Palampur

Palampur is a beautiful hill station in the Kangra Valley. It is considered to be the Tea capital of North-west India. Palampur was once a part of the old kingdom of Jalandhar. The town gets its name after the word Palum which means a lot of water. As Palampur is nestled below the Dhauladhar range of Himalayas, many streams of water can be found here flowing from the mountains towards the plains.

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Lovely fields near Palampur

Palampur is located around 30 km from the town of Dharamshala. We went here in the last week of September this year as part of a trip to Dharamshala. It took us around one hour to get here from Dharamshala. Other options to get here are to take a flight to Gaggal and then do the one hour drive to Palampur or take an overnight train from Delhi to Pathankot and then do a three hour journey by road.

The tea bush was introduced here from Almora in 1849 by Dr. Jameson who was the superintendent of botanical gardens. When tea started thriving here, the town became a hub of European tea estate owners with the exception of the famous Wah Tea Estate which was owned by Nawab Muhammad Hayat Khan and his descendants till India gained independence. Since then Kangra Tea has been known at an international level.

The Kangra earthquake of 1905 destroyed most of the buildings here. The buildings had to be rebuilt using different materials and style of construction. In 1927, the railway line was laid for the hydroelectric project at Jogindernagar. In 1947, Sobha Singh who was a renowned contemporary painter moved to the nearby village of Andretta and made it his home. He painted world-famous paintings portraying Punjabi culture. His works of art can be seen at the Sobha Singh Art gallery in Andretta. The famous Irish theatre artist Norah Richards moved from Lahore to Andretta and settled here. Today her estate has been renovated and maintained by the Punjabi University in Patiala.

In 1983, Manisimran Singh who is the son of noted Potter Gurcharan Singh and his wife Mary Singh moved to Andretta and started the Andretta Pottery and Craft Society. The society runs three-month long pottery courses and people from all over the world come to learn pottery here. Their production studio makes earthenware which is sold at various outlets across India. Andretta has become a popular tourist destination now.

Darang Tea Estate Homestay

The Darang Tea Estate is a family run estate and more than 150 years old. The estate is located in the Darang village which is midway between Dharamshala and Palampur. The Bhandari couple Neera Aunty and Naveen Uncle run the charming homestay in the estate. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the stay here has been our best experience as compared to any hotel/resort/homestay. The stay was just perfect in every way. Though we missed Naveenji during our trip, Neeraji was the absolute perfect host one could wish for.

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Darang Tea Estate

Darang Tea Estate

Darang Tea Estate

The place transports you back in time. We stayed in the room in the main house. The 200-year-old house, the furnishing, the antique curios, the old clock hanging on the wall, the photos of the family from the black & white era to now, the little book shelf with its wonderful collection especially of kids books, the dining table, the flooring, the baked mud brick walls, every single thing was just perfect. The room while being as old and well placed like the rest of the house had every basic amenity a modern-day house should have.

The grounds of the homestay with the garden & vegetable patch, the fruiting trees, the birds and butterflies was a delight to walk around in. The little ‘machaan’ and the swing were a big hit with our little fellow. The tea estate itself is quaint and picturesque and the walks here with Neeraji and the dogs (Casper, Diana and Brandy) will remain memorable.

Food and service at Darang can give the best of hotels a run for their money. Neeraji and her cook serve up such a feast every single time. The ‘patrode’, the arbi fry, the kurkure bhindi, the tilwale aalu, the baked cauliflower, the soya keema dish, lovely salads and raitas, the homemade jams, chutneys, pickles, kulfi, the milk and malai from their own cows. All this was topped up with Darang’s own Kangra tea many times over through the day.

The ever-present but unobtrusive Jeevana ‘didi’ ensured that service was always absolute top-notch. All this with Neeraji being always around to ensure that everything is perfect. The many conversations with her over tea about the estate, the local people, the birds around the estate, helping us think through what places we should visit, made for that perfect experience. Our son got pretty attached to his ‘ajji’ (grandma in Kannada) and became her little assistant for feeding the dogs and walking around with ‘chalo chalo’ like she does with the dogs :) That brings to the dogs themselves. Casper & Diana the labradors and Brandy the pug. Like Neeraji likes to say, a lot of the reviews on tripadvisor are more about the dogs than the rest of the homestay. This is not without reason. They are the most delightful dogs and dog lovers will absolutely love spending time with them. Casper with his ever abundant enthusiasm, Diana with her stately charm and Brandy with her huffing and puffing around!

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Little N walking with Neera Auntie, Brandy and Diana

Given the time of the year we visited, we probably didn’t quite get a full view of either birds of the place or the views of the Dhauladhar that one can expect to get at Darang. We did catch a few birds and a little of the view though. The photos clicked by Naveenji that Neeraji showed us tells that we absolutely need to go back here during the winter/spring.

Bir-Billing

Bir is a village located to the South-East of Palampur. It is midway between Baijnath and Jogindernagar. It is popular as the Paragliding capital of India. Bir also has a Tibetan settlement and is therefore a centre for meditation and spiritual studies. There are many Buddhist monasteries and a large Stupa here. Bir is the landing site for paragliding while the takeoff happens from meadows at the neighbouring village of Billing which is 15 km away and at an elevation of 2400 metres. Collectively the two have come to be known as Bir-Billing! The Paragliding World Cup was held here in 2015. We went to the landing site to watch the landings and it was a lovely experience. We couldn’t do the paragliding itself due to the little one. But he was super excited to watch and wants to do paragliding sooner than later!

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Paragliding landing site in Billing

 

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Beautiful landscape of Billing

Palpung Sherabling Monastery

The Sherabling Monastery is a large monastery in Bhattu village near Bir (some locals refer to it as the Bhattu monastery). This is the monastic seat in exile of the Tai Situpa lineage of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism which originated in the twelfth century. The original Palpung monastery is in Derge town in the Kham region of Tibet which is in present day Sichuan in China. Palpung means the glorious union of study and practice. The temple has been historically associated with the Karmapas. The 12th Tai Situpa, Pema Tonyo Nyinje fled from Kham region to Bhutan followed by India at the age of six where he received his formal traditional training under Rangjung Rigpe Dorje who was the 16th Karmapa. At the age of 22, he set up his seat in exile in the Sherabling Monastery.

Today the monastery is huge and houses around 750 monks. It also offers the traditional Kagyu three-year retreat for both monks and nuns in the premises. In addition to the retreat centre and the monastic college, there are buildings housing old age home, hospital, relic temple etc. The path leading to the monastery is beautiful and passes through Pine tree lined woods.

Baijnath Temple

The Baijnath Temple is an ancient temple built in the early thirteenth century dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is located in the town of Baijnath which gets its name from the temple. It is 16 km from Palampur on the highway to Mandi. Here Lord Shiva is worshipped as Vaidyanath which means ‘the Lord of Physicians’. The two inscriptions which have been placed at the entrance of the temple indicate that a Shiva temple existed here even before the current one was constructed.

The temple is a beautiful example of the early medieval North Indian Nagara style of architecture. The Swayambhu (self-manifested) form of Shivalinga is enshrined in the main sanctum outside which an idol of Nandi (the bull who is Lord Shiva’s vehicle) has been kept in a small shrine. The outer walls of the temple have been carved with beautiful images of Gods and Goddesses. The temple attracts a large number of pilgrims and tourists from all over. On a clear day, the Dhauladhar range of Himalayas can be seen in the backdrop of the temple.

As per legends, Ravana worshipped Lord Shiva rigorously for a long time in Kailash in order to attain invincible powers. He then offered all of his ten heads in a havan kund (ceremonial fire). Pleased by his devotion, Lord Shiva appeared before him and restored all his heads. He then bestowed him with powers of invincibility and immortality. On attaining this boon, Ravana requested Lord Shiva to accompany him to Lanka. Shiva agreed to this and converted himself into a Shivling. He asked Ravana to carry it with him and not to place it on the ground anywhere along the way as it would stay where it was placed. Ravana started going towards Lanka with the Shivling. Upon reaching Baijnath, Ravana wanted to answer nature’s call and started looking for someone to help him hold the Shivling. Lord Ganesha appeared in the form of a shepherd and offered to help Ravana who went to relieve himself. Lord Ganesha had requested Lord Vayu to make Ravana feel the urge to urinate. He purposely put the Shivling on the ground before Ravana could come back. Thus the Shivling got established in Baijnath in the form of Ardhnarishwara (God in the form of half male and half female).

During Dussehra festival, an effigy of Ravana is built and then consigned to flames to commemorate the victory of Rama all over the country. The festival of Dussehra is not celebrated in Baijnath town as a mark of respect to Ravana’s devotion towards Lord Shiva.

The history of the Baijnath temple is not very clear. The inscriptions at the entrance state that the temple was built in 1204 by two brothers named Manyuka and Ahuka in devotion to Lord Vaidyanatha. A Shivalinga known as Vaidyanatha already existed at the spot without a proper enclosure. So the present temple and porch in front of it were constructed. The temple was renovated in the late eighteenth century by the Katoch Maharaja Sansar Chand as per inscriptions on the wooden doors of the main sanctum. The 1905 Kangra earthquake damaged this temple too and it was repaired after the incident. Today the temple is a protected monument with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

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View from Baijnath temple

Taragarh Palace

The Taragarh Palace is a beautiful heritage hotel in Palampur. It is located amidst lush green forests and tea gardens. The European style palace was built in 1931 by the Nawab of Bahawalpur as a summer residence and christened as Al-hilal which translated to the crescent moon. It was bought by the royal family of Jammu and Kashmir in 1951 for the dowager Maharani Taradevi who stayed there for many years. In 1971 it was converted into a heritage hotel by the royal family. We went here for lunch and were taken around the estate by the waiting staff of the restaurant. Food was pretty good and we tasted the local speciality Teliya Mah which is a slow cooked curry made using whole green gram and spices.

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Taragarh Palace

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Kangra Valley

Kangra Valley is a picturesque valley in the Western Himalayas. It extends from the foot of the Dhauladhar range of lesser Himalayas to the south of the River Beas. It lies to the South of the Chamba district. The highest peak of the Dhauladhars marks the boundary between the valley and Chamba. Dharamshala is the headquarters of the Kangra district. Kangra Valley is known for its natural beauty, tea, fort, miniature paintings and the narrow gauge Kangra valley train. One of the hidden secrets of Kangra valley is the Masroor Rock Cut Temple which is also known as the Himalayan Pyramids.

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A beautiful stream in Kangra Valley

The word Kangra is made up of two words, Kaan meaning ears and gaddha which means to mould or create. It is said that the ancient surgeons of this region were renowned for performing plastic surgeries on the royals who wanted to improve their looks or warriors who had suffered injuries in battles. Hence Kangra got its name due to these surgeons. However there is not much factual evidence to this legend. Some of the ancient names of Kangra are Nagarkot, Trigarta and Bhimagar. As per some legends, the town was founded by Bhima of the Mahabharata fame. Kangra town is located at the confluence of the Baner river which is a tributary of the Beas river and Majhi river. The Baner Khad rises as a small snow-fed channel from the southern slopes of the Dhauladhar Himalayas near Palampur.

We did a day trip to Kangra town and around from Dharamshala which is an hour away. The route that we took was Dharamshala – Ranital – Masroor – Kangra – Gaggal – Dharamshala. As eating places are very few a suggestion would be to do breakfast at one of the Dhabas in Ranital and then go to Masroor. We found a small cart where momos and cutlets were being prepared just outside the temple complex. Lunch can be had at the Sansar Chand Museum cafeteria in Kangra.

Kangra Fort

Kangra Fort located around 20 km from the town of Kangra is the oldest dated fort in India. It is the largest fort in the Himalayas and one of the most beautiful forts in India. It was built by the Rajputs of the Katoch dynasty whose origins can be traced to the ancient Trigarta kingdom mentioned in the Mahabharata. Local folklore says that Mahmud of Ghazni had looted forts in this region but it has not been historically proven. As per historical evidence, the fort remained impregnable and unconquered till the seventeenth century when the Mughal Emperor Jahangir conquered it.

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Kangra Fort view from the highway

The fort was reconquered by the Katoch King Sansar Chand in the late eighteenth century. Maharaja Sansar Chand was constantly at battle with the Sikhs headed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh on one side and the Gurkhas on the other side. He used to keep his neighbouring kings jailed which led to conspiracies being plotted against him. The Gorkhali army entered the Kangra fort during one of the wars between the Katochs and Sikhs. This incident led to an alliance being formed between the Katochs and the Sikhs. The Gurkhas had to leave the fort unable to procure anything. The fort remained with the Katochs until 1828 when it was annexed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh after Sansar Chand’s death. The British captured the fort after the Anglo-Sikh war in 1846. The fort was occupied by a British garrison until it was damaged heavily in the great earthquake that rocked the Kangra region in April of 1905. The fort was then returned to the Katoch Maharaja Jai Chandra. The fort is now managed by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

The fort stands on a steep hillock overlooking the surrounding valley. It is strategically built at the confluence of the Banganga and Majhi rivers. The fort can be entered through a small courtyard which is enclosed between two gates built during the Sikh period. From here a long passage leads to the Ahini Darwaza (Iron Gate called so due to it being covered with metal plates and spikes) and Amiri Darwaza (Gate of the nobles) which are said to have been added by Nawab Saif Ali Khan who was the first Mughal Governor of Kangra. Then the passage turns round at a sharp angle and leads to the Jehangiri Darwaza which is said to be built by Emperor Jahangir. Then comes the first defence gate called the Andheri Darwaza (Dark Gate) leading to a narrow passage which could accommodate only two people shoulder to shoulder or one horse at a time. The purpose of this design was to slow down the pace of a charging enemy army.

Next comes the Darshani Darwaza (Gate of worship) flanked by the defaced statues of the river Goddesses Ganga and Yamuna. The courtyard beyond this has the ruins of Laxmi Narayan Temple and the shrine of Ambika Devi who is the clan Goddess of the royal Katoch family. The shrine of Ambika Devi is visited by the royal family annually where they perform a religious ceremony even to this day.  The shrine contains the original idol of Mahavira which was created during his lifetime. It was moved here to protect it from the Muslim invaders. One of Mahavira’s sisters was married to a Katoch King and this fort was deemed a safe place to protect the idol. Thus this has become a popular Jain pilgrimage destination as well.

The palace is located beyond the temple and can be reached by climbing up a few steps and passing through the Mahlon ka Darwaza (Gate of the palace). This is the highest point in the fort and offers commanding views of the surrounding gorge, the confluence of the rivers and the far away lush green meadows. The Himalayas can be seen on clear days. What a view to wake up to! This must be a fabulous place to watch the sunset. But the fort closes at 5 PM.

Audio guides are available here and a must to understand the place well. The fort is open from 9 in the morning till 5 in the evening on all days.

Maharaja Sansar Chand Museum

The Maharaja Sansar Chand Museum owned by the royal Katoch family is located near the Kangra Fort. It showcases an impressive collection of artefacts belonging to the royal family. The awe-inspiring family tree has been displayed at the entrance. It is clearly a marvel that they have managed to draw up the entire tree including the references to the ages of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Under the patronage of Maharaja Sansar Chand, the Kangra Painting style reached its zenith and Kangra became the most important centre of Pahari Painting. On display are the beautiful masterpieces of Kangra Paintings, Weapons, Utensils, Furniture, Traditional Wedding costumes etc.

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Family tree of the Katoch dynasty of Kangra

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Emblem of the Katoch dynasty of Kangra

Audio guides are available here as well. There is a cafeteria with limited food options. We ordered lunch and visited the museum while the food was being prepared. The Fort can be seen on the opposite side of the gorge from behind the museum.

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Kangra Fort view from behind Maharaja Sansar Chand Museum

Masroor Rock Cut Temple

The Rock-cut temples at Masroor is an eighth century temple complex in the Kangra Valley. The temple complex is located in the Beas river valley and faces the Dhauladhar range of Himalayas. The temples have been constructed using the North Indian Nagara style of architecture. The features suggest the use of ‘Gupta Classicism’ which is why they are believed to have been built during the eighth century. The temple complex is located 45 km to the southwest of Dharamshala. The temples are dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu, Devi and Saura traditions of Hinduism. Though a major part of the temple complex has survived, quite a bit seems to have been destroyed and lost mostly due to the earthquakes in this region. The temple complex which seems to have been built as part of an extremely ambitious plan was left unfinished for reasons unknown.

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Masroor Rock-cut Temple Complex

The temples have been carved out of a monolithic rock with a shikhara. There is a pool of water facing the temples. The reflections of the magnificent temple complex can be seen in the pool. There are three entrances to the temple out of which two are incomplete. There are archaeological evidences of  the existence of a fourth entrance having being planned but it was never completed. The entire complex has been symmetrically laid out on a square-shaped grid with the main temple surrounded by smaller temples in a mandala pattern. Reliefs of major Vedic and Puranic Gods and Goddesses can be seen here and the friezes narrate stories from Hindu texts.

According to local legends, the temples were built by the Pandavas of the Mahabharata fame when they were in exile. When their true identity and location got exposed, they shifted from here leaving the temple unfinished. Sometime in the twentieth century three black stone idols of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana were introduced in the main shrine by someone.

The temples are similar to the rock-cut temples of Mahabalipuram in Tamilnadu, Elephanta Caves near Mumbai and the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Caves and ruins have been found scattered around the temple suggesting that there was a human settlement once upon a time. Today the temple is in the middle of nowhere and a Government school is run next door. Unfortunately there are no guides available here. The temple complex was one of the contenders for becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site but did not make it through. Sadly not many people come here. Even our driver who is well versed with Himachal did not know about this place and was happy to accompany us inside to see the temple.

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View of the temple complex from the neighbouring hillock

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A plate of momos from a cart outside the temple complex

Bajreshwari Temple

The temple of Devi Bajreshwari in Kangra town is one of the oldest temples in North India. It is believed to be 1500 years old. It was one of the wealthiest as well in olden times. It is considered as a Gupt Dham or a sacred place of pilgrimage. As per legends, the left breast of Goddess Sati fell here when Lord Vishnu sent his Sudarshana Chakra to cut her lifeless body into 51 pieces in order to stop the Thandava Nritya of Lord Shiva who was grieved by her death. Thus this temple is a Shakti Peeth as well. Lot of pilgrims visit this temple.

As per mythology, the temple was built by the Pandavas when Goddess Durga instructed them in a dream to build a temple for her in the village of Nagarkot. The temple was looted multiple times by Mahmud of Ghazni. It was destroyed during the 1905 earthquake in Kangra. The Government rebuilt it. The main sanctum is surrounded by smaller shrines dedicated to various Goddesses. The small shrine of Tara Devi was left intact after the earthquake. We did not manage to get inside the sanctum due to lot of rush as it was Navratri time when most of the temples of Goddesses get crowded.

Kangra Valley Railway

The Kangra Valley Railway is a narrow gauge railway that covers a distance of 164 km from Pathankot in Northern Punjab to Jogindernagar in Himachal Pradesh. The railway line was commissioned in 1929. The highest point along the line is at Ahju station just before the last stop at Jogindernagar. There are only two tunnels along the whole route. The railway line is an engineering marvel and an excellent example of how it can exist in harmony with the majestic landscape. The terrain changes drastically as the train enters the Kangra valley.

Some of the bridges that we saw on our way to Kangra Fort were beautiful. The train ride itself is quite an experience. This toy train is not as popular as the Kalka-Shimla, Ooty-Coonoor or the Darjeeling ones but spectacular nevertheless. We took the train at Paror Station which is the nearest station after Darang Tea Estate towards Palampur and went up to Baijnath Paprola station. The slow-moving train chugged its way along overlooking beautiful fields and quaint little stations. Our little man got lulled to sleep on his first ‘real train’ journey. Baijnath Paprola station looked so quaint and time warped.

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Nurpur Fort

Nurpur city in Kangra district was part of the Nurpur state which was ruled by the Pathania clan of Tomar Rajputs since the eleventh century. Pathankot was the capital of this kingdom. Raja Basu who ruled Nurpur from 1580 to 1613 built an impressive fort here the ruins of which can be seen today. We visited the Nurpur fort on our way back to Amritsar from Palampur.

The old name of Nurpur was Dhameri. Queen Nur Jahan, the wife of Mughal Emperor Jahangir visited Nurpur and fell in love with the beauty and richness of this place so much that she decided to stay here for the rest of her life. The people of Dhameri were worried by this and did not want their peaceful town to be embroiled in the Mughal domination and influenced by external politics. They devised a plan to solve this problem without offending the Queen and incurring the wrath of the Mughal empire. They advised the Queen that staying here for a long period might affect her great beauty and spread rumours about a fictitious disease that was spreading there which might inflict her as well. The Queen was so terrified by this that she left hurriedly. However, the name of the town was changed to Nurpur in honour of the Queen.

The main attraction inside the Nurpur Fort is the sixteenth century historical Brij Raj Swami Temple dedicated to Lord Krishna. It is the only temple where the idols of both Lord Krishna and Meerabai who was his ardent devotee are worshipped. It is believed that the idol of Lord Krishna here was one of the idols worshipped by Meerabai herself. The Maharana of Chittorgarh gifted it to the Raja of Nurpur as a return gift during his visit to Chittorgarh. The Rasa Lila has been depicted in the form of paintings on the walls of the temple.

Other Places

Kangra Valley is dotted with many small offbeat places. Some of the places that we could not visit but read about are as follows :

  • JawalaMukhi Temple – This temple is one of the Shaktipeeths where Goddess Sati’s tongue is supposed to have fallen. It is one of the most renowned temples dedicated to Goddess Durga. The temple is around 35 km to the South from the town of Kangra
  • Bathu Temple – Around 7 km from the town of Jawali, stand a cluster of eight ancient temples called Bathu ki Larhi which remain dipped for eight months of the year in the waters of the Maharana Pratap Sagar Dam built across the River Beas.
  • Chamunda Devi Temple – This is a renowned temple which is 10 kms from Palampur on the highway to Dharamshala. It is believed to be the site where the demons Chanda and Munda were slain by the Goddess Chamunda.
  • Pragpur and Garli – The villages of Pragpur and Garli have been declared as Heritage Villages by the State Government due to their unique architecture and pristine beauty.
  • Dadasiba – The village of Dada Siba has an old fort with a beautiful temple known for its murals.
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Mcleodganj

A suburb of Dharamshala. The abode of Dalai Lama. Headquarters of the Tibetan Government in exile. Nicknamed Little Lhasa or Dhasa by the Tibetans. A popular place for tourists. A pilgrimage destination for many. A paradise for food lovers. This sort of summarises Mcleodganj or Upper Dharamshala.  The highest peak of the Dhauladhar range of Himalayas called ‘Hanuman ka Tibba’ lies just behind Mcleodganj. The popular trek to Triund starts from Mcleodganj. The popular Dharamshala International Film Festival is held here annually. Mcleodganj was named after Sir Donald Friell Mcleod who was the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab. The suffix ‘Ganj’ means neighbourhood in Hindi. We did a day trip from Dharamshala to Mcleodganj in the last week of September this year. It takes around 45 minutes to get there despite it being just 10 km away.

History

During the mid-nineteenth century, Kangra town became overcrowded and the British moved two regiments of the army to Dharamshala. By 1850s, Mcleodganj and Forsythganj had civilian settlements. Soon 14 Gurkha villages were established. The Gurkhas patronised the ancient Shiva Temple of Bhagsunath near Mcleodganj. Lord Elgin who was the viceroy of India liked this place so much that he suggested it be made the Summer Capital of India. The twin towns of Mcleodganj and Forsythganj grew steadily and were thriving by the start of the twentieth century when a major earthquake of magnitude 7.8 struck the area in April 1905. Most of the town was destroyed including the Bhagsunath temple and thousands of people were killed and injured.

In 1960, the Government of India settled the Tibetan refugees in Mcleodganj and around. Mcleodganj became the official residence of the Dalai Lama and the headquarters of the Tibetan Government in exile. Many Buddhist monasteries were set up and the population has substantially grown over the years. Thus Mcleodganj evolved as a popular tourist and pilgrimage destination.

Bhagsu Falls

The Bhagsu Falls is a waterfall that is about 20 metres tall and a popular tourist spot. It is about 3 km from Mcleodganj. The waterfall can be reached by a brief walk on a well paved path which starts just after the Bhagsunath Temple and some shops.

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Bhagsu Falls as seen from the start of the trail

 

Bhagsunath Temple

Bhagsunath Temple is an ancient temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. As per the local legend, the story of this temple is as follows. Long ago this region was the dwelling place of the Nagavanshi Gods and Goddesses. King Bhagsu of Asuras who was a staunch devotee of Lord Shiva ruled over his kingdom in Rajasthan. There was a big famine and his subjects threatened him that they would leave his kingdom and go away if he did not arrange for water.

Bhagsu who was devoted to the welfare of his kingdom assured them that he would provide a solution for this problem. He walked and reached this place at the foot of the mighty Dhauladhar range of mountains. He saw plenty of lakes in the mountains. Using his magical powers, he drained a lake called the Nag Dal into a pot and started walking back. When it became dark he paused his journey at the spot where the temple stands now. The Nagas were enraged when they realised that their lake had been emptied. They set out in search of the culprit.

A fierce battle ensued between the Nagas and Bhagsu during which the water fell out of the pot. This created a series of water falls that have been flowing since then. Bhagsu was defeated by the Nagas and he realised that they were a manifestation of Lord Shiva. He pleaded with Lord Shiva for forgiveness as he had committed the sin for the wellbeing of his subjects. Moved by his pleas, Lord Shiva asked him what his desire was. Bhagsu requested him to  make it rain in his kingdom and provide water to the people. He also requested the God to grant him liberation and make his name immortal by using it in conjunction with the name of Lord Shiva in some manner. He gave up his life saying thus. Lord Shiva granted his wishes by making it rain in his kingdom and named the place as Bhagsunag. The idol worshipped here is believed to have self manifested.

Raja Dharamchand is said to have had a dream in which Lord Bhageshwar, a form of Lord Shiva, told him that he could be found in this place. Dharamshala is believed to have been named after Raja Dharamchand. The ruins of his fort can be found in the neighbouring village of Dharamkot which is also named after him. Raja Dharamchand established the temple at Bhagsunag as per the wishes of Lord Shiva. It is believed that anyone who prays here sincerely will have their wishes fulfilled by God. Many people take bath in the tank of the temple complex and then offer their prayers as it is believed that a bath here will get rid of their health problems.

 

 

St.John in the Wilderness

The Anglican church of St. John in the Wilderness looks straight out of a fairytale. It is located on the road to Naddi village from Mcleodganj. The church built using neo-Gothic style was constructed in the mid-nineteenth century. It is one of the oldest cathedrals in North India. There is a graveyard behind the church. Lord Elgin who was the Viceroy of India fell in love with this area when he visited it. He died while he was on a trip to Dharamshala in 1863 and was buried in the graveyard here. A memorial dedicated to him can be seen near his tombstone.  A notable feature of the Church are its beautiful Belgian stained glass windows which were donated by Lady Elgin.

 

Tsuglagkhang Temple Complex

The Tsuglagkhang Temple Complex also popularly known as the Dalai Lama’s temple is the most important Buddhist site in town. There are statues of Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, Avalokitesvara and Shakyamuni Buddha inside the temple complex. Lot of people can be seen offering their prayers or meditating.

 

Dal Lake

The Dal Lake is a small lake around 3 km from Mcleodganj on the road to Naddi village. An annual fair is held here in August or September and attended by the indigenous Gaddi community.

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Dal Lake on a foggy evening

Food

Mcleodganj is a paradise for food lovers. Foodies will be spoilt for choice here. Lots of cafes and restaurants are present catering to various international cuisines. Say Italian to Japanese to Tibetan to Korean and it is all there! Since we spent just half a day here, we managed to try just a handful of places though I had a long list compiled from the internet.

Nick’s Italian Kitchen

Nick’s Italian Kitchen is a charming place located on Bhagsunag road. Lovely views of the Dhauladhar range can be seen from the outdoor seating area. We went here for a breakfast of pancakes and some Tibetan bread along with some healthy juices. This place is popular for its Pizzas and Chocolate mousse.

Moonpeak Espresso

This small cafe on the Temple road is good for some quick eats. Although our intention was to try the Himachali thali at their next door restaurant, we ended up here since the chef who prepares the thali is off on Mondays. We loved the presentation and the taste of the sandwiches as well as the delicious chocolate cake. The walls have been decorated tastefully with photographs of local flora and birds with brief handwritten descriptions. The person who was serving told us that the owner had clicked the pictures.

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Moonpeak Restaurant

Woeser Bakery

This hole in the wall bakery on Jogibara Road is easy to miss as it is in the basement of Black Magic restaurant. We had delicious homemade Carrot cake and handmade Cappuccino here.

 

 

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Dharamshala

The winter capital of Himachal Pradesh. One of the wettest places in the state of Himachal. It receives the second highest rainfall in India. Home to one of the most attractive cricket stadiums in the world. The starting point for a number of trekking trails. The centre of the Tibetan exile world in India. The land of Wheat, Rice and Tea. Well this is Dharamshala which literally translates to a spiritual dwelling or a sanctuary. It is located in the picturesque Kangra valley overlooked by the Dhauladhar range of Himalayas. It had been on our wish list for the last few years and we finally visited it during the last week of September.

We went to Dharamshala by road from Dalhousie and it took us around four hours. Dharamshala can also be reached by an overnight train journey till Pathankot starting from Delhi and then a road trip from Pathankot which takes around 2.5 hours. Another option is to take a flight from Delhi to Gaggal which is around 15 km from Dharamshala.

History

Dharamshala and the Kangra valley was ruled by the Katoch dynasty for nearly two millennia before the British annexed it in the mid-nineteenth century. Under the British Raj, the status of the dynasty was reduced to mere Jaagirdars and the area became part of undivided Punjab which was ruled by Governors of Punjab from Lahore. The indigenous people of this area are the Gaddis who are predominantly Hindus and lead a semi nomadic lifestyle.

The British established Dharamshala as the headquarters of the Kangra district. The 66th Gurkha Light infantry was moved here from Kangra. They later came to be known as the First Gurkha Rifles and are considered as the bravest of the brave. In 1905, a major earthquake affected the Kangra Valley and demolished most of Dharamshala and Kangra. The Gurkhas rebuilt the towns. After this disaster, the British dropped their plans of making Dharamshala the Summer Capital of India and moved it to Shimla instead.

The Gurkhas performed heroic feats in both world wars and the battalions from Dharamshala made history in WWII. Even to this day the Gurkha villages established in those days like Sidhbari, Yol and Khanyara exist. Many places in the town still retain the cantonment terminology names. Many of the Gurkhas of Dharamshala were freedom fighters of the Indian National Army (INA) founded by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Ram Singh Thakuri, the Captain of INA, was from Khanyara village and he is credited with composing quite a few patriotic songs including the likes of ‘Qadam Qadam Badaye Ja‘.

In 1959, the Tibetan Settlement was established in Mcleodganj or Upper Dharamshala by Jawaharlal Nehru when the Dalai Lama had to flee Tibet and seek refuge in India. The Tibetan Government in Exile has been run since then from here.

HPCA Stadium

The Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association Stadium in Dharamshala is one of the most picturesque Cricket stadiums in the world. The snow-capped Himalayas can be seen in the background on clear days. The stadium has begun hosting international matches in the last few years. It must be quite an experience to watch a match here soaking in the beauty of the backdrop of the majestic mountains! Unfortunately it was a cloudy day when we went which meant no views of the Himalayas :(

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HPCA Cricket Stadium

Museum of Kangra Art

The Museum of Kangra Art located in the Kotwali Bazar of Dharamshala is a must visit for all those of you who want to know more about the arts and culture of the Kangra region. It was established for preserving and reviving the arts of Kangra. It has a good collection of Kangra Paintings, traditional jewellery, photographs and stone artefacts found in this region. The museum is closed on Mondays.

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A necklace from Jawali in Kangra

Popular subjects in Kangra paintings include the love story of Radha and Krishna, love poems of Gita Govinda by Jayadeva, stories of Nala and Damayanti and stories from Keshavdas‘s Baramasa. Lush greenery is depicted in most of the paintings and varied shades of green are used. Great attention is paid to details. The paintings depict the feminine charm in a very graceful manner. The colours used are made from vegetables and mineral extracts.

Kangra Painting - Krishna and Radha

Kangra Painting of Krishna and Radha

Kangra Arts Promotion Society which is an NGO started conducting classes here in the last decade to save the art which was on the verge of extinction. There is a workshop behind the museum where artists can be seen at work on weekdays. As we went there on a Sunday, we missed an opportunity to watch the paintings being made.

War Memorial

A War Memorial has been constructed in Dharamshala in memory of soldiers who fought valiantly in battles for their motherland and lost their lives. Set amidst tall trees and gardens, the memorial has names of the soldiers inscribed on stone slabs.

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War Memorial

Kunal Pathri Mata Temple

Kunal Pathri Mata Temple is a little rock temple dedicated to Goddess Durga. The temple is surrounded by lush green tea gardens. Carvings of various Gods and Goddesses can be seen here. There is a rock here which always remains wet. Locals say that it starts raining when the rock gets dry. As per local legend, a part of the skull of Goddess Sati is believed to have fallen here when her lifeless body was cut into 51 pieces by the Sudarshana Chakra of Lord Vishnu in order to stop the Thandava Nritya of Lord Shiva. This is supposed to have given the place its name of Kunal Pathri Mata.

Norbulingka Institute

The Norbulingka Institute has been dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan Arts and Culture. It is located at Sidhpur in Dharamshala. The institute has been named after the summer residence of the Dalai Lamas in Lhasa in Tibet which is called Norbulingka. Traditional arts are being imparted to Tibetans here thereby providing education as well as employment. This also creates awareness about their culture and art at an international level. The institute also runs two guesthouses in the campus for tourists. Free guided tours are available for visitors.

The art studios here include Thangka painting, wood carving, paper making, applique and tailoring, Tibetan statue making, wood and metal craft. There is a shop as well where the objects made by the artists can be bought.

Losel Doll Museum is definitely not to be missed when in Norbulingka. It has diorama displays of miniature dolls dressed in traditional costumes depicting traditional Tibetan scenes. This is a one of a kind experience and provides an insight into the Tibetan culture and way of life.

There is a ‘Seat of Happiness’ temple inside the institute set amidst the Japanese styled gardens. This beautiful temple has exquisite murals and frescoes inside. There is a four metre high gilded Copper statue of Shakyamuni Buddha in the main hall of the temple and it is one of the largest statues outside of Tibet.

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Seat of Happiness Temple

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Shakyamuni Buddha statue inside the temple

Gyuto Monastery

The Gyuto Monastery is the temporary residence of the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje. It is a Tantric monastery and located in Sidhbari on the Dharamshala – Palampur highway. The Karmapa is head of the Karma Kagyu school which is one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The Karmapa fled from Tibet at the age of 14 and arrived here in 2000 through Nepal. The Gyuto monks are known for their tradition of overtone singing. The Karmapas are holders of the Black Crown due to which they are known as the ‘Black Hat Lamas’. The crown is said to have been woven by the Dakinis from their hair and given to the Karmapa in recognition of his spiritual realization.

 

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Gyuto Monastery

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Inside the monastery

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Dalhousie

A quaint hill station in Himachal Pradesh is a perfect retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life. Dalhousie in Chamba district fits in beautifully with this. It is located on the western edge of the Dhauladhar mountain range of the Lesser Himalayas. The Pir Panjal range of Himalayas is also visible from here on clear days. I had been yearning for a vacation in the hills of Himalayas for a while now and an opportunity to visit Dalhousie was not to be missed! We visited Dalhousie as part of a trip to Amritsar and Kangra Valley including Dharamshala and Palampur.

Dalhousie is named after Lord Dalhousie who was the Governor General of British India at the time when the town was established as a summer retreat for the British from the scorching heat of the plains of North India. It was annexed from the Sikh Empire by the British. It has been built on and around five hills called Kathalagh, Potreyn, Terah, Bakrota and Bhangora. It remained a part of Punjab after India gained independence until 1966 and serves as a gateway to the Chamba region of Himachal.

We took a car from Amritsar to Dalhousie and the journey took us around five hours excluding food breaks. Other options to reach here include taking a train till Pathankot in Northern Punjab followed by a two and a half hour journey by road or taking a flight till Gaggal in Kangra district of Himachal followed by a three-hour journey by road. The peak tourist season is from May to September. We visited Dalhousie in the last week of September. The days were pleasant and it rained on and off, making the nights cold. The clouds covered the skies at most times but we managed to get a glimpse of the snow-capped peaks of Pir Panjal range on a couple of days.

The sun lights the peaks of Pir Panjal

The Sun lights the peaks of Pir Panjal

Pir Panjal through the camera which can see better after dark to

Peaks of Pir Panjal just after sunset

Grand View Hotel

Grand View Hotel is a unanimous choice to stay when in Dalhousie. The fact that this reasonably old hotel has managed to stay at the top position on tripadvisor with rave reviews for a long time says a lot about the service here. We stayed here for three nights and had a wonderful time. Our little one loved the place and was sad to leave at the end. Our room was located in the new block of the hotel though we might have liked to experience our stay in the heritage block. We did visit the Tiffins restaurant in the heritage block for our meals and loved the decor and ambience. The food was delicious and the buffet had a good mix of North Indian, South Indian and Continental cuisines.

The location of the hotel is great to admire the beautiful landscape of the surrounding area. On clear days it must be a treat to watch the snow-capped peaks from the garden or balconies of rooms here.

The trees around the garden are abundant with birds and it was a delight for us to sight so many species easily without having to walk much :)

Subhash Chowk

Subhash Chowk is a square in Dalhousie named after the prominent freedom fighter Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. It houses a statue of Netaji and offers sweeping views of the valley behind it.

Netaji stayed for a few months in Dalhousie upon being released by the British when diagnosed with Tuberculosis. The fresh mountain air of Dalhousie and water from a freshwater spring from which he used to drink everyday during his walks called the Subhash Baoli now is believed to have cured him miraculously. Thus Dalhousie has a memorable connection with the great Netaji.

Gandhi Chowk

Named after Mahatma Gandhi, this centrally located square is right next to the sprawling market on Mall Road. A statue of Gandhiji can be seen here. Lall Ji’s is an iconic shop in the market here for some beautiful sweaters and other woollen wear made locally.

Churches

Dalhousie has three old churches from the British era which can be visited. St.Francis Church is a historic nineteenth century Catholic church located in Moti Tiba next to Subhash Chowk. It is surrounded by tall Deodar trees and beautiful flowering plants. It contains dioramas depicting stations of cross. St.Johns Church is a nineteenth century historic Protestant Church next to Gandhi Chowk. It has glass paintings of St.John and St.Peter. It is also located amidst lush greenery. St.Andrews Church also known as the Church of Scotland is an early twentieth century Protestant church located in the Cantonment area. This church was closed during our visit unfortunately. One thing that is common between all these churches is that they are located amidst beautiful surroundings. They offer a peaceful atmosphere for those seeking solitude.

Khajjiar

Khajjiar is a beautiful hill station in Chamba district close to Dalhousie. It takes an hour to get here from Dalhousie making it ideal for a day trip. There are options to stay as well. Khajjiar sits on a plateau and has a lake in the centre. It has a rare combination of lake, forest and meadows. It was nicknamed ‘Mini Switzerland’ by Mr.Willy T.Blazer who was the Vice Counsellor and Head of Chancery of Switzerland in India in 1992. Khajjiar is one amongst the 160 locations across the world which bear resemblance with Switzerland in terms of their topography. Khajjiar is part of the scenic Kalatop Khajjiar Wildlife Sanctuary which has dense Deodar, Pine and Fir forests with beautiful walking trails. On clear days, panoramic views of the Dhauladhar range of mountains can be seen from Khajjiar as it sits at the base of the mountains.

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View Enroute Khajjiar

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Khajjiar meadow

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Khajjiar Meadow

Khajjiar Lake is a small lake surrounded by lush green landscape and Cedar trees on all sides. The lake gets its name from the nearby ancient temple of Khajji Nag. The lake has shrunk considerably from its original size due to dense growth of weeds. Horse Riding and Zorbing can be done near the lake. The place is ideal for long walks around the meadow.

The ancient Khajji Nag temple dating back to the twelfth century was built by the King of Chamba. The sanctum has been carved beautifully from wood.  Life size images of the Pandavas of Mahabharata can be seen on pillars inside the temple while the Kauravas have been depicted as hanging from the roof inside. These images were added to the original temple in the sixteenth century by Raja Balbhadra Barman. The temple was renovated in the seventeenth century by Batlu who was the religious nurse of the then ruler Raja Prithvi Singh. The deity worshipped here is Naga (Snake) called Khajji Nag.  Idols of Snakes can be seen inside the main sanctum. Other idols include those of Lord Shiva and Goddess Hadimba.

Chamba

Chamba town is the headquarters of the Chamba district and located on the banks of the Ravi river. It is named after Princess Champavati who belonged to the Maru dynasty which ruled the state of Chamba from around 500 AD.  Their capital was Bharmour before it was shifted to Chamba by Raja Sahil Varman in 920 AD upon the request of his daughter Champavati. Chamba is well-known for its contributions to arts and crafts particularly miniature pahari paintings, handicrafts and textiles. Chamba is around 50 km from Dalhousie and it takes around two hours to get there. We did a day trip from Dalhousie to Chamba and went there via Khajjiar.

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View en-route Chamba

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Chamba from a distance

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Ravi river

The Chaugan which is a huge ground in the centre of town is the nucleus of all activities in Chamba. It is surrounded by buildings and shopping markets. It is used for fairs, picnics, cricket matches and promenades depending on the time of the year.

Laxmi Narayan Temple

The Laxmi Narayan temple complex was constructed during the tenth century by Raja Sahil Varman. His successors added some of the other shrines later. The main Laxmi Narayan temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The dhwajasthambha (flagstaff) pillar at the main entrance to the temple complex has a metallic image of Garuda who is the mount of Lord Vishnu. These beautiful temples have wooden Chhatris. The carvings on the exterior walls of the temples are exquisite. The temple has been constructed in the Shikara style. The temple roof was adorned with Gold pinnacles in the late seventeenth century by Raja Chhatra Singh as a riposte to Aurangzeb who had ordered the temple to be demolished.

Chamera Lake

Chamera Lake is the reservoir of the Chamera Dam which has been built across the Ravi river for generation of hydroelectric power. It is located near Dalhousie. Boating can be done in the placid waters of the lake. We went here on our way back to Dalhousie from Chamba. The sun setting behind the hills with the lake in the foreground was a beautiful sight to behold from the boat.

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Bird’s eye view of Chamera Dam

Other Places

Dalhousie is a walker’s paradise. While we couldn’t do the walks as we were traveling with a toddler, I am listing them down here.

  • Thandi Sadak – This is a walking path in Dalhousie which gets its name as it is covered with trees which obstruct sunlight and keep the path cool.
  • Garam Sadak – This is also a walking path connecting Gandhi Chowk with Subhash Chowk. This path receives direct sunlight and remains warm even in the evenings.
  • Dainkund Peak – This is the highest peak in Dalhousie. A trek to the top is rewarded with panoramic views of the Himalayas. The path leading to the top is supposed to be pretty as well dotted with beautiful flowering plants. Vehicles can be driven up to a point near the Air Force base on the way after which one needs to walk. There is a temple dedicated to Pohlani Devi at the top of the peak. This peak is popularly known as the singing hill due to the sound created by the breeze passing through the trees here.
  • Kalatop – This is part of the Kalatop Khajjiar Sanctuary and the trail leading to the forest rest house is supposed to be very charming. It might be a good place for birdwatching.

The below places are in Chamba town. We could not visit these places due to lack of time. A stay of at least one night might be needed to do justice to Chamba.

  • Bhuri Singh Museum – This museum was established in the early twentieth century in honour of Raja Bhuri Singh who ruled Chamba at that point of time. It houses an impressive collection of royal paintings, portraits, traditional costumes, jewellery, arms and armour, coins, valuable inscriptions about the medieval history of Chamba, musical instruments and other such artefacts.
  • Akhand Chandi Palace – This eighteenth century palace served as the residence of the King. It was sold by the royal family to the Government of Himachal Pradesh in the twentieth century and has been converted into a Government College and District Library now. It can be identified by its distinct green roof and gives commanding views of the town.

 

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Amritsar

Amritsar colloquially called Ambarsar is a heritage city in the state of Punjab in North Western India which is steeped in history and culture. It lies on the stretch of Grand Trunk Road connecting Delhi to Lahore.  It is the holiest city for Sikhs. It is home to the Harmandir Sahib popularly known as Golden Temple. It is also well-known for its rich cuisine and shopping.

It had been on my wish list for quite a while and I got an opportunity to go there this year during Dussehra. For the trip to Dharamshala in September this year, we figured that Amritsar was a very meaningful option from both distance and costing perspectives. The other options are Chandigarh – little further than Amritsar from a distance perspective – and Gaggal (Dharamshala), flights to which were very expensive.

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Golden Temple in the morning

History

Amritsar was founded in the late sixteenth century by the fourth Sikh guru, Guru Ram Das. He settled here first and the place was known as Ramdaspur. The Golden temple was constructed after some time around a man-made lake that he had completed. The old city area of Amritsar has narrow streets which date back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The infamous Jallianwala Bagh Massacre took place in the heart of the old city in 1919. Amritsar is located very close to the border with Pakistan (around 30 kms from the Attari-Wagah Border). Due to this Amritsar, along with Lahore, faced some of the worst communal riots during the partition of British India into India and Pakistan.

Harmandir Sahib

The Harmandir Sahib, popularly known as Golden Temple is the holiest Gurudwara for Sikhism. It is very popular amongst tourists from all over the world and supposedly attracts more crowds in a day than the Taj Mahal. It is an open house of worship for all people irrespective of their caste or religion. The temple has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site but the application is still pending. The place should be visited both during the day as well as night to appreciate its beauty and tranquility. It is quite a spectacle when lit at night!

 

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The fifth Sikh Guru Arjan requested Sai Mian Mir who was a Muslim Pir of Lahore to lay the foundation stone for Harmandir Sahib in 1589. The temple has been built around the man-made lake that was completed by Guru Ram Das who founded the city of Amritsar. The holy book of the Sikhs, the Adi Granth (which later became the Guru Granth Sahib)  was placed inside the temple. The place has been rebuilt several times over the centuries as it was targeted and destroyed by the Mughal Empire and the Muslim armies of Afghanistan. In the early nineteenth century it was rebuilt using marble and copper by Maharaja Ranjit Singh who founded the Sikh empire. He also got the sanctum overlaid with Gold foil which led to the name ‘Golden Temple’.

The temple complex has four entrances and a circumambulation path around the pool. Apart from the sanctum the complex also houses the Akal Takht which is the chief centre of religious authority of Sikhism. The Langar of the Golden Temple, which is a community run kitchen where simple vegetarian meals are served to all visitors without any discrimination is considered one of the mega kitchens of the world. There is also a clock tower, museum and offices of the Gurudwara committee. Around one lakh people visit the place every day.

The Guru Granth Sahib is seated inside the sanctum for the greater part of the day. It is carried in a palanquin every night to its bedroom in Akal Takht with elaborate ceremonies. This ritual is known as Sukhasan which translates to comfort or rest position. A similar ritual called Prakash which means light is performed at dawn when the Guru Granth Sahib is carried back to the sanctum amidst chanting and bugle sounding.

Before entering the Golden Temple premises, you will need to remove your footwear. Footwear can be left at the footwear room where a lot of Sikhs perform Seva by managing your footwear for you. Every person entering should cover their heads as a token of respect for the Guru. The ladies can use shawls or stoles if you have them. There are also huge bins just outside where people deposit their used scarves which you can then pick from and cover your heads. Around the Golden Temple premises, you will find a lot of people selling scarves too. With your head covered, you can then step through a pool of water at the entrance to ensure that you enter the premises after having cleaned your feet.

 

Typically pilgrims make a circumambulation around the lake in clockwise direction before queuing up to enter the sanctum. In the sanctum, the Guru Granth Sahib is continuously recited by the Granthis. On days when the crowds aren’t too much, one can spend some time sitting around here and listen to the recitation. Sitting in the middle of the lake listening to the recitation can be very soothing to the soul! Even to those of us who may not understand the meaning of what is being recited. When you leave the sanctum area and get back to the area around the lake be sure to collect the Khara Prasad, that is ladled out by volunteers to everyone. Around the lake you will also find volunteers handing out drinking water to anyone who needs it. Of course, the langar is an experience by itself!

 

Interesting tidbit: A simple book which can help in understanding important facts about the Golden Temple and Sikhism which can be read before a visit by both adults and children is ‘Amma Take me to Golden Temple’ by Bhakti Mathur.

Jallianwala Bagh

Jallianwala Bagh is a public garden tucked away in the historical old city along the path leading to Golden temple. Today it serves as a memorial dedicated to the gruesome incident of Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919.

 

Thousands of people had gathered in the garden on the day of the Baisakhi festival for a peaceful protest meeting against the British. General Dyer reached the spot with his troops when the meeting was in progress and had all the exits blocked. He then ordered his troops to fire indiscriminately without warning the crowd to disperse. Pandemonium broke and a lot of lives were lost. Ceasefire was ordered only after ammunition was exhausted. A lot of people died due to the stampede. Many lay injured and could not be moved as a curfew was imposed that day. They died later in the night. Lot of people jumped into a well in the garden to escape from being fired and lost their lives in the process. The well is now known as Martyrs Well and a plaque has been kept outside. Bullet marks can still be seen on the walls which have been preserved as a memorial.

 

Attari-Wagah Border Ceremony

The security forces of India and Pakistan perform a beating retreat ceremony every day before sunset. The flags of both the countries are lowered as part of this elaborate ceremony which involves a lot of dance like movements. The ceremony is quite a sight and an experience which is not to be missed. The rivalry between the countries can be felt while watching this. Loud patriotic music is played on both sides of the border and the crowds cheer. The immense patriotic feeling that one can get cannot be explained in words.

 

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The ceremony starts with parades by soldiers on both sides and ends with the perfectly coordinated lowering of flags. One infantryman stands at attention on each side of the border. As the sun sets, the iron gates are opened and the flags are lowered. The flags are then folded and the retreat ends with a brusque handshake between the soldiers of  both sides followed by the closing of the gates. The soldiers who are part of this ceremony are specially trained for this purpose.

 

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Food in Amritsar

Food in Amritsar deserves its own special mention. It is a haven for all foodies, vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. The locals claim that the special taste of Amritsari food should be attributed to the water of Amritsar and tell you many a story on how even the best of chefs taken from Amritsar cannot reproduce the same taste elsewhere! We even heard a story of a rich businessman from Amritsar carting truckloads of water from Amritsar to Delhi for his daughter’s wedding!

Below is a list of just a few of Amritsar’s marquee eat-out joints! These are places which we visited and loved! All of these are vegetarian friendly. Amritsar definitely warrants another visit, just for the food!!!

Kulcha Land

This small outlet is a good place for sampling the famous Amritsari Kulchas. The Kulchas are stuffed with Potato and served with Chana curry. Despite being stuffed, they didn’t seem too heavy. Most of the Kulcha places shut shop after late afternoon. So they have to be visited either for breakfast or lunch.

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Amritsari Kulcha at Kulcha Land

Brothers Dhaba

This restaurant has two branches and we visited the main one near the heritage walkway leading to the Golden Temple. The food was to die for! So different from the food that we had tasted before. We tried the Tawa Paneer which is one of their signature dishes and Maa Ki Dal along with some Tawa Chapathis. The meal was finished off with some Amritsari Phirni. A lovely way to end the day!

 

Kanha Sweets

This legendary place for breakfast lived up to its name. We were not disappointed at all. As I write this, I am reminiscing the taste of the fluffy big Pooris and the delicious Chana curry as well as Kachaloo ki chutney (Colocasia Stem Curry) and Aloo ki Launji (a sweet and sour Potato curry). The Gur ka Halwa (jaggery based sweet) was a perfect add-on. When in Amritsar, we had every one of our breakfasts here!

 

Gian Di Lassi

And how can we skip Lassi which is one of the must haves when in Punjab. We had already tasted it in all of the above places. But this hole in the wall outlet in the old city came recommended for its Pedewali Lassi. The sweet Malai Pedas are crushed and mixed while making the Lassi. What a heady combination this one was!

 

Shop in Amritsar

Punjab is famous for its intricate Phulkari embroidery and colourful Juttis. So these are a must buy in Amritsar. Some of the places that we visited for Phulkari shopping were Raja Exclusive in the crowded Katra Jaimal Singh market and Phulkari Creations in the upmarket Rani ka Bagh locality.

 

When it comes to Juttis the only name that sprang up everywhere online was Raunak Jutti. The shop had an amazing collection of Juttis across two floors and the staff ensured that we decided quick and got what we wanted.

 

New Mahajan Store which sells dry fruits and papads came highly recommended. We tasted the Afghani Almonds called Mamras which are sourced from Kabul. The Amritsari Wadiyan and Papads can also be bought here.

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Havelock and Neil Island in Andaman

Blue skies, vast stretches of pristine beaches shimmering with azure waters, Scuba diving and Snorkelling. Add to that historical significance to the Indian Independence struggle & World War II. What place does this bring up first in your minds? Of course, I am talking about the Andaman Islands. The previous post talked mainly about Port Blair and its history. This one is dedicated to the beaches and azure waters of Havelock Island and Neil Island.

Havelock Island

Named after a British General Sir Henry Havelock, who served in India, Havelock island is one of the largest islands in South Andaman. This island is a must visit and figures in most of the typical itineraries to Andaman. The island can be reached by ferry. Regular ferries operated by both the Government as well as private companies like Makruzz and Green Ocean ply to the island. It takes about one and a half hours to get here from Port Blair.

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Makruzz ferry to Havelock

Havelock island

First view of Havelock

The beaches of Havelock are picture perfect and pristine. The beaches here are given numbers. Some of the famous beaches are Radhanagar Beach, Elephant Beach, Kala Pathar Beach and Vijay Nagar Beach. Scooters are available on rent for those who want to go around the island on their own.

Radhanagar Beach

Beach no 7 on the western side of the island, more popularly known as Radhanagar Beach, has been voted as the most beautiful beach of Asia a few years ago. Time Magazine had even ranked it as the seventh best beach in the world. This white sand beach surrounded by mangroves looks straight out of a postcard.

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Radhanagar Beach

Long walks across the beach upto Neil’s cove, which is a hidden gem along this stretch, is something that will remain etched in your memory forever. The beach is ideally suited for spending a lot of time for both adults and children alike. Children can have a great time here with their sand toys. Getting into the water is perfectly possible as the waves are not too rough or high most of the year. And finally, the sunsets here are to die for! Especially during the winter months, the sky turns into a canvas with myriad hues. As you walk the beach, you can see small crabs sauntering across the sands creating beautiful trails all around. The intricate patterns make for some interesting photos.

Patterns

Intricate Patterns in Sand

Barefoot Resort

The biggest advantage of staying at Barefoot at Havelock resort is that you can get a private access to Radhanagar Beach from within the resort. And the hospitality and ambience being great just makes it a wonderful option. Devoid of any digital access, the resort and the island in general is a great place to unwind and fully soak in the beauty of the surroundings without distractions. Most of the other resorts are on the eastern coast of Havelock and give you an opportunity to enjoy sunrise from the resorts.

Back to Barefoot resort. The accommodation options range from tents to villas. Both the Andaman and the Nicobari Villas have been tastefully done. The cottages have been constructed in the traditional style with local wood.

The path that leads to the beach from inside the resort is truly magical. Enchanted Woods might be the best way in describing the place :D The tall trees and the light filtering through the canopy with the white sand beach just across the mangroves is an unforgettable sight. Towels and mats can be picked from the resort while going to the beach. Since this section of beach is at quite a distance from the public entrance to the beach, you will mostly find residents of the resort here save for the occasional one who walk a long way from the public beach.

For those interested in birdwatching, early morning walks around the property can be rewarding. Sometimes endemic birds such as Andaman Coucal can also be seen near the villas in the property. One can sign up for a birdwatching walk with the Yoga trainer at Barefoot who also does birdwatching. Typical sightings here include Racket-tailed Drongo, Green Imperial Pigeon, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Collared Kingfisher, Andaman Serpent Eagle, Sandpiper, White-breasted Kingfisher and Asian Fairy Bluebird. The walk leads you through dense foliage next to the Radhanagar beach and past Neil’s cove. The place looks straight out of a fairytale and has an otherworldly charm in the early morning.

The Andamans, especially Havelock, is one of the best places in the world for scuba diving. Barefoot also runs a scuba diving institute here and the folks at Barefoot Resort can also arrange for the same. Given all that you can do when at Havelock, you should plan for atleast 3 nights here, so as to not feel rushed.

Elephant Beach

Elephant Beach along the North Western edge of the Island is a popular hub for water sports in Havelock. The most common way to get here is to take a speed boat ride from the Havelock jetty which takes around 20 minutes. The other way is to trek through the forest for close to 2 kms from a path on the way to Radhanagar Beach. This will take around 45 minutes.

This beach has crystal clear water. Fallen trees and logs strewn across the shore add a charm to the beach. This is the hub for water sports on Havelock. Some of the water sports that are conducted here are snorkelling, under water sea walks and banana boat rides etc.  Glass bottom boat rides can also be taken to view the colourful underwater world. Lots of clownfish, jellyfish and other colourful fishes can be seen.

Kalapathar Beach

Kalapathar Beach is probably the last beach on the eastern coast. Most of Southern Havelock is uninhabited. A drive along the eastern coast of Havelock leads one past many resorts and hotels before ending at this scenic beach. The beach is named so due to the presence of coal black rocks scattered across the coast here. This might be a good place to watch sunrise. Small shops have been setup next to the beach to sell souvenirs and food for tourists. This beach is not as popular and crowded like Elephant Beach and probably Radhanagar Beach (where one can have an excellent experience minus the crowds upon staying at Barefoot).

Neil Island

Neil Island is a smaller island compared to Havelock in Southern Andaman. It is named after a British Brigadier called James Neill who fought on the side of the British in the sepoy mutiny of 1857. It was uninhabited till the Hindu refugees from Bangaladesh were settled here around the late sixties. As the land was suited for paddy cultivation, most of the forest was cleared here making the island a bit warmer than Havelock. This island supposedly supplies vegetables to the rest of Andaman.

There are fewer resorts and tourists here compared to Havelock. Momentum of tourism is picking up gradually though. The island has a different charm of its own. It takes an hour to get here from Havelock and two hours to get here from Port Blair. One can choose to do this as a day trip from Havelock too. A stay of 1-2 nights is definitely recommended to appreciate the beauty of Neil Island.

Some of the key attractions of the island are its beaches named after characters of Ramayana such as Rampur beach, Sitapur Beach, Laxman Beach and Bharatpur Beach. The ferries plying to Neil island embark on the jetty at Bharatpur Beach. While Sitapur Beach on east is considered good for sunrise, the Laxmanpur Beach at the Northwestern tip of the island is best for sunset.

Bharatpur Beach

The jetty where the ferries land is right next to the Bharatpur Beach. This is a picturesque beach. Like Elephant Beach, water sports such as snorkelling and scuba diving can be done here too. Glass bottomed boat rides can also be taken. There are plenty of shops selling knick knacks and food next to the beach.

Natural Bridge and Coral Reef

A visit to Neil Island is incomplete without visiting the landmark bridge created by nature. To get to this place one needs to take a short and easy walk along a narrow path on a small hillock like place dotted with makeshift shops selling trinkets and then walk past coral reefs. Manoeuvring the corals is best done on barefoot.

Highly recommended to engage a guide to understand the place better. A guide can explain about the various types of corals that are encountered along the way. Some of the interesting corals here include Beehive Coral, Jackfruit Coral and Brain Coral. Plenty of Sea Cucumbers can also be seen.

The bridge formed by live corals gradually comes into view and it is magnificent. It is visible only during low tides which is typically before evening when it gets submerged in water.

Other Places

Andaman is definitely a hotbed of natural diversity. There are many places in North and Little Andaman that can be visited other than the ones mentioned above. Some of these include :

  • Diglipur in North Andaman which is the gateway to the nearby Ross and Smith Islands which are supposed to be very pristine and excellent for snorkelling.
  • Baratang Island which is a gateway to North and Middle Andaman district for its mud volcanoes, mangrove and tropical forests as well as limestone caves. This region is quite offbeat from a tourism point of view and still retains its virgin beauty. The nearby Parrot Island is known for its sunset which is special as hordes of Parrots (common misnomer for Parakeets) make their way back home at this time of the day.
  • Little Andaman for its beautiful waterfalls. For the adventurous, it is a surfing destination as well. It is also good for birdwatching.
  • Mount Harriet National Park for birdwatching. In addition to the birds, it is a butterfly hotspot. Most of the endemic birds are found here. Notable fauna includes Andaman Wild Pig, Robber Crabs, Saltwater Crocodiles and Turtles.
  • Wandoor in South Andaman which is a gateway to the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park. Jolly Buoy and Red Skin Islands near the national park are alternate places to do snorkelling or go on glass bottom boat rides.
  • The wetlands of Port Blair, Ross Island and Cellular Jail too can be visited for birdwatching.
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Andaman Islands

The name Andaman brings to mind memories of the dreaded penal settlement of Kala Pani, Blue skies, vast stretches of pristine beaches shimmering with azure waters and water sports such as Scuba diving and Snorkelling. Andaman and Nicobar islands are a group of islands which are located at the juncture of Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea. It has always been an exotic destination ever since I heard about it. Though it is a union territory of India, it is closer to Myanmar and Thailand. The only airport is at Port Blair which is the capital. If the weather is turbulent, the planes land at the airport in the neighbouring country of Thailand as it is closer than mainland India :P Since Andaman is a lot more to the east than the rest of India, daylight kicks in real early on the clock as IST is a single timezone for the whole of India.

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Little known fact: Andaman has been inhabited for thousands of years. It was part of the Chola empire as a strategic naval base against the Srivijaya empire of Sumatra in the south east. However, very little seems to be known of the involvement of the indigenous tribes of Andaman with the Chola empire. The indigenous people of Andaman seemed to have lived in substantial isolation till the eighteenth century when the British arrived here to set up the penal colony for which the island attained notoriety as Kala Pani.

Today the island is inhabited by people who originally hailed from different parts of mainland India. A reasonable number of them are Bengalis from Bangladesh. They were settled here by the Indian Government when they came over to India as refugees during the tumultuous times before Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971. The indigenous tribes still occupy some parts of the island but are seldom encountered in the regular tourist trails. In fact a lot of the areas where the most secluded of the tribes still live are off limits to outsiders with access being controlled by the Indian Government and Navy.

Port Blair

Port Blair is the capital of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It is a laid back city and serves as the base for a trip to the islands. Port Blair is well connected by air to the mainland. You can also get here on ships from Chennai, Kolkata etc. A day or two can be spent hopping around the museums (Anthropological Museum, Samudrika Naval Museum and Fisheries Marine Museum), Cellular Jail, Chatham Saw Mill and the nearby islands. Aberdeen Bazaar is the main shopping area in Port Blair. Most of the shops and restaurants are found here.

Aberdeen Bazaar Clock Tower, Port Blair

Aberdeen Bazaar

Sunset at Port Blair

Sunset at Port Blair

Cellular Jail

Andaman served as a penal settlement primarily for political prisoners who were subjected to torture and harsh treatment during the British rule. The convicts were used to set up the British colony in the island. The prison set up at the island was called Kala Pani by the Indian prisoners and Sazaa-e-Kala Pani was dreaded by everyone.

The islands were occupied by Japanese during WWII who drove out the British. The jail was used for housing British prisoners. During this time Netaji Subash Chandra Bose visited the islands and raised the flag of Indian Independence, making it possibly the first place in current independent India where the Indian tricolour fluttered. After WWII the islands returned to the British. The penal settlement was abolished when India gained independence in August of 1947.

The jail was constructed by the prisoners themselves who were sent to Andaman and it took around 10 years to be constructed. It was built in the shape of a starfish with seven wings radiating from a central tower. Each wing had three floors. The cells of each wing were designed such that they faced the back of the adjoining wing thereby preventing communication between prisoners of two wings. Solitary confinement was a tactic used by the British to ensure the isolation of political prisoners and revolutionaries from each other.

The hardships that the inmates were subjected to was often severe and unbearable. The inmates were made to extract oil from coconuts manually which was a gruelling process. It was impossible to extract the expected quantity of oil within the specified time and punishment which included brutal flogging was meted out for not completing the work. Some of the other tasks assigned were rope and coir making.

One of the most popular inmates of the jail was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar well known as Veer Savarkar, a freedom fighter from Maharasthra. Both he and his brother Ganesh Damodar Savarkar were imprisoned here in different cells. The design of the prison and isolation of prisoners ensured that the brothers were unaware of each other’s presence for two years.

David Barry was probably the most notorious jailer in terms of torturing the prisoners. Mass hunger strikes were carried out by the inmates protesting against his brutality in the 1930s. The British officers tried force feeding due to which three freedom fighters died. At this juncture, Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore intervened and the Government decided to repatriate the political prisoners from here just before the outbreak of WWII.

After Independence two of the wings of the jail were demolished. There was public outcry that the monument be preserved as a national memorial to independence. Today only three wings and the central tower remain. A Government Hospital has been established in the rest of the premises.

The Cellular Jail is a must visit place for anyone visiting Andaman. The place evokes profound patriotism and one cannot miss feeling a lump in the throat upon going around. Despite its macabre past, the place radiates charm and serenity now. A museum has also been set up near the entrance displaying paintings and photographs. The museum also contains a model of the entire Cellular Jail as it was originally built. Guided tours of the jail are available during the day. Light and Sound shows are conducted in the evenings in Hindi as well as English.

There is an eternal flame burning in memory of the martyrs who dedicated their lives for the sake of freedom as we enter the premises after visiting the museum. The gallows where prisoners sentenced to death used to be hung can be seen. The mess where meals were cooked is next to the gallows. The work sheds lie in the middle of the premises. Various models have been displayed to depict the kinds of work that the prisoners did.

This tree has been witness to the terrible history of the Cellul

Inside the Cellular Jail

The long corridors of the prison which have been a mute witness to the gruesome past reverberate in silence today. Veer Savarkar’s cell has been marked out and is one of the stops during a visit here. The airport at Port Blair is also named after him. Boards listing the names of prisoners have been kept. Upon reaching the top of the central tower, one can see the starfish shape of the structure and get sweeping views of the entire place. The neighbouring Ross island can also be seen.

A park right across the road from the cellular jail houses statues of prominent freedom fighters who had been imprisoned here.

Ross Island

While the prison was set up on mainland, the neighbouring Ross Island was where the British colony was set up. Prisoners were used for clearing the island and constructing buildings. The island served as the administrative headquarters of the British for almost a century before being occupied by the Japanese during WWII. An earthquake in 1941 destroyed most of the buildings on this island and led to it being abandoned.

Today all that can be seen are the remains of the opulence and grandeur of the colonial era. In its heydays Ross Island was referred to as ‘The Paris of East’. Ruins of the hospital, bakery, Rosary Church, Chief Commissioner’s residence, stores, swimming pool, tennis court, water treatment plant, barracks etc serve as a reminder to the past. Nature is slowly taking over with most buildings being covered by creepers and roots of trees. Deer can be seen roaming amidst the ruins. Today the island is managed by the Indian Navy and no civilian settlement is allowed here by the authorities.

What you see on the other side is the spot which is featured in

The island seen on an Indian Twenty Rupee note as seen from the highest point on Ross Island

Ross Island can be reached by a fifteen minute boat ride from the jetty of the Water Sports complex in Port Blair.  Electric vehicles are available on the island to go around. The island can be covered by foot too. Light and Sound shows are held here during evenings.

Chatham Saw Mill

This is one of the oldest and largest saw mills in Asia. It is located on Chatham island which is 11 kms from Port Blair and can be reached by a road bridge. The mill was established by the British in late nineteenth century to meet the timber requirements for construction purposes. The mill is still operational and maintained by the Forest department.

The mill was affected by bombings during WWII which resulted in the creation of a huge pit in the premises. Today the pit is filled with water.

A museum has been set up inside the premises showcasing samples of wood carvings, furniture and wooden showpieces. A board depicting the two dozen varieties of wood found in Andaman has also been kept here.

Different varieties of timber from the Andamans (at Chatham Saw

A guided tour can be taken to observe the operations of the mill. The different phases that the wood is subjected to right from the time it is ferried across to the mill till it is sorted, cut, stored and transformed into wooden planks can be seen here. One may find the guides here to be not very enthusiastic and mechanical. Nevertheless the mill is an interesting stop for the history buffs.

The wood is piled high at Chatham Saw Mill

The wood is piled high at Chatham Saw Mill

Chidiya Tapu

Chidiya Tapu Beach is famous for its gorgeous sunsets and birdwatching. It is at the southern end of the main island, 30 kms from Port Blair, and it takes an hour to get there. The ideal time for birdwatching here is early in the morning. The terrain changes drastically in the last leg of the drive. The forest is very dense here and thats why it is a birdwatching hotspot.

A visit to Chidiya Tapu can be combined with a stop at the nearby Mundapahad Beach. There is a checkpost here where the records of people visiting are maintained. This beach offers beautiful views of the surroundings. Driftwood can be found scattered all across the Mundapahad Beach. Most of the tourists spend quite a bit of time here.

The sunset at Chidiya Tapu beach can be quite a sight and the stones that crop up given the low tide make it a wonderful location for sunset photography. A tip. Wait a little post the actual sunset too. You will see gorgeous colours!

Havelock & Neil Island

Named after a British General Sir Henry Havelock, who served in India, Havelock island is one of the largest islands in South Andaman. This island is a must visit and figures in most of the typical itineraries to Andaman. Among others, Havelock is home to the world famous, picture perfect & gorgeous Radhanagar Beach!

Neil Island is a smaller island compared to Havelock in Southern Andaman. It is named after a British Brigadier called James Neill who fought on the side of the British in the sepoy mutiny of 1857. The Natural Bridge and Coral Reef here are unique and one of a kind!

All this and much more on Havelock & Neil Island in the next post.

 

 

 

 

 

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Pondicherry

“Give Time a Break”. This is the slogan for Pondicherry Tourism and it brilliantly summarises life in this quaint little union territory of India. Pondicherry was a french colony until 1954 and manages to retain its French connection to this day. Having been to France a few months back, I was yearning for the French delicacies and the French way of life. N, our little one wanted to go to a beach in his holidays and play in the sand :) How could I say no when Nagesh suggested a trip to Pondicherry!

French Town

Somehow we had never managed to travel here all these years though we did do a trip to Auroville few years back. I had seen quite a few pictures of the White Town which is the French part of Pondicherry with its quaint houses painted in shades of yellow, dotted with beautiful bougainvillea flowers. Finally we spent three lovely days with the family here during a long weekend in October of last year.

Despite the sweltering heat we had a memorable time. As it was a last minute planned trip we had trouble finding accommodation at some of the hotels we intended to stay. So Nagesh decided to give AirBnB a try. We liked the sea view and garden view rooms at a colonial bungalow centrally located in the White Town and very close to the promenade. Our superhost Bitasta and her family ensured that we had a good time. And we are so glad that our stay was hassle free.

The town is divided into two prominent sections called the White Town or French Quarter and Tamil Quarters which are separated by a canal. We spent most of our time in the French Quarter, which is where a lot of the sights are located. It has lovely streets with quaint names and beautiful buildings as well as homes which are reminiscent of a bygone era. There are many cafes and restaurants serving French and Creole cuisine. The best way to get a feel of the French Town is to go around on foot or drive around slowly.

The Promenade

The promenade has a striking resemblance to the one in Nice in Cote d’Azur region of France. No wonder Pondicherry is referred to as the Cote d’Azur of the east. The French must have felt at home here due to the similarity of the coast back home. Vehicles are not allowed on the beach road next to the promenade in the evenings making it convenient for those walking.

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Prominent landmarks that can be seen from the promenade include the statue of Mahatma Gandhi, the statue of the French governor Dupleix housed in a small park, a war memorial dedicated to the soldiers who were part of WWI, the old lighthouse, a park housing a statue of Joan of Arc and the backside of Notre Dame church. Petanque which is a popular game played on the streets in France is played opposite the Notre Dame church on Sundays. As we happened to be there on a Sunday, we got an opportunity to watch it during our walk along the promenade.

The sand on the promenade beach is no longer there due to extreme coastal corrosion resulting from construction on the shore. One needs to head out either to Paradise Beach or Chunnambar beach which is on the outskirts of Pondicherry towards Cuddalore or Auroville Beach for the regular beach experience.

Promenade Beach

Bharathi Park

Close to the promenade is Bharathi Park which is a large green area surrounded by important government buildings on all sides. The park houses a monument called Aayi Mandapam which is a memorial named after a courtesan called Aayi who had a reservoir erected in place of her home to supply water for the city. The monument was built during the reign of Napoleon III of France. The colourful fountains of the park proved to be a delight for little N who couldn’t resist posing in front of them!

Manakula Vinayagar Temple

The Manakula Vinayagar Temple behind Aurobindo Ashram is an old Hindu temple which has been in existence even before the French came in the seventeenth century. The temple is dedicated to the Hindu God Ganesha who has been depicted on the inside walls in forty different forms in which he is worshipped in different parts of the world. An Elephant named Lakshmi is present here in the evenings and one can get blessed from her for an offering. This was something that little N had been looking forward to after his previous experience at Virupaksha temple in Hampi. We ended up going to the temple thrice during our visit as we kept missing the encounter with Lakshmi :P

Botanical Garden

The Botanical Garden is a large green area located in the Tamil part of the town. The gardens were laid out in the mid nineteenth century by the French. The garden has exotic plants from different parts of the world. N was super excited to go on a ride in the toy train which traverses through the garden. If not for the heat, we might have ended up spending more time here.

Basilica of Sacred Heart of Jesus

The Basilica is a beautiful church located near the railway station. It is supposed to have been built in the eighteenth century by French missionaries. The highlight of this place is its beautiful stained glass panels which portray scenes from the life of Christ. As we were here pretty early in the morning, we had the place pretty much to ourselves and could admire it in peace.

Basilica of Sacred Heart of Jesus

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception is a Roman Catholic church located in the Tamil part of the town. The current structure dates back from the late eighteenth century. The interiors of the church are pretty impressive. The Bishop’s House is also located here.

Cathedral of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception

Eglise de notre Dame des Anges

The Eglise de notre Dame des Anges Church also called Our Lady of Angels Church is one of the important landmarks along the promenade facing the Bay of Bengal. It is a Catholic church that was built in the Nineteenth Century by Napoleon III. This beautiful Pink and Cream coloured church built in the Greco-Roman style of architecture blends well with the neighbourhood. There is a popular belief that this church has been modelled similar to the Notre Dame de Paris and the Basilica at Lourdes. It is the only church offering mass in three languages namely French, Tamil and English. There is a statue of Joan of Arc behind the church towards the promenade. It was donated by Goubert who was the mayor of Pondicherry during that period.

Cluny Centre of Embroidery

The Cluny Centre of Embroidery is housed in a beautiful heritage building on Rue Romain Rolland in the White Town. It is a testament to Pondicherry’s French colonial era. Run by the sisters of Cluny Convent, it trains and employs underprivileged and destitute women. They make hand embroidered handkerchiefs, cloth pieces for framing, napkins, pillow covers and bedspreads. The exquisite and intricate designs are made by referring to encyclopaedias on plants, animals and birds. Prices are a bit stiff on the pocket, but more than make up with the sheer quality and intricacy of the work. I couldn’t resist buying a cloth for framing :)

Beach

We drove to Club Mahindra resort which is outside the city towards Cuddalore. Our friends were staying there and little N had a ball of a time at the beach. He played in the water and just sat as the waves splashed him all over :P  We saw a beautiful sunset here.

Gastronomy

Pondicherry is well known for its creole cuisine. Three days weren’t going to be enough for trying out all the restaurants that I had read about online. Seafood is supposed to be one of the best aspects of creole cuisine and also at Pondicherry. However, none of us eat seafood :| Despite this, what we got to eat here more than engaged our tastebuds!

Les Alizes, Palais de Mahe

Palais de Mahe is a heritage hotel owned by the CGH group. I had come across mention of this hotel and its restaurant in quite a few articles on Pondicherry. While we did not manage to stay there owing to non availability, we decided to have lunch in their Les Alizes restaurant. The decor and ambience of the restaurant and the hotel proved to be quite impressive.

We had the Mushroom and Spinach Crepes, Veg Stew with Appam and Pondi Chicken Curry served along with brown rice and Carrot thoran for mains. Nagesh loved the perfection in taste of the Chicken curry so much that he doesn’t  mind going back there any day :D Then came the best part of the meal. The dessert of course! We asked for the Orange Mousse which was listed on the menu. But they did not have it on that day and suggested the Guava Mousse instead. We agreed and it turned out to be the perfect ending for a nice meal. Overall it was a pleasant experience :)

Surguru Restaurant

This is a popular South Indian vegetarian restaurant located on the busy Mission Street. Little N who had been surviving on icecream mostly due to the heat gorged on the Masala Dosa here with his grandma :D We ended up doing two meals here!

Onion Uttappam at Surguru Restaurant

Zuka Choco-la

Zuka Choco-la is a dessert boutique famous for their chocolates. They also have some sandwich options and other quick bites. Their speciality is the heavenly Hot Chocolate which is something that chocolate lovers will swear by. Had heard highly about this place from friends who consider it as a must visit on each of their trips to Pondicherry. The place lived up to its expectations. The rich hot chocolate comes with an edible chocolate spoon! Little N was attracted by  chocolates shaped like vintage cars kept in the display and promptly devoured one :)

Carte Blanche, Hotel De L’Orient

The Carte Blanche restaurant in Hotel De L’Orient owned by the Neemrana group of hotels is on the same street as Palais de Mahe hotel. The old world charm of this place is magical. The cuisine is creole with infusion of Tamil spices in the French cuisine. I quite liked the Ratatouille au Cottage Cheese which is their version of Ratatouille with paneer as the main ingredient. The Mousse au Chocolat for dessert was rich and tasted divine. The Creme Caramel Noix de Coco which is Caramel Coconut Custard was decent.

Baker Street

Baker Street is a popular French bakery on the busy M G Road. A variety of French breads, snacks and desserts can be found here. We tried the Macarons here which were a bit on the crisper side compared to the ones we tried in Paris. Overall we found prices to be a little on the higher side.

Macarons

Gelato Factory

This ice cream shop came highly recommended by our host. So we decided to give it a try on one of the evenings. Quite a few interesting flavours were available. The best part was that we could take two scoops of different flavours together and we liked all that we tried. The little one gave a thumbs up as well :D

Icecream at Gelato Factory

Maison Perumal

Maison Perumal is a heritage hotel owned by the CGH group of hotels. It is located in a beautiful mansion built in the traditional Tamil style in a quiet street in the Tamil Quarter. I had heard quite a bit about the decor of this hotel as well as the delectable Tamil food that they serve in their restaurant. We missed out on an opportunity to stay here. We ended our trip with a memorable dinner here. The cuisine here is South Indian and predominantly Tamil. Everything that we ordered was cooked to perfection. The appetiser was Vazhapoo Vadai which is Banana flower patties. We ordered Vada Curry (Homemade Lentil curry with Kuzhi Paniyarams), Vatha Kuzhambu (Dried Berry Tangy Curry with Rice, Vegetable Poriyal and Papad) and Kongunadu Kozhi Curry (Coriander Flavoured Chicken Curry with Rice, Poriyal and Papad) for mains. The meal ended with piping hot bowls of delicious Payasam! We never even thought about clicking pictures of all the dishes :|

 

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Bhutan – Beyond the Regular

The concluding post of the ongoing series of posts on the two week trip that we did to Bhutan in May of 2013. Thimphu, Punakha and Paro in the western part of Bhutan form the regular tourist circuit. Bhutan has much more to offer to a traveler. Keeping this in mind we had decided not to stick to just the above three places. This post is going to be on the places beyond the above which we covered.

Trongsa

The town of Trongsa in Central Bhutan can be reached by crossing Pele La pass between the districts of Punakha and Trongsa. It is a pleasant escapade from the heat of Punakha. The countryside along the route is beautiful. Some of the sights that I remember are the ruins of the Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, lush green valleys and a small waterfall. It became cooler gradually on our way and the pass was completely shrouded in fog by the time we reached.

Wangdue Phodrang Dzong

Picture perfect valley

Misty Pele La

There is a view point near the town from which the Trongsa Dzong can be seen across the lush green valley.

Trongsa Dzong from viewpoint outside Trongsa

Though the town is small, it is an important place for the Bhutanese. It serves as a gateway between Western and Eastern parts of Bhutan due to its central location. Like most places in Bhutan, the town is located next to the Mangde Chhu river which snakes through a lush green valley.

Snaking through lush valleys

We had included Trongsa in our itinerary for three reasons. It would be an ideal place to break our journey from Punakha to Jakar. Secondly we had figured out from various trip reports that this was a very good destination for bird watching. Thirdly we wanted to visit the Trongsa Dzong which is the largest in the whole of Bhutan. Not many tourists venture out to this part of Bhutan and this was very evident with very few accommodation options/restaurants. There were hardly any tourists when we visited the Dzong which was a striking contrast to the towns of Thimphu as well as Punakha.

Yangkhil Resort

We had chosen Yangkhil Resort for our two night stay in Trongsa. The resort overlooks the valley and has a fabulous view of the Dzong.

Yangkhil Resort

Trongsa Dzong

Trongsa Dzong amidst the greenery

Our room on the first floor was very cosy and well equipped. The food served in the restaurant was excellent. Snacks and ala carte meals had to be ordered well in advance but the taste of the food made up for this small inconvenience. The lawns next to the path leading up to the rooms were well manicured  and dotted with flowering plants and bushes. Our feathered friends kept us company throughout our stay here.

Chendebji Chorten

The Chendebji Chorten is located in Trongsa district about 50 kms before the town of Trongsa while driving from Punakha. It is a Nepalese style stupa modeled on the famous Swayambhunath Stupa in Kathmandu. It was built in the eighteenth century by a Lama over the spot where a demon who had terrorized the countryside had been subdued. The stupa has four eyes painted each of which point in all directions.

Chendebji Chorten

Trongsa Dzong

The Trongsa Dzong also called Choetse Dzong is the largest in the whole of Bhutan. It has played an important role in the history  of the country due to its strategic location. Even today the Trongsa dzongkhag is of significance to the royal family. It is necessary for a prince to serve as the governor of the Trongsa dzongkhag to become eligible to be crowned King of Bhutan.

The Dzong overlooks the valley through which the Mangde Chhu flows. The Dzong looked very impressive on a bright day against the backdrop of the lush green valley when we went. Like all other dzongs it houses administrative offices, temples and monasteries. A tall Cypress tree which is the national tree of Bhutan can be seen near the entrance of the Dzong.

Trongsa Dzong and the greenery

Monk looks back

Prayer Wheels

Cypress tree at Trongsa dzong

The Dzong looks magnificent when it is lit up and we could watch it right from the comfort zone of our balcony :)

Trongsa Dzong at night

Trongsa Tower

The watchtower of the Trongsa Dzong called Trongsa tower or Ta Dzong stands across the road from the Dzong. Today it serves as a museum housing various artefacts belonging to the royal family and allows visitors to get a glimpse of bygone history. There is a flight of steps leading up to the tower. Though we did not go inside the museum, we spent two delightful and extremely productive mornings here in the presence of some beautiful avifauna :) This place turned out to be a bird watching heaven as I have mentioned in this post from Bhutan birding diaries. When lit up along with the Dzong, the tower seemed to acquire an eerie look!

Trongsa Tower

Trongsa Tower at night

Jakar

After bidding farewell to Trongsa, we headed to the town of Jakar in Bumthang district. This district can be reached by crossing the Yotong La pass. As it was a foggy day with a dash of rain every now and then, most of the way was shrouded with fog. We were lucky to get the last of the rhododendron blooms along the way.

Red & Green Carpet

The valley of Bumthang is said to be the ‘Switzerland of the East’ due to its beauty and weather being similar. This fact had drawn my attention when I was planning our Bhutan trip and made me include it in our itinerary. As we entered Chumey village which can be considered as a gateway to the Bumthang district, we encountered straight roads for a considerable distance which seemed like a complete contrast after having navigated through hilly roads since the start of our trip. This picturesque village dotted with colourful fields and traditional homes which seemed to have a fairy tale like feel about them blew our minds away. This village is famous for its weavers. Women can be seen busy weaving outside their homes and there are a couple of shops where one can buy the finished goods like prayer mats, carpets, dresses and stoles. The current queen hails from this village.

Our ride for the Bhutan trip

Weavers in Chumey village

Traditional Bhutanese house in Bumthang

In a little while as we went around another set of hills, the town of Jakar came into view. The weather had changed considerably along the way and it was colder in this region.

Bumthang Valley

Jakar and the Jakar Dzong

Swiss Guest House

The Swiss Guest House is a hidden gem overlooking the town of Jakar. We stayed there for 3 days. The owner is an old Swiss gentleman who came to Bhutan in his youth and fell in love with the country. He married a local and settled there. Today he and his children run the guest house. Surrounded by apple orchards and accessed via a long driveway this place is extremely charming.

Swiss Guest House

The traditional heater (wood burning) was definitely needed here as it was pretty cold during the night. Our room was at the far end of the property and we could see the Jakar Dzong from the window.

Jakar Dzong looms up above the trees (color)

Jakar Dzong

There were three friendly dogs owned by the family who accompanied us whenever we were out for a walk inside the property :) We got used to their presence pretty soon!

Guardians of the orchard

The highlight of our stay here was some lip smacking food. Right from the pasta and pizza to the Cheese Fondue, which we had for the first time, everything was delicious. The Fondue which is a traditional Swiss dish was cooked for us by the owner’s daughter and we had read how to eat it beforehand on wiki :)  Added to this was the lovely decor and ambiance of the dining area. We had different varieties of homemade cheese for breakfast. The Red Panda beer factory is owned by the same family and beer can be bought here off the tap. An additional attraction for us in the dining area was the lovely collection of books.

Homemade Biscuits and Strong Coffee

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Jambay Lhakhang

Jambay Lhakhang or Jampay Lhakhang is an important temple in Central Bhutan. A religious ceremony/festival was in progress during our visit here and the place was filled to the brim with pilgrims from various regions of Bhutan. The place was agog with monks meditating and pilgrims joining them. Lots of stalls had been set up around the temple and hawkers were busy selling their wares. We had some piping hot tea at one of the stalls.

Chanting prayers at Jambay Lakhang

Vendor of Wares

Old pilgrim

Pilgrims at Jambay Lakhang

The temple is surrounded by fields of mustard and colourful flowers.

Fields of Gold

As we were walking around taking pictures, I suddenly felt a hand placed on my shoulder from behind.  I turned around to find an old woman talking to me in the local dialect. We were at a loss to understand what she was telling us. Our guide Tshering told us that she was asking Nagesh to take a picture of me and her together. She was asking me to keep the picture and not throw it away :) Why she picked on us and decided to talk to us remains a mystery to us! One of those pleasant surprises Bhutan seems to throw up every now and then I suppose.

"Do not discard my photograph"

Kurjey Lhakhang

Another important temple in Jakar is Kurjey Lhakhang which is located just outside the town. It houses the remains of the first three kings of Bhutan. The queen mother was visiting the temple when we were there resulting in security guards being posted outside. There were hardly any people here. The prayer hall here has idols of Guru Rinpoche and Buddhas. It is said that a large tree here is a Terma (hidden treasure; generally Tibetan Buddhist teachings) left there by by Padmasambhava. That tree is a HUGE cypress tree.

Kurjey Lakhang at Jakar

Prayer flags

Monks on a stroll

Gangtey

On our return journey to Paro from Jakar, we had chosen to stay in the village of Gangtey located in the Phobjikha Valley. The valley is a broad marshland which is flat and very scenic. It was very different from what we had seen till then in Bhutan. My only regret is that we had chosen to spend just one night here and we reached the place late in the evening just before it got dark. Also we had planned to leave very early the next morning to head to the old road to Trongsa for birding. Therefore we could hardly enjoy the beauty of this place or take pictures. The valley is a haven for the endangered Black-necked Cranes which migrate here every year during winter from the Tibetan Plateau. The villagers take care not to disturb these birds and a conservation centre has been created here. The birds are considered to be sacred and the people celebrate their arrival every year by having a festival in their honour in the Gangtey Monastery. As we were here after the migration period, the cranes had already left.

Phobjhikha Valley

Gangtey monastery

Dewachen Resort

We had chosen the Dewachen Resort for our stay in Gangtey. We loved the place the moment we reached there. The rooms were cozy and well done. The food was also good and the staff ensured that we were comfortable.

Devachen Resort in Gangtey

From here we returned to Paro and spent 2 nights there which I’ve covered in my earlier post itself.

Thus ended a trip with lots of happy moments. We would love to go back to this enchanting land and continue our journey to the east from where we left off. Some destinations in mind are Zhemgang, Gangtey (of course!!), Mongar and Ura.

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