Have you heard of the mysterious mansions of Sidhpur?

Unearth an abandoned neighbourhood in Gujarat

I shouldn’t have gone googling when the guide asked me, “Would you like to see the wooden mansions of Sidhpur?” It killed the surprise. Or maybe I should have. Because it would have been a huge mistake to skip it. Pick from various good hotels in Ahmedabad to stay, and drive 112 km away to this ancient city of north Gujarat, believed to be located at the junction of the rivers Ganga and Saraswati.

Whoa! Brace for impact

At first glance, its just a remote Indian town untouched by modernisation, but hold your breath till you reach the Dawoodi Bohras neighbourhood. And exhale. Pinch yourself. Rub your eyes. Still there! A broad lane filled with majestic mansions on both sides. Defying all possible expectations. Not because they’re mansions, but because they’re distinctly European in appearance. In the whole range of soft pastels…lime green, pale pink, lilac, salmon, peach, mint green and lemon. You might as well be standing in one of the streets of Karlovy Vary in Czech Republic. But this is a dusty little town in one of the most traditional regions of Western India! And not a soul in sight.

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Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic

There’s lane after lane of such houses, all standing abandoned. Is this a dream? A movie set left behind? Or a ghost town evacuated after a mysterious disaster? Hold your horses. The reality isn’t even remotely fantastic. Apparently, the properties were built by a prosperous community of Bohras, (Shia Muslim traders), who migrated from Yemen in the 18th century. Influenced by the good life in Europe? Without a trace of doubt.

European by character…

Once you’ve steadied yourself from the initial dizziness, venture closer and fuel your heightening curiosity further. Order, homogeneity, symmetry, precision…all the essentials features of a predominantly European character meet your gaze unflinchingly. Gaze back with deeper, microscopic vision and decipher the code…similar shape, similar material, similar design. As if all houses were commissioned to the same architect, who used just one common, basic blueprint. Or were all of them clones of the first one? If they were all washed in the same colour, it would appear to be one giant condominium. Its an incredible mix of architectural styles, varying from Gothic to Art Nouveau to Art Deco exhibited through every extravagant aspect possible. Stuccoed facades, ornate columns, trellised balconies, gabled roofs, elaborate brackets, grandiose banisters, flamboyant door mouldings, decorative grills and stained glass windows. All empty! Unreal.

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…but not in spirit

The character is outwardly European, but there’s a very local spirit within. The most obvious one that strikes you is the Gujarati tradition of using wood as building material. But with an unusual, reinvented aesthetic expression. Extensive use of geometric patterns and an abundance of nature motifs like flower and creepers to adorn doors and windows, in keeping with Islamic convention. The human and animal figures that are a quintessential part of Indian design vocabulary are conspicuously absent. Every house has an intricate monogram in English representing initials of the owner! Could you think of a more impressive display for your nameplate?

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Inside, the soul of Indian havelis (mansions) reveals itself in its full glory. The central open courtyard constructed to allow light and air, richly embellished windows designed to resemble portrait frames, and demarcated living spaces for men and women, show how seamlessly outward character and inner spirit can be blended into a unified whole.

Dying heritage

The empty, forgotten lanes of Sidhpur are an example of hundreds of living traditions that are slowly dying a slow death. What must have been a modern, classy, upmarket neighbourhood 200 years back, is now a picture of neglect and sure signs of deterioration is already visible in the peeling paint, broken window panes, and cracking wood surfaces. Its not entirely impossible that dismantling and reselling of decorative elements has already begun. Locals of Sidhpur are baffled that visitors come to see these derelict, creepy Bohra mansions. What’s to see, they wonder.

As you leave the area, you can’t help but pause by the biggest, grandest house of them all. The distinctness of its structure and appearance makes you stare for a long, long time. Soft sun rays hit some of the 365 windows that speckle the grit-blackened facade of the corner villa. Suddenly, all the pretty colours that you had been admiring in those lanes seem dull and drab against this black-and-white drama. Beware! The vintage beauty of this phantom house may haunt you in your dreams tonight.

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Unearth an abandoned neighbourhood in Gujarat



On the blue blood trail in the blue city of Jodhpur

Discover the bewitching capital of the Marwars… 

Geographically placed in the middle of the J-trilogy, Jodhpur has struggled for elusive attention that its more favoured siblings, Jaipur and Jaisalmer, have lapped up far easily. But the second largest city in Rajasthan is coming into its own as the exotic blue city with a historically invincible fort defining the skyline and ambitious facelift on the agenda. Go back in time, dig into its royal roots. Even if you have only a weekend. Domestic carriers like Indigo will get you there from Delhi in about an hour, so scavenge for the cheapest air tickets this winter and make it happen.

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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.

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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!

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Why you will fall madly in love with Meghalaya?

Wild romance with nature…

The love affair begins in the flight to Guwahati as your gaze is transfixed at the snowy outline of the Himalayan peaks in the far distance. You ignore the silent protest your neck makes from being subject to a weirdly obtuse angle. Its the only way you can successfully trace the entire length and width of that unbelievably massive waterbody miles below you. No, being called a river just doesn’t do her justice, you conclude decisively. Brahmaputra is in a different league altogether.

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You need to risk a dangerous road for this ethereal vision. Game?

One of India’s highest glacial lakes…

From your tiny window on the plane, peer out far in the distance; till your vision hits that wall of white…the mighty Himalayas clad in snow…across the entire horizon as far as you can see. Somewhere in this 2400 km long ‘Abode of Snow’ is the Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak…try spotting it. 

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Treasure hunt for the most exquisite hidden havelis

Beauties and bounties in the bylanes of Bikaner…

“You won’t be able to find them on your own.” The hotel manager dismisses our valiant declaration of self-exploration with a mysterious smile. “I’ll arrange an auto rickshaw to guide you. The lanes are too narrow for a car.” Intrigue levels: brim high.

Our driver, Wali, nods knowingly, when I show him the google pictures in my phone. We climb into the well-padded back seat of our colourful three-wheel drive towards the oldest part of the city. At 11 am, its still a lazy morning in the marketplace. Steamy curls rising from chai cups, brooms swooshing across verandahs and biscuit-laden carts rumbling along to designated spots. The man stirring hot milk at Ramji Ghewar Wale sweet shop seems absent-minded…still not fully awake yet?  

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