Kankwari : A fort and a history in deep jungle!

Between visits to Bhangarh and Kankwari forts, I had other three notable experiences. All are worth independent posts, that would certainly be in coming days. But, to me it seemed rather more appropriate to write about Kankwari fort immediately after Bhangarh. It helps more in drawing comparisons and parallels.

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Kankwari fort as seen from the Kankwari village

Although the visit to Bhangarh fort had its worth because of all the stories attached to it and I was impressed by the fortress city as a whole, but I was largely disappointed by upkeep and ruins of the Bhangarh fort. In that context, visit to Kankwari fort right next day was a huge surprise… a pleasant one.

Kankawari Fort as seen from the lakeside
Kankwari Fort as seen from the lakeside

I had read about Kankwari Fort sometime back but never had chance to visit it in my earlier trips to Sariska Tiger Reserve. Even the information available about fort has been too little, too less, baring one critical historical fact that this fort was used by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb to imprison his brother Dara Shikoh in 17th century. This has been always the selling point to popularise this fort. Another known fact is that the fort was built by Raja Jai Singh I of Amber who was a senior general in Aurangzeb’s army and grandson of Raja Man Singh, one of the nine jewels of Akbar’s court.

Closer look of Kankwari Fort from outside
Closer look of Kankwari Fort from outside

Now, the locational facts and present situation: Kankwari fort is located right deep inside the Sariska National Park and Tiger Reserve. Its alone on a hillock in the middle of the jungle, with just a handful of families to its company, who live in the Kankwari village at the base of the hillock. Obviously, the fort is located in an area with no other human access, this being a protected forest in reins of a Tiger Reserve. The fort was also a point of contention some six years back when there was a plan to open the fort for eco-tourism, which was opposed tooth & nail by the then central environment & forest ministry. Probably the plan was shelved as a result. On the other hand, Kankwari village below had to be relocated out of the core tiger area to make the critical tiger area as ‘inviolate’ i.e. out of bounds for human use. But few families are still there living in the Kankwari village.

Front view of the Kankwari Fort
Front view of the Kankwari Fort

So, under these conditions, when we finally managed to reach to the Kankwari Fort, it was a big surprise for us. Going there is tough as you hardly get a proper guidance and direction to move into the restricted forest. Only way to reach Kankwari fort is through a safari in tiger reserve.

A welcome gate in the jungle, many kms before the actual fort
A welcome gate in the jungle, many kms before the actual fort

Fort is on a hillock and once you reach on the top of the hillock, there is a gate to enter the fort, which leads to another gate through a big fortified passage on the cliff. See the images-

As soon as you enter the main gate is a lounge (locally this structure is called as tibara or तिबारा in Hindi, a hall or shelter with three open arch gates, image below) which looks refurbished recently. Perhaps this was the renovation going on some years back to promote tourism to this fort, before this was halted.

Entering inside the fort
Entering inside the fort

Then on the right side are stairs to go up the fort.  After one enters the inside gate, there is a huge fortified compound on all sides. Stairs from the front strangely look very small to enter a fort.

Stairs to go up the fort
Stairs to go up the fort

Once you enter the small gate after climbing through these stairs, you reach to a intricately designed compound which looks like a garden. There is a small but deep tub in the centre. Initially it looks like a place to take bath, but it is very deep and has no stairs to go down. It might be place to store water. The intricate designs in this compound look like carved out of white marble but actually they are made of limestone. Too beautiful indeed. See for yourself-

Looks like a beautiful designed terrace garden
Looks like a beautiful designed terrace garden

Then there are another stairs to go up to next level-

Stairs on the right to go the fort from the seemingly terrace garden
Stairs on the right to go the fort from the seemingly terrace garden

In the image above you can see a set of rooms on this floor. These all rooms are interconnected. There is another staircase on the left minaret to go up. There are another two levels once you move up with two areas on the lower level- front and back and one front area on the upper level.

The rooms are well designed and seemingly in good condition, even the designs. What is also there, like other forts, is the number of stairs and passages, connecting one part to another and one level to other. Also overwhelming is the view from the top of the fort. It provides a 360 degree view of the jungle below, and believe me, its most fascinating part of the fort. See for yourself (click the image for full view)-

Hardly anybody comes to the fort, but few empty bottles and cartons were testimony of some odd liquor parties held here away from the eyes of the world.

Only guard to this fort high up!
Only guard to this fort high up!

Another interesting part is the back portion of the fort. Earlier I told about small stairs going up the fort from the front. But then there is another stairs from the lower level that takes one to the backside of the fort. Towards the back, when one thinks that it is the end of the fort, there is another area not visible from front.

Another stairs leading to the back
Another stairs leading to the back

From an opening in the wall towards both sides is the way to go to backside. There are some hidden rooms in the wall and then there is a huge baoli sort of pond, which locals say was the place to punish the rebels. Some people say that Dara Shikoh was kept here. To me it looked like a huge water reservoir. But it was interestingly designed-

There was a separate way for the horse army to enter the fort. There was a way upto the fort from the side of the lake-

Wall on the lakeside is actually the way for the horse army to come uphill to the fort
Wall on the lakeside is actually the way for the horse army to come uphill to the fort
Horses used to enter the fort through this gate
Horses used to enter the fort through this gate

Most Important things to take care off:

As I said earlier, this fort is right deep inside the Sariska Tiger Reserve, hence it falls under restricted area. Only way to go to fort is by taking a safari for tiger reserve, along with a guide. One has to pay full safari fees and the guide fees for that. To reach the fort, you have  to pass through safari zone 2 of the reserve. Since you have to take a safari to go to the fort, you can only enter the jungle, hence the fort on designated safari timings, i.e. 7 am to 10 am and then 2.30 pm to 5.30 pm. These are the times to enter and exit the jungle, so one has to reach the fort, see it and come back to the exit gate- all in three hours. Its a tough task because of the distance of the fort from the entry gate, which is around 25 kms of tough bumpy jungle track. SO, considering the time strain it is not possible to see animals and fort, in single safari. But you can still be lucky to see plenty of wildlife on the way, as one passes through the thick of the wild. Well, this all is from the main Sariska gate of the reserve. There is also another gate towards Tehla, which is called Tehla Gate of the reserve. This fort is slightly closer to the Tehla gate. But then, tourists coming from Delhi mostly prefer Sariska gate. Tourists coming from Dausa side will prefer Tehla gate.

Another thing to note is that this fort is not under ASI or the tourism department. Being inside the jungle, the fort comes under the control of forest department. However, if any maintenance work has to be done to the fort, than that is done under the supervision of the ASI. So, one should hope that when you reach the fort, the forest officials have left the gate open to enter. When we reached to the fort, there was absolutely nobody at the fort. Gate was not locked and our guide led us inside the fort. As per information I gathered at the booking office, very few (less than five percent) tourists coming for the safari in Sariska, go to the Kankawari fort.

So next time you are in Sariska, keep time for a separate safari to the Kankwari Fort.

Any questions? Write me, I will be more than happy to reply with best of my knowledge.

Two weeks of chocolate indulgence!

For the Love of the ChocolateWhat’s a love without chocolate! Countdown to valentine day has already started and chocolate always brings some sweet memories. From 1 – 15 February chocolate aficionados can once again indulge in European capital Brussels. For the third time visit.brussels focuses on chocolate during the Chocolate weeks. Armed with a Chocolate pass, the visitor will be able to sample more than 20 chocolatiers’ delicacies while also enjoying discounts to the chocolate museums and purchases at various chocolate stores.

Belgian ChocolatesWith Valentine’s Day fast approaching and the Salon du Chocolat in Brussels set to run from 10 – 12 February chocolate is again top of mind. This is the third time since 2012 that Chocolate weeks has been organised. Genuine chocolate aficionados will use the Chocolate pass this year. This grants access to more than 20 chocolatiers, offering the chance to sample their delicious creations. In addition, this pass also offers discounts at the Belgian Chocolate Village et Choco-Story museum, where the visitor can delve further into the history of chocolate and make purchases at numerous chocolatiers.

Salon Du ChocolateEarly birds can now buy their Brussels trip voucher for only €5.55 by purchasing the voucher for the pass online at chocolatepass.brussels. The voucher can be exchanged from 1 February at one of the visit.brussels tourism offices and also gives access to the experience.brussels expo free of charge. From 1 February – 15 February the pass can be purchased directly from € 5 at participating chocolatiers and museums, 36 locations spread over 8 Brussels districts, and at the visit.brussels collection offices.

Salon Du ChocolateParticipating chocolatiers are: Art de Praslin, BenoîtNihant, Bruyerre, Café-Tasse, Concept Chocolate, Corné Dynastie, Corné Port-Royal, Delacre, Galler, Godiva, JérômeGrimonpon, L’Alchimie du Chocolat, Laurent Gerbaud,  Leonidas, Mary, Neuhaus, Passion Chocolat, Planète Chocolat, Vandenhende, Wittamer and Zaabär.

Haunted fort of Bhangarh : Nothing spooky about it!

SO much has been written and told about Bhangarh fort in recent times as the most haunted place of India (some claim to be in Asia) that if you just blindfold somebody and take him or her to a place and whisper in ear that- you are in ‘BHANGARH’ and that person will just get spooked and run out of horror. We did something similar. We didn’t blindfold but kept telling all the way that we are going to some other place (fort) and kept all hints of Bhangarh out of the view of that person. Once we entered the fort and the person came to know about the truth that we were in Bhangarh, we could see the horror written on the face. But with no scope of running for anybody, we continued. Rest all is history and we came out laughing on all the spooky stories of Bhangarh.

The main fortress
The main fortress

With extent of writings on Bhangrah in past many years, ironically when you go on searching for Princess Ratnavati on Google, all initial results take you to ‘haunted’ story of Bhangarh fort, whereas in our childhood, the only Ratnavati we had heard about was the Princess of Jaisalmer who fought bravely against the forces of Alauddin Khilji. But then, we never read about Bhangarh even!

The gate just before the fortress
The gate just before the fortress

In times of Harry Potters and Vampire Academies, there is always a good market (perhaps it always had been) for spooky stories on haunted places and paranormal activities. Hence the Bhangarh story  got a perfect scoop. Mass media has made it more and more spicy, dramatised and indeed thrilling.

What we all are sure about is the documented part of the Bhangarh’s history. That, this was founded by Raja Bhagwant Das of Amber in 16th century. During that time this whole area came under the Amber rule. Bhagwant Das was the close lieutenant of Mughal emperor Akbar and also the elder brother of Akbar’s Rajput queen Jodha Bai. Perhaps from Bhagwant Das came the name Bhangarh. His eldest son Man Singh was the one of the nine jewels of Akbar. Madho Singh was his younger brother and father Bhagwant Das handed over Bhangarh to Madho Singh.

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Bhangarh was not just a palace but a fort city. Whatever is left now is just the ruins of what would have been a sprawling city at one point of time. What is now left of the city part is just few temples, old havelis and the main market Johari Bazar, whose name will remind you of its namesake in pink city Jaipur. This city would have been magnificent at its peak with big havelis, palaces, temples, houses, markets. Even the shops in the Johari Bazar were all identical and double storied. The pathway to the palace now passes through this Johari Bazar.

At some point of time the fort city was abandoned and hence got ruined, may be because of some local power struggle leading to a war with nearby rulers. There are some stories about a war between Bhangarh and nearby Ajabgarh. Amidst the ruins emerges a story which everybody would like to tell with a lots of juice.

Hotspots for some spine-chilling stories are trees like this in Hindu mythology.
Hotspots for some spine-chilling stories are trees like this in Hindu mythology.

Ruins like this are always hotbeds for folklores and some paranormal stories. The sad part is that there isn’t much of documented history of Raja Madho Singh (if it is, then not known too much). When there is no proper documentation, then there is every possibility of additions and subtractions in the orals history that passes from generations to generations. History of ruining of Bhangarh has gone through that. Stories of haunt refer to Ratnavati but whereas some people say that she was Madho Singh’s daughter while other say she was Madho SIngh’s wife. In any case, there are two different stories of ruining of Bhangarh and only one can be true  and in that race the juicer story of Princess Ratnavati holds the fort. That says that fort ruined due to curse of a black magician (tantrik) who was in love with Ratnavati. I don’t want to detail any of the stories as they are everywhere on the net.

This Canatoph on the hilltop adjacent to ruins is said to be in memory of the black magician who cursed Bhangarh.
This Canatoph on the hilltop adjacent to ruins is said to be in memory of the black magician who cursed Bhangarh.

The Bhangarh story is more of abandonment and neglect. The palace was said to be seven storied, whose three stories are completely lost. Rest of it is in ruins and in danger of further irreparable damage due to influx of tourists and bad handling of the property. ASI is probably doing nothing than opening and closing the gates at schedule times. Whole property is left to hundreds of selfie-crazy and haunt-fancied tourists with no sight of any guards anywhere. Inside the palace, there are no signages, boards or information boards. This is further ruining the property which at some point of time in history would have been a glorious one. See the images below-

One of the more intact structures in Bhangarh complex is the Gopinath Temple but ironically it has lost its main idol to the thieves. This is a Krishna temple (hence the name Gopinath). Perhaps the theft of the main statue prompted authorities to be more stringent.

Gopinath Temple
Gopinath Temple

There are some stories about Princess Ratnavati being a devotee of Lord Krishna. But the main temple courtyard had something to do with dance & music, I presume; as the roof of the hall just outside the sanctorum is decorated with some beautiful statues of musicians. You can see it for yourself-

There are some other carvings too, resembling to other temple structures of north India, just like this one-

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Another intriguing structure is right behind this Gopinath temple which local people say was place for cremation or burial (different stories!). Any such place inside the palace and that too so close to a temple is a rarity.

Cremation place!
Cremation place!

Another interesting fact about this place (palace) is a large number of aromatic Pandanus fascicularis (commonly Kewra or केवड़ा) plants which fill the air with a natural fragrance.

Pandanus fascicularis (Kewra)
Pandanus fascicularis (Kewra)

This place is still worth a visit for all those interested in history, architecture, forts, palaces… and in those things, this palace is known for. Not bad even, just to travel and see a new place, but always travel responsibly.

Internet is also strewn with many accounts of people who suffered when they tried to stay in the palace in night. All of them are mere hearsay, with no real account from anybody with a personal experience. As a proof of paranormal activities in this fort, people foolishly also indicate the ASI board which says that nobody should stay here after sunset. But as far as I know, most the ASI controlled forts and other properties in country open only from sunrise to sunset or within fixed timings. Nowhere one is allowed to stay in night. It also is meant to deter all those who want to extract something more out of it- some stories, some weird experiences and some pieces of history, et.al.

How, when and where:

Bhangarh is located in Alwar District of Rajasthan. You can go here from either Jaipur, Dausa or Alwar. It is close to Sariska National Park and Tiger Reserve. Tehla gate of the Sariska reserve is just 20 kms from here. But normally tourists use main Sariska gate for the tiger reserve which is almost 50 kms from Bhangarh. People coming to Sariska will always like to go to Bhangarh for a half day trip. (Please write to us for detailed road instructions.) Jaipur is roughly 80 kms and Alwar on the other side is also the same around 80 kms from here.

Avoid going there in summers as it will be too hot. Since this place is witnessing steady increase in influx of tourists, small level hotels and restaurants are coming up at Bhangarh village and other nearby villages on the route. But they are still to develop good value. You can always try some local food in the region.

(Any queries? Please write to us.)

Visit to Haji Ali shrine is a bliss!

Almost six hundred year old Dargah of Haji Ali at Mumbai is not just one of the most important Sufi shrines in India but also one of the most revered religious places in India. This is also one of those popular shrines which have been part of Indian cinema, especially Bollywood a lot. Many sufi songs and qawwali have been filmed here, which went on to become popular musical numbers as well. More recently the shrine has been in news for all the dispute related to entry of women to the inner sanctum sanctorum  of the shrine. Putting all this aside, this shrine is going to celebrate its annual URS on 15th January this year.

Haji Ali Shrine

This shrine is also popular for its structure. Dargah is built in Arabian sea, almost half a kilometre offshore from the coast at Worli in Mumbai. A pathway for pedestrians has been built from the Mahalaxmi area in Mumbai upto the shrine. Here is the most fascinating part of this structure. This path has no railings on its sides. Hence, when there is a high tide in the sea this path gets submerged in the sea water and the shrine becomes inaccessible by foot. Shrine turns into a island then. So, in practicality this shrine is accessible only in low tides.

Built in 1431 this shrine is said to be a fine example of Indo-Islamic architecture. The structure has typical white domes and minarets reminiscent with the Mughal architecture of the period. It was constructed in memory of Sayed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari. There is story about this saint. He was a wealthy merchant. He hailed from Bukhara in Persia (in present day Uzbekistan), hence he got his name Bukhari. He travelled a lot around the world and finally settled in Mumbai. There are many legends about his settling in Mumbai and subsequent death on his visit to Mecca. Since he never married and had no descendants, hence most of things about him have been learnt from the caretakers and trustees from generation to generation. In the process many other stories and sub-stories have entered into the play.

Haji Ali Shrine at night

Nevertheless, he was a great holy man and had asked his followers to cast the coffin carrying his body into the ocean so that it should be buried by the people where it is found. Now according to some legends, he died on his trip to Mecca and as per his wish when the coffin was pushed into the ocean, days later it miraculously floated back to these shores, getting stuck in the string of rocky islets just off the shore of Worli. Thus, the tomb and dargah was constructed there. It was a very small structure for many centuries. Its current structure was built only in 1916 when a trust to maintain the shrine was officially formed. The entire structure is spread over an area of around 5,000 sq. m. and stands adorned with an 85 foot high minaret. Inside the shrine is the tomb of Haji Ali decorated with red and green sheets. The main sanctorum is made in marble decorated with coloured glass. Main gate is also covered with pure white marble.

Many miracles are attributed to Haji Ali and as with many other sufi saints in India, Haji Ali is also revered alike by people of all religions. People visit the dargah to seek his blessings. There is a huge rush mostly on Thursdays and Fridays. On Sundays too, many tourists and local people come here to see the place. Besides being a religious place, it is also an important destination on the Mumbai Tourist Map. The location of the Dargah serves as one of the major attractions luring tourists here. With the sea forming the backdrop, Haji Ali becomes a sight to behold.

The annual URS (Death Anniversary) of Haji Ali Shah Bukhari takes place on the 16th of (Rabi-ul-Aakhir / Rabi-al-Thaany) (17th Shab) as per Islamic Calendar. This year (2017) this URS will be on 15th January.

Its very enjoyable and relaxing to listen to qawwals here in nights singing sufi songs. Actually visiting this place in late evenings brings a different feeling altogether. Watching the shrine as one moves from the pathway to the shrine and then watching the glittering Mumbai all around the shrine… simply fascinating.

Where and How:

For all those who want to be there in Mumbai for URS of Sayed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari, Etihad brings you direct to Mumbai daily from almost all destinations in Gulf and Middle-East. Staying in Mumbai is never a problem as there are accommodations available for every pocket. For those who want to stay longer and enjoy the mega metropolis there are many resorts in Mumbai for luxurious and comfortable stay.

Basking in glory : Fatehpur Sikri in lensview

It is indeed one of the reminiscence of India’s glorious past- one which has been largely well-documentated and one which is largely intact, as is the case with most of the Mughal-era structures of that time. The beauty of this place is that every time you come here, you learn a few new things about the old times, just like sort of revising the history. Every time, it gives you a new perspective in current situations. Well, we are talking about Father Sikri, near Agra which was the capital of great Mughal emperor Akbar.

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This architectural wonder is located right adjacent to the tomb of Sheikh Salim Chishti, who was the guiding soul of Akbar throughout his life. Both the structures, often visited together, have different identities and different architectural values as well. But both share combined history. Here, I am sharing the images only from one of these two- the Akbar Palace.

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The palace also defines the vision and ideas of Akbar as a ruler and as a person. His life has already been turned into a folklore by many films made on him. All of us know about Jodhabai the rajput princess from Jaipur who was Akbar’s hindu wife and perhaps most widely known. Hence there is Jodhabai’s Palace (below) which is the biggest one of all. But then there is a large contradiction between oral and written history on this, Written history says that Jodhabai had nothing to do with Sikri and actually this palace was Akbar’s main haram and was wrongly referred to as Jodhabai’s palace. But all guides will tell you that it is Jodhabai’s palace and as a proof they will show you the basil plant in the centre of the palace (considered sacred by the hindus) and a temple right in front of it which presumably had idols of hindu deities. But than there is a question- What was the Akbar’s haram without Jodhabai?

Jodhabai Palace
Jodhabai Palace

Then there is also Jodhbai’s kitchen in this part. You can still see some utensils of those times kept here. Interesting is the design of the kitchen (below, click the photo and zoom it) where you will find the walls decorated with carvings of ear-rings (Jhumkas, a traditional ear ornament of Rajasthani style). This again is used as a proof by the oral history to say that this palace belonged to Jodhabai who’s aesthetic sense reflected in the design of the palace.

Jodhabai's Kitchen
Jodhabai’s Kitchen

This palace also is striking for its well developed drainage and water harvesting system. You will rarely find anything like this in palaces of that time. The drains still look intact.

drainage system
drainage system

Right behind the Jodhabai’s palace is this pool supposedly for queens to take bath. This covered pool, with provisions to cover sides with curtains also had a perfect water inlet and outlet system, which can still be seen here.

The pool
The pool

Move ahead and there is Birbal’s house (below) on the north-west corner of Jodhabai’s palace. Popular belief is that this house was built for Akbar’s first queen Ruqayya Begum who actually never occupied it and it was then given to Birbal.

Birbal's house
Birbal’s house

This two storied house is one of the most beautifully carved structure of the Sikri palace with beautiful carvings on walls, which is rarely found in other structures of the palace. (see below)

Right behind the Birbal’s house was the place to keep horses and elephants. You can see (below) the hooks used to chain them.

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Then you enter the main palace which housed Akbar’s palace, Panch Mahal, a very unique five storied structure used for recreation, a madarsa building for girls to study and Anoop Talab (pond) which was famously known as the place where Tansen would perform.

On one side was two storied Diwan-Khana-I-Khas and Khwabgah, the Akbar’s palace where he used to sleep, study and have food on the lower floor and upper floor where he used to give audience to the public.

Then close to Akbar’s palace was the house of his christian queen- populrlaly known as Turkish Sultana.

In the large compound in front of panch mahal was this game carved on floor, which is closely similar to today’s Ludo. Emperor’s too needed time to play and rejoice.

Emperor's play!
Emperor’s play!

Then in the left corner was a building known to house the treasure of the emperor. This building is said to have derived its design from Jain temples of medieval India. In the pictures below, you can see the holes at the bottom of shelf which lead to hollow wall, used to hide the treasure. Such shelves are there everywhere in this building.  (Do take care not to put your hands inside, as now there might be lizards inside!)

Then there is the all-important building which reflected the Akbar’s vision to religion in form of a new religious belief pronounced by him as Din-I-Ilahi. It was said to be eclectic religion that blended beliefs from various religions.

Din-e-Ilahi
Din-e-Ilahi

Akbar had a elephant which he loved a lot. When the elephant died, Akbar constructed a minaret in his memory. This minaret (below) is behind the palace towards the side of Hathi Pol (elephant gate) entrance.

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Few tips:

Mughal Emperor Akbar’s short-lived capital (1571-1585 AD) Fatehpur Sikri is around 40 kilometres west of Agra. You can hire taxis or take buses to reach Sikri from Agra. Fatehpur is the village just below the ruins. Sikri village is few kms away. There are many places to stay on the way from Agra to Fatehpur-Sikri and also in Sikri itself. There are few more historical ruins around to be explored.

Few views of Diwan-i-Aam at the sunset-

Palaces is big and so is the adjacent tomb of Sheikh Salim Chishti & Buland Darwaza. One needs time to see all of this. Leisurely, you might need the whole day to explore all of these. Plan accordingly. A day trip from Agra to Fatehpur-Sikri is what most tourists like to do. There is a ticket to enter the palace (not the tomb) and there are audio guides also available in many languages.

Missing the chill! Chill out with these festivals

Missing the chill this year, isn’t so? Nevertheless, festivities are on. New year comes with a number of festivals celebrating India’s dance and musical traditions.  One among them Swathi Sangeethotsvam has already started last night. So, one might have plenty of options to travel from skiing to sun bathing at beach, but there is still always more to do. This month also has Makar Sakranti (14th January), considered to be one of the most auspicious days of the year and also an occasion of many travels and pilgrimages. Bringing you the selected few events for this month.

Mamallapuram Dance Festival

mamallapuram-danceMamallapuram has retained its fame in stone, thanks to the great contribution of Pallava artisans. It is among the most outstanding examples of Dravidian art and architecture and a jewel in the crown of Tamil Nadu. In a land that is liberally strewn with some of the best in temple art, Mamallapuram holds its own, and stands as a silent yet eloquent witness to the glory of its creators.Unfortunately most of the work was left incomplete, and time and nature have also eroded the remains of this once great port. Yet, Mamallapuram’s wonders in rock leave visitors enthralled, conveying as they do, an impression of beauty and harmony. The monuments are floodlit at night and so it is possible to enjoy their beauty even after sunset. The Mamallapuram dance festival is conducted every year during Dec-Jan. It is a month long festival and dances take place during the weekends. Classical dances such as Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathakali, Mohini Attam, Odissi, Kathak etc., are performed by well-known exponents of the art. he dances are performed against the magnificent backdrop of the Pallava Rock Sculpture in the city of Mahabalipuram ,Tamil Nadu. The Pallava Rock Sculptures provide an aesthetic touch to this cultural dance festival where the best folk dancers in India perform. The crowd gets a visual treat by the incredible performances of Indian folk dancers where artists perform beautifully decked up in the finest traditional attire representing the rich cultural heritage of the country. Mamallapuram is a popular beach resort and a culture front, especially for the tourists, who come from the world over who love to imbibe and soak in the rich traditions. This town beach is full of ancient monuments, sculptures, caves, monolithic temples and beaches. In Mamallapuram there is a Shore Temple that was built during the reign of Narsimha Varman of the Pallava dynasty in 8th century A.D. During the dance festival time the stones of temple begin to resonate with music and dance rhythms.

When: 21 December 2016 — 21 January 2017

Where: Chennai (58 km) is the nearest airport for domestic and international flights. Chennai is connected with all the major places in India. The nearest railway stations are Chengalpattu (29 km) and Chennai (58 km). From these stations one has to take road journey to reach Mamallapuram. Buses from here to Pondicherry, Kanchipuram, Chengalpattu and Chennai to Mamallapuram daily. Tourists can also hire taxis from Chennai.

Rajarani Music Festival

Rajarani FestivalEntrancing performances by well-known Odissi and Hindustani vocal and music maestros bring alive the architectural beauty of the Rajarani temple at this festival. The temple, often referred to as the Khajuraho of the east, is famous for its elaborate erotic sculptured figurines. Celestial music, sublime surroundings and soothing climes of late winter—soul traverses to an elevated sphere leaving you utterly relaxed. Holidays are made with this kind of experience that creates a lasting mark in your mind. Rajarani Music Festival held against the backdrop of the 11th century Rajarani Temple in Bhubaneswar is such an evening of concerts: it’s relaxing, entertaining and uplifting. The city has a large assemblage of celebrated temples of which the Rajarani Temple is one of the most conspicuous. It’s remarkable for the absence any presiding deity in it. The temple is famous for its ornate deul or compass and the statues of eight Dikpals guarding the eight cardinal directions of the temple. To show case the glorious tradition of Indian classical music, the Rajarani Music Festival was conceived to be organised by the Department of Tourism in association with Bhubaneswar Music Circle. The musical evenings are resplendent with excellent performances by the great maestros of Indian classical music creating an allegory of darbari gayans (musical performances in an Indian king’s court) of age old histories. Eminent instrumentalists and vocalists of India have rendered scintillating performance in this festival over the years.

When: January 18-20, 2017

Where: Rajarani temple, Bhubaneshwar, Odisha

Mukteshwar Dance Festival

mukteshwar-dance-festivalThis is another festival organised by Odisha Tourism just before the Rajarani Festival. While Rajarani Festival is all about classical vocal music traditions, Mukteshwar Festival is all about dance, especially Odissi dance. This festival is staged in front of the 1100-years-old Mukteswar temple in Bhubaneswar. Renowned Odissi dancers from around the world take part in this festival performing solo, duet and group presentations. Mukteshwar temple, one of the most prominent temples of Bhubaneswar, has been constructed in the style that is quite similar to the one used in the Kalinga School of Temple Architecture. The splendid Torana of the temple, an ornamental arched gateway, is very much reminiscent of the influence of Buddhism in Orissa. This temple is a very important part of cultural life of the people of Orissa as the architecture at the temple entrance is considered to be one of the most beautiful specimens of the Orissan School of architecture. This temple signifies the transitional phase of the architecture of Orissa between the initial and the later stages of Kalinga architectural style. The beautiful architectural works of the temple add to the splendor of the Mukteshwar Utsav. This festival should not be missed by the people who take interest in the traditional dance forms of India.

When: January 14-16, 2017

Where: Mukteshwar temple, Bhubaneshwar, Odisha

Swathi Sangeethotsavam

swathi-sangeethotsavamThe mighty pillars of the Kuthiramalika Palace in the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram are pulsating with the mellifluous notes sung at the Swathi Sangeetholsavam or Swathi Music Festival. This musical extravaganza, already started on 4th January, lets you listen to the spellbinding compositions of Swathi Thirunal, the erstwhile Maharaja of Travancore. Organised every year to pay tribute to Swathi Thirunal, the concert celebrates the brilliant notes composed by this legendary maestro which continue to enthrall music lovers even now. A patron of music and a musician himself, Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma has to his credit more than 400 compositions in Carnatic music as well as Hindustani music. He set a new course and direction to the musical tradition of Kerala. The concert held in the Kuthiramalika Palace adjoining the famous Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, sees musical performances in both Hindustani and Carnatic styles. The musical festival which is attended by eminent musicians from across the country brings together those passionate about classical music and the experts as well. Entry is free.

When: January 4-13, 2017

Where: Kuthiramalika Palace, East Fort, Thiruvananthapuram

Joydev Fair, Kenduli

kenduli_melaFor an unforgettable dose of West Bengal folk music don’t miss the Kenduli Mela, where the mystical wandering Baul musicians gather to perform. Dressed in saffron robes, and playing a distinctive instrument called the Ektara, they sing uniquely about life’s philosophy. Joydev-Kenduli is renowned as the birth place of great Sanskrit poet Joydev who flourished in 12th Century and composed the well known Geet – Govinda, a Sanskrit Lyrical poem. Annual- Mela is held in the village Kenduli in the last day of Bengali month Pous and first 2 days of Magh and is attended by thousands of pilgrims including Bauls. The word ‘Baul’  is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Batul’ which means ‘mad’. Baul philosophy emphasises love for all human beings as the path leading to divine love. The Joydeb-Kenduli mela (fair), held every year in West Bengal’s Birbhum district on Makar Sankranti in mid-January. It is a gathering of wandering minstrels (Bauls, primarily) like no other in India. Gathering in almost equal numbers are lay aficionados addicted to the Baul and Fakir ways of life. Joydev Mela is mainly a music festival but as the Poush Mela it attracts craftsmen from the whole region, mainly selling wooden kitchen supplies, handmade covers or cheap jewellery. During five days, the 3 000 inhabitants of Kenduli Village welcome thousand and thousand of pilgrims who come mostly to listen to the bauls, the Wandering minstrels, the Mad Ones, bearers of a unique musical tradition, included in the list of “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO. The fair is held on the banks of the Ajay River which is not only of some historical interest – the fair celebrates the great poet Joydev on the day he is claimed to have taken a bath at the Kadaambokhandi ghat of the river around 800 years ago.

When: January 14-16, 2017

Where: Kenduli village, around 30 kilometers from Shantiniketan in West Bengal.

Pangsau Pass Winter Festival

pangsaupass2Pangsau Pass Winter Festival (PPWF) 2017 will be celebrated from Jan 20 next year, after a gap of five years. It was postponed last year just before the take off. Hopefully it will be there this year. As per the official record, PPWF in its last edition was able to attract two lakh tourists in three days which is a first by any state tourism festival in the North East. There are nine or ten state festivals, of which PPWF is ranked second after Tawang Festival but in terms of tourist inflow, PPWF tops the list. The flavour of the festival will be same and better from earlier editions and all the tribes of eastern belt will be called to add more zest to the celebration. The ‘Pangsau Pass Winter Festival’ was first started in 2007 and was commenced in a befitting manner with support from the indigenous sources and since then there was no looking back, because, each year it began to grow bigger and better. Finally, 2 years later in 2009, the Arunachal Pradesh Tourism department took PPWF under its wing. PPWF is normally designated as a global village as it conjoins all the diverse tribes of the North East and Myanmar to reveal their customs and culture in broader perspective. Amazingly, the cultural carnival has traversed all the social barriers, inspiring the secluded regions to celebrate the ethnic existences that strongly bond together all the distinct tribes with diverse cultures and different religious backgrounds.The Pangsau Pass is located in one of the most peaceful and eco-friendly territory, it is nature’s store house. As the odyssey of discovery penetrates the heart of ethnic extravaganza, spontaneously, amazing events begins to weave unforgettable memories.

When: 20-22 January 2017

How to reach: Pangsau Pass or Pan Saung Pass is 3,727 feet (1,136 m) in altitude, lies on the crest of the Patkai Hills on the India-Burma (Myanmar) border. The pass offers one of the easiest routes into Burma from the Assam plains through Jairampur town of Changlang district, Arunachal Pradesh. It is named after the closest Burmese village, Pangsau, that lies 2 km beyond the pass to the east in and around historical Stilwell Road. The Ledo Road (Stilwell Road) began at Ledo, the railhead, and passed through Lekhapani, Jagun, Jairampur (the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh boundary and beginning of Inner Line check gate), and Nampong before switchbacking steeply upwards through densely forested hills to the pass, 12 km away. The distance from Ledo to Pangsau Pass is 61 km.

Jaipur Literature Festival

jaipur-literature-festivalFrom modest beginnings in 2006, the Jaipur Literature Festival has grown into the largest literary festival in Asia-Pacific. It now claims to be the biggest free literature festival on the earth. This year festival completes a decade, hence it makes it more important for the organisers. In past nine years more than 1300 speakers have addressed the gathering and more than 1.2 million book lovers have been part of it. The Festival takes place in late January each year. Both Indian authors as well as those from abroad appear at the Festival. The sessions consist of readings, discussions, and questions and answers. It’s possible to buy the authors’ books and get them signed. In addition, there’s a range of stalls selling everything from food to handicrafts. There’s also an outdoor lounge bar, for relaxing. Music performances are held in the evenings, after the literary sessions are over. In recent years, the Festival has turned into quite a fashionable occasion, and attracts plenty of socialites from Delhi and Jaipur. Authors will discuss works related to topic. There will also be emphasis on poetry, the literature of Southeast Asia, and the seven states of northeast India. There will be live music events, heritage walks and much more.

When: January 19-23, 2017

Where: At the historic Diggi Palace hotel in Jaipur. The hotel is located in Sangram Colony, Ashok Nagar, which is just off M.I. Road, around 10 minutes walk from the Old City of Jaipur. As Diggi Palace and its venues were overflowing in 2012, the music stage has been shifted to a different venue at The Clarks Amer lawns (around 15 minutes drive south of Diggi Palace).

Arthunkal Perunnal

arthunkalThe Arthunkal Perunnal (perunnal meaning feast) is the annual feast of St. Sebastian held in the St. Andrew’s Forane Church at Arthunkal in Alappuzha. The event sees devotees from across the state throng the church to participate in the feast which is held in January every year. One of the main events during the feast involves a ceremonial procession wherein the statue of St. Sebastian is taken out from the church to the beach and back. Another intriguing event is the ceremony on the final day when devotees crawl on their knees all the way from the nearby beach to the church. Church built by Portuguese missionaries in a coastal hamlet near here is a model of religious harmony with a tradition of hosting Sabari pilgrims returning after worshipping Lord Ayyappa. Pilgrims from across the state visit the St Andrew’s Church at Arthunkal here and pay their respects to the idol of Saint Sebastian between the months of November and January during the Mandala and Makaravilakku season of the Sabarimala temple. Legend has it that one of the early priests of the church, popularly called Arthunkal Veluthachan (fair skinned father), was a friend of Lord Ayyappa. The visit of the pilgrims commemorates the bond they shared, especially as the priest was loved by the local people who believed he had healing powers.

When: January 10-20, 2017

Where: St. Andrew’s Forane Church, Arthunkal, Alappuzha. Nearest railway station Cherthala is about 8 km from here and Alappuzha is about 22 km from here.

Camel Festival

camel-festival-bikanerJanuary is just the right month for a desert spree, and Bikaner just the right place to see the ships of the desert. In the camel country Bikaner, these desert leviathans pull heavy cartloads, transport grain and even work at the wells. The Camel Festival begins with a colourful procession of bedecked camels against the red sandstone backdrop of the Junagarh Fort, the festivity advances to the open sand-spreads of the grounds, followed by the best breed competition, the tug-of-war contest, camel dance,  acrobatics, etc. The camels display amazing footwork, dancing gracefully to the slightest direction of their trainers. Bridal, bridles, bejewelled necks, jingling anklets and long, lanky camel shadow on dusky sands cast a magical spell. Hundreds of tourists and thousands of locals and dignitaries revel in this man-and-animal affair organised especially for the tourists. The evenings close with a different tenor and tempo altogether: a traditional rendezvous of renowned artistes of Rajasthan and the local folk performers. The jubilant skirt-swirling dancers, the awe-inspiring fire dance, and the dazzling fireworks light up the fortified desert city of Bikaner.

When: January 14-15, 2017

Where: Bikaner is connected by rail and road with all the major cities. The nearest airport is at Jodhpur (243 kms).

International Kite Festival

kite-festivalGujarat is vibrant with the Kite Festival (Makar Sankranti) which is celebrated with colors of joy, colors of life. The Kite Festival signify Gujarat’s ‘Cultural Strength’ and like the kites, Gujarat soars high to touch the skies to be the ‘best in the world.’ All over the State, in the Month of January, the serene blue sky with colorful kites look splendid and since morning to evening remains dotted with vivid splashes of color with kites in a variety of hues, shapes and sizes. The excitement continues with the onset of night. As the sun sets and darkness hovers over, youngsters continue competing each other in supremacy in the sky, now with the paper lanterns tied to their kite-strings. These lanterns known as tukkal swaying at the mild stroke of wind presents a lovely image while some try to cut off these tukkals and enjoy the fun. Makar Sankranti (Kite Flying Day) marks the end of a long winter with the return of the sun to the Northern Hemisphere. According to the Hindu astronomy the sun enters the zodiac of Makara (Capricorn). Hence, it is called Uttarayan or Makar Sankranti. The special significance attached to the celebration of Makar sankranti, is Kite Flying. The gods who are believed to have slumbered for six long months are now awake and the portals of heaven are thrown open! Uttarayan is celebrated all over Gujarat but the excitement is high at Ahmedabad, Surat, Nadiad and Vadodara. Surat, especially is known particularly for the strong string which is made by applying glass powder on the row thread to provide it a cutting edge.

When: January 14, 2017

 

Ushering in the New Year where seas meet!

Where will you bid adieu the year 2016 and welcome the New year? A question often strikes in the last month of the year to all travellers.  There are few places which have there typical charm for the occasion. Celebrating this transition into new year often means watching the last sunset of the passing year and then the first sunrise of the new year.

But then there are always limitations with different places. You can go to Goa for a perfect year ending sunset but you can’t enjoy the new dawn. And while you can welcome the new year with a perfect sunrise in Darjeeling’s Tiger Hill, you will not have chance to say goodbye to the passing year with a perfect sunset. There are very few places where you can watch a perfect sunrise and a mesmerising sunset from same place.

One such place in India is of course Kanyakumari or Kanniyakumari or Cape Comorin in Tamil Nadu. It is southernmost tip of peninsular India located in Cardamom Hills. Mythologically it is also revered as a Sangam where seas meet. Popular belief has been that three seas- Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean meet here. But geographically it is said to be touching Laccadive Sea and the Gulf of Mannar.

Well geographies apart, this a place where you can just turn your head to watch a beautiful sunrise and equally charming sunset from a same place. Hence it is perfect place for new year revellers to witness the last sunset of the year and first sunrise of the new year from the same place. And every year lot many tourist gather here on the year end to soak in this moment.

Kanyakumari1
Last sunset of the year from Kanyakumari

You can see the curious travellers gathered to see the sunset at Kanyakumari on 31st December

And though it was cloudy on 1st January, but still it couldn’t dampen the spirits as everybody gathered to take a new year wish (resolution!) in front of the rising sun from behind the Vivekanand Rock Memorial and Thiruvalluvar statue.

Vitals: Kanaykaumari is in state of Tamil Nadu but it is close to capital of Kerala- Thiruvananathpuram which is closest airport 90 kms from here. Nagercoil at the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border is just 70 kms from here. Kanyakumari has a railway station with daily trains via Thiruvananthpuram and Chennai-Madurai routes. Its well connected through roads with all major nearby towns of Kerala as well as Tamil Nadu.

Kanyakumari has descent places for stay suiting all types of budgets including hotels, resorts as well as dharamshalas. Kanyakumari is also a very important pilgrim centre due to its mythological importance. There are many religious centres, temples here. Its is often included in pilgrim circuits with Rameshwaram and Madurai. At the time os the year end many pilgrims from Sabarimala also reach there as those are also the days of the annual Sabarimala pilgrimage.

(Disclaimer: These images were taken on 31st December and January 1st some time back)

World through my eyes