Why you need to head to Madikeri to reconnect with nature

Make a nest in Madikeri, Coorg…

Have you ever dodged heavy doses of strongly discouraging feedback about an oncoming trip? Just days short of your travel plans? When anticipation levels are headed north? Pay no heed, because you, dear traveler, have your own agenda of discovery. Follow the advise of the old Chinese proverb…“Don’t listen to what they say. Go see”. Better still, draw strength from our true story. We kept our spirits high, stuck to our plans, went to Coorg and returned celebrating the precision of our instincts.

From Bangalore, hit the curvy Hassan highway for a pleasant 6-hour drive through the countryside. A hazy mountain outline signals Kodagu territory. As you roll past Madikeri town, the line-up of homegrown coffee-chocolate-wine shops and Tibetan monks in deep red-garb announces that nap-time is officially over. Inspect the scatter of traditional Kodava houses while you can, because soon you’ll be remotely away from habitation. Ensconced in your new nest in nature…Taj Madikeri Resort & Spa, Coorg.

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10 kilometres away from the property, turn off Google maps and follow the signboards along the narrow road through the thicket. Curving left and right, up and down. Along borders of endless green. On and on. Deeper and deeper into the woodland. 8 kilometres, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3. Endless neck cranes, constant peering. Are we there yet? Finally…rewards! A gated check post, a drive-in patio and a warm welcome at lobby. Impatient footsteps to the vast deck opposite. Jaw-drop. Wide-angle pan. And stunned silence. The limitless vastness of the rainforest infinity sprawling before you, broken only by a layered fringed of the undulating Sahyadris. Nothing between your hungry eyes and the magnanimous valley but a pebbled water-border. Luxe loungers, bolstered benches or chic day-beds…pick a favourite spot, sip some bella kaapi (black coffee with jaggery), and feast on the spectacle. Because this is just Act 1.

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Dive into nature

Exit lobby, enter forest. The foliage thickens and so does the drama. Buggy drop along a hilly road to one of the many cottage villas sprinkled all over the 180 acres property. First key twist. Second jaw-drop moment. Generously-proportioned living quarters and ceiling-high glass windows on all three sides overlooking the lush valley. Faux Coorgi roof. Real fireplace with real logs. A dream worktable to banish every stubborn writer’s block. And a hip black granite tub with a view. #bathroomgoals. Give up city conveniences and live here forever? D-uh!

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It gets better. Coorgi specialities like pandi (pork) curry, chilli fish steamed in cardamom leaves, mango curry, kadambuttu (steamed rice balls), akki (rice) roti at the open terrace restaurant. Heavenly spa with a pebbled stream. And a special Holi street-food dinner by a lighted blue pool. Fire pits, live food counters, hanging day-bed. And the pitch-darkness of the valley lit by a luminescent full moon. Star spangled skies. Nature’s background score…rustling wind, falling of a leaf. Are you in love or are you in love?

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Wake up to the sweetest alarm in the world and race outside to look for the whistling malabar thrush. Embrace the colors of nature…red sunrise, pinkish-orange skies and purplish-blue mountains and happily convert into a morning person. Swoon over the sight of the frothy clouds filling the valley. Persevere with the theme…prowl around the herb garden, chase butterflies, pluck sweet mulberries, pick juicy strawberries, find cardamom trees, pepper creepers and vanilla pods. Break for a healthy organic lunch under the shadowy bamboo trees. You could get used to this…

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Then embark on a 3-hour long rainforest walk with Nitin, the on-location naturalist and rediscover that you’re an insignificant speck in the vast scheme of planetary existence. From 40 species of frogs and work hierarchy of bees to termites as a survival food and 50 feet king cobras, to Rudraksh, strangler fig trees and healing properties of local plants…its a capsule course on the laws of the jungle, the circle of life and the survival of the fittest. Forget trivia of daily life, become part of the big picture.

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Listen to stories

Soak up the culture with local activist Colonel Muthanna at the property’s ‘Conservatory’. For centuries, this mountainous and misty land, where streams flow in abandon, dense forests hide mysterious flora-fauna and abundant wildlife thrives, has been home to the ancient warlike Kodava tribe, supposed descendants of Alexander or a band of Iraqi Kurds. The most fascinating leftover from the tumultuous past? Hand-dug war trenches (kadangas), 1.5 to 7.5 meters high, 3 meters deep, 2-3 metres wide, snaking over 6 kilometres of countryside. A fascinating slice of heritage from 9th-10th centuries, proof of the many bloody battles fought here to keep invaders at bay. Rare but not impossible to sight, if you’re willing to poke under wild foliage. Go further, push the envelope…trace out a monolithic burial stone or dolmen dated 2500 or 3000 BC. Hundreds are said to be scattered around the region.

Intriguing age-old traditions continue to be preserved passionately. Every Kodava belongs to one of over 300 clans, and every clan has an ancestral house (Ainmane) with a small shrine to offer prayers to ancestors (rather than gods). Its a great idea to try and visit one. Unique marriage traditions live on, where elders guide the ceremony instead of priests. Brides wear typical jewellery items like kokkethathi, (crescent-shaped pendant with a serpent-like head, figure of Goddess Lakshmi and two birds) and the Kodavu style saree, with back-pleats and a shoulder knot. Men sport a traditional coat-sash garment. Watch a tribal song-and-dance performance, dedicated to nature and heroism. Simple rhythmic moves of the barefoot dancers, brandishing swords, canes and whisks…glide back to simple times.

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Get a first-hand feel of the self-sustaining village life, where people grow their own vegetables, fruit, pepper, coffee, even betel nut. Be reminded of the medicinal properties of plants and herbs, as you savour the local vinegar (Kachampuli) in Coori pork dishes. Made of concentrated juice of a tropical fruit, Garcinia Cambogia, it is now accepted worldwide as a liver protector and weight reducer. And marvel at the eco-consciousness of the locals as you stumble upon protected forest patches, left untouched for centuries in the name of deities and legends. Part of an estimated 2500 acres of sacred groves called Devarakadu. Respect!

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Smell the coffee

The coffeeholic mandate while in a region that produces 60 percent of the country’s coffee? A coffee plantation tour. Hours slip by easily as you wander along the coffee bushes, immaculately trimmed to appropriate heights for bean-picking convenience. Tall silver oaks and short orange trees provide protective shade…slow down and gaze around all you can.

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Admire the unconventional beauty of the sweet-smelling white flowers and green-red cherry-like beans of the coffee plants. Learn to identify Robusta and Arabica plants by the differing sizes of their leaves, branches and cherries. Understand why the two are blended and why chicory is added in the ratio of 40, 40, 20. Ask questions about the harvesting-plucking and production process. See the beans drying in the sun, readying for the roaster. Get educated on instant-versus-filter coffee quality angle. Know how inferior seeds go into making instant coffee and the superior ones are kept aside for the filter version. Conclude with a coffee tasting session of freshly brewed coffee, straight from the plantation. Stock up on packets of filter coffee…add a percolator. Caffeine fix sorted.

Make precious memories

Stumble upon a secret spot for one of the most surreal scenes of your life. Through thick and thorny bushes, up a barely-there stony path, emerge into a secluded clearing to gasp at 360-degree views of layered blue mountains. Soundless, except for the wind. Have a solitude-soaked meditative moment, squatting on the grassy plateau, staring at the vermillion sunset, tracing the contours of the crimson ball as it dips into oblivion, leaving a softly fading splash on the endless canvas above. Could this be the purest form of reverence? Possibly, but the trance isn’t over yet…nature is presenting an unreal show on the open hotel terrace. Clouds descend upon you and the misty magic of the night envelops you in its magical fold. Close your eyes and sense the soft caress without a care in the world. Because some memories outlive photos a gazillion times over.

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Connect with nature in Madikeri, Coorg #rainforestresort #naturedestination #madikeri #tajmadikeri #coorg #mountaingetaway #coffeecountry #luxurymountaingetaway

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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

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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This is how to soak in the forgotten splendour of Orchha

Deep inside the temple town of Orchha…

A polite ticket-checker thanks each passenger, bright-red uniformed staff deliver breakfast goodies and pleasant station announcements guide you along the route. Office-going commuters jostle barefoot villagers at smaller stations. You’re rewinding to memories of childhood train travel. Racing the electric poles, beating the running tracks. Vibrant green fields climax into a glorious last stretch of lush hills-and-valleys between Delhi and Jhansi. You’re in a trance…hypnotised by the languorously curving slow train, blackened old monuments of Datia town and the muddy Betwa river cross-over. From Jhansi, its a 45-minute taxi ride down a narrow road through thick of a forested landscape. Prelude to a drama waiting to unfold in the unusual temple town on the banks of the Betwa. Aptly named Orchha (the “hidden”). Ready or not, here it comes…

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Why you need to decode the celebrated Sun Temple of Modhera?

Amateur guide to deconstructing Hindu temples…

The common denominating factor binding ancient civilisations of Egyptians, Mayans, Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Indians? Temples! But beyond the structural ingenuity and fine craftsmanship of temple architecture lies a deeper science (read common blueprint) alien to the amateur eye. Especially in Hindu temples…where astronomy, astrology, mathematics and metaphysics come together in an enigmatic formula. Know one and you will know all. Ready to break the code?

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An 1100-year old ancient temple that lies in ruins

Discover Kashmir’s Avantiswami temple…

You’re driving southeast of Srinagar on the road to  Jammu, silently applauding the unmatched spectacle of nature. Towering mountains, frothy streams, leafy canopies, juicy apple orchards and golden haystack fields…paradise has a permanent home in this blessed valley. An hour and 30 kilometers later, you arrive at your destination on the right bank of Jhelum river. Here stands a huge pit, at least 20 feet deep. The skirting of a modest row of tin-roof houses against a wallpaper of the lofty Himalayas is incongruously striking. But its not a pit…its a 1913-dig of crumbling ruins. Fragments of a broken puzzle from the recesses of the past, which only an imaginative eye can piece together.

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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.

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