Sunday, October 2, 2016

Ghee - the Ayurvedic Superfood

Superfood or not, ghee or toop, as we call it in Marathi, is loved by one and all in my family. Its fragrant aroma, especially when served with dal and hot rice is heavenly! None of the top brands of ghee available on the market can ever match the flavour of home-made ghee. Yet, early on, I was always intimidated to make ghee at home. The process seemed a lengthy one and definitely beyond me.  I always used to use store-bought ghee and sometimes the ghee sent over by my relatives.  I also used to buy the tetra-pack milk for a long time and there was no cream whatsoever to churn and make ghee. Hence, I never tried my hand at making ghee until recently.

However, just a few months ago, I switched to buying cow's full-cream milk (Nandini's 4.5% full-fat cream milk available in Bangalore) and this is when I decided to try making ghee at home. I store the cream in the fridge for about 10-15 days and then use it to make ghee. The cream stays good for that long in the fridge.

I transfer all the cream to a deep vessel and add a couple of tablespoons of curd to it. I allow the cream to ferment for more than a day in the Bangalore weather. In more warm places like Mumbai or elsewhere, keeping the cream overnight for fermentation should be good enough, is my guess. Once the cream is fermented and ready for churning, add ample of water (cold water preferred) to help with the churning. The churning process with the butter churner takes about 15-20 minutes for me.

The deep vessel I use for churning the cream
Once the butter starts floating in the vessel, transfer it to a kadhai and wash it with water a couple of times to get rid of the buttermilk. This apparently helps in getting good quantities of ghee!

Butter floating in the buttermilk
Churned and washed butter
Heat the butter on a medium flame for around 20 minutes. I add some curry leaves as it imparts a good, subtle aroma to the ghee. One can even add drumstick leaves to the butter. I got these tips from my grandmother; however, don't exactly know the scientific reason behind adding these herbs/leaves, if there is any ;)

Butter to which curry leaves are added
Once the butter has completely melted, keep an eye out on the ghee so that the sediment which is formed at the base of the kadhai is not burnt. The sediment, ideally, should be light brown in colour. We call it 'beri' in Marathi and it is usually eaten with sugar added to it. Yumm yumm!

Beri - white in colour
Once the beri starts browning a bit, quickly take the ghee off the heat and allow the beri to settle down. Strain the ghee using a strainer into a dry, clean jar.

Ghee
Ghee need not be refrigerated and can be stored at room temperature for years at times without it going bad.

Some links to the benefits of ghee:

Friday, September 23, 2016

Kothimbir wadi (Steamed coriander cakes/fritters)

Kothimbir vadi tempered with sesame and mustard seeds
Mom is here  and so nowadays our evenings are special with yummy snacks rolling out of the kitchen. Kothimbir vadi or coriander fritters is a healthy snack which can be arranged in no time. The aroma of the fresh coriander leaves cooked into this dish just leaves one craving for more. I gobbled up the steamed ones without waiting for them to be fried or to be garnished with the tempering.

Without much ado, here is the recipe for it:

Ingredients

Finely chopped coriander leaves - 2 cups, tightly packed

Besan - 1 cup

Ginger-garlic-green chilli paste - 1 inch of ginger, 8-10 cloves of garlic, and 2 green chillies

Sesame seeds - 1 tbsp

Turmeric powder - 1 tsp

Chilli powder - 1 tsp

Hing - a pinch

Water - little for making the pasty dough

Salt - to taste


Method

Mix all the ingredients listed above except water. Add water in very small quantities to form a pasty dough (somewhat similar in consistency to thick idli batter). Transfer the mixed ingredients to a steamer, greased with oil and steam it for around 12-15 minutes. Note that I have added half the quantity of besan to that of the coriander leaves  which yields really fragrant kothimbir vadis.

Allow it to cool and cut into shapes of your choice. These vadis can be eaten as it is or can be further shallow fried, deep fried or just tempered with mustard seeds and curry leaves.

I had the zero-oil, steamed version and they were just as delicious :)

Kothimbir vadi (coriander fritters)

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Menthada Huli

Menthada Huli
'Huli' is to Kannadigas, what 'aamti' is to Maharashtrians. The term 'huli' means sour. I cook a lot of Madhwa recipes on a regular basis (courtesy my parents and my late grandmother). Madhwa cuisine usually abstains from onion and garlic. However, over a period of time, these taamsik ingredients have found their way to our everyday meal :)

In my house, 'huli' usually refers to toovar dal to which a souring agent like tamarind is added. But today, I was in no mood to have my everyday share of protein and wanted to have something tangy to liven up my tastebuds. So, Menthada huli it was, to be made in a jiffy! This particular recipe does not use any dal. 'Mentha' here refers to methi or fenugreek seeds which lends its unique flavor to this dish.

This dish can be made with or without any vegetables. I added a bit of  ladies fingers to it to give it a nutritious punch. Other veggies like Bangalore brinjal, chow chow, and drumsticks too can be pre-cooked separately and added. Please note, it is important not to add other varieties of brinjals which contains seeds, to this dish.

Ingredients (Serves 3-4)

Ladies finger (okra), chopped into inch-long pieces - 6 in number

Onions - 4 medium sized onions, sliced vertically

Tamarind soaked in water - about the size of 2 lemons

Besan - as a thickening agent, about 1-2 tsp. To be made into a thick slurry with water

Jaggery powder (mildly sweet) - 2 tsp

Water - as needed

Salt - to taste


For tempering

Peanut Oil -  about 2 tablespoons

Mustard seeds - 1 tsp

Methi (Fenugreek) seeds - 1.5 tsp

Urad dal - 2 tsp

Chana dal - 1 tsp ( I did not use it)

Curry leaves

Green chilli - 1

Red chillies - 4 ( The chillies I used are very hot)


Method

Start by heating the oil for tempering in a kadhai. When the oil is sufficiently hot, put the ingredients under tempering and let its flavours ooze out in the oil for a minute or so. Next, add in the ladies fingers and onions and cook till the vegetables are almost done. Once the ladies fingers are cooked, add in the tamarind pulp, and about 1 small cup of water.  Add the  thick slurry of besan  to the gravy and let it simmer for 4-5 minutes till the besan gets cooked. Add jaggery powder, salt and check the dish for its consistency. Add more water or besan slurry to adjust the consistency of the dish to your liking. You can add more jaggery as well to suit your taste buds :)

This is a hot (not spicy!)  preparation and is ideal to be eaten with rice and a side of papad. It is more of a comfort food for us, which gets done in no time. Hope you try it and enjoy it!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Sailing to Flam (Norway)

We were all ready to explore Norway on a cruise ship. We had read beautiful stories of the vistas of Norway; especially of its fjords and the stunning landscape it offers. Flam, situated on the western coast of Norway, was our first destination and it did mesmerise us as expected. Truly speaking, words are not enough to describe the magical sights, we witnessed in Flam. Hopefully, my pictures will do some justice to describe what we experienced.

Port of Flam
Flam is a little hamlet of majestic beauty with about 700 residents, located at the inner end of Aurlandsfjord - an 18-mi long branch of Sognefjord. The landscape is colossal with deep fjords adjoining the tall granite cliffs, which are dotted with red & white houses and numerous waterfalls interspersing its vastness. Sognefjord is the largest fjord in Norway with a stretch of 127 mi and the second longest fjord in the world. It is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A population of just 700 people does seem a small number when one stays in India, doesn't it? :D. However, such is the beauty of the place that it receives almost 450,000 visitors every year! Furthermore, the Flam harbour too receives about 160 cruise ships a year.  With such a large influx of tourists, it is amazing that the place is divinely charming and pristine as if left untouched.

 ms Koningsdam - our cruise ship
Our ship docked at Flam sharp at 8 am and was to set sail at 5 pm the same day. So, we had close to 9 hours to see this beautiful place. We had booked a Fjordsafari-Hiking-Goatfarm-Lunch tour with a group there (www.flamguide.no) from 9 am to 2:40 pm. The tour started with us wearing a warm, waterproof oversuit which contained a floatation device  (seriously, the fjords are about 1500 metres deep in some areas!!! )and hopping onto a speed boat.

Our boat guide was a Norwegian guy who had migrated from Bergen to the surroundings of Flam, where he had bought 33,000 acres of land. Yes, you heard it right! He bought a goat farm high up on the mountains adjoining the fjords. In summer time, he farms his land wherever it is arable and in other seasons, when farming is not possible, he doubles up as a guide offering his excellent services to tourists. He chose this village life over the city life in Bergen and is quite content about the way he gets time to spend with his family amidst nature!

Fjord
We started off towards the heart of the Naeroyfjord (branch of Sognefjord) and also sailed a bit of the Sognefjord before reaching our destination. On the way there, we saw the fjord banks dotted with numerous charming hamlets and  verdant farms. Inspite of being located in such a popular tourist area, these hamlets are very remotely connected and are majorly accessible only by water.  One such farm - the Stigen farm, now turned into a hotel, must surely  be the most inaccessible of them all.  Perched up high on a cliff, this farm is accessible only by a ladder. In days of yore, when the farm had any unwelcome visitor like the tax collectors, the farmer, it seems, would simply pull up the ladder. However, now it is a very popular hotel in the tourist season and gets fully booked 3 years in advance!

Stigen farm - cum - hotel
As we sped further ahead in our boat, we reached Undredal, the village which is famous for its goat cheese. This fjord village has about only 80 residents, 300 goats and the smallest stave church in the whole of Scandinavia. Cheese production still happens here the traditional way and it is quite famous for its brown cheese. Dotted with red houses, flanking the vertical cliffs and waterfalls, this unique village in the middle of the World Heritage area, was a sight to behold!

 Undredal
We reached Aurlandsfjord and were almost ready to dock in Skjerdal, when we spotted a dolphin jumping out of water. Some seals were making merry just on the other side of our boat. Well, this was a good start! Now, we looked forward to the hike. It had taken us about 40-45 minutes to reach Skjerdal.

At the wharf, we jumped out of our speed boats, got out of our oversuits and began the rather steep but short hike towards Leim goat farm. It was a beautiful hike with splendid views of the fjords along the way.

Vistas as seen from the hike
Soon, we reached a motorable road along our hike route, from where we spotted the white Leim farmhouse.

The white coloured farm house at Leim
We continued the hike and came across a stony path filled with adorable goats, just below the farm house. The goats were very friendly and were trying to chew at our backpacks;) We spent some time clicking pictures and goofing around with the goats and then made our way to the farm house.

Our grand goatee welcome to the farmhouse ;)

The 1.5 hour hike was a bit tiring, particularly as it brought us along some steep climbs. On reaching the farmhouse, we were greeted by a young Norwegian girl, dressed in a local attire. She was home on vacation and was helping her mom cater to the tourists. She herself had prepared delicious lunch of salads, pesto, salami, goat milk spiced yoghurt and a variety of cheeses for us. Ravenous as we were after the hike, we immediately settled down on a terrace overlooking a beautiful valley for a sumptuous lunch. She served us the lunch with some warm bread and fresh apple juice.

The cheeses were all home made from their own farm's goat milk and so was the meat. Meat was obtained from the old goats who were no longer useful. As we gorged on the food, she further brought in plates of pancakes with brown cheese...yeah brown cheese! It is the cheese which is made from the leftover whey.  A delightful gastronomic experience it was!

Our (goat) cheesy lunch at the farmhouse
Pancakes served with brown cheese and blueberry preserve (not in the pic)
It started raining while we were having our lunch and this made the vistas around us all the more beautiful. Mists of clouds were drifting over us as we started our descent. It just seemed magical. Our hiking guide told us that it was the fjords and the culture of Norway (Undredal and other places) which inspired Disney's movie Frozen.  No wonder, the region seemed like a fairyland in the mists.

At the base, we drove back to the port of Flam enjoying a hearty chat with our Swedish guide, and I making a mental note to myself...to capture this wonderful experience on my blog soon :)

Monday, August 22, 2016

Bhajniche Thalipeeth

Served with curd and peanut chutney
Thalipeeth is a savory pancake and a popular Maharashtrian breakfast item. We, many a times, have it for dinner as well. It is a very nutritious dish with a variety of grain cereals and pulses ground together. Bhajni (meaning: roasted) is the flour used to make thalipeeth. The recipe for bhajni is given below. Once the bhajni is ready, it can be stored for months together, preferably in an air-tight container to retain its fragrant aroma.

Thalipeeth Bhajni

  1. Bajri- 750 gms
  2. Jowar- 750 gm
  3. Rice-500 gms
  4. Wheat-500 gms
  5. Chana dal-500gms
  6. Dhania seeds – 250 gms
  7. Whole udid black dal (with skin) – 250 gms
  8. Soya beans seeds– 250 gms
Dry roast all the items individually on a slow flame and grind it together to a fine powder. Store it in a cool, dark place. I sometimes keep it in the freezer by sealing it in a Ziploc. It stays good for around 4-6 months in the freezer.


Thalipeeth

Recipe:

Makes 4-6 thalipeeths of medium size


2 cups bhajni

2 finely chopped medium-sized onions

1 cup finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

2-3 finely chopped green chillies

2 tsp red chilly powder

1 tsp turmeric powder

A pinch of asafoetida

Water for kneading the dough

Salt to taste

Mix all the above ingredients in a mixing bowl and make a pasty dough. Once the dough is ready, slightly grease/wet your palms and flatten the dough ball onto a wet plastic sheet/butter paper into a round pancake. It is important to wet your palms and the plastic sheet so as to avoid the sticking of the dough to your hands or to the plastic. Now carefully lift the thalipeeth off the plastic by turning it upside down onto the heated griddle. Sometimes, I even flatten the dough ball into a pancake directly on the griddle by sprinkling water which helps me spread it evenly. Keep the heat on moderate to allow it to cook evenly.

Thalipeeth is a thick pancake and needs to be cooked on moderate heat/flame to allow its even cooking. Form holes on to the thalipeeth with your fingers. This helps in cooking it evenly. Drizzle a few drops of oil on the sides of the thalipeeth and in the holes to shallow fry it. Cover the thalipeeth for a few minutes with a lid. Flip over the thalipeeth and cook it on the other side as well. Your crispy thalipeeth should be ready soon.



In my mom’s house, it is usually served with a dollop of home-made fresh butter and a side of mango pickle. I like it with curds and my husband and son enjoy it with desi ghee.

Tip: You can also add vegetables of your choice to thalipeeth such as grated carrots, cucumber, methi, spinach to give it that extra vitamin punch!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Bharli Bhendi (Stuffed Okras)


On most days, I make it a point to cook dal along with a vegetable curry made separately or added to the dal itself. Today, I was craving for some typical Maharastrian bhaaji (vegetable) to go with my simple dal tadka and rice. As I scouted my fridge, I came across these organic bhendis (okra/ladyfingers) waiting to be cooked. The tender and slender bhendis were the perfect lot for making bharli bhendi (stuffed okra).

Being a south Indian who was born and brought up in Maharashtra, the local Maharashtrian cuisine has always held a special place in my heart! The sprinkle of sugar with a dash of lime; the generous garnish of freshly scraped coconut with finely chopped coriander leaves; the heat of lavangi mirchi along with fragrance of goda masala, bring out the sweet, sour and fiery tastes of its delectable cuisine. The recipes especially from the konkan belt of Maharashtra usually tend to go light on complex spices and tries to enhance the original flavour of the dish with the addition of these simple, healthy, yet glorious condiments. Bharli bhendi is one such flavorful dish, simple to make and delicious to eat!

The recipe for it goes like this:

Bhendi, ends chopped and slit on one side - 500 gms

Oil - 2 tablespoons for shallow frying

Haldi - 1 teaspoon

Mustard seeds - 1 teaspoon

Asafoetida - a generous pinch

<strong>To be ground into a dry masala</strong> (without adding any water):

Freshly scraped/desiccated coconut - 1/4th cup

Roasted peanuts - 1/3rd cup

Garlic - 4-5 in number

Green chillies - 2 or 3 depending on your taste

Coriander leaves - 1/2 cup, coarsely chopped

Coriander powder - 2 teaspoons

Jeera powder- 1 teaspoon

Sesame seeds - 1.5 teaspoons

Goda masala (or garam masala) - 1/4th teaspoon

Powdered jaggery or sugar - as per taste. I had added 1 teaspoon of jaggery powder

Lemon juice - from 1 small lemon

Salt - to taste

Prepare the masala by grinding all the above listed ingredients and mix in the lemon juice and salt. Feel free to adjust the ingredients in the masala to suit your taste. After all, cooking is not an exact science and should satisfy one's taste buds! Fill the masala in the bhendis tightly and keep them ready. Meanwhile, heat a pan to start with the tempering. When the oil is sufficiently hot, add the mustard seeds and wait for it to splutter. Then add the haldi, asafoetida and the stuffed bhendis.

Make sure the bhendis are arranged in the pan in a way so that they do not overlap each other.If the pan is small, you can make it separately in two batches.Keep the flame on low to medium heat.  After arranging the bhendis, cover the pan with a lid so that the bhendis get cooked evenly. Flip them after every  3-5 minutes till they are crisp and done on all sides.

Enjoy it hot with dal rice and ghee :)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Bosphorus ferry tour of Istanbul

April 4, 2015

I was super excited! It was going to be a 2-week long trip in Turkey, starting from Istanbul. Not many would be aware that Istanbul or Constantinopole of ancient times,  is a city on two continents - one part in Asia (known locally as Anatolia) and other part in Europe.  The Bosphorus Strait runs across the city dividing it into continents and connects the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea. The Strait has been a site of significant settlement and civilisation since ancient times. It was here, on the European side of the Bosphorus, the Greeks founded the city of Byzantium, which later came to be known as Istanbul.

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/melih_ozcanli/9690831491/
We landed at the airport and hired a cab to our hotel near Sultanahmet square. We were waiting for the cab when a German backpacker student approached us and asked if we would be willing to share a cab with her.  Of course, we agreed and started off towards the city (50 TL per person). It took us a good two hours to make our way to our hotel. The sights and sounds as we neared the city, felt familiar - the chaos on the road, traffic jams, ladies and children [most of them were the displaced Syrian refugees :( ] selling trinkets on the street and lots and lots of crowds everywhere. The driver took upon himself to show us his beautiful city as we rode by. The traffic was heavy as we passed along the Bosphorus Strait, but the sights were stunning.

The air travel, and the cab ride had drained us out for the day. It was almost 6 pm in the evening when we checked in to our hotel. It was a cold and windy day and the weather was unusually cold at 6 degrees Celcius for that time of the year.  We wrapped ourselves in jackets and headed out to explore the neighbourhood and grab some food.

We had a quick dinner of Mezes (local word for appetizers) in a nearby Turkish restaurant. Being a vegetarian, left me with very little options on the first day. I  ordered some falafel and hummus. The bread was complimentary. It was a big roti like bread sprinkled with a variety of seeds, including sesame seeds.  The hummus which came with it was lipsmackingly delicious. Later, in my coming days, I found out that vegetarians do have plenty of food options in Turkey. Not only in a big city like Istanbul but elsewhere too.  Its good to go green ;)

We still had to plan our 3-day stay in Istanbul. Our hotel owner was a friendly and helpful guy. He made us feel comfortable with all the little tips and pointers one needs to get around a new city in a new country. Not only he helped us book  our Istanbul tours but he also helped us in booking the Cappadocia and Izmir tours!

We decided to take the Bosphorus Strait Tour early in the morning the next day. We were picked up at our hotel in a bus and dropped near the ferry point.<span class="Apple-converted-space"> We were a group of around 12-15 people, all excited to start the tour. </span>I was wondering how will I brave the biting cold on the open deck of the cruise. Hubby was insistent  that we be on the open deck on the top floor to enjoy the view rather than be in the cosy warmth of the covered lower deck. I agreed.


Our first halt was at the Ortakoy mosque, one of the most famous locations on the Bosphorus. It is a picturesque mosque with the Bosphorus bridge in the background. We stopped here for about 40 minutes and got ample of time to see the mosque and get some shopping done as well. The mosque is very pretty as you see in the pics below with beautiful in-laid tiles and decorated ceilings. The area near the mosque is lined with roadside shops selling knick knacks and other items. We were lucky to find some beautifully embroidered table cloths at a steal deal and a pair of gloves to help me beat the chill.


The Bosphorus bridge joins the Asian side with the European side of the city. As we ferried on, we passed under the bridge to reach the Kucuksu Pavilion. This was the Sultan’s guesthouse during his frequent hunting expeditions and is now turned into a museum. It is a beautiful palace with intricate engravings and other motifs adorning the walls. We spent around an hour at this place clicking away to glory.


Back on the ferry, we were treated to some delectable cookies and a sweet sherbet. Munching on the food, we were drinking in the beauty of the stunning views of the city.

Our next stop was the Rumesli fortress built by the Ottoman king, Sultan Mehmed-II. We were told that the fortress was constructed at the narrowest point of the Bosphorus strait, opposite an Anatolian Castle on the other side. These two vantage points served to protect the city from invaders via the Strait and also to prevent any aid from the Black Sea to reach the city during its Turkish seige. Interestingly, this fortress, was built in a very short span of 4 months and 16 days to help the conquest of the city from the Byzantines.


We clicked a lot of random pictures while listening to our guide narrating us the history of the place. The view of the Bosphorus strait from the top of the fortress was amazing! We hurried back down so as to not miss seeing the gigantic chains, which run between Rumeli fortress and the Anatolian Castle on the other side. These were again used to safeguard the city by preventing the enemy ships from crossing the narrow strait.

The highlight of our cruise though, was the yummy lunch they served us on the the ferry. Inspite of being a vegetarian, my options were not limited and I was served a delicious spread of  close to 8-10 cold </span>Turkish mezes and soft drinks. I loved the mezes so much that I ended up asking the guide about its recipes and was not surprised that a lot of effort of pounding and grinding the spices, lent the dishes its delicious flavours.

After lunch, we started cruising again towards the Black Sea. Our last stop was at the fishing village of Anadolu Kavagi. It is a typical fishing village dotted with  fish-n-chips shops, not far from the mouth of the Black Sea. There were ruins of a castle up a nearby hill, which we intended to see. The view from the top was quite raved about. The walk to the castle was quite steep and it took us around 20-25 minutes to get there. The castle had a lovely restaurant overlooking the Black Sea. There was nothing much remaining of the castle except its walls. However, we soaked ourselves in the vastness of the Black Sea spread out there to our heart's content! It feels amazing to experience the history and culture of a foreign city in such a wonderful way.


On the way down, we saw a local lady in a lovely local attire, swirling something like a pizza base in her hands. On getting closer, I saw that it was a small kiosk selling something very similar to aloo parathas – Gozleme Patate. She had small bowls filled with mashed potatoes, &amp; cheese and was expertly making those Gozlemes by making them fly like saucers. All the trek up and down the castle had whetted our appetites and we ordered one plate of those steaming hot parathas (Gozlemes ;)) We relished every bit of it along with the mesmerising views that the castle offered us. The new culture, new cuisine, ever-sociable Turks and the new sights made our trip a truly memorable one.

Back on the ferry, I convinced my hubby to sit on the lower deck ensconced in the warmth of the cabin. We reached our drop-off point in around 45 minutes bidding adieu to the wonderful Bosphorus!

This cruise is one of the must-do's in Istanbul and will definitely leave you with long-lasting, and scenic memories :)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Tryst with Nature and Solitude @ Sakleshpur

May 14-16, 2016

Sakleshpur is a quaint little hill station, tucked away on the slopes of the verdant Western ghats. Famous for its coffee plantations, the town is amidst green hills full of coffee, cardamom, pepper and areca plantations. It is not as popular as the neighbouring Coorg but nevertheless, equally beautiful, less commercialized and more peaceful.

Our drive from Bangalore was a beautiful one on wonderfully maintained, lush green roads. We reached the destination in under 5 hours with stops in between for refreshments.The Bangalore-Mangalore (BM) Road which took us to Sakleshpur is a beautiful tree-lined road offering scenic views time and again. The road is lined with picturesque tall hedges enclosing coffee and pepper plantations within. While driving, we could also see swathes of mist flying down towards our car. That was truly a sight to behold as we felt we are floating in the clouds! The mild temperatures, cool, fresh breeze, abundant greenery interspersed with bright red May flowers in their full bloom, made for a refreshing sight.





We were really thrilled to be at such a place, away from the crowds of Bangalore and also from the crowds usually seen at other popular hill stations at this time of the year.

On reaching Sakleshpur, we found our way to our homestay, which was located some 15 odd kms away from the town. We checked in our homestay at around noon and decided to spend our time relaxing there in the afternoon.

Evening came and we wanted to get out and explore the rural surroundings. Deciding to take a stroll nearby, we walked on and reached vast, rolling expanses of grasslands, without any civilization in sight. It felt magical to be in the middle of nowhere, with just small hills covered with lush green vegetation rising in the background. We proceeded along the mud path on the grassland and reached a small rivulet flowing through a few paddy fields. There was a small arch-shaped bridge, which helped us cross over to the paddy fields. It all seemed very charming and serene! Thatches of hay lay stacked in the paddy fields; a lone village woman making her way back to her village, seemed picturesque!





Suddenly dark clouds started gathering in the sky and we decided to hurry our way back to the homestay. Already tired with the day's driving, we decided to call it a day.

The next day after a hearty breakfast, we decided to visit the ancient Belur temple, renowned for its architectural beauty. We were advised against visiting the Manjarabad fort and the Bisle view point. The fort it seems was in a filthy condition and the road leading to the Bisle view point was in a bad shape as well. Hence, we decided on Belur.

The drive to Belur from Sakleshpur was again a very smooth one with verdant roads all the way. It took us around 1 hour to reach Belur and we parked our car near the temple wall in one of the lanes there. We hired a government guide at the entrance of the temple. He was to charge us Rs 300 for about 30-35 minutes of the guided tour of the main temple.

He explained all the sculptures and carvings on the temple gopuram, and on the walls, in detail. He was an expert in his work – I guess practice made him talk perfectly in a rhythm non stop! The lady with the mirror; the queen who danced on the pedestal in front of the main shrine; the fashion (saaj shringar) in those days; all these and other stories carved on the temple walls fascinated us. The soapstone carvings are so intricate that the temple indeed seems to be decorated with a filigree all around it.We were mesmerized by the architectural beauty of the temple and were  dumbstruck with the intricate carvings it has. One of the pillars near the sanctum sanctorum, actually used to rotate around its axis till some 200-300 years ago (Picture below). A architectural wonder, I must say!





It was about 1 pm in the afternoon and hunger pangs started to kick in. There were no restaurants or eateries in sight near Belur. We started towards Sakleshpur hoping for some delicious  lunch. We stopped at a vegetarian restaurant next to the Ossoor coffee estates on BM road. The place was full and we had to wait for 5 minutes before we could get a table for ourselves. The waiter got us seated and handed us the menu card. And man, what an extensive menu they had! – They had everything from North Indian, South Indian to Chinese. The food was tasty and the quantities were huge. While we were busy eating, the rain gods descended upon us with a fervour. The rains lashing in the adjacent lush green coffee estate  made for a splendid sight from the restaurant (Meal with a view! :D).We ended our meal with a delicious filter coffee, which it seems was from their own coffee estate. So obviously we ended up buying 2kgs of their coffee powder and some garam masala before we started for our homestay again.

The rains had subsided by the time we reached our homestay. However, later in the evening, the rains started again with loud thunderstorms and lightning.  It was already dark outside by 6pm and the atmosphere was cool and windy.We decided that it was best to spend our time indoors. We wrapped ourselves warm and chillaxed in the room with a cup of hot chai and a good book on the kindle.

Although, there is not much to sightsee in Sakleshpur, it makes for a good short stay if one is willing to spend time with oneself amidst nature.

Finding a place in the lap of nature, beholding the undulating landscape of the Western ghats, with not a soul in a sight, made our weekend getaway even better! We could unwind away from the humdrum of the city and could truly drift away in the clouds of Sakleshpur.

Tips:
Route taken from Bangalore: ORR- Tumkur Road- NH-48 – BM Road- Sakleshpur

Monday, May 2, 2016

Ajanta Ellora - A journey back in time

Ajanta-Ellora was on my to-do list from a long time and the Marathwada heat hovering above 40 degrees did not deter us this time and we decided to go ahead with it this summer vacation. :D

We arrived in Aurangabad at around 8 am and checked in Hotel Gurjas (known as Hotel Oberoi then). Hence we could not start off early to beat the heat. We; however, had a quick breakfast in a nearby restaurant and started off in our booked taxi at around 10 am. It took around 45 minutes to reach the Ellora caves from our hotel.

Ellora Caves

The Shrine of Buddha
Ellora caves, also known as the ‘Verul Leni” are rock-cut caves located about 30 kms from Aurangabad. These 34 caves excavated from the vertical face of the Chandragiri hills, are actually Hindu, Buddhist, Jain temples and viharas carved out between the 5th and 10th century. There are 17 Hindu, 12 Buddhist and 5 Jain caves in close proximity to each other, reflecting the religious harmony of that era.


These caves are considered an epitome of Indian art and sculpture demonstrating extraordinary execution skills. Some cave structures like the Kailash temple complex are so complex that they required several generations of planning and co-ordination to take them to completion.

The entrance ticket for this UNESCO World Heritage Site is at a modest Rs 10 per person for Indian citizens. I wanted to hire a guide for seeing the caves but was disappointed with the unprofessional attitude of the  guides there. One of the guides actually refused to speak in Marathi and said that he can only explain in English! I found that rather hilarious. All of them refused to give us time to photograph the place! In the end, we bought a information book and started exploring the caves ourselves.


We started off with the Kailash temple (cave #16), which is remarkable for its sheer size, and architectural beauty. As the name goes, it is a Shiva temple within a multi-storeyed temple complex. It was carved out of a single rock, leaving the visitors today spell bound imagining the sheer amount of planning, work and co-ordination required over generations to bring the temple to completion. The two-storeyed gateway led us to a courtyard which houses the main lingam and the nandi. It took us close to 2 hours to just see this particular cave-temple.

The Dashavatara (Cave 15) is right next to the Kailash temple and has a flight of steps which leads to an open courtyard, where a mantapa (natya gruha) is situated. Behind this lies a two-storeyed structure, which houses the dashavatara sculptures of Lord Vishnu.


The Vishwakarma (Cave 10) is the only chaitya griha (prayer hall) at Ellora where on the stupa, a colossal Buddha in a teaching posture is carved.

The Jain caves are located at some distance (1.5 kms) and a bus plies from within the Ellora complex to the Jain caves and back. These 5 Jain caves are also detailed with intricate carvings and rich paintings on its ceilings.

Since, the midday heat was already taking its toll on us and we were quite exhausted in spite of our attempts to keep us hydrated, we decided against visiting the Jain Lenis (leni = cave). We had sugarcane juice, and tried to cool down in the shade of the trees lining the entrance of the Ellora caves. Our driver meanwhile picked us up at around 2-2:30 pm and took us to Ghrishneshwar temple nearby, one of the 12 jyotirlings in the country.

Note: There are not many restaurants in and around the area; however, there are a couple or so dhabas serving decent local fare.


Ajanta Caves




The next day, we decided to visit the Ajanta caves and started off at 7:30 am. Ajanta caves, about 100kms from Aurangabad, are about 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave structures dating between 2<sup>nd </sup>century BC to 480 or 650 AD. These caves were used by the monks as chaitya grihas (prayer halls) and viharas (monasteries). Carved in a horse-shoe shaped rock surface overlooking the Waghora river, each cave was originally connected to the river with a flight of steps. However, today, the caves today are connected with a terraced path along the hill, built for the convenience of tourists.

Depicting scenes from the life of Gautama Buddha
These caves preserve the masterpieces of ancient Buddhist mural paintings and sculptures depicting the  scenes from the Jataka tales and the everyday life in that period. Cave # 9, 10, 19, 26, and 29 are chaitya grihas that house a stupa while the rest are viharas. Natural dyes like red and yellow ochre, kaolin, lime, gypsum, lamp black, lapis lazuli etc. were used to bring out the vibrant hues in these paintings.


We had hired a cab and the 100-110 Km drive to Ajanta caves took us around 2.5 hours. We had a 10- minute pit stop on the way in one of the roadside dhabas for some sweet Aurangabad-style tea.

After parking our car, we had to walk down for 5 minutes to the bus stop which ply CNG buses for the tourists to the base of the caves. Private vehicles are not allowed near the base of the caves to protect the murals from pollution.


On reaching the base, we bought the entry tickets again priced at Rs 10 per person. There is a MTDC restaurant near the base of the caves which serves good local fare. There are hawkers selling some figurines and even sukha bhel. Since we were anticipating at least a couple of hours to explore the caves, we grabbed a couple of chatpata bhel and chana chat from the vendor and made our way to the top.


We climbed a couple of flight of stairs to reach the caves.It being the peak of summer, the place was not heavily crowded and allowed us the time and space to see the caves at our own leisure.All the caves are engulfed in darkness and dimly lit in areas, which lends them a sense of mysticism. Upon entering these caves, one feels being transported back in time witnessing the majestic aura the paintings and sculptures bestow on the visitor.

It is said that these caves were forgotten by civilization and were hidden under thick vegetation until 1819 when a British officer on a hunting expedition rediscovered these caves from a vantage point on an opposite hill. People today trek to that view point to capture a panoramic view of Ajanta.

We began with the very first cave and by looking at the crowd there, guess it is a popular cave as well. The magnificently painted cave which is a vihara, is full of murals, sculptures and paintings, much of which is worn off today. The Buddha shrine is flanked by Bodhisattva Padmapani to the left of the shrine. The lotus bloom in his hand is supposed to reflect his spiritual awakening.

We proceeded in chronological order, enjoying the architecture and trying to decipher the stories behind the magnificently painted viharas and chaitya grihas. I hired guides in a couple of caves, while we were on our own (with a guide book) in the rest of the caves.


We came across many well-preserved wall paintings, double storeyed monasteries, beautiful carvings and also some unfinished caves. These unfinished caves reveal the difficult rock surfaces which were chiseled and plastered to produce such beautiful paintings.


It gives us a glimpse into the tremendous amount of hard work and sheer perseverance over centuries that went into making these caves the UNESCO World Heritage Sites that they are today.


The chaitya grihas have reproduced the wooden architectural styles of wooden beams and pillars, prevalent in those times, in stone. The sleeping Buddha in cave 26,  reflects such serenity and calm that it reflects the very essence of Buddhism and the existence of these caves! :)


Tips/Notes:
  1. We hired a taxi for 2 full days to get around Aurangabad and the Ajanta-Ellora caves for Rs 3,500. Taxis are available in plenty and there is no hassle in getting one. You can request the hotel front desk to arrange for one.
  2. Stayed in Hotel Gurjas, (earlier Hotel Oberoi) a budget hotel but fabulously clean with excellent service and food options - http://www.hotelgurjas.com/
  3. Dining options nearby - I will recommend restaurants  Yalla Yalla and Swad  Dining(vegetarian) at walking distances.