Natalie Savors the Beauty of Matheran

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At a little over 800 meters, Matheran is not really in the running for the highest hill stations in Maharashtra, leave alone the rest of India. However, this tiny little town about 90 kms from Mumbai holds a very special place in the hearts of anyone who has visited there.

For this is the only hill station in Asia that does not allow any motorized transport, barring the ambulance run by the local municipality, on its streets. This is how nature intended a hill station to be. To get here you either take the toy train from Neral, a 11 kilometer journey through some verdant forests. Or you drive up to Dasturi point and then take a horse or trek up the approximately 2.5 kilometers to the town center.

As befitting a town of this nature the road is not tarred so it is pretty much like a jungle trek on a slightly broader path. The route up to the town is through the forests and you are already getting into the slower and easier pace by the time you reach there. Being a popular weekend getaway, there is no shortage of hotels and resorts in and around Matheran.

Coming here is about kicking back from urban living and enjoying nature without the cacophony and rush of modern transportation. The town is surrounded by a dense forest and has a couple of lakes and view points that provide breathtaking views of the surrounding valley, the Ulhas river, magnificent sunrises and sunsets. Some of these places are at quite a distance from the town so if you are not up to walking, horse riding or hand pulled rickshaws are your only options.

The best time to visit Matheran is during and after the monsoons…which means right now and going on to about November. The rains transform the hills into many vibrant hues of green and you will encounter some spectacular waterfalls during your drive to Neral and beyond as you begin your journey to Matheran itself. Click on the image to see more travel pictures from Natalie.

 

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Mithila Does the Great Lakes Trek

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The Vishansar is the first of the lakes you encounter on the Great Lakes Trek that begins at Sonamarg and covers lakes that can only be accessed either by walking or by Pony. Vishansar is said to be lake of Vishnu. The lake lies at an altitude of 3710 meters and is about one km long.

As with most lakes this far up in the mountains, Vishansar too completely freezes in winter but is a riot of color during the summer time when the treks are organised. The lake is surrounded by meadows that are a lush green from the water of the glacial stream that feed it. It is a popular gazing area for the local shepherds during this time of the year. The area is also a riot of flowers that take advantage of the bountiful water and temperate climate.

Other lakes covered by the eight day trek include Kishansar, the lake of Krishna, the Satsar–a cluster of seven lakes, Gadsar and the twin lakes of Nandkol and Gangbal. The trek is a great way to take in the moutains at a truly relaxed pace. You leave civilization behind. Even mobile connectivity gets knocked out after Vishansar and then it is just you, your group and the beautiful temperamental mountains that you are walking through.

This is a must do for those interested in viewing life at their own pace. Though at a high altitude the treks are of a moderate intensity and most people will find they can do them. However, most organizers advice six to eight weeks of cardio and a couple of days of acclimatization to really get the best out of the trek. Click on the image to see more from Mithila’s travels.

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Lili Bikes Through Ladhak

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Adventures do not get any bigger, thrilling or challenging than this. Biking expeditions through the Leh-Ladhak region have, in recent years, become one of the best ways to tour through the rugged beauty of the Ladhak, a district in the state of Jammu Kashmir, that lies in the folds of the Himalayas.

Expeditions typically range from eight to 12 days and cover anything up to 1000 kms of riding among some of the highest mountain passes and some beautiful mountain landscapes. The road, though, is not always going to be like this. The thrill of the ride comes in going over some really rough and unpaved roads, which test both biker and bike. Generally the Royal Enfield Bullet is the preferred vehicle on these trips. These bikes come in 350 and 500 cc configurations and with a huge dose of history.

The Bullet first came to India in 1956. The bike has been in continuous production since making it the oldest motorcycle brand in the world still in production. The bikes have an iconic status among adventure riders…and it is almost de rigueur to do this trip on a Bullet.

While each operator offers a slightly different itinerary, expeditions typically begin at Leh, the capital of Ladhak. At 3000 meters above sea level a start at Leh is important to acclimatize to the high altitudes of the rest of the journey. From Leh, riders depart to the Nubra valley via the Khardungla Pass. The Border Roads Organization, that maintains and builds roads here, maintains that this is the highest motorable pass in the world but there is some dispute about that. What is undisputed however, are the fantastic mountain peaks and rugged landscapes you will encounter on this ride.

Nubra valley is known for its stark beauty. The cold desert rests between the Ladhak and Karakorum ranges of the Himalayas. It is home to the Shyok and Siachen rivers which meet here to move forward as the Indus. The population is generally Buddhist and this place hosts some stunning monasteries.  Hunder is a popular stop in the valley, both to see the unique Bacterian camels…double humped…and to take in high altitude sand dunes.

Pangong Lake, covering an area of over 130 sq kms and bordering China controlled Tibet is another must visit destination. The ride up to the lake is through some rough terrain and can be a challenge even for accomplished riders.

Most of this region is sparsely populated and wild. This is truly off the beaten path, as it is only in the last few years that it is being opened up to tourists. But summer is the time to visit as the region is bathed in all shades of green. The melting snow and glaciers feed multiple rivers and streams as they come tumbling through adding to the already magical beauty of this place. Click on the image to see more of Lili’s travels through India.

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Anam Takes in the Natural Beauty of Panchmari

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Panchmari, is a sleepy hill station in Madhya Pradesh, discovered by the British in 1857. The town gets busy in the summer and monsoon months as tourists flock here first to escape the heat of the plains and to reveal in the natural beauty of this place situated about 3500 meters above seal level.

The name Panchmarhi, which translates to five caves, is derived from five ancient caves carved into limestone rocks. Legend has it that these caves were carved out by the Pandava brothers during their years of exile in the forest. But there is no way to verify if this was indeed the case. The caves themselves offer spectacular views of the town the Satpura mountain range and the valley below.

The other great attraction of the place, especially during the rains is the number of streams, rivulets and ponds that flow through the region. Many of them make delightful picnic spots and it is quite common to see people dip into these natural pools, especially at the base of the water falls. The image that Anam has captured is of the Silver Falls, the longest of the Panchmari falls as it drops down over 2800 feet. The name refers to the how the water shimmers like silver as it plunges down this height.

The town itself is a quaint throwback to the British Raj. It is an army cantonment and retains the laid back charm of an earlier era. There’s not too much to see or do, but those looking to kick back and take in the surroundings will find this an ideal vacation spot.

Those inclined to more adventurous activities will have to satisfy themselves with trekking, para gliding and rock climbing. Click on the image to see more pictures from Anam’s travels.

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Naiya Heads to Kumbalgarh

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It is not the great wall of China and it is not visible from the moon. Though it is the next best thing. The wall fortifying the Kumbalgarh Fort in Rajasthan has the distinction of being the second largest wall in the world. It is also 15 feet to 25 feet thick and could accommodate eight horses in parallel on its ramparts.

That wall is one of the reasons that Kumbalgarh is one of the few forts that has never been conquered. The fort itself is perched on a hill 1100 meters above sea level. The height, the inhospitable terrain and that thick wall combined to repeal multiple attacks over the fort’s long history. The fort was built by Rana Kumbh, after whom it is named, in the early 15th century.

The Rana, owner/builder of 82 other forts across his Kingdom, had some expertise in the design and construction of forts and this is his best creation. Though getting started was quite a hurdle. The Rana was repeatedly unsuccessful in his attempts at building the fort wall. Finally, following the advice of a sage, he had to perform a human sacrifice. The tale of this sacrifice is enshrined in a temple at the main gate, the Hanuman Pol.

There are a number of palaces, buildings and temples inside the fort, but the most magnificient is the Badal (cloud) Mahal. Build at the highest point of the fort in the 19th century, this palace is divided into two buildings–the Zanana Mahal (women’s wing) and the Mardana Mahal (men’s palace). The palaces have been lavishly done up with intricate carvings, inlays and paintings…but its the spectacular landscapes of the surrounding countryside that are the main stars here.

The fort is surrounded by the Kumbalgarh Wildlife sanctuary. The over 570 sq km of forest is home to Wolf, Leopards, Bear, Hyena, Sambhar and Jackal among others. In fact this is the only place in India you can see the wolf in its natural habitat. Apart from trekking the forest, walking the long ramparts of the fort is another popular tourist activity. Click on the image to see more of Naiya’s travel pictures.

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Ravi Becomes an Early Bird at Nal Sarovar

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It’s the monsoons so water is pretty much the theme across India. Waterfalls, gurgling rivulets, gushing rivers, swollen lakes and yes the birds to go with them. We’re back again today with another great capture from the Nal Sarovar Bird Sanctuary in Gujarat.

It is around this time that migratory birds start arriving here and with the birds come the tourists! The lake covers an area of 115 sq km, making it the largest water bird sanctuary in the country. In peak season, October to February, it hosts about 250 species of birds of which around 150 species are resident water fowls.

Pelicans, Flamingoes, Storks, Ducks, Herons, Bitterns, Grebes, Kingfishers, Darters, Cormorants, Jacanas, Moore Hens and Coots are some of the popular sightings here. Being little over an hour’s drive from Ahmadabad and with nothing much else touristy around, this is best visited as a day trip.  But those wishing to catch the birds in action early in the morning, like Ravi, can opt to stay at the Forest Department Rest House near the lake. Click on the image to see more pictures from Ravi’s travels.

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Tati Finds Tranquility in McLeod Ganj

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Mcleoad Ganj, and Dharamshala, is Dalai Lama territory. This little nook in the Himalays has become a home away from conquered home for the 14th Dalai Lama, his followers and Tibetan refugees who fled the Chinese conquest of their Himalayan Kingdom.

The Dalai Lama came here in 1959 and transformed this tiny, sleepy and salubrious hill station…whose only claim to fame till then was that it served as a summer getaway for the Britishers during their rule of India…into a vibrant and buzzing home for Tibetans without a country. Along with the Dalai Lama has come international attention to this part of Himachal Pradesh. Politicians, celebrities and world renowned personalities make this town a stop over on their international travels.

The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile have created a mini-Tibet here in an effort to preserve the culture and traditions of their home. The Dalai Lama’s brand of Tibetan Buddhism with its message of all encompassing love is a major reason for drawing hoards of tourists…international and domestic to these hills. Another is the natural beauty of the place.

Beautiful mountain vistas, dense forests, untouched waterfalls, bracing chilly weather even in the height of summer and some excellent nature trails greet visitors to these parts. It is almost as if Dharamshala, Mcleod Ganj and the areas around it have become a tonic for the soul and the body. Click on the image to see more pictures from Tati’s travels.

 

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Vijaya Catches up on Dutch History at Tharangambadi

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Dutch history in India seemed to be the most appropriate way to go as their team take on Brazil for the third spot later today. This image of fishermen returning from the sea is of a sleepy little fishing village, in the state of Tamil Nadu. Tharangambadi was formerly the Dutch trading post of Tranquebar.

The Duth and the Portugese fought for a foothold over the southern coast of India even as the British dominated large parts of North, East and Central India. Trading ports were essential for these countries as it allowed them to export the much in demand spices and cotton back to Europe. The importance of Tranquebar in the Dutch scheme of things can be gauged by the fact that they built their second largest fort ever…Fort Dansborg…here. The largest, of course, is Castle Kronborg in Helsingor, Denmark.

Tranquebar became the base of the Danish settlement in the region, as well the main port for the export of cotton. The construction of the fort was begun in 1620. However, the town quickly lost significance when cotton production and export shifted to Bengal in East India. The Fort and the town as finally sold to the British in 1845. The Fort is now a museum and houses artifacts from the days of Dutch rule over this little piece of India. Click on the image to see more of Vijaya’s travels.

 

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Asya Visits Chittorgarh Fort

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If there has to be one place that represents the valor, courage and indomitable spirit of the Rajputs of Rajasthan it would have to be Chittorgarh. Situated 90 kms from Udaipur the fort of Chittorgarh has as many incredible stories as it does stones. And there are plenty of those, as this is India’s largest fort complex by a distance.

The fort covers an area of 700 acres and its perimeter wall runs for 4.5 kms. Within the complex are a number of palaces, temples, residences and gardens. What you see in the image is the main tank used to store water for use within the fort.

Bhim, the strongman of the mythological Pandava princes, is credited with building the first fortification here. The current fort traces its ancestry to the 7th century. The fort came into prominence in 1303 with the tale of Rani Padmini, the wife of the Rana of Chittorgarh and Alauddin Khilji the ruler of Delhi.

Stories of Rani Padmini’s beauty had spread across the land and intrigued the sultan. He desired to see her himself. However, as per the custom of the time, the queen was in purdah and would not come out in front of him. Instead her husband, Rana Ratan Singh, set up a mirror arrangement so the Sultan could see the queen. The image further fuelled Khilji’s desire and now he wanted Padmini to join his harem. This led to an all out war between the small Rajput force and the mighty forces of Khilji.

Sensing that the sultan held the upper hand, the Rajputs of Chittorgarh donned saffron robes (the color of sacrifice) and charged out against the sultan’s forces. The Rani and the rest of the womenfolk chose to commit Jauhar, burning themselves in a fire, rather than be taken by the Sultan and his forces.

The fort was taken back by the Rajputs a few years later. Chittorgarh and its rulers had a number of skirmishes with the Mughals in Delhi as well as the Muslim rulers in nearby Gujarat. The most famous battle was led by Rana Sanga against the first Mughal emperor Babur. In 1535, Bahadur Shah the ruler of Gujarat attacked Chittorgarh resulting in the queen Rani Karnawati and other women folk committing Jauhar, rather than be captured by Bahadur Shah.

The final assault on this fort happened during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. This was in 1568. After that the capital of Mewar shifted to Udaipur and Chittorgarh slowly merged into the pages of history. Click on the image to see more pictures from Asya’s travels.

 

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Pradeep Visits Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi

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Humayun’s tomb in New Delhi is less celebrated than the Taj Mahal in Agra, but the story behind its construction is no less dramatic. The tomb, built to house the second Mughal Emperor Humayun, was only possible due to the dedication of his wife Bega Begum. It is said the Begum was so grieved at the death of her her husband that she swore to build him the finest mausoleum in the Empire.

Construction began nine years after Humayun’s death in 1556 and the edifice was completed in 1571. The Begum personally supervised every aspect of the construction and even picked the architect herself. The best craftsmen from the far flung Mughal empire were moved to Delhi and a special building constructed for them within the complex so they could live and work there.

This is the first garden tomb in the Indian subcontinent and is the first to use red sandstone in such a scale. The tomb is surrounded by the charbagh garden of paradise which spreads out across 30 acres. The complex also houses other tombs and cenotaphs including those of Bega Begum, Humayun’s great gandson Dara Shikoh and other Mughals.

The tomb was to become the inspiration for another love story, when Shah Jahan went one better by building the marble Taj Mahal for his queen and chief consort Mumtaz in Agra. Click on the image to see more pictures from Pradeep’s travels.

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