Hyderabad Blues and Greens


Nishi Roy writes in about her trip to the Nizam’s city of Hyderabad.


Day 01

City of Nizams is the apt sobriquet for Hyderabad. One has to just step into the city to realize that almost everything in the city has an imprint of the bygone era of the Nizams.

We decided to spend the Easter break at Hyderabad and, did not regret the decision. If you are wondering why I mention the term regret at all, well, it was because I was warned that this was the worst possible time to visit the city, with temperatures hovering around 40 degrees centigrade. Well, it was hot all right, but certainly not as bad as it was made to sound. Kept cool by having my sun-hat on and a bottle of water by my side.

When I heard the name Hyderabad, the images that came to my mind were of biryani, pearls, nizams, palaces and forts. Not necessarily in the order mentioned of course! If you are thinking you will require an extended period of time to savour all things Hyderabadi, well I can personally assure you, that we were able to appreciate quite a bit of the city even on our 3 day visit.

The spanking new Rajiv Gandhi International Airport at Shamshabad provided an apt welcome to my maiden visit to the city. Sparse showers had cooled down the city by a few degrees and provided the much needed respite.

Before we ventured into the city in the evening we relaxed with some hot Irani chai and Osmania biscuits. For the uninitiated Irani chai is a one of the must tries at the city. Made from brewed tea leaves and condensed milk: I was told on many occasions even some poppy husks are brewed in it. Caveat, it is on the sweeter side, and that explains why it is served in small cups, 2 or 3 sips and one is done!

Refreshed, we headed for the Hussain Sagar Lake. While big and small speed boats were available, we decided to get aboard one of the family boats run by Andhra Tourism department to reach the small island, where the serene statue of Buddha stands. The golden glow of the dipping sun, the cool evening breeze and the soft ripples of water was an ideal way to say adieu to the hectic day.  Some more chai and hot somas happened on the boat.

A good night’s rest at a friends heritage home and we were all set to explore the city further. Our first stop was Ramoji Film City. Though it was almost an hour’s drive out of the city limits, the film city is worth a visit. Ramoji, I would say is the Indian version of the popular Universal Studios. Personally for me the best part was the live film making process, a must-see, even at the cost of missing the other delights. Special buses and carriages (depending upon the package one had taken) take one around the FilmCity. TheFilmCity includes believable film sets of a typical Indian village, Hawa Mahal,ElloraCaves, and even Mughal gardens. Small wonder why the place is such a hit with filmmakers. In fact we were lucky to catch a glimpse of two live film shoots in progress. Phew! It is loads of hard work I tell you. It looks all so simple on screen, though.

My tip, if you are pressed for time, take the carriage tour and skip Fundoostan ( where children of all ages can play loads of games) but take time out to see lights, camera action show, i.e the film making process.

We had lunch at Tara, one of the hotels atFilmCity which served a pretty decent buffet which included both vegetarian and non vegetarian fare. As time was at a premium we decided to leave post lunch, since we were keen to see Golkonda Fort in day light and also catch their popular sound and light show. After all, what better way to soak in the history of the place than visit the city’s most famous fort?

Golkonda or Golla konda as it was previously known is an absolute must visit. Before, I elucidate the reason why; let me illuminate the term Golla Konda. Golla in the local language Telegu means ‘shepherd’, so essentially a shepherd hill in times bygone. Legend says that it used to be a mud structure built initially by the Kakatiya dynasty. But it gained glory and patronage during the Qutub Shahi dynasty. If the vintage names are making you feel confused and you feel over laden with too much info, do not worry I will not go into further details. Another small nugget of information – Ibrahim Qutb Shah Wali was one of the foremost patrons of the fort.  He was responsible for patronizing the local poets, arts and craft which includes the Telegu language andKuchipudi (the classical dance from Andhra Pradesh). Ibrahim Qutb was essentially a poet and an artist at heart. Small wonder Ibrahim Qutb Shah Wali ‘s love for his beloved, Bhageerathi is a stuff of romantic folk lore now.  One wondered why we do not have such passionate love stories now.

The fort though in ruins now, has a certain romanticism to it.  The ruins comes alive thanks to the well maintained gardens, informed guides and the sound-and-light show which tries to capture the history, grandeur and passion of the Qutub Shahi rulers. The deep baritone of Amitabh Bachchan and the mellifluous voice of Jagjit Singh, make the sound-and-light show an absolute treat to watch and listen. Watch, because of the superb lighting that they do.

It was late evening, well almost 8 pm by the time the English version got over and we had to head back to the city. The ride back was not so pleasant, since one wanted to stay on a little more and enjoy the Fort on a full moon night. Yes, we were lucky; to be there on a full moon night. The fort was awash with moon light. The dark shadows of the ruins heightened the sense of intrigue, drama and legend.

A six course sumptuous dinner of local delights at our host’s residence and thus the day ended on a perfect note.

Day 02

How can Hyderabad visit be complete, without having visited the Charminar? By 11 am we were already up there on its first storey, trying to spot the other famous spots, which include the Jama Masjid, one of the old Nizam’s palaces, the famed bazaars in and around the Charminar and the FaluknamaPalace perched on the hill top.

The walk up the circular winding stone steps, which gradually sort of tapered was fun, but the walk down was terrifying for me. I have a morbid fear of heights and get pangs of claustrophobia in too closed spaces. It was worth it though.

Built by Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, the Charimar is beautiful even post 418 odd years. The 4 minarets with its delicate small arches (typical Mughal style architecture), looks very picturesque, and no wonder is the most identifiable structure of Hyderabad.

One unique aspect of the Charminar (out of the many), which caught my attention, was thelotus design on the ceiling. One can view it better, when one is on the first storey. According to our guide, the lotus represents the auspicious flower used for the worship of Hindu Goddess Lakshmi and also as the reversed prayer cap of the Muslims. Exceptional, is it not? What a beautiful amalgamation of different religious thoughts. Sigh, where has the sense of harmony gone from people now, sad to see the ruckus being caused for Telengana.

Could not have left Charminar, without visiting the famous Lad Street (one of the bylanes next to the monument). Wondering what Lad or Laad as it is known as, is famous for? They are known for the rows of shops selling the famed colourful Hyderabadi bangles. A must see, to get a feel of the local craft, even if one is not keen on buying any for personal use. Just like, I did not, since I was saving my monies for some Hyderabadi pearls!

All that walking up and down the Charminar had made me hungry and we decided make a pit stop at Paradise. We just did not seem to be getting enough of their biryanis. In case you are vegetarian, try their veggie version, pretty good I tell you.

Visit to Hyderabad can never be complete, without having visited the Salar Jung Museum. Situated next to the Musi river (the river flows through the city, unfortunately a thin dry stream when I saw it), Salar Jung is one of the largest museums in the country.

The museum essentially houses objects d’art collected across three generations of the same family, i.e the Salar Jung family. Point to be noted is that Salar Jung was a title awarded by the Nizams. The most prolific collector was Mir Yousuf Ali Khan (Salar Jung III),who was the Prime Minister of the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad. Visitors to the museum can get a glimpse of how he looked and used to be, since there are numerous portraits and even articles of personal use on display.  Salar Jung III as he is popularly known as (small wonder, since the entire name Mir Yousuf Ali Khan is quite a mouthful) had a charmed life I would say. Because all he was required to do was to visit different parts of the world in search of unique and rare works of art. He hobnobbed with people who could offer him something exclusive, and yes, they got a good price for it too.

With approximately 30 plus galleries, even an entire day is not enough to completely see the museum properly. And this, when, only about thirty percent of the artefacts are on display! Yes, just thirty percent. How do I know this figure? We happened to have a small chat with the museum director, who said so.

So what does one do, if one is strapped for time but still would like to visit and appreciate what is it that makes the museum so popular? Try and take a walk past all the galleries, a slow walk, so that while you are not rushing though, you are still able to get a feel of what sort of artefacts the 30 percent of the showcased collection displays. On your walk through, keep a look out for some piece-de-resistance artefacts like the famed Veiled Rebecca: sheer poetry carved out of a single block of marble. It is amazing how the artist Benzoni has captured the intricate folds of the dress and veil.  Tipu Sultan’s sword in the Artillery gallery, ShahJahean’s ring, with inscriptions from the Koran and Mumtaz Mahal’s be-jewelled fruit knife (in the Jade gallery). The ivory gallery is breath taking in terms of the intricate carvings done from elephant tusks – look out for sofa sets in ivory, chess tables, etc.

In the European gallery which houses paintings from well known European artists like John ConstableCanaletto too, the most stunning figure according to me on display is the double-walnut-wood- figure of Mephistopheles. The name of the artist seems to have been forgotten in the passage of time, since no mention of it was there. In order to highlight the opposite sides of the figure, Mephistopheles is aptly placed in front of a huge mirror. The alternative different expressions (that of the demonic Mephestopheles and the demure-soft-featured Margeretta reflected in the mirror) of the double figure are carved to perfection. This one sculpture seems to encapsulate Faust’s legend completely. Even those who have not read Faust would be able to understand the basic essence of the famed German work, post having a look at the statue.

The Eastern galleries which include artefacts from China and Japan are stupendous too. Look out for framed silk-thread needle work pictures which look like paintings, but are not. Every-day-items of use from the Ming dynasty on display makes one swoon, not just in terms of  how well preserved they are, but also how far back in time it makes one’s imagination go. It all seems all so far away, especially in the current times of disposable plates, cups and spoons.

The museum is being renovated; two more floors are coming up, visitors in the future will get to see more special displays. Was hoping to have a glimpse of the Nizam’s jewels, but they are on display only on special permission. Some other time hopefully, will get to see them. I live in fond hope. I love seeing pretty jewels, more so if they happen to be from a bygone era.

In case you happen to be inside Salar Jung when the hour clock strikes, do make it a point to catch a glimpse of the chiming clock, which has an elaborate and intricate chime process. A drummer comes out from the curtains to strike and then goes back again. It is amazing that it works, since it is more than 100 plus years old. I was so thrilled on watching it, that I almost clapped in delight!

Harindranath Chattopadhyay in praise of Salar Jung had said, “The only museum in India that provides a true vision of Indian art in the context of International Art. This museum is the first liberal university in the country”. For those not in the know, Harindranath Chattopadhyay, brother of Sarojini Naidu, was a well known poet and actor (in Hindi as well as in Bengali movies) who served as a Lok Sabha member in the Hyderabad constituency.

Charminar and Salar Jung in one day; I was truly trapped mentally in a different era. Ended the day with good food, conversations and a smile on my face. Looking forward to the next morning, dedicated to Chowmahalla Palace and some retail therapy! How, can one leave a place without picking up some mementoes, right?

 

Day 03

Chowmahalla Palace, so named because of the presence of 4 palaces. The palace which is now run by the private trustees of the descendents of the 8th Nizam of Hyderabad, who soon left the country, post his coronation at this very palace. Chowmahallah was the seat of power and official residence of the Nizams of Hyderabad. It is amazingly well maintained and the huge Belgian crystal chandeliers in the durbar hall of the palace (known asKhilawat Mubarak) actually were twinkling in the morning light. I spent some time wondrously gazing at these crystal beauties adorned with delicate pure gold work. Tried imaging what it will be like, when all the 19 odd crystal chandeliers are lit. If one has the money, one can actually rent some parts of the Chowmahallah Palace for a private function. The patterned black and white marble flooring and the crystal chandeliers above, makes the place look straight out of a vintage story.

Out of the 4 palaces, there are two which are open for public viewing. Almost similar in design in structure, one of the four palaces showcases the apparel from the era. A must see. Stunning silver and gold zardozi work on apparel makes one appreciate the art of embroidery which was so prevalent in those times.  Khada Dupatta is part of the apparel which the royal ladies wore. Khada Dupatta is no ordinary duppata , it was 6 yards, yes the size of a regular saree! It was a hallmark costume of the zenana and was a must. My mind boggled at the amount of heavy clothing these ladies wore and here I was sweating in morning heat wearing a light summer dress.

Numerous rooms in the palace showcase the items of personal use of the Nizams, which includes gold leafed porcelain dinner ware, artillery and even some bit of furniture which was in use. The most popular object of admiration is surely the canary yellow Rolls Royce with gold mountings which was especially made for the sixth Nixam, but delivered during the rein of the 7th Nizam (the last ruling Nizam of Hyderabad). The car is special indeed and has been sparingly taken out; it has just done 356 miles in the last 100 years. In perfect working condition, it won the Cartier Travel award, which was held inDelhi in the year 2011. A 100 year car in working condition, now that’s cool.

Lounged in the adjoining garden of the Durbar Hall for some time, trying to imagine what it must have been like when the palace was alive in its full glory. Our guide was most courteous and offered us some sweet Irani chai and salted Osmaina biscuits. Post some chai and biscuits decided to get down on my next mission. Retail therapy!

Was tempted to pick up a pack of the famous dry-fruit biscuits from Karachi Bakery, but then desisted. After all I would end up having most of them! Better, not to have temptations lying around, there are enough already to make me go weak-kneed! Could make this well meaning decision, all thanks to the humongous breakfast we had with our hosts.

A lover of the sensual six yards, I just had to pick up atleast one intrinsic weave from Hyderabad and yes, the pearls of course! For the benefit of those not too aware of what the intrinsic weaves of Andhra are, here go the names: Upada, Gadhwal, Pochampalli and Drarmavarams. There are some more, but cannot seem to remember them.

Full of antiquated memories, we were ready to bid the City of Nizams adieu. Though there was a tinge of sadness: had to leave Hyderabad without having paid a visit to Faluknama Palace.  One of the finest palaces of the Nizam’s in Hyderabad, Faluknama is now a luxe hotel since 2010; post almost a 10 year renovation period.

As they say, if you want to re-visit any place once again, leave some part of it unexplored. One day I hope to come back to the city again to experience the unfinished delights and create some more memories.

Before I sign off, just in case if any of you reading is wondering why I have titled the blog as Hyderabad blues and greens, is because post my trip to the city I have come to love these two colours; have never before seen the colours emerald green and turquoise blue look so stunning and rich. If you are still thinking I am a bit hyperbolic, check out the beautiful chandeliers in the blues and greens!

Paradise Destination: Maldives


Priyanka Ray sent in her travel story about her honeymoon in the paradise isles of Maldives.

We had been planning long for our honeymoon. After we had gone to various travel agents and tour operators before zeroing in on the destination – after months of discussion and debating we decided that the place was to be Maldives!!!

Now the next thing on our list was to decide which operator to choose from. We decided to choose Cox and Kings. All the tour operators provide you with fairly the same package, so it makes no difference which operator you choose it from. In fact, to be honest, I would suggest one to plan and book your trip yourself.

We boarded the Air India flight from Bangalore to Maldives on the 7th of December 2011. It took us about 1.30 hrs to reach Male. We had made our reservation at the Paradise Island Resort. They have their counter just outside the airport. On arrival we were asked to wait for about 15 min till all the guest arrived. In the mean while we inquired about some local SIM. There were some local shops that offered SIM just outside the airport.

Paradise Island Maldives

Paradise Island Resort, Maldives

After all the guest had arrived, we were taken to the speed boat. It was a small and cozy speedboat. After all us had settled down, the speed boat took off for our destination. It took us about 20-25 min to reach our Resort. I had fallen in love with the place at the very first sight. The blue waters and the white sands were breath taking.

We were soon guided to the main bar where we were asked to fill in our details.

We were soon driven to our Water villa on golf carts. The room was magnificent one with a lovely sun deck. The room was situated just over the water and we could see the fishes and corals from our room itself. There was also a stair that would lead you directly to the seWe spent the rest of the day lazing on the sun deck and taking in the breath taking site that the place had to offer.

Sun sets on paradise island

Sunset on Paradise Island

Once dark, we stepped towards the Fagumati Restaurant. It was the sea food restaurant. At 8 in the evening everyday they would feed the sharks from this place. We were very excited to see it since we had never before seen sharks in the sea.

The next day began with a cloudy sky and a bit of rain but soon the rain gave way to a sunny morning and a bright day. Since we had booked for bed and breakfast, we had our breakfast at the Lagoon restaurant. We sat at their open air area from where we could see the blue sea and the white sands. The spread was an enormous one where we had the choice of choosing from a variety of dishes.

After finishing our breakfast we moved towards the beach. The virgin beach with pristine crystal clear water and the unspoilt natural beauty was simply more than we had expected while booking our trip. The best part of beaches were its true nature beauty, where we enjoyed various adventurous as well as fun-filled water sports like Snorkeling, swimming, diving and boating.

We spent most of the day on the beaches and in water. In the evening we went to the main bar area where one of the local bands were performing. We were pleasantly surprised to hear them sing out a famous Hindi song. Soon most of just joined them in humming the song.

We had our dinner at the Bageecha restaurant. The food was finger licking.

The next day too was spent mostly lazing around the beaches and trying out some of the water sports that were offered. There were various options of choosing from other activities but since we had very little time left, we decided to stay on the island itself.

At the end of our 3 day tour, we still felt that there were a lot left for us to see. After picking up a few souvenirs from the gift shop at the resort we boarded our yacht back to the airport.

We had already made up our mind that we were soon to revisit is paradise destination once more.


Which island paradise is the one for you? The Lonely Planet authors walked barefoot along every dazzling white beach, dipped their toes in every aquamarine lagoon, and checked the view from dozens of beachside pools (Yes, it’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it!). Plunge into its pages to reap the benefits of Lonely Planet’s thoroughly enjoyable research:

Kingdom of Tides


Contributed by Dianne Sharma Winter, a Yellowleg.com Travel Ninja


The muffled thrum of the boat is the only sound in the mist coated forests of one of the world’s largest estuarine deltas. The mangrove forest of the Sunderbans forest breathes in and out in drips.

Trees emerge eerily in the dew soaked exhalation of the land. Within the rise and fall of the tides, mangrove forests that by low tide revealed strong petticoats of latticed roots holding them stubbornly in place, now seem to rise and float.

A lone egret takes flight from the skeleton of a waterlogged tree, slicing its way through the mist with a lonely cry.
We tourists are still recovering from our early morning wakeup call and the world here seems reluctant to free itself of the cloak of night. It feels as if we are navigating the lungs of a Nation.
Formed by silt washed down from the Himalayas by the River Ganga and Brahmaputra, the vast tract of the Sunderbans stretches along two hundred and sixty kilometers of the coast of the Bay of Bengal, spanning India and Bangladesh in an area covering nine and a half thousand square kilometers. Big portions of the Sunderbans are protected by the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tiger Reserve, National Park, Biosphere Reserve, and Reserve Forest.

A seemingly endless landscape of mangrove studded islands, small streams and vast rivers, this almost silent world is inhabited by glimpses of shadows and shapes half guessed at. A furl in the water ahead could be a crocodile or a Gangetic dolphin, maybe even the famed man eating predator of the Sunderbans.
The Royal Bengal Tiger’s preference for human flesh, which is particular to this region, is thought to be part of the animals’ adaptability to the inhospitable saline environment. 
As far as the eye can see, two and a half thousand square kilometers of this tidal kingdom is the sole preserve of the Royal Bengal Tiger.

The Sunderbans claims the distinction of being the only tiger reserve in the world with a growing tiger population. Currently the number is 274, according to the 2004 census. That’s roughly 9.1 tigers for every square kilometre.

But are we the watchers or the ones being watched? Scanning the shrouded forests, I begin to feel that a tiger has more chance of spotting a human then the other way around.
In fact we are the ones in the zoo as our guide explains. Visitors are permitted to the park by boat and to selected watchtowers where cleared corridors in the forest allow for game spotting. But one is given a sense very quickly that we are the ones in a cage while the true inhabitants of the park will reveal themselves or not as the mood and the tide takes them. We could just as easily be a leaf in the currents that ebb and flow around the Park. Or – to a hungry tiger watching from the shadows – a floating Continental Smorgasbord.

Every creature living in the Sunderbans adapts necessarily to the tide that swarms in from the Bay of Bengal twice daily then slowly drags itself out again in estuarine fingers. Home to an amazing variety of birds, crocodiles, dolphins and otters, there is a precious interdependency here that is both protected and endangered. Sunderbans supports more than ten endangered mammals and reptiles as well as four million human souls living on the fringes. Gathering firewood and honey as well as fishing, the people have wrestled a living from the mangroves, literally from the jaws of the tiger. 
The result until recent efforts towards sustainable tourism was a situation of the landless in opposition with the endangered . With over one thousand ‘Tiger Widows” in the area, that’s 3.6 humans for every tiger. The Tiger seems to be on a winning streak.
A precarious balance appreciated through the legends of Bon Bibi, a forest maiden who was chosen by Allah to protect the people from the tiger.
Those who enter the forest with a pure heart and empty hand, says the legend, can be assured of the protection of Bon Bibi. The tiger is said to be Hindu demon who morphs into a tiger to satisfy his craving for human flesh. The story of Bon Bibi is a lesson in interdependency, religious harmony and ecology that walks hand in hand with survival. Even the boundaries between religions dissolve in this borderless land.

A small mud temple on the shore is barely visible in the mist as we drift by. I notice that the guide bows his head to the guardian goddess. As do I, but not before wondering if that means it will bring good luck or bad to the tour. Good luck to us would be a glimpse of orange stripes through the dappled tangle of the Sundari forests, while our guide has come from a culture where they pray daily not to see a tiger. Our hopes ebb with the tide, the best time to see a tiger is at low tide when they have less distance to cover as the swim from shore to shore. As we hug the shoreline, peering into the thick vegetation, I cannot shake the sense of being watched

Gradually the sun burns off the early morning mist, the forest awakes with screeches and flutters. Beneath and endlessly blue sky the tide begins to recede, exposing the spiked roots of the mangroves. Tiny mudskippers cling to the mangrove trunks, monkeys clamber in the branches. At the Forest Headquarters viewing platform we see a deer marking its way gingerly through the mud, a monitor lizard with a nasty slash on it’s rump ignores us with an air of wounded dignity. Not surprisingly, there is no tiger crossing the clearing although two sightings have been recorded in the park in the last week. Back on board the boat, we putt on dreamily, slowly turning a lazy arc in the river.
Our guide motions the boat close to the shore.
Fresh pug marks in the mud leading down to the water and back into the forest.
The tiger had come to the shoreline and watched as we patrolled the opposite side. 
In the spirit of true eco tourism, the Royal Bengal Tiger had taken nothing and left only footprints.


Plan your Sunderbans trip with expert guidance from Dianne.

Kissing Kuwait


Contributed by Dianne Sharma Winter, a Yellowleg.com Travel Ninja


Rarely is a traveler met with anything more than a suspicious glare or a robotic nod when passing into a foreign country. In the sleep starved hour of four in the morning, the sight of singing immigration men is a wake up call like no other.

No steely faced officials, these Kuwaiti men. At this impossible hour they are welcoming the planeload of bleary eyed travelers as if we were guests at a celebration.

“Come here Pakistani!” croons a uniformed man, waving his arm towards the queue at his post, his smile as wide as the state of Kuwait.

As he stamps and sings, the immigration man interrupts himself to make side comments to his colleagues, pat a sleepy child on the head and scan the waiting crowd. A smile spreads like an early dawn across the arrival hall. It feels like a grand welcome home except we are a motley group of passengers from Mumbai; immigrant workers, the odd businessman and this sole tourist.

The immigration man, who sees to my visa, flirts in the way of screen star.  Handsomely, politely as if we were at a cocktail party.

“Don’t be shy, give her one kiss in welcome!” shouts his singing colleague. Everyone laughs.

Thinking that anyone who can make a woman smile at this hour of the morning probably deserves a kiss, I enter into the State of Kuwait as if into a dream.

It’s a rich mans dream. Oil abundant deserts and a strategic location in the Persian Gulf that sweeps alongside Marine Drive from the airport, has helped to  put Kuwait fourth place in the Richest Nation stakes.  The wealth is richly understated. Buildings are austere and elegant, monochromatic in the pinky brown shade of desert storms, contrasting simply with the dramatic blue of the sky.

The sweeping curve of the highway is cut with the memory of old news reels. A line of burned out tanks, a sepia image of the desolation of war along this same road that now glistens with the shine of brand new vehicles, huge RV’s and sexy sports cars. Houses, wrapped in the patriotic colours of the national flag, flash by.

The Persian Gulf is as blue as the eyes of a child; walking along the boulevard I meet Habib. He invites me to see his city quickly offering to ring my hosts (which he does) to introduce himself. Also, he advises, the police emergency number here is 666.

“Kuwait is a very safe place,” he says, opening his hands to the heavens, “because we have all that we need and more!”  These are a people to whom random acts of generosity and joy come almost as second nature.

As the day deepens into late afternoon, the women of the soil uncurl themselves into an evening of shopping and Kuwait reveals her fresh from the beauty parlour face. Approaching the city, building projects bustle for attention. The Invasion by Iraq is a scar they politely hide behind rebuilding everything exactly as it was before it was destroyed and then some. Flags are big in Kuwait, national pride like Mother Love.

Women, the womb of their future, are totally indulged.  It is impossible to stand in a queue, men will usher you to the front as if you were doing them the greatest honour by pushing in. Traffic rules seem not to apply to women who are given the right of way at every intersection regardless of any road code.

The shopping malls are small cities awash with bejeweled women and flowing robed men, stores glitter with fashion so haute, its almost haute cliché. Women totter past on unfeasible heels wearing the latest catwalk stuff from Europe, sparking with jewelry.  A woman in a blinging burqa offers a flash of Reeboks and jeans. Families of black clad women cluster in front of window displays of fine filigree and stones in a jumble of colours so bright, diamonds so dazzling that they challenge the eye.

Eyes are big in Kuwait. It can take up to four hours for a woman’s face to be made so that the eyes are outlined theatrically, dramatically. The burqa is the perfect foil to show off their remarkable eyes and manicured white hands, as expressive as birds.

At the souks, charcoal braziers scent the air with rose and shops bulge with plump dates, nuts and dried fruits.  Shopkeepers, large with largesse, stuff food into me with all the satisfaction of a good host or a grandfather. One old man wants to kiss me on the cheek which he pinches between his fingers, sticky with date.

Later in a restaurant a fountain tinkles in the background as the waiter starts off the Sheesha pipe packed with apple flavoured tobacco which we suck lazily. The waiters bring a succession of stuffed vine leaves, fat olives and goat cheese and a small boy is running around under the adoring eyes of his parents. The child is fatly happy and confident in the way of an indulged child, sociable and unafraid. The mother has herself been to the beauty parlor, her heavily kholed eyes, poetically expressive as she smiles and her hands flutter towards us in greeting as we chat with the child.

Night is welcomed in a blaze of neon and twinkling lights, waterfalls of light cascade down the side of office blocks. The Tax department building changes from purple to green to red before displaying the national flag as we drive past, a show that goes on all night. Young men in traditional Arab headgear driving pimped out cars are a clash of chrome and cultures, the Marina is lit up like a movie set, everywhere lights blossom and spark into the desert night.


Plan your Middle East adventure:

Coffee Blossom Festival


Contributed by Smita Jog. Smita is well travelled in India and abroad. Her hobby is to read and write travel related articles. A few of her travelogues have been published in newspapers. She has written three books on her travel experiences.


Coffee blossoms

A coffee plantation owner invited us to visit his coffee estate at Chikmagalur in the second week of March. We accepted, little knowing that we would be participating in a coffee blossom festival of sorts.

The sun was at its best, hinting at an approaching summer; the tall, shade-giving trees along the road counteracted its effect somewhat and made our road journey pleasant. The occasional breeze brought along a sweet perfume with it. Was it jasmine? Summer always reminds me of the fragrance of jasmine and the inflorescence of mango and cashew trees. I looked around and found some neatly planted bushes with white flowers. They were the source of the scent (a deep breath ensured that), but they were not jasmines. The aroma clung to us for the rest of the journey. Initially we saw only a few flowers but as we approached the coffee plantation, they erupted into a riot of white bunches. Each cluster had about eight to ten flowers and the  composite resembled mini-chrysanthemums.

Coffee buds

Coffee flowers

As we entered our host’s property we were held spellbound by the abundant display of white clusters on green plants, nestling in the shade of biggies like silver oaks, jackfruits, chikoos and a variety of palm. Sometimes the blossoms resembled the flower-bedecked plaits of Bharat Natyam dancers, moving in step with their gyrating motions. Sometimes single blooms winked from behind green leaves like electric lights strung out during Diwali. On occasion they looked like the huge, serpentine garlands that are used to welcome VIPS. Sometimes the white flowers alternating with the green leaves wove long strings of festive torans. We marvelled at just how adeptly nature used principles of balance, proportion and symmetry in her aesthetic creations.

Flower decorations

Coffee plants generally blossom after the first pre-monsoon showers, that too for just a few days. This year untimely showers had caused them to blossom early. Everywhere we looked—along roads, on the slopes, beneath silver oaks and under hotel balconies—coffee blossoms lay in vast stretches, pleasing the eyes and filling the atmosphere with their sweet perfume. And witnessing this unexpected festival were we, the lucky ones.


Find a great place to stay amid plantations in Lonely Planet South India & Kerala:

Journey through the malls of Dubai


Contributed by Smita Jog. Smita is well travelled in India and abroad. Her hobby is to read and write travel related articles. A few of her travelogues have been published in newspapers. She has written three books on her travel experiences.


The first thing that comes to mind when you plan a visit to Dubai is shopping and why not?  Dubai has a number of interesting malls with exclusive wares with which to lure the ardent shopper. So after visiting places like Jabel Hafeet, Al Ain Zoo and Palm Jumeirah, it is to these malls that we made our way.

Madinat Jumeirah Mall 

It is designed in characteristic Arabic-style architecture. The brown sandstone structure displays a ceiling with timber trusses and features Arabic latticework everywhere, particularly the balconies. Even the toilet door is of intricately carved wood and quite heavy too. The mall has long and winding narrow passageways with shops on either side.

Here you can buy some exclusive Arabic dresses, handicrafts, jewellery, artefacts, paintings, carvings, sculptures, furniture, miniature camels and palm trees. Some electronic goods are also available. The interesting part is that the shopping mall extends to a private sea-face. Climb down a few steps and you enter an enclosed beach. On the other side of the enclosure is the Jumeirah Beach. Souk Madinat Jumeirah is part of the larger Madinat Jumeirah complex having luxury five-star hotels, a conference centre, an indoor theatre, an amphitheatre, open plazas, waterside walkways, cafés, bars and restaurants.

Interior of Madinat Jumeirah

The private sea-face of the mall

Ibn Battuta Mall                      

It is the most interesting of the malls, themed as it is around the travels of the renowned 14th century Arabian explorer, Ibn Battuta. It has six different sections, or courts, representing China, India, Persia, Egypt, North Africa and Andalusia, each with its defining architecture.

A slight drizzle had started by the time we reached the mall. The outdoor eating section led us to the China Court, the hub of electronic devices and gadgets. The India Court usually displays the latest Indian fashions at its many stylish boutiques. The wide central aisle of the mall houses kiosks flaunting wares like chocolates, sweets, dry fruits and so on. It made us realise just how hungry we were and we purchased some dry figs here. They are quite unlike the ones we are accustomed to eating, being fleshier and sweeter.

The Persia Court, the jewel in Ibn Battuta Mall’s crown, is housed within an intricately designed dome painted a vibrant blue that immediately attracts your attention. Here you will find cosmetic brands and also Starbucks. Since we were short on time and the mall is extensive, we did not visit the other courts.

The dome of the Persia court

 

Dubai Mall

It is said: “The Dubai Mall is a place like no other. A new day, a new dawn. From the windswept sands a new legend rises; a mall of epic proportions that is named the Dubai Mall.”

The Dubai Mall is an integral component of the Burj and features a floor-to-ceiling aquarium boasting the largest acrylic panel in the world. Sharks move about carelessly within the viewing glass along with other species, such as a colony of small yellow fishes. They provide interesting seascapes, moving up, down and through the gaps and holes in weeds and rocks. The mall’s ceiling depicts a sky with innumerable glittering stars and for those who seek it, there is an ice rink offering adventure sports.

The interior of the Dubai Mall

Dragon Mart

Dragon Mart is a 1.2-km-long dragon-shaped structure divided into several commercial and service areas, each section being demarcated by an alphabet. Under this roof is an exhaustive collection of Chinese wares.

At the entrance you will find a fountain that portrays a dragon encircling the globe. Little dragons look up to this central figure. Continuing with this theme, you enter the mall through the mouth of a dragon following the length along its tail. Section A has leather bags. Since we could not unanimously make up our minds on what to buy, we moved on. It was the same story at the jewellery section, so we decided to split and make individual choices; as such our purchases started mounting. Two handbags, a two-string pearl necklace, Winnie the Pooh stickers, a blue dressing gown, a red Chinese dress…there was much to please my daughter and me. My husband was not to be left behind though. He chose a camel-coloured jacket and, not surprisingly, a cute little Chinese cat that meowed its way into his heart. It wagged its tail, nodded its neck and purred…all at the press of a button. This was one cat we could take back home.

The dragon sculpture at the entrance to the mall

Artificial flowers, paintings, home appliances, dresses, decorative lights…we moved through the different sections up to alphabet I which is when we decided we had had enough. To retrace the long route back was compulsory punishment. For those who don’t want to walk back all the way, a four-seater is available for a fee. We decided to leg it, only our pace split us into two groups causing both to lose sight of the other and also of the way back. But then, what is shopping without the thrill of lost and found? We did unite at the entrance afterwards where we took group photos in front of the illuminated dragon fountain.

 

Mall of the Emirates

Prominent brands like Versace, Yves Saint Laurent and Jimmy Choo vie for your attention here and coffee lovers will love to stop by for a sip of Starbucks. But we headed straight to Ski Dubai, the most interesting part of the mall. It is covered with artificial snow throughout the year and features slopes of varying difficulty and also a chairlift.

Ski Dubai, Mall of the Emirates

Mall-hopping can be tiring; it left me with no energy and I wished to be home and in bed before drifting off to sleep and dreaming of all my purchases.


DK Eyewitness Top 10: Dubai

For a short trip to Dubai, carry the pocket-sized DK Eyewitness Top 10: Dubai. For more in-depth coverage check out some of our other guides.


Samatata: Ancient Comilla


Contributed by Reema Islam. About the Author: Reema is an environmentalist by profession working in the development sector in Dhaka, Bangladesh. With an active wanderlust Reema never misses an opportunity to travel to the remote regions of the country. Self consciously striving to be an eco friendly traveller while contributing her bit to protect the environment through her work, Reema’s real passion however lies in archeology. So from the elusive mangroves of the Sundarbans to the mysterious solitude of the Buddhist monastery ruins, Reema’s journeys take her to the greenest and the oldest regions of Bangladesh.


It was a glorious Friday morning with blue skies and fluffy white clouds. 6am, and even after a grueling week at work I didn’t mind waking up so early on the weekend as I was preparing to catch the 8:15 train to Comilla for an overnight trip with two friends. Mo arrived by 7:45 and we were off to the station where our friend Sadia met us and once the train arrived, we scampered with our bags to grab our seats on the first class carriage, normally at the front end of the train. A smart conductor in his uniform of blue shirt and maroon tie helped us into our compartment. Now trains in Bangladesh have been running since the British arrived and not much has changed in terms of the train design etc, but we weren’t expecting the quaint little passage with doors on its left that slid open to reveal a homely cubicle with spacious seats and a window and mirror on the back of the door! A merry combination of the Harry Potter trains and Wagon Lits from Agatha Christie books, we really had to hide our excitement. We shared the cabin with a family of three young girls and their parents who for the rest of the 4 hours journey kept offering us food and tea and biscuits and never let us pay for anything. Their warmth made the 4 hr journey seem like a half hour one! I furnished my two companions with info on the archeological sites we were going to see in Comilla and they diligently read all to grasp an idea on the history of ancient Comilla, that we were going to take a closer look at. The train arrived at Comilla station and we got off to catch an electric run Ez-Bike (7 hours of electrical charging makes it run for 100-110Km) to reach Sadia’s relatives’ house, who were nice enough to put us up for the night.

     

Comilla was known as Samatata from around 6th-13th century AD. Bangladesh fell under the region called Vanga and being at a close proximity to Maghada, which was quite a powerful state since the time of Asoka (304-232 BC). The Mahajanapadas or Great Learning Centers were a group of institutions that are said to have had an interactive relationship of knowledge sharing. The most famous one of these centres is said to have been Nalanda Institute in the now Bihar region of India. A corresponding university was said to be in Pundranagar, now lying in Naogaon district of Bangladesh. This centre is now designated a World Heritage Site and is called Paharpur. However a learning centre of probably a lesser kind was also discovered further South of the country. This institution is said to have housed 2000 monks at a time, as cited by the great Buddhist traveler Hiuen Tsang. As he weaved his passage through the Buddhist world of the 7-8th century AD, he came across temples, schools, monasteries and neighborhoods of people practicing the gospels of Buddha. In Samtata did he find one such institution and here did he document the name Kanakastupa Vihara. This could well be the now excavated Salban Vihara, the large monastery adjacent to the museum in Comilla now.

         

After a quick yet sumptuous lunch of beef bhuna laden with spices and oil and a mixed vegetable dish mixed with pulses (it was a Friday and Sadia’s family was enjoying it to the hilt!) we packed our bags with water bottles, flicked open our umbrellas, and tottered out with our full bellies in the roasting June afternoon sun! We booked a CNG driven tuk tuk and first headed to the Comilla museum, to be greeted by the remains of a fossilized tree at the entrance. Like all museums, we were not allowed to take pictures eventhough yours truly tried to sneak in a few but failed miserably as sans flash it would not work. A stunning collection of pottery shards, coins, huge stone mortars and pestles or “Shil & Batta” (where the mortar had caved in considerably with such extensive use) and not to forget the great many statues of the Buddha in various poses along with other Hindu gods and goddesses were on display. We gazed at the Buddha with his crown of curly hair bunched up on his head, Lord Vishnu with his two consorts Saraswati and Laxmi on either side, and a large bronze statue of Buddha in a Vajrasattva pose (sitting in a typical lotus pose, holding a thunderbolt in his right hand which is diamond shaped, supposed to cut through anything and not be cut itself, symbolizing purity and in his left hand is held a bell to symbolize wisdom and compassion. Together these 2 are essential in reaching enlightenment). The museum is large and houses many relics set in simple glass shelves, from the times of the Guptas, the Palas, the Chandra Senas and also the local ruling dynasties such as the Khagdas and the Devas, guarded by the sincere museum officials in plainclothes with the knack of swooping down upon you the moment your hand surreptitiously goes for the camera! After several foiled attempts at taking pictures I stepped out to the front entrance. Like all museums designed in Bangladesh, a tiny “bookshop”, consisting of two shelves set behind the old man at the ticket counter is situated near the main entrance. I brought out dusty old volumes of books I wanted to buy and brochures which cost so little that I wished the Govt had made them slightly more expensive so the Department of Archeology could raise some much needed revenue!

We stepped out in the blazing sun and walked down the sloping road to the Salbon Bihara, or Salavana Vihara as the signboard said, confusing my two friends, who had yet to learn how the names of these ancient sites were completely messed up on accounts of the confusion between Bengali and Sanskritic spellings. Vihara means monastery and Salbon is basically the Sal (shorea robusta tree) Forest (bon), so the locals call this place by a name given at a time when the forest still surrounded these parts and the Bihara was still not surrounded by the artificial garden now sprawling around it. With paved brick paths and flowers of every size and color that made one feel like they were in the middle of a very cheesy Indian movie shooting where the “hero” would pop up any moment from behind a tree and dance his way Jeetendra fashion, complete with white shoes, to his “heroine”, the garden was a welcome site for Friday revelers in their resplendent saris and bus loads of screeching kids. We blocked out the noise and concentrated at the lone kid sprinting across the boundary wall to the bihara (with our umbrellas open of course!) with signs everywhere warning visitors to NOT climb the wall. The main part is said to be the area that housed the main monastery for the students, a fact quite evident to even a novice like myself, with little cubicles that obviously accounted for the little cells where the monks resided. In total there are 115 cells and remnants of what could be a kitchen, abbot’s office and courtyard have been identified by the experts. However to inquisitive novices like, us all we could make out were possible windows or door jambs or a seat, none of which I am sure were correct. We photographed, waited in the sun for the people to clear off so we could take a picture of the vestige in its true form, gave up and left for our next destination.

I said “Itakhola Mura”, he gave me a puzzled look and said “there is no such place here”, I went into panic mode 1 and spluttered something incoherent at which his face gradually lit up and he said “Oh Ittkhola mura”! Ahhhh… the many phonetic wonders of our trip. Our tuk tuk driver labored on an upward sloping path and the vehicle heaved its way to arrive at yet another red brick built structure, in a cruciform design. These structures mainly depict either a monastery of sorts with a residence area, courtyard and maybe an office or two. Itakhola Mura had less people as it requires a mildly steep ascent to the main structure so we took pictures to our heart’s content. We climbed the main structure which had a staircase certainly newly installed by the Dept of Archeology to make it easier for visitors (much to the exasperation of Sadia who felt this mixture of old and new bricks was taking away the authenticity of the structure) and discovered to our delight a narrow passage with little alcoves in the wall probably meant to place oil lamps within. At the end of this passage was some kind of an alter but the real surprise was waiting for us when we climbed one storey ( the “stairs” were really the disintegrating bricks of the main walls, making us wonder whether we really should be climbing up in the first place..) and discovered the top of an iron cage. Looking into it we saw a large, whitish torso-less statue, in a lotus position walled in on all 4 sides. This in situ statue was not removed by the authorities and left to dazzle its visitors. The walls surrounding it also had the same alcoves for oil lamps, making us all speculate how they must have lit them considering the only way in was from where we were standing, one storey above. A ladder, ropes, or agile monks, however they lit those lamps in there, we came away animated and rearing to visit our next site.

The tuk tuk rolled down the slope and it suddenly started raining. The pre monsoon rain turned into quite a downpour so we ended up at the Cantonment canteen just down the road and ordered sweet tea with biscuits. The canteen was full of the locals watching the Friday movie show on the Bangladesh television (BTV) and while the “heroine” in a red silk gown with sequins was meeting her “hero” wearing a leather jacket and cowboy boots in a jail cell, we sipped our tea and serenely looked out at the road lined with trees on either side and the falling rain making the leaves dip rhythmically.

Once the rain ended, we took the short minute drive up to another sloping path and arrived at our last stop of the day, Rupban Mura. This site had more than one built structure as it contained a monastery, a cruciform temple and 2 votive stupas (so the museum brochure specified!) Stupas, especially votive stupas were a tradition that were popularized by Asoka when he had the remains of the Buddha brought in and distributed them in several hundreds of urns and placed these in the various temples that he had built. Thus the dome shaped stupa structure got absorbed into Buddhist architecture and morphed into the Pagodas of Japan and the striking tall, chimney type version of the Thai, Cambodian or the Java versions. A life size sandstone Buddha was found at Rupban Mura now resting in the museum and I promptly stepped into the cavity where it was and looked up to see a cruciform roof sloping upwards. The mura itself was harder to climb up than the other structures but we somehow managed although one of us (certainly NOT me) remained down pretending to be enjoying the serenity but frankly scared of heights! The Rupban Mura spoke little of its past but raised many questions as to some of the structures strewn around the site. Some were just raised octagonal brick platforms that frankly looked more like a stage set for a play or where a teacher must have sat and spoken to his disciples sitting around him on the ground beneath… we left pensive and wondering how the monks of Devaparvata must have lived.

 

We slept like babies to wake up refreshed and started off at 9:30am to reach the war cemetery within the Comilla Cantonment area. This cantt being the oldest in Bangaldesh was witness to the ravages of the 2nd World War when the Japanese were attacking the neighboring Burma. Hence troops from all Allied forces along with those of the then British colonies like India, East Africa et al are buried here. I have always felt that graveyards should somehow not be open to tourists and visitors, but the fact that I saw soldiers from all over the British Commonwealth countries and some of them as young as 19 years old, coupled with the touching epitaphs left by their families, left me quite impressed. To think that we as a country actually had a fairly important role to play in the war was indeed news to me. However the next stop uplifted our somber moods ending our trip on a high note.

Ranir Bungalow mound was next on my list of places before I leave Comilla and we spent a long time looking for it finally arriving at the Dharmasagr Ranir Kuti. The mound was somewhere neaby but by then we had decided to check out the colonial style bungalow, though not very well preserved that greeted us instead. We entered only to find the BARD folks (Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development, an old organization with a very spacious and picturesque campus near the Salbon Bihara) with an office there. Their presence has at least ensured that the bungalow is relatively well looked after. Rather an empty interior led to a gorgeous view of an expansive pond and a quaint garden with a small wooden boat in one corner. Apparently the King of the Trippera region or Tripura, Dharma Manikya would come to Comilla to hunt and was prompted to build a summer house. Hence the “Dharmasagar” or the huge pond was cut up in the 1400s and is said to have been the largest one in Bangladesh. The royal family of Tripura now reside in Agartala, India. The lovely breeze that wafted over the pond was so calming that we just sat on the wide stairs that led down to it like a typical ghat and forgot all about our train in half hour!

The train was unfortunately three hours late and we came back home, hungry and exhausted, but with renewed gusto for our next visit.


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