 3 hours exploring the main building and its surroundings. As it started to get hot and crowded it was time to move towards our next destination, the Agra fort. Agra fort is yet another world heritage site and used to house the palaces of the mughal kings who used to run their kingdom from Agra. Jahangir's palace is one of the most preserved over here. This fort has a history dating all the way back to the 10th century AD right till the British empire. There are various buildings and structures within this complex including the Diwan-i-Aam and Diwan-i-Khas, which used to be the seat of the emperor. There are 2 masjids within the high walls, made of marble. Further there is room within the complex , which is rumoured to house Shah Jahan during his imprisonment by his son Aurangazeb, from where he used to look over the Taj. Even though the Taj is the much famous centre of attraction in Agra, this fort holds its own and is quite an interesting place to visit. At this place we spent close to 2 hours.


And it was time to return back to Delhi. Unfortunately we decided to take the normal highway via Mathura and it was one big pain in the ass. This entire stretch of road either had some road repair going on or some dumb idiots coming in the wrong direction. The toll paid on this road was 180 bucks till Delhi and the toll paid on Yamuna expressway was 360 bucks. Hence given an option I would definitely pick the latter. Fortunately I was not caught by any RTO official for not paying visitor toll in UP :). 

Taj From Agra Fort

May 12, 2016

Amritsar : The Culinary Capital Of India



Amritsar is one of the holiest places for the Sikhs and considered to be the culinary capital of India. And we were not disappointed on either fronts. On our trip to Delhi to attend a relative's wedding, we decided to explore Amritsar and Agra along with Delhi, in order to satisfy our wanderlust. We had short-listed Amritsar primarily for the Golden temple and for the food. It is the home of Punjabi cuisine, which has become synonymous with North Indian cuisine all over the world, even-though it forms only a fraction of the North Indian cuisine. We had taken an evening Shatabdi train from Delhi and it took us nearly 6.5 hrs to reach our destination. The food served in the train was good, raising our expectations on the lip-smacking treats awaiting us in the culinary capital of India.


The entire city of Amritsar seemed to be undergoing renovation, so as expected we had to endure a lot of bad roads to reach the holy Sikh shrine. And on top of that the rickshaws catering to the tourists seem to be vehicles from hell, being rashly driven and almost giving us a cardiac arrest. We first visited the Jallianwala bagh, which is infamous for the massacre carried out by General Dyer in the year 1919 on the people assembled for a peaceful freedom demonstration. Right now this park has been converted into a memorial. There is a wall which is riddled with bullets. Further there is a well , in which many people jumped and lost their lives trying to avoid the hailstorm of bullets from the British.


Jallianwala bagh is quite nearby to the Golden temple. One has to cover their heads while entering this temple , irrespective of the gender. As we entered this structure we just "wowed" at each other seeing the beautiful and serene view in front of us. The Golden Temple sits in the centre of a pool , which is considered to be very holy. One can take a stroll around the temple and all the surrounding buildings and pathways are made from marble. Even though there was a decent crowd, we didn't feel so because of the huge open areas surrounding the temple. There are 4 huge gates in all the 4 directions of the temple. We decided to go inside the golden temple and after a wait of nearly an hour in a queue , we entered inside the holy shrine. Wherever we saw, we could see Golden hues. Inside the complex is the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs. Frankly speaking the outer view of the temple is much more impressive than the inner. There are different chambers  and levels within this temple housing what appeared to be the remains of the famous Sikh Gurus.


After the darshan we decided to try out "Guru Langar" which is considered to the largest community kitchen in the world. Here volunteers from all walks of life come together to prepare and serve food/ prasad to the devotees. According to some websites such as tripadvisor, langar is the best food in Amritsar, but in my opinion it is just a bit hyped because of the religious angle. The food was simple and decent, with roti, daal and porridge. Next we visited the Central Sikh Museum, housed within the temple complex. Here the illustrations and paintings are quite violent, depicting the various struggles the Sikhs had to go through to protect their faith , especially from the Mughals and the British. I had read somewhere that there is also depictions of how Indira Gandhi came so close to destroying this temple during the Operation Bluestar, but looks like all the material related to that episode have been removed off late.


Next we decided to pay a visit to Ahuja milk Bhandar, recommended as having the best lassi in Amritsar. After going through a roller coaster of a journey in a cycle rickshaw and travelling through very narrow by-lanes of old Amritsar , we reached our destination. Had lassi at this place, which was good, but not spectacular. We were still waiting for the exquisite food that Amritsar had promised. From the lassi centre , we moved towards the Durgiana Tirath, a hindu temple dedicated to Durga. The interesting part of this temple is that it has  exactly the same architecture used in the Golden Temple, including the Golden coat given to the main temple complex. But on the other hand , this entire temple complex was deserted. We spent some time admiring the views and then it was time to return back to our room in order to avoid the scorching afternoon sun.


SPOT THE DIFFERENCE :)

We decided to have an early dinner and short-listed a place known as Crystal restaurant based on the online reviews. Now this restaurant did meet and even exceed all our expectations for the gastronomical enlightenment. The best masala paapad ever, the best amritsari kulcha ever, and the list goes on. Finally satisfying our stomachs, we decided to visit the golden temple again , to get the night views. And boy-o-boy the night view of the golden temple is still more impressive than the day time, with the Golden Temple literally glowing against the pitch black night sky in the background. We didnt visit the Wagah border ceremony during our visit, due to the reviews wherein its mentioned that unless you have a VIP pass, you wont get a good view of the ceremony. Further one has to sit under the blazing summer sun, hence we decided to give it a miss. So end of the day we were satified with our expectations set for this city.

Narrow Lanes Of Old Amritsar



April 26, 2016

Bangladesh : A Neighbour's Perspective


Captured Off Mumbai Coast

Bangladesh is one such country which many people wouldn't have visited. The main reason for negligible international tourist traffic into this country is the complete absence of world class monuments/places etc which would have attracted them in the first place. So on enquiring with numerous local residents on the places of interests, I always drew a blank. I had visited Bangladesh on 2 occasions and on both occasions it was for business purpose. The first impression of travelling in the streets of Dhaka is the frustrating traffic jams and next being people everywhere. And you can assume the gravity of the situation when the person describing this resides in Bangalore, a place where traffic jams are as common as the sun rising in the east. Bangladesh has the highest population density in the world (apart from the city states like Singapore etc ), hence as expected you cannot escape from the crowd. 

Bangladesh is a muslim majority country (90%) and was liberated from Pakistan (with India's help), after the army of the present day Pakistan committed autocracies on the local Bangla people in the year 1971. In my opinion the population of Bangladesh identify themselves as Bengali first, rather than muslims. Hence this makes the majority of the population liberal in their thoughts. But unfortunately of late, this country has been in news for the assassinations carried out by IS agents, of famous bloggers who had been expressing their liberal views.  

Skyline Of Dhaka
The foremost factors which can make Bangladesh very attractive among the tourists is the food and shopping. Food is primarily non-veg, hence making a person like me who is a vegetarian non-adventurous in exploring the various options. Shopping wise Bangladesh has numerous garment industries which supply clothes to various international chains all around the world. Hence you can expect to get a very good deal during your shopping endeavours. Further majority of the population understand/speak Hindi, because of their former connection to Pakistan and of late the popularity of the Bollywood movies. 

Thanks to the population density and the narrow roads, the jams within the city are real pain in the ass. With a population of close to 168 million people, the only job centre in Bangladesh is the Dhaka city. Hence because of this everyone migrates to this lone city resulting in crumbling of its infrastructure. I was staying in the most upmarket area of Dhaka, the Gulshan region wherein you can find all the major embassies. Even in these areas I used to take close to an hour to traverse 8-9 kms. This city allows the usage of cycle rickshaws and when you augment that with the narrow roads, you end up with traffic moving at the pace of the cycle rickshaws. 


Anyway end of the day the people of Bangladesh are very warm and welcoming. And that is what really matters whenever you are visiting another country as a guest. And the single aspect wherein they impressed me, was the fact that they stand in queue for the lift everywhere, which unfortunately is not a practise in many countries including India. You can see greenery everywhere especially when flying over the city of Dhaka, due to the abundance of water especially from the Ganga and the Brahmaputra river flowing through the entire length and breadth of the country. 

April 15, 2016

Nagarhole : The Call Of the Wild


Nagarhole is projected as the national park with the highest density of tigers anywhere in India and therefore the chances of sighting a tiger in the wild is quite high. Hence getting attracted to the better odds and the best season for sighting (which being summer), we decided to make our way to Nagarhole forest. Finding accommodation inside the forest is a very expensive affair. There are some resorts near the Kabini reservoir and they charge a bomb for that. Hence we decided to find accommodation on the western side of the forest near to Kutta town. After our tour of Somnathapura we reached Mysore , had a sumptuous brunch at a cozy restaurant known as Jalpaan. 

Inside the forest

From Mysore we started towards Hunsur and after Hunsur we took a diversion towards Nagarhole national park. Sighting animals like spotted dears, elephants etc. is quite easy in this park even on the main public roads passing through it. Hence 2 wheelers are banned entry from this park , because there have been instances wherein elephants have attacked them. After registering at the check-post we entered the park, driving slowly and enjoying the ride. There were a lot of animals that we sighted even before we could reach the safari point. We saw loads of spotted dears, colourful birds and an elephant.


Once we reached the safari centre, we found that there was a huge crowd waiting for their turn. Safari in the evening starts at 3pm and 5pm is the last batch. After waiting for nearly an hour we got the safari ticket for the last batch, wherein they take us deep inside the jungle using mini-cabs run by the forest department. During this safari we spotted huge herds of spotted dears, sambhars, herd of elephants, peacocks, wild boars, bisons etc. Unfortunately no predators in sight. The safari lasted for an hour or so and costed 300 per person. Post safari we made our towards Kutta town , which comes as soon as the Nagarhole forest limits end. 




We had booked a room at Stay Simple Bison Manor, which I consider to be very good and value for money. It is around 2 kms from the town amidst coffee plantations, with decent roads all the way till the hotel. It is an old bungalow converted into a hotel and we really enjoyed the calm and serene surroundings. Night was chilly, even when Bangalore was shimmering with 35+ temperature. In the morning we went for a walk in the surrounding estate exploring the natural surroundings and came across thousands and thousands of coffee plant flowers in full bloom. It was a pretty sight to watch. 

Coffee Flower !!!!!!
Iruppu Falls
Following our breakfast, we moved towards Iruppu falls. Thanks to the long weekend the falls was teeming with tourists and the water flow was considerable less because of the summer season setting in. But still we enjoyed playing under the falls, getting gently massaged by the thousands of tiny water droplets. After spending an hour at this falls we decided to try our luck for safari at Kabini river lodge, wherein they take tourists in a different section of the forest, flanking the kabini river. But by the time we reached the place, we got to know that it was completely booked by the surrounding super luxurious resorts and there was no empty slots. Hence disappointed regarding not getting lucky with a second safari we made our way back to Mysore and then back to Bangalore. Being a wildlife lover who hates to see animals locked up in cages, my dream is to see an alpha - tiger in the wild , but unfortunately wasn't lucky this time around. Hopefully will get lucky the next time :).

Kabini Backwaters

April 14, 2016

Somnathapura : The Last Of The Hoysalas

With 3 Garbgudi. 3rd one not visible
Somnathpura is a hidden gem for those interested in temple architecture and  just about 140km from Bangalore. Even though the size of the canvas is not as big as those found in Belur or Halebid, the quality of the carvings in here can easily match those found in its more famous counterparts. Another important fact to remember is that, this is the last standing temple buitl by the Hoysala dynasty which is still preserved. This temple was built in the mid-13th century and it took nearly 50 years to complete this work of art. But the sad part is it was in use only for another 50 odd years before it was destroyed during the raids of Deccan sultanate.

Banana Flower

So on our way to Nagarhole, we decided to take a detour and visit Somanathapura too. The initial plan was to take Mysore road, have a great breakfast among the innumerable number of eateries lined up and then move towards Somanathapura via Maddur and Malavalli. But thanks to the long weekend, even before we could enter Mysore road we encountered a never ending jam. After consulting the google maps and getting to know the traffic snarls in this particular route leading all the way to Mysore , we made a quick getaway into NICE road and then into Kanakpura road. This was probably our best decision for the day. Kanakpura road had very minimal traffic and also well maintained. We averaged close to 90+ non-stop throughout the entire journey. But on the downside we couldn't find any decent eateries and hence had to reach Mysore for our brunch.


Anyhow just before reaching Mysore there is a diversion towards Somanathpura. This temple town was peaceful, with very minimal commercialization in sight. We employed a guide to take us around and to explain the intricacies of the place. He charged 300 bucks for his services. There are so many interesting features of this temple. For starters there are 3 garbagudis , arranged in a star formation which makes it all the more unique. For those interested to know Belur has 1, Halebidu has 2. Further this temple was not directly built by the ruling king, but by a local chieftain named Somanatha . Hence I assume there was pressure on him not to make this place grander than Belur or Halebid in terms of grandeur and scale.


kamasutra
Some of this things which are etched on the walls include very detailed events from the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha. Some sections of the temple even has carvings from the Kamasutra. Hence according to the guide the walls of the temple acted as pages of knowledge for those who didnt know the art of reading and writing in that era. Hence hiring a govt certified guide will make things interesting. Another interesting aspect were the carvings on the roof of the temple. One can see the flower of a banana tree (considered to be very auspicious in Hinduism) shown in different stages of bloom.

After spending close to 2 hrs in this peaceful place it was time to move onwards on our journey. We finally got the opportunity to visit this after missing out on it for close to 4 previous trips.  I highly recommend visiting this place for 2 reasons. First for the unique temple architecture and second for the tranquil surroundings.


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