Sunday, November 18, 2018

Eat, Love, Pray with me - the Love Edit

Rajasthan - the land of Rajputs. One that will keep a part of your soul long after you have left.

Frescoes at the Sati Devi Temple in Jhunjhunu

As most people do at some point in their lives, I had an aha moment earlier this year. A realization that I had spent the majority of my adult life, well, being an adult. From university onto some demanding roles in demanding organisations, from being single and foot loose and fancy free to becoming a wife and a mother and needing to be responsible, there just didn't seem to be a respite. So, when the lovely Ange and Nade from toursndetours floated the idea of a girls trip to Rajasthan - for 10 days, I just jumped at the chance. Ecstatic that the universe was offering me a chance to relive my 20s before I turn 4-0 (oh my! there, I have said it) next April. Without a second thought, I signed up for the tour; only to later have to face the reality of wholesome employment and all the scheduling mundaness that goes with it. I sorted it out, and began this trip with 15 other women (most of them strangers, none of whom I had met before!) on Nov 2. The tour that I termed my own Eat, Pray, Love (sorry, Elizabeth Gilbert!)

I must admit that I had some butterflies in my tummy - being back in India after ages, doing something that I have never done before, but the moment I stepped off in Delhi and was met at the airport by Sheesh with his disarming smile and a garland of marigolds, I knew this trip would leave an indelible mark and leave me with a renewed belief in that the universe conspires to give you what you are seeking, when you are least expecting it.

Visions of Rajasthan floating around in my head. PC: Sheesh Moondh, HTOI

The tour started in Delhi with meeting the other ladies on the tour - each of them remarkably talented and artistic in their own ways. After a night at the Lemon Tree Premier, that Ange and Nade had carefully chosen for their inclusiveness in staffing, we set off on our roadtrip of Rajasthan. Our first stop in the Shekawati region was the delightful Perimal haveli, for a spot of masala chai (what else?!) and some pakodas. The Perimal haveli is a heritage hotel, a converted mansion/haveli lovingly restored and maintained by its caretakers. The abundance  of delightful frescoes sets the stage for what will later be a treat for the senses when you are in the heart of Shekawati.

A mural depicting Krishna and his Gopikas

A mural depicting a scene from Ramayana

Long,  winding passageways of the Piramal Haveli

After bellyfulls of pakodas and chai, our next stop before our own magnificient haveli was the Sati devi temple in Jhunjhunu. Jhunjhunu is a district in Rajasthan that has dedicated a temple to Sati Devi. Sati, for the uninitiated, is the now banned practice of widows self immolating themselves on the pyre of their deceased husbands.

A lot has changed in India with regards to how women are viewed and treated, most of it for the better, since the time of the ancient practice of Sati. While you may wonder why we would decide to detour to something so morbid, I'd urge you to consider the possibility of what happens when we pretend that history (in all its glory and grotesqueness) is forgotten? What if, a few hundred years from now - the practice of Sati is reinitiated having forgotten the trauma and morbidity of years past. By confronting demons is the only way we can ensure that we don't repeat the mistakes of  generations before us. The Sati Devi temple, ironically enough, is now almost a monument to the feminine - a far cry from the very sex the practice of Sati was so unforgiving towards. If you can, this detour is a highly recommended one. I love this click by Sheesh below - he has kindly allowed me to use it for this post. I feel, the perspective in this photo shows the long history behind Sati and I love to think of the symbolism of the bell and the sunlight streaming through as heralding a brighter future for the fairer sex in the sub continent.

Sati Devi Temple, Jhunjhunu.. (c): Sheesh Moondh, HTOI

Motoring on, we arrived in Shekawati at the EPIC Vivanaa Culture Hotel. For those that really know me, I can be a bit of a hotel snob; it comes from years of having honed that trait (!) as a travelling management consultant. I am VERY picky about the hotels I spend my nights in when travelling. But, this hotel blew me away COMPLETELY. You have to see the images for yourself to believe it. From their very traditionally aangan/courtyard to the antiques dotted around the property to some, ahem, very interesting (;-)) frescoes, this haveli made me feel like I had died and gone to haveli heaven.

Haveli Heaven

The traditionally preserved aangan
We got off the bus to the soulful sounds of a traditional stringed Rajasthani instrument. The musician played the instrument and sang the song  "Kesariya Balam, Padharo Mhare Desh". It is a traditional welcome song literally translating to mean "Welcome my beloved, welcome to my land". And, indeed, welcomed we were with warmth and pomp, befitting Maharanis. Here, listen for yourselves!

 We were assigned rooms (and mine had the naughtiest frescoes EVER - I could not even post it onto this blog :-); message me if you would like to see them for yourself) and met up for a drink in the bar before we were treated to a jaw dropping performance of Kathak by Kalpana Subbarao. In the library surrounded by rows of tealights, Kalpana serenaded our group with her finesse in Kathak - a dance very typical of the northern states of India. Kalpana, is an artist and an extremely talented proponent of the art form. Her love and devotion to her art is apparent  in the way she danced and left us all mesmerized and wanting more than the generous half hour that she had already performed for us. Watching her perform her chosen art form with so much love and devotion, in a setting that was a contemporary library in a restored haveli - left me with goodebumps!

The absolutely stunning, gorgeous Kal

After a sumptuous dinner that night (for which I wore this custom made saree in parrot green and ajrakh borders), that Neelima from SilkLane made for me (I don't have any pictures of me wearing it, unfortunately - to be able to showcase Neelima's craftsmanship), we called it a night with the option of an early morning village walk with Sheesh the next day or wait for it!! a fashion shoot with the magician who is Gursharon Bird, of the fusion label Gursharon Bird Designs.

G designs delightful contemporary wear out of her studio in the UK. She very kindly allowed me to piggyback her fashion shoot with jewelery from my brand, Shubella. Kal agreed to model for us in the early morning - and G unleashed her artistic talent by making Kal over to look like a stunning Rajput princess. Kal wore a bespoke turquoise blue Anarkali that G had designed for her and a piece that I had duplicated using garnets and a painted picture of a Mughal princess, that I had named Jodha. Set against the lush backdrop of Vivaana, Kal's natural poses under G's artistic direction made the whole experience extremely surreal.

Kal, the Rajput princess!

With the morning fashion shoot wrapped up, we set out to the village bangle maker in the village of Churi - who custom made lac bangles for us. These gentlemen were brilliant at their craft! In what would have been mere minutes, they measured our wrists, asked us for our custom patterns and got to work moulding and crafting the bangles. But, ofcourse, because there were 16 of us who wanted bangles (!), these gentlemen delivered the bangles late that evening to our hotels - talk about customer service!

We then headed into town to gawk at the open air abandoned havelis with murals and frescoes so grand and rich with history that you had to but pause, close your eyes and open your mind's eye to imagine the grandeur of eras past. Of large joint families calling to each other across open angaans (courtyards), of seths (businessmen) twirling their moustaches, adjusting their pagdis (turbans), drinking khullads of masala chai and finally conducting business deals; of kids swirling, twirling and playing with their siblings and cousins. Of anklets tinkling, of bangles clinking, of the swishing of pallus....can you see it? can you hear it? can you feel the magic of a bygone past?

Look closely at the frescoes here (!)


Stunning frescoes in Mandawa

We tore ourselves away from this and much much more and went back to the oasis that is the Vivaana for a spot of lunch. While some ladies chose to avail of the extremely hardy (!) masseuses, G and I along with a few more brave volunteers conducted another fashion shoot with G's brilliant contemporary fusion wear and pieces from Shubella. Check out how stunning the ladies look below!

The stunning Pat in beautiful delicate trousers from Gursharon Bird Designs and jewellery by Shubella

Gorgeous Joanne with jewel coloured brocade trousers from Gursharon Bird Designs and jewellery by Shubella

Beautiful Neha with loungewear by Gursharon Bird Designs and jewelry by Shubella

Glamorous Caro in a chiffon dress by Gursharon Bird Designs and jewelry by Shubella

With the full day that we had had, we enjoyed the delicious buffet that the hotel put out for dinner, and then some of us decided to while away the night on the rooftop under twinkling stars in the company of friends (old and new) with bottles of Prosecco and rosé to keep us company and the most mesmerising songs sung by a certain someone (who wants to remain on the DL:-)). When I look back at this part of the trip, the sound of that voice on that cloudy night with the moon playing hide and seek with the clouds will forever be a memory that I can conjure up - and for that, I am eternally grateful!

The night was just so magical - that I am pretty sure I fell asleep with a smile. The next morning was an early start on to Jaipur, after a personal yoga session with the talented Pat Morrison. To be able to do connect with yourself in a setting as magical as the roof top terrace at the Vivaana was as close to yoga bliss as I am getting for a while!

Post yoga bliss!

This part of the tour - was my idea of LOVE. And it is all in thank to this gentle soul below, the door man at the haveli. Everyone was taking a picture with him, and I ran to be part of the group - and what he said melted my heart. He said "Ye lo, aa gayi meri bitiya" which means "Here comes my darling daughter. With the most generous of blessings for us, he bid us adieu and off we went to Jaipur (a follow on post) - where we unleashed 16 women onto the bazaars of Jaipur.

Blessings galore!

"Love is when all the glitter falls off and you still see the person sparkle" ~ Sneha Pal.

Shekawati had no glitz, no outward glam, no razzle dazzle - just a raw, rustic, untouched beauty about it, that seeps into your soul and becomes one with it!

Come back for Jaipur, wont you?

Ange and Nadine, what a fabulous homerun you ladies hit with the first stop of ToursnDetours maiden tour! Anyone can create an itinerary with the must do and can't miss list of places - but you ladies sprinkled it with your pixie dust and wove in all the experiences that made this part of the tour truly lovely! In the words of the lovely Gina Costa, Brava!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A land of romance and fairy tales

I am a sucker for romance. No, really, I am. Regardless of what my other half or my offspring would like to portray me as, alternating between the screaming banshee and the crazy lady on the warpath, deep down, I believe in knights in shining armour, of princes, of princesses, and castles and turrets and living happily ever after. Which would explain, why, when in my aimless Pinteresting I chanced upon images of Prague, I was smitten. It was love at first sight! With its iconic red tiled roofs, images of the Charles Bridge at sunset and sunrise, and its church spires, it had me at Dobrý den - that's Hello in Czech, for the uninitiated!

My first introduction to something outside of what I thought of as mainstream Europe, Prague, did not disappoint. It was everything I had imagined it to be and then some! From its fairy tale like architecture to its cobbled stone paths to its soaring castle turrets, it was my version of romance come alive.

The view from the old tower
Walking across Charles Bridge

With just 3 nights in this gorgeous city to spare, we got right down to it. From the first foray into tracing an illustrious individual's path, a la  Einstein, at Café Louvre, to my final walk about across Charles Bridge - this city made me pause time and time again, to reflect on its architecture, its history, and you know it, the feeling of romance and chivalry.  But, like everything, let us start at the beginning.

Landing in Prague, we made our way to the Augustine - a Luxury Collection hotel. Converted from a monastery and still housing a faction of the Augustine monks, this provided us the refuge we sought after a hard day of sightseeing. With their attentive staff who always chatted with us, regardless of their language barriers, to thoughtful touches like slippers beside your bed, and chocolates on your pillows, this hotel certainly lives upto its expectations as part of Starwood's luxury collection. And, I would like to thank the Partners, Associate Partners, Senior Managers, hard nosed clients, my mom, my dad, my brother, my husband, and my little guy, for allowing me to travel for work and stay in hotels and collect hotel points so that in time I could cash them in for some amazing stays. {Cue Music....}

Chocolates on our pillows

We started off grabbing a snack at the Café Louvre, where Einstein is believed to have visited; before making our way to the Jewish quarter. Would I recommend Café Louvre? Only if you have an Einstein fanatic - like I do! Otherwise, skip it and make your way to one of the other numerous eateries around the Bridge.

The Jewish quarter, holds a charm of its own - dating back to the 13th century. Here you will find vendors selling their wares from stalls, history seeped into every nook and cranny of synagogues to the most delicious Golem cookies. Amongst the most interesting sights were the intersection of religion as observed in the alleyway where the Star of David from the Spanish synagogue was seen in direct line of sight of a quaint Catholic church.

 When religions intersect

Before we could call it a day, I enticed my travel companions back out to explore the Charles Bridge and the surrounding area. We stopped to savour some traditional Czech treats - the Trdlo. Something that resemebles a chimney and whose batter is grilled and then stuffed with all sorts of mouth watering yumminess, like vanilla, or nutella, or strawberries or all of the above :-)

To walk off the Trdlo and to avoid the wrath of my personal trainer back home, I climbed up the steps to the lookout from the Old Tower Bridge. This was absolutely worth it - the old tower had beautiful stained glass inside and the most jaw dropping views on the outside. Tell me, wasn't the climb up the rickety old wooden steps to ccatch this worth its weight in Trdlos?

Day 2 started early for me - at the crack of dawn. I fought jet lag and the urge to snuggle into the comfort of the bed and explored sunrise over the Charles Bridge - solo! I wasn't too far from the madding crowds though; despite last night's bachelor party still going strong, a bride and groom adding to their wedding album and a model adding to her portfolio, I was still able to carve out a space for myself. This, I highly recommend - catching the beauty of the sunrise over the Charles Bridge - and if this is something you are able to do solo - even better! There is a lot to be said for the solitude that only having yourself for company provides.

Sunrise over Charles Bridge
The day continued with an exploration of the Prague Castle. Get there before noon to catch the changing of the guards and to avoid the hordes of tourists. The changing of the guards happens at noon - if you get there by 11am, that should give you enough time to explore the grounds. If you want to explore St Vitus Cathedral or any of the other buildings get there even earlier. We timed it just right, so that we had enough of an opportunity to walk around the massive castle grounds, and then turn into one of the cobblestone streets for lunch.

The day ended with us a catching a show at the Black Light theater - an intriguing 90 minute show, particularly, if you are travelling with little people. After the show we wandered back up into the Old Town, grabbed a pint of their best, and people watched. And watched the sky changing colour with the setting sun. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Every sunset brings with it the promise of a new dawn". This is a shot of the building across from the Astronomical Clock tower (which was unfortunately closed for renovation) - and no, while I did not spot a prince or a knight hiding amongst the turrets, my very own knight in shining armour shot this.

Day 3 provided us a dilemma of sorts. Should we take the whole day to go up to Cesky Krumlov or split the day up by visiting Terezin Concentration Camp and then head to Karlovy Vary before heading back? The overwhelming desire to see firsthand how one man's mania impacted the lives of millions won - and we rented a car to drive to Terezin (about 45 minutes from the city). Yes, it is a bit of a somber setting - but, life isn't always about the Trudlos, right? Walking around this camp, gave us an appreciation for what we have and what we need to preserve. Of how important it is that we not let mania like that sweep the world again. Of how important it is to safeguard the freedom that so many of us have and that so many of us aspire to. Warning: some of the pictures below may be unsettling, feel free to scroll past it to read further.

After the morning at Terezin, in an attempt to shake off the cobwebs of unpleasantness, we made our way to Karlovy Vary - the geothermal town that is said to resemble St Petersburg. The glamour quotient of this town is upped by the fact the quintessentially suave James Bond, featuring Daniel Craig, filmed Casino Royale in the Hotel Grand Pupp. Spend an afternoon wandering around this mildly upscale town, having lunch in one of the many bistros, before you head back to the city for your final night in the city of bohemian romance.

Until next time, Praha, you have my heart!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Hills are Alive...

...With the sound of music
With songs they have sung
For a thousand years...

No - I am not Julie Andrews or Maria - though, if you ask others, they may say that I am a "problem like Maria." And, really, how does one solve a problem like Maria? Regardless, don't this lyrics evoke images of picturesque, rolling, hills? Of lush meadows and babbling brooks? Of something like this?

The hills from the Sound of Music

 Today's blog post does take us to hills and lush meadows and babbling brooks - but, not in Austria. We are off to visit Notting Hill Homestay in Coorg, India.

The exterior of Notting Hill Homestay

I came across Notting Hill Homestay owned by the husband and wife team of Krish and Netra Ganapathy Krishna on a FaceBook shopping group I frequent (no surprise re the shopping group, right?!). I was so intrigued by the name (and being a hopeless romantic!) I immediately reached out to Netra to find out more about the cottage - and mentally filed this away in the list of places to visit when in India next!

Sit down with a brew of your choice and let yourself be transported to, perhaps, your next vacation getaway?

Over to Netra!

Chotta Sa Ghar (CSG): Tell us a little bit about yourself and what made you want to start Notting Hill homestay? And, why the name? :)
Netra Ganapathy Krishna (NGK):I am from Coorg and my husband and myself own this quaint cottage on Stuart Hill in Madikeri , Coorg. As I was not willing to rent out the place, the idea of running it as a Homestay seemed ideal as I could access the place anytime. 
Krish and myself are very romantic and our all time favorite movie is 'Notting Hill' featuring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. When I suggested the name, Krish just loved it. It's been Notting Hill ever since.
CSG: Where is Notting Hill Homestay located? And what is the easiest way to get there from major Indian cities?
NGK: The Homestay is located in a place called Madikeri, in Coorg district of Karnataka. It is a home to many coffee plantations and 'Coorg Coffee' is one of the best known Coffee brands in the country. The district is nestled in the Western Ghats and is often referred to as the 'Scotland of the East'. 
CSG: And, what is the easiest way to get there from major Indian cities?
NGK: There are airports in Bangalore, Mangalore and Mysore. Bengaluru International Airport offers best connections for International travellers. The airport at Mangalore offers good connections on the domestic and Middle East Network.  Travel time from Bangalore to Madikeri  is about five hours by road and from Mysore and Mangalore is about two hours by road. Mysore is the closest Rail head and offers convenient connections to Bangalore and other places.
CSG: What makes Notting Hill unique?
NGK: Notting Hill is unique because of its location, service and the hospitality provided. We offer our guests a personal touch from the time of booking and extending beyond check out. 
Comfortable rooms
CSG: What can guests expect from a typical stay? Do you offer experiences unique to Coorg?
NGK: Guests can expect a beautiful cottage built in a typical Coorg Colonial style. Top notch Coorg hospitality, great view and awesome food. We serve Coorg cuisine to our guests on request. Many guests come to our homestay to enjoy our signature Coorg dish 'Pandhi curry' (pork curry). Like all old Coorg houses , we have red oxide flooring and wooden ceiling. It is a unique
experience for many.
Interior hallway featuring traditional red oxide flooring
Quaintly stencilled walls
CSG: What are some of your favourite corners of the homestay?
NGK: I love sitting in the verandah or under the mango tree with a book. The cool breeze blowing always puts me off to sleep. Sitting on the verandah with a hot cuppa or a drink, watching the evening  view of the lit town is even better. Watching the  sunrise, the lashing rains and the evening fog engulfing the town during the winter are some of the special moments I cherish.
The verandah to sit and do nothing!

I will leave you with a few more lasting images, do drop by and check out Notting Hill (who knows Hugh may just be around the corner! ;)) - I'd love to know if you end up visiting and some photos of your experience!
Images Courtesy: Netra Ganapathy Krishna