Goa, one of India’s most popular tourist destinations is known the world over for its rich Portuguese history and its amazing beaches. But, there is more to Goa than just its beaches, its beach life, its late night parties and flea markets. It’s lush green forests, its rich Hindu and Portuguese legacy, its spectacular natural landscapes, its colourful people and their traditions, its bountiful rivers and its heritage churches pack a punch so hard that you can plan your entire Goan holiday without even stepping anywhere close to its beaches. Here are 10 Goan experiences that will help you make the best out of your holiday to Goa and that will allow you to see Goa in a new light.
Swim under the milky Dudhsagar Falls
One of India’s prettiest waterfalls and one immortalised through the movie Chennai Express, the milky Dudh Sagar is a sight to behold, especially during the monsoons when the entire 310 m tall and 30 m wide waterfall is roaring with water. Before or after the monsoons, when the waters are clearer, the pool at the base of the waterfall makes for an excellent swimming getaway and is a must include in any goa tour package. The trek through the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park and being in close proximity to the flora and fauna is just an added bonus. If you wish to relive the Chennai Express moment, you can also board a train that crosses the Dudhsagar Bridge and thus be able to get a different perspective of the waterfall.
Cycle through the Lush Green Villages
In Goa, everything happens at a leisure pace. It is this slow pace of life that appeals to its visitors as it allows them to relax and unwind. Goa is full of cashew plantations, paddy fields, coconut palms, fruit orchards and natural forests that are distributed in and around its beautiful villages. Exploring these village trails on a bicycle is a great way to get a much better feel of the Goan countryside, its people and their traditions while enjoying the leisure pace of life.
Be Lost in the many Altars of Se Cathedral
One of the largest churches in Asia, the Se Cathedral’s fourteen beautifully carved altars is nothing short of magic. Built in 1619 to celebrate the victory of the Portuguese over the then Muslim rulers, Se Cathedral is one of the top highlights of the UNESCO world heritage town of Old Goa. While this church is beautiful on all days, it is special to watch a mass session on Sundays.
Get Mesmerised at the Mahadev Temple, Tambdi Surla
Believed to be the oldest temple in Goa, the 12th century Mahadev temple at Tambdi Surla is the only specimen of Kadamba-Yadava architecture preserved in basalt store in Goa. Located close to the Goa-Karnataka border, this temple is surrounded by the lush Western Ghats and in the laps of mother nature thus making for a scenic and religious experience. As this temple is still active, one can offer their prayers and seek the blessings of Lord Shiva who is worshipped here.
Lose yourself in the world of Goan Cashews
Goa is known for some of India’s best cashews and what better way to enjoy this than staying in a cashew plantation, watch these nuts at close quarters, see their transition from a brown shell into a delicious snack and even see how the iconic cashew feni is prepared. And while you are at it, you can snack on roasted cashews and freshly prepared feni right in the middle of a cashew plantation. Now, that’s what I call, a special cashew holiday!
Go Birdwatching at Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary
All nature lovers and bird watchers would definitely want to head to Goa’s only bird sanctuary that has been named after India’s famous ornithologist. With an estuarine mangrove habitat, the Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary is located on the western tip of the Chorao island along river Mandovi and is home to many terrestrial and migratory birds, flying foxes, jackals, crocodiles and many amphibian, fish and insect species. One should go here for a rich mangrove experience in Goa.
Try your Luck while floating on the Mandovi
During the day, you might notice a lot of large boats moored on the banks of the Mandovi river near Panjim. At night time, all these calmly moored boats morph themselves into lights, glitterati, music and fanfare. In case you are wondering, these boats are the famous floating casinos of Goa where you can try your luck on any of the many games played on board. Some of the floating casinos stage intoxicating parties and hence perfect for those looking for some energetic and carefree nightlife while floating on the waters off Goa.
Kayak on any of the many water bodies of Goa
In Goa, you are never too far away from adventure sports. While a lot of these adventure sports are concentrated around the beaches, you can indulge in your adrenaline rush even much inland while kayaking and negotiating the waters of the many rivers and mountain streams of this bountiful state. Right from tiny mangrove creeks, calm and broad rivers to gushing mountain streams, one can kayak almost anywhere in Goa. And if you are a strong kayaker, you can even go all the way to the Arabian Sea. While you are at it, do keep a note of tide patterns, underwater currents and other safety precautions.
Feel Goa’s Rich Portuguese Legacy while exploring its Forts
One of the legacies left behind in Goa by the Portuguese is its many amazing forts. These protective structures, while giving us an insightful view of the past also throws in some spectacular views of the Arabian Sea and the Goan coastline. My two favourite forts are the iconic Aguada fort at Sinquerim in North Goa and the quieter and more scenic Cabo de Rama Fort in South Goa.
Revel in Delicious Goan Cuisine
Last, but by no way the least, one of Goa’s best perks is its rich cuisine. From coconut curries to port wine and from amazing seafood to cashew feni, Goan food is a beautiful combination of Portuguese influences, local Konkani styles, the rich waters of the Arabian Sea, the local spices and the famous kokum. The famous dishes that you should try out are humann (fish curry and rice), dangar (Goan fish cutlets), the lentil soup called varan, arroz doce, croquettes and so much more.
I hope that you are now convinced that there is more to a Goa holiday than just its beaches. The icing on the cake is that there are so many cheap air tickets online that are being offered by various Indian airlines to Goa from all over the country. So, do make full use of these super airfare deals to Goa and enjoy a special offbeat and down to the roots Goa vacation.
Note: 2 photographs in this article have been borrowed from wikipedia.org under the Creative Commons License and each of them have been linked to their host page.
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Sunday, March 19, 2017
There is a quiet village by the banks of the swift flowing Betwa river that seems to have frozen in time. Its bustling heart is a colorful, yet small local bazaar surrounding an old temple dedicated to Lord Rama. Its favorite past time is a walk on either bank of the river Betwa. Its people adore its healthy population of endangered vultures and other gorgeous birdlife. And when visitors from neighboring towns visit them, their temples, fort and the riverside are popular attractions. I am talking about a tiny beautiful village called Orchha that is located in the heart of India.
Once, the capital of one of the largest and most powerful kingdoms of Central India, the concept behind the foundation of Orchha was to keep it hidden from the Mughals. Founded in the 16th century by the Bundela Rajput chieftain, Rudra Pratap, Orchha, which literally means ‘hidden’ did not only manage to stay hidden from the eyes of the Mughals and the British, but its presence has remained kind of a secret even to the people of independent India.
Located real close to extremely popular tourist destinations such as Agra (the home of the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort), Khajuraho (known for its famous erotica temples and Kamasutra) and Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve (known for some of the best tiger sightings in India), the medieval city of Orchha that is located in Madhya Pradesh quietly goes under the tourist radar. May be, that is the reason, it has managed to keep its original charm and aura. You will precisely understand what I am saying once you experience the breath taking beauty, colossal structures and vibrant local flavor of this quiet Indian village that used to be a medieval behemoth.
The experience is so rich and fulfilling that I would feature it in the top offbeat destinations or top hidden destinations of India without battling an eyelid.
Orchha’s Medieval Gems
Orchha Fort and its Palaces
Built by Rudra Pratap Singh, the first king of the Bundlekhand kingdom of Orchha, the Orchha fort is the oldest and definitely the top highlight of the medieval structures that stand tall here. Flanked by the river Betwa on one side, the Orchha fort is a massive enclosure comprising of stunning palaces, gorgeous Indo-Islamic architecture, beautiful murals and spectacular views. The fort complex is made up of 3 parts: Raj Mahal, Jehangir Mahal and Rai Praveen Mahal. Each one of these palaces are an absolute treat to the eye and one can spend hours getting lost in its different rooms and courtyards.
The Jehangir Mahal, built by Raja Bir Singh Ju Deo in the 17th century to commemorate the visit of Emperor Jehangir to Orchha is possibly the most ornate. Its richness is exemplified by its delicate chhatri and trelli work. The Raj Mahal on the other hand looks simple from the outside, but is decked with religious themed extraordinary murals in its interiors. The Rai Praveen Mahal is the smallest and the least ornate, but I like it as it offers the chance to see a gorgeous perspective of the Jehangir Mahal and the Chaturbhuj temple.
Do make sure that you avail the services of a good guide while exploring this fort and its beautiful palaces. And do keep a camera, a bottle of water and lots of excitement handy while experiencing this medieval fort complex.
A quieter temple, when compared to the Raja Ram Mandir located next door, the Chaturbhuj temple commands awe simply due to its size. A steep flight of steps take you to the massive stone platform of the temples from the maze of shops located in front of the Raja Ram Mandir. Today, it has a small working temple area where you can seek the blessings of the lord, but the main attraction of the temple is its hidden hallways, pathways, stairways and the rooftop. Again, Indo-Islamic in architecture like the fort, this temple was orginally built to enshrine the image of Lord Rama that exists today in Raja Ram temple.
Do keep an eye out for the security guard who will take you around the hidden trails of this temple in exchange for a small tip. And while you are at it, do not miss the opportunity to get closer to the langurs and vultures that call the Chaturbhuj temple rooftop as its home.
Raja Ram Mandir
The Raja Ram Mandir is definitely the top daily attraction of Orchha. A full working temple dedicated to Lord Rama, this temple is frequented by both the locals and visitors and generates epic interest during festivals and auspicious days. Cameras and bags are not allowed inside the temple, but everyone visiting the temple can definitely feel the religious fervor and celebration of the lord here. Comprising of a courtyard and a sanctum, the Raja Ram Mandir was built around the idols that were supposed to be enshrined in the Chaturbhuj temple. The story goes that these idols, which were placed here during design refused to budge from the ground and hence the temple had to be built around it. Early mornings and evenings are the best times to visit this temple.
Chhatris or Cenotaphs
The pictures that lend iconic status to Orchha are its stunning riverside Chhatris. 14 chhatris or memorials or cenotaphs are grouped along the Kanchan ghat of the Betwa river to commemorate the death of the rulers of Orchha. These memorials are amazing works of art in itself and offer great views of the river too. They are also a home to the endangered vultures of Orchha.
The best views of the cenotaphs are got from the opposite bank of the Betwa river and if you are a photographer, do make sure that you get there before sunrise for that special photograph.
A little bit away from the central area, the Laxminarayan temple houses the most exquisite of Orchha’s wall paintings. A visit to this temple is much recommended as unlike the murals inside the fort palaces, the murals here are much well preserved and have retained all their vivid colors.
Orchha’s Natural Beauty
The swift flowing Betwa river is definitely one of the main reasons behind choosing Orchha as the capital of the Bundlekhand kingdom. Today, it offers visitors different forms of enjoyment. From swimming and water games to riverside picnics and from offering iconic views of the chhatris and the fort, Orchha and the betwa river go hand-in-hand in terms of offering its visitors a surreal experience. In the monsoon season, this river also becomes the hotspot for river rafting and kayaking in this region.
As an ardent bird lover, I can’t say how much I appreciate seeing endangered vultures living in good numbers at Orchha. These vultures and the medieval structures of Orchha seem to have a deep rooted connection. The locals seem to adore these scavengers and these large birds call the roofs of the Chattris, temples and fort as their homes. In addition to the vultures, one can also spot many species of parakeets, mynas, kingfishers, eagles, kites and sparrows here. The bird diversity is so rich here that I would totally recommend carrying your binoculars and zoom lenses if birdwatching happens to be your area of interest.
Orchha is surrounded by lush green forests and they can be easily accessed by crossing the bridge and walking a few hundred metres beyond the other bank of the betwa river. Known as the Betwa wildlife sanctuary, one can spot langurs, macaques, many species of birds and even the elusive leopard and tiger here. The forest department offer guided walks here for those interested.
How to Reach Orchha
By Rail: Orchha is located about 20 kilometres from Jhansi, which has excellent train connectivity from all across India. If you prefer train travel, I would recommend catching a train to Jhansi and then covering the last 20 kilometres by taxi or autorickshaw.
By Road: Orchha is also very well connected by road, though foggy can be an issue in the winter months. It takes about 4 hours to Khajuraho, 3 hours to Agra and little bit over an hour to Gwalior.
By Air: The nearest airports would be Agra and Khajuraho, though for best connectivity, I would recommend the airport at New Delhi.
Places to stay
As Orchha is quite a small place, there are not a lot of places to stay, but within its limited capacity, it offers its visitors everything from budget guest houses, homestays, river side cottages to luxury properties. When I visited Orchha, I stayed at Amar Mahal, a luxurious property located smack in the middle of the chhatris and the temples.
How to Get Around Orchha
Orchha is a fairly small place and as distances are small, walking is the best possible option. It also allows you to appreciate the local flavor even more. In case, you cannot walk, you can hire either a local autorickshaw or taxi to take you around. But, do remember that most of the temples and the entire fort require you to climb stairs. Comfortable walking shoes would be recommended.
Thursday, March 16, 2017
The gem of the Middle East, Jordan, is one destination that is on the bucket-list for many people from all over the world. After all, who in their right mind would not want to float in the Dead Sea, walk amidst the historical lanes of Petra or be one with the Martian landscape of Wadi Rum. This post is not about the top attractions or top things to do in Jordan, but it is about some random things that I learnt or came across while I was on my Jordan holiday. I hope they make for some interesting reading and may be offer some tips for your trip to Jordan.
1) The entire region of Aqaba is a duty free area. One even doesn’t need visas to enter this place, which is why it is extremely popular with tourists coming from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel.
2) Massive watermelons can be found growing in the dry Wadi Rum desert. These watermelons are super sweet too. This is very surprising for a land that is hot and dry.
3) Jesus was baptized in Jordan and not in Jerusalem. In fact, a lot of Christianity's roots can be found in Jordan, including the map of the holy land.
4) Both the Dead Sea and the Jordan river that fills it up are drying up at a rapid pace. These days, the Jordan river is like a tiny stream. It is believed that if this keeps going on, we might not see the Dead Sea any more in the near future.
5) The men of Jordan love to smoke. Be it traditional hookah (sheeshah) or the modern cigarette, you will find the Jordanian men never too far away from their smokes.
6) The Medjoul dates of Jordan are possibly one of the biggest varieties of dates and are incredibly soft and delicious.
7) A lot of Roman history and ruins can be found in Jordan. In fact, archaeologists are still discovering more ancient sites. These could be anything ranging from the Byzantine, Ottoman, Greek or Roman era.
8) The Royal automobile museum near Amman shows the regal family’s penchant for automobiles, especially the uber luxury ones.
9) Like Egypt, the Red Sea off Aqaba is also home to some stunning coral reefs, marine life and wreck sites and that is why Jordan is quite a popular destination on the scuba diving and snorkelling map.
10) Locals still practice the ancient art of creating mosaics using colorful pieces of stone at Madaba. There are even schools to facilitate learning of this gorgeous art form.
11) For a country that is home to desert and arid land and is surrounded by some of the driest terrain in the world, Jordan’s capital Amman is surprisingly cool and pleasant all through the year.
12) Even though Jordan is a meat lover’s paradise, vegetarians and vegans will be spoilt for choice here as this country has many local specialties in addition to the Mediterranean cuisine that is easily available here.
13) There is a train track that runs from Turkey to Jordan. It doesn’t carry passengers, but it is used to carry goods. The most popular form of transport in Jordan is road, followed by air.
14) The bedouins of Wadi Rum are creators of many rare types of perfumes, soaps and clothing accessories.
15) Rainbow street in Amman is famous for late night car honking and hooliganism.
16) The Scottish bagpipe is a popular musical instrument in Jordan. In fact, there are some who believe that this musical instrument originated in Jordan and Oman before finding its way into Europe.
17) People drive on the right side of the road and overtake from the left like most of Europe.
18) People of Jordan love their candy and nuts. Huge crowds can be seen at popular establishments.
19) As Jordan shares a long border with Israel, one can easily spot the Israeli army, Isreali flag and buildings on the other side at places such as Aqaba, Al-Maghtas and the dead sea.
20) It is just a short boat ride from Egypt to the Aqaba side of Jordan, offering it extremely close proximity to the African mainland.
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
Baahubali! I am sure Indian movie aficionados might have heard of this name! While the movie was definitely fantastic, I am talking about the other Baahubali here! This Baahubali was also the one with strong arms and he also packs a solid story, but instead of a movie character, he was a Jain deity who is celebrated at Shravanabelagola in Karnataka. And this is his story that I discovered on a visit to this Jain pilgrimage destination as part of my Golden Chariot train journey.
The celebration at Sharavanabelagola is special as it is not often that you come across the world’s largest monolithic statue. Son of the first tirthankara of Jainism, Bahubali was born as a prince in the Ikshvaku dynasty in Ayodhya and who later set on a path of renunciation after a battle with his brother.
It is believed that he meditated motionless for one year in a standing posture and such was the intensity of his meditation that he did not know that seasons changed and vines had started growing up his legs. At the end of a year, Bahubali attained Kevala Jnana or omniscience. And it was to celebrate this learning that the monolith statue of Gomateshwara or Bahubali was sculpted under the patronage of the Western Ganga dynasty of Talakadu.
For some weird reason, I had never seen this massive monolith up close even though I have explored every single bit around it. I had read about its records and knew its importance in Jainism religion, but apart from that, I did not know what to expect. So, when I first arrived at Shravanabelagola on a bright sunny morning I was all excited as this was a brand new place for me in a state that I have called home for the last two decades.
Located about 160 kms from Bangalore and just a short drive from Channarayapatna and Hassan, Shravanabelagola is a quiet and super clean town that is surrounded by rocky outcrops, lush green agricultural tracts and many tank bunds. Two hills, Chandragiri and Vindhyagiri make up the Shravanabelagola landscape. The Bahubali temple is located on top of Vindhyagiri while the opposite Chandragiri is also home to temples, memorials and a stunning view of Bahubali.
Be prepared to climb a steep trail of stone steps to see the mighty Bahubali up close. The climb is steep, but should not take you more than 20 minutes and the end result and view is totally worth the effort. For those who are physically challenged, the temple committee offers palanquin (palki) services, an ancient mode of transport to make the climb.
As you climb these steps, you will stop a couple of times to catch your breath. When you do that, do turn back and check out the view of the entire Shravanbelagola town, the temple pond, the opposite Chandragiri and the surrounding green landscape. This view keeps getting better as you climb higher and so do the temples with its carvings, statues and inscriptions.
Once you reach the main temple complex, you have to circumnavigate in a clockwise direction to appear at the foot of the 57 foot tall Lord Bahubali who has been carved out of a single block of granite or should I say a granite hill. The epic proportions of this monolith is bound to take your breath away. If you have availed the services of a tour guide, do keep an ear out for the interesting measurements of different parts of Baahubali’s anatomy, like the size of his legs, his arms, his head, his fingers and even his penis. Your guide might also tell you to identify one attribute in the statue that seems out of place.
The climb and the awe of standing in front of the world’s largest monolith has quite an impact on your heart and hence it takes a while to settle. Once it settles down, you will be able to notice the Devanagari inscriptions near Baahubali’s feet, the vines slowly making their way up his leg and arms and the overall sanctity and aura of this place.
This 10th century marvel has seen the rise and fall of the Western Ganga dynasty, the Rashtrakutas, the Hoysala empire, the Viajayagara empire, the Wodeyar dynasty and other kingdoms from Karnataka’s rich past. And when you stand at his mighty feet, you can feel his power too. If you get lucky, you might also get the opportunity to see the Jain priests offer their daily prayers and anoint the devotees with the water from Bahubali’s feet.
Once you take the lord’s blessings and as you go around the statue, you will notice statues of all the 24 Jain tirthankaras surrounding the main statue and the newer yellow stone temple super structure that came much later than the monolithic statue as additions during the rule of different kings.
Whether you are a Jain, a religious person or simply a traveler, Shravanabelagola’s Bahubali deserves to be seen at least once. And while you are in town, do remember to catch a view of this stunning work from the opposite Chandragiri hill and get to know the beautiful principles of Jainism.
Thursday, March 09, 2017
We spend lakhs, not thousands, on our yearly trips to Europe or the United States of America, ignoring what might be a cheaper, closer and more fulfilling holidaying experience. The Cox bazaar beaches of Bangladesh, the tropical paradise island of Sri Lanka, the amazing culture and mountains of Nepal are such names. But, perhaps the most untouched destination for Indian travellers would be our North Eastern mountain neighbour, Bhutan. Forget everything else; it is the only unpolluted country in the world. Give your lungs a break and inhale pure oxygen, as God meant us to.
If you have just purchased an air purifier (I will try to curb my sense of sarcasm in the future articles), you might want to consider the following four tourist attractions as your reason to visit Bhutan. The total expenses for this trip will be surprisingly low and all you need before you leave is a single trip travel insurance for yourself and your family, which is nothing more than a good healthy practice. Oh, now you might be thinking why I am spoiling your holiday mood by discussing a boring topic such as insurance. Believe me, if God forbid, you meet with any unforeseen circumstances, like a lost passport, or lost baggage during your trip, you will remember my words! Getting travel insurance will cover multiple accidental losses and threats, including physical accidents, financial frauds and monetary losses. I am sure, after Modi’s demonetisation move, you have a much better understanding of the word ‘unpredictability’. Life always surprises you with twists and turns. So, make sure you have a comprehensive travel insurance policy with you so that unfortunate situations do not spoil your holiday mood. Done? OK, let’s start without further ado.
Tiger’s Nest Monastery
This is the symbol of Bhutan, much like Taj Mahal is of ours or Eiffel Tower is of France. You have to climb 900 meters to get to the monastery, and on the way, you will cross a chapel of butter lamps and a beautiful brook cum waterfall near the Snow Lion cave. The monastery itself stands at the edge of the cliff, overseeing a vast expanse of Paro valley forest of rhododendrons and blue pines. You basically climb to the top of Paro valley. For the God-fearing type, this is a place which you must visit at least once in your life as this is the final resting place of the great Buddhist Guru Rinpoche. The atmosphere will clean and refresh your soul.
Punakha Dzong is the oldest and the second largest fort of Bhutan. Forgetting the fortification, you will be amazed at the beauty of this grand structure. Take a car from Thimpu to reach Punakha. The trip itself is unforgettable as you will drive through Himalayan mountains and valleys. Situated between two rivers, Pho Chu and Mo Chu, for the obvious strategic advantage, this dzong is connected to the mainland via a wooden bridge. Inside, it has a rich heritage of Bhutanese history, and you will get to see many relics of the old Bhutanese kings. If you visit during the springtime, you will see the colourful Jacaranda trees around the dzong and you will either feel dreamy, if you are the poetic type, or remember your favourite computer wallpaper, if you are a techie.
Zuri Dzong Hike
This is one of those Dzongs of Bhutan that enjoys pristine location with spectacular views. The peak of Zuri dzong is the highest yet easily accessible spot in the Paro valley that not only gives you a bird’s eye view of the entire valley (shutterbugs, keep your cameras ready!), but it is so peaceful that you might want to just sit, reflect on life and absorb as much peace as you can. If you start from the museum watchtower, which itself is another tourist destination, it will take you around 30 minutes to reach the top and one more hour to exit via the Uma side. Once you get there, simply sit and marvel at the grandeur of God’s creation, the Himalayas. Trust me, you will want to go back there again!
If you miss the springtime and enter Bhutan in winter, you might not want to miss this valley which is often called the Shangri-La of Bhutan. It is, by far, the most stunning valley of Bhutan, if not of the whole Himalayas. You wouldn’t find such a wide valley in Bhutan where the trees are absent and where the Himalayan peaks raise their proud heads in the distance. This is a moderate trek, and you can visit local villages like Gogona and Khotokha enroute. On your way to the village, you will cross rhododendrons, Junipers and magnolia and in April, it is a real colour fest! You will also see ferns which you wouldn’t find elsewhere and the famous Bhutanese dwarf bamboos. Pay your tribute at the historic Gangtey monastery and watch the rare black neck Himalayan cranes in the sanctuary nearby. You can expect to get some special treatments from the locals if you visit during the winter, but ensure that you can handle cold and you are carrying proper winter gear.
Frankly speaking, Bhutan is your ideal choice if you love to walk on the path less chosen. What you get to see here can’t be found anywhere else. Moreover, Bhutanese people are very welcoming, ever smiling, helpful and honest, offering the best hospitality you can find around the world. Do you need more reason to plan your trip to Bhutan?