Monday, November 19, 2012

The cafés of Fort Kochi

There are a good number of reasons to visit Fort Kochi, in Kerala. One of them would be the quaint little cafés snuggling happily amidst the colorful houses and shops in the bylanes of Fort Kochi.

Kashi Art Café 

The omelette, rich in cheese and the sinful chocolate cake that melts in your mouth... yummilicious  is the word at Kashi Art Cafe. And a cup of hot chamomile tea.

Teapot Café 

Ehem! I am sorry to say this, but I don't remember what I had at Teapot's. I was busy admiring the tea kettles and the various other artifacts on display at the cafe, including the big round table in the centre.

Sometimes it is good to let go and immerse yourself in a cup of coffee/tea without any particular plan of action. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Odisha Odyssey

We, my colleague and me had a day or two to kill before starting our next schedule at the KIIT Campus. Till then what we had seen was a miniscule part of the city of Bhubhaneshwar, the capital of Odisha - the crowded markets, the grimy city roads, the flyovers and the Mayfair. I remember spending an entire day at the Mayfair (dumb as it may sound) as we didn't have much to do. We were sipping tea after tea, relishing the confectionaries and the Oriya mithai before getting back to the guesthouse to be back again for the Mayfair nightlife. Monotonous!

Once the gang left, it was just M and me. Gladly, he was a travel zealot. Like me he didn't mind the gruelling heat or the arduous early morning travel for the sake of seeing new places. So there was a plan, a plan to leave our rooms at three in the morning to catch the sunrise at the Chandrabhaga Beach and the Sun Temple at Konark after that. We reached well before time. The sun was yet to say happy morning. It was dark and quiet with just a few people around a tea-stall. Perfect timing for us too. We called for two cups of tea along with a few cookies to munch on. The silhouettes of the fishermen and their families around their boats made for some great pictures. I was enjoying the sand under my feet waiting for the golden sun to rise.

The soft murmurs from a few tourists had grown now to loud banter from the fisher-folks readying their boats to tame the powerful sea. I had never seen anything like this before. There was a man, an aged patriarch who guided the fishermen with a long bamboo stick. The moment a big wave rolled to the shore, the men would thrust their boat on top of it giving it momentum for the rest of the journey. What amazed me was the number of locals who had gathered to witness all this action. Like us they too watched with wonder. There were fathers who had come with their little children, old men and women, couples - all looking in the same direction, the direction of the horizon from where came the rolling, gigantic waves ready to lead the men and their boats to earn their livelihood. Splendid!

The sun too had started making its appearance giving the beach a golden carpet look, a carpet that stretched all the way to infinity and beyond.

The Chandrabhaga, one of the sought after destinations in Odisha is a nice stopover before heading towards the Sun Temple. The pristine beach with its unassuming locals is a delight to the traveller's heart. After a good two hours we resumed our onward journey to the Sun Temple.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Picture this! The Chandrabaga

Waking up on a holiday to witness a gorgeous sunrise and a serene beach was never part of the itinerary. As far as I was concerned it was just training and more training. But a state holiday sprang out of nowhere and this is what I witnessed. The early morning tea coupled with the sound of waves and the fishermen gearing up to tame the sea were a bonus to my senses. I would have missed all this had I not made that trip to Chandrabaga in Odisha.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Juhu Beach - A Kaleidoscope

A visit to Bombay is incomplete without a trip to the famous Juhu Beach. The silver sand, the crystal clear blue water of the sea, the cool breeze, the dimly-lit skyline, the coconut palms' silhouette - dream on. You won't find any of these on the famous Juhu Beach.

Oh, hell! Then why does it find a place on your itinerary?

Well, here's the reason. You find all the above-mentioned on any beach in the world. But, Juhu Beach is DIFFERENT.

It's actually a famously infamous beach. Famous for its bhelpuris and chaats and infamous for its dirt, grime and crowd.

If you are a traveller looking for a pristine beach, far from the hustle and bustle of the city, stay away from Juhu Beach. This is definitely not the place for you. This beach is for the insanely normal people.  For people who are interested in vivid colors and complex patterns. For people who enjoy being normal in an absolute state of madness. For people who love watching people. For people who love crowds. 

And the best time to be here is when the sun goes down. That's the time when the foodstalls open their shutters to give out the aroma of steaming hot pao bhajis and mouthwatering chaats. As the night gets younger the place starts attracting more people, giving the beach a look like some kind of a Mass Exodus is waiting to happen.

The beach is a also an unavoidable part of one's travel itinerary because it is a feast for your senses. 

Amidst the cacophony of persistent hawkers, traffic horns, computerized horoscope machines and roaring waves, from somewhere in the distance, one hears the distinctive sound of a flute. And while your auditory sense indulges in the pleasure of the melody, your olfactory senses are participating in a tug of war - aroma of hot pao bhaji and tava pulao v/s fragrance of fresh jasmine.

And the food outlets...a visual treat!

They resemble a psychedelic painting, with the now-here-now-gone potato patties, the mountains of sev and peanuts peeping through the display cabinets, the bottled color syrup, the neatly-folded paan platter with a generous coating of silver paper and the colorful little umbrellas perching merrily on the floods, amongst other things. 

This is the one and only beach in the world where people come, not to enjoy the sun, sand and water, but the food :)

"Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence".

This country is run by Gods. No, I am not kidding. I mean every word I say. Don't sneer at me. I know what you are thinking...

Look around you and you'll spot Gods everywhere in this country. Trees, hollows, bridges, caves temples and outside public toilets. You just need to look for them and who knows what you find. Like this one...

We had stopped for an ice cream to relieve ourselves of the sweltering heat on a Sunday afternoon at Malabar Hill. Suddenly we saw God. This time he was residing in the hollow of an old tree. 

Then there is this one...looked more like a ghetto.

My friend and I were on a photographic trek to Tungareshwar. This was some time in mid August when the mountain plateau is resplendent with verdancy all around. On our way we saw this shop that looked like a congregation of Indian Gods and Goddesses.

A few steps more and we saw yet another evidence of God...this time he had a caretaker too.

Now you know why I said that this country is run by GODS. This is not the end. It is just a beginning of a series of godly evidence.

Chai tales from India

(Warning: This is a long post. Please feel free to sip some tea while you read this or you may feel exhausted by the time you finish with the post.)

Hospitality in my country begins with thanda ya garam. That's hot or cold
Most people opt for the former one - hot.  Now, 'hot' can further be classified into tea or coffee. The most likely choice being tea. No, we are not done, yet. There's more, with the next question being  - with or without, i.e., with sugar or without sugar. That's it! No more classification unless you belong to a section of the society which savours tea in the most perfect manner by smelling, swirling and feeling - making good use of their palates and olfactory senses. They would then describe the tea in its purest form and describe the taste as plain, tippy or woody (there's apparently more to it, but since I don't belong to the 'connoisseur' category, let me hold my tongue).

In India tea is a popular beverage that finds it's significance in a non-discriminating manner amongst the rich and poor. You will find people from all classes standing at the same thela across the road sipping the same tea served in the same kind of glass. The price also remains the same. 

If Juliet from Romeo and Juliet was born in India she would have done away with the rose in her famous lines. Instead it would be:
"What's in a name? That which we call a chai
By any other name would taste as sweet..."

That's true! We are like this only. You may call it tea. But for us, it's what we are, it's our identity. You will be amazed at how the different states in this country have managed to create its own variant of the chai. The basic recipe stays the same - boil water, add tea dust or leaves, sugar for sweetness and milk. What changes are the add-ons. Get the basic recipe right (which, trust me is no rocket science) and create your own special-tea.  

I think I have rambled a lot. Now let the tea do some talking. So, we are off on a journey to tea-land. And my genes, my senses and my prejudices are pushing me hard to start with the busy and plucky city of Mumbai. This city is a teapot of cultures and living here has introduced me to the different variants of that hawt, humble beverage called tea. Oh, did I tell you that we have our own terms of endearment for this beverage???

Paani kam*  is best found in Irani cafes and is generally enjoyed with a plate of brun or gutli pao - hard bun, crispy on the outside and soft inside, very very unique to the city of Mumbai. The perfect combination is a cup of paani kam with brun smeared with a generous serving of maska (butter) or mixed fruit jam. This treat, let me remind you once again, is unique to Irani cafes which are slowly bidding goodbye to the Mumbai landscape.
Paani kam  at Cafe City

Then there is the cutting chai.. Easily and readily available at your local thapri chaiwallah.  The name is not suggestive of the special tea leaves or the special milk used in the tea. It only means 'half tea', which means "please don't fill the whole glass, I won't be able to drink it". Cutting chai is popular with people from all sections of the society. You have a chaiwallah who stations himself on a busy street attracting people from all walks of life. It's one place where the labourer, the CEO, the medical representative, the beggar, the banker, the artist and the cabbie share a common space connected by a glass of cutting chai.

Masala chai is tea made with milk, sugar, water and a few aromatic spices like ginger, cardamom and cloves. Sometimes herbs are also added. 

Black tea and green tea do not require any introductions from me as the names say it all. But hey, hold on before you rejoice thinking that you know everything. We have our desi versions of these too. If you travel to the misty mountains of Kashmir you will be treated  to a cup of kahwah - a traditional Kashmiri drink made by boiling green tea leaves with a few aromatic strands of zaffran (saffron), cinnamon bark and cardamom.  And if they really like you they may add a few rose petals too. For the sweetness bit, either sugar or honey is added to the drink, topped with some crushed nuts.

If you decide to travel down south, to the northern part of Kerala, more popular as Malabar, you will be treated to a glass of black tea. Beware! You may mistake it for someone's name when the host calls out for a suleimani*. But what comes out of the kitchen is a glass of freshly brewed black tea with sugar and a dash of lime. The suleimani often finds company with the traditional Malabari biriyani as it is believed to aid digestion. 

Call it cutting*paani kam* or without, tea is tea.  Chai toh chai hain bhai! Ek cutting dena bhai. Ek paani kam. Ek masala. Ek without.
(One cutting please. One less water. One masala. One without.)

All expressions for the same thing...chai. Tea. The beverage that starts working on the Indian from the moment he opens his eyes to a new morning.

While in some cultures the tea finds itself a place in high class social events, here, in India it's a great leveller.

*The term paani kam literally mean 'less water'. Here, the tea will be made with a generous amount of milk and less water.
* Suleimani is served in Hyderabad too.

P.S. If you think I am done with my post on tea, you are mistaken. I am exhausted and I need a break. Off to have some Mallu chai. See you after a break with more tea-posts :)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

People Series I

The Todas of Ooty
Young monks at the Tibetan monastery of Bylakuppe, Coorg
A Koli woman at Elephanta
Flower sellers outside Dadar Phool Market, Mumbai

Elephanta, a photographer's delight

A 10-year old's idea of  picnic has got nothing to do with age-old sculptures of gods and goddesses or a long flight of stairs that promise you the charm of a bygone era. The visuals that occupy its mind would be that of a picnic basket with sandwiches, cookies, a large mat, a picnic hat and some soft drinks. But what do you do when you have adults who are not well-versed with the city and its surprises? You just stride along. You don't have a choice.

If I were to give a vivid account of my first visit to see the Elephanta Caves, I wouldn't be able to do that, because the only part of the journey I remember is the boat-ride that we took from the Gateway of India to Elephanta Island. I guess that was the only thing I enjoyed and hence I am able to recollect. Everything else is a big shapeless blur. After that whenever I heard people say that Elephanta Caves should be part of their Mumbai itinerary I scowled at their plan.

But as they say, this city never stops surprising you. And it was my turn again. The irony is that it took a man of German origins to take me back to Elephanta. Hah!!!

My buddy's buddy from Germany was in India to shoot in and around Mumbai. And as usual, the tourist itinerary had the place Elephanta mentioned on it. So we got going. And this time, honestly speaking,  the boat-ride didn't excite me much. It was just about OK. But what lay in store were a good number of frames to be captured with my camera.

These caves are located on the Elephanta Islands, earlier known as Gharapuri Islands or the island of caves. You can read more about them here.

These photographs speak a lot, but I still wouldn't vouch for these caves as the perfect spot for sightseeing, what with the dirt and filth around it. But yes, magic can be done with your camera. And hey, beware of the damned monkeys!

Festivals of Mumbai - The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival

India, the land of festivals. Every month of the calendar* has something to offer to the different cultures in this country. While some festivals are about the advent of rains, the others are to celebrate harvest. To put it simply, we do not face a dearth of festivals in this country. And Mumbai - the melting pot of cultures - welcomes every festival with equal gaiety and pomp. Though let me warn you, there are some festivals which haven't managed to find a place in these calendars and hence there is a possibility of you missing them. The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival is one of them.

The city is home to several artists and performers who have carved a niche for themselves, both nationally and internationally. Hence, it is only justifiable that the city hold a festival for its people who keep the momentum of life going on with their colours, steps and expressions. Thus was born the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, a festival that transforms a little precinct of South Mumbai into a festive extravaganza.

Kala Ghoda  or the Black Horse is a place in South Mumbai, India. Although, the name has a horse in it, the place doesn't have anything to do with the hoofed animal anymore. Even the statue of King Edward VII on his black horse (that's how the name came into existence) has been relocated to another place. But the name stayed back, refusing to move. One of the living witnesses of the city's colonial past, Kala Ghoda is surrounded by museums, docklands, cinemas, art galleries and libraries.

The year 1999 saw this precinct draw in a large number of artists, performers and the general public to host its first arts festival, the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, a kaleidoscope of cultural events. Since then, there has been no looking back.

This year's festival is almost at the closing stage, with just three more days left. As usual there were wonderful events to look forward to - heritage walks, installations, performances by Indian and international artists, puppet shows and more. But hey, it's definitely not too late. Make the most of the next tree days and have some fun. And if you miss it, don't frown, they are going to be back next winter.
Kala Ghoda 2011

Kala Ghoda 2011

Kala Ghoda 2011

Kala Ghoda 2010

Kala Ghoda 2010

* We in India follow the Gregorian calendar. The Hindu calendar still finds a place in our homes, but only for specific events, occasions, festivals and auspicious days.