an urban monk’s guide to rishikesh and haridwar

Are you an urban monk? I am. Or at least that is how I perceive myself. Ok, that is how I like to perceive myself—not unlike many others who love the city life and its dynamic vibrancy but are equally at ease with spirituality, restraint, and minimalism. Is that not the new order? And when we go to places that are hubs of spirituality, well, we just tend to experience them a tad differently. 😀 Continue reading

photo essay: the hidden graffiti of rishikesh

What do “Across the Universe” by the Beatles, “TM Song” by Beach Boys, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” by Donovan, and “Jesus Children of America” by Stevie Wonder have in common?

Okay. Let me rephrase it. What do Transcendental Meditation, an Ashram on the foothills of the Himalayas, the top pop bands of the 1960s, and Canadian street artist ARTXPAN aka Pan have in common?

Gotcha! 😀

The most fascinating permutations and combinations are often revealed in the most hidden places. Like the street art decorating the ruins of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Ashram in Rishikesh where the Beatles spent the winter of 1968 in search of spirituality and came up with a whopping 48 songs, a bulk of which went into their “White Album.” Continue reading

india travel shot: hari ki dwar – doorway to god – haridwar

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How and why does one small patch of river and land spanning a mere few hundred metres become the holiest site in all of the country? The answer—faith. What else can explain the millions of Hindus from across the country who make the coveted pilgrimage to the brown placid waters of the River Ganges washing 2,100-year-old steps in a pilgrimage town nestled in the plains of Uttarakhand. Day and night. Hail or rain. Year after year. For thousands of years. Continue reading

8 reasons why golconda fort tops the hyderabad bucket list

Back from Hyderabad, the first thing I am invariably asked is:

“So you saw the Golconda Fort?”

It is almost a precondition to determine the authenticity of one’s journey to the city.

[Note: The other qualifiers are Charminar and Hyderabadi Biryani.]

After spending an entire day at the site, as well as part of the night, I figured it boiled down to 8 things which make the fort the magnum opus of Hyderabad. If you have a 9th, 10th, or 11th, please do share! 🙂

But first, some dates to put things in context:

1143 AD—Golconda Fort is first built as a mud fortification by the Kakatiya kings of Warangal.
1364 AD—The fort passes into the hands of the Bahmani Sultanate as part of a treaty.
1518 AD—Sultan Quli Qutb ul Mulk, founder of the Qutb Shahi dynasty makes the fort his capital. He and his descendants build the present stone structure.
1687 AD—Mughal emperor Aurangzeb annexes the kingdom [and fort] to his empire.
1724 AD—Asaf Jah, the first Nizam moves his capital to Hyderabad. The fort is left to the ravages of time. Continue reading

36 hours in hyderabad old city

My auto rickshaw driver chats away animatedly in impeccable Urdu as he navigates through the narrow by-lanes. We are on our way to the heart and soul of Hyderabad—Charminar and its immediate vicinity. It is 8 am and the old, still drowsy, historical, cultural, and commercial hub lined with shuttered shops is just about yawning itself awake.

Me: Dukaane kitne bajje khulte hai? [When do the shops open?]

Maqsood [the auto rickshaw driver]: Hyderabad nawaabo ka shahar hai. Nawaabi se uthte hai, phursat se kaam pe aate hai. 11 aur 12 ke baad le ke chalo. [Hyderabad is the city of nawaabs (Muslim ruling princes). They wake up at leisure and come to work at leisure. Say post 11 or 12 noon.]

And nope, there was no pun intended.

Despite the decades following its relinquishment of princely status in 1948, the city of Hyderabad, once capital of Hyderabad State and prior to that the Golconda Sultanate, still wears a veil of gentility. Of refined conversations and artistic sensibilities. The people are a little kinder. With all its love for bling and gold, the local lifestyles are a little simpler.

The unusual mix of an imported Islamic culture from Persia and Turkey into a distinctly Deccan geography and indigenous Telegu populace is responsible for Hyderabad’s rather unique identity. Continue reading

the forgotten qutb shahi royal tombs of hyderabad

The first thing I noticed about Hyderabad, a 400-year-old city on the banks of the River Musi in the Deccan, was the colour of its grass. It is a deep shamrock green awash with light. I had not seen such a green elsewhere in my travels.

I wonder if Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah, fifth ruler of the Qutb Shahi dynasty [also known as the Golconda Sultanate], felt the same way when he founded the city of Hyderabad way back in 1591. Did the green charm him as much as it did me?

Avid builders and equally avid poets, the Qutb Shahi dynasty was founded by Sultan Quli Qutb ul Mulk, Governor of Telangana under the Bahamani court. As was the norm back then of setting up sovereign states, once the last Bahamani ruler died followed with the disintegration of his empire, Quli Qutb ul Mulk declared Golconda an independent kingdom and himself its Sultan.

Builders of the gigantic Golconda Fort perched atop a hill, the iconic Charminar in the heart of Hyderabad’s Old City, and the nearby Mecca Masjid said to be built with bricks made of clay all the way from Mecca, the Qutb Shahis were Turkmen from Central Asia. Continue reading

global travel shot: the 6th nizam of hyderabad’s wardrobe

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When you are one of the richest men in the world, a ruler of a princely State where diamonds are measured in kilograms and pearls by acres, and have an obsession for fine clothes, lots of fine clothes—this is what your wardrobe looks like. 🙂 Continue reading

the walking sticks collection at salar jung museum, hyderabad

Have you ever been to a museum gallery dedicated to just walking sticks? Yup, you read me right—walking sticks. In all shapes and sizes, in cane, Malacca cane, wood, sandalwood, ivory, fish-bone, jade, glass, metal, and leather. Walking sticks with snuff boxes, and umbrellas and gupti [blades] inside. Where some handle heads are decorated with semi-precious stones, some lined with silver and gold, and others yet shaped as horse hooves, shoes, classical figurines, and the various inmates of an animal farm.

Bet you have not! 😀 Continue reading

#7 beyond the obvious: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

So, you’ve ticked off Agra’s major sights, the raison d’ĂȘtres for your visit. Or maybe it is your umpteenth time to the city. What now?

After marvelling at Agra’s treasures [listed from 1 to 6 in this series in no specific order] I wanted to experience yet more of it. Beyond the Agra the travel and history guides enthused about. And I was not disappointed. Digging and wandering through its centuries old lanes, having heartfelt conversations with its present residents, I saw sides of it which further justified its place in a traveller’s bucket list, equal to its more celebrated attractions. Don’t believe there is more to Agra than its UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Mughal masterpieces? Read on and be pleasantly surprised, like I was. 🙂

1. Dig into a Pay-What-You-Want meal at Cafe Sheroes Hangout

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#6 colossal sikandra: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

After getting all sentimental at Shah Jahan’s expression of love for his beloved, departed wife and marvelling at the artistic nuances of Nur Jahan’s token of devotion towards her doting parents, I am ready to be bowled over by Sikandra, Akbar’s tomb for his own self.

Here was a monument made by, and for, one of India’s greatest rulers—befitting his stature and achievements. I wondered what it was going to be like. Continue reading

#5 roman catholic taj mahals: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

Whilst Shah Jahan was building the Taj Mahal as an ode to his beloved wife, the European Christians in Agra were creating their own fairy-tale like mausoleums in a cemetery dating back to Akbar’s time. Not perhaps on the same scale, they are however, no less delightful in carved red sandstone, yellow basalt, and whitewashed plastered walls. These tombs in Agra’s Roman Catholic Cemetery are the resting places of initially the Armenian Christians in the 1600s and, thereafter, of other European Catholics in the city. Continue reading

#4 itimad-ud-daulah’s poetic tomb: 7 reasons why agra should be on every travel bucket list

There is no one more fascinating in Mughal history than the Persian father-daughter duo Mirza Ghias Beg and Mehr-un-Nissa. Posterity knows them as Itimad-ud-Daulah and Nur Jahan.

A classic tale of riches to rags and back to riches, Mirza Ghias Beg was a defamed nobleman from Tehran, Iran who decided to try and change his fortunes in 16th Century Mughal India. Robbed on his way, he reached Akbar’s court penniless, but was quick to rise the ranks to earn himself the title Itimad-ud-Daulah or Pillar of the State, and even become the grand vizier in Akbar’s successor, Jahangir’s court.

His daughter, meanwhile, was abandoned at birth by her parents, fraught with poverty, in Qandahar, Afghanistan on 31 May, 1577 on their way to India. She was returned to their home the same night by a stranger who decided to take the family under his wing.

Beautiful, fearless, hot-tempered with nerves of steel, she fell in love with Jahangir, the Emperor Akbar’s son when she was eight years of age. But it was only after a 14-year bad marriage—widowed, 34, and with a child—that she re-entered his life to become his 20th and last wife in 1611. He bestowed upon her the title Nur Jahan, Light of the World. In the ensuing years, Jahangir spent his life intoxicated by opium and alcohol, smitten by her beauty and brains. She, on the other hand, became the most powerful woman in Mughal history and ruled the empire for 16 years from behind the veil. Continue reading