How to score big on the dry jungle photography challenge

Photo blog of Masinagudi, Tamil Nadu…

Wildlife adventure on our mind. Destination: Masinagudi. One of the five forest reserves of the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park, 250 kilometres from Bangalore, Karnataka. Nestled between the three states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Enveloped by the lush Nilgiri forests. A resort buried in the deep of the jungle, with patchy mobile connectivity. The promise of exciting jeep safaris and treks. The prospect of encountering dangerous, wild animals and exotic birds. Just one downside…the weather.

Last lap of February…still a few months before rains completely transform the landscape. Fantasy: blooming foliage and deep green. Reality: spindly tree branches and brown grass. Not the best time of the year to experience the full glory of the jungle. But we’re here, now. Plan B. Love it like it is. See it for what it is. Raw. Rough. Unpainted. Unadorned. Dry. Earthy. Natural. And no less magical.

The many moods of Masinagudi…captured on our camera. Lazy swaying palms lining the highway, reminiscent of coastal tranquility, hammocks and backwaters. An unending scatter of creepy, crooked, leafless trees along the road leading into the forest reserve. Bald patches where forest fires left their unsightly marks behind. A stubbornly snaking path that refuses to straighten out.

Cheeky birds that jump onto branches and peck around for feed. Sometimes blending into the background and sometimes standing out with bright beaks and feathers. A neglected lamp dangling from a thatched roof. Something mysterious about its dust- lathered glass case. A solitary tree-house clinging to the unfailing support of its host tree. With nothing but the wind for company. Mud huts of the resort glowing in the soft warmth of the setting sun, like a painting that you want to reach out and touch.

Animals at home in their natural surroundings. Graceful deer and peacock sharing the same grass. A herd of wild boar stopping to stare at unfamiliar intruders. A bed of crunchy, crisp fallen leaves that make you rethink the phrase ‘dull brown’. Huddle of trees fighting for space among a silence so profound you can hear your own breathing. The stark contrast between the hustle of urban life and the stillness of nature. Life unconstrained. Pure. Free. As it was meant to be. 

And the most spectacular forest sunset that washes the endless canvas of the skies with a million shades. Gold, pink, amber and flame. An artwork that unfolds, live before your eyes. A hypnotic red ball of fire that gets darker and bolder with every second, holding you captive as it dips downwards, and finally gets swallowed into the darkness completely.

So are you still timing your stint at forest photography for ‘perfect’ conditions?

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Dry jungle photography at Masinagudi



The most exquisite craftsmanship awaits you in Bikaner

Head for Junagadh Fort in Bikaner…

Set against the 200,000 square kilometre golden sand carpet that forms the Thar Desert (Great Indian Desert), is an Indian city that often misses the limelight. It has a capacity to delight you with unexpected architectural splendour…from ornamental havelis hidden in a mesmerizing old town maze to sumptuous palaces overflowing with examples of rich artistic craftsmanship. So, if Rajasthan is on your mind, look beyond the J-trilogy (Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer). And be dazzled by Bikaner!

Kick off with the inspiring story of the city, the 15th-century result of an ambitious military adventure by enterprising Rao Bika, youngest of five sons of Rao Jodha, founder of Jodhpur. Bika realises that he doesn’t stand a chance at inheritance, so, he moves far from home towards inhospitable desert terrain to create a new kingdom of his own. State flourishes, generations thrive. Bikaner’s sixth ruler, Raja Rai Singhji accepts Mughal sovereignty and leaves behind a priceless legacy…Junagarh Fort (meaning big fort). The 986m-long wall with 37 bastions spread over a mammoth 5.28 hectares of land, encloses one of the finest examples of architecture in the country. Reserve a day for Bikaner’s magnum opus. Wow factor guaranteed.

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But Junagarh is more than just a monument of scale. First, tick off all the quintessential architectural elements of a Rajasthan royal palace fort… impressive public areas, luxurious private quarters, graceful pavilions, wide-open courtyards, elegant pillar columns, overhanging balconies, intricate jaali-screen windows (jharokhas) and the iconic chhatris.

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Now zoom in for the finer details and wait for the jaw-drop. Intricate wall murals, elaborate stucco ceilings, lavish lacquered doors, pretty enamelled mirrors, even Dutch glazed tiles and Chinese wallpapers. Not just panels…entire rooms studded with exquisitely styled, gilded walls. There’s delicacy in each flawless motif and innovation in every impeccable pattern…tasteful, inventive, poetic. Scan. And process.

Dig deeper into the leftovers of art that bloomed to cross limits of imagination under a series of prosperous military leaders from the 17th-century Karan Mahal to the 18th-century Chander Mahal and the 19th-century Badal Mahal. Mughal-inspired white marble with wide-spaced floral and geometric ornamentation that make you sigh. Elaborate stucco ceilings that tempt you to be taller. Glass mosaic with gold leaf that evoke a silent ‘unbelievable’. Gold plated deities that make you blink. Paintings inlaid with precious stones that challenge your conscience. Carved panels and mirrors that feel like Cinderella. Let your right brain take over.

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And finally, gear up for the best in this palace-fort-meets-art gallery with my favorite takeaway…the finest examples of local Usta art in the country. If you’ve seen one example, you can easily recognize it all over the palace complex. This highly ornate and detailed lacquer work on camel hide (‘Usta’ comes from Persian word ‘Ustad’ meaning master) uses vibrant colours and striking gold motifs in floral and animal forms. For the most elaborate, more intricate, more opulent example, swoon over the gold-vermillion Anup Mahal.   

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Usta stuns you wherever you go in the palace complex. Practice spotting the popular Taarabandi (a star-studded sky) and Naqqashi, (patterns of flowers and motifs) on ceiling surfaces, door or wall panels. Three-dimensional and embossed. Resplendent like Indian jewellery. Royal like Persian carpets. And regal like French tapestries. Undulating curves and strong shapes. Each pattern unique, all very distinctly Mughal in styling. Overwhelmed much?

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The handful of Usta artists who migrated from Iran to India during the reign of Mughal emperor Akbar were clueless that their craft would be relayed forward several centuries to become an icon of Bikaner. Ironically, just a handful of these skilful artists survive…as in all other demanding art forms across the world. But you can still scout the local handicraft stores for a handcrafted (very expensive) Usta souvenir. A coaster, goblet, vase, photo frame, or lamp…how deep is your pocket? More importantly, how large is your heart?

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Discover exquisite craftsmanship at Bikaner

How to have a perfect (rainy) day at Lake Como

Loving Bellagio and Varenna, despite the rain…

Early morning, last day of Italy trip. Bed stumble, groggy walk, window peek, cringe. Wet roads…not on Lake Como day! But if you travel shoulder season to Europe, like us, a frequent drizzle will be a constant companion, so its best to make your peace with the clouds. You can’t change the weather, but you can certainly change the shape of your facial muscles. Brave the rains with a smile!

Two hours later. Stubborn dark skies. Hoodie check. Umbrella check. Street-bound. And train-bound. Milano Centrale to Varenna-Essino. Window seat, hazy view. Weaving along the Lombardy countryside, is that a faint silhouette of an enchanting town in the distance? And the lakes under that chiffon cloak of mist… mmm, right about now. Eyes back to Kindle. Quick glance later. Visibility has improved. Glimpses of Varenna as the train curves along the track, in-and-out of tunnels. Hope elevator.

Breathe in lungfuls of crisp autumn air, as you walk downhill under thick lush cypress and pine to the waterfront. Varenna tempts, you resist. Focus, focus. Its still dry, must catch a boat to Bellagio first. There’s one every half hour. Play mentalist with the unsuspecting clouds…go away, go away, just for today. 

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Soon, you’re floating in the shadow of the Alps encased in Italy’s Lake District. Several long, deep breaths. Gaze at the horizon dotted with green islands. Graceful lakeside villas of the rich and famous. Drool time. Imagine the colours of the landscape in the sun. Clooney’s pad, somewhere? Blink and miss…because in 10 minutes flat, you’re de-boarding at Bellagio, ‘Pearl of Como’. Could they have coined a more apt catchphrase?

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Bellagio is posh, swanky and old-world. Aristocratic villas converted into grand harbour-front hotels…art nouveau ironwork breaking the softness of the pastel shades. Colorful houses in pale pink, peach, tangerine, lemon and ochre with contrasting green shutters, clinging at absurd angles to the wooded hill behind. You feel pampered without a reason. Skip the cafes, restaurants and arcaded boutiques on Via Garibaldi. Postpone that indulgence spirit for now. 

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Linger along the flower-embellished lakefront path leading to Villa Melzi. You’re a guest at the 19th-century summer residence of Francesco Melzi d’Eril, (vice president of the Italian Republic during the early 1800s). This is one impressive neoclassical villa guarded by stone lions. With more than its share of generously proportioned botanical gardens. Avenues of plane trees. Profusion of bright azaleas and rhododendrons. And a hidden Japanese waterbody. Chin up, haughty expression…no one’s looking.

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Stroll along the endless multi-level sloping grass mounds. Mimic the stance of dreamy marble statues. Search out the grotto. Pretend you’re virtuoso composer-pianist Franz Liszt writing his famous Dante Symphony in the delightful Arabian pavilion. Watch a newly married couple walk past or daydream on those delicate wrought-iron chairs. The mist hangs over the steel-grey waters. Clouds kiss the hills. Are you even noticing that raindrops are still falling on your head? Who cares. You’re in Como!

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Your jeans are damp and your shoes are squeaky. And don’t even get started on the limp hair. But you can’t get enough of this ogling, can you? More eye-candy awaits in the town. So, head for that long flight of gently inclined cobblestone steps going up from the main street. Large, rough, round, slippery, pebbly steps. Rain on your head. Umbrella in your hands. A neon green rain jackets walks past. You’re actually loving the weather! Hey, isn’t this the famous street with the lamp?

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Go mmmmm at a Italian trattoria. Wander into the criss-cross maze of narrow streets. More charming when you call them by their Italian name (contradas). Stare at iron-grill balconies. Gaze at vine-covered doorways. Measure your height against elegant arched entrances. Find fluttering Italian flags. Take a gelato stop. (Make that two). Go up one flight. Down another. Fantasise about driving a yellow Beetle. Wander more. And when you’ve lost your heart to Bellagio, remind yourself that Varenna is waiting.

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If Bellagio is the glamorous, air-brushed cover gal, Varenna is the unaffected, alluring girl next door. Still spotless, faultless, like a generous painter’s imagination. No fancy boutiques or swishy promenade, just a quaint fishing village atmosphere draping the air (minus the fishy smell, of course). And something far better than a parking lot of swanky cars…a pretty boardwalk! The Lovers’ Path, as it is called, runs along the edge of the lake upto the historic center. Pause under the red-painted, wisteria-draped canopy and renew your vows. Write a poem. Hold hands. Become the subject of a picture. Hum your favorite tune. Or just smile. Everything works.

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Just a handful of people around. Enjoy the solitude. Explore the two 19th-century villas with beautiful gardens (Villa Cipressi and Villa Monastero). Test your lungs by hiking up to Castello di Vezio. Or just follow our league…repeat the Bellagio routine. Up and down long flights of steps. Notice how they curve slightly in the middle. Catch the shadow of light on the smooth stones worn out over time. Capture every inch of prettiness in your camera. And memorise with your mind’s eye. The crispy curl of the russet fallen autumn leaf. A little piazza overlooked by 14th-century Church of St. George. A sundial on a wall. Church bells in motion. A half-open church door. It just doesn’t end. 

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When your legs start protesting, return to the waterfront and find a table with a view at Varenna Caffe. Coffee, cake and tranquility. Hypnotic rippling of the lake, soft lapping of the waves, a red boat bobbing in the distance on the grey water. Life on Lake Como. Imagine everyday exotic in this little postcard town. Board-walking home every evening. Watching the sun go down over the silvery surface of the lake. Sounds of silence. A fresh breeze. Who needs meditation when you have this? 

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But tick tock, tick tock, you have a train to catch for Milan. And suddenly, a miracle! The clouds part gently and the sun peeks through. Yassssss! A brilliant blue would never evoked so much divinity. And look at that view! No wonder artists have been inspired by Lake Como ever since the 2nd century BC. Definitely calls for some more pictures. So, take home some exquisite portraits of your own.

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Lake Como on a rainy day

This is the most underrated capital city in Europe

Croatia’s capital, Zagreb deserves more limelight…

Elegant stone-tiled mansions and newer apartments stand shoulder-to-shoulder in harmony along broad tree-lined avenues and inviting green spaces. Its understated elegance, relaxed pace and easy cafe culture grows on you unobtrusively. This is a lovely city recreating itself, carving out a new identity, while preserving the richness of its past. Zagreb may be underrated, but you will regret skipping it. Here are my firm recommendations on the two atmospheric neighbourhoods to concentrate your energies on, while visiting Croatia’s capital.

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One of the most spectacular drives hidden in Montenegro

Head to Mount Lovcen now…

A route so spectacular, it will extract involuntary Confucianist soundbites, celebrating undying love for roads. Because its paradise found, sprawled before your eyes for miles and miles, as you ascend 1000 meters above sea level up Mount Lovcen from Montenegro’s bay-facing capital Kotor. Yeah, you’re probably juggling reflexive philosophical mutterings with overwhelming emotions of gratitude. But concentrate on keeping those blinkers glued to the window pane. Panorama after panorama unfolds.

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Three Barcelona icons that will blow your mind

A deeper look at Gaudi’s architecture…

Barcelona’s most famous Catalan Modernism artist-architect, Antoni Gaudí made a livelihood from constructing (or deconstructing) ‘fantasy homes for the rich’ and dreamt of completing a ‘cathedral for the poor’. His legacy lives on through some of the most recognised icons of Catalonia. You’ve seen the pictures. Now dig deeper into his craft.

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Pretend to be a noble at a French châteaux in the Loire Valley

France will have you fantasizing…

Just two hours southwest of Paris, lies the Loire Valley, an enchanting countryside ablaze with colours of green and gold, filled with vineyards, farmlands, hunting forests and ancient towns. Christened Loire after France’s longest river, which was a highway for transporting food and building materials in flat boats during the Greco-Roman age. An exceptionally fertile land that enticed 15th-century French royals and nobles to hire Italian architects and artists to build hundreds of palatial Renaissance-style chateaux.

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