travel shorts: delhi’s 800-year-old spiritual retreat for eunuchs

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Delhi is full of tombs and gravestones. There are tombs for sultans and emperors, and their consorts. For wealthy nobles and ordinary folks. But gravestones, sorry not for one, but 50 revered eunuchs or transgender women who lived eight hundred years ago? Aaah, that can only happen in Delhi. 😊

Hijron Ka Khanqah, which literally translates to ‘a Sufi spiritual retreat for eunuchs’ is a collection of whitewashed gravestones fronted by a wall mosque in Mehrauli Village, a neighbourhood in Delhi continuously inhabited for the past one thousand years. Amidst these gravestones stands a marble tomb marked with a kalamdan, a raised ridge, typical of graves belonging to males in medieval India. Continue reading

a travel guide to colonial delhi

If you have been to Delhi, India’s capital city, your memories of it would most likely comprise of evocative Sultanate and Mughal monuments. Monuments which are remnants of the multiple cities that flourished here over the past one thousand years.

But no one can deny the city’s most alluring charm, perhaps just a tad bit more than its monuments, is its dense green canopy. A veritable garden city, its broad leafy avenues transform into tunnels of foliage in the monsoons. Large roundabouts embellished with manicured lawns, regal palms, and flowering bushes punctuate the roads at short intervals; roads lined by whitewashed bungalows set amidst their own personal gardens. Expansive reserves called the ‘Ridge’ run wild with jungles. And then there are the countless parks laid out neatly around the city’s monuments and jogging tracts through dark forests.

What if I told you none of this greenery is indigenous to Delhi. That the green cover is the Britishers’ most visible legacy to the city which they made their capital from 12 December, 1911 to 15 August, 1947. Even the Ridge, which Delhiites take much pride in, is draped in the Vilayati Kikar, a Mexican species, planted by the British. Its deep roots kill off any competition, especially Delhi’s native trees. Continue reading

photo essay: sirhind, the lost atlantis of punjab

There was once a city called Atlantis, a Utopia which was both highly advanced and its people beautiful and wise. But then these very people became corrupted with their own might. Angered by this, the gods made the city disappear forever, never again to reappear.

Much like Plato’s fabled Atlantis, there was once a paradisaical Utopia nestled in the fertile Punjab plains in northern India. Strategically located halfway between Delhi and Lahore, it was wealthy and beautiful, decorated with some 360 mosques, gardens, tombs, caravansarais, and wells. It minted its own gold and copper coins, trade and industry flourished, and Sufi saints, artists and surgeons converged in its lanes, calling the city their home.

And like Atlantis, its wonders and fortunes disappeared overnight. Continue reading

india travel shot: shimla’s toy train

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Imagine—a cross between a train and a car, a rail motor car as it is called, hurtling over towering Roman arched bridges and through tunnels dug deep into dense rocky hills, past pristine forests and verdant valleys. 103 tunnels and 969 bridges to be exact, of which the world’s highest multi-arch gallery bridge is one. Every now and then it stops at quaint railway stations in little villages. Care for a bite?

The fantastical contraption in the image above, straight out of the pages of British Raj in India, is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site ‘Mountain Railways of India’ since 2008. No trip to Shimla could be deemed to be complete without the inclusion of a journey in it in the itinerary. Not 120 years ago. And not now. Continue reading

self-portrait: happy in spiti

Those of you who have been following my blog would be well aware that I rarely, if ever, post pictures of myself in my blog posts. The closest I get to is the inclusion of a photograph of my hand holding something I’d picked up at the site or that of my feet. There is neither a deep philosophical reason, nor an effort to create a sense of enigma, behind this. It is simply because I usually travel alone, and I am lousy at taking selfies.

So, when my driver offered to take a picture of me during a recent 15-day solo road trip though Kinnaur, Spiti and Lahaul, deep in the remote northern reaches of Himachal Pradesh, amongst the towering Himalayas, I jumped at it. It was a precious opportunity to make my joy whilst travelling to this part of the world achieve posterity. 🙂 Continue reading

narnaul: of all-powerful medieval nobles and incredible wealth

Is this really the work of human hands? That is all I could think as I gazed up at the magnificent rose-pink and dove-grey edifice towering above me. I was in the courtyard of a 12th century Sufi saint’s khanqah and the sight in front of me would not have changed much in the past five centuries. I whispered to myself, lest I break the spell with my own voice: See, how wrong you were!

I have a confession to make, Dear Reader.

When I was putting together my travel bucket list for India, I had decided to demarcate it State-wise. Next to Haryana, I wrote ‘nil’ which translated to: there was nothing to see. Almost as if to prove me wrong, and that too with a vengeance, I got to explore four of its towns in recent weeks, towns which overflowed with historicity, heritage, and charm.

The most recent was Narnaul. Over the course of the day, I traversed stunning monuments spanning a millennium: tombs, stepwells, havelis, gateways, and palaces. The sheer number, their grandeur, and remarkable state of preservation seemed to mock my ignorance. Continue reading

travel shorts: the taj of haryana

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In all likelihood, you have already been to the Taj Mahal in Agra. And most probably, also made your way to Bibi ka Maqbara in Aurangabad, often referred to as the ‘Taj of the Deccan’.

What if I tell you, there is one more marble-encased Taj, and that too in the rather understated state of Haryana. But with a difference. Unlike its two other counterparts, the ‘Taj in Haryana’, as it’s often called, is not an expression of a man’s deep devotion to his wife, but instead a tomb for a saint and teacher who passed away in 1660. Continue reading

the complete travel guide to the hidden gems of jhalawar

24 blog posts. 5 weeks of travel. A road trip of a lifetime.

What better way to end my Rajasthan series than with a travel guide on Jhalawar. Off the tourist radar, choc-o-bloc with hidden rarely-visited gems, and a laid-back vibe. It is screaming out to be explored. But since there is so little known or publicized about it, it ends up, unfortunately, getting sidelined, and fortunately [for the traveller] offers an opportunity to explore Rajasthan in a time-warped state. The way it used to be.

Here’s Jhalawar’s story and sights, written with valuable inputs from Mahijit Singh, the direct descendant of its Rajput rulers, who still lives in Jhalawar, in Virendra Bhawan. And guess what, his home is a homestay! But more of that later in the post.

Here’s wishing you happy travels in Jhalawar. 🙂 Continue reading

chittorgarh: stories of valour, jauhar, and gods

“I long not to visit Ganga Sagar, Rameshwar or Kashi. It is only for Chittor that my eyes are always thirsty.”

Rajasthan’s folklore and ballads are filled with mention of Chittorgarh. Take this one as well for instance:

“If there is a fort to be reckoned with, it is Chittorgarh. The rest are mere fortresses.”

It was not just the bastions, masonry, and structures these lines referred to, which were of course mighty, but also its men and women and their unshakable grit.

Considered one of Rajasthan’s most formidable forts, Chittorgarh was famous for its sophisticated military architecture, wealth, and heroic rulers. It served as Mewar’s capital from the dynasty’s founding in the 8th Century to 1553 when Udaipur was established, and continued to be used until Mewar became part of independent India.

Despite three sieges over 1,300 years, Mewar’s rulers always managed to regain control of it. Whilst most other Rajput kingdoms surrendered to the Mughals, Mewar and Chittorgarh stood firm. When it did go into an alliance it was, more often than not, on its own terms.

The fort complex, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, comprises seven city gates, 65 historical buildings, four palaces, 19 large temples and 20 water bodies [there were 84 back in its heyday to meet the needs of its 50,000-strong army for up to four years] spread over 700 acres, 590 feet above the ground. A village is enclosed within its walls since medieval times.

Let me take you on a virtual journey through Chittorgarh, filled with stories of valour, jauhar, and gods. 🙂 Continue reading

36 hours in alwar, the road less travelled

Have a long weekend coming up?

Alwar comes with the distinction of being one of India’s oldest cities, as well as the capital of one of Rajasthan’s newest Rajput kingdoms. Part of Delhi’s National Capital Region [NCR], it scores high on Delhiites’ weekend destination lists. For those travelling deep and wide in Rajasthan [as in my case], the town perched on Rajasthan’s eastern border offers a welcome, albeit last taste of the wonders the State is famed for.

Back in 1500 BC, Alwar was part of the Kingdom of Matsyadesh. According to the Hindu epic Mahabharata, this is where the Pandavas spent the last year of their 13-year exile incognito. As a Rajput kingdom, it was formed in 1770 by the Kachhwaha Rajput Pratap Singh.

Unlike Rajasthan’s other treasures, Alwar can appear somewhat bland at the outset. But, behind this front is a rich mix of travel experiences just waiting to be enjoyed.

So, I repeat my question. Got a long weekend coming up? Here’s how to make the most of it in Alwar, with one day devoted to its popular sights and unknown secrets, and one day for an excursion back in time. Happy travels. ❤ Continue reading