Monday, February 25, 2019

Times Passion Trails: Making you experience the destination from a richer perspective

A Odisha countryside priest portrait shot

In my over three decades of living and traveling in India, I have understood pretty clearly that one lifetime isn’t enough to experience our own magical backyard and diverse land that we proudly refer to as ‘Incredible India’. We are one of the oldest living civilizations in the world. Which means that there is so much heritage to discover in so many different corners of our country. And we might not even know about it even though we might be living next to it or we might have visited that place many a times.

Goti Pua dance and its various positions

I went through a similar experience during my recent trip to Odisha, the land that is dubbed as ‘India’s best kept secret’. Now, I have visited Odisha quite a few times in the past, but on this trip, I saw her in entirely new light. And I have to thank Times Passion Trails and Odisha Tourism for it as it was them who took me and 20 other people on a culture and heritage trail across Odisha. What I saw, experienced and learnt on this trip makes me ponder in amazement at the sheer riches of our country. And for that to happen on our trips, we need a good travel partner. A partner who can let us see us experience the real and hidden India that most of us are blatantly unaware of.

Enjoying the view of the sculptures at Udayagiri caves, Odisha

Times Passion Trails, an initiative by the Times of India, is one such partner who allows you to experience the destination from a richer perspective. I am so happy that I went on this Odisha heritage trip with them. They are not your regular travel agent or tour operator, but they offer curated experiences that take the game to a whole new level. Below are some of the highlights of traveling with Times Passion Trails.

1) Unique service offerings due to partnerships with state and other local tourism boards

India's Sand Art specialist Sudarshan Patnaik

One of the USPs (Ultimate Selling Point) of traveling with Times Passion Trails is the opportunity to relish unique travel experiences, which is something that all of us look for in our holidays these days. This is made possible through their close partnerships with the state and other local tourism boards. This partnerships opens doors that are usually pretty hard for others to access. And this definitely provides a fabulous experience for the knowledge traveler as some of these experiences are simply legendary. Here are a few examples:

1) Live sand art sessions with Padma Shree Sudarsan Patnaik, the person who has won many awards and accolades in this field

2) Live stone sculpting sessions with Padma Shree Sudarsan Sahoo, the person who is single handedly keeping this ancient art alive

3) Live session with the Tarakasi or silver filigree artisans of Cuttack in their homes

Shadow puppetry by Dr. Gouranga Charan Dash

4) A special shadow puppetry session with Dr. Gouranga Dash, one of the leading experts in the field and the ability to see and experience this rare art from close quarters (both back stage and front stage)

2) Trip curated by subject matter experts

The other key highlight of traveling with Times Passion Trails is the fact that each of their trips are curated by subject matter experts who they refer to as ‘Experience Architects’. They are not your tour guides, but specialists who have spent their entire life in that field. The experience architect on my trip was Dr Navina Jafa, a Fulbright scholar who has worked at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, taught about Indian and South Asian cultures at various universities, a trained Indian classical dancer and someone who has been interpreting heritage for the last two decades. She not only gave us information about the destinations we visited, but made us aware of the entire cultural story, which included people, history, art, dance, food, languages, etc. and thus allowing us to think and appreciate the heritage locations from a whole different perspective.

Entering the Pushpagiri university at Ratnagiri, Odisha

And in addition to this special Experience Architect, we also had access to a knowledgeable local guide. So, we not only got the intellectual download, but we got a good understanding of the local stories and the folklore too.

3) Managed by a flexible and accommodating bunch of people

Tribal woman spotted just outside of Udayagiri caves, Odisha

I usually travel independently because tour groups aren’t usually flexible with their time and plans. But, it is here that Times Passion Trails surprised me yet again. On this trip, I noticed how effortlessly they accommodated the time, whims and fancies and requests of the different people on the group. Be it shopping, medical emergencies, special food needs or just some crazy request, they seamlessly tried to accommodate all of it. And due to that, they won a lot of brownie points in everybody’s book.

4) Affordable price point

Sadhu baba in front of Khandagiri caves, Odisha

’Paisa Vasool’ is the usual motto when we Indians spend our money. Times Passion Trails fits that bill well. They offer stay in 4 star or equivalent hotel, they offer sumptuous food, they offer experience architects and guides, they offer air conditioned ground transportation and the best of breed experiences for a very affordable fee. My Odisha culture and heritage trail was priced at INR 35,000 for 5 night and 6 days and the Odisha wildlife and bird photography trail that starts today is priced at INR 40,000 for 6 night and 7 days.

5) Absolutely amazing companions

Colorful Chandua work seen at a shop in Pipli, Odisha

One of the key things that I treasure the most about my trip with Times Passion Trails and Odisha Tourism are the people with whom I explored the various art, culture and heritage trails of Odisha. They were a varied bunch ranging from ex army personnel, doctors, archaeology students, dancers, businessmen to individuals working in different rungs of the corporate world. Even though all of us came to this trip from different parts of the country and with different backgrounds, we all seemed to relish the time we spent in Odisha and all of us took a huge liking to the hidden heritage trails of Odisha and the local desserts. And ended up creating a ton of memories in the interim.

There is some scope for improvement

The stunning Linagaraj temple of Bhubaneshwar

Things weren’t always rosy and good. There were some small issues with logistics a couple of times. To me, it was adventure. But, for some, it was tiring. So yes, there is scope for improvement and I am pretty sure that Times Passion Trails and Odisha Tourism will address it in their next trips. What I liked the most about Times Passion Trails and Odisha Tourism is their eagerness in asking for personal feedback. And no, it wasn’t cliché feedback forms, but in person feedback session at the end of the trip by the top management of both organizations. That according to me is pretty special.

Next Trip for Times Passion Trails

Portion of Buddha statue in Bhoomi Sparsha position at ruins of Lalitgiri, Odisha

Their next trip is a wildlife and bird photograph trail through some of the popular and lesser known wildlife trails of Odisha. The trip starts on February 25th, but unfortunately, all the registrations for this trail have been closed.

Some Recently Completed Trips for Times Passion Trails

Artisans work their crafts in front of their homes at Raghurajpur, Odisha

1) Kumbh Mela and its heritage in Uttar Pradesh

2) Madhya Pradesh’s rich culture and history along its holy Narmada river

3) Ahmedabad Heritage photography

Light and Sound Show at Konark Sun Temple, Odisha

4) Wildlife and bird photography in Gujarat

5) Jaipur Sufi Poetry and Music appreciation

Give them a look when you find time and do keep track of their upcoming trails. You never know, they might have something that might pique your interest!

Disclosure: I was invited on this trip by Times Passion Trails and Odisha Tourism, but all the thoughts mentioned in this article are purely based on my personal experience and have been written without any prejudice and with complete honesty and transparency. They genuinely echo my sentiments.

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