Listen: A New Way To See Chennai

Even before we learned about the Partition in history class at school, our grandparents told us tales – tales of heroism and cowardice, of homes left behind and acquaintances lost. They told us of the fear and the resentment, the times they felt their hearts in their throats.

We listened wide eyed and fascinated, to stories etched in their memories from 7 decades ago. These were history lessons sans facts and figures, but they stuck. I will never forget them – they help me see an entire generation of people in a new light.

I understand why they are the way they are. I understand why they hold on to some material possessions and see no value in others. I understand their warrior instinct, I see why they aren’t willing to let go of some prejudices. All thanks to their stories.

Storytrails

When someone asks us – how is work? The answer is usually along- oh it’s all right, you know, my boss is okay and I have a wonderful team. The highlight of my day is lunchtime as this colleague brings hot mum-cooked food and has to bring an extra dabba for the rest of us!

As opposed to – Work is good, my office has a 5 foot long desk and the A/C is not too cold. I do have to climb up 50 steps though, but can’t complain.

We share experiences through stories.

Surely then, every city and its history has fascinating stories too. Some partially true, some cooked up through the ages, some mythological, some factual.

Going strong for 11 years now, Storytrails has regaled thousands of visitors to Chennai with its stories. The company hosts walking tours in Chennai, Madurai and Pondicherry, with ‘storytellers’ who will entertain you with tidbits you can never find in a book or blog, or even from a travel guide looking to make his quick buck and be done with you ASAP.

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Audio Tours

A brand new venture, Storytrails has now forayed into audio tours, offering trails on an app. It has been a truly humbling experience learning about my city, and lending voice to these tales.

Did you know, for example, that Chennai has one of the only 3 churches in the world, built on top of an Apostle’s remains? I sure as hell (sorry St. Thomas, I mean heck) didn’t!

I learned about Cenotaph Road, about King James’ new crown, the sparring sects of Christianity, the thieving British (but also the good ones like Annie Besant), the love-hate relationship between the English and the French that extended to Chennai as well. I learned about the mighty Pallavas and their mightier egos, that the Pancha Pandava Rathas have nothing to do with the Pandavas, and that Ganesha wasn’t part of Shiva’s family in South India for a long time!

If you live in Chennai, these trails are guaranteed to have you look at your own city from a fresh perspective. And if you’re a visitor, there really is no better way to learn!

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Download the app here, to walk (and listen to) the British Blueprints and Mamallapuram trails!

Waking Up To The Taj Mahal

Ticket guy at Taj Mahal: You have to pay 1,000 rupees for the ticket madam.

Me: But….that’s the foreigners ticket price. The Indian ticket is 40 rupees.

Guy: Yes.

Me: But I’m Indian.

Guy: How do I know that? You look like you could be a foreigner.

Me: But…what? We’re literally the same race! What?!

Guy: Can you prove you are Indian?

Me: But… main Chennai mein rehti hoon, kaun si bhasha samajhte hain aap? Naan Chennai le indhu vandirukein. Tamil Nadu India le iruku, theriyuma ungalku?

Guy: Whatever. Can you prove you are an Indian citizen?

Me: I have a PAN card…

Guy: I need to see your passport.

Me: Who brings their passport to the Taj! I’ve left it in the hotel!

Guy: Have you got your Aadhaar Card?

Me: ….no?

Guy: In that case please pay 1,000 rupees for a foreigner ticket.

I had been up since 4am to catch the sunrise over the Taj Mahal, managed to wake a sleepy auto driver to take me there in the dark, got to the counter well before it opened, and was mighty proud to be the first in the Indian ladies queue. There are 4 queues – Indian men, Indian women, foreign men, foreign women. Besides me, there were some scruffy hippie Aussie tourists who looked like they had camped outside the Taj to be able to beat the morning lines. Continue reading Waking Up To The Taj Mahal

Beyond The Taj – Agra’s Other Stunning Structures

The city of Agra is perhaps one of the most visited by foreign tourists coming to “discover India.” From Delhi, the Gatimaan Express (the fastest in the country) gets you to Agra in about 100 minutes, serves a meal, and even has hostesses, as the public sector attempts to up their tourism game.

But as soon as you step in to what was once capital of the great Mughal empire, you see that it is utterly chaotic, underdeveloped, and a challenge to navigate. It is quite unfortunate that the divide between the rich architectural history, and the current state of affairs is so extreme.

Nevertheless, Agra has plenty for the tourist apart from the Taj Mahal, which will no doubt be the crowning glory of a trip to the city.

Fatehpur Sikri

To get here from Agra, we booked a cab online with Gozocabs. The driver was well-spoken and knew where he was going, although a little on the expensive side. On the drive there, we encountered groups of religious protesters carrying swords and chanting slogans. It freaked us out when the driver turned around to make sure our doors were locked. They didn’t seem interested in passersby though, but our heart rate took a while to come back down again. Continue reading Beyond The Taj – Agra’s Other Stunning Structures

In Pictures: Discovering Delhi

The capital city of Delhi is one of contradictions. It houses some of the greatest architectural accomplishments of the mighty Mughals and other Islamic rulers, and is yet one of the most congested, polluted cities I have been to. It’s got lavish malls and an excellent Metro system, and yet only areas of commercial and diplomatic importance are clean, green and well-maintained. For the history and architecture buff, there couldn’t be a better city in the country.

Getting around Delhi is super-easy, with the Delhi Metro Rail being efficient, well-connected, unbelievably cheap, and extremely helpful to outsiders. Uber and Ola help things even more, allowing you to discover the city’s jewels at your own pace.

Humayun’s Tomb

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Humayun’s Tomb – constructed in memory of the great Emperor Humayun, commissioned by his grieving wife.
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Humayun’s Tomb – the structure was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, which was followed by repair and restoration work.

Continue reading In Pictures: Discovering Delhi

Have 48 Hours? Go To Singapore

This article was published in Metro Plus, The Hindu

Living in Asia has its perks. The weather, the food, and most importantly, easy access to incredible travel destinations. Singapore has consistently been a favourite among couples, friends and families alike. The Singapore Tourism Board reported an incredible 12.4 million international visitors from January to September 2016.  817,000 of them were Indians.

The ease of travel and range of accommodation catering to different budgets makes Singapore a must-do destination, even if you have just 48 hours.

Arrive

Indigo, Scoot, Jet Airways and Air India Express operate budget flights from Chennai to Singapore (ranging from INR 13,000 to 16,000 return depending on when you book). Taking the 10pm flight will get you to Singapore at 4.40am local time. Check-in to your hotel and catch a few hours of sleep.


Day 1
8:30 am – Singapore Zoo

The zoo is well connected by buses or you can take a taxi from the nearest train station connected to your line. Hang out with free range orangutans and lemurs, feed the giraffes, watch the Komodo dragon, learn about tropical and polar critters, and walk through the fragile forest enclosures. You can pack your own lunch or go to the restaurants on site for a choice of Indian, Malaysian, Chinese and international food. The zoo also offers River Safaris and Night Safaris which we decided to skip to be able to tick more things off our list.

We then took the free bus shuttle to the Khatib MRT station, and made our way to HarbourFront Station.

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2:00 pm – Sentosa Island

Continue reading Have 48 Hours? Go To Singapore

A Parallel India In Jaipur

I’m staring at the visual symmetry of a stepwell in the middle of Rajasthan, and I can hardly believe my eyes. We’re on the last day of our Jaipur exploration and happened upon the Chand Ki Baoli by divine intervention from the travel Gods.

While touring the palaces and to-do monuments the previous day, we feel like we’re on a United Nations field trip. Tourists from all over the world wander around taking selfies at the glimmering Sheesh Mahal, and hold up victory signs as they pose with the mahouts and the poor elephants who’ve been taking captivated travellers up and down the hill all day.

Amer Palace - Jaipur
Amer Palace – Jaipur
Sheesh Mahal - Jaipur - 1
Sheesh Mahal – Jaipur
Sheesh Mahal - Jaipur - 2 (Custom)
Sheesh Mahal – Jaipur

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We see something called Panna Meena Ka Kund on the tourist map and an auto-driver takes us to it. Through tiny streets and massive potholes we bump our way to the deserted stepwell. It’s taken us by complete surprise – there are no entry tickets and exactly zero tourists. And yet, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Meena Panna Ka Kund - Jaipur
Panna Meena Ka Kund – Jaipur

Continue reading A Parallel India In Jaipur

Cheese, Wolves, Food and Paper in Pondy

Always be nice to chefs. It pays to be in their good books.

My friend and I talked about doing a short holiday together. We went over every destination that mildly interested us. Ellora? Too far. How about Bali? Ugh, flights are too expensive. Kerala? Already been. Gujarat? Not so appealing actually. After 4 months of talking about going to an unconventional, exotic, impressive destination, we decided to go 4 hours down the road to…..Pondicherry. Yay.

This is when the Executive Chef at the Promenade (one of the finest hotels in Pondicherry) came to our rescue. An ex-colleague, he ensured we got a fantastic room rate and even better food.

We ticked off some very ‘Pondy’ things to do, and below are some recommended highlights. We didn’t get around to Auroville, the Ashram, or diving (we’re both awful swimmers), but do those if they interest you!

Walk Along The Promenade

“Watch out for the wolves on the promenade,” someone told us when we reached Pondy. Wolves?! What the hell kind of wolves live on the beach in coastal Pondicherry?! Obviously, we rubbished the warning and set about making plans for the rest of the day. Continue reading Cheese, Wolves, Food and Paper in Pondy

Textile Luxury In Our Backyard

In March 2016, I was lucky to get to visit a textile factory in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu. Since then I have learnt a lot about the water and soil pollution from textile dyeing units, and a lot more about sustainable vs fast fashion. I am personally an advocate for buying less and reusing more, and during my fleeting visit I did not have the opportunity to ask questions about pollution and proper waste treatment.

It was however a wonderful peek into the textile export industry that has put Indian produce on the global map, and this is a gist of that experience.



“Madam, please give me 5 star rating on the app” says the taxi driver as I jostle about getting my bags onto the over-crowded railway station entrance. “Sure, sure” I mumble half asleep. The strong smell of raw fish jolts my senses out of lethargy and I elbow my way through the human soup to the early morning Shatabdi taking me to Coimbatore. My mission is to see textile factories in the humble town of Tirupur, and I am armed with a million questions. Little do I know I am about to get a lesson in globalisation, international trade, and government policies. Continue reading Textile Luxury In Our Backyard

Tracing Tipu’s Legacy In Mysore

“What do you mean he was not your son? Who has all my clothes then?!” Our dear friends who were hosting us in Bangalore were dealing with a crisis. P had accidentally handed her best clothes to be ironed to someone who turned out not to be her ironing man’s son. While she stressed over if she’d given away her new M&S pants to an opportunistic thief, or donated them to someone asking for clothes, we decided to use the day to do something in Bangalore.

Every time I asked a Bangalorean what I can do when there they said – microbreweries, pubs, restaurants, and umm Nandi Hills? Imagine our delight when we found the Bangalore Palace – who even knew there was one?!

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The Bangalore Palace

Continue reading Tracing Tipu’s Legacy In Mysore

Temples and Silks in Kancheepuram

“How could you wear shorts to this trip?!” The Brit in the travel group was met with shocked expressions. “We have to buy you an emergency veshti now, they’re not going to let you into the temples like that!” One of the many silk showrooms came to our rescue, but not without having to fight off efforts to sell us a pattu (silk) veshti.

The only time I’ve been to this tiny town was to see the Kailasanathar Temple for a college trip. It was meant to be to study the architecture and art history, but if memory serves right was more of a sing-your-lungs-out-on-the-bus trip.

This time though, we made it a point to see it properly and even chatted with the miffed priest who spoke surprisingly posh English. “It was those Brits” he said. “They plastered the temple to restore it, but look, does the colour even match the original stone?” Continue reading Temples and Silks in Kancheepuram