Monday, September 26, 2016

Flying with British Airways


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Airlines lately have been investing quite a lot on advertising, don’t you agree? Earlier I remember seeing only Qantas ads on TV but off late Emirates, Lufthansa, Air Maldives and god knows how many other airlines have started to promote their services through ads. British Airways too launched a big campaign recently and that campaign really caught my attention – remember the Fueled by Love and Go Further to Get Closer ads? Emotional right? Also, surprisingly, when I checked their rate till Seattle, they were almost 5-10K cheaper than other flights and had the least amount of layover.


Happy and emotional – I booked my first ever British Airways flight! The minute I booked my flight from the British Airways site, I was extremely happy about not much added tax to the original price, but what made my day was the baggage allowance. They allowed two standard 23 kg bags and one laptop bag also upto 23 kg initially, but since I was travelling on an F-1 visa I got additional 23 kg for baggage and 23 kg more for cabin – (do the math) total luggage of 92 kg at absolutely no additional cost! Tell me which flight would give you that? On the day on my flight, the ground officials impressed me right away. They were fast, methodical and efficient, but they were also very warm and understanding. At the check-in counter, when they noticed my other cabin bag was also a heavy one (18 instead of 23 kg) and hat I had a flight change at London Heathrow, they actually asked me if I wished to check-in that cabin bag as well (which I did). And after that I had a tiny laptop bag to lug around and was free to explore all the airports I went to! Very accommodating and understanding right?


Overall Experience


Now comes the true story of the flight. Economy class, window seat, all-nighter flight to London – I was so scared that I would get no sleep since I decided to not get my neck pillow. But the minute I saw the seat I was in a zen mode to be frank – the seats looked so comfortable compared to the ones of the other international flights I have taken till date! The seats had a soft and shaped headrest and we were given good pillows and blankets (yes they were good so needed to be mentioned). I also managed to keep my laptop bag in front of my seat and still had pretty good amount of leg space to sleep comfortably for 5 hours during my 9 hours’ flight. Of course compared to the Business Class World Traveller Class (my section) had less leg space but it made the journey anything but uncomfortable.




Food


And after people settled in the flight and we were well above the ground started the continuous service of food and drinks! Continuous because it seemed like it went on and on till we reached London and then it was the same scenario from London to Seattle. Being a Hindu Brahmin, I do have some peculiar restriction on food and which I follow ardently, hence I had pre ordered Hindu Meal from the various options British Airways provided us with on their site – which by the way has too many options to choose from! Since my meal was pre ordered it was served separately and before the other meals, but here came the big disappointment. Quantity of the food did not cover up the not so good quality of the food. Maybe after having some amazing meal on my last international flight, my standard for in flight food has gone higher and BA food didn’t even come close on the first flight. But luckily it got way better on the second flight and we were served rice with baby corn and paneer(cottage cheese) curry which finally made me happy again.


In-Flight Entertainment


The in-flight magazines are not really great but the video service makes up for it big time. From prime time shows to football matches to some amazing movies, it has a lot of options and almost all are really good. I was kind of spoilt for choice during my second flight when I decided to not sleep and enjoy some movies and it literally took me 20 mins to narrow down to two movies. And of course I saw football later – so I was at peace!





Hospitality
In terms of hospitality, British Airways scores a century, clear one. The in flight crew is friendly and very accommodating. But well guess that is with almost every airline, still I am going to give them full credits for making me feel so welcomed and like a VIP when I wasn’t even a business class flyer.
Overall experience with British Airways was quite good – If I forget the food, the in-Flight magazine and the display and confusion at Terminal 5 at Heathrow was a big fiasco – not really BA’s fault but still.




Quick Tips:
·        If you have light sleep and need leg space, I would suggest getting an upgrade.
·        Food isn’t great but it is still better to order your food online if you have some particular diet – they have a lot of options.
·        Check-in even your cabin bag if you don’t need it much. It would let you move around freely in between flights, and of course be a big relief during any fiasco at gates of the airport. (I was glad I did it)


Have you guys travelled with BA? How was your experience? Do let me know in the comments below. 


Sunday, September 18, 2016

Heritage Walk - Ahmedabad


History and photography enthusiasts in the old city side of Ahmedabad
Old buildings, cluttered alleys, cobbled pathways, narrow roads leading everywhere and seemingly nowhere and a lot of smiles greeting you along your way. Does the place sound fascinating? But it totally is! One doesn’t get on the UNESCO Heritage City List for no Reason right?

Wooden doors and their charms
Ahmedabad isn’t one of the oldest cities of India but is definitely one of those cities which has preserved its old charms and is moving on with time without letting go of its heritage. A couple of weeks back, I was in Ahmedabad and decided to go for its famous heritage walk, which apparently is the oldest heritage walk in India, started by Ahmadabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) and CRUTA Foundation ages ago.

The oldest Swaminarayan Temple, Kalupur
The walk starts from a 200-year-old Swami Narayan Temple in Kalupur which greets you with hordes of people praying and rushing to the temple even at 8 ‘o clock in the morning. The first look of the old walled city leaves you mesmerized and wanting for more! The walk starts with a slide show on the city and that is when I found out that the temple was actually build in 1822 and was pleasantly surprised at how well preserved the monastery area was.

Kavi Dalpatram's statue
From there you move on to Kavi Dalpatram Chowk where you can see the fa├žade of the old house of the famous 19th century Gujarati poet Dalpatram who resided there and a life size statue of his with complete details like – the Kathiawar embroidery kurta, one shoe on one shoe on the ground, a thick book and wrinkled hands and a pen in his hand with a pensive look on. People of the area respect the Poet and call the statue – statue of Dada and his house and the chowk are used by locals as a common hang out place.

Wooden houses of the pols
Next stop, rather stops were all the Pols. Pols are community societies where people belonging to the same community chose to stay in one area. Ahmadabad, though was founded by Sultan Ahmed Shah in 1411 A.D., unlike the other sultanate dynasties of India – the Kingdom was known to be the most lenient Islamic state of the time and the pols are a proof of that. The number of Hindu and Jain temples will make you forget that the area was actually an Islamic state.

Artistic wooden brackets and doors
The architecture of the houses of the pols are also so different even after belonging to pretty much the same time. But the most striking feature of almost all houses are the wooden brackets and entrances. Ahmadabad had a lot of rich merchants and rich families as citizens in its initial days who could afford wooden houses (considered a luxury at that time) and hence most of the houses in these pols are wooden and as wooden houses give you more scope of going artsy, the doors and pillars and pillar brackets were carved. A friend of mine had warned me to no go crazy clicking the brackets of the houses, but I did just that. The brackets tell you which community the house belonged to, which style of architecture the house was inspired from and of course they are colourful and beautiful.

Badashah no Hajiro
As you go ahead you come across Badashah no Hajiro which is the tomb of Ahmed Shah and Rani no Haziro which is tomb of his queen. Though people have kept the haziros pretty well maintained, the close by areas are market places now due to which the courtyards are dirty and the market space is almost encroaching the structures.

One of the many bird feeders
The walk goes from Pols to Pols, you pass many direction posts that tell you the direction of the drainage lines, you pass bird feeders at almost every chowk and guess what – you pass many hidden ways from one Pol to another! Does the place sound fascinating enough now?

Jama Masjid
The walk ends with the visit to Jama Masjid which is one of the rarest mosques you would see in the world, in terms of architecture. The masjid has no domes and the minarets of the masjid were destroyed in an earthquake in 1819. While the main masjid has all elements of a mosque, the interiors and exterior carvings have many Hindu and Jain architectural elements, but well there is so much about the masjid that it would take an entire article just to tell you about it.
Teen Darwaza - One of the remaining gates of the old walled city.
Personally I felt the heritage walk is the perfect way to explore old Ahmedabad and would recommend all history and architecture buffs to do this at least once – you won’t be disappointed at all! The heritage walk is conducted by AMC every Sunday from 8-10:30 AM (except Diwalis) at a nominal charge of 50 INR. And good news for people who have less time, or won’t be around till weekends and still want to do this – AMC is soon coming up with a mobile application that would give you the heritage walk route and more information around it so that you are still able to go around the place without the guided tour!
Guess you know one thing you just have to do when in Ahmedabad now.

To Get the App - Click Here!
P.S.
Timings of the Walk - 8:00 to 10:30 AM, Every Sunday except Diwalis
Starting Point - Kalupur Swami Narayan Temple. Ask around for Heritage Walk office to get the tickets.
Cost - INR 50 for SAARC Nationals, other INR 100. Carry Identification Proof.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

5 Places in India I Wish Photography was Allowed

Last week, a friend of mine wrote an article on Mysore, India and that article brought back some bitter sweet memories of the place. While I absolutely loved the town, I did have a bit of bad experience while exploring Mysore Palace because even though photography is prohibited there, I just couldn’t resist clicking pictures of the interiors the beautiful palace and an official tracked me down due to CC TV footage and, very rudely, deleted the 3 pictures I had taken of the peacock room. That article and this memory is the reason behind todays' article. Here are five places in India where I wish photography was allowed – mostly for the place itself – and where banning photography makes absolutely no sense.

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1.   Mysore Palace, Karnataka
The majestic palace and the quirky, colourful and symmetric interiors of the palace are a delight for any photographer. Even after paying an entry fee to explore the palace, to not get a chance to click the interiors is a shame. Of all the places I would list in this article, Mysore palace was the only one where I couldn’t resist breaking the rule and clicking some pictures because the corridors are that brilliant. And to have something that amazing in India and not promote the actual beauty of the place didn’t make sense to me at all. Nor are the colours photosensitive, nor is the place jewelled heavily throughout, then why would you restrict photography inside the palace, especially the corridors? What exactly are they hiding or protecting? This question has puzzled me for quite some time but no answer has made sense to me till date.

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2.  Dilwara Temples, Rajasthan
Have you seen Ranakpur temple? If not, no worries, if yes – imagine an older, grander and more detailed version of it. That is Dilwara. Exquisite, delicate, intricate carvings with white marble. between the 11th and 13th centuries AD, Dilwara temples’ complex, in Mount Abu, is a one of its kind gem of Indian architecture. The detailing in every part of the temples – roof, pillars, statues – everything will leave you spellbound and make you wonder how much hard work and dedication has gone into making them. But all the work is for your eyes only and the amazement a fading memory after the visit. Photography is strictly prohibited in the complex. You get postcards and printed photos of the entire complex outside the area, where you can buy them to strengthen your memory, but you just can’t click pictures. Apparently photography here was permitted till late 90’s but not anymore.  Does the photography restriction make sense to you now? It never made sense to me! The temples have Islamic domed roofs – extremely ordinary looking, to save them from Muslim invaders attacks back in time. They were threatened at some point in the history? Are they still in danger? Maybe yes, of vanishing in pages of time, because surprisingly a lot of people don’t even know about them still. Wont photography help in such crisis?

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3.  Kalahasti Temple, Tamil Nadu
Okay agreed, South India has crazy number of restrictions in almost all its temples; many have the photography restriction too, and people don’t question them. Then why was I disappointed with Kalahasti having a photography ban? Because it made no sense. The temple is old and grand and not very well known. From outside it is almost lost in the main road thanks to the long stretch of shops selling temple stuff. But when I entered the temple, I was pleasantly surprised by the clear carving on black stone and the spacious, thought for layout of the temple. Similar to Kanchipuram temple – where photography is allowed in the corridors, Kalahasti also is a photogragher’s paradise, but alas – no photos! I am not saying allow us to click the deity, but just the place, so that people know of this wonderful place and make an effort to visit it while visiting Tirupathi temple.


4.  Chattia Jagannath Temple, Odisha
Okay, seriously I feel Odisha Tourism needs to do something around photography restriction that is there almost everywhere in Odisha. Unless it manages to do something, no matter the number of campaigns, tourism wont thrive! Anyhow, this particular temple – have you even heard of it? What if I tell you this is the oldest Kalki Avatar (the last avatar of Lord Vishnu) Temple in India and that it is the most important Jagannath Temple in Odisha after the main Jagannath Temple in Puri. Surprised? The temple itself, though is very old, is repainted every two years and kept as new as possible. The roofs and the walls of the temple have stories of all the tem avatars of Lord Vishnu in traditional painting style (the one you would find on Patachittra). The temple is also easy to find as it is just off the highway near Jajpur (Close to Cuttack, Odisha). But guess what even after all this, the place is not known to many other than the locals. Wouldn’t photography help bring the place some much needed limelight? Weirdest part about the temple, I was allowed to click pics of whatever I could see from just outside the gate. The guard actually told me – “Click from there. If you step even an inch inside the premises of the temple I will break your camera.” You get the disappointment now, right?

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5.  Akshardham Temple, Gujarat
Not allowing photography in the main shrine makes complete sense, anywhere – but what about around the place? Akshardham of Ghandhinagar, Gujarat is one of the most brilliant modern temple structures I have seen till date, but Unfortunately have no pictures of the area, because well photography is prohibited. I guess the photography ban in the area was imposed after the terrorist attacks on the temple, not really sure about it. But whatever maybe the reason – not being able to keep a physical memory of the place in form of a picture was heart breaking.

Have you been to some place where photography was prohibited and it just broke your heart or got to your nerves? Let me know in the comments below.



Saturday, September 3, 2016

Ganesha Is Coming!


Ganapati Bappa Morya!
Ganesh Chaturthi is just round the corner and this is the time when Mumbai, actually entire Maharashtra celebrates life and happiness with Gannu Baba aka Ganesha. Being a resident of Mumbai, this time of the year, even I become a total Marathi and am busy in some Ganesh Pandal or one would find me pandal hopping in the less famous pandals of Mumbai. But somehow, this year my wanderlust soul managed to take me away from Maharashtra.

Scenes from Mumbai
Yes, I was sad I would miss my last Ganesh Utsav pomp and show before my big move (stay tuned to know what it is) and sad not because I wasn’t in Mumbai this weekend but because I thought Ganesh Utsav was only a big deal in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. But Ganesha is kind and well loved by all!  I am in Gujarat right now, a place where I spent 10 years of my life and never saw  the craze of Ganesh Utsav. The very same state is all set to welcome Ganesha with the same enthusiasm as of Mumbai!

Ganesha in Gujarat
I landed in Ahmadabad in the morning and from there I don’t even remember how many Ganesha Artists and stores I have seen till now. And not just statues, decoration centres and Pandals! And not just Ahmadabad, Ganesha kept me company even in a small town called Patan. Talking to people around, I found out that Ganesh Utsav has become a huge deal in Gujarat in the last 10 years. I also found an old lady in Patan who told me “Gujarati badha parva khub mann thi manave” – Gujaratis celebrate every festival with a lot of passion. She gave examples of Rath Yatra and Ghanghor which aren’t Gujarati festivals, but are so famous in Ahmadabad that news channels always cover these festivals here as well. And it is so true – I have seen non ethenic festivals also being celebrated here with full fervor.

Patan's version of Lalbaugcha Raja
But one thing that kept bothering me even here, (it has always bothered me during Ganesh Utsav) most statues were made of Plaster of Paris. Festivals do get people close and inculcate a feeling of kindness and togetherness in people but at the same time they have become hazardous to environment. And I was pleasantly surprised in Patan. While I was strolling around the town clicking pictures a shopkeeper told me – “Aamari karigari pan jowo ne” (Do check out our work). Some statues in his shop were just like the other – grand, vibrant and made of POP, but most of the statues were a bit different and not very fine but had the glaze none the less. On asking him about the other statues he said – “Aa amari maati nu che, jem pan che, saras ach lage ne?” – This is made up of our soil. However weird it may look it is still beautiful, right? Just the term maati brought a smile to my face.

So many Ganeshas!
Turned out, he and his brother were potters and they had started making Ganesha Idols of clay six years back. He said we do get a few POP idols from Ahmadabad just to make some money but we encourage locals to take our eco-friendly idols by giving them out at comparatively cheaper rates. He also said the most crooked ones are by village kids and women and they sell them or atleast buy them from the makers to help their village. 

Clay Ganesha with Chuna Paint Overcoat
When I asked him why do they not sell just POP idols since that is where they generate required revenue, he replied – “Ame kumbhar che ne, amne maati no mol khabar che” – We are potters and we know the value of Earth. He said he wished in a couple of years he didn’t have to sell POP statues anymore, ever and I could only smile and feel the change coming.

The better kind of Statues

I wish we all realize what he wanted to say and celebrate life and joy with Ganesha in a very eco-friendly way. Festivals are for togetherness, happiness and kindness – let’s try to be kind to Nature too!

Last minute touch!

Friday, August 26, 2016

Experience of Kaas Plateau in Mumbai

The faint greens and pinks of the wild at Pandavkheda 
Agar kisi cheez ko dil se chaaho to puri kaayanat usey tumse milane ki koshish mein lag jaati hai...
(If you really want something, the universe tries to get it for you)
Wondering why I started with this famous dialogue of SRK?


Wilderness and its charms! Can you spot the woolly caterpillars?
Well, last year I planned the trip to Kaas Plateau twice during this time of the year and the plans didn’t pan out. This year I had no time to even plan the trip and half the people I know were going there this weekend or are planning to visit Kaas next weekend. Wild flowers, carpeted earth, greens and blues and purples and I would none of that for at least another year or two. I was kind of sad till the last weekend but not anymore! The universe got me Kaas or something similar in Mumbai! We often fail to see things that are there right in our backyard and I certainly felt like this after my weekend experience.


Where there are flowers there are butterflies
Last weekend I decided to visit Sanjay Gandhi National Park after ages. A small left turn on the busy western express highway near Borivali, and it is like you have left Mumbai far behind. No trave of the concrete jungle and wilderness takes over your mind. Dense forest, tree canopies and hidden pristine streams lead you to a set of 3rd century CE caves – Kanheri Caves and that is where I was up for a pleasant surprise. 


There are big ones and then there are tiny flowers
As you go up crossing the levels of caves you see the green overgrowth on the caves turning pink and at the 3rd level (the topmost level) of the caves the hill almost becomes like plateau and is layered with purple, pink and blue balsams (Impatiens). The whole are seems like a carpet woven by nature – green throughout and designed with colourful floral patterns. 


So many of these around near Kanheri Caves
Windy mountain top, light showers yet butterflies fluttering around in scores over the wildflowers, occasionally resting on some nearby shrub which is laden with bright yellow flowers. You can see plenty of woolly bear caterpillars languidly moving around the wet short grass and be surprised by the popping antennas of red crabs scurrying away.


At both the sites you can see arrays of pink and purple balsams
That was just one day. Then I visited the lesser known Pandavkheda area of Kharghar, Mumbai. Long easy hike from the driving range just behind the golf course and you are in constant company or pink and yellow grass flowers. As and how the height changes and if you are lucky, you can spot many exotic tropical flowers in this region. 


Do you notice wildflowers? 
Purple bell flowers and Purpurascens were pretty much everywhere but then I spotted a patch of Glory Lilies or Flame Lilies – quirky, beautiful, poisonous flame like flowers and I knew I have had my mini Kaas like experience this weekend.


One of the most exotic tropical wildflowers - Glory Lily.  Did you know Glory lily, though poisonous, is used in a lot of medicines and is the state flower of Tamil Nadu and National Flower of Zimbabwe? 
True, Kaas is vast and more overwhelming visually, but this weekend made me realize Mumbai is no less. If my words were not enough, these pictures must have definitely given you a glimpse the green Mumbai I saw during my last weekend trails!


The greens and the pinks of a different sort this time.
Have you experienced something amazing like this in some local area? Do let me know in the comments below.

P.S. - About Kaas Plateau
Kaas Plateau in Maharashtra is bio diversity hotspot which is called as the valley of flowers of the south. Located at a distance of 25km from Satara – 280km from Mumbai, this plateau is covered with about 500+ species of flowering plants in full bloom during the month of August and September every year. This area also became a UNESCO World Heritage Site some years back.

Let the grass bloom, for it is its season to glow

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Friday, August 19, 2016

Ghats of Narmada – Omkareshwar


India is country where faith has become a nascent part of people’s lives. There might be no place in the country where one won’t find a temple around. While secularism is an integral part of India, its faith foundation can be traced back to the foundation of Hinduism and temple towns of Bharat. One such old town is Omkareshwar.


At about an hour’s distance from Indore, Omkareshwar seems like a crowded small town that has grown in random unprecedented way over time and is now a block of crisscrossed dusty pavements with centres of faith at every other corner but it has one of the twelve ancient Jyotirings of the world that hold great importance in Hindu scriptures. A Jyotirling is believed to be a place where a proper ‘shiv linga’ had occurred naturally and recognized by sages of the time to hold incessant power and spiritual aura. Omkareshwar, or the river Island that houses the Jyotirling, however is believed to be created by the power of penance of Sage Mandhata and the shiv ling occurred there as a result of the power of his devotion and as the centre point of his spiritual power but then split in half when the sage doubted his penance.


Obviously it is all about stories and mythologies but with them grew faith and with faith grew this place and became what it is today. Now Omkareshwar is a pilgrim centre, smaller than the close by town – Ujjain, but equally sacred to the believers of Shiva. When you enter the town, all you see is lodges and tea/sweet stalls with boiling badam (almonds and cashews) milk at the entrance. A small bus-stand and a lot of people asking you to take a boat from the Ghat greet you in the vehicle free town. A little ahead is the Gomukh Ghat of Narmada that joins the mainland to the temple island. The Ghat is where you see the might of Narmada flowing through the deep gorge created by erosion of the old volcanic rocks of the Omkareshwar island, the towering temple of Omkareshwar and the reason why this place is named after lord Shiva (the shape of the island is like an Om)


The place as such is simple and doesn’t have much. A long lane of flower vendors, a 3 level temple with around 150 steps or so, the main Linga in a cage, a couple of other smaller shrines and a long queue of devotees. Close buy is an old fort and the village where the flower vendors and the priests reside. Yes, not much right? But it is the Narmada and the aura of the place that is undeniably captivating. I spent the whole evening at the top of the temple observing the beautiful sunset over the dangerous looking but calm river, the busy ghat, the last lot of the boats to the temple, some devotees still crossing the bridge to the island – another way to the temple, and the priests preparing for the evening arti.



Don’t know how much and what power these religious places hold but the whole experience of finding the calm and quiet at dusk, observing everything around and hearing the drums of the arti, created a different kind of silence and was something that made me believe in the aura of the place. God or no god, belief or no belief – Omkareshwar gave me an evening to remember.