the spectacular treasures of samarkand

Registan, Samarkand

We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known,
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

~ James Elroy Flecker

One cannot claim to be a traveller, and not have made the journey to Samarkand. Or at least have thought of it, fantasised about it. It would be blasphemy.

Samarkand is everything the traveller searches for, within and outside of oneself. It reveals secrets about life held gently amidst its spectacular edifices in blue and gold. The romantic exotic tile-clad mosques, madrasahs, tombs, bazaars and squares transpose one back 500 years in time to a grand fairy-tale city, deep in arid windswept Central Asia. On a philosophical note, Samarkand is the semi-mythological place of “justice, fairness, and righteousness” in Islamic Classical literature.

Much like Flecker’s reference to it, a lust for knowing more about ourselves and these ideals, makes the passage to Samarkand one of those non-negotiable, mandatory journeys one just has to take. 🙂 Continue reading

why tashkent needs to be in your travel bucket list

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I bet you never thought of Tashkent as a candidate for your travel bucket list. Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand in Uzbekistan—of course. But Tashkent? It’s the administrative centre. Aren’t capital cities of historically rich countries drab and dry in comparison? Well, at least that is the assumption we most often live with. A fair enough one, for they often are so, serving as entry and exit points for air travel, or are confined to business and politics.

But some are a bit more. Tashkent is one of them. Now I am not saying it is steeped in history or burgeoning with attractions like the rest of the country. You may well be disappointed if you expect too much. You may even get cross with me for my recommendation. 🙂

Known as Tashkent or Toshkent, meaning ‘Stone City’ since the 11th Century, it is a showcase of ‘modern Uzbekistan’, a sparsely populated country proud of both its rich heritage and recent independence in 1991. Continue reading

shakhrisabz, warlord tamerlane aka temur the lame’s hometown

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The grandeur of the Ak-Saray Palace and the simplicity of his own intended tomb—both in Shakhrisabz—perhaps best describe Amir Temur the person, better known as Tamerlane [Temur, the lame]. Complex, multi-faceted, termed history’s most callous butcher, conqueror of southern, western and central Asia, he was the founder of the Timurid dynasty, and the great-great-great-grandfather of Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire in India. He lived from 1336 – 1405 AD.

Ahmad ibn Arabshah, Temur’s Arab biographer, had to say this of him when the latter was 70 years old:

“Steadfast in mind and robust in body, brave and fearless, firm as rock. He did not care for jesting or lying; wit and trifling pleased him not; truth, even were it painful, delighted him … He loved bold and valiant soldiers, by whose aid he opened the locks of terror, tore men to pieces like lions, and overturned mountains. He was faultless in strategy, constant in fortune, firm of purpose and truthful in business.”

Continue reading

top 15 memorable things to do in bukhara

Bukhara is the third stop on my journey to Samarkand in Uzbekistan.

Whilst Khiva is a compact fairy-tale town enclosed in medieval walls, Bukhara is scattered, both geographically and thematically, as well as bigger: There is the marketplace, learning and spiritual hub, royal grounds, and necropolis. If one is not aware of its various facets, it is easy to give some of them a slip.

And hey, Bukhara does not come into our lives every day. So here are my top 15 things to do in Bukhara, a World Heritage Site, and why I chose to put them in this list. If you have any that you feel merit a place, please do share. 🙂

1. Get up close and personal with Nasreddin Hodja, the Islamic world and Bukhara’s most loved trickster

bukhara_nasreddinhodja Continue reading

khiva: pearl of the great silk road and khanate of khiva

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Khiva. The very word conjures up a vision of towering minarets and ancient mosques clustered together in a small, medieval, walled town in the midst of golden desert sands. Don’t you agree? The reality, even after centuries, is no different.

I arrived at this mystical city—tired, dusty, hungry—after a long day’s drive through the expanse of Khorezm, the Zoroastrian viloyet of Uzbekistan. As I opened my hotel bedroom window, distracted with memories of forts and dakhmas, a dusk-dappled Khodja Minaret, a mere stone’s throw away from my room, welcomed me to its home. It was one of those Aah-ah moments which I guess I will keep with me all my life. 🙂 The reason I had travelled miles to cover this journey washed over me. I smiled back at the minaret, and whispered “Rahmat [Thank you].” Continue reading

volunteering diaries: a pan-indian carrom board match in mother teresa’s hospice

As India gears up for Daan Utsav, the national Joy of Giving Week festival held from 2 to 8 October, this year has a special significance for me. In my role as a volunteer with the festival’s Mumbai chapter, I organize various events of giving for the week. A handful of them are usually held at the housing complex I live in. And guess what, this year one of the events is centred around donating groceries and spending a morning at the Mother Teresa and Missionaries of Charity’s Home for the Destitute here in Mumbai!

If you wondering what’s so special about this, well, it is a reason for me to revisit some rather magical personal memories.

Some time ago I had spent an afternoon, just like the upcoming one on 5 October, volunteering at Mother Teresa’s hospice for the sick, destitute and dying in Kolkata. It was one of the most beautiful days of my life. A day I would like share with you today in my blog. 🙂 Continue reading

zoroastrian khorezm: the ancient viloyat of uzbekistan

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A journey to Samarkand is about medieval mythical cities and ancient forts going as far back as 500 years before Christ. First Zoroastrian, followed by Islamic, the sites still stand in all their glory today—many restored, others in ruins. But in spite of this, the journey is not just about geographies, edifices or time. It is to the grandeur within us. But that, I hope, will become clearer as my blog post series on Uzbekistan unfolds. 🙂

I started in Nukus. You may well ask why Nukus for it is not the usual starting point. Well, my answer is: It is the western most city, has the finest collection of historical and cultural artefacts at its State Art Museum Savitsky Collection thereby offering a splendid introduction to the country, and is the most low key in the circuit. Everything only gets more fantastical from here onwards.

Nukus also lies on the outskirts of Khorezm [or Khwarezm or Chorasmia (Persian)]—an oasis, the site of an ancient civilization by the same name, and now a province. Continue reading

the golden journey to samarkand

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[I traveled to Uzbekistan for 11 days in September 2015. My below post first appeared as a travelogue in Hindustan Times, one of the largest newspapers in India, in both its print and online editions. The online edition can be read here. The post remains a personal favourite, and I wanted to share it with you. 🙂 ]

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‘Ishani!’ I can feel scores of eyes bore into me. There is the blatant stare, the questioning glance, the shy surreptitious gaze. They are all invariably accompanied with the word ‘Ishani’ whispered in hushed tones. The wide-cheek-boned faces soon, thereafter, break into warm welcoming grins and I hear the magical word again, ‘Ishani’. Aah, I get it. It’s a greeting! Ishani to you too, my dear.

I have just arrived in Nukus, a remote, Russian-ised town in north-west Uzbekistan where I am to start my 11-day journey across a country I have dreamt about, bucket listed and hankered to visit since I read the poem The Golden Journey to Samarkand by James Elroy Flecker:

“We are the Pilgrims, master: we shall go
Always a little further …
White on a throne or guarded in a cave
There lives a prophet who can understand
Why men are born.”

Continue reading

photo essay: marrakech, stories told and untold

Marrakech is my last stop as I travel through Morocco.

What could be a better way as well, to end my Moroccan series, than a blog post on the city after which the whole country was once named.

From medieval times right until its independence, Morocco was known as the Kingdom of Marrakech. Till date, in both Persian and Urdu, the word for Morocco is Marrakech.

Whichever nickname you choose to refer to it by—Red City, the Ochre City, or the Daughter of the Desert—Marrakech brims with stories. But a little more than the usual. Some told and recounted again and again through guide books and travellers’ words. Some a little less obvious. Did you know, even the UNESCO-listed status for its vast medieval square, Djemaa el-Fna, is based on its oral traditions of story-telling. 😊

A tradition which goes back a thousand years. To 1070 AD to be exact. Continue reading

top 15 memorable things to do in fes, morocco’s cultural and spiritual capital

Fes.

It was everything I’d imagined it to be, and more.

When travellers claim no journey to Morocco is truly complete without a halt in the Kingdom’s oldest imperial city, it is no hogwash.

Fiercely spiritual and traditional. A centre for learning with the world’s oldest university. Yet fearless when it comes to voicing contradictory ideas.

Here the arts and crafts thrive, unhindered and unadulterated, as they have for 1,200 years. At the peak of the Almohad empire in the 12th Century AD, Fes had 372 mills, 9,082 shops, 47 soap factories, and 188 pottery workshops. But Fes is also politically voracious.

Its nine thousand alleyways are notorious as a place guaranteed to get lost in. Even locals claim they stick to the lanes they are familiar with.

Enigmatic and mysterious, it has secrets it does not divulge to the casual feet and eye. Continue reading

the 5 untold cultural treasures of rabat, morocco’s medieval and modern capital city

I fell in love with Rabat at first sight.

Sophisticated, Mediterranean, with a world-class museum and gallery, Morocco’s capital city is a breath of fresh air in a country otherwise steeped in romantic orientalism. Whitewashed Art Deco buildings vie with an ultramarine blue sky for attention here. Street-side cafes serve delectable tagines and kebabs accompanied with steaming cups of cafe nous nous.

Faced with the exotic wonders of Morocco further ahead, not many travellers break their journey in Rabat. What does a capital city have to offer in comparison to the enigmatic imperial cities of Fez and Marrakesh, and the wild call of the Atlas Mountains and sweeping dunes of the Sahara Desert?

The answer is: A different kind of Moroccan experience. Continue reading

meknes: the story of a bloodthirsty sex-addict sultan and his beloved imperial city

“Green is the sweetest colour; white is a good sign for those appealing to him; but when he is dressed in yellow, all the world trembles and flees his presence, because it is the colour that he chooses on the days of his bloodiest executions.”
~ Dominique Busnot, Histoire Du Regne de Moulay Ismail, Roi de Maroc (1704)

Once upon a time lived a Sultan in Morocco who loved his imperial city called Meknes with every fibre of his being. The 55 years he reigned, the longest by any Moroccan Sultan, were spent building gates, mosques, madrassas, palaces and gardens in it, each more magnificent than the other. When he died, aged 82 in 1727 AD, he had one of the most beautiful mausoleums ever built in the Kingdom made to house his corpse.

A slender man of medium height, a long face and dark skin [his mother was an African slave], he was the 2nd ruler of the Alaouite Kingdom. His name was Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif aka the Warrior King of Morocco.

Apart from Meknes, if there was anything else Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif loved—it was women, and sex. A lot more than the ordinary. Better known as the Sultan who had 10 wives, 500 concubines, and 1,171 children, his 700th son was born just after his death. His 10th wife was an Irishwoman by the name of Mrs. Shaw. He also proposed to his contemporary, Louis XIV’s, daughter. He was quite smitten by her charm and beauty. However, she declined.

The other two things he is still remembered for, nearly three hundred years after his death, are his cruelty and his army of Black Guards. Continue reading