Svatma: A Heritage Resort In Heart Of Thanjavur

rangoliThe white and powder pink flowers gently nod from the Chinese honeysuckle creeper resting on a bluish pillar….the faint smell lingering in the air…the sound of gurgling water in the heart of town distracts you and a sideways glance satisfies your curiosity and surprise as you spot stone spouts disgorging clear water in a stone channel…. and then fresh bright red roses and jasmine buds floating in a pot surrounded by ‘kolam’ or ‘rangoli’, a beautiful traditional floor design, greet you as you step in the entrance porch of this hundred year old bungalow that now sports a fresh look albeit a traditional one.

“Svatma” is one place which strives to introduce the essence of what Thanjavur is all about.

svatma

I had long wanted to visit this heritage resort but the trip materialized only in October 2016. The staff at resort was little apprehensive when I requested to shoot and be taken around the property…they wanted my visiting card to prove I really was a travel blogger! Well…a lesson learnt, and I have started the process of selecting the design for my visiting card. In absence of the card, I had to show them my blog and my profile page before they showed me around!

A Mix Of Traditional and Modern

Krithika Subrahmanian, an acomplished Bharatnatyam dancer, architect and the owner of Svatma Resort has woven her design skills and her passion for showcasing traditional and cultural heritage of Thanjavur into this resort.

The 100-year-old bungalow has been renovated so that it neither has lost its old world charm and yet is tastefully modern.

I am guided towards the dining area of the bungalow first but my attention is drawn towards the pool area just outside the dining space. The water spouts are there as well spilling water in the pool….the surrounding walls are adorned with traditional motifs and a false entrance sports an antique door panel. The lounge chairs are right inside the water and a high wooden bed fit for maharaja sits there smugly near the pool.

The wooden rafters and lattice of sloping roof, pillars fashioned out of jack-fruit wood and antique wooden corbels mounted on a stand as decorative pieces…all give that ethnic yet modern look to the area and I am quite impressed….I loved it in fact ‘coz its my kind of design!!

The walled open-to-sky pool at Svatma

The walled open-to-sky pool at Svatma

The use of traditional motifs, bronze statues of Thanjavur, Thanjavur paintings, musical instruments continues in rest of the property which transforms the interiors of even an adjoining contemporary building that houses more suites and deluxe rooms. Antique pieces in their rustic glory dot the resort’s premises strategically so placed that those doesn’t seem out-of-place at all..

An antique wooden temple replica graces the garden

An antique wooden temple replica graces the garden

The Luxury Quotient 

This boutique hotel boasts of 35 tastefully done up rooms and suites, an exclusive boutique, art gallery, gym and spa, three fine dining restaurants and a banquet hotel.

Rooms and Suites

Contemporary interiors decorated in easy color palette with local art and artifacts gives a warm feel to the rooms. The suite with four-poster bed, a huge bathroom and a covered terrace is the perfect celebration of traditional and modern look (but doesn’t fit in my budget!!)

Gym, Spa, Boutique and Art Gallery

Named Arokyam’  and ‘Soukyam’ the gym and spa are exclusively for resort guests. With trained masseur and traditional massages for hair and body, it is a wonderful way to pamper oneself.

The boutique ‘Sri’ and art gallery ‘Gautama’ showcase traditional arts and crafts of Thanjavur along with many contemporary interpretations of folk art.

The Gastronomical Delight

The three fine dining restaurants are ‘Aaharam’, ‘Palaharam’ and ‘Nila’.

Once the introduction formalities were over and I had been shown around the property, I was definitely hungry and the managing staff insisted on hosting me! I was not expecting such pampering…perks of being a travel blogger I guess!

Aahaaram....the restaurant

Aahaaram….the restaurant

I was told that the restaurants served seven different meal menus for the week. So there I sat for a gastronomical pampering with the menu for the day, waiting for the delicious food to arrive.

All set for lunch...

All set for lunch…

First up, I was served with ‘Javvasiri Payyasam’, a sago pudding and then came a variety of vegetarian preparations in a meal thali accompanied with a two trays of ingredients used in the meal. A junior chef explained us all about the preparations and its ingredients. A new concept indeed….and with the names of dishes that I mispronounced most times, it was a relief to know the vegetable used so I could ask for more…!!

After the gratifying fulsome meal, there was no scope of hot beverage that the resort offered.

Introduction to Traditional Arts

The resort arranges for various tours and experiences within and around Thanjavur to introduce the guests with the traditional and cultural side of the temple town. The day begins with a complimentary chanting session of ‘shlokas’ and ‘vedas’ for the interested guests.

A guided tour to the Brihadeshwara or ‘Big Temple’, visit to Bronze casting for world famous bells and statues,  visit to craftsmen of musical instrument ‘veena‘ and a culinary class are some of the experiences which the resort offers to its guests. Nearby town of Kumbakonam for temple visit is also arranged as part of temple tour.

 ‘Svatma’ resort is one fine example of modernity married seamlessly with tradition. A stay at this resort definitely connects you with the cultural aspects of the temple town Thanjavur.

Next time I visit, it will be for a Maratha meal for sure….

Facts to know:

  • Thanjavur is well-connected by rail and road to major cities like Chennai, Trichy and Madurai. The nearest airport is at Trichy where a domestic flight connects to Chennai.
  • Places of interest around Thanjavur are Kumbakonam, Darasuram, Kodiakarai Sanctuary, Velanki

Svatma Address:

No. 4/1116, Blake Higher secondary School Road, A.Chavadi, Thanjavur

Contact +91-4362 273 222,  www.svatma.in,  res@svatma.in

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A Wishlist And Not The Bucket List!

As 2016 draws to an end, I reflect back on the year and its sweet and sour moments.

The year has been quite fruitful but it is ending on literally a sour note for me….Why? ‘Coz I got infected by the Chikungunya virus after a mosquito bite in November and it has been really crippling with my joints all paining as if I were a 90-year-old! But now that I am on road to recovery…I look forward to the new year with a lot of hope and optimism!!

Lot many people make new year resolutions, promises, a list of dos and don’ts and even make a bucket list…

Well, resolutions are meant to be broken they say….and I am very adept at that. So no resolutions this time over….And I don’t like to call it a ‘Bucket List’ because as Robert Frost puts it… “I have miles to go before I sleep….” and I am definitely not looking forward to kick the bucket yet.

I wonder actually why everyone is eager to make a bucket list….I would like to instead create a “WISH LIST” for the coming year and add a new year, new destination every December!

1. Scandinavia

With Christmas just round the corner, who better than the jolly plump Santa to show my wishlist to? Santa Claus resides in a little village of Rovaniemi in Finland and not only during Christmas but all the year round!

Finland, Pic source: Free images Pixaby.com

Finland, Pic source: Free images Pixaby.com

Also known as Santa Claus village, Rovaniemi is declared as official address of the big old man who slides down the chimneys to surprise the little ones with gifts of their choice.

Finland definitely features on my travel wish list. And while I am dreaming about visit to Santa, crossing the magical Arctic Circle…it wouldn’t hurt to dream of spending a night under the sky to witness the Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis!

Northern Lights, Pic courtesy: Pixaby.com

Northern Lights, Pic courtesy: Free images Pixaby.com

Norway, Finland and Sweden make up the Scandinavian Peninsula and are a part of Nordic countries. That means these countries were home to fearless warriors, the master builders of ships, Vikings! Now I would love to travel back in time and watch the original Dragon trainers with their horned helmets and sail down the frozen seas.

Copenhagen canal, Pic courtesy Free images Pixaby.com

Copenhagen canal, Pic courtesy Free images Pixaby.com

And I guess the closest that my fantasy will be fulfilled might be at the canal in the heart of Copenhagen…

2. Italy and Greece

Having been a student of Architecture the ancient architecture of temples, aqueducts, arches, arenas fascinate me…Roman architecture was largely influenced by Greek architecture and it has its own added features but after so many years it is not wrong for me to say that ‘It’s all Greek to me!

So I need to remember the difference…. And a visit to Greece and Italy has long been on my wish list.

Athens, the  Greek capital city is one of the oldest named cities of the world and has been always been inhabited…that makes 5000 years of being occupied by humans! It is in Athens that the western civilization took birth.

Greek Temple, Pic courtesy Free Images Pixaby.com

Greek Temple, Pic courtesy Free Images Pixaby.com

Roman Empire was established later than Greeks but later Romans annexed parts of ancient Greece and took many elements from Greek architecture.The stories of gladiators fighting it out in Colosseum, the “Et tu Brute” of Shakespearean Julius Caesar while being murdered at Capitol, Cleopatra and Antonio Caesar’s love stories, all have left me curious….

The colosseum, Pic courtesy Free images Pixaby.com

The colosseum, Pic courtesy Free images Pixaby.com

The idiom “Rome was not built in a day” is not off mark at all because indeed once the world’s largest city gained prominence over a period of 100 BC to 500 AD.

Besides the beaches, basilicas, bridges etc….I love my pizzas, pastas, moussaka, dolmades and cheese. Where better to learn firsthand the art of making that perfect pizza and sauces than  Italy and Greece?

3.Germany

I was a teenager when the Berlin Wall came down and for longest of time the only thing I knew about Germany was Hitler and the World War! That is no more the case and the history of Germany intrigues me.

The more I learn about popular Nuremberg Christmas, Munich’s October fest and beer halls, Cologne’s twin spire cathedral, castles, bridges, north sea beaches… the more I itch to travel and explore Germany. Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich, Hamburg…all are mystery to me…

The fairy tale castle atop the hill

The fairy tale castle atop the hill

My knowledge of Germany is very limited…The country definitely features on my travel wish list!

4. Russia

I haven’t have been to the land of Czars but my husband has, not once but twice for work. He can’t seem to get over Moscow and St Petersburg! In fact for two years now we have been planning a trip to Russia only to push it for next time for some or other reason.

The historic fortified seat of power Kremlin awe me, the grandeur of Czars unimaginable…

Kremlin

Kremlin, Pic courtesy Husband’s visit to Moscow!

Spy stories often make me wonder the strict and secret life of KGB operatives…war stories fascinate me…the colorful basilicas attract me…Yes, Russia is intriguing for me and scores a place in my wish list.

St Basil’s Cathedral

A vegetarian, my husband had a tough time in Moscow however and survived on cheese, vodka and wine, he laments. Well I don’t mind any of those either….

5. USA

USA is a large country and in my earlier trip I did travel from east to west coast covering many destinations but yet there is a large part that remains a wanderlust. Honestly, before I traveled to USA, I felt intimidated…but surprisingly nothing untoward happened. In fact I fell in love with the landscape.

Along the Pacific

Along the Pacific

Though we drove along the Pacific coast highway but couldn’t spend enough time at Big Sur…haven’t been on Route 66….not seen Falling Waters designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. I have been to Washington but not visited the White House…

The wave-like rocks of Antelope Canyon, Yellowstone hot springs, Arizona, Volcano National park, Arches National park….and many more places fascinate me and USA still stays on my travel wish list.

Whether my travel wish list materializes this new year is yet to be seen. Till then however, I haven’t forgotten about the dear motherland, the Astonishing India.

And I travel to Puducherry again…to ring in the new year with a bang!

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The Temple Town of Rama’s Ishwar: Rameshwaram

I enjoy road trips; there is always something that catches the eye……people, landscape, birds, ruins, abandoned structures, amusing sign-boards or plain and simple food from a wayside eatery we might stop at.

It’s usually me who insists for a road-trip but this time the suggestion came from dear husband. He didn’t have to ask me twice…

So there we were one lazy morning in October with an overnight bag and camera driving towards Rameshwaram. My itinerary for the Rameshwaram trip was very simple…to pray at Ramanathswamy temple and visit Dhanushkodi, in search of bridge to Lanka(read about the trip here) that Rama made with stones that floated.

The road trip takes just a little over four hours from Thanjavur and I wanted to take it slow…no rush…with as many pit-stops. And it was soon after we left the town that I made a first stop for these gentlemen, the village guards, outside a small village temple.

The guardians of temple

Aiyanars, the guardians of temple

These Aiyanars are the guardian deities of villages, sometimes quite elaborate and colorful and are depicted as warriors on white horse or riding elephants.

Having almost always missed the Aiyanar dieties, it was logical to stop at the first one that I spotted  before driving past further to Rameshwaram.

Home town of the Missile Man of India, former President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Azad, Rameshwaram, derives its name from two words that is Rama’s Ishwar or Rama’s God. Located at Pamban Island, it is one of the four important pilgrimage destinations for Hindus; the ‘char-dham‘. This small town is of religious importance for both the devotees of Lord Shiva and Vishnu. If mythological stories are to be believed, it is here that Lord Rama prayed to Shiva after rescuing Sita from Ravana’s Ceylon, the present day Sri Lanka.

The religious town settled around the ‘Ramanathaswamy temple’ has sixty-four Teerthams, the holy water-bodies, with the most important being the Agni Teertham that is the sea, Bay of Bengal, itself. Devotees throng to this temple town to take a dip in these teerthams and hope to be absolved of all sins.

That a memorial dedicated to the former President, the scientist who was instrumental in world acknowledging India’s defense prowess, lay in pathetic state of neglect did not seem like a sin to locals there. I was much pained to see such callous indifference towards a great personality of the nation. But I guess there are greater sins….

Years ago, as a child on a family trip to southern part of country, I remember visiting many temple towns and getting wet and cold due to buckets full of water poured on us from the temple water tanks. But I am okay with whatever my sins are so taking a dip in sea or temple water tanks was not on my to-do list.

It was only after we neared the Pamban bridge that connects the Pamban Island also known as Rameshwaram Island to mainland, that the sea along the road-side attracted me. I could see bobbing boats and trawlers on the deep blue waters…the sea was many shades darker…very distinct from the sunlit azure skies above.

shades-of-blue

The road bridge next to the Pamban Bridge had more vehicles parked on it than crossing it. The first sea-bridge of India, it was completed in 1914 when the British Raj was looking to increase trade with Ceylon. For local villagers, a cantilever bridge that opens up in two parts to let the boats and ships pass through is nothing less than a wonder….so they stop with newly acquired smartphones and wait patiently on the road till the bridge opens up.

Pamban Sea bridge

Pamban Sea bridge

I stopped too…but for these views!!

View of Pamban lighthouse from road bridge

View of Pamban lighthouse from road bridge

A part of Pamban Island

A part of Pamban Island

By the time we crossed Pamban bridge, the sizzling sun had slightly deflated our energy and we delayed going to Dhanushkodi… a mistake! It takes roughly an hour road time to reach Dhanushkodi from where we had booked a room.

In an effort to dodge the harsh sun, we lost out on daylight hours at Dhanushkodi. The rickety mini van that carried visitors from private vehicle parking further to Dhanushkodi added to the delay.

The first stop of the mini-van was Ariyaman Beach, popular among tourists as well as locals for a peaceful evening by the sea. Small makeshift eateries, water sports, picnic spots seem to be the favorite pass time of revelers.

Done for the day...empty eateries

Done for the day…empty eateries

But I was more interested in Dhanushkodi. However, a small temple in what seemed

One for the memory

One for the memory

like a little hut was the only link to the mythological stories in the ghost town that greeted me there. The members of a large family that sat enjoying the beach considered it their right to warn us of not venturing alone further down the sea.

Always intimidated by vast ocean I had no reservations heeding the advise of locals. As such the dark of night had slowly crept all around us and there was no point spending any more time at a desolate beach.

I was told that temple was less crowded in morning hours. But the next morning the winding queue that greeted us did not qualify for a less crowd.

Procession of women, young girls and few women carried fresh sprouted lentils in a pot atop their heads. No one could explain me properly due to language barrier but  I assumed these women had come with the offerings for Shiva’s consort Parvathi. Shiva and Parvati, they say, bless you with a happily married life.women-with-sprouts

The queue, within the temple that has the longest corridor and a vibrant colorful ceiling, was impregnable….but there was another lingam brought presumably by Hanuman from Himalayas called Vishwalingam which had hardly any crowd and that is where I paid my obeisance.

The colorful splashes on the ceiling, the dwarpala statues on columns kept me enchanted and then I came across a big stone bull, the Nandi, placed outside Parvati’s temple. People whispered in the ear of the stone bull….Apparently if one whispered a secret wish in the bull’s ear it was conveyed to goddess and fulfilled!

And before I bid farewell to those elaborate never-ending corridors, whisper I did….

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In Search Of Rama’s Setu At Dhanushkodi

The sea seemed to have receded somewhere near the horizon….the rattling mini-bus ran along the deeply entrenched tyre marks on what seemed like an almost dry sea-bed. Sun had begun its westward journey and the skies were clothed in orange hues even as I traveled towards Dhanushkodi.

Mythology says, that it is at Dhanushkodi which literally means ‘end of the bow’ that Lord Rama marked the spot with his bow-end to make a bridge to Lanka. Located at the tip of Pamban Island, it was a bustling town once, complete with a railway station, a church, customs office, telegraph office, medical institution and boat express service to Lanka.

But what greeted me was a ghost of a town…abandoned, forlorn…in ruins. A devastating cyclone in 1964 devoured the villagers, the train passengers and a life they had cultivated there. Dhanushkodi stays uninhabited since then….

Church in ruins

Church in ruins

The ruinous church and railway station tell a story of what must have been. Another barrack like structure further down the beach had breathed its last with crumbling walls and caved in roof. The few fishermen huts seemed to sob in memory of the town’s healthier past.

I walked along the somber beach  under the gradually graying evening. There at Dhanushkodi the calmer waters of Bay of Bengal meet the turbulent ones of Indian Ocean but the sea seemed docile that evening….a facade people said… “Do not venture alone or deeper in sea; it is treacherous”

Deceptively calm...

Deceptively calm…

I wondered how it must have been when Rama decided to build the bridge… Was the sea tamer then? Did the stones really float on sea? Were corals used to make the bridge?

Though neither the historians nor the geologists believe the theory of a manmade bridge connecting Indian soil to Sri Lankan  shores but there exists an array of coral rocks between the two land masses and the sea is shallower along the rock ridge.

But Science can never compete with the faith or belief in God. And with Dhanushkodi being so close to Rameshwaram, where it is believed that Rama prayed to Lord Shiva before going on war with Lanka King Ravana, the story of Ramayana takes deeper roots in hearts of devotees.

And hence it is for this faith and belief in existence of God that people throng to this desolate town to touch the waters of sea, to pray where their God prayed for guidance and to have a glimpse of the mythical Ram Setu.

However, as evening darkened, the bus driver forbade us to linger far off on the beach and I could not search for any tell-tale signs of Ram Setu. The myth is that the new king of Lanka, Ravana’s younger brother Vibhishana, requested Rama to break the bridge after returning and that is what Rama did. I had to make peace with the thought that the said bridge was no more…swallowed up by the tempestuous ocean…

Mystery remains unsolved…if Ramayana was just a story, then the author must have traveled to all such places mentioned in the epic…he must have traveled upon a rock structure that took him to Lanka…he must have seen the sea swallow the rocky pathway…Or there really could have existed a superhuman like Rama who took an expedition to Lanka.

Somewhere there was the Ram Setu

Somewhere there was the Ram Setu

Whatever the truth may be…I felt a calm watching the blue water swish gently near my feet and ebbing away in the gray horizon. I returned as the night fell…my faith in God still firm and belief in story of Ramayana unshaken!

Good to know facts:

  1. Nearest railway station is Rameshwaram. Regular bus service and taxis are available from Rameshwaram to Dhanushkodi.
  2. At Dhanushkodi, a new road has been completed which is approachable by private vehicle and on foot.
  3. Mini-buses ply from the private vehicle parking till Dhanushkodi charging anywhere from 100 Rs to 150 Rs per head.
  4. It is inadvisable to be alone on the beach late in evening as sea is unpredictably rough.
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The Handmade Tiles of Athangudi Palaces Of Chettiyars

That the Chettinad is more than a chicken delicacy of same name, became evident while I walked around marveling at the old charm of a 150 year old heritage mansion and a sudden moment of realization made me look down on the floor….it dawned on me that the floor was as old as the structure above! And it still shone colorfully bright, felt softly smooth and like a richly woven carpet, lent the air of aristocracy to the whole structure.

Athanagudi Palace Tiles

Athangudi Palace Tiles

I was roaming the corridors of an old Chettinad mansion with its floor covered in the age old Athangudi handmade tiles; bold and vibrant warm colors in floral and geometric patterns.

The Chettiyar community of Tamilnadu were traders with an appetite to increase their business to far off lands. They traveled by boats to foreign lands and amassed not only wealth but also imported products from Italy, China, Africa and more. They brought with them floor tiles to use in their palatial houses built with the newly acquired wealth.

The tiles however were difficult to maintain and repair owing to the distances from where those were acquired from. The locals soon developed a cottage industry and replicated the foreign design making their own hand-made tiles. The local flavor emerged in the use of traditional motifs and selection of colors.

With advent of vitrified tiles, the hand-made tiles which were once a style and status statement of the palaces of Athangudi are left with but a few patrons who still want to lend their homes a rustic ethnic charm. Now Athangudi village in Shivgagai, the Chettinad district of Tamilnadu, has become the hub of these hand-made tiles.

Sand, cement and red oxide are the chief ingredients of these tiles. A colored paste is poured in the design of metal frame mould placed on glass surface which is instrumental in imparting the sheen to these hand-made tiles. The workers pack this mould with clay sand cement and place the assembled tile in sun for three to four days for drying. It is then cured in water for another week and again placed in sun for final drying. The glass surface is removed to reveal a beautiful design on a sun dried clay tile.

Even though there is no oven baking involved, the tile colors and durability is enough to last a lifetime. The tiles however are bulkier and need skilled laborers for laying.

But with no palace or a sprawling bungalow to call a home, I had to leave those colorfully dark floral and geometrical patterned tiles as is. I fell in love with the patterns and had wanted to take one tile of each size to convert into some kind of functional home accessory but the weight of a single tile discouraged me.

The Bangalas lounge with Athangudi Palace tiles

The Bangala’s lounge with Athangudi Palace tiles

May be someday if and when I own a bungalow like this , those ethnic tiles will adorn my floor space too.

Good To Know:

1. The Athangudi Palace tiles cost Rs 32 per piece and border tiles for Rs 22. The labor cost is Rs 2o/sq ft. 

2. The tiles can be custom made and delivered with extra transportation charges. 

3. It takes about a month to custom design and transporting of the tiles.

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Shimla Sojourn

Vacationing in Himachal, was a long overdue plan. Then things fell in place with a short trip to Manali and Shimla. After spending a day in Manali, we decided to drive to Shimla as well with sight-seeing at Kullu naturally fitting in the itinerary.

Nothing could have prepared me for the beautiful landscape that unfolded right before my eyes along that winding road where the sunlight played hide and seek with the tall conifers.

Sun and the Conifers

Sun and the Conifers

Kullu valley, also called as ‘valley of Gods’ or ‘dev-bhoomi’ sits in the Pir panjal range of Himalayas with River Beas gently flowing in the picturesque landscape. It was a princely state with Naggar as its capital for fourteen years.

The royal residence, Naggar Castle, a wooden structure built in 1460 AD by Raja Siddh Singh, still exists in all its splendour. A fine example of Kathkuni architecture of Himachal Pradesh, the palace is a heritage resort. It also houses the family place of worship Jagatipatt temple.

Courtyard of Naggar castle

Courtyard of Naggar castle

Jagatipatt Temple in palace complex

Jagatipatt Temple in palace complex

Another intriguing temple Tripura Sundari temple stood down the road in its grand silence. A strange tradition of offering shrouds of dead bodies to Goddess every baisakh explains the air of mystery around it.

Tripura Sundari temple by the road side

Tripura Sundari temple by the road side

A visit to Roerich art gallery summed up Naggar and we proceeded to Kandaghat Club Mahindra Resort.

Club Mahindra resort at Kandaghat

Club Mahindra resort at Kandaghat

Kandaghat Club Mahindra Resort

A premium sprawling property for family vacations, the resort enjoys the luxury of lap of mountains surrounded by lush greenery and absolute privacy. The resort with its various dining areas allows the guests to enjoy their meals in setting of their choice with a plethora of cuisines to choose from.

The rooms and fun activities are a separate zone and the resort makes sure families have a gala time away from their home. From playroom to craft activities for kids to dance sessions and karaoke, all activities are centered around the single thought of facilitating quality family time for the guests.

Suites and fun zone

Suites and fun zone

Adventure Activities at Resort

I chose to take part in outdoor adventure activities of the resort. The resort offers supervised archery, Burma bridge, paintball and Zip-lining. The resort boasts of longest zip-line in Himachal Pradesh. With trained people guiding all along, the ziplining and archery were a breeze through even for first timer like me.

By the time I had my fill of adventure, I was dead tired and retired to my room as soon as the sumptuous meal satisfied my hunger pangs. To my absolute delight, the room was a cozy retreat equipped with a little kitchenette complete with microwave for that late night or early morning cuppa. What impressed me was that for the families with infants and toddlers, such a thoughtful facility underlines the idea of a home away from home during vacation.

The resort is spread over a huge area with well laid out lawns and a small herb garden allowing the guests to indulge in long leisurely walks, solitude for those who seek calm and revelry for the younger families. The guests can also enjoy cultural evenings which the resort organizes time and again.

A day and a half simply flew at the resort and there never seemed any dull moment. Kandaghat resort is comfortably close to Shimla without being in too much proximity of the commercial Mall road. And a trip to mall road was an added adventure in the short stay at Kandaghat. The church, theater, post office and the wide road of yesteryear blended well with the new small and big shops jostling for space and vacationers enjoying the vehicle-free street.

Mall road at Shimla

Mall road at Shimla

The Viceregal Lodge, where the famous Shimla Pact was conceived gave the glimpse of the colonial era with its Burma teak interiors, austere exteriors and academic aura.

Viceregal Lodge

Viceregal Lodge

With two days getting over so soon, I am left wanting for more and why not? The stay at Club Mahindra was of utmost comfort….true vacation with everything taken care of, a completely relaxing two days.

May be I will plan a longer vacation at Shimla next season. It helps to know more about Club Mahindra membership though. And if you want to be pampered on holiday too, why not take a informed decision through Club Mahindra reviews.

My trip to Shimla and its scenic locales was organised by Club Mahindra.

 

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Matheran Nostalgia

It is that time of year again, when the love-struck couples make a beeline to Matheran, the cozy and tiniest hill station in India.

Sun sets in hills of Matheran

Sun sets in hills of Matheran

Located in Western Ghats of Raigad district in Maharashtra, Matheran, a quaint little town, the name of which literally means “forest on forehead of the mountain”,  is Asia’s only automobile free hill-station and is aptly called the ‘pedestrian’s hill-station’. This little town was one of the favored getaway destinations of the British during early Raj days. Like most hill stations developed by British, this too has many scenic view-points named after the officers of East India Company scattered all over the rugged undulating hill-top.

The best thing, however, that Matheran has to offer is the toy-train ride across the winding hill-side from Neral to Matheran. So what if this narrow-gauge train did not make it to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Site; it still is a heritage worth preserving.

Toy train

Toy train from Neral to Matheran

I remember a short trip on this train a few years ago. We had taken a Spicejet flight to Mumbai for a long vacation with family. Our daughter was just about two-years-old and the toy-train ride seemed like a fun activity for her so off we went to Matheran. A day in the small town riding horses and walking through the street full of shops and eateries made me fall in love with the old world charm of the small place. Since the trip was made on the fly, I had my doubts about the availability of nice hotels in Matheran, but my apprehensions were unfounded. There were not only regular hotels but also some wonderful home-stays to choose from.

Next day, we enjoyed a walk in the tranquil forest and visited few view-points. And though it tired us with a two-year-old child in arms but the short trip also left us rejuvenated. The little town had charmed us and with a promise to ourselves to visit again, we caught the next ride on “Phoolrani”, the toy train from Matheran to Neral.

If you are still contemplating about a visit to Matheran…… Don’t! The town will enchant you and maybe, like those early British settlers, you too will want to make a yearly journey to these hills. Believe me, you won’t regret it!

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Travelling With An E-Visa

If I remember correctly, my exposure to travelling to different locations for tourism began at two years of age when my parents traveled to Goa tugging me along on a cruise. While most kids and their parents traveled to grandparents’ home for summer vacations, my parents introduced a new destination every year.

Travelling to new places has not only opened my senses to new experiences but also whetted my appetite for exploring more far off lands. Soon I was sharing my travel stories with friends who would call me up to find out more about the places where I had traveled.

Two years ago in October 2014 I went for my first international trip to USA. I traveled extensively from east to west coast and visited everything from New York, Washington DC, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, Detroit and Niagara Falls. I keep adding more stories to my Travel Tales From America  .

I remember travelling to New Delhi and waiting my turn for the five-minute interview of visa application! And just for that we had to take leave from our jobs, travel from one city to other, spend on stay, food and travel. Needless to say, our trip was exhausting and hassled.

However its a different story now and many countries have facilitated travel by accepting e-Visa applications. India is a treasure trove of heritage sites which depict the art and culture. The monuments scattered all over the country date back to 10th century(or may be older still) to 20th century, from temple, forts and palace architecture to somber British palatial bungalows, Parliament house, Gateways.

Poetry in stone at 11th century stepwell

Poetry in stone at 11th century stepwell

And the good news is that India has started offering e-visa. Citizens from more than 150 countries who wish to travel to India for periods up to 30 days can apply online for their tourist visa. One important thing however to remember is that of the 26 international airports in India only 16 airports offer e-Visa facility, namely: Ahmedabad, Amritsar, Bangalore, Chennai, Cochin, Delhi, Gaya, Goa, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Kolkata, Lucknow, Mumbai, Trivandrum, Tiruchirapalli, Varanasi. Arriving on Indian soil via other airports, by land or by sea calls for a visit to Indian embassy and get the correct type of visa. This e-Visa is ONLY for airport arrivals.

e-Visa Applications for Tourists

One of the best implementation from governments globally is that you can now apply online for your tourist visas instead of applying at their embassies. You simply get an email with a PDF and the visa will be electronically linked to your passport. Off course there are some requirements but they are easy to meet. These requirements might include, passport copy, digital passport photo, travel itinerary, return flight uploads etc.

This is a of course great news for all those travelers who live far from the major cities where all the embassies are located, its saves you time and money!

Diverse countries like Cambodia, Australia, India and Kenya all offer e-visa applications online. You can check online to see if you qualify for the visa online by visiting iVisa today!

Other Countries that offer Electronic Tourist Visas

Argentina
The Rep of Argentina has a Reciprocity Fee that has to be paid BEFORE ARRIVAL by all Canadians and Australians. Argentina also implemented an ETA payment online for all Chinese Citizens. They no longer have to go to an embassy, they can simply pay online. 

Photograph courtesy iVisa.com

Photograph courtesy iVisa

Australia

The Australian ETA (Electronic Tourist Authorization) is not available to all citizens but depending on your nationality you can get your tourist visa online in as few as 15 minutes. With this visa you will be able to stay for maximum of 90 days and you can do business and tourism related activities but not work.

Bahrain

The Kingdom of Bahrain also offers e-Visas to tourist from more than 100 countries. The visa application can take  anything from 3-5 business days to get approved so you should plan ahead for any delays.

Cambodia 

Most international tourists can apply online for the tourist visa. With this visa you will be able to stay for up to 30 days in the country.

Canada

If your country is part of the Canadian Visa Waiver then you HAVE to pay the Canadian ETA before your arrival by air. You will not be allowed to board your flight to Canada without this document in hand. You can apply quickly here in case you want to travel there. You can visit iVisa to know more about the e-Visa.

Kenya

International travelers can apply online for the Kenyan tourist visa. Be prepared for long waiting times as the approval can take up to 72 hours.

Photo courtesy iVisa

Photo courtesy iVisa

Malaysia

The Malaysian tourist visa is available ONLY to Chinese and Indian passport holders and can be paid online here.

Myanmar

If you visit Myanmar for less than 28 days, then you can apply for your visa online.

Sri Lanka

Every visitor to Sri Lanka is required to get a Sri Lanka ETA online prior to their arrival.

Turkey

All tourists can apply for the Turkey tourist visa online by completing the simple form online.

United States of America

The US ESTA program is an entry requirement for visa-exempt nationals who will arrive by air. The document must be obtained online before you arrive to the United States.

Vietnam

Here you do not apply for a tourist visa, but a visa approval letter (also called a pre-approved visa on arrival) that will allow you to enter the country so that you can get your Vietnam visa on arrival.  Help is at hand with iVisa.

How can one apply online for this type of visa?

You can apply online from the comfort of your home in 3 simple steps.

Step 1: complete your application online.
Step 2: wait to receive your confirmation email. After the confirmation email you will receive another email with the visa. Print the visa document. Tip* Check your spam folder in case you did not get a confirmation email after 24 hours.*
Step 3: Take the printed document with you when you travel and show the visa at the airport check-in desk, and finally to a border or immigration’s officer.

It’s that simple. So next time, you come to the “Astonishing India” or the countries that offer e-Visa, don’t forget to apply online.

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Meandering Through Manali

The inky blackness swallowed up all that came in its way…..the deep valley was dark and eerily silent as our lonely car trundled up the winding road…tired and desperately wanting to crawl into a warm bed,  I still sat alert clutching at the door, fearing the worst as the midnight crept upon our car on that hill-side.

I was traveling to Manali from Chandigarh. It was well past midnight when I reached White Meadows Club Mahindra Resort at Manali. The cozy room with earthy tones of wooden floor and a warm bed beckoned me; a day long journey gave me enough reason to quickly accept the invitation.

The bright crisp morning brought with itself a promise of a beautiful day ahead and I was eager to soak my senses in the natural vistas of Himachal. Manali is a little hill town in the Beas River Valley nestled in the Pir Panjal range of Himalayas. The town is named after Sage Manu who made it his home “Manu-Aaalay” (Manu’s abode) and recreated life from his ark post a devastating flood. I wonder if the ‘pralay’ or a flood really happened because there is this similar story of Noah’s Ark in Bible.

The Britishers who found the climate and the natural beauty soothing and refreshing, escaped the sweltering heat of plains in India to the climes of Himachal towns and introduced the cultivation of apples and breeding of fresh water fish Trout.

With only a day in hand, we left for Solang valley. Beas river tamed by the Pandoh Dam gurgled along the road tempting me to dip and dangle my feet in its icy waters. Few enthusiasts indulged in river rafting…I reveled in its beauty from afar content to hear it flow noisily…

River Beas

 Solang Valley

The hills rose in succession…layer by layer along the way; some piercing the cottony clouds; peaks of the farther ones obliterated by mist and the closer ones proudly displaying an array of pines, deodars and firs. We passed many apple orchards…trees laden with red skinned fruits waiting to be plucked!

Fresh snow on farther hills of Pir panjal Mountain range

Fresh snow on farther hills of Pir panjal Mountain range

Soon we arrived at the rolling giant slopes of Solang valley, some 14 kilometers from Manali. As winter approaches the gentle snow-covered slopes of the valley attract skiers while in summer zorbing, paragliding, parachuting and the newly installed cable car rides are the popular adventure activities.

I was keen on paragliding but the breeze did not seem to have any intention of letting me have the experience. By the time we had our fill of beholding the view of picturesque Himalayan range and finished our cable-car ride, the paragliding team had wrapped up their equipment depriving me of the thrill.

Slopes of Solang valley

Slopes of Solang valley

Sailing above the world

Sailing above the world

Temple of Hidimba

Next on itinerary was the temple dedicated to Hidimba, wife of Bhima of Mahabharat. Revered for her sacrifice during Mahabharata and considered to be a reincarnation of Goddess Durga, her temple dates back to 1553. Constructed by Raja Bahadur Singh, it is a pagoda style wooden structure in typical kath-kuni architecture of Himachal Pradesh.

Set among the tall conifers, it seems a perfect abode of the giant mother and her son Ghatotkach.

Hidimba Temple in the heart of forest

Hidimba Temple in the heart of forest

Ghar aaja pardesi....

Ghar aaja pardesi….

But what made me linger a little longer in the temple complex was not the ancient structure but a street artist who created popular Hindi film music and nursery rhymes on his ancient styled stringed instrument.

The day seemed to be almost  over by the time visit to Solang and Hidimba temple finished. Famished and fatigued we preferred to return back for rest and recuperation. White Meadows is a premium Club Mahindra luxury resort sitting pretty on the banks of River Beas with a sprawling layout.

The club boasts of accommodation ranging from studios to duplex, three functional bars, private party zones, family fun activity areas, Svastha Spa and well laid out lawns for private as well as common use. With the privacy and comfort taken care of in the premises, the vacationers have ample time to relax and spend quality time with family over a game of carrom or pool table or grooving to the music by a disc jockey!

The resort believes in nurturing relationships and strives to give facilities to its members so the families bond together without bothering about boarding and lodging issues on a holiday.

I am all for experiencing local food of a region as long as it’s not something weird like chocolate-coated-grasshoppers.

Himachal Cuisine

Himachal Cuisine

To my pleasant surprise the resort had arranged for an authentic Himachali cuisine. The piping hot fare complete with Siddu(lentil stuffed fermented dough ball), Khatta Murg(Chicken cooked with dry mango), Pahadi Maas(Lamb stew), Meetha chawal(sweetened rice with fennel flavor) whetted my appetite no end.

All that food and residual tiredness brought a fitful sleep post the lunch. Well-rested I spent a peaceful evening in the well-laid out lawns, my hot cup of coffee and no one to disturb my reflective mood.

Later in evening after a few failed attempts to hit a ball or two on pool table over a glass of wine, a mouth-watering  fried trout and invigorating discussions on aliens, myths, legends and life sciences I learnt about the various choices of Club Mahindra Membership and the concept of vacation ownership. It was good to know that the Resorts encourage the vacationers to take an informed decision of becoming a member by going through the Club Mahindra Reviews of existing members.

The evening stretched beyond midnight again, but so engrossed were we in our conversation that it took a deliberate decision to retire for the day.

After all the trip had just begun…

My trip to Manali and its scenic locales was organised by Club Mahindra.

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Kath Kuni Architecture: Heritage Of Himachal Pradesh

Heritage, as defined in the dictionary means “an inherited property such as historic buildings that have been passed down from previous generation and are worthy of preservation”. The intangible heritage includes the traditional knowledge and practices relating to the natural surroundings that have been handed down by preceding generation.

On a recent trip to Manali and Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, I was disappointed to see concrete jungle covering the entire hill-side and traditional construction techniques losing ground. What seemed like little twinkling stars at night had turned into hideous houses so closely placed that it looked more like a hill made from houses stacked atop each other.

Though the village still had a few traditional houses but there too, brick mortar seemed to replace vernacular architecture. Town had hardly any typical houses, built from local materials that respond to the local topography and climate of the region. Some of the structures that reflected the traditional Kath-Kuni architectural style of Himachal Pradesh were mostly temples and the historical Naggar Castle.

What is Kath Kuni Architecture?

The traditional architecture makes use of locally available wood of Deodhar and Kail trees with the stone. The Kath Kuni construction technique allows the structure to rise up to as high as seven floors but a typical house rises up to two or three floors. Typical features:

  1. A sloping pent and gable roof made of slate stone shingles. Stone shingles prevent strong winds from dislodging the roof.

    Slate tiles for roof

    Slate tiles for roof

  2. Stone and wood walls without any cementing material. Alternate layers of wooden beams and stones are stacked to create strong long-lasting strong easily constructed walls. 

    Alternating layers of wood and stone in walls

    Alternating layers of wood and stone in walls

  3. Overhanging projecting wooden balcony with large openings to allow most sunlight and warmth to penetrate the structure.

    Overhanging wooden balconies supported by wood rafters

    Overhanging wooden balconies supported by wood rafters

 Why this Intangible Heritage needs to be preserved?

The traditional knowledge is always perfect for the region it originates in. This  unique construction technique has its advantages which needs to be preserved and taught to next generation because:

  1. The absence of cementing material makes the structure non-rigid which dissipates stresses developed in the structure during earthquakes thus preventing large-scale destruction and loss of life.
  2. The thick walls have air trapped in the spaces between stones and wood which acts as insulation layer and keeps the interiors warm during colder temperatures of the region. This also results in easy and cheaper maintenance.
  3. All materials are easily available and do not deteriorate for long time thus saving on wastage and resources.
  4. Construction is faster than slow setting mortar and the locals can construct their own house without external help.
  5. The materials being biodegradable, there is no harmful synthetic trash accumulation. 

Trikuta Mata Temple

While driving towards Shimla from Manali I happened to see this structure on a sloping side road that led to a village somewhere. A perfect example of traditional architecture it had all the elements of Kath Kuni construction technique; the slate shingles for roof, stone and wood walls and projecting wood balcony. The wood beams and rafters were decorated intricately and showed off the artistic skills of the Himachali people.

Trikuta temple by the road side

Trikuta temple by the road side

Hidimba Temple

Set amidst Deodhar trees is this ancient pagoda style temple constructed in 1553 in kath-kuni architectural pattern. This single story structure built atop a small cave has stone and wood layered walls that has stood the test of time.

Hidimba temple

Hidimba temple

Naggar Castle

This ancient castle was built by Raja Sidh Singh of Kullu in 1460. Converted to state-run rest house, the castle with its intricately carved interiors still survives in its original grandeur. A fine example of traditional construction style it has a temple inside the complex with beautiful wood-art.

Inner courtyard of naggar castle with jagatipatt temple on left

Inner courtyard of Naggar Castle with Jagatipatt temple on left

The survival of such ancient structures is proof enough that for a region that has much seismic activity and a whole range of weather conditions, the traditional construction is the best practice.

India is a treasure trove of tangible and intangible heritage….all that is needed is a passion and zeal to preserve it and hand it down to the future generation.

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