DETOUR DE FORCE
How Cherrapunji changed Delhi for me (10 min read)
As the highland tea displaces the vitriol from my last dayjob, I feel the child in me rise to the top. And that child harks me to the geography class of Cherrapunji fame. Back then, every kid had an alluvial image of what the world’s wettest place could look like. I mean, it’s a place in the hills that’s really wet. What else could it look like?
After all these years, I’m slumming at a quaint Shillong cafe under dappled December sun, only 60 km from the truth. I settle my breakfast dues, grab my inner child and hail the nearest cab to Cherrapunji (vernac: Sohra).
As it happens, the nearest cab-driver is called Dhoni, he tells me with practiced diffidence. What are the odds! I can already see the makings of a special journey here. We set off in his winsome white Maruri 800 on the shiny grey ribbon that ties the Khasi hills, all the way to Cherrapunji.
Dhoni asks if I have any particular place in Cherrapunji in mind. Well, let’s get there, then we’ll see. My whimsy baffles him, as I’m informed by his piercing expression in the rear-view mirror. I try to hide the child in me with a ‘Hey, I’m a traveller, not a tourist’ look. I don’t follow maps, I make them. He replies with a quick smile in the rear-view, but I know he’s seeing through me. I hold on tighter to the child in me.
The drive is a little over an hour long and with every passing minute, shades of Dhoni’s personality start resembling those of the Indian sportstar M.S. Dhoni. Wonder if that would change if he shared names with another famous personality. Cue reverse psychology here.
He breaks the silence in his own sweet rundown English, ‘So, where you from?’. The moment I say Delhi, his face lights up with a longing for some place he’s never been, but really wants to. Suddenly, both adults in the car have accompanying inner children.
‘Delhi, aaah, Qutub Minar…Humayun’s Tomb is also there no? And Taj Mahal?’
And then it hits me, I haven’t been to Qutub Minar or the Humayun’s Tomb in almost 5 years! At least, Taj Mahal is in Agra. One tends to get caught up in their world so much that their own city seems like a different world.
‘Yes, yes, I keep going to Qutub Minar and Humayun’s Tomb… they’re close to my house. Taj Mahal is in Agra, was there a few years ago’.
‘I heard Qutab Minar in school…tallest tower in India… is it really so tall?’. His hands have momentarily left the wheel and are trying to show me his version of ‘tall’, but his ambition is limited by the low roof of his Maruti 800.
‘It’s my dream trip… saving money for it!’
As we exit the familiar ensemble of pine trees and rivulets, the roadway scenery changes dramatically into a vast, rolling plateau straight out of Patagonia! Yellow-green grasslands, pink wildflowers, char-black monoliths, pencil-shaped tombstones and brown-roofed Welsh cottages. More aptly, Patagonia with a dash of colonial hangover in all the right places. At some places, the slopes are curiously dimpled too. The waft of the mountain breeze adds the perfect art-film soundtrack to the retro-ness of the plateau.
We’re nearing Sohra and Patagonia changes into extra-small-town India, with earnest shacks selling tea and related accessories. We pull over at one of them for a couple cones of tea, with extra spice. Heck, we’re in the North-East, there’s enough around. As the tea is being warmed up, I spot a couple of Royal Stag bottles front and centre, with a golden liquid inside. I like the Dutch courage. Except, the liquid isn’t naughty malt, but virgin honey from the jungles around. I uncap one of them and soon enough the sensuous aroma of wild honey has washed the journey off me.
Dhoni isn’t too impressed and asks me over his earthy cheroot, ‘Say, what’s the best place in Delhi for good mutton curry? I’ve heard Jama Masjid… is it really so tasty? We only get pork and bada here (bada is vernac for buffalo meat)…’
‘Yeah… Jama Masjid, Nizamuddin, Jamia… all have good mutton curry…’.
I abruptly end this line of conversation and ask the mountain women behind the counter if this honey is available in Delhi. They smile as if I’ve asked for a pack of condoms. Though buying condoms shouldn’t even be awkward in the first place.
‘No Dilli, only Sora…’, one of them says like a maladjusted Gora.
As I pick up a few honey bottles and light-eats, I spot a few travel postcards in the backdrop. There’s this one that really stands out. It’s a blue Gothic-style building that looks like a church straight out of err… small-town America. There’s that child again.
‘What is that?’
Again coy mountain smiles precede the reply, ‘Cathedral Church… Shillong…’
Yeah right, THAT gorgeous piece of architecture is in Shillong!
I quickly google ‘Cathedral Church Shillong’ on my phone and the result has my senses in freeze-frame for a moment.
I ask Dhoni if he knows of this church.
‘Yes, Cathedral Church…but, churches in Dilli muuuchh better!’
Well, you haven’t even been to Delhi buddyboy. It’s your dream trip, remember?
I’m positively speechless by the conspicuous lack of excitement of the localites to the surrealness of this Gothic marvel.
‘Can you take me to this church when we get back?’
‘Ok… but where you want to go now? We in Sohra’
The question I’d been dreading is here.
Dhoni gets the quizzed look on my face.
‘Come I take you to waterfall…’
‘No waterfall man… too crowded’
‘No people there…only goats’
Must be one of those lame wayside cascades, where people stop, pose and continue. Boring.
I agree anyway, for want of a less boring idea.
As we set off for the ‘waterfall’, the aridness around makes me wonder when it’ll change into wetness, let alone the world-beating wetness of Cherrapunji.
I get my answer shortly, when the landscape dramatically morphs into steep craggy cliffs, thick pine forests and mystic little rivers. Only one thing can happen from here.
In a few minutes it does. I find myself at Noh Kalikai, the highest plunge waterfall in India! As I take in the bird’s eye view, my toes raise as the ground beneath me slips. The child in me sighs ‘WOAAHHH!’. How did I end up here? Is this India’s own Angel Falls or what? There’s also a virgin blue lagoon at the waterhole. Why isn’t Noh Kalikai on most tourist maps?
The goats behind me however are too used to this place to even look up. The grass is their waterfall. Quite like Dhoni, who’s too busy to look up from his phone.
When I’m done with the necessary photography, I ask Dhoni why he didn’t hype this place as India’s highest waterfall? Whatever happened to tourism. Maybe I did give off the vibes of a traveller, not a tourist!
Dhoni simply looks at me and points to something on his mobile phone. It’s an intricate shot of the stonework on the walls of Qutub Minar.
‘Is this how it really looks?!’
I nod assertively like a practiced Qutab Minarologist and rattle off the few names I know from the dynasty that slaved over the monument.
His eyes signal that the kid in him says ‘WOAAAHHH!’.
One man’s home is truly another’s holiday.
Or is a holiday just a state of heart?
I’m exiting the airport back from my North-East adventure to the afternoon chill of December Delhi. The luggage feels lighter even though it’s heavier from the trip. As I seat myself in the taxi, the driver asks me about my destination. By force of habit, I almost give him my home address.
This time though, something within me has changed and I reply ‘Qutub Minar’ instead. The taxi-driver looks at me strangely for wanting to head straight to a monument from the airport, especially with all that baggage.
Soon enough, he can’t help but ask, ‘So, where you from?’
My inner child can’t help but smile.
Words circa 2013
Behind every successful day in Old Delhi (7 min read)
They say, if you dig deep enough, you discover portals into the past. If you were to dig deep in Old Delhi though, you’d discover a portal into the future. Of course, you don’t have to, because a brave army of engineers already did that for you in early-2000s. And gloriously materialised India’s deepest Metro station at Chawri Bazaar. This futuristic terminal is buried a good 100 feet in the Delhi underbelly and is a shiny foil to the bustling Mughal-era market that lies above. Quite how the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) managed to make the old and the new worlds meet this way, is a story for another time altogether.
Just then, a lady with an electric voice asks me to ‘Please mind the gap’ and snaps me out of my reverie. My early-hour train has just swished into place at the dreamy Chawri Bazaar Metro stop. As I make my way up the three storeys to the exit, the first note of horsey musk starts making its way inside. I’ve successfully logged into the grit of Old Delhi.
I’ve only logged out of my sweet winter slumber to work on a photologue about Old Delhi before it gets down to the business of the day. The day before the day. How often does one get to see the Old Delhi that lies in the space between its people?
For now, the only people are the early birds preparing to make hay as the Sun prepares to shine. The paanwallah (betel-leaf hawker) is rinsing his stash of leaves, the chaatwallah (spicy Indian streetfood seller) chopping veggies for the chutney (mint sauce), the wayside barbers working on the cutting edges, the sweepers housekeeping the road. As I absorb the scenes behind the scene, the chaiwallah (tea hawker) offers me my cone of tea spiked with just the right spices. ‘Cheers!’, he adds in earnest, rundown English. I’m his boni or first official customer for the day. After that cracking start, my senses too (all six of them) are well and truly open for the day.
Perked from the tea, I move on to the fabled Jama Masjid. As an evening visitor, you can only afford this bulbous beauty continual partial attention. Because among the hordes of the dusk, push can easily come to shove. But it’s only 8.30 am, and I languidly take in the dome and minar ensemble, swathed as it is, in milky winter haze.
The tea has only whetted my appetite for breakfast, and I’m off to Shyam Sweets to quench my hunger. This popular eat-out is known for dishing out the bedmi puri sabzi, a cracking deep-fried bread made from puffy wheat flour and ground urad lentil. Served with aloo sabzi (potato curry), it comes from a closed-door recipe that’s 4 generations old. Yes, polishing this delicatessen can get messy, but that spice-flour camaraderie is worth a lick or five. And you can top that with the daulat ki chaat hawked nearby. A foamy concoction from Moradabad made from milk cream leavened with just the right amount of dark-hour mist. Talk about an overnight success.
Suitably mealed, I dive into Khari Baoli and can sense a very distinct Cairo vibe to the place. Mostly because, it’s the largest spice bazaar in Asia and the air is rent with a heady deodorant of spice, fruit and nut. A nearby rooftop commands a view of an assorted shanty, complete with the public display of dirty linen. Outside their homes, people soak in the low winter sun while poring over the newspaper, curating their beards, chatting about the state of the nation, lavishing their pets or even indulging in a de rigueur game of corridor cricket. Almost like you’ve been teleported straight into a Bombay chawl.
I’m woken from my Bombay reverie by a Caucasian photographer who’s also been shooting the Baoli from the top down. He’s noted my ‘local’ look and asks if I’ve heard of this quaint place in Chandni Chowk that stocks the monsoon aroma. Yes, I quip, come to Delhi in July-August and every kinaara (corner) on the road will be stocked with the monsoon aroma! Jokes apart, I do know about the place. It’s called Gulabsingh Johrimal and apart from the wet-mud or Gul, the good people there can also mimic the fragrance of big-ticket perfumes (think Dior, Dunhill, Bulgari) in bottles of ittar that are pocket-friendly, both in size and price.
As we make our way to the scent merchant, the photographer tells me his name is Alberto and he’s shooting for a Spanish newspaper. Also, have I heard of Naughara of the technicolour Jain havelis fame? I haven’t. We ask around and decide to visit Naughara first, so we won’t have to lug around the ittar bottles scored from Gulabsingh Johrimal.
En route Naughara, we find ourselves in Kinaari Bazaar. Now, I’ve never been here and must say this place is stimulus motherload. The arsenal includes a riot of colours articulating themselves as bangles, sarees, turbans, linen, girdles, pendants, flowers, and basically anything else that doesn’t just come in black and white. Then of course, there are the rickshawmen who stretch their vocal chords like their life depends on it (in that crowd, sometimes it can).
We take a detour from the main street bustle and enter the sanctuary of 18th century Naughara. Jain havelis? Tick. Technicolour? Double tick. The arched doorways of the nine havelis are draped in floral motifs and a luxuriant palette of pink, green and aquamarine. The doors themselves have ornate etchings on them. How’s that for an invitation into an exotic past? The Jain temple nearby is decked in pure white marble and gracefully offsets the exuberance of the havelis.
We now scramble towards Chandni Chowk to shop at Gulabsingh Johrimal. As the day waxes, real estate on the sidewalk is beginning to vanish at an alarming rate. Soon enough, we’re at Gulabsingh Johrimal. As we part the plastic curtain, it seems we’ve entered the Indian Monsoon. The Gul or the wet-mud ittar has marked its territory all over. Other ittars that fly off the shelves include the Rooh Gulab (Rose) and the Khus. Of course, you can also ask for bespoke ittars inspired by the essence of your favourite designer perfume. This 7th generation merchant of scents boasts of famous patrons like Indira Gandhi, Sharmila Tagore and more recently Vir Sanghvi.
Just as we step out of Gulabsingh Johrimal, I spot a curious beeline of people rushing to and from some place through a skinny alley. Turns out, the place in question is the swanky Chandni Chowk metro stop, that’s oddly enough buried behind a dated warren of stores. Just then, a cycle rickshawman chides me as I let him pass, ‘Sir, kabse ghanti baja raha tha, phone kyun nahin uthaaya?’. It takes me a while to decipher him. Then I interpret the rather creative rickshawman for my friend Alberto, ‘Sir, I’ve been ringing the bell for you to give me way … what took you so long to pick the phone and get my message?’.
It’s well and truly time to get out of Old Delhi’s way.
Never a flat moment with these 10 throwback Hauz Khas Village domes
(5 min read)
If the 14th century overlords happened to visit Delhi today, they’d probably wonder where all those handsome domes they had materialised have gone. The domes are still there of course, sprinkled all over the First City behind thickets and markets, surrounded by jogging men and rounding cars, within colony gates and factory precincts, under flying roads and rails. In fact, if them overlords went over to Hauz Khas Village, they’d still find Feroze Shah’s tomb on sentry duty by the lake. But, this piece is about the 10 other trippy domes hiding in plain view, surrounded by the bazaar boom of Hauz Khas Village.
DADI POTI KA MAQBARA
Bang opposite the Aurobindo Market, this duo of tombs gets its name because the Dadi (Grandmother) tomb is bigger than the Poti(Grand-daughter). A few good words with the security guard reveal that Dadi+Poti actually refers to Mistress+Maid! Dadi ka maqbara (256 sq.m.) dates from the Lodhi period, is square-based and has 3 levels of ornamental alcoves on its northern and southern walls. Poti ka maqbara (144 sq.m.) dating probably from the Tughlaq era, is a curious entity because tombs generally have an embellished south face and a staid north. Here, that detail is flipped for reasons unknown. Both tombs have unidentified graves inside and are draped in tangerine and violet lights at sundown. Sometimes, the light is white too. But that’s mostly from a fancy car swishing by.
BAGH-I-ALAM KA GUMBAD
Ensconced at the Safdarjung Enclave end of Deer Park, this tomb (Dome of the Tiger of the World) is clearly one of the best Lodhi-era monuments in Delhi. It’s the biggest tomb in Hauz Khas and effuses machismo with its rugged stone and sandstone façade. The arched alcoves and the Kangura battlements (parapet motifs) add ornamental ballast to the tomb. Inside are three unknown graves out of reach for civvies. Next to the tomb lies a wall mosque with mihrabs (alcoves) that point West in the direction of Mecca.
KALI GUMTI & TEFEWALA GUMBAD
Behind the Bagh-i-Alam ka Gumbad rests the Kali Gumti (Small Black Dome) which possibly dates to the Tughlaq or Sayyid era. It’s plastered with traditional organic mortar which over the centuries turned black and lent the tomb its colour. Nearby lies the Tefewala Gumbad (Dome that was gifted) that dates to the Lodhi era. It sports a sandstone exterior that glows orange in the dusk and adds a dash of tart to the luxe cover of green around.
The dome at Munda Gumbad (Bald Dome) is made from the trees watching over it, as it sits atop a grassy bank watching over the Hauz Khas lake. This Khilji-era edifice which is now a single-decker, was originally planned as a duplex at the lake centre. The tomb is square-based and has four staircases that ostensibly lead to the floor above.
Just after Aurobindo Market lies the Lodhi-era Barah Khamba (12 pillars), a square tomb that stands tall on 12 pillars, 4 large apex ones and 2 small ones on each of the 4 apexes. Each side measures 10.5 metres. At the entry, the ‘Delhi Heritage’ board reads ‘At one time there were several cenotaphs inside…’. Today, there are several dogs watching over the drying clothes in the ramparts.
BIRAN KA GUMBAD
Just behind the Green Park taxi station lies the Lodhi-era Biran ka Gumbad (Dome of the Brother). It’s rather humble, with no perceivable ciphers on the wall to tell us about the grave inside. Could be a cenotaph for that very reason. There is also a thirsty well around, with a sliver of water shining through. A gentle reminder of how scarce water was in Siri, the capital built by Ala-ud-din Khilji in AD 1295. And in whose precincts Hauz Khas (Special Tank) lies.
Located at the Green Park- Hauz Khas intersection, the Lodhi-era Chhoti Gumti (Small Dome) is a relatively low-roofed tomb with an area of just about 8 square meters.
Made from plastered rubble, this edifice has surprisingly stood the test of time. Not least because of the ace restoration efforts by ASI.
Very close to Chhoti Gumti lies Sakri Gumti (Narrow Dome), a Lodhi dynasty building which was possibly a gateway to somewhere. With a floor area of just 4.6 square meters, it’s one of the smallest monuments in the area.
If you’re saturated with flat modern rooftops, the open-secret domes around Hauz Khas Village are a well-rounded change for the eye. We recommend you crank up your internal GPS though, for the Deer Park is a maze waiting to happen. The upside being, if you do get lost, you could stumble on an unseen dome. And add to this list!
Locations: Hauz Khas Village, Green Park Market, Deer Park
Nearest Metro: Green Park (~ 2km)
Dubai- the city that’s now a verb
(Words circa 2007 / 5 min read)
Back in the 20th century, Dubai was a stopover on a time-bending trans-world flight. Today, it’s a famous destination. Behind this revolutionary escalation lies a steely resolve to keep moving and never stay still.
As the Airbus descends to Montgolfier heights, the first thing that strikes you about the city is the symmetry. You can’t help but notice the shimmering lights in the distance, eerily similar to the opening frame from that Lynch flick, Mulholland Drive.
Whooshing past the nightlights, it takes a giant 180-degree sweep of the neck to fully appreciate the Dubai road. Plus, speeds touch 100 in city limits easy. So, no look-left-look-right sprints across the road for the Indian tourist here.
If it’s surreal by night, the Dubai day is no less a Dali exhibit. What with Arabesque domes hobnobbing with mod high-rises at most nooks, you begin to see how this cosmopolis is a cusp of the East and the West in more ways than many.
Sure, Dubai is a visual palette. But it’s also aural ecstasy for the Indian ear, with the jarring city din conspicuous by its absence.
Arriving as I did in winter when the ambience is decidedly more forgiving than the burning Gulf summer, my notions about the city may seem a bit prejudiced. Then again, this piece is Automne Hiver. You may want to wait for the summer do!
Dubai is a throbbing transfusion of worlds. Peoplewatching the natural outcome. Right from the inspired Arabic couture to the kaleidoscopic Filipino wardrobe, this Arabopolis is a living pastiche of what’s trending in the world today.
One thing that a gimlet Indian eye instantly picks is the crazy number of cars on the road. And breathe easy as there are no (ob)noxious autorickshaws. Only well-waxed taxis, buses and the post-Shinkansen Dubai Metro.
Lonely wander and you also see a warren of department stores, hair salons and restaurants in most neighbourhoods. In fact, walk through any bylane for a few minutes, and you’ll meet most of your day needs.
Of course, Arabia is never complete without the mystic sea. The Dubai creek, which opens into the Persian Gulf, cleaves the metropolis into Bur and Deira. Small boats called abras motor across the choppy waters, affording cheap mass transport. And then there are floating restaurants fashioned out of traditional Arabic boats or dhows, which shape the mobile dusk silhouette. The high-fashion local markets or souks on the creekshore offer choice bargains on most modern wants.
Dubai is Mall City. Period. Be it the colossal Mall of the Emirates or the visual fiesta Ibn Battuta, or the Renaissance-style Mercato or the Wafi Mall, most malls are adrenalin central for extreme shoppers on most open days. However, the retailers are happiest during the season-ending Dubai Shopping Festival in January-February. With delicious sales at most stores, the math isn’t hard.
The Dubai sky+shoreline is changing so fast, you could be playing SimCity. Except, you’re not. Burj Khalifa at 828m, is already the man-made roof of the world. Other unreal estate gigs include the Palm Jumeirah and the World islands, the new barometer for the very, very, very rich. And, of course, the tallest hotel in the world, Burj Al Arab. With a devilish gate fee of USD 50-75, you can almost hear the doormen ask, “In or out?”. And there’s only the deep blue sea around.
With the desert at Dubai’s backyard, the virgin sands are a great place to go Wadi and dune surfing. And maybe even name some routes after you. Of course, it’s sand. So, they won’t last long anyway! If desert-hopping is not your thing, there are places enough for your next bungee yank, parasailing leap or just a nice hot-air balloon sortie.
Anything else you seek about this Arabian misfit, google audacious. You won’t be disappointed.