Tag Archives: Holiday

Bharatpur: Birders delight

Bharatpur Bird SanctuaryWe left our annual vacation planning too late last year. As November rolled around with no destination in mind, I knew that it would be next to impossible to put together a proper itinerary and get reservations at decent hotels. So we decided to reduce our vacation dates – since no time to plan means you can’t visit multiple cities – and go back to Rajasthan. This time, we chose to visit Bharatpur. Famous for its bird sanctuary, it’s one of the few cities in Rajasthan that we haven’t been to yet.

Small birds, Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary

Most of the hotels were, as I had feared, booked or way out of our budget, so we settled on the Falcon Guesthouse. It had got some rave reviews on TripAdvisor, and even though there were no pictures of the place online, I hoped that at least some of those reviews were genuine.

Black necked ibis_Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary

The real charm of the guesthouse is the owners. The rooms themselves are very basic and functional. They owners, though, are warm and welcoming. They treated us like house guests rather than tourists. They’re knowledgeable about the bird sanctuary and the surrounding areas. They’re genuinely interested in the people who stay with them. They make interesting and fun conversation. And the food there is absolutely yummy! I would heartily recommend it to anyone visiting Bharatpur.

Most people who visit Bharatpur go there mainly for the bird sanctuary, and we were no different. We didn’t visit any of the other sights in town – the Lohagarh fort or the palace – we had eyes only for the birds.

Darter_Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary

If you’re driving down, you can take your car a little way into the sanctuary and proceed from there on foot, on bicycle or on a cycle rickshaw. The driver of the cycle rickshaw doubles up as the guide. Make sure you take one of the authorized cycle rickshaws – you’ll recognize them by the little yellow sign that tells you they are authorized guides – because those guys sure know their birds. And they will help you get as close to them as you can so you can take some good pictures. And did I mention that they’ve been trained by the World Wildlife Federation? So yes, you want to do at least one trip into the sanctuary with them.

Ducks at Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary

Almost all our visits to the park bar one – when we took a cycle rickshaw – were on foot. You’ll have tons of bird sightings every few steps along the little path that winds through the sanctuary. Even if you’re walking along with no idea about where a bird perched high above you on a tree, one of the cycle guides will happily point it out to you as he rides along with his set of tourists.

Take your time. Take out your binoculars and just watch the birds at play, at rest, hunting or foraging for food. The peace and quiet, broken only by birdsong and the flapping of wings, makes this a serene spot to visit.

Pond Heron_Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary

Each day that you go back will be slightly different. Some days you’ll see new birds or beasts, on another you might be lucky to chance upon a darter as it hunts for fish, on a third you might spot a neelgai or a sambhar grazing in the trees.

The sheer varieties of birds there is mind boggling – grey herons, jungle babblers, painted storks, saras cranes, snake birds (darters), spotted owls, different varieties of ducks, to name just a few – and also some spotted deer, neelgais, jackals and sambhars.

Saras Crane_Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary

We hoped to see pythons, but they proved to be elusive. We did see one particularly lazy snake, though – it had a squirrel dancing all around it, but just gave it the royal ignore and slowly, languorously, crossed the walking path and disappeared into the bushes.

It was good fun to walk around the sanctuary, spotting birds, sitting on a bench watching them groom themselves or catch fish. In fact, being able to walk around the sanctuary made it a completely different experience from zipping through a wildlife park in a jeep with pesky, noisy tourists scaring the animals away. Most people we saw around us were serious bird watchers, pointing out birds, standing and admiring them through their binoculars, and capturing them on camera with lenses that gave my poor little 55-250 mm lens a serious complex!

Spotted Deer_Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary

Our three days at Bharatpur just flew by, and before we knew it or were even ready to leave those beautiful birds and long walks through the sanctuary, it was time to return home.

Coming up:
Around Bharatpur:
Deeg Palace
Fatehpur Sikri
Agra

My favorite things

With Diwali, the festival of lights, just around the corner, I’ve been pouring over ideas for unique lighting ideas. And boy, there are so many that made me go Ooooh! Here are a few of my favorites…

I fell head over heels in love with these fairy lights in a cage – found on The Wishing Chair’s pinterest board. Aren’t these totally moody?

fairy lights in a cage

Then there are these fairy lights and butterflies around a mirror. They’d make a girl look tantalizing, don’t you think?

Fairy lights around mirror

And these cool, colorful lanterns strung up along a window could be a decorative item from Diwali through New Year. You could also make it a part of your decor if you can pull it off right!

tea lights strung up

If you’ve got a crafty bone in your body (and by that I mean the DIY kind), you could try making these amazing egg carton flower lights. Aren’t they gorgeous?

egg carton flower lights

Or maybe this glowing jar light…

glowing jar lights

Or how about this DIY bottle full of light? Just change the snowflake with something seasonal, and it could be a talking piece year-round!

DIY bottle lights

Now it’s your turn – which one of these is your favorite?

Take a look at some more of my favorite things…

Mumbai Diaries: Exploring Colaba and Fort

When you think of Mumbai, you think of traffic jams and teeming slums, of roads chock-a-block with people, of sultry humidity and general chaos. You think of Bollywood and industrial tycoons, of the super rich living alongside the poor, of a city that never sleeps. But if you thought that this is all there is to Mumbai, you’d be wrong.

Old_Church_Mumbai_India

A graceful arched window of a Church in Colaba, Mumbai, India

There’s a softer, gentler side to the city as well – tree-lined roads, mansions and apartment buildings that speak of old money, and a blend of Gothic, Victorian, Art Deco and Indo-Saracenic (a blend of Islamic and Hindu architectural styles) architecture. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Fort and Colaba area in South Mumbai.

Gateway of India, Mumbai, India

Gateway of India, Mumbai, India

We started our exploration of this area from the Gateway of India and the Taj Hotel after a hearty brunch at Le Pain Quotiden. Built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary, the Gateway of India is a fine example of Indo-Saracenic architecture. Many elements of the arch and the design of the windows are derived from Islamic architecture, while the pillars are reminiscent of Hindu temple design. We were lucky to find the area relatively less crowded, which gave us a lot of time to take pictures and generally explore the place.

Taj_Colaba_Mumbai

The iconic Taj Hotel at Mumbai, adjacent to the Gateway of India

From there, we started walking along the lane behind the Taj, with our necks craned upwards looking for interesting window and architectural details. The road is tree-lined and quiet, the buildings are old and regal, and for a while, you can almost forget that you’re in Mumbai – it could be any old European city.

Old_window

An old, elegant window perched above a busy, bustling street in Mumbai

We traversed a path through Colaba, Colaba Causeway and Fort that day, with no real fixed agenda. We were just a couple of walkers, roaming around the area and exclaiming over the architecture. Why we were in architecture overdrive is still a bit of a mystery to me, but that day all we had eyes for were windows and doorways and turrets and spires. Maybe it was the juxtaposition of those old, elegant buildings with the bustling metropolis that had grown around it – but the memories I took away were of an older, more genteel Mumbai than I remembered from my stay there 10 years ago.

Colonial_architecture_modern_life

An old colonial building that now houses a cool junk jewelery store – Aquamarine. Mumbai, India

Of course, being girls, our trip couldn’t be complete without some shopping now, could it? There’s no better place to pick up cheap nick-knacks than at Colaba Causeway (in that area, at least). You’ll find some excellent junk jewellery, footwear and leather goods at prices that will delight your pocket. If you are on the look out for something more exclusive, make your way to Aquamarine at Colaba, which stocks some really cool (though pricey) junk jewellery.

An experiment in community living – Auroville

Auroville_visitor_center

The visitor centre at Auroville

Located 10 kilometers out of Pondicherry down a narrow, tree lined lane punctuated on both sides with cafes and shops is Auroville, an experimental township founded by The Mother (Sri Aurobindo’s disciple) in the late 1960s. Her vision was to offer Aurovillans an experience of community living. Anchored by the Maitri Mandir (the soul of Auroville), a golden golf ball shaped structure, the community is currently home to about 50,000 people from 16 countries.

Inside_Maitri_Mandir

Cross-section of the inside of Maitri Mandir, visitor centre, Auroville

“Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity.”

When you reach Auroville, your first port of call would be the visitor center, where you can read about its history and charter and watch a short movie on its philosophy and on the establishment of the Maitri Mandir. There is also a bookstore selling titles by The Mother and on Auroville.

Auroville_way_maitri_mandir

On the way to Maitri Mandir. Want to see what the old lady looks like? Click on the image

Visitors are allowed to see the Maitri Mandir from a viewing point some distance away from the main temple. The walk to the Mandir is beautiful and peaceful, along a narrow tree shaded walking path. If you want to go in to temple, you will have to take an appointment after you have seen the Mandir. The Maitri Mandir isn’t a temple in the traditional sense, there is no religion followed and you aren’t supposed to pray. It is for

“those who want to learn to concentrate…No fixed meditations, none of all that, but they should stay there in silence, in silence and concentration. A place for trying to find one’s consciousness.

The Mandir “wants to be the symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s aspiration for perfection.” but I didn’t get that from its shape – a golden golf ball in the center of 12 petals. Ah well!

Maitri_Mandir_Auroville

The Maitri Mandir, viewing point, Auroville

After we had seen the Mandir, we rode around through the township, though the best way to really understand what Auroville is all about is to stay there. Since that wasn’t happening on this trip, we thought we’d gather information and be touristy. :D

Auroville is famous for its arts and crafts, incense, and organic foods. There are three boutiques in the complex, which sell a variety of products, ranging from silks, knits, and leather to pottery, metal work, and wood craft, to incense, aromatherapy products, massage oil, shampoos and lotions. All of these goods are hand made using traditional techniques that do not harm the environment.

Sustainable_energy_installation_Auroville

An audio-video installation on sustainable energy, Auroville

When at Auroville, you should definitely have a meal at the café, which serves up organic food with raw materials that are either grown at Auroville or procured from nearby places, with a strong focus on sustainability. I had an absolutely fantastic fried fish and a yummy lemon cake. The thought of those dishes can still make my mouth water! We also picked up a plum cake from there, and it was one of the best plum cake’s I’ve ever eaten!

On our way back, we stopped at a cute open air cafe for a cup of refreshing lemon tea…then drove on back to our hotel…and spent the rest of the evening at the beach! Bliss…

(text in italics is from Auroville’s website)

Read more from my trip:
Pondicherry – a heady mix of India and France
Pondicherry – sights and sounds
Worshiping on the beach – Mahabalipuram

Pondicherry – sights and sounds

As our flight started its descent into Chennai, I looked out the window and was mesmerized by the green and blue expanse I saw below me. Delhi seen out the plane window does have a surprisingly vast green cover, but the concrete jungle has very firmly gained the upper hand. From the air, Chennai looks gorgeous, with luscious greens and shimmering blues, and houses that seem to be sprinkled around sparingly.

pondicherry_sunset

Sunset on our drive to Pondicherry

The three hour drive into Pondicherry is very pretty, passing as we do along verdant green fields interspersed with still, blue backwaters. Through the tinted windows of the taxi, the sky took on a dramatic blue hue, and I wore down the battery on my iPhone, shooting multiple photographs of the setting sun.

Since we reached our hotel in the evening, and were pretty tired after a full day’s travel, we decided to freshen up and head to the beach – a mere 2 minute walk from our hotel. Pondicherry has a rocky beach, so instead of digging ourselves into sand we sat ourselves down on the rocks and watched the waves crash in – this was our evening ritual for the duration of our stay in Pondy. The Bay of Bengal is pretty rough and choppy, and the waves generally come in strong…but the soothing sound of the surf, the mesmerizing pull of the waves, the cool sea breeze, and the feel of sea spray on my face felt like pure bliss…I could spend hours just perched there on a rock, watching the world pass me by…lost in my own thoughts…

pondicherry_rocky_beach_man_at_beach

A man at the beach, watching the world go by

There are so many ways in which this trip was different from the rest of our annual holidays. Since we’ve spent a lot of time in Rajasthan, an element of familiarity had crept in to our vacations. This trip down south was like a breath of fresh air – everything was different, right from our mode of transport (flight vs drive) to the people, architecture, landscape, and language.

The French side of Pondy has shaded streets, some of which are still cobbled, beautiful large colonial houses, a lot of boutiques and hotels, and it is fun to walk around to take in the architecture and poke around in the stores. While walking around, you’re also apt to notice a lot of statues dotted around the city. A famous one that you’ll not miss is a statue of Gandhi with four old temple columns around the image, located at one end of the beach. There are some beautiful statues in the oddest of places, like one of an angel on the rooftop of a house!

Pondicherry_French_statue

A statue shot through the open gates of a house

Since we had limited time, we hired a bike and went to the Aurobindo Ashram, which is in the French part of the city. Photography isn’t allowed inside, unfortunately, as they have a beautiful cactus garden, with some amazingly tall cactus plants. The Ashram houses the Samadhi of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, and is adorned with fresh flowers everyday. Devotees come in and offer up prayers and letters of thanks, which are collected in a little letter box near the Samadhi. They have a small bookstore where you can literature on Aurobindo’s teachings and philosophy. They have also preserved the drawing room where Aurobindo and The Mother used to rest, complete with Persian carpets, sofas and bookshelves.

Pondicherry_Ganesh_temple_elpehant_blessing

The elephant outside the Ganesh temple blessing a devotee

In the next lane is the 300+ year old Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple. Dedicated to Lord Ganesh, there are 40 different forms of the deity painted on the temple walls. The golden and silver chariots at the temple that are used during specific ceremonies or for particular prayers were made from devotee donations. The main attraction of the temple is the elephant outside – once prayers are offered at the temple, devotees feed the elephant and seek its blessing. Parents make their small children sit on its back (with the mahout) for a few moments to seek its blessings. It’s quite a sight, as the elephant takes the food offered to it and blesses the devotees with its trunk!

One stark difference I noticed here was the relative lack of beggars outside the temple complex. Around most temples you will almost always be hounded by beggars, but here, there were just one or two people asking for alms, and no one got after us.

The museum at Pondy is also supposed to be really good, but it was closed while we were there, so we were unable to visit it.

If all the sight seeing gets you tired, hop onto your bike (or into a rickshaw) and go over to Hot Breads for a cup of hot coffee and croissants. Their choco Danish is excellent, and was my staple breakfast while we were in Pondy.

Pondicherry_sandy_beach

Sun and sand at Pondicherry

And if you really want to dig your toes into some sand, you’ll have to drive down toward Auroville – there are two sandy beaches there – The Auro Beach and Serenity Beach. You can take surfing classes or hire a surfboard and catch the waves at the Auro Beach if you’re so inclined. I’m not sure which beach we made it to, but our strip of the sand was almost deserted. The husband and I had a blast, standing ankle deep in the water, clicking pictures, soaking up the sun, digging for shells…Unfortunately, we discovered the sandy beach on our last day, else I’m sure we would have spent much more time there. Next time, I guess!

Read more from my trip:
Pondicherry – a heady mix of India and France
An experiment in community living – Auroville
Worshiping on the beach – Mahabalipuram