Rolling with the stones in Hampi

The lotus is India’s national flower but it doesn’t always enjoy a good rep. Last month, over three days at Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace in the town of Kamalapurs, four kilometres from Hampi, I learned to appreciate the flower beyond its edible roots and party affiliations.

At the resort, the flower isn’t used as decoration but finds new applications. It is in air fresheners and body care products. It also inspires the shape of lampshades dotting the ceilings. The fragrance follows me everywhere, like a shadow, pleasant but excessive. Where the flower shows its true splendour is the Lotus Mahal. This two-storey pink palace houses an Ayurvedic spa, a reading room, a restaurant and a souvenir shop. A replica of the actual Lotus Mahal in Hampi, the archways and the domes are meant to resemble a half-opened lotus, with the towers resembling petals. All lit up at night, the Lotus Mahal gives a sense of the grandeur that defined the queen’s summer place of yore.

Stoned on History

The lotus may be the symbolic theme of the Kamalapura Palace but its architectural theme is Hampi, in all its stone-laden glory.

The resort is a fortress, situated in the centre of a 27-acre property, surrounded by cultivated greenery. I drive through the entrance with rounded fortifications reminiscent of Islamic architecture, inspired by the principal fort of the nearby village Anegundi. A long stone driveway—much like the paved boulevards of Hampi’s old temples—leads me to the main palace.

As I walk around the place in the evening, Joydeep Banerjee, the Area General Manager for the South, points out the connections we may have missed—the contemporary recreations of old paintings, the boundary walls modelled after the stone walls that provided the fortifications to the city, and the taps shaped like aqueducts. Everything here is local and customised, keeping Hampi in mind.

It’s not just about employing local staff and artistes; even their food seeks inspiration from the land. Tuluva, with its infinity pool and fake elephant tusks, gets its name from the Hindu dynasty that ruled the Vijayanagara Empire. Here, I sample among other Indian dishes, Vijayanagara cuisine that’s heavy on curries and liberal with spices. There’s gongura mamsam (spicy lamb curry), chepala pulusu (tangy fish curry) and enagayi (eggplant cooked in coconut). I scarf these down with bowls upon bowls of the fragrant and delicately flavoured pulihora (tamarind rice). History might have swallowed whole emperors, but it had thankfully spared their cuisine.

Mind at Rest

Hampi city is shaped by multiple histories. I spend my mornings visiting a fraction of its 300 temples and ruins. There’s the Hemakuta hillock, which leads down to the Virupaksha Temple. There we find the stone chariot, one of the most photographed structures in Hampi. My guide is Nagendra, who tells me to observe the little things we miss in our haste to get that perfect shot for social media. “The lotus shape indicates progress of life, and feminity,” he says, pointing out the swans and dancing figures painted on the ceiling. I visit the Zenana Enclosure, a citadel complex that once housed a palace, the Lotus Mahal, four watchtowers and beyond, the elephant stables.

I return to the resort, marvelling at the inspiration it has sought from this city. My room is the Jal Mahal, a stunning place inspired by the Water Palace of the Zenana Enclosure. It has separate dining, living and sleeping areas, and a luxurious bath with an open courtyard. This is surrounded by a moat in the front, and behind, a private deck with a mandapa overlooks a private pool.

Jal-Mahal-Bedroom
Jal Mahal suite. Photo courtesy: Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace

As impressive as the resort looks in the daytime, it turns resplendent at night. The sun sets behind the palace, bathing the sky in hues of scarlet, orange and purple. As it sinks, the small lamps in the grounds of the property come on. The sound of crickets is overshadowed by a gentle singing. This is the hotel’s annual evening ritual—the staff move about behind a flautist, carrying incense and lights to all the rooms, while the tune of the flute lends the dusk a haunting background melody. After this procession, the flautist proceeds to the open courtyard where he sits and performs an evening raga.

I welcome our evenings in different ways. One time, I lounge in the pool till sunset; another time, I spend a few hours looking up Hampi’s history in the library at the Reading Lounge. On the last night, I sit by our moat, sipping chai and watching workers tending the garden. At dusk, I head to the Deep Mahal for a storytelling session. An entire room is lit up with just diyas. For the next half hour, I sip wine and listen, fascinated, as my guide talks about the downfall of the Vijayanagara Empire.

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Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace is in Kamalapura town, 4 km away from Hampi. There are four types of suites—Nivasa, Nilaya, Zenana and the Jal Mahal—with rates starting from Rs36,000 up to Rs52,000.

From Bengaluru airport, the resort lies 350 km northwest. There are also direct flights from Hyderabad to Vidyanagar airport, 30 km away.

 

[This story first appeared in National Geographic Traveller India: Rolling with the stones, on Jan 11, 2018]

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A taste of Bavaria

Think Adelaide and open parklands, indigenous art, understated beauty, good weather, and live music come to mind. You certainly don’t picture an old German village where beer jostles for shelf space with wine, where brick houses with sloping roofs reveal antique stores and craft breweries, and where you can find sausages and pretzels at every corner.  

This is Hahndorf, a state listed heritage town, about 25 minutes away from Adelaide. It is Australia’s oldest surviving German settlement.

It was in 1839 that Captain Dirk Meinertz Hahn brought 200 German-Lutheran migrants, fleeing religious persecution in Prussia (north-eastern Germany), to Adelaide Hills where they made their home. Today, 189 years later, though Hahndorf (Hahn’s village) has seen much change, it remains at heart a German town.

“It’s old world charm very popular with tourists. History apart, they are very serious about their food and wine here,” says David Sly, a food and wine journalist from Adelaide.

I spend a day in Hahndorf and David’s words ring true at every place I visit.

I begin my day strolling through the Beerenberg Strawberry Farm picking dew-dusted strawberries. It is 9am and the farm, a few minutes outside the town, has just opened for business. It’s a calming experience, walking through neatly segregated rows of strawberry plants, digging through the leaves to find the fruit nestled within. I take my slim pickings to the Beerenberg Family Farm shop to be weighed and packed, and meet Monique Lomax, a staffer who doubles up as a guide. “The founders, the Paech family, are among Hahndorf’s first settlers. They started with dairy but soon decided to try branch out. Now we grow chillies gherkins, cherries, plums, Satsuma, and Lincoln roses,” she says. Everything finds its way into marinades, jams, chutney and dipping sauces. I sample a few of these, and am instantly impressed with the smooth and fragrant rose petal jelly, and the tart mango and Mandarin curd named after Monique (staffers above five years get products named after them).

Beerenberg, which means berry hill, is in its 50th year of strawberry picking and needless to say, strawberry jam is a best-seller. People generally queue up here for the freshly churned strawberry ice cream, delicate swirls of creamy goodness piled high in a cone. Over 80 percent of their products are gluten free and they do collaborations with locals like Cooper Ale and Gaucho sauces.

Ice cream in hand, I stroll down the picturesque main street. This historic street is lined with 100 year old elm trees, and shows off timber and German-style stone or brick houses with their steep, sloping roofs and cosy verandahs. Here I find boutiques, German pubs, restaurants and cellar doors, cafés, gourmet bakeries and delicatessens, and sweet shops. On sale is Aboriginal art and puppets, German clocks, and candles – the 3 Wishes Candle Barn that allows you to create your own.  

A life-size yellow cow with a milk pail underneath welcomes me to my next destination, Udder Delights. The word cheese is written in bold letters for those confused about the offerings at the place. Run by the husband and wife team of Saul and Sheree Sullivan, Udder Delights’ Cheese Cellar sells goat’s and cow’s milk cheese, hosts fondue and cheesemaking classes and is best known for their cheese wedding cakes. I opt for a cheese tasting. The goats curd is tangy with a smooth finish and the cow’s milk brie is velvety and has a sharp earthy flavour. My favourite is the Heysen Blue, a firm and moist cheddar-like rich cheese.   

Udder Delights

Fresh cheese is difficult to carry back homes so I regretfully leave the store and set out in search of something more travel-friendly. David takes me to an ‘iconic place’. The MenzFruChoc Shop is known for their FruChocs – milk chocolate covered apricot or peach. A happy accident, the Menz family developed these in 1948 to use up excess fruit. Today, the product is a South Australian icon. I happily snack on honeycomb and coconut variants thinking that this sweet treat really deserves a FruChocs Appreciation Day (celebrated on the last Friday of August).

Another place chock-a-block with history is the Hahndorf Inn. Built in 1853, it is owned by the Holmes family, whose German descendants arrived at Port Adelaide in 1847 to settle in the Barossa Valley. The food here is traditional Bavarian – big portions of schnitzels, sausages, beef and pork ribs, pork knuckle, and hot dogs. These come accompanied by steamed greens, mash or fries. I try the Hänchen Schnitzel, crumbed chicken breast cooked to perfection and paired with a cream mushroom sauce. Dessert is the German apple strudel (Apfelstrudel), which we learned to make (assemble) at a strudel class earlier.

I end the day at Prancing Pony Brewery, a boutique brewery located a short drive out of Hahndorf. Here, they use the traditional method of fire brewing, resulting in beer that has caramel and toffee like malt flavours. I sip on their India Red Pale Ale, which was the 2016 supreme champion in the International Beer Challenge, London. The strong caramel notes and intense hop bitterness is mellowed down by hints of tropical fruit, making for a refreshing drink.  

A day in Hahndorf and I realise, they do take food, wine and beer very seriously.

 

 

[A version of this story was published in BL Ink: Bits of Bavaria, on April 13, 2018]

A ghosthunters guide to Mumbai

In India, there is a small crew of people that go out at night, armed with EMF sensors or detectors, EVP recorders, motion sensor cameras, and touch sensors, to explore myths about the paranormal. Yes, you can call them desi ghosthunters.

One such team is The Parapsychology and Investigations Research Society (PAIRS), group of paranormal investigators and researchers, parapsychologists, demonologists, spiritual healers, and counsellors. Their modus operandi includes heading to “active spots” armed with equipment to try to record and, later, analyse these abnormal energies.

“Before we go to a location,” says demonologist Sarbajeet Mohanty, “we try to get a recent picture of the location so that psychic mediums can give a reading of what to expect or find at the locations, which provides a roadmap for the investigators.” Mohanty founded PAIRs with psychic developer Pooja Vijay.

Disclaimer: PAIRS highly recommends you do not venture into these places without proper knowledge. All PAIRS investigators have been researching this field from the past 6 to 10 years and are certified. Enter at your own risk. 

Amar Dham Crematorium, Panvel

Cemeteries and crematoriums are apparently common hunting grounds for ghosts – location certainly does matter. This particular burial ground has spooked many a passer-by. One story goes that a woman crossing the street outside at night suddenly got goose bumps, and at that very moment the nearby lights went off, including those on her scooter. Others have spoken about seeing apparitions and moving shadows and hold them responsible for the accidents that happen in the area.

During their investigations, the PAIRS psychic team found that the location had multiple spirits, as recorded through changes on the temperature sensor and EMF sensor.

Amar Dham Crematorium, HOC Colony, Panvel, Navi Mumbai 410 206.

Mumbai Pune Highway

The story goes that PAIRS member Jignesh Unadkat was riding his motorcycle on the highway, near Bhingari, Old Panvel, when a wayward car forced him to the side of the road. It was then that he realised there was someone standing in front of him, and he veered off the road to avoid hitting the person. His bike was damaged, but he survived. When he went to look for the person, he realised there was no one there.

A few days later, Jignesh, along with Mohanty, returned to the spot to investigate this strange phenomenon, armed with a PAIRS Spirit Box app (developed by Brian Holloway of Soul Seekers, Javier Sanz of  Spain Paranormal). “Jignesh got two replies to questions,” says Mohanty. “One was, ‘Do you recognize me…my bike overturned here some days back’ to which he got a ‘yes’. The other was ‘How did you die?’ to which he got a one-word reply, ‘accident’.”

While this may be a “real” story, there are many legends associated with the place. Another story has a well-dressed lady asking for a lift. Those that don’t stop are treated to a vision of the women running alongside their vehicle, with an evil smile, saying, “You’re next”. Many crashes have been attributed to it. Mohanty says there is also a ‘fake road appearing out of nowhere, which if taken leads to death’.

Vasai Fort

Vasai Fort, or Bassein Fort, is a sprawling structure built by the Portuguese that overlooks the Arabian Sea. The fort has been under the control of the Portuguese, the British, and the Marathas and has been silent witness to many deaths. It is one of the many places in the city that locals truly believe is haunted – though that didn’t stop Coldplay from shooting their video there.

Shishir Kumar, former journalist and founder-president of paranormal research organisation Team Pentacle, and his team conducted an investigation at Vasai Fort. Initially, they didn’t think it was haunted because it still had many people living in the vicinity. “The first time,” says Kumar, “everything went smoothly and none machines worked. Then I used this trick where I asked the spirits to clap as I clap, and that started happening.”

Mohanty adds that their psychic readings reveal a woman who was murdered and whose body was dumped near the well in the fort. Village lore says a lady, assumed to be a witch, committed suicide in that same well, but her body was never found.

Vasai Fort, Killa Road, Police Colony, Vasai (w), Vasai 401201

Mukesh Mills

Mukesh Mills was built in 1870s by the East India Company and was shut down in 1892 after a strike. Soon after, a fire broke out, killing thousands of people. This dark history is possibly what led to it being considered haunted. The mill is a popular shooting location, and there are many stories of how no one, not even film crew, venture there after dark. In fact actor Bipasha Basu has claimed she was unable to speak her dialogues in one room because of some strange power.

PAIRS’ investigations and psychic readings reveal that the location has “some evil and negative spirits from its dark and painful history”. “Such psychic readings are a warning for us not to venture in there,” says Mohanty, “especially if you’re a beginner.”

Mukesh Mills, Narayan A Sawant Road, Colaba, Mumbai 400 005

St John Baptist Church

This Portuguese Jesuit Church was abandoned in the 1800s after an epidemic. Although no one visits the place any more, a Mass is conducted once a year. The claim is that the church is haunted by the evil spirit of a bride who scares anyone who enters the place. In 1977, an exorcism was conducted there, and everyone present suddenly heard a loud moaning sound and maniacal laughter. It was believed that the exorcism destroyed the spirit.

In 2016, a PAIRS team visited the space to check if it was an “active” location. “We were about to enter,” says Mohanty, “when Pooja told us that a woman was watching us from the wall nearby. When inside, we heard footsteps running away from the place. Later, one of the team members told us that while he was texting, out of the corner of his eye he saw an apparition near him. All this happened in broad daylight.” Mohanty intends to return to do proper investigation.

St John Baptist Church, Seepz Road D, Andheri (E), Mumbai 400 096

 

[This story was first published in The City Story: THE GHOSTHUNTERS’ GUIDE TO PARANORMAL MUMBAI]