Bengal pictures, Rural Bengal, Bengal countryside

“Romance with the innocent charms of Rural Bengal. Have a lazy morning tea, walk around the local villages, play with children, spend an evening by the rice paddies or tea gardens and end the day with a platter of home cooked fish and rice”

Rajasthan pictures, Rural Rajasthan, Rajasthan countryside

“Hike or Bike. Find your own way around Bundi Countryside and discover the tribes in their natural habitat co-existing with cattle and green pastures. Explore historic rock paintings and erotic temples”

Assam pictures, Rural Assam, Assam countryside

“Across the mightly Brahmaputra lie the origins of Neo-Vaishnavism in India. Spend few weeks with the 40 Vaishnavite sects of Majuli Island

Rajasthan pictures, Rural Rajasthan, Rajasthan countryside, Jodhpur

“Skip Jodhpur, explore the nearby villages. Experience the innocent Smiles from Rajasthan, play with children, have spicy food, sleep under the stars, go for a morning walk and discover an ancient sea bed”

Bhutan pictures, Rural Bhutan, Bhutan countryside

"Drive into a sleepy Last Shangri-La and spend a week with the worlds happiest people, find precariously perched monasteries and soak your feet in the emerald waters of Paro Chhu. Love Bhutan."

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Photo Esssay - The Quieter Side of Greece

Leaving behind the intriguing city life of Athens with late night parties, booze, kisses and frivolous conversations, I walked into the quieter side of Greece. I walked, I sailed, I drove, and I trekked. With a camera in my hand and tips from my local friends scribbled on a notebook, I walked into whichever street looked fascinating.

I was in search of moments that are not far from tourist circuits but often overlooked. I was in search of how it feels like to be a local. I found Greece and its community similar to that of India in many ways. Generations still live together in one house and dine together. Women gather in a cafe, play cards and gossip over beer while one of their friend tries to quickly sell them beauty products. Men go for long walks and a smoking pipe binds together their conversations that go on for hours. In India, 'chai' takes place of beer and smoking pipe.

'I walked, I sailed, I drove and I trekked'

These places may already be on your charts, but try exploring them with a different eye. While most of the people will talk about or search for sandy beaches, markets or party hubs, a few blocks away from the noise lies the treasure for an inquisitive traveller.

Hydra: I sailed to this island not knowing that the locals here only use horse carts or walk on foot. The narrow cobble stoned lanes echoed sounds of hooves, small bells around the neck of dogs that came to me wagging their tail or an occasional purring of a cat. Women bargained with fruit and vegetable sellers. All the tourists walked straight into the churches or markets with rows of shops selling souvenirs.

I would rather recommend to take a detour and go into the side lanes and just walk without a destination. Most guided tours take you on a day trip to Hydra, Paros and Naxos islands where you get to spend only an hour at each island. I would rather recommend staying on Hydra for few days.







How to reach: Hellenic seaways runs ferries daily from Piraeus port in Athens. You can book online or over the counter.

Travel within: That's the part I find most interesting. Just walk or borrow a donkey cart from someone.

Where to stay: A little away from the main market, there are few lovingly built guest houses -
(Nereids Guest House | +30 22980 52875, +30 697 346 4317 | nereids@otenet.gr, Piteoussa Guest House | +30 22980 52810, +30 22980 52812 | info@piteoussa.com, Alexandra Guest House | +30 22980 53260, +30 22980 530360 | info@guesthouse-alexandra.com)

---

Kastraki: Anyone going to Meteora in central Greece inevitably passes through the traditional village of Kastraki. But few take a detour into the streets of this village. The streets during early morning will be filled with fragrance of freshly baked bread and cakes. Kastraki has numerous little Greek bakeries selling homemade bread, biscuits and cakes.

On one of the cold mornings of central Greece, the men chew on a cigar and load the back of their pick up trucks with goods to sell in market. The women warm up the kitchen with their cheerful conversations and wood smoke that bakes the bread and slowly escapes from the chimneys over red tiled thatched roofs.

'Greeks have an affair with flowers'







How to reach: Flights run to the nearest airport of Volos from where it is a 2 hour journey by car. Overnight trains and buses run from Athens that take about 4.5 - 5 hours one way. Train tickets are available at www.trainose.gr and bus tickets at www.ktel-trikala.gr

Travel within: If you are physically fit and have ample days in Meteora, it is best to walk from Kalambaka all the way to Meteora. Cars can be hired for EUR 40 for a day. Guided tours also leave from Kalambaka every day.

Where to stay: For Kastraki and Meteora, the best place to stay is in Kalambaka (Kalampaka). Some of the lovely places to stay are - (Monastiri guest house - +30 24320 23952, +30 69487 52852 | info@monastiri-guesthouse.gr, Elena guest house - + 30 24320 77789, +30 69765 62529, | elenamet@otenet.gr)

---

Santorini: The island is known world over for honeymooners who are found kissing in Oia during sunset or walking in the cozy market streets, or basking on one of the red or black beaches of Santorini. Not for a moment do I say that its a bad idea because I myself loved it. Once you have had an overdose of kissing, shopping and sun bathing, here are some moments from the villages of Pyrgos, Finikia and Megalochori.

Every village in Santorini has a traditional area that is clearly marked. Very less travelers venture into these areas, but this is where locals live and you can see moments from their daily life.

'After the overdose of kissing, shopping and sun bathing'






How to reach: Santorini lies in the Saronic gulf 290 km from port of Piraeus, Athens. Various ferries run daily including Hellenic seaways and Blue star ferries. You can fly from Athens for as low as EUR 80 one way with Aegean Air.

Travel within: Best way to travel within Santorini is to hire a car or scooter. Cars start from EUR 15 per day and scooter starts from EUR 10 per day. You will have to submit one proof of identity. Check the vehicle properly before hiring.

Where to stay: Santorini offers multiple options to stay. I personally skip Fira which is the busy point and stay in nearby villages. - (Caveland hostel Karterados - +30 2286 022122 | info@cave-land.com, Chrisanthi Villa Pyrgos, Villa Aegeon Megalochori - +30 22860 81579 | info@villa-aegeon.gr)

Note: All the prices above are mentioned as per 2014

Travel with me on Facebook and Twitter

Gaurav Bhatnagar

Gaurav Bhatnagar



Travel Writer, Photographer, Public Speaker, Entrepreneur in Responsible Rural Travel @ www.thefolktales.com. As a travel writer, my work is published in The Hindu, Huffington Post, National Geographic Traveller and The Alternative

Saturday, April 4, 2015

White Peaks Homestay - A Cozy Little Affair

With eyes half closed, I lay on my bed early morning watching the rays of sun slowly change colours from blue to orange to yellow and then white. From the cracks in the white curtains, the rays stream on my bed. I wake up to the fresh air and look at the red Rhododendrons blossoming in the balcony. And that's how I start my cozy little affair with the White Peaks Homestay.

The White Peaks Homestay
After all the noise of Delhi and that of driving, it is a bliss to stand in the balcony with eyes closed and feel the orchards in the valley below and listen to the sounds of birds. Kumaon is indeed beautiful. The snow covered Panchchuli mountain range and Nanda Devi peak is visible far off as if calling me to it.

Early morning bliss from the balcony
Rhododendrons blossoming in the valley
Mohan, the house caretaker calls us for the breakfast which he has prepared. He makes sure that it is always served hot and is even willing to wait for few hours if we ask him to. He shares his story of how he came to work here a year ago. He shares that due to lot of unsustainable construction in the mountains, the natural water sources are getting dried up. Never before has there been a drought in the mountains.

He then shares that how White Peaks ensures that no wood is cut from the forest. Instead of making a new house, this one was bought from previous owners thus reducing another dent on the beautiful canvas called Kumaon.

Homemade hot breakfast
I travelled to Gagar to explore The White Peaks. Usually, I have the urge to venture out during the day and explore nearby areas whenever I travel. But this time, I wanted to relax all day, put my feet up and sip wine in front of the fireplace.

The cozy fireplace
While Delhi has started to heat up, cold winds still blow in the valley. I love the feeling of walking barefoot on a wooden floor and feel the little cracking noise that it creates. I cuddle up in the bed and watch the moonlight outside every night.

The crisp bed sheets and books to pamper yourself with
It has been my dream to make a wooden house in the mountains. My love affair, which has just started will one day manifest into a house of my own in the middle of woods. It will have a fireplace, stock of Red Wine, and dogs. In that house, I will sit and either paint or do poetry.

What's your idea of the smaller pleasures of living?

How to reach White Peaks: Take overnight train (Ranikhet Express) from Delhi and reach Kathgodam by 4 AM. It is a 2 hour journey from Kathgodam to Gagar via Bhowali.

Note: This story is produced is association with White Peaks Homestay. All the opinions are unbiased and are based on personal experience as on April 2015.


Photos and video are done in association with www.photokatha.in

Travel with me on Facebook and Twitter



Gaurav Bhatnagar

Gaurav Bhatnagar



Travel Writer, Photographer, Public Speaker, Entrepreneur in Responsible Rural Travel @ www.thefolktales.com. As a travel writer, my work is published in The Hindu, Huffington Post, National Geographic Traveler and The Alternative

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Chhattisgarh - Tribes, Ancient Civilizations, Eroticism and Responsible Travel

"Be careful! Confirm if the area you are visiting is naxalite or not", my sister tells me with a concerned look on her face when she comes to know that I am going to Chhattisgarh. Being a traveller, I know that every region in India is not what they show them to be in news channels. I am invited by Chhattisgarh Tourism to cover the Sirpur Dance and Music festival which is held in Sirpur annually. Little do I know about the treasures of this undiscovered state before being shown around by local experts who are not only passionate, but also extremely learned in their area of work including Dr. A.K. Sharma (Ex. Archaeologist with ASI) and Mr. Santosh Misra (MD Chhattisgarh Tourism Board). Interestingly, many initiatives are being taken keeping the responsible travel practices in mind. Some of the unique experiences I bring back to you from Chhattisgarh are:

Tribal culture: My heart skip a beat and I have goosebumps when the sound of drums echo as the tribes start playing out their unique music on the stage of Sirpur Dance and Music festival. I don't know that Chhattisgarh is home to about 34 tribes of India, many of which are thankfully untouched by influence of modernism. Yet, they are pretty advanced in their knowledge of wildlife, sustainable lifestyle and environment. The Gond, Bisonhorn Maria, Halba, Pajra and Kol are some of the many tribes that are spread across different regions like Bastar, Dantewara and Korba.

Mr. Santosh Misra shares with us an interesting and lesser known story of tattoo culture in Chhattisgarh. A tribe called 'Ram Nami' are known to tattoo every inch of their body by the word 'Ram' (in Hindi), which refers to Lord Rama.

Unlike city dwellers, the lifestyle of tribes is very sustainable. One has to spend time with them to understand how they live with minimal or no adverse environmental, economical and social impact. They live off their land. Everything ranging from their dwellings, dresses and cooking practices are environmentally responsible. Their dances and songs are made to complement important events like festivals, marriages and crop harvest.

Chhattisgarh Tourism has brought out and documented the aboriginals of this region. It is an amazing model of strengthening ones own roots through tourism rather than aping the west.

Bison Maria dance | Image source: www.esamskriti.com
Tribal performances in Sirpur Dance and Music festival




I must appreciate the Chhattisgarh tourism board website for following responsible tourism practices by educating travellers to not treat tribals as objects of amusement and put them through the test of judgement and evaluation. They rather advise travellers to involve culturally, and have mutual respect and nurturing.

Without such initiatives, the indigenous tribes and cultures of India will dwindle away only to be overtaken by western modernism and unsustainable lifestyle.

Ancient cities: We have all studied in our books about Harappa, Mohenjo Daro, Mesopotamia, and Egyptian civilizations. But, we do not know about the ancient city that flourished in Sirpur belt 2600 years ago. Dr. Arun K. Sharma, who is a passionate archaeologist and has a voice with power much more than that of a young man takes us on a walk across ancient temples built in vedic architecture. He shows us around the 'Surang Tilla' temple that belongs to 6th century BC. The architects built a structure from Dolomite that survived a massive earthquake in 10th century without a crack in its walls. Mr. Arun tells us about how technologically advance Indian architects were that they could create air vacuum in a building's foundation without the availability of modern equipment. The massive earthquake of 10th century literally bent and curved the stairs of the temple but it couldn't break them.

Dr. Arun K. Sharma showing us around 'Surang Tilla'
He tells us about the Ayurveda paste that was used for construction rather than cement. As compared to cement that has a life of about 60 years, Ayurveda paste that consists of 16 natural ingredients found in nearby forests lasts for centuries. Some of the ingredients are Fermented Jaggery and Acacia Arabica. "The ingredients are written in a book called 'Mai Matam' in the form of Shloka", he explains.

We walk across a historic market where merchants travelled from as far as China and middle east for trading of rice and iron ore. The market is very well planned with a dock for receiving ships, excellent drainage system, a watch tower and space for storing grains without effecting them from weather and rodents.

6th century trading market in Sirpur
Sirpur has the only terracotta temples of Lakshman and Ram. It has a Buddhist Vihara (Buddhist school and residence for monks) that was built by a Hindu king showing religious tolerance and respect. Students from South East Asia, China and Japan travelled here to study Buddhism. The wall sculptures show daily life. Communities had pets like dogs, indulged in bull fights, and considered lizard sacred. This prevailed centuries before bull fight started in Spain. Our childhood stories of Panchtantra are inscribed on the walls. "The Jarawas of Andaman, Aborigines of Australia, and Saharan Namibian tribes are from the same gene pool", Mr. Sharma explains as he tells us how early man travelled from Africa towards the Asian plate.

The terracotta temple of Lakshman in Sirpur
Bull fight shown in Sirpur Buddhist vihara

Eroticism: I often wonder why the Indian society is so hushed up about the topic of 'sex' but our own ancient temples depict stories from Kamasutra. I still do not have an answer to this irony, but Dr. Sharma tells us in this video about the reason behind depiction of stories of Kamasutra in ancient Indian temples.

[Video]: Dr. Arun K. Sharma speaking on sex education in ancient India


From the walls of Buddhist Vihara in Sirpur

Ghotul Culture: The tribes of Chhattisgarh especially Muria (settlers) and Maria (nomads) practice Ghotul culture. Men and women during puberty are sent to live in a dormitory called Ghotul (a tribal hut surrounded by earthen or wooden walls), where each member has a community task like sweeping, cooking and cleaning. The inmates can mingle with each other in love making and subsequently, over a period of time choose their partner. They then move away to build their own hut. Sex for them is not a taboo and is considered an essential part of life. Similar practices are also followed by some tribes of South East Asia.

I visited Chhattisgarh for only three days, but this region has so much to offer that I might have to come back again and again and each time I will bring back for you a new and intriguing story.

Note: This story is produced in association with Chhattisgarh Tourism Board. All the opinions are unbiased and are based on personal experience as on Jan 2015.


Travel with me on Facebook and Twitter



Gaurav Bhatnagar

Gaurav Bhatnagar



Travel Writer, Photographer, Public Speaker, Entrepreneur in Responsible Rural Travel @ www.thefolktales.com. As a travel writer, my work is published in The Hindu, Huffington Post, National Geographic Traveller and The Alternative

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Himalaica Homestay - Luxury with Local Kumaoni Experiences

Ever since I had an experience of living in a homestay two years ago, I seldom stay in hotels unless necessary. With growing preference for the local experience, unfortunately many small hotels have also started naming themselves as homestays. However, authentic homestay experiences still stand out and leave me at awe. I recently spent few days in Kumaon with Himalaica Homestay surrounded by the sounds of birds and water flowing from natural mountain sources.

---

Dawn is yet to break when I alight from my train at the pretty little station of Kathgodam for a further one hour journey to Shyamkhet village. It is still night when I arrive at the pretty house where the three dogs - Rajah, Lama and Cyber are jumping around to greet me. Every house that I visit in the mountains adds new ideas to my kitty. All these ideas will go into the small wooden house that I will make one day in the Himalayas. Basant, the house caretaker and an amazing chef has been working here since the last ten years and seems to be very happy to make a cup of tea for me. My room is a cozy one on the first floor overlooking the valley on one side and forest on the other.

The Himalaica homestay
The Master Bedroom
The Twin Bedroom
I decide to do nothing on the first day. After the deafening noise of Delhi, the silence of Himalayas draw me straight to the bed where I sleep for ages. I spend rest of the day exploring the house and reading a book in the conservatory and getting pampered by the homemade organic food from local vegetables. Basant seems to be very happy when I ask him to cook food in local Kumaoni way. He starts to tell me stories about his ancestral house which is in a far off village. He has a smile on his face with a hint of sadness. Unfortunately, due to lack of earning opportunities in the villages, people are migrating to cities and our cultural heritage in the form of languages, music, art & craft, architecture and food is getting lost. Homestay culture and community based tourism is playing a small but significant role in helping local communities preserve their heritage and give the travellers an incredible holiday experience.

The conservatory at Himalaica
The study room
Visiting village 'Bardo': On the second day, I decide to visit one of the mountain villages and spend a day with the village community. Shyam Singh, who is a fruit orchard owner takes me to a village that is one hour drive from Shyamkhet. Driving along the emerald 'Kosi river', we reach a pretty little village setup far from everything. Children are playing under a tree in a local temple and wood smoke is coming out of chimneys of village houses.

Walk to Bardo village
Kosi river on the way to Bardo
Birds in Kosi river
Children playing near local village temple
While taking the short trek to Bardo village, I am surrounded by farms of ginger, onions, garlic, wheat and rice. Women dressed in bright colored clothes are working in the green farms throwing a stark contrast. It seems like I am walking through a paradise.

Bardo still has those traditional Kumaoni houses that are build of stone and mud with wooden doors and windows having intricate carving in an art called 'Likhai craft'. This art is mainly done by carving wood of Deodar tree that has high resistance to insects and rot. The intricacy of carvings comprising of swans, parrots, lotuses, and serpents indicate the owner and social status. They also depict the folk tales from traditional Hinduism.

Today, Likhai craft is a dying art because of the lack of availability of quality wood and preference for alternate style of building houses that are not only ugly but also unsustainable concrete structures.

House with window and door facades in Likhai craft
I venture out on a short village walk with Nandan Singh, a local with whom we pluck wild gooseberries from the backyard of the village. We meet Trilok Singh, a teacher in village school who shares his life's wisdom with us. He shares how his ancestors migrated from as far as Maharashtra to settle in the mountain caves in order to hide from the raging Mughal armies. Trilok Singh lives in his 80 year old ancestral house with his children and grand children. He says that his grandfather who was an expert in Likhai craft and who made this house has long passed away and now no one in his house knows this art form.

Trilok Singh and his wife
Local Kumaoni food
Nandan Singh shares with me how their village Bardo is self sustained. Apart from tea, sugar and salt , they don't have to buy anything from the market. Everything grows in the village and is exchanged between families. The village grows everything ranging from gooseberries, lemons, ginger, onions, potatoes, local pulses (called 'bhat ki daal'), wheat, rice, garlic and other vegetables. "We are very happy in who we are and where we are. We are self sufficient and we do not have any worries", shares Nandan Singh.

I always see that whenever I travel with local people, even if they are tour guides, and I ask them about their life, their village, and their family, they become very happy. Initially Nandan Singh was a little apprehensive in having me come into his house because he thought I was a city dweller and thus superior. When I asked them to cook a local meal for me they not only became very happy but also gave me few souvenirs to take back home.

My souvenirs from Kumaon
Visiting Kilmora NGO (Knitting division): We head off into the high mountains the next day to visit the Kilmora NGO that is working with Kumaoni women to give them alternate sources of income other than farming. The women now do knitting and the products are used in markets that would otherwise have been unreachable for them.

Women knitting at Kilmora NGO
Knitting by women at Kilmora NGO
Knitting by women at Kilmora NGO
After spending three days at Himalaica homestay, I was a little sad to be leaving for Delhi. I will be back in few months to see the fruits bloom in this region. Incidentally, this region is full of fruit orchards ranging from Apples, Peaches and Plum.

How to reach Himalaica: Take overnight train (Ranikhet Express) from Delhi and reach Kathgodam by 4 AM. The cab from homestay will pick you up for a one hour journey to Shyamkhet village.

Note: This story is produced in association with Himalaica Homestay. All the opinions are unbiased and are based on personal experience as on Feb 2015.

Travel with me on Facebook and Twitter

Gaurav Bhatnagar

Gaurav Bhatnagar



Travel Writer, Photographer, Public Speaker, Entrepreneur in Responsible Rural Travel @ www.thefolktales.com. As a travel writer, my work is published in The Hindu, Huffington Post, National Geographic Traveler and The Alternative