In the quest for peace and pines at Palampur

Palampur makes an ideal, offbeat hill destination

It is a dream. You’re walking down a lovely, long mountain road, shady with a thick cover of graceful, tall pine trees rising from mysteriously plunging slopes. Even without touching the deep green leaves, you can sense their velvety softness. Again and again, you reach out to steal a fistful of the elusive mist, in vain. Its a gentle glide on undulating waves of serenity as the pines whisper sweet-nothings.

Melt dreams with reality. Choose Palampur, an offbeat hill destination in the Kangra valley, at the foothills of the majestic Dhauladhar mountain ranges. Its claim to fame is that its the only tea-producing region of North India. But more importantly, you’ll have it all to yourself.

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An early start from Delhi and a pleasant 10-11 hour drive (including the mandatory Murthal pitstop), will have you there by late afternoon. The highway narrows in cozily after Mohali (Chandigarh), eucalyptus trees line the route, villages dot the landscape and a hazy silhouette of mountains starts to form. Beyond the white arched gates of the holy town of Anantpur Sahib, with its splattering of Gurudwaras, and the dam town of Nangal, where water rushes down a canal beside the highway, the mountains get clearer. Past a dry river bed filled with smooth, round stones and rocks, where the ascent begins, pull over at a small eating joint called Hill View. No hill view. Just a modest meal of flavourful kadhi rice on an ordinary table under whirring turquoise fans and orange window panes. It will do. Time to buckle up for the shortest route to Palampur via Hamirpur.

The absence of traffic on the winding road hugging the edges of the mountains is comforting. Except for a small stretch, it is protected on both sides by trees and green mounds and tiny villages. Alternately ascending and descending the gentle slope circling the green mountains, manoeuvring a few hairpins and the one-odd gaping cliff edges, you reach the army area of Yol. The Google lady directs you 200 meters left from Kaalu di Hatti (she pronounces Kailoo with a heavy accent). By now, Palampur road signs have started appearing. In little over an hour, “your destination will be in front of you.”

The briefly busy marketplace gives way to a patch of pine trees and a small clearing with a sign announcing the Church in the Wilderness leading to the Bundla Tea Estate, where your home in the hills greets you. It’s a row of five cottages with green slanting roofs, each with its own parking slot and little porch. A staff member walks up, nodding knowingly when you introduce yourself. No check-in formalities, you are escorted directly to your cottage instead. It will be taken care of later, he assures you with a gracious smile.

The cottage is adorable. A few steps down the little lobby is a living and dining area, a service kitchen and a bedroom. A large patio from the tall glass doors beyond the living / dining overlooks sloping tea gardens punctuated by tall firs and pines. Upstairs are more bedrooms. A balcony facing the tea gardens and a border of mountains on the right side…Dhauladhar. Is that snow? Yes! Delightful little touches everywhere, a mirror and console at the foyer, novels in the bedroom, collectibles on shelves, candle stands on end-tables, a crockery cabinet and even a fireplace near the dining table. Even a personal caretaker. Order a snack and enjoy it on cane chairs in the private sit-out, listening to the whistling birds and squawking parrots. In the evening, lounge on the couches, sift through the book collection, laze on the outdoor lawn area, study the vibrant flowers, listen to soft music and sip hot soup before a lavish dinner. So much to do!

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Next day, drive along a romantic road encased in a thick cluster of bamboo thickets, rhododendron shrubbery and banana boughs, till you arrive at Andretta, a quaint artist village. Established by an Irish theatre artiste and environmentalist called Norah Richards, an Irish dramatist and environmentalist who lived there from 1920’s to 1970, it was once frequented by yesteryear Bollywood moviemaker Prithvi Raj Kapoor and now is home to a renowned pottery centre. Andretta pottery and craft centre is run by the renowned potter Mansimran Singh and his British wife Mary Singh, son of the famous potter Sardar Gurcharan Singh (who set up Delhi Blue Art Pottery in 1952, inspired by blue Persian glaze). It is said that a young Prithvi Raj Kapoor also spent time learning theatre here. B C Sanyal, who played a key role in setting up the Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi was a frequent visitor. Freda Bedi, actor Kabir Bedi’s mother also lived in Andretta was a friend of Richards. Portrait painter Sardar Soba Singh and Sardar Gurcharan Singh were among those Richards invited while establishing Andretta as an Artist Village.

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But first, a necessary stop at Sir Sobha Singh’s art gallery. The famous 20th-century Indian artist’s impeccably preserved studio, bedroom, personal possessions, in this little house which looks straight out of Stratford-upon-Avon. Outside at a counter selling local cookies called mithroo and vibrant coloured ruby-red and emerald-green sherbets. Norah Richards’ deserted mud house, reminds you of Marie Antoinette’s rustic hamlet at Versailles. The little Andretta pottery workshop complex has several dedicated potters at work, including foreigners. A trader is engaged in pricing and negotiations to sell the wares in Delhi. The designs are lovely…you wander, linger, contemplate, then indulge by buying a aqua green milk jug.

If art is near, can architecture be far behind? Explore the ancient Shiv temple of Baijnath, a half-hour away by road. Tiny specks of paragliders at Bir-Billing make a interesting contrast on the way. Baijnath is an ancient 5000-year old stone structure completely enclosed by a brick wall. In the scalding heat, you quickly walk barefoot over the green rubber mats laid out in the temple’s inner walls. Despite the fact that you’re on your toes, the hotness is unforgiving. Peering into the small interior of the temple, you’re depressed that the original grace of the inner sanctum has been marred by glaring floodlights and ugly CCTV cameras. Does the priest have a ‘proud’ look on his face, or is that a vain pose for a tourist?

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Its perfectly acceptable to have no other agenda in this erstwhile obscure hill town, but fragrant, delicate and soothing tea is all around. Visit a tea garden to see a small white tea flower, and the tips (little bud with its two just-opened lower leaves) which sells for Rs80 for 250g. The rest of the inferior category is used for tea bags. At a tea factory, leaves dry in wire-bottomed troughs, suspended above whirring fans. In another large hall, people stomp on tea leaves and sweep piles into mammoth trays. Buy some. Unadulterated. Pure. Fresh from the lap of nature.

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Wrap up your treasured souvenirs carefully. Those large dried pine cones will find a loving place in your home, along with other objects of travel affection. On the way, keep your eyes peeled for quaint huts, village women carrying water pots and milkmen cycling by with milk cans. Wonderful memories of a tranquil and picturesque little town in Kangra. An unmistakable sprinkle of city-dust, but the untouched, unspoilt vistas still shine through. The pines and the peace of Palampur will stay in your heart forever.

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Palampur makes an ideal, offbeat hill destination #palampur #kangra #delhigetaway #hillgetaway #offbeathilldestination

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15 Turkish delights in Istanbul worth travelling for

Iconic symbols of Istanbul, beyond the mega sights…

Its a city straddling two continents. Its skyline of ancient mosques and pencil-thin minarets is a photographer’s dream. Its imperial history is the stuff dreams are made of. And it boasts of some of the most sought-after mega sights on the planet. But for me, the real magic of Istanbul lies in its everyday scenes, its people, its streets, its waters, its very air. Unveiling my list of favourite Turkish delights in Istanbul. Icons in their own right, one and all.

1. Bosphorus blues: 32-kms of Bosphorus Strait separates Istanbul’s European and Asian sides. A shocking electric blue and a bouncy-swirl of choppy waters that locks the gaze into an unblinking stupor. Its the ceaseless cross-currents of the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara at work. Creating postcard-perfect views of the Turkish capital, any time of the day. Making you stare forever.

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2. Fishing rods: Everyday, in the early morning and late evening, hundreds of locals line up on the Galata Bridge spanning the Golden Horn from Eminonu to Karakoy. Some for recreation, some to earn money, some to pose for pictures. Fishing rod crowd the balustrades, men try their luck for fresh catch and patiently wait hours for a tug. A charming routine lives on.

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3. Ice cream magicians: In Istanbul, even a single scoop of Dondurma (a creamy, sticky ice-cream originating from Kahramanmaraş region), translates into a full-fledged act. Fez-capped men in traditional robes entertain buyers with gusto. There’s bell-ringing, teasing, pranks, antics and a loud sing-song voice. All classically Turkish. Its a dizzying array of flavours. Get smart, ask for a mix.

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4. Musical azaan: Five times a day, the muezzin’s trilling call to prayer bellows from loudspeakers at different mosques in the city. It is synchronised, like a chain, echoing everywhere. The nearby mosques respond to the call, each joining in the harmony by turn. The azaan itself is sweet like a Sufi melody. Floating towards the heavens, above the din of the city, it is like a conduit of spiritualism. Transport into peace. 

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5. Turkish dance: No better way to soak in the country’s culture than an evening show of perfectly choreographed Turkish dances. A chain of performers, both solo and group, folk and belly dances, fire shows and all. Arabian-nights costumes, sparkling jewellery. Flash of colours, foot-tapping rhythm and spirited energy. Elegant, seductive and entrancing. Top recommendation? Hodjapasha Dance Theatre, a beautifully restored Ottoman hammam in the Sirkeci district of old Sultanahmet.

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6. Whirling dervishes: Mystical ritual of Rumi’s Mevlevi Order, now a UNESCO Heritage of Humanity. Pristine flowing garments, serene expressions, uplifting music and so much whirling, one can get dizzy just watching. One more for the Hodjapasha Dance Theatre. The mood is solemn. And no clapping…this is a spiritual experience. Another Istanbul special memory to look back on, for all times.

7. Seagulls: They squawk madly, peck indiscriminately, fly in hordes, make a pretty picture in solitude and chase passenger ferry boats, all the way along the Bosphorus. Forever hungry for morsels of simit (Turkish bagel) that tourists throw towards them, they often grab food in mid-air with well-rehearsed ease. Their dazzling white feathers make a stunning contrast against the sharp blue backdrop of the waves.  Istanbul wouldn’t be itself without them. 

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8. Fishing villages: These lesser known but apt symbols of the city are like a breath of fresh air. One that specially stands out is Arnavutköy (‘Town of Albanians’). Elements to love are aplenty. Yachts dock along the shore, locals laze on waterfront benches, quaint streets lead to pretty cafés, art galleries and tempting restaurants. Count in two Greeks Orthodox Churches from the late 19th century and one ruined synagogue. And the old Ottoman wooden mansions are a blast from the past. Wander on.

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9. Ceramics: The city overflows with vibrant tile and ceramic souvenirs, including dishes, bowls, wall hangings and magnets…from affordable printed ones to pricey handmade versions. A tradition rooted in the 8th-9th centuries, but reaching its zenith during the Ottoman Empire. Known as İznik tiles after the town of İznik where it prospered. Popular motifs are tulips, roses, pomegranates and hyacinths and favoured colors are cobalt blue and turquoise. The richest decorations in tombs and mosques feature İznik tiles. Shopping ritual justified.

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10. Rugs: Rich dark colors and geometric patterns of the pileless, tapestry-woven Turkish kilims are recognisable anywhere. Historically, Turks were among the earliest carpet weavers…the craft goes back to the 4th-century BC. Kilim originated in the Anatolia area of the country, an area lying between the Black and Mediterranean seas. Budget permitting, it makes a great take-me-home. PS: Flying carpets exist only in fiction, not in Istanbul bazaars.

11. Cay: The Turks love their cay. Traditional black Turkish tea is the order of the day, anytime of the day. Drunk in small and delicate tulip-shaped glasses (often plain glass) so that the colour is visible. Locals compare the ideal colour to that of , rabbit blood! Sugar is permissible, but no milk. Lighter or darker according to taste. but always boiling hot. On low stools with company and conversation. To be tried.

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12. Coffee: Turkish coffee is thick and meant to be sipped slowly after a meal. Like a rough version of espresso. Bitter and in small doses. Black as can be. It’s unfiltered, the coffee never completely dissolves, so the cup must be shaken gently often for a remix. Factoid: Turkish coffee culture is now on the Unesco Intangible cultural heritage list.

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13. Sweets: Tackle the queues before facing the decision dilemma…because there’s an unimaginable array of fruit desserts, helvas, milk puddings and sherbet sweets like baklava. Scented with rose water, citrus, jasmine, cherries, saffron, spices. Drenched in fragrant syrup. Topped with luscious cream. Staircase to sublime. Really sweet, but available in bite-sized portions too. Created for religious events and royal festivities because wine or alcohol is prohibited in Islam?

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14. Kebabs: The first Turkish kebabs were born in the Erzurum region of East Turkey. Meat was cooked on a spit horizontally for a several centuries till it evolved into the modern vertical cooking method of the döner kebabs. Lamb, beef, chicken and fish…choices all. Popular ones to gun for? Shish, adana, iskender, caq, doner, even vegetable kababs. Best savoured in a traditional meyhane (Turkish tavern) on a crowded street. Meyhanes go back several centuries in time to the Byzantine era. Worth going on a treasure hunt to find the oldest one.

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15. Beyond kebabs: There’s more to Turkish cuisine than just kebabs. Vegetarians options abound…from lentil soup, falafels and tabbouleh to salad-filled pittas and finger-licking mezes like Ezme (chilli tomato paste), Patlıcan Ezmesi (grilled eggplants with yogurt), Haydari (mint yogurt dip), Muhammara (spicy pepper and walnut dip). Must-try dishes? Zeytinyagli Dolma (grape leaves stuffed with rice). And Kuru Fasulye (white beans stew cooked in a soupy tomato gravy with chilies and onions, spooned and doused over rice. Debate-worthy question: Which came first Turkish Kuru Fasulye or the Indian Rajma Chawal?

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And that, is just a suggestive list. I missed out so much, the still-in-vogue Sultan hangover, the famous cats that seem to own the city, ancient board games that one sees people playing in alleys, the cheerful yellow Taksi, and the Ottoman architecture. The crooked and steep bylanes of Istanbul are an unending treasure of exotic finds. Let your heart lead you to discover more…

 

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Iconic symbols of Istanbul, beyond the mega sights #turkey #istanbul #culture #localcuisine #everydaylife #localculture

One surreal day in the achingly beautiful town of Bruges

Bruges is the loveliest canal town…

A labyrinth of meandering canals, cobbled streets and centuries of history. Nicknamed Venice of the North. UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to a fifth of the city’s 105,000 residents.  And just hour-and-half by bus from Belgium’s capital. Compelled to witness the aching beauty of Bruges?

Set the mood right with a stroll in the Minnewater Park, the beautiful green lungs of the city. Cross the Lovers Bridge over the Lake of Love to ensure eternal togetherness. Slow down near the 30 white-painted gabled houses built around a central green courtyard dotted with tall trees. That’s the Beguinage, a convent-like shelter established in 1250 for single and widowed women. Benedictine nuns still live here, so technically, you’re an intruder. Careful with those crisp leaves crunching beneath your feet. Shhhh!

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A second canal bridge and little gabled houses indicate that the Old Town is near. At the corner of Wijngaardstraatm, the famous Christmas decorations store, Kathe Wohlfahrt greets you with festive flair. The aroma of waffles and Belgian fries floats up from windows counters and pushcarts. People throng outside boutique hotels, fine restaurants, attractive bistros, hip creperies and cafes under green striped awnings. Tables overflow with mussels served in big metal pots and creamy fish stew. Linger over a mouth-watering meal under the warm sun.

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Quit the main walkways where you have to avoid stepping onto others’ toes. Head for the cobblestoned alleyways lined with vintage shops and minuscule chapels. Listen to the sound of your footsteps echoing in solitude. Peek into the tiny window-fronts of lace shops showcasing home decor items made of the famed Bruges bobbin lace. Testimony to the history of a painstaking, local skill dating back to the early Renaissance era, when Emperor Charles V decreed that lace-making should be a compulsory skill for all girls in convents and beguinages throughout Flanders.

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Wearing lace was a status symbol then and the lace trade reached its peak in the 18th century. Flanders linen was considered most superior in all Europe in the Middle Ages and Bruges was the most important outlet for textile and lace. When the Zwin channel silted up and Bruges lost out as a transportation hub, Bruges lace and cloth industries saved the city from financial ruin. Sadly, today, Belgium’s entire lace weaving industry comprises of just 1,000 weavers who produce everything manually. Some pieces are so intricate that they require the use of over 200 bobbins. Study the delicate reminders of those times…doilies, tablecloths, table napkins, cushion covers, wedding veils, handkerchiefs, using filigree-style ribbons and chains…from affordable machine-made copies and to genuine and expensive vintage articles. Take home an exquisite reminder.

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Bruges is nirvana for chocolate lovers, with over 50 expert chocolatiers within 50 square miles. This chocolate capital of Belgium even has its own official chocolate – the Bruges Swan. Think superior ingredients and obsessive adherence to old world manufacturing techniques. At Wollestraat, the city’s chocolate hotspot, shops are packed shoulder to shoulder on both sides. Each enticing display of pralines, figurines and slabs is quicksand of sweet temptation. Delicious variety lines the glass shelves…classic milk to almond praline to pure liqueur filled gourmet delights…countless types from the simple to the intricate… each with their own sophisticated flavours and heavenly textures. Traditional flavours to wildly experimental ones including black olive, tomato, wasabi, fried onion, bacon, curry, basil. Prices for chocolates are generally between 50 cents and 1 euro each and chocolate is sold by weight, starting with 100-grams. Apparently, locals buy fresh chocolate like others pastry or bread. Stock up! 

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The broad street opens onto the Markt. Enjoy a float, watch jugglers, listen to street musicians and stare at the medieval architecture. The large, ornate, neo-Gothic Provincial Courthouse, (a 19th-century construction), harmonizes perfectly with the older medieval structures. On one side, quintessentially Dutch, gabled red brick buildings cordon off the space. Old stone slabs, which traders would have used to cut and sell meat or cloth, are still preserved. Tiny figures soak in amazing views from the Belfort (Belfry), a 13th century bell tower looming above everything else at 83 meters. You’re inside a postcard…web of canals, little roof terraces and a flat landscape towards distant wind farms.

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On another side of the square, restaurants with outdoor tables are filled with hungry patrons enjoying the afternoon sun, sipping Belgian beers, digging into luscious steaks and indulging in that evergreen European pastime…people watching. The hypnotic clops of horses’ hooves and the regular quarterly chimes of the manually operated 47-bell carillon of the square’s belfry is like music to the ears. Detour to explore the tallest structure and the second tallest brickwork tower in the world, the 122 meter high Church of Our Lady, graced with Michelangelo’s famous Madonna and Child…in black.

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Picturesque canals shimmer as they flow under arched stone footbridges, white swans skim gracefully over the waterways, flower-draped, quaint cobblestone streets curve past turreted manor houses with gabled roofs and and shops overflow with antique treasures. Romance exudes from every nook and cranny. Eager-eyed tourists take leisurely canal cruises along the Reien, hooked to local anecdotes while gazing at delightful views of Bruges’ weathered facades. Could anyone tire of these historic buildings, bridges and vines draped down to touch the water? While away lazy moments and drink in the tranquil beauty. Bruges has taken centuries in the making…savour every vista with languor.

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Canal houses face the water, their stepped gables on steeply pitched roofs capped with slate or stone for easy access. The stunning Flemish brickwork facades blaze in the sunlight. Houses flaunt wooden medieval doors, stone gargoyles, circular and teardrop-shaped windows with diamond-cut traditional crown glass, intricate lace curtains and reliefs on walls showing apprentices at work. Indulge in the medieval fantasy.

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As the curtain goes down on a brilliant day in the prettiest town of Belgium, chew on this. Thanks to transportation on these waterways, brewing and textiles had reached their zenith in the 14th-century, laying the foundations for a magnificent city, where agriculture could not be the mainstay. And look now, the canals still run the town…not with textiles and beer, but tourism.

 

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Bruges is the loveliest canal town #bruges #belgium #canals #flemish

An ode to the most eternal of Paris experiences (Part 2)

Classic experiences on the Right Bank of Paris…

Its the pulsing heart of art, culture and fashion, where the creme de la creme has lived for decades. The buzzing commercial center of the city, and home to a majority of big businesses and banks. Overflowing with grand boulevards, manicured gardens, symmetrical squares and majestic monuments. Also too many people and too many cars. How can anyone resist the sparkling vitality, exuberance and indomitable spirit of the Right Bank of Paris? Dive right in with these all-time favourite experiences…

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An ode to the most eternal of Paris experiences

Classic experiences on the Left Bank of Paris…

Roman-founded Lutetia Parisiorum (mud town of the Parisii or Celt settlers) to epitome of all things classy…the antithesis is complete. And how! The French capital of today is a symbol of urban sophisticate…larger-than-life grandeur laced with old-world charm. Illuminated by the pure glow of intellectual and artistic heritage. And wrapped in a timeless enigma. First visit or not, some eternal Paris experiences will never lose their appeal for the romantic at heart. So, flag-off with the Left Bank of the Seine…

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Brilliant blues will tempt you in the island of Capri

Idyllic island in Italy’s Gulf of Naples…

Keep your eyes glued to the window as the shuttle from Naples airport weaves slowly through the narrow streets of the city’s Greco-Roman historic centre. Past alley labyrinths and literary cafès. Past church steeples, Baroque facades, Renaissance statues and frescoed fountains. Past leftovers of the ancient Agora and Forum. To the buzzing port guarded by the turreted Castle Nuovo. Where the shadow of Vesuvius looming in the distance triggers a thought…maybe Pompeii just a bad dream. Long ticket queues to multiple islands, but the wait is short, because Capri ferries depart every 45 minutes. So sit back on the plush seats and enjoy the smooth sail over the Tyrrhenian Sea. Because here on, its stinging electric blue all the way.

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These popular Awadhi dishes have a fascinating history

Digging into Lucknow’s culinary past…

Tripping India? Then deep diving into dozens of delectable dishes is inevitable and predestined, even mandatory! And how could it not be…considering that the rich and diverse cuisine of the subcontinent has always held pride of place as one of the most evolved in world gastronomy. Seek curries and spice and all things nice across the length and breadth of the country. But when it comes to delicate flavours, refined techniques and palate perfection…bookmark Awadhi cuisine.

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