Category Archives: Lodging

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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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The sound of silence in Ramgarh

“Why are you going to Ramgarh?” enquires my driver. We are in the middle of a nine-hour drive to the hills from Delhi. I tell him I’m on a holiday, and need a break from the chaotic city life. He looks confused. It is off-season and tourists are a rare sight at this time, except the foreigners. “They come here for hash,” he says conspiratorially.

At the end of my stay in Ramgarh, I discovered that I don’t need help to be intoxicated by this hill station.

I have the best view of the place from my resort at the top of the hill, V Resorts. The six-year- old resort has just four rooms. The main cottage has three rooms, a dining and living area, a porch and a balcony with the kitchen one level below. My room is simple, wooden floors, blinds on the windows and dim lighting. There’s a cosy reading nook and no TV – they expect us to be entertained by the scenery.

The fourth ‘room’ is actually the writer’s cottage and has its own entrance. It is for those seeking retreat and possibly writing inspiration. When I’m there, it’s occupied by a group of Punjabi friends who dispel the nightly silence with writing of the most annoying kind, the lyrics of Bollywood songs. The cottage owes its name to two writers who were famous in this region, Mahadevi Verma and Rabindranath Tagore – it is believed that Verma got the idea of writing her famous story Lachma here; and that Tagore
wrote parts of his epic Gitanjali at his mountain abode.

The silence, to someone accustomed to city noise, is deafening. I feel it wrap around me, as if to keep me warm from the sudden chill of the evening. Over the course of my stay, I realise that people here cherish the quiet. They don’t waste words while talking.

Besides, I find myself at a loss for words to describe the vista in front of me. Sunsets are an artist’s dream, with the sky changing colour and dusk adding a filter to the surroundings that no photo app can replicate. It’s a more refined version of those childish nature drawings we did in school – the setting sun over the mountains, trees all around, streams running past tiled houses and animals and children dotting the landscape. Is this what inspired the two great writers who came to this region?

The next morning, I set out seeking answers. My literary trail begins at Tagore Point, home to a now decrepit cottage that once was Tagore’s home in the hills. My guide is Indra Bahadur, originally from Nepal, and a man of few words. During the
three-hour trek we pass small hutments, terraced slops of potatoes and peas, little clumps of deodhar trees. The fruit-plucking season is over so the apple trees around me are all bare. Our search for Tagore’s abode is futile, the path is too overgrown and repeated whacking with sticks doesn’t help. “The place is too dangerous,” he tells me, pointing to the denser region of the forest. Bears and tigers reside there but they rarely make an appearance. The last time he took a group there was five years back. “No one
but trekkers come here.” he says. 

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The last mountain in the range is Tagore Point.

The Mahadevi Verma library is also shut, the caretaker has gone home for a wedding. “Barely anyone comes here,” says Bahadur. “Who has the time to go visit a library, everyone is busy with their lives.”

I can’t visit that library so I turn to the one in the resort. There are barely 50 books, including trashy romance novels and the odd classics. I seek out different reading nooks in the resort, devouring the words on page with the same intensity with which I reserve for food.

As with any cold region, I often find myself hungry. Pankaj, the chef who doubles up as a driver and guide, doesn’t disappoint. His chicken and fish curries are light and wholesome; the omelettes are fluffy and the dals are filled with flavour. I ask for local food and he serves me a Kumaoni meal. There’s bhatt ki churkaani – a thin gravy with black soya bean and local herbs; aloo ke gutke – a snack similar to jeera alu made with boiled potatoes, cumin turmeric and coriander; and steaming fat-grained local
rice. Whenever I am thirsty, there are endless glasses of the refreshing buransh, the blood red juice of the rhododendron flower.

Kumaoni meal

A Kumaoni meal.

I burn off the calories by walking around the resort. V Resorts is located in the upper region of Ramgarh (Malla). The resort’s manager Nitesh accompanies me sometimes, and we talk about tourism and how Uttarakhand attaining statehood has changed the region. Around me, the twinkling of lights announces the onset of night and we soon hear crickets, buses honking in Talla (lower Ramgarh) and the beginning of a Ramleela performance.

Sightseeing at Ramgarh is incidental. When not resting, I visit a tea estate, a temple filled with bells, and on the last morning, I go paragliding. The journey in the air is a short one that offers me a bird’s eye view of the region. The Himalayan mountains, their peaks shrouded with clouds, the Bhimtal lake glimmering in the distance, cows and horses grazing at pasture, trees as far as the eye can see, and cutting through this landscape, different signs of civilisation. If I wasn’t fighting gravity in a tight harness, I could wax
poetic eloquence about the view.

The thing with Ramgarh is that there’s writing inspiration all around. You just have to know where to look.

Things to know: V Resorts Ramgarh is located in Malla (Upper) Ramgarh, Nainital district in Uttarakhand, about three hours away from the nearest airport (Pantnagar) and 332 km from Delhi. A Cottage room costs Rs 2,860 and the Writers Room is Rs 3,560.

The article appeared in National Geographic Traveller India in December 2017: Solitude and stunning vistas in Uttarakhand. Read my other stories for the magazine, here.