Travel Tales – 2 – The Ranikhet Adventures


Travel Tales – 1 – Road To Ranikhet 

Unlike many of the travelers and tourists we weren’t carrying any expensive DSLR cameras so all the pix are clicked from the mobile cams. Also, the sky remained hazy and we were unable to view the snow clad higher range throughout our stay which was a bit unfortunate but then mountains are mysterious and moody and that’s the beauty of them.

The 180 degree view of the majestic 330 kilometers of snow clad Himalayan peaks (Nandaghunti, Trishul, Mrigathuni, Nandadevi, Nandaghat, Nandakut, and Dangthal) , the refreshing pines, oaks and deodars, little hamlets , natural water springs, vast expanses of green, the ever smiling, helpful locals, kumauni food, churches, ancient  temples and most of all peace of mind is what draws travelers and tourists to the cantonment town of Ranikhet but for me there was another very important reason to  revisit this quaint little place way back in 2002.I wanted to see if my elder son would fall in love with the serenity that unfolded before him and want to study there. A tough decision but an essential one too.  It was a call he had to take on his own and he did. From 2002 to 2009 he studied at the Birla Memorial School in chillianaula and during those years the little hill town became our second home.

We explored the nearby towns  and villages of Majhkhali, Upat and kalika, Tipola , Pilkholi, Almora, Kausani, Kosi, Binsar, Jageshwar, Mukteshwar and many other whose names I have forgotten with time. Often we would detour and drive off to Bhimtal, Naukuchiatal, Sattal or Nainital. Each trip was a bitter sweet memory laden with the sorrow of parting and joy of receiving.

Ranikhet is the base for many trekking expeditions to Pindari, Valley of Flowers, Roopkund, Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary etc and also for pilgrimage to sacred places like Jageshwar and Vriddha Jageshwar, Binsar Mahadev, Mankameshwar etc. Our reason for returning now and again to this place is purely for cleansing our mind, body and soul. Just wander and gaze inwardly as you gaze outwardly. Though on earlier visits we made in a point to drive down to nondescript villages dotted across the mountains.

Katarmal Sun temple was a rare find. Remote and tucked in the forests of Almora district the small place has relatively rare Sun Temple. A must visit for the beautiful architecture.  You can explore a lot of hidden villages like Goluchhina, Dunagiri, Chitai ( we went there while on way to Jageshwar), Deora, paliu village, sokyatal, dhur  and many others  to get a glimpse of village life and see the old style stone houses and exquisitely carved wooden houses among other things.  The virgin beauty of these places is worth experiencing.

Once Adi passed out from the school I never went back to Ranikhet but a part of me lingered in that unforgettable  mountain town.

Apart from a few very early visits we never stayed in a hotel in Ranikhet. It was either the Tourism Guest House or the accommodation arranged by some army official in the quiet cantonment area.  That ensured a lot of walking along the roads shaded by pines. This time too we stayed in Army Holiday Homes, Suite 7, which was a little down in the valley from the main road. Surrounded by mighty pines the place was a complete unit with a working kitchen.  A small cottage just to ourselves. This area is part of one of the walking trails in Ranikhet (Jhula Devi Temple – Chaubatia – Bhalu Dam – Army Holiday Home – AMU Guest House).

All my travel fatigue vanished at the sight of  beauty around it. Bird sounds welcomed us as we stood gazing at the skyline through the pines. The only issue was the bad phone signal.

After resting a bit we climbed up to the main road, walked past the church and the stadium to reach small teashops at the start of the ridge where the local rustic market called sadar baazar is located. I noticed that the little birds that made nests in the front wooden frames of the old shops in the market were no longer there. Maybe not the nesting season. Things happen at their own pace in these mountain towns.

The life is hard but people are ever smiling. They laugh easily, engage in friendly chat without any inhibitions and even their joys are simple. The market doesn’t offer anything exotic here. Just the usual stuff for daily needs.

We bought some bal mithai from Tiwari sweets and it was heartening to converse with the owner who had a faint memory of Adi as a school boy. (He used to get sweets for us while returning home from the hostel). The beauty of these hill towns is that nothing much changes in its lanes and by lanes. While that is true of the main town, the outskirts are marred by rising urbanization. New hotels, residential complexes have sprouted there. Eyesores as compared to the pretty colonial houses and the old fashioned military atmosphere.

Though, for now, the town has been able to take the substantial development without losing its pristine beauty, I wonder how long before the nouveau-riche and the building sharks convert it into concrete jungle like most of the hill stations. As the town is maintained by Indian Army I still have some hope that they will definitely work to keep the unspoiled beauty of the place intact.

 

It is surprisingly beautiful how the rolling verdant greens, tall chir pines, Cyprus, oak, Deodar actually blur these changes in the landscape. The silence and sense of space is overwhelming as you walk away from the hustle bustle of town into the forests or walk down the hill slopes into nothingness. Small villages with a cluster of traditional houses with trees laden with fruits are the best places to experience the real essence of this place so if you are traveller not looking for the usual touristy things step away and walk the unexplored paths and as you do you may just come across the gorgeous long, unbroken arc of snow peaks at a distance.

I have witnessed some of the most breathtaking sunsets and sunrises here. Throughout the day you will find yourself surrounded by the sounds silence carries. Roosters, bells on grazing cows, cricket symphonies, bird-songs and whistling wind in the trees.

A friendly mountain dog may join you as you explore the landscape.

Hardworking, intrepid local women doing their daily chores, carrying firewood, tending cattle, cooking meals on a mud stove or harvesting fruits, crop is a common site there. In the hills it is the women who do most of the work, outdoor as well as indoor.

Taking the short cuts we went to see the century old churches, one atop a hillock and the other slightly off and down the winding cantonment road.

We have seen these churches umpteenth times but every visit is a new experience. When the evening shadows folded themselves and the dark began to descend on trees we made our way back to the lovely Army run holiday home cottage near the Ranikhet club.

There was a section 144 applied in the town due to some political upheaval some of the areas were inaccessible. Tourist inflow is usually manageable in Ranikhet so the place is never really flooded with people. We skipped Chaubatia Orchards and Bhalu Dam as we had been there many times but decided to trek down to Rani Jheel instead. A kilometer or so down in the valley from the cantonment area, the small artificial water body’s still waters are very pleasing to the eye. Unlike the big lakes in the lake towns around Ranikhet this one is a quaint little escape into nature’s lap.  Just go there and sit gazing at the water for a complete zen moment.

Our purpose for this trip to Ranikhet was mostly nostalgia. We wanted to revisit certain places and soak in the memories of those places. We did pay a customary visit to the ancient Jhoola Devi and the Mankameshwar Mandir among others for sentimental reasons.At some of the temples photography wasn’t allowed.

Nearly 700 year old Jhula Devi temple is near Chaubatia, Ranikhet. The present complex was constructed in 1935. Devotees offer bells once their wishes are fulfilled by the Goddess who is placed on a swing hence jhula devi. You can see countless number of bells here. The priest told me that he removes old bells every once in a while to make place for new. Like every other temple the place is slightly commercialized but the sight of wishes tied to the bell clusters is amazing. There used to be small tea shack near the temple which sold excellent tea but that is now a big shop that sells bells n other offerings to the devotees n tourists. There were no barricades earlier by the army so the Congo command station is a recent development.  From Chaubatia one can see the gorgeous view of Hathi Ghoda peaks, Nanda Devi and Panchachuli peaks on a clear day.

While walking down the roads we often stopped to watch the activities in the three major grounds in Ranikhet. Somnath Ground (the main parade ground), Nar Singh Ground, which is flanked by the gorgeous St Peter’s Church and the Presbyterian Church on both sides and is the center of all cultural activities, and the Shaitan Singh ground which is a army training ground. Often there would be an engaging football match in progress watched and cheered by the locals.

As we were staying in the cantonment  we crossed the Club, the war memorial, and the Army Museum daily. One must visit the exquisite army museum to know about the military history and the heroic accounts of the brave regiments of this land.

As we weren’t doing the touristy things we headed to the place very close to our hearts for different reasons. For Adi it was revisiting home away from home. Revisiting old school is always full of nostalgia. The school is located in Chillianaula.  Just before you enter the cantonment town of Ranikhet town there is an Army check point and a road diversion from there takes you to the pristine village nestled in the valley of chir pines forest on Dwarahat (Karnaprayag) road . The five km road meandering through the pines is breathtaking. The best way is to walk through the slopes soaking in the fresh pine scented air but you can also cycle or drive down.  Do stop in between to admire the picturesque landscape.

The old village still has traditional carved wooden houses but mostly the new age construction has filled the once serene village like arrows in quiver. I had not seen this rapid rate of construction around this area earlier.

We crossed the village and came to the Birla School in Birlagram. The colour of the walls had changed but as I gazed down the downhill winding path leading from administrative bloc to the hostels I could see my little boy standing there looking at us as we walked away leaving him behind. It also brought back memories of happy visits for annual day and other occasions.

We took permission from the Principal to walk around the school campus and were about to go when Adi spotted his music teacher riding up the path on his scooter. He stopped to fill the register at the gate and that’s when saw us. The connect and remembrance was instant and the old student teacher reunion brought a lump in my throat. After his blessings we went to administrative bloc and saw Adi’s house boy who is now Principal’s PA. Another emotional meeting and a surge of nostalgia. The middle aged man was mighty pleased to meet an old student. The two exchanged a lot of news about the school. They say you seldom age in the hills and looking at Trilok bhaiya we felt the same. The man looked exactly as when remembered him from 2002.

Birla school has a lovely campus and as we walked past academic block, the mess, junior hostel and then down to the senior hostel we merrily chirped about all the years spent there. Much has changed now, most of the old staff has left, the number of boarders has gone down drastically and the reputation has gone down a bit but we remembered the good old days as we listened to the evening breeze whistling through the trees.

From the school we checked out the small Maggi Point. What used to be just a shack was now a swanky little shop. The landscape evoked a lot of memories for us. It is amusing how even a tree or a vintage point can take you back in time.

Leisurely we ambled to the famous century old Herakhan Temple. Now, I am not a temple tour person but this place draws me in every time. The fruit trees, the peaceful environs, the marbled front yard with majestic view of the valley flanked by the mighty Himalayas, the melodious bells and the sweetness of the devotional songs sung in the evenings can fill you with a feeling of Nirvana. On clear days everything else blurs with the beauty that unfolds across this valley.Unlike other Hindu temples, this  shiva temple is unique in every way.  It was late evening on a not so clear day so we just sat there listening to the aarti.  The arti is sung by a British lady and the place is party managed by the British and European devotees of Babaji.

There are small shops around the temple that sell things for daily requirement. One can see the followers (both Indian and foreigners) going about their daily chores with a smile on their faces. Everything, everyone radiates a calm.

The dogs and the children are infectiously friendly. We spent a lot of time with them. Unfortunately we did not spot the langurs or the monkeys but if you stay in the kmvn rest house, Himadri,  you may get the opportunity to view breathtaking skies, a lot of mountain birds, langoors etc.

If you are an avid bird watcher then you may also see  Great Himalayan whistling thrush, Himalayan tree pie, red-billed long tailed blue magpie. A secret life exists in the forests of this pristine town  where move hyenas, foxes,  barking deer, jackals, leopards and flying squirrels.

No trip to Chillianaula is complete without tea at Kumaon Restaurant, a small local shop that sells bhajias, matthi, tea etc.

Bhim Singh ji, the owner is a humble middle aged man and makes awesome adrak wali chai.  We stopped to have a glassful and then headed back to Ranikhet.

The valley looks breathtaking at night. Unlike Shimla and mussoorie here in Ranikhet the lights look like fireflies. One can sit gazing at them for hours. Now I wished I had a good camera to capture the magical view.

Next day we drove to Almora to look at some old houses and savor bal mithai, singhora, singhal and other local delicacies. Also, we were looking for traditional kumaouni meal as the small restaurant that served it on demand had shut down. Unfortunately, we were turned back from the check post that’s just before Almora city. The regional capital of Kumaun was facing a massive jam and due to police barricades etc no tourists were allowed beyond certain point. The pedestrian only cobbled bazaar is a fascinating place to stroll and learn about this small horseshoe town. We could now either go to Binsar or Kausani but dejected as we were we decided to turn back and come down to Majhkhali and Upat kalika, the high altitude nine hole golf course maintained by Indian army. It is Asia’s highest golf course and offers panoramic views of the Himalayas.

It was a bright day and we were hungry. The best bet was to stop for some great Aaloo parathas at the banks of kosi river. We gave up the thought of visiting Kartarmal due to bad road and we were in mood to trek in the sun.  If you have time you must go visit the ancient sun temple here.  Lush forests and enchanting view of mountain peaks add to the beauty of this area.  Kosi is the lifeline of Almora district and I have fond memories of spending time on its banks watching its pristine waters.

Most of the river was dried up and on inquiring we found that a dam was coming up one kilometer downstream. The river is very unpredictable and prone to flood during monsoons.

After a small meal of parathas we ambled along the bank watching kids splash around on the other side of the bridge where the river’s green water shimmered in the mid day sun.

Just where our car was parked a family of goats gathered to see us off. Stately and calm as their surroundings they watched us as we got into the car to head back to Ranikhet.

Majhkhali is a small town nestled ob the highway that connects Almora and Ranikhet. It is about 11 kilometer short of Ranikhet. Serene and calm, it is perfect place to view the majestic Trishul and Nanda Devi peaks. Unfortunately for us the sky was hazy and even after waiting for a few hours in hope of getting a glimpse of the mountain ranges we couldn’t actually see them this time. On previous visits we have seen the patterns change on the snow clad Sonya peaks all through the day. The valley beneath them  is thickly forested and even if one doesn’t get to view the higher ranges , the play of sun and clouds on the lower ranges is breathtaking. The terrain is perfect for hiking and we crossed some small settlements.

We walked down the narrow forest path shaded with mighty Deodars and pines listening to the bird-songs. The sun was still high up but it was a  very pleasant day. A lot of women passed us carrying firewood on their heads.  We didn’t venture towards Ashoka Hall Girls School and skipped the Himalayan Village school too. We had seen them before. Majhkali too has got some new resorts but the place still looks as  picturesque as before.  Cloaked in mist, covered in a blanket of snow or brilliantly lit in the early summer sun, Majhkhali is any day a better option than the nearby towns for a quiet stay.

 

At Kalika Estate we stopped for lunch at the Windsor Lodge, a welcome heritage property. The original Windsor Lodge was a hunting lodge that was gutted in fire around 1948. It was renovated and raised from ashes almost half a century later.

The property is situated on a hillock surrounded by trees and offers great views of the snow peaks, tall pines and cedars and the golf course. We had a sumptuous meal at their coffee shop and soaked in the history that the place displayed.

The lush green Kalika golf course is so refreshing to the eyes. Flanked on all sides by the pine trees the place is perfect to relax. The water bodies were dry and some horses and mares had found them to be best grazing grounds oblivious to the presence of a few senior citizens playing golf under the summer sky.

We watched the game for a while then headed back to the cantonment for a nap.  We have always been travellers in search for solace. walking down the nondescript mountain trails, sitting at the edge of a rock  overlooking the valley or just laying on the back under the tall pine trees taking in the changing sky and listening to the music of the wind.

In the evening we ambled through the thandi sadak in the cantonment area. One can see the red rooftops of the houses and little shops of the sadar bazaar from some points but mostly the road is shaded by trees and quiet.  This road has been a constant feature of all our trips to Ranikhet. As we walked past school children, village elders and a bunch of army commandoes doing their daily jog we remembered how on one occasion Adi and I climbed up to thandi sadak very early on a rainy morning just to eat the delicious éclairs and cream rolls at the Pathak bakery.

Pathak Bakery is a small shop run by an ex-army person and apart from chocolate éclairs and cream rolls he keeps oven baked biscuits, pastries and other things. Our last meal that night was at the Ranikhet Inn. Delicious and simple.

While returning to our holiday home cottage the night surprised us with an enchanting view of the valley. The entire valley was dotted with lights that looked like fireflies. Unlike the other hill towns like Shimla and Mussoorie  here the valley is sparsely lit and looks divine. We stopped to take in this beautiful view of our last night in Ranikhet. Unfortunately we weren’t carrying any camera to capture the view. A hoot of an owl echoed through the silence of the night as we took a narrow turn on a motorable trail towards our cottage.  It was time to fold and tuck the memories under the pillow and let the sleep take over.

Early next morning after breakfast we drove towards our next destination Naukuchiatal. We decided to make it our base to explore the nearby lake towns of Saat tal, Bhimtal  and surrounding areas. You can read about it in the next post.

As we bid adieu to Ranikhet I made a promise to myself to come back in October and stay outside the town for a few days of wonder and peace all by myself. It is a town I would love to settle down in. Let us say what the universe has planned and go with the flow.

In the next post we will travel across the lake towns and see what beauties it opens up for us.

Travel Tales – 1 – Road To Ranikhet


“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.” – Anais Nin

 

Road journeys are the best way to bridge distances. If my health permitted I would leave it all to travel to the hills and far off places. Even money would not be an issue then as travel requires less expenditure than tourism. For many years we took road journeys to different places and then it all stopped. The relationship with the mountains became a distant love affair. Both of us pining for each other but hardly meeting. After the Shimla, Mashobra, Tatta Pani trip I was longing for the hills again but the mundane routines of urban life weren’t loosening their grip.

Ranikhet and nearby lake towns of Bhimtaal, Saatal and Naukuchiyatal were on our mind since some time. Finally on a bright spring morning we drove towards an adventure of a lifetime.  We were going to this area after a gap of 13 long years.

This is the first post of the three part series on our journey to the Uttarakhand mountains.

It takes 7-8 hours to reach Ranikhet which is about 350 Km from Delhi. The roads are much better than what I saw earlier and driving is mostly smooth if you leave early in the morning. We started at around 6.30 and were there by 2.30 in the afternoon. Fortunately we did not encounter any traffic jams. We decided to take the route via Hupur- Garh Mukteshwar- Gajraula- Moradabad Bypass towards Bilaspur, Rudrapur, Pant Nagar and Haldwani.

There is an alternate route also via Kashipur- Ramnagar (Corbett), Mohaan, Taarikhet  onward. This route is less crowded than the one we took and more scenic too.

Traffic can slow you down for hours sometimes at Brij Ghat at Garhmukteshwar especially if there is some religious festival on the day of your travel. It is the closest to Ganges one can get from Delhi. After that the drive is usually smooth.

We Stopped a little ahead of Garhmuktehwar for breakfast. I think it was somewhere near Gajroula. The dhaba was clean and the hot crisp Aaloo Parathas tasted  sumptuous with a dollop of butter, curds and mixed pickle.

Dhaba food is what one looks forward to while on highways and though this area isn’t flooded with dhabas that serve lip smacking food like when you travel to Chandigarh on NH22. Clean toilets and good food are two things one looks for while travelling. This place had both.

Dhabas are the lifeline of National Highways and every traveller has some favourite dhaba to talk about. We looked out for our favourite Amritsariyan da dhaba at Rudrapur but couldn’t spot it in the midst of all the new construction. Disappointed, I decided to simply gaze at the summer sky while Adi listened to the music .

Another thing was the absence of shops with boards advertising Chilled beer all through the National Highway. Those liquor shops have been shut down on govt. order  to prevent drunk driving. A good decision I thought. During hot summer days we used to often pick a few bottles from these shops but the person driving the car never drank. Frankly, I kind of missed it but what the heck we were headed for a different high altogether.

We took the Moradabad bypass (NH24) , continued to Rampur then turned left here towards Bilaspur, Rudrapur…

We didn’t go into the Rampur town which was immortalized by Jim Corbett for its verdant jungles. (Man Eaters of Kumaun).

As we neared Rampur – Rudrapur road I was amazed by the changes that had taken place in the last decade. The 68 Km of NH58 has considerably improved since I travelled last but urbanization has changed the serene landscape to an eyesore. After cruising through the periphery of Udham Singh Nagar district’s rolling green paddy fields one gets jolted at the sight of something like a chaotic miniature version of Gurgaon.

I was appalled to see stores of big brands, a huge mall, high rise buildings and swanky hotels along the road. The flatland of terai region is no more a dusty town that vanished in a blink of an eye as we zip past it.It is a concrete jungle in the rapidly developing foothills of Himalayas.  Instead of the wild leopards and tigers it now hosts the corporate tigers running this industrial hub. The place that once had paddy, sugarcane, wheat and soya fields adorning the landscape especially  from Bilaspur to Rudrapur now just has a few patches of green. At least it was heartening to see the locals selling guavas alongside the road. The few orchards were full of mango blossoms. I dreamed of luscious mangoes in the dripping heat and dozed off.

As one approaches Pantnagar one  is filled with the excitement of being close to the hills. The roads are usually crowded here and continue to be so till on crosses Kathgodam.  We made our way through the congested town of  Haldwani to reach Kathgodam from where the hills begin.

It is beyond this point that the drive becomes scenic and you get the first glimpse of the lower hills. The air changes considerably , becomes fresher and cooler.  The sight of the mountains is always exciting and we gazed at them with longing eyes, ready to be embraced by them.  Flowering trees, the simple mountain village folks, pretty houses and a long and winding road was such a joy to behold. Like children we chatted and pointed out different things  we noticed as the landscaped rolled past us. The sun was bright and warm but not torturous.

On the Bhimtal –Almora National Highway, just ahead of Bhowali, is the famous Kainchi Dham. The seat of Neem Koroli baba who was revered as an incarnation of Hanuman, of whom he was a devotee.

That was our first stop in the mountains. Not for the Ashram and temple but for our long time favourite Mohan Restaurant which is right across the temple complex.

Many people headed to Ranikhet and ahead stop here for delicious food and clean toilets in the little shopping complex on the temple side of the road. There are two hairpin scissor like bends on the road hence the name kainchi mod. (Kainchi – scissor, mod- bend)  Many celebrities like Julia Roberts, Marl Zukerburg and Steve Jobs came here to stay in search for Nirvana. Located at the banks of  the rivulet Shipra, which merges into Kosi river as it meanders northwards, this Ashram  is visited by thousands every year.  You can find more about it from Google.  I love the place for its scenic beauty. Tall conifers, green houses at some distance near the rivulet’s bed,  hundreds of birds and flowers make it such a blissful place. Even with the place being a stopover for many tourists and travellers for food etc the serene peaceful Kainchi mod and surrounding areas are so welcoming. You will find local villagers selling Plum, Peaches, Apricot and other seasonal fruits. There are a few small eating joints along the road.

 Mohan restaurant is one such  eating joint.  Unmistakable with its pink walled interior and a shed on top , the place is owned by a kumauni family.  In all the years that we have stopped at this place the quality of food hasn’t changed a bit. Simple, homely and delicious kala chana and pooti, Aaloo sabzi and poori, parathas, bhajia and tea, maggi and a few other things are part of the menu. They are all made fresh by the lady of the house. The highlight is the pahadi cucumber raita and tangy spiced up jalzeera or lemonade made with Hill Lemons (Khatta).

In season one can see trees laden with these hill limes at many places on the way and in the villages. The fruit is an integral part of the kumauni cuisine.  We had chana poori and raita and after freshened up. There are clean bathrooms available across the road. We needed to stretch our legs so we walked around the area soaking in the smells and sounds only mountains can offer.

Again on the road we crossed khairna bridge( there is a bifurcation here, one road leads to Almora and another  goes to Ranikhet), Garam Pani and other small villages with lovely houses. The winding road is well maintained and the view simply enchanting. Look to your left for a magical view of green knolls, terraced fields , meandering river  down in the valley, lush forests and cleanse your smoke choked lungs with the  sweet smelling cool mountain air…bliss.

Far from the madding crowd we were driving now among beautiful tall trees and wild wayside flowers. The valley below to our left was bathed in sunlight and looked absolutely gorgeous.

Soon the sign boards and toll point indicated that we were right at the threshold of the unique slope town of Ranikhet situated on the upper ridge of the lower Himalayas. We took the higher of the two ridges flanking Ranikhet. The Chaubatia ridge, among orchards and old churches, has the army cantonment where we were going to stay for the next few days. Within minutes we were outside a lovely British style cottage which would be our home for the next few days.

It was a lovely day and we were ready to explore our favorite haunts.

We will continue with our adventure in the next part of the series. Keep watching this space.

Some New Poems


I took a much needed break to the mountains and promptly fell sick after returning to the killing heat of Delhi. The city and I have a love hate relationship.

I have not really posted much on the blog too which I shall correct now. There is a three part travelogue coming up soon along with some other surprises.

Just another day in the beautiful town of Ranikhet

Meanwhile you can enjoy some of the poems that recently got published in two prestigious online magazines.

A set of four toy train poems found home in biannual web based magazine Knot. Knot is the brainchild of poet, writer Kristen Scott. The magazine is published from Turkey.

You can read the poems here – 

TOY TRAIN POEMS  

Do check out other content in this fabulous magazine.

Another set of five poems were published in Poets International’s The Peregrine Muse (Art / Humanities website)  Do check out this journal for some excellent poetry from across the world.

Find my poems by clicking on this link :

FIVE REMEMBERANCES

I am thankful to Kristen Scott and Imene Bennani (poetry editor) of  Knot magazine & Ananya Guha and Scott Thomas Outlar of The Peregrine Muse for including my poetry.

It is always a good feeling when your work is appreciated and accepted for publication.

I am working on my second book of poems and hope to bring it out by early next year.

Keep visiting the blog and do leave your views in the comment section.

When Life Gives You Lemons…


In Himachal it is called Khatta, in Uttarakhand, simply neembu. Some call it galgal (though I think galgal is tougher variety) or hill lemon. I was lucky to get some fresh lemons. It’s a sturdy fruit and stays for long. I love shikanjee made from this and pickle too. In kumaon, the local women make a dish called ‘nimbu’ with this. Made with lime, creamy yogurt, flavoured salt(pisi nud), raddish, carrot, jaggery etc. They also concentrate its juice by heating.  This juice, called “chukh” in local dialect, is then stored in glass bottles and is used later in the season as souring agent and for other recipes.  Lemon marmalade is to die for but I have not tried it with hill lemons.

On my recent trip to Ranikhet and nearby areas I saw a lot of trees loaded with this juicy citrus fruit and even the markets were full of them. We relished the jalzeera and shikanjee made from these khattas almost daily.

I was fortunate to get my hands on freshly plucked lemons of two sizes.

Now a traditional lemon pickle takes about 15- 30 days of sun warming to mature and I was dying to savor some fresh tangy sweet pickle and decided to use the large khatta to make an instant pickle. Pickle for me is inevitable part of a meal without which the meal seems incomplete. Be it hot aaloo paratha, khichadi or simple daal chawal, a delicious pickle can be a complete game changer.

Every household has its own unique recipe for pickling various fruits and veggies. Regional ingredients (spices) are used to give the pickle its distinctive taste.

This hill lemon pickle is my favorite though the spicy one that came from my mother in law’s village was out of the world. I am trying to procure that recipe. Lemons are usually cheaper in winter so a big batch will be made then too.

This instant pickle has a unique taste of coarsely pounded spices, sugar and lemon. It tastes delicious. It is also digestive and its taste enhances as the pickle matures. Though it doesn’t need any warming in sun, I still keep it in sun for a week. For instant consumption I take out a small quantity in a small jar / barni or glass bowl.

I must tell you that these instant fixes can not beat the traditional way of pickling and the taste differs but then when craving hits you big time you need to settle for a quickie.😉 Boiling or microwaving also kills the Vitamin C  :( unlike traditionally sun soaked lemon pickles.

There are a few things one must keep in mind while pickling. Everything you use should be dry and clean. Always take out  a small quantity for daily use so the main jar is not opened and exposed to impurities everyday. The utensils and jars should be washed and dried properly. Moisture is the biggest culprit in ruining pickles and any lapse would cause mold to form. .Pickles are a labor of love and care even these quick ones. .

Remember how pickling used to be an annual ritual at your granny’s home? How the pickle jars were jealously guarded and only one person would handle them? The small storeroom or bhandarghar where the barnis were stored away from the praying eyes and kids who left no opportunity to steal some tangy deliciousness while the elders got busy doing stuff that elders do?:) Those were the good days. The whole house and sometimes the lane too would fill with the mouthwatering aroma of freshly made achar making everyone drool. Pickle making was a community affair and women would gather to catch up with each other, harvest the fruit, blend, pound spices and mix the ingredients under the watchful eye of an old matriarch. Sigh! Those are the earliest food memories I have and the fondest ones.

Here is the tangy sweet spiced up Hill Lemon or Khatta Pickle recipe :

Ingredients :

1 big hill lemon ( this one was about 250 gm)

4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black salt (kala namak)

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup shakkar or jaggery powder (optional)

1/2 teaspoon fenugreek  seeds

1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds

5-6 cloves

1″ cinnamon stick

8-10 black peppercorns

2 black cardamoms ( just the seeds)

1/2 teaspoon ajwain seeds (carom seeds or bishop’s weed)

1 teaspoon Turmeric powder

3 teaspoon red chili powder

1/4 teaspoon asafoetida

( you can adjust the salt, sugar, spices etc according to your taste. Also, the use of jaggery is optional. Jaggery ferments quicker so I use it only for a small quantity pickle. For others I prefer sugar.)

Method :

Wash and wipe the Hill Lemon with a kitchen towel.  Always prefer lemons which have no skin bruises.

Cut the lemon in small pieces and place them in a microwave proof bowl. Close the lid and microwave them for 3-6 minutes. You need to stop and check the softness of the skin in between. Alternately, you can place the whole lemon in a steaming basket and pressure cook it till three whistles. Do not overdo it or the lemon will become a pulp and also turn bitter. If using usual thin skin small lemons (kagazi neebu) reduce the time to one minute or two depending on the quality of the fruit.

Once the skin is soft to touch and breaks easily, let the lemon cool completely.

When the lemon pieces are cool, transfer them to a wide glass bowl and add, salt, chili powder, black salt, turmeric powder, asafoetida, sugar and jaggery powder (some people make a syrup and add that but I just put the shakkar as it is and give it a good mix).

Give this a good mix using clean and dry spoon.

Now pound cloves, cinnamon stick, black pepper corns, seeds of black cardamom and ajwain seeds coarsely in a mortar and pestle. You can grind them to powder too.  Dry toast the mix with fenugreek and mustard seeds on low heat. Keep in mind to just slightly warm the spices or the mix will become bitter.

Add this spice mix to the lemon mixture and give it a stir. You can coarsely ground the fenugreek and mustard seeds too or use them whole like I did.

At this point you can either add two tablespoon of olive oil or smoked and cooled mustard oil or just omit the oil. The pickle won’t go bad if there is enough juice to submerge the pieces.

Once all the ingredients are mixed, taste the pickle to add anything to suit your taste. The sugar and salt will make the lemons sweat and release the juice. That’s a good sign and will make the pickle taste better and help in preservation too. As the days pass the pickle will thicken a bit.

Spoon the tangy sweet spiced up lemon pickle in a clean dry airtight jar, close the lid properly. Your instant Hill lemon pickle is ready to eat. You can keep the jar in dry summer sun for a few days to mature but it is optional.

You can add slit / diced green chili and/or ginger julienne to this pickle. Though I don’t like green chili in a sweet sour pickle. Ginger tastes great.

If kept in the fridge, the pickle stays up to three months.

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Relish this lipsmackingly delicious pickle with curd rice, hot parathas, roti or just about anything.

 

Taste Of Banaras At ThreeSixtyOne|The Oberoi Gurgaon


I am a big supporter of revival of regional, traditional cuisine and the use of indigenous ingredients in daily meals. When I came to know about Banaras Ka Khana Showcase at ThreeSixtyOne, The Oberoi Gurgaon, curated by Chef Ravitej Nath along with a dear friend, food consultant and writer Sangeeta Khanna, I did not want to miss this opportunity to taste the flavours of the temple town cuisine. My mother was born and brought up there and we decided to bring to her a part of her childhood and youth as a pre-birthday gift. She turns 84 on 31st March.Exif_JPEG_420

They say, when you strongly desire something the universe conspires to bring it to you. A contest won me ‘complimentary meal for two’ making the whole experience even more exciting.

Our Holi inspired Dinner began with Panchamrit which is offered to the devotees at Hindu temples as a blessing from the Gods. It is also used in many religeous rituals. The whiff of tulsi (Holi Basil) and the correct sweetness of milk and honey in the drink was a perfect beginning to what was going to be an unforgettable experience.  We forgot to take the picture of Panchamrit.

The street food or chaats of Banaras in the Chef’s tasting menu left us longing for more. As we dug into Tamatar ki chaat, Chivda matar, chenna ka dahi vada and sumptuous aaloo tikki accompanied with traditional aaloo papad and the four chutneys the first thing that came to mind was the  hot, sour, savoury notes of each dish perfectly balancing each other. Nothing was too overwhelming. Wadiyon ki chatney was an instant hit.

The sublime flavours enhanced the pleasure of eating. Ma promptly gave her seal of approval as she remembered her childhood spent in the lanes of the holy city exploring these very delicacies except the tamatar chaat.

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Sangeeta later told us how the flavours of Gujrat have influenced the local cuisine and why. No wonder the tamatar chaat made me think of a similar dish sev tamatar.ki sabzi. It is amazing to see how the food has interconnections with so many parts of India and not just the city of Varanasi itself.

I loved Harad ki papdi, fara, bajka, bhapouri and bhabra too. We make Bajka at home and call it Lobra. Long time ago in Banaras, Harad ka golgappa was served  to digest all the fantastic chaat that the chaat bhandars fed you and this Harad ki papdi was a perfect revival of that. Excellent in taste and texture.

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The khus ka sherbat, aam panna were delicious but the thandai with special hand crafted portion and pan cocktail made with fresh pan leaves and lemon won my heart. Nowhere can one find something so fantastic. Both the drinks were simply out of the world.

The chefs had divided street food and main course in two distinct segments and the drinks served with them complimented the food perfectly.

We loved the street food totally. My son had never tasted the Banaras cuisine so it was a  unique experience for him. He loved the moong beans filled aaloo tiki and chene ka dahi vada.

I knew that the banaras ki thali was going to be a big sumptuous affair so we lingered with the pan mocktail reminiscing about the city and its culture.

We got both non vegetarian and vegetarian thalis in main course.

The Vegetarian Thali 

The Breads 

I had the vegetarian Thali and was bowled over by matar ka nimona (crushed green peas cooked with ginger and coriander) , Gular ka chokha, aaloo chokha and kaddu ki sabzi. It was very much the ghar ka khana. Each dish balancing the taste of the other. I found the flat breads a bit hard and one of the littis was under-cooked but the rest of amazing.  The khade masale ka pulav, made with short grain aromatic rice called Zeerabutti, had such a sublime flavour it really blew my mind.

I was surprised to see mom relishing the meal with such gusto as she is a very small eater. The khoya, matar, makhane ki sabzi was a delight. I had never tasted it before but my ma gave it 10/10 in taste. She found it as authentic as it could be. The tempered moong daal was just as we make at home. Delicious, to say the least.  Again, I found that the pairing of dishes was done in such a way that the tastes do not overwhelm each other.

The non -veg thali

Non Vegetarian Thali

The non veg thali had sookha jheenga (dried shrimps), motton kalia and sadi litti among other things and my son loved the shrimps and the river sol in mustard gravy.

I would love to go on about each dish but the festival is still on till 26th March at ThreeSixtyOne, The Oberoi Gurgaon and if you are in or around Delhi/NCR, you MUST visit and indulge in the Rivayat of Banaras.

Meals that are prepared and served with love are the best. We could see how Sangeeta had put her heart and soul in each preparation, going out of the way to procure the finest ingredients to create the original banarasi khana. Hats off to the F&B team of Chef Manish Sharma, Chef Ravitej Nath who recreated this fabulous along with Sangeeta

Now it was time for desserts and conversations with our gracious hostess.

 

As you can see mom had a lovely time reminiscing about Banaras with Sangeeta. They talked about traditions, city heritage, old houses, chawks and gaiyan, old eateries, their childhood and of course the delectable food. I was happy to see my mom enjoying every bit of the experience.

Malaiyyo, a specialty of Banaras, stole the show. Frothy, light as air and delicately tasteful,  it brought back a surge of nostalgia. Ma told that they would get up early morning before sunrise in winter to eat this delicacy which was then served in earthen pot the size of a small diwali diya. We loved the food and we loved the stories.

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The Desserts

Biranji Kheer

Biranji Kheer

The naturally tulsi scented Sankatmochan laddoos and Sri ram Bhandar’s lal peda (especially flown in from Banaras) were out of the world. I enjoyed the hare chane ki barfi which was new for me and the Biranji kheer was a delight. I make it at home but this was ethereal. Adi was bowled over by Malaiyyo.

Three generations in love with the vibrant food and Banaras came home with fondest memories, blissful dinning experience, unconditional love and a bagful of goodies.

I want to congratulate everyone who is part of Rivayat- Indian Culinary Conclave  and Banaras ka khana fest. You have kept the spirit and soul of the cuisine intact. Well done.

Special thanks for the warmth of hospitality by The Oberoi Gurgaon Staff. Thank you Mallika Gowda for your understanding and care.

Those who wish to know more about the dishes that were served here  or want to try making some of them at home, do visit Sangeeta’s blog Banaras ka Khana .