Acquainted, Finally: Degree Coffee In Kumbakonam

The last, long weekend saw us in Kumbakonam, Tamilnadu, to honour certain long-standing religious commitments. And, while in Kumbakonam, how could we not stop and smell the coffee… er, the degree coffee.. and drink our fill of it, too? That is how this dream of mine got crossed off my bucket list, finally.

Do check out a detailed account of our experience with the famed Kumbakonam degree coffee, here. Thanks!

A Walk Through RK Narayan’s House In Yadavgiri, Mysore

I hope you have been reading and enjoying the stories from our recent trip to Mysore. Please do hop on to my other blog to read the next instalment from the trip – a visit to RK Narayan’s Mysore house. Happy visiting!

If you haven’t already, do check out my other posts about Mysore!

Chocolate paan, from Mysore, with love

Of eating mysorepak straight from its place of origin

Notes from a sort of dosa trail in Mysore

Jil Jil… Jigarthanda

One of my long-standing wishes came true on our recent trip to Trichy, for Madame Bubboo’s mundan – to taste jigarthanda. I have been intrigued by it and wanting to try it, ever since I read about it a few years ago. Sucker for experimenting and trying different, unique-sounding things, that’s me, yes! The OH has, thankfully, been bitten by the same bug too, lately. 🙂

When the OH and I spotted shops in Trichy selling jigarthanda, we couldn’t resist but halt at one and order a glass. I know Trichy isn’t the best place to have a jigarthanda – Madurai is – but I don’t know when we will be going to Madurai, if at all we go. Plus the Trichy version looked good enough, and we only wanted to sample the stuff. We were in for a pleasant surprise! It tasted lovely!

For the uninitiated, jigirthanda is a Madurai-special cool drink, made out of milk, edible almond-tree gum and Nannari (sarsarilla) syrup. It is somewhat similar to falooda in appearance, with bits of the resin floating around in the milk. Most commonly, a scoop of ice cream is added to the glass. Thick and chilled, it is supposed to soothe parched throats in the hot summer months, and is easily available at street-side stalls in Madurai, also found to lesser extents in some other South Indian towns.

Apparently, jigarthanda is made with all-natural ingredients, with no artificial substances added to it. It is popularly known in South India as jil jil jigirthanda which, as the name suggests, is a cool cool (jil jil) drink that is supposed to cool (thanda) one’s heart (jigar), providing a number of health benefits in the process.

The jigarthanda did cool down my heart (and throat) in the stifling Trichy heat. but I am still not going to cross it off my bucket list. That is a task I will undertake after I get my hands on the, supposedly, authentic version of the drink in Madurai! Some day…

Kerala diaries 3: A story told through dance

We had the opportunity to watch a Kathakali dance performance while we were in Kochi, and grabbed it with both hands. Now, viewing a Kathakali dance performance had been on my bucket list for long. So, we when we discovered that the Cochin Cultural Centre held performances every day, we could not contain our excitement and booked tickets right away. We were not at all disappointed. The show was simply superb, and we enjoyed every minute of it.

Kathakali is said to have originated in Kerala as far back as the 17th century, and has undergone several changes since then. The dance gestures and costumes have become more elaborate over time. In those days, Kathakali performances used to begin in the evening, go on all through the night, and end only in the morning, considering that people had very few other modes of entertainment. As lives got busier, the performances started getting shorter and shorter, and now, hardly extend for more than 2 hours. The performance that we saw lasted for a little more than an hour.

The word ‘Kathakali’ is made up of two distinct words – katha (meaning ‘story’) and kali (meaning ‘performance’).A Kathakali performance is, thus, a story told in the form of a performance. The dance we got to see was ‘Keechakavadha’, based on a story from the Mahabharata about the slaying of the demon Keechaka.

As a wonderful bonus, we got to see the artistes getting dressed up in their finery and applying their make-up before the performance. That, again, was something I had always wanted to do. It was quite a sight to see – watching simple, demure men transform into grandly dressed heroes and heroines and fiery demons! My heart was in my mouth to see the amount of make-up that went on each artist’s face, but I relaxed visibly when we were told that all the make-up for Kathakali performances is done using entirely natural ingredients, like rice paste and the powder from stones and flowers.

This is the artist who played the lady in the performance. Can you believe the transformation?
The artist who played the hero, getting dressed for the performance
The making of Keechaka, the demon

There is very little or no speech in a Kathakali dance performance. The story is narrated entirely through the song (which a singer sings in the background), the eye and hand movements of the artistes, and little grunts and other songs made by them. I never knew grunts could be so expressive!

Keechaka in action – again, can you believe the transformation?
A still from the performance. Do notice the beautiful, traditional Kerala temple in the backdrop.
The slaying of the demon Keechaka – a scene that was beautifully carried out.

I was initially afraid that I might get bored during the performance or not understand it at all. Thankfully, all my fears turned out to be ill-founded. I was spellbound throughout the show, and could not take my eyes off the artistes. The same was the case with the OH and the 20-odd guests we watched the performance with. I had no problem at all in grasping any part of the story. The performance was not at all slow, but went at the right pace. I did not even know when it came to an end!

I am so glad to see the art of Kathakali is being accepted so well by Indians and foreigners alike. Unlike many other Indian folk arts and crafts, there are considerable steps being taken to keep this dance form alive, I am delighted to note.

We had not known what to expect out of the performance, but now, I am so very happy that we took a chance and went to see it. It is an experience worth having in life, something that each of you should do whenever you are in Kerala.

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Have you read Part 1 and Part 2 of this travelogue?

Kashmir travelogue 8: Recuperating in Pahalgam

You can read the previous parts of the travelogue here:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

We drove about 3 hours from Srinagar to reach Pahalgam, across rocky paths, mountains, villages and gushing streams. I was immediately enchanted by the simple beauty of the place when I reached Pahalgam. The fresh mountain air hit us as soon as we got out of the car, and the slight drizzle that was there set our teeth chattering.

I found Pahalgam extremely beautiful – probably the most beautiful part of our trip. It has a lovely, old-world charm about it, is very peaceful, and is comparitively less commercial (at least the part that we visited). Thanks to a stomach bug that hit me as soon as we reached Pahalgam, we couldn’t explore much. We couldn’t do the touristy things in Pahalgam – like riding to the Betaab Valley (where the Sunny Deol-Amrita Singh starrer was shot) and Baisaran, which is also called Mini Switzerland. There is no real mode of transport to these touristy spots except horses, and we were not too keen to do horse riding again after the one at Sonamarg. We were tired to the bone, and Pahalgam was the perfect place to rest and recuperate for us. Pahalgam was located somewhere in the middle of our one-week holiday in Kashmir, and I am glad it was. We could regain a little bit of strength and will power to proceed on the rest of the journey after Pahalgam. We spent most of our time here cosied up inside our warm blankets on our hotel bed, looking out the window at awesome views, reading and watching TV, and occasionally going out for short walks to look around.

The Lidder river runs through Pahalgam, and river rafting on its many tributaries is quite common here. We weren’t up to doing it, but we loved watching other tourists in action.

Pahalgam was where I had my first encounter with pine trees, which I had only read and fantasised about till then. I had loads of fun picking up pine cones to carry back home. And, of course, I went crazy taking pictures of these lovely trees, which give the place a straight-out-of-a-painting look.

The hotel we were staying in in Pahalgam was in the midst of a small village, with not many shops around. We had gorgeous views all around us, though. For instance, this spot (in the pic below) was just outside our hotel – a perfect, tranquil place to sit and talk or read, or just play hop, skip and jump on the many stones here. Until you are spotted and assailed by one of the hundreds of shawl- and dress material-vendors who roam around here with their wares bundled up in huge sacks on their backs, that is.

We had to walk about 5 minutes from our hotel, to meet this, another gorgeous view (the pic below). Fresh-water streams are everywhere in Pahalgam, and the water is amazingly cool and clear. It is a beautiful feeling to put your hand inside these waters (the current is too strong to stand or play in the waters, though).

Snow-capped mountains are charming, no doubt about that. They look all the more charming when you view them through some beautiful pine trees. Apart from the pines, I fell in love with the roses that abound in Pahalgam.

We were not ready to bid goodbye to Pahalgam when we had to. We were sorry that we hadn’t seen much of it, but the rest had done us good, and we were fit as fiddles when the onward journey beckoned us. We most definitely want to go back to Pahalgam to see all that we missed then.

PS: So you thought the Kashmir diaries had come to an end, eh? Not yet! 🙂

Kashmir travelogue 7: Sights in and around Srinagar

Read the previous parts of the travelogue here:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

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This post is about some of the most memorable things we saw and experienced in Srinagar. If I were to put up pictures of each beautiful sight that we saw in Srinagar, the number would run into hundreds. So, for your viewing pleasure, here are some of our most special experiences.

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The apple orchard that we saw enroute to Pahalgam from Srinagar. This was the first time the OH and I set our eyes on apple trees, and came to know what they look like. Our cab driver was kind enough to seek the permission of the orchard’s caretaker for us to enter inside. We loved it at first sight, and our hearts lifted at the sight of rows and rows of apple trees which had just borne fruit. The caretaker told us that these apples would probably be ripe and ready to pluck by August or September. I would LOVE to go into an apple orchard again when the fruits are ripe, and help pluck them off the trees!

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The ruins of a temple of Lord Vishnu, popularly called ‘the ruins of Awantipura’. We stopped by these ruins in the town of Sangam, on the way to Pahalgam from Srinagar. The temple was built by King Awantiwarman in AD 855- 883! Later, it got destroyed by an earthquake and sunk into the ground. A group of archaeologists found the ruins and excavated them, long after. How fascinating!

Here and there, you can spot the face of a goddess or the curvaceous figure of a dancer, or the handsome profile of a god. We were so utterly charmed by these ruins that we took ages to explore each and every corner of it!

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Fresh apricots, ripe and ready to be plucked. We spotted these all over Srinagar. Our cab driver – who happened to be an expert tree-climber, was stunned to know that we had never had fresh apricots. He gingerly climbed up a tree and plucked a bag full of them for us! We kept telling him to mind his steps and be careful all the while, but he made it to the top safely. He was only too happy to get his customers a taste of the fresh ‘khubani’ (‘apricot’ in Kashmiri). My, what an experience it is to eat fruits straight off trees! I’ll never forget that!

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The Kashmiri Kahwa. It is the Kashmiri version of tea, made with saffron extract, slivers of almond and just a hint of sweet. It is said to cure cold and chest congestion, and improve skin tone and complexion. The taste takes a bit of getting used to. We just couldn’t palate it the couple of times we tried it out.

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The holy fishes of Martand. I have never seen a sight like this! There are thousands of fish in a pond at a small temple we visited in Martand, near Anantnag (not the famous Martand Sun Temple – this was another one). Feeding these fish is considered to be auspicious and is supposed to make all your wishes come true. Most devotees who visit the temple feed the fish with fish food that is readily available for sale in the premises. We fed them too, and the fishes THRONGED near us to eat the food!

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Kashmiri outfits on rent at the Mughal Garden in Srinagar. You can hire these outfits, and take your own pictures of yourself and your family or ask the photographers there to do so. The photographers give you hookahs (quite popular in Kashmir, by the way), flower vases and pots as photography props, too, as well as the traditional Kashmiri jewellery and head-dress. It is amusing to see tourists from all over India – young and old – donning these outfits and getting themselves photographed. Some kids look so adorable in the dresses that you just want to hoist them into your arms and pinch their cheeks till they are red! Yes, we took a couple of pics in these outfits, too!

Mughal Garden also has a spot called Chashmeshaahi, which is an outlet for the fresh water of a spring that flows from the mountains. The flowing water of the Chashmeshaahi is supposed to have medicinal properties, and can cure anything. A lot of people fill up the spring water in their bottles or cans. I was a tad skeptical about drinking the water when our cab driver told us about it, but all my doubts were dispelled when I saw the water – it is ultra pure, crystal clear and tasty, maybe because the source of the water is untouched and out of the way of tourists.

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This fallen tree at Shalimar Bagh in Srinagar. It is a miracle in that it still continues to grow, shoot out leaves and branches in spite of being entirely uprooted! I don’t know how!

I fell in love with Shalimar Bagh, which was built by Mughal emperor Jahangir for his wife Noor Jehan. I found it so, so, so very beautiful. We kept roaming in it for hours on end. How couldn’t we, when the views from every angle were beautiful…. like this….

…. and this?

This is apparently the place from where Noor Jehan used to look out at the garden her beloved had had built for her pleasure. I couldn’t believe the fact that I was standing on the same ground where emperors and queens have stood YEARS ago! I had the very same feeling when I visited the Taj Mahal and several historical monuments in Delhi last year.

Sadly, these structures inside Shalimar Bagh have not been well-maintained, and are crumbling and shabby – surely a far cry away from the way they would have looked when the Mughal emperor had had them constructed. It is pitiful that most of our citizens do not understand the value of historic monuments and have no qualms about graffiti-ing the walls of such places everywhere.

Oh, and before I forget, when you guys go to Kashmir, don’t forget to have ice cream outside Shalimar Bagh. The cones look a tad doubtful, with their bright orange colour, but otherwise, the ice cream is lovely. A touch of Milkmaid is added to the ice cream here – I haven’t seen that anywhere else!

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The leaf of a Chinar tree, which I spotted in Shalimar Bagh. Chinar trees abound in Kashmir, and I loved the unique shape of their leaves. The leaves are somewhat similar in shape to those of the maple tree. A lot of dresses and shawls available in Kashmir have Chinar-leaf-shaped embroidery on them.

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The Kashmiri willow trees. They are such a beautiful sight, I can’t tell you! Popularly called ‘weeping willow’, these trees abound all over Kashmir, particularly in Pahalgam. I can’t ever forget the sight of them.

These willows are used to make cricket bats. In fact, Kashmir produces the largest number of cricket bats in India, which are sold the world over. There is a huge cricket bat industry in Kashmir, particularly in Sangam. We passed a number of stores preparing and selling cricket bats on the way to Pahalgam from Srinagar, via Sangam.

Stacks of cricket bats, prepared and set out in the sun to dry, make a pretty picture against the lush greenery of Kashmir, and are as much a part of the landscape of Sangam as the trees are.

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Our first taste of Kashmiri saag and Kashmiri pulao – the two most famous vegetarian dishes in Kashmir. As you can see from the pics, they are oil- and dryfruit- and calorie-laden.

We did not really like these dishes – just tasted them because we wanted to taste them.

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A trip of many new experiences, many thrills and much beauty was this one!

Kashmir travelogue 6: Gallivanting in the ice at Gulmarg

Read the previous parts of the travelogue here:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Our itinerary involved a two-day stay at Gulmarg, and we were quite thrilled about it. We had heard a lot about the cable cars (gondolas) that operate there, and were excitedly looking forward to ride on them. I was trying to imagine how Gulmarg would look like, as its name sounded so quaint and romantic, and we had heard that the place was full of wildflowers. A couple of hours’ drive from Pahalgam got us to Gulmarg, and I happily noted that it was even more beautiful than I had imagined.

Tall pine trees, firs and poplars greet you from amidst the snowy mountains as soon as you enter Gulmarg. The drive on narrow, winding roads in the midst of huge forests is scary, but the view outside the window is so mesmerising that you soon forget to be afraid.

I took this picture as soon as we entered Gulmarg. We later drove through a very narrow road in the midst of those two hills covered with trees that you can see in the picture.

Here is a close-up view of the hillocks, to give you an idea of just how densely populated with trees they were.

The fir-and-pine forests soon gave way to hillocks scattered with wildflowers.

There are, apparently, 21 different kinds of wildflowers exclusive to Gulmarg alone. I couldn’t help but marvel at the bounty of nature here – today, when you can get everything ‘man-made’, it is extremely refreshing to see clumps of these multi-hued flowers adorning the hillsides, on their own, untended, amidst all that cold.

Soon enough, we reached our resort. I took the next picture near our resort. Couldn’t resist it – the place looked like something out of a fairytale.

We spent the day relaxing at the resort, in preparation for the gondola ride the next day.

Bright and early the next morning, we rushed to the ticket counter to buy tickets for the cable cars, and found a HUGE line there. After witnessing a lot of tempers flaring, exchanges of hot words, much jostling and pleading, we finally managed to get two tickets for Phase I of the ride. And off we went!

The ride was as scary as it was exciting. We squealed in excitement at some of the views from high above. After all, when you are riding in the highest cable car in India, at a height of 13,400 metres, the views are bound to be spectacular. At other times, though, we kept our mouths tight shut, held hands, prayed, and didn’t dare look below.

In about 15 minutes, the cable cars reached the destination for Phase I.

This is where they deposited us. Ain’t the place extremely, extremely, extremely beautiful? OK, I am running out of adjectives now!

Here is a close-up of the hills that we saw at that point. They looked ethereal, with melting snow and clouds kissing them.

We hugged our jackets close around us, for it was beginning to get extremely cold, and stood in the queue for tickets for Phase 2 of the ride. We were lucky to get the tickets, as the counters are often closed due to inclement weather at the Phase 2 destination. However, the tickets were not obtained without hours of standing in queue, witnessing of more tempers flaring, more angry words being exchanged, more jostling and more pleading. That, however, is a story for another day. For now, let us focus on the journey.

We boarded the cable cars again, and it brought us to a river of frozen ice. We couldn’t see anything but ice for miles and miles and miles ahead. Look for yourself.

If you take one of the sledges that operate in plenty here, you can see the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan right at the end of ALL that ice.

We were too exhausted to do the sledge ride, so we just admired the beauty of the place, took a lot of pictures…. and tried pelting each other with snow balls, which we gave up immediately as the balls hurt like anything. It was frozen, hardened snow, after all.

A couple of hours of gallivanting in the ice later, we began our descent towards the base, happy and content.

Because of the height at which it is located, Gulmarg becomes almost inaccessible in the winter months. We felt extremely lucky that we had planned a trip in June, so that we were able to see this beauty.