The Cave of Stars

I’ve been an idiot.. Yes truly, a big fat idiot. I’ve been moaning, “I’ve got nothing to write about” while one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been to goes totally undocumented. *Facepalm* Anyway, no time like the present. And without further ado, let me speak about the Waitomo Glowworm Caves in Waitomo, New Zealand.

Our bus

Our bus

We visited New Zealand for our honeymoon in 2011. I’ve been a huge a huge fan of the Peter Jackson films and visiting the places where the shooting actually took place was a big dream of mine. We were supposed to visit Auckland, Waitomo, Rotorua, Queenstown, the glaciers and Christchurch, but weather played havoc and our entire South Island plans except for Christchurch were cancelled. It is my most fervent wish to go back there again.

Just a little snapshot of the gorgeous scenery we  encountered on the way.

Just a little snapshot of the gorgeous scenery we encountered on the way.

While we were making our travel plans, we came across a stumbling block, we couldn’t figure out how to get from Auckland to Rotorua. We knew it was a drive, but how to exactly we could get there was the mystery. Some fervent Googling gave us the answer. We had to take a bus that would also show us the wonders of the Waitomo Glowworm Cave. We quickly booked the tickets.

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The night before our departure I was a little anxious about missing the bus so I kept on waking up throughout the night and saying, “Let’s go! We’re late!” to Mr. D, who would then sleepily show me the time and go right back to sleep. Finally, 6.30 rolled around and it was time to wake up for real. We quickly got dressed and left the hotel, (More on the hotel later) and waited on the sidewalk for the bus to pick us up and take us to the depot. The feeder bus was supposed to arrive at 7 and by 7.02 I was already wailing that we had missed the bus, I guess I was a mix of jetlagged, anxious and excited. While I nagged Mr. D about the merits of walking to the depot ourselves, a shortish walk, uphill with a pretty heavy suitcase and getting an understandable opposition from him, the bus arrived, only 5 minutes late. We quickly got on and went on to the depot. We showed our tickets, waited a while for our bus to arrive and when it finally did, we hopped on.

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The drive from Auckland to Waitomo takes 3 hours and is breathtaking to say the least. It meanders through the countryside of New Zealand, hugging the Waikato River in places. The driver was rather jolly and gave us a running commentary about the places we were passing through and general facts about New Zealand. We passed tiny little cottages surrounded by profusions of vibrantly coloured flowers and for a moment I could just imagine myself in Hobbiton, waiting for Gandalf to take me on an adventure. All too soon we found ourselves at Waitomo and we clambered off the bus and hurried into the complex.

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Now for a little history and science.  The caves were discovered in the late 1800s by local Māori chief Tane Tinorau, who owned the land on which they were located. Tinorau and surveyor Fred Mace explored the caves together in 1887, floating in on a raft of flax flower stalks. The caves were opened to tourists in 1889, with local Māori acting as guides. The cave and its surrounding areas are still owned by the Maoris and many of the guides are direct descendants of Tane Tinorau.

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The caves are made of limestone, carved by the Waitomo River and feature a rich collection of stalactites, stalagmites and other formations. These are not the only points of attractions in these caves though. The chief attraction in these caves are the glowworms. They are the larvae of a species of gnat called Arachnocampa luminosa, which is unique to New Zealand. These insects spend a large portion of their life as larvaes and spend most of this time eating as the adult insect does not have a mouth. The glow from the glowworms comes from the tails of the larvae and attracts other insects which get entangled in the sticky threads and consecutively eaten by the larvae. These insects thrive in the cool and damp environment of the cave as the river winds blow in the insects it feeds on and the damp environment does not dry out the sticky threads.

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We were led down a small trail and into the caves proper. Mr. D was a little apprehensive about going into the caves as he has a mild case of claustrophobia and caves are pretty much not his thing per se. His fears were unfounded as the caves did not turn out be the dark, claustrophobic and bat poo smelling affair he feared but rather a pretty comfortable experience with very good lighting. Something to keep in mind when you visit your next cave, do not touch anything. Sure, the rock formations may seem awesome and touch-worthy but leaving your body residue on them messes them up and the natural environment of the cave, so leave them be and admire them from afar.

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The 45 minute tour took us through the various formations in the cave like the Pipe Organ, Catacombs, Banquet Hall and a huge room called the Cathedral. We were also given information about the glowworms and how the caves meant to be. We were shown the various stages of the insect and shown the silky sticky threads up close. Photographs are not allowed inside so I am relying on stock images here.

Scenes from the grotto. Pic courtesy: Corbis

Scenes from the grotto.
Pic courtesy: Corbis

Scenes from the grotto. Pic courtesy: Corbis

Scenes from the grotto. Pic courtesy: Corbis

There was a palpable eagerness and restlessness in us ever since we entered the cave, what we really wanted to see were the worms and their glow. We were given a small demo of the real thing and I had actually thought that that was it and that would be the only glowworms we’d actually see in action. I was thoroughly disappointed and felt really dejected as the tour wound to an end. My fears were unfounded as the guide led us to a landing on the underground river and guided us onto boats. We were advised to make as little noise as possible and refrain from all photography as we entered the famed Glowworm Grotto.

Scenes from the grotto.  Pic courtesy: Corbis

Scenes from the grotto.
Pic courtesy: Corbis

The boat pushed away from the landing and slowly as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, a hushed murmur arose as the true glory of the caves were finally in front of us. Hundreds, nay thousands of tiny pinpoints of light covered the ceiling of the cave making it seem as if we were underneath the night sky but only the stars were a lot closer. The rush of the water and the murmurs of awe were the only sounds in the grotto giving it the feel of a fairytale world or a dream from which one never wished to wake. What seemed like only minutes but was actually a good 15 minutes later, we emerged out into the sunlight, and found ourselves in a lush jungle with a pathway leading up. Slowly we shook off the reverie, entered reality and trudged up the pathway to the bus and onto Rotorua, leaving the cavern and its dreamlike setting behind.

Scenes from the grotto. Pic courtesy: Corbis

Scenes from the grotto.
Pic courtesy: Corbis

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Five Senses: A Manali Travelogue

So sorry for the looong break guys! I’ve been travelling like crazy over the last three months but they’ve mostly been for personal reasons not vacations, so I’ve had little time to write and less to write about. But guess who has been travelling to awesome places instead? My bestie Priyanka Chowdhury of The Purplenista! She recently went on this really rad trip to Manali and came back raving about the beauty. So I asked her to do a little piece for me and this is what she had to say. It is a five senses travelogue where she has listed what tickled her senses out there. Do read on and let me know your comments below! Also, follow The Purplenista for kick-ass beauty advice!

Five Senses: Manali | Travelogue

The splendorous Himalayas.  Pic courtesy: Priyanka Chowdhury

The splendorous Himalayas. Pic courtesy: Priyanka Chowdhury

See

  • Bare snow-capped mountains and trees
  • Crystal clear blue sky
  • Magical evergreen pine forests
  • Colourful wildflowers
  • Bright shawls
  • Rosy red cheeks
  • Smiling faces
  • Big furry dogs

Smell

  • Frankincense-like smell of burning pinewood
  • Musty Yak
  • Intoxicating and fresh Pine trees
  • Sweet Apples
  • Fresh air

Taste

  • Hot Potato Butter Momos
  • Soulful Thukpah or soupy noodles
  • Sweet Himalayan Trout
  • Sweet Yak Milk Coffee

Hear

  • Nagging hawkers
  • Roaring river
  • Scrunching snow underneath your feet
  • Rustling pine trees
  • Crackling Fire
  • Chirping bird songs
  • Silence | Peace | Sans city sounds

Feel

  • Soft warm winter sun on your face
  • Bone chilling wind on your cheeks
  • Cool hard icy snow underneath your butt (skiing)
  • Soft furry warmth on your finger tips
  • Cosy blankets
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Things I always want to do in Delhi

As it says in my About page, I live in Bombay but if anybody asks me the hoary old question of, “Bombay or Delhi?” I will answer Delhi every single time. Now before you start picketing my house and sending me mean comments like, “Well if you like Delhi so much you should stay there!”, hear me out. I never said I hate Bombay, I have my bestie here, (the very talented Priyanka Chowdhury, who runs The Purplenista which you should totally check out for your beauty needs!) I love the easy availability of local transport, electricity and water, I love sitting on Marine Drive, I love a lot of things but I cannot bring myself to love Bombay the way I love Delhi. Bombay is like the kind, sweet and really nice guy you really want to love but can’t and Delhi is like the bad boy you cannot help but love. I miss having seasons which are not just monsoon and sweating your bodily fluids out, I miss the broad, tree-lined roads, the chaats, the houses which are not little pigeon holes and most of all I miss the juxtaposition of ancient monuments against modern buildings. What I do not miss are of course the shitty autowalas (I am very thankful that Bombay ones follow the meter), the terrible public transport system and ensuing traffic chaos and the erratic electricity and water supply.

Mumbai or Delhi? Are you as I am? Image courtesy: Corbis

Mumbai or Delhi? Are you as confused as I am?
Image courtesy: Corbis

Moving on, since this was never meant to be a post comparing the two cities, I just came back from an amazing weekend in Delhi and joy oh joy, have two more visits lined up! *touchwood* When Mr. D and I realised that we would be spending quite a lot of time in Delhi, we quickly made up a list of all the things we wanted to do there, most of them involved food #sorrynotsorry. So without further ado, I present to you, my favourite things to do in Delhi.*

  1. Visit Select Citywalk: Now I know that a lot of other great malls have opened up in Delhi, some of them maybe even better than Select City, but Select Citywalk was my favourite hangout in my Delhi days. We used to love sitting by the fountains in the winter and watching the crowds flow by. In summers and every other season, the movie theaters were where we would spend our time. We’d shop so frequently at the Pantaloons there that the sales people knew us after some time. As for the food, we had the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, this amazing shawarma joint which I hope is still open, Cocoberry and Chicago Pizza.

    Ah Select Citywalk! The place where my paycheck went to die. Image courtesy: ilovedelhi.in

  2. Visit Chittaranjan Park: CR Park is like a little slice of Calcutta. The fish market, the Bengali signages, the Kali bari all feel like home. I want to go back and sample all the Bengali street foods that were my staple diet when I was there. Calcutta nostalgia in Delhi win win!!

    The CR Park Kalibari Image courtesy: Wikipedia

  3. EAT MOMOS!!!!: This last visit to Delhi, there came this time when we were ravenously hungry and were thinking of what to eat, when someone suggested momos. “YES!” came the unanimous cry from all of us. In Delhi, momos are cheap and plentiful. They can serve as your starter, main course and snack, and trust me we’ve all done that at some point of our lives. Where to find the best momos will incite a riot faster than you can say, “Tu janta hai mera baap kaun hai?”, but according to me, the best momos I’ve had were at Sarojini Market and Lajpat Nagar. Big, chunky momos with the chilli garlic sauce, my mouth waters at the very thought.

    MM! MOAR MOMOS!! Image courtesy: Mannu Kaushal for TOI

  4. Visit Old Delhi: For the food, just for the food and nothing but the food because food in Old Delhi is AMAZING! And Bombay, please stop saying you have good chaat because you don’t, I’ve had chaat at Chowpatty and every single must have chaat place and Delhi is killing it in the chaat category, Old Delhi especially. If you go in the winters, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE for all that is good in the world have Daulat ki Chaat. It is an out of the world experience with milk foam, khoya and powdered sugar. The makers get up in the wee hours of the morning to churn milk and remove the foam to be sold later in the day. This treat is only found in winters.

    A Daulat Ki Chaat vendor in Old Delhi. Forget the parathas, this is what you should be eating. Image courtesy: Rahul Verma for The Hindu

  5. Shop till I drop at Sarojini, Lajpat and Janpath: The secret to the Delhi fashionista’s killer appearance? Sarojini, Lajpat and Janpath. Export rejects, designer copies, you name it you have it. Bargain, threaten to never come back and always pay half or even less than to get the best deals. Someday I will get the Sabyasachi lehenga of my dreams at one of the shops in Old Delhi, first copy that is. 😉

    Zara clothes for not-so-Zara prices at Sarojini Nagar market. Image courtesy: mapsofindia

    Zara clothes for not-so-Zara prices at Sarojini Nagar market. Image courtesy: mapsofindia

  6. Hang out at the many monuments: Mehrauli Archaeological Park, Humayun’s Tomb, Agrasen’s Baoli, Qutub Minar, the Red Fort, Lodhi Gardens and the India Gate. Mmmm.. Sitting on the grass, soaking in the winter sunshine with the smell of oranges all around, where can you do that in Bombay?

    Just a small glimpse of the monuments in Delhi, most of them have their own open spaces, ideal to while away time on a winter afternoon. Image courtesy: Corbis and Wikipedia

    Just a small glimpse of the monuments in Delhi, most of them have their own open spaces, ideal to while away time on a winter afternoon. Image courtesy: Corbis and Wikipedia

  7. Enjoy a drive in Lutyens’ Delhi and Chanakyapuri: Those lovely straight roads, surrounded by greenery, Lutyens’ Delhi is a haven. This is especially true during summer months when the roads are carpeted with those glorious yellow Amaltas blossoms.

    The tree that makes the scorching summers worth it. Image courtesy: The Hindu

  8. Enjoy the smog  fog and the winter chill: Last December I remember returning home covered in sweat after running some errands. IN DECEMBER! It was 30 degrees plus. Bombay just misses the memo on the season change, except when it comes to monsoons. Delhi on the other hand is covered in fog, the sun is barely visible and the cold seeps into your bones and that kids is what winter should feel like. There is something so magical about waking up on a Saturday morning to find fog enveloping the world outside, nothing beyond your window can be seen. And the cold! Oh the cold! Sharp and piercing through to your bones, the Delhi winter makes it worth your while to wear those smart coats, snazzy jackets and sweaters.
Bombay, YU NO understand winter?

Bombay, YU NO understand winter?

That’s it. This is my list of things I always want to do in Delhi. Next up Kolkata!

*Things that I like to do, your list may differ. 🙂

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The Fort Of Gold

When one thinks of Rajasthan, one usually thinks of the vivid pink of Jaipur or the awe-inspiring Mehrangarh Fort of Jodhpur, or even the Lake Palace of Udaipur and failing all that, the sand dunes of the Thar Desert. Jaisalmer gets not too many mentions and I find that a crying shame because the fort is gorgeous.

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The fort in late evening light

Built in 1156 alongside what was then a major trade route to Persia and Africa, the fort is made entirely out the golden sandstone native to the region. The choice of building material helps camouflage the fort against its surroundings, indeed the fort looks more like the mountain it is on rather than a fort from a distance. It also gives the fort a nickname of the Sonar Qila, (The Golden Fort).

A pol or gateway leading into the fort. There are four such pols; Ganesh Pol, Akshay Pol, Suraj Pol and Hawa Pol

A pol or gateway leading into the fort. There are four such pols; Ganesh Pol, Akshay Pol, Suraj Pol and Hawa Pol

No binding materials like mortar or cement were used in the construction, stones are interlocking and have held together through countless earthquakes. The fort is also unusual in the aspect that it is a living fort, 4000 people actually call the fort home, they not only live their lives in the fort but also run their businesses in it, if I am not wrong, it is the only such fort in India.

This was one of the more curious sights we saw, these paintings serve as wedding invitations to the entire community. They feature the happy couple's names, the date and the time of the wedding.

This was one of the more curious sights we saw, these paintings serve as wedding invitations to the entire community. They feature the happy couple’s names, the date of the wedding.

To be frank, our impression of Jaisalmer was not favourable when we first arrived. The city itself is horribly dirty and the municipality needs to step up its game but all thoughts fled our mind when we saw the fort. We had arrived at the golden hour of sunset when the dying rays of the sun bathe the fort walls in rosy hues and the fort is at its prettiest then.

The exterior of the Raj Mahal or Royal Palace

The exterior of the Raj Mahal or Royal Palace

We entered the fort and crossed its 4 gateways all set at an angle from each other to slow down attackers in time of battle. The gateways lead to the Dussera Chowk, so named for the Dussera celebrations held there every year. From this point, the visitor has two options, they can walk around the fort and see the many Jain and Hindu temples in the complex, take in the view from the ramparts or they could head into the palace. The first day we decided to look around and just get a feel of what a living fort looks like.

The Jain temple inside the fort.

The Jain temple inside the fort.

It was quite an adventure, narrow lanes with the hustle and bustle of humanity, traffic and of course, cows. Shops, houses, hotels and restaurants all stood cheek by jowl with each other. The clash of modernity and the bygone era was fascinating to see, a gorgeous jharokha with glass shutters, sandstone walls with DTH dishes, a pair of jeans drying on a wall that probably existed before jeans were even thought of, it was astonishing to say the least.

Modern glass shutters on a centuries old jharokha (window), what a blend!

Modern glass shutters on a centuries old jharokha (window), what a blend!

From the Dussera Chowk it was a short walk to the best vantage point in Jaisalmer. Set on top of a cannon tower, this place gives a panoramic view of the city. From here one can see the various havelis or merchant houses, the railway station (last station on the line) and far off in the horizon, windmills. The havelis are something I really regret not being able to see. These houses were built by prosperous merchants as a way to showcase their wealth. They feature lace-like sandstone carving all over the facade and are considered the hallmarks of Jaisalmer architecture. Ah well, one should always leave something for the next time.

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A panoramic view from the ramparts of the fort. Please click to embiggen and see the photo as it should be enjoyed.

The second day we decided to visit the palace. A word of advice, when you enter the fort you will be literally swarmed by guides trying to show you around the place, some may even try the old trick of saying that the palace is closed and offer to show you the rest of the fort and some shops as well. Do not fall for this, at best you will spend an hour of your life listening to things you already knew or at worst stuck at a shop where your guide has an arrangement being forced to buy shoddy handicrafts. To bypass this and actually see the palace at your own leisure, take the set of stairs that are to your right when you enter Dussera Chowk, (the doorway to the staircase is adorned by the handprints of all the queens who committed Sati) and purchase a ticket for the palace and rent an audio-guide. The audio guide will cost you INR 300 per person, (INR 150 if you’re a student) and you will have to submit a photo id as a guarantee. The audio guide is very helpful, one just has to follow the signs and play the appropriate sections of the guide. The guide provides an in-depth history of the fort and the various conservation efforts that are being undertaken to maintain it.

A courtyard inside the palace

A courtyard inside the palace

The main palace has three primary wings, the king’s side, the queen’s side and the nursery. Each Maharawal or king has left his own stamp on the palace and the various areas inside it. There is a sizeable armory on display, featuring guns, bayonets, spears and even guns that were meant to be mounted on elephants.

The throne of Jaisalmer state. The umbrella above signifies the protection of Lord Vishnu.

The throne of Jaisalmer state. The umbrella above signifies the protection of Lord Vishnu.

The bedrooms on display provide a glimpse of life during the olden times. What was interesting was the lack of ostentation. The beds were simple, more like charpoys rather than the huge four posters one expects in a royal bedroom. The only glaring sign of them being a royal bedroom was the original Dutch tiling that covered the walls and sometimes the ceiling of the room, it must have cost a pretty penny to get it done in those days.

A royal bedroom

A royal bedroom. Notice the Dutch tiling all over the walls. The king who slept in this room was said to be over 6 ft tall, as can be inferred from the clothes hanging in the background, but his bed as you can see was only 5ft long at the most. Quite curious I must say.

Standing on the terrace of the palace in broad daylight, the desolation of the landscape really hits home. The fact that all the houses in the city are the same colour as the neighbouring landscape does not help. I felt very lonely and insignificant standing on that roof  even though I had nearly fifty odd people around me, I wonder what it would be like to stand there alone and contemplate the vastness of the desert and the hardy people who have made this their home for centuries now.

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When to go: October to February. The nights tend to get really cold so please carry warm clothes if you are sensitive to low temperatures.

How to reach: Jaisalmer does not have an airport so road and rail are the only options. The nearest airport is in Jodhpur.

Child friendly: Yes, though please keep an eye out for slippery surfaces and narrow and steep staircases.

Elderly friendly: Not really. There are steep and narrow staircases and some of them are slippery to boot, people with mobility issues may have problems.

Where does civilization end and desert begin?

Where does civilization end and desert begin?

Tips: Please hire a certified guide and ask to see certification before hiring. Please pay no mind to the touts who can get harassing at times, they will chase you on their bikes if they can. The government is cracking down on it though this problem does not seem to be going away anytime soon. Also, the entrance to the fort is walking distance from the parking area, ignore any person who says otherwise and tries to persuade you to take an auto. If your guide asks you to visit any shop with him, ignore or refuse, this is usually a ploy for the guide to earn commission from the handicrafts shop selling cheap and shoddy merchandise at high prices.

P.S.: Photos courtesy Mr. D and my brother Dev Bhattacharya. Dev is also a very talented 3D artist, for a look at his work, please visit deohboeh.artstation.com. 🙂

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The Seven Stages Of Watching Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara

Step 1: Ugh! Not this again! You swore not to watch it anymore after what happened last time.

Not again!

Step 2: Maaan! Nothing good on TV, maybe I should read a book.

Step 3: No books either! Weelllll… Maybe I’ll just watch a little bit till something else comes on.

Ooooh! And get some popcorn too!

Step 4: Aaand I saw the entire movie

Not even a little bit..

Step 5: I should totally go on a road trip with my friends! To Spain!! Yaaaasss!! In fact let me just check the flight tickets to Madrid.

ROADTRIP!!!!!

Step 6: WUT? How can tickets cost so much? How can anything cost so much?

Two hundred thousand rupees for a week? WHUT?

Step 7: *sobs into ice cream*

At least I’ll always have ice cream!

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Your Durga Puja Must-do List

Sooooooo.. It is that time of the year again.. The mornings are just starting to get the crispness that will mark the beginning of the cooler months, the sunlight is milder and your Bengali colleague is either crying in a corner about not making home for Pujas or gleefully packing to go home, either way it’s Durga Puja time!!! Yaaaaaay!! Now, don’t get me wrong, the whole of India worships the Goddess in various forms during these days, but there is something amazing about the craziness that is the Durga Puja. Everybody has their own traditions and anecdotes about the five day festival that is the highlight of the year for most Bengalis all over the world. In fact, it is like Christmas for us, a lot of parallels actually, both involve gods, decorations of homes and public areas, worship, shopping, gift giving, copious amounts of food and both festivals when over leave you with a sad feeling in your heart and hope that there is always next year. For the sake of this article, I am focussing on the festivities that take place in Calcutta, though Durga Puja is celebrated anywhere with a significant Bengali population. From Boston to Bangkok, if there are five Bengalis, there is a Durga Puja. Without further ado, here is my list of top 10 things to do in Kolkata during Durga Puja in chronological order

From left to right: Ganesh, Lakshmi, Durga, Mahishasura, Saraswati, Kartik with their animal vehicles. Image courtesy: Corbis

From left to right: Ganesh, Lakshmi, Durga, Mahishasura, Saraswati, Kartik with their animal vehicles. This form is called “Ek Chala” or under one cover, the Goddess and her family are portrayed under one backdrop.
Image courtesy: Corbis

1. Go shopping: Shopping for the Pujas begin about a month before the festival and is often a family affair. Moms, dads, kids and sometimes grandparents too, all make a beeline to New Market or Gariahat or these days to the many swanky malls that dot the city in order to get the best deals for the buck. New clothes and shoes are bought, gifts are purchased for that long lost cousin who you contact just once a year to exchange gifts. These are often full day excursions for families who enjoy an outing while scarfing down rolls, fish frys and cutlets. We used to go shopping the day after Mahalaya, (which signifies the beginning of the festive period) Baba would come home early from work, Ma would be relieved to not have to cook and us kids were delirious at the thought of new clothes and the eating out that would follow. Head out to either New Market or Gariahat for shopping, you can sometimes get a steal for much less than what you would pay for at the mall. Try the rolls at Bedouin in Gariahat or Nizam’s if you’re in New Market. If you like silver jewelry, Chamba Lama at New Market is the place to go.

Idols differ from pandal to pandal.
The Goddess could be dressed in a saree in one or Daaker shaaj in another. This idol is in dressed in a saree
Image courtesy: Corbis

2. Get up at the crack of dawn to listen to the Mahalaya broadcast: Mahalaya was probably one of the happiest days in the year for us. It meant Puja and Puja vacations were only a heartbeat away. For some 83 years now, Mahalaya is also characterised by the program Mahisasuramardini, (The Slayer of the Buffalo Demon) narrated by the legendary Birendra Krishna Bhadra. The two hour long program narrates the story of the birth of the Goddess Durga and her famed slaying of demon, Mahishasura. It is broadcast by All India Radio at 4 am on Mahalaya morning. While on most days we had to dragged out of bed, Mahalaya mornings found us wide awake and excited. We would huddle around the radio while Baba fiddled with the radio to set the station and it was the one of the few days we were allowed to have tea. These days almost every Bengali channel has their own Mahalaya programming, Doordarshan still shows the one featuring Hema Malini, watch it if you if you prefer visual stimulation, but do try the radio version at least once, it is available online if the radio is not feasible for you.

Birendra Krishna Bhadra, the man who has enchanted generations of Bengalis with his rendition of Mahishasura Mardini. Image courtesy: Wikipedia

Birendra Krishna Bhadra, the man who has enchanted generations of Bengalis with his rendition of Mahishasura Mardini.
Image courtesy: Wikipedia

3. Go for a drive along the Ganges on Mahalaya morning:  While Mahalaya signifies the beginning of the Puja festivities, it also signifies the end of the Pitru Paksha, a 15 day period where one’s ancestors are remembered and offered food in various forms, most common being rice balls and sesame seeds. Mahalaya being the last day, many people head to the ghats of the Ganges to perform this ritual. It is a sober ritual and connects us to the generations before us. Take a drive along the banks of the river to see this timeless ritual take place in the same way it has taken place since the beginning of time. Stop at the tea stall in front of the Gurudwara Sant Kutiya on Harish Mukherjee Road for tea and jalebis.

Tarpan being offered on the banks of the Ganges, Howrah Bridge in the background. Image courtesy: Corbis

Tarpan being offered on the banks of the Ganges, Howrah Bridge in the background.
Image courtesy: Corbis

4. Attend Bodhon on Shashti evening: Have you ever seen a Goddess come to life? I have, and so has every Bengali since the dawn of time. When the idol of the Goddess and her family is brought to the pandal, their faces are covered and their hands are empty. On Shasthi evening, the priest finally uncovers the faces and begins the Bodhon, the invocation of the deity, requesting her to come and reside in the idol for the next five days. The weapons of the Goddess are then worshipped and put in her hands one by one.

Shasthi Puja being performed.
Image courtesy: Sushanta Patronobish for The Hindu

5. Get dressed to the nines and go pandal hopping: Frankly, if you do not go pandal hopping during Durga Puja, then there is no point in celebrating at all. Pandals come up all over the city, each housing their own version of the Goddess and her family, each vying to outdo the other by putting up the most innovative themes and lights. The themes vary wildly, they derive from pop culture, (a Titanic themed pandal the year the movie came out) to traditional and sometimes just far out, (one time a group made a pandal made out sugarcane fibers). Describing the pandals and the lighting and everything involved would not only take me three more blog posts but also would not come close to reality, the only way and trust me it is the only way, to fully enjoy the experience of the Pujas is to go pandal hopping. You may have to stand in serpentine queues and your feet may hurt and you may even wonder what is the point of it all, but once you enter the pandal and see the painstaking work and love that has gone into creating these masterpieces all will be forgotten. One really does not have to visit ALL the pandals, there is not enough time for that, just the famous ones and the award winning ones like the ones at Baghbazaar or Kumartuli. While there are many awards these days, the most prestigious one is the Asian Paints Sharad Shamman which has been around for some 30 years now. You can also wait for the awards to be declared, by Ashtami evening and head out to winning ones. What we used to do was to go out at 3 am on Ashtami night/Nabami morning and have a look at the winning pandals in an effort to beat the crowd. Apart from the whole pandal viewing, pandal hopping is also a way to see and be seen, everybody is dressed to the nines and unmarried people from both sexes are on the lookout for that one cute guy or girl. It is the classic Bengali love story, boy and girl lock eyes in a crowded pandal and love follows.

This innovative idol shows the gods and goddesses as Kathakali performers. Image courtesy: Corbis

This innovative idol shows the gods and goddesses as Kathakali performers.
Image courtesy: Corbis

These are a few of the winning pandals of the Asian Paints Sharad Shamman 2013. For more information, please visit:http://sharadshamman.asianpaints.com/aboutapss.htm from where I have sourced these photos.

These are a few of the winning pandals of the Asian Paints Sharad Shamman 2013.
For more information, please visit:http://sharadshamman.asianpaints.com/aboutapss.htm from where I have sourced these photos.

6. Participate in or observe Pushpanjali: Pushp means flowers and anjali means offering, thus Pushpanjali is the offering of flowers by the devotees to the Goddess. Pushanjali takes place in the morning to early afternoon every morning from Saptami to Nabami. Different families have different customs for the day they offer Pushpanjali, our family offers it on Ashtami morning for instance, but there is nothing stopping one from offering it everyday. A ritual fast is observed prior to performing the rites, which is broken by consuming a fruit prasad afterwards. If you intend to participate in the custom, please remember to be bathed and dressed in clean if not new clothes, bonus if the clothes are ethnic, kurta pajamas for men and sarees or salwar kameez for women.

People offering pushpanjali. They hold flowers and bel leaves in their hands while reciting the prayers.
Image courtesy: photodivision.gov.in

7. EAT!!!!: While most of  India finds opportunities to fast, we Bengalis, find opportunities to eat. Most of our festivals revolve around food and Durga Puja is no exception. From the bhoger kichuri, chorchori, labda, tomatoer chatni, papad and payesh to the traditional illish machh, mochar ghonto, dhokar dalna to the pedestrian rolls, moglai porota, phuchka and other street food that makes Calcutta the best place for street food in the country, food is an integral part of the festivities. Many kitchens are closed for the five days of the festivals, housewives take a break from the everyday cooking and thoughts of calorie counting are flung out of the window. Bhog is food given as offering to the Goddess and then distributed among the devotees. Obviously, the bhog offering is not enough for large crowds so everybody is served a small amount in the beginning with food cooked separately forming the bulk of the meal. Most people head to their neighbourhood pandal for lunch of kichuri (a lentil and rice preparation), labda ( a mixed vegetable dish), chatni (chutney made of tomatoes or pineapple or in some cases raw mangoes), payesh (rice pudding) and papads. Food is vegetarian, cooked in ghee and contains no onions or garlic. This is your basic bhog, the food varies from pandal to pandal, some pandals serve fish curry or pulaos or even radhabalabis with cholar daal as bhog. On Nabami, traditionally, the last day to enjoy Hilsa fish, some pandals may even offer Hilsa on the menu. For a truly authentic eating experience, start the day with luchis or kochuris, (fried bread, luchis are plain, while kochuris have a filling of dried lentils or peas) and aloo’r (potato) dom. Head to your neighbourhood pandal for bhog and at night go to a restaurant serving Bengali food. Kewpie’s, Oh! Calcutta, Bhojohori Manna etc are the places to go for an authentic Bengali meal. For snacks, consume copious amounts of rolls, cutlets, moghlai porotas (parathas stuffed with eggs and minced meat), jhalmuri (spicy puffed rice), samosas and telebhajas (fried vegetables). For dessert, there is a wide variety of Bengali sweets made with chana (cottage cheese) on offer, rosogollas, pantuas, rasmalai, chomchoms, you get the drift.

A full course Bengali meal.. What do you mean too much? Too much food doesn’t exist, like unicorns..
Image courtesy: The Hindu

8. Attend a dhunuchi naach and Sandhi Puja: If you have ever seen the movie Parineeta, you would have observed the part where Saif Ali Khan and Sanjay Dutt, dance with smoking clay containers in their hands. These containers are called dhunuchis, they’re made out of clay and contain coconut husks which burn incense, mostly camphor. The participant picks up the dhunuchi and dances to the beat of the dhak. Depending on ability, they dance with one, two or even three (third is held by the teeth) containers at one time. It is mesmerising to watch and the hypnotic beat of the dhak makes this a surreal experience. The Sandhi Puja takes place juncture of Ashatmi and Nabami. It can take place anytime during the day or night, according to the alignment of the stars that year. Some people keep a fast throughout the day on Ashtami to offer the Puspanjali during Sandhi Puja. What is special about this puja is that it commemorates the puja done by Lord Ram to propitiate the Goddess before the war with Ravana. Legend goes that he fell one short of the 108 lotus flowers to be offered to the goddess, so he offered his own eye instead. As a result, this puja features 108 lotuses and clay lamps. Crackers are burst to signify the beginning and the dhak provides the music to the aarti. It is so awe-inspiring to see the priest, oftentimes old and doddering, become so entranced by devotion that the aarti begins to take form of a hypnotising dance. If you plan to see the Sandhi Puja, please check online for the timings for that year. If you can catch it on a year it is scheduled for late night, do try to make it, you will not regret it.

Dhunuchi dancing with three dhunuchis.
Image courtesy:photodivision.gov.in

Priest performing the aarti.
Image courtesy:4to40

9. See or participate in Shidur Khela: On the last day of the festival which is Vijayadashami or Dusshera, married women congregate at their neighbourhood pandals to bid the Goddess and her children goodbye. They perform aarti, apply vermilion, feed them sweets and wipe their faces with betel leaves. The kids touch their notebooks to the feet of the idol for luck in their exams. After the offerings are made, women apply the same vermilion on each other as a prayer for long and happy married lives. The scene is usually that of glee mixed with sadness that the festival is over. This is the day for me to go fully Bengali in my attire, I wear the saree in the Bengali style, wear my shankha polas, (red and white bangles, signifying marital status) if I remember to bring them along, alta (lac) on my feet and of course shidur in my hair parting. Coming home from Shidur Khela is a hilarious exercise for me since I celebrate the Pujas in Ahmedabad where my parents stay, most people have no idea about Shidur Khela and thus, look at us quite quizzically, wondering why we’re celebrating Holi on Dusshera. 😛

No.. It's not Holi.. Just some Bengali women during shidur khela! Pic courtesy: Varun Bajaj on Flickr

No.. It’s not Holi.. Just your average Bengali women during Shidur Khela!
Pic courtesy: Varun Bajaj on Flickr

10. Attend the immersion: Dashami is perhaps the saddest day of the year for any Bengali child, the five days of running around free and appearing at home only for basic necessities are over, the Goddess is on her way back home and your parents suddenly remember all the holiday homework that you were given. The only glimmer of light in this hopeless situation is the bhashan, or immersion of the Goddess into the Ganges or any other body of water. The idols are loaded on to trucks and children and adults clamber onto them, escorting them to the river. Cries of, “Aschhe bochhor abar hobe!” (It will happen again next year) rent the air as everyone prepares to bid goodbye. Head to any of the ghats along the river to see the immersion.

Goodbye Thakur! See you next year!! Pic courtesy: Corbis

Goodbye Thakur!
See you next year!! Pic courtesy: Corbis

So that is it. My top 10 things to do in Calcutta for Durga Puja, if I have missed out on something, please let me know in the comments and if you ever get the chance to visit Calcutta during the Pujas please do go. It should be on everyone’s bucket list.

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Dining in the Dark

When did you last have a meal without cellphones and any other distractions? And I mean ANY distractions? Hard to remember? Same here. We are so used to spending our lives staring at screens that removing them for face to face interactions becomes awkward for us. It is safe to say, I am addicted to my phone. I am not the meal Instagrammer, (yet) but if Mr D and I are sitting at a restaurant, I find myself reaching for my phone, just to check Facebook, even when I am having a good time. I am not alone in this, Mr. D and many other people I know have this sad side effect of living a connected life too. In fact, Mr. D had started wondering whether it was really possible to have a meal without cellphones around. Providence listened to him and gave us a chance at Alila Diwa, Goa. We were there for a short vacation in August to celebrate our anniversary. The property is amazing and the staff is excellent, but more on that later.

This is what the restaurant looks like in daytime.
Image courtesy: http://www.alilahotels.com/diwagoa

While at lunch on our first day there, we met Mr. Nithil, the manager of their restaurant, after a nice chat about how were enjoying the hotel so far and the various facilities offered, he informed us about their monthly Dine in the Dark event. Inspired by  the response they received for their Earth Hour initiative, Alila Diwa organises this event on the last Thursday of every month at their in-house restaurant Spice Studio. Now many of you may have heard about dining in the dark, but for those of you who haven’t here is a summary. Dine in the dark as you can guess by the name itself, involves eating in total darkness. The meals are usually set and kept a secret from the patrons. The concept is to use the senses beyond that of sight to enjoy your meal. You may ask, “But how can you enjoy a meal you cannot see?” to which I’ll say, “You have four other senses to enjoy your food with.” It is quite understandable to enjoy your food visually, but we rely on it too much, we do not really savour the texture of the food, the smell of it. All other senses pale before the sense of sight. It took us all of two minutes to make the decision to attend the event and we only required those two minutes because Mr D was not fully onboard.

One of the votive candles placed to light the corridor outside the restaurant

One of the candles placed to light the corridor outside the restaurant

Come 8.30 pm we arrived at the restaurant only to find the area enveloped in darkness. We were a little skeptical about how the staff would ensure complete darkness considering that the restaurant is open on all sides and had a working kitchen behind glass walls. To our surprise, the staff had thought of everything. The working kitchen was hidden behind blackout curtains and so was the entryway. The corridor connecting the rooms to the reception, which ran past the restaurant was lighted by small votive candles, cleverly placed in front of the pillars so that the diners could not see their light. The reception, a few metres away from the restaurant was also partially darkened, with very dim candlelight like lighting which provided no light to the restaurant. Other areas of the hotel which were near the restaurant also featured such dimmed or darkened lighting. To ensure the safety of the guests, this is a strictly adults only affair and no cellphones are allowed, the gentleman at the table in front of ours had picked up his phone to take a picture, only to be requested politely yet firmly by the waiter to shut it down.

This is what a thali looks like usually, it is usually a set meal consisting of rice, rotis or pooris,  a few starters, lentils, one or two vegetable curries, one non-vegetarian dish (optional) and a dessert.
Image courtesy: Getty Images

We were met at the door by Nithil and provided with the drinks menu, they had tiny clip-on lights to illuminate it. We decided against drinks and requested to be seated. We were then led into the interior of the restaurant to our seats, with one of the waitstaff acting as our guide. The darkness of the restaurant was made more treacherous by the floor which was slippery in places due to the incessant rain. Thankfully, we reached our tables without any mishap. Our waiter, introduced himself and noted down our meal preferences, asking whether we had any dietary restrictions to cater to. Order taken, he quickly sped off into the darkness, moving as if, for him it was broad daylight. Left to the mercy of the dark, we quickly had a look around and saw, nothing… 😛 The darkness was complete. However, our eyes adjusted to the dark and soon we could see each other but not much else. It was a gorgeous rainy night and the smell of the wet earth mingled with the smell of the incense used to drive away mosquitoes created a very romantic atmosphere indeed.

Our plate felt a lot like this. As for the food, who knows? We couldn’t see because it was dark you see!!
Image courtesy: Getty Images

Our food soon arrived. The food served was in form of a limited thali, ours was non-vegetarian and there was a vegetarian option available as well. The plate as far we could make out, was shaped like the palette we used for watercolours in school, a central plate with an attached section to hold the various bowls of curries. We quickly dug in. At first, we ate with the self-consciousness that arises out of eating in public, you know, the spoon in you right, fork in your left, take a bite and chew thirty times type, but soon realised that the darkness actually provided us a cover to eat as we pleased. The spoon was kept down and fingers came out to enjoy Indian food as it should be eaten, and I am not ashamed to say manners flew out the window. Not that we were belching and flinging food around, but more of eating like we were at home, licking our fingers and actually relishing it without worrying what our neighbouring table would think of us.

Go ahead! Lick your fingers!! Nobody is watching!!
Image courtesy: Getty Images

The people at Spice Studio encourage you to guess what you are eating and Mr D and I were glad to take up that challenge.The food was excellent to say the least, non-greasy, light dishes from various parts of the country, not just the heavy Punjabi food or Gujarati food we expect on our thalis. Up first were the starters; Wilaiti Potli, an Indian take on the Chinese moneybags, stuffed with potatoes and peas, sort of like a small samosa. I took one bite of it and thought that if the rest of the food was even half as good as this, I’d die happy, needless to say, I was not disappointed. Next up was Achari Methi ke Phool, cauliflower in kasundi (a mustard sauce) and Ande ke Kabab followed by Ban Ajwain ke Murg Tikkey. I loved the cauliflower, being a Bong, anything drenched in kasundi is my instant best friend. Was not very thrilled with the Ande ke Kebab (egg kebabs) though, not their fault though, I was going through a phase where the smell of eggs made me feel sick. The ajwaini murgh tikka (chicken tikkas with carrom seeds) was fabulous though, I had initially thought it was Chicken 65, a notion I was disabused of later.

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Starters done, it was time for the main course. I can still remember the first taste of the Dal Studio, it tasted like first love, unicorn tears and angel tears, I am not exaggerating, it was THAT  good. It was basically dal makhani, made with ghee (clarified butter), if I had ordered this a la carte, I am pretty sure I would have hogged the entire portion myself and made growling noises every time someone would try to come between me and my dal. If the dal was heavy, the Kaddu and Verusenaga ki Sabzi (pumpkin with peanuts) was as light. Pumpkin is one of my favourite vegetables and the pairing with peanuts was something I was trying for the first time, it tasted like something one would make at home and provided a lovely balance to the dal. Next up was Gobhi Musallam, which is roasted cauliflower with a rich yogurt sauce, it was mild and very pleasing, I liked it, but after the dal and the pumpkin, this was meh.

This must be what angels feed on.
Image courtesy:http://www.iskcon.net.au

The non-vegetarian entrees consisted of Prawns Peratal and what I assume was Dhabe ka Gosht, because it was not mentioned in the menu we received at the end of the meal. The prawn preparation was a spicy Keralite dish and was very lovely indeed. The prawns were cooked just right, not the usual rubber one gets at other restaurants. The Dhabe ka Gosht or the mutton dish was very nice too, with what I think was a browned onion gravy. To accompany our meal we had methi (fenugreek) parathas, garlic naan and what we initially thought was pulao, but turned out to be tehri instead, made with carrots and peas.

Sweet little fried balls of yumminess!!
Image courtesy:http://www.bikanervala.co.nz/

There were two desserts, the first was what we had thought was Moong Dal Halwa, but turned out to be Anjeer and Badam Ka Halwa. The halwa was rich and you could taste the ghee in every single bite, all in all it was fabulous. All throughout the meal, I kept on thinking, “It feels like as if the menu created with me in mind, because it features all of my favourite food, how awesome would it be if the dessert would be my favourite too?” When I tasted the next dessert, I the avowed agnostic, actually believed in the presence of God for a moment, and that He had actually listened to my wish, why else would there be Balushahi on the menu? It was crisp, sweet and perfect. At this point I had more or less decided to junk my luggage and carry the chef back to Bombay, in my suitcase. With the last bite of Balushahi, our meal ended and I felt a sense of sadness that the meal was over so soon. As we left the restaurant, we were handed scrolls with our menu on them, I took one picture and promptly proceeded to lose them so here you have the really bad photo of the menu. Yes, I am a blogger, no this is not Scatterbrains Anonymous.

Yes, yes.. It is a shitty pic... I know!! I'm a bad blogger!!

Yes, yes.. It is a shitty pic… I know!! I’m a bad blogger!!

Alone in the darkness, without our cellphones or other people to distract us, Mr D and I really enjoyed our meal and each other’s company, we cracked jokes, had a lovely conversation and competed to see who could guess most correctly. It really set the tone for the rest of our vacation, we used our cellphones less, spoke to each other more and it felt so good. We are so visually bombarded everyday, it was a relief to just let our eyes relax and let our other senses take over. I would recommend this experience to everyone who visits Goa or if you’re in Bangalore, you can head over to the newly opened Dine in the Dark restaurant there.

  • Location: Spice Studio, Alila Diwa, Majorda, Goa
  • When: 8pm to 10.30pm, every last Thursday of the month
  • Price: INR 950 plus taxes
  • Child friendly: No children allowed, although, if you are a guest, you can leave your child at the Children’s Centre located in the hotel.
  • Senior friendly: Yes, from what we could make out, the staff held the hands of seniors or people who had trouble navigating to guide them to and from the table.
  • Pet friendly: No pets allowed in the hotel
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