India’s Hidden GemsPosted on: 22 June 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves
Bestselling Indian novelist Jaishree Misra reveals her hidden gems that can be found across India’s magnificent landscape.
The trouble with revealing hidden gems is that they are then no longer … well, hidden.
Torn between keeping some of my favourite secret bolt-holes close to my chest and advertising them so that they do not fold up in these constrained times, I finally succumb to the latter.
Fort Cochin In Kerala
This is a small postage-stamp piece of land in the lush southern state of Kerala that is richer in history than any other place I know.
Given to the Dutch in the early 1500s by the King of Cochin, it later passed into Portuguese and then British hands. As if that tapestry of history wasn’t colourful enough, traders sailed in hundreds to Cochin’s shores too: the earliest being Jews in 700BC (a beautifully preserved synagogue still exists as a world heritage site), followed later by Persian and Chinese traders.
Even today travellers can marvel at Keralan fishermen hauling in their catch on huge sieve-like Chinese fishing nets that line the shores.
Where To Stay:
Brunton Boatyard is one of many small boutique hotels hidden away in one of Fort Cochin’s narrow streets. I like it because it best represents Fort Cochin’s varied history. All of its 22 rooms (and bathrooms!) have a view of the sea and the Chinese fishing nets in the distance. They also have great big colonial beds that aid the most restful sleep.
But it’s the enormous, spacious veranda-like lobby I love the best, where you can sit under a cloth punkah and sip on sundowners while various Portuguese and Dutch worthies look down at you from their frames on the wall, reflecting (I like to think) on the world they once had.
Where To Eat:
Try the restaurant at Fort House in Cochin where you get the most excellent sea-food and can ask for your meal to be served to you on the pier overlooking the backwaters. It’s not overly expensive either.
Mandu In Madhya Pradesh
In India’s little known central state, two hours drive from Indore (there are flights to Indore from Mumbai and Delhi), lies beauty and pageantry that only Rajasthan has so far laid more claim to in the average tourist’s mind.
Mandu has some lovely old mosques and palaces, each bursting with stirring stories of valour and passion, the most famous of these being the love story of the Muslim King, Baz Bahadur, who married a poor Hindu singer and poetess, Roopmati. When tales of her beauty and talent spread to the Mughal Emperor Akbar, he sent an army to capture her. Baz died in her defence while Roopmati poisoned herself to save her honour.
Where To Stay:
If you don’t mind travelling further, an hour’s drive from Mandu is the Ahilya Fort in Maheshwar - the original residence of the Holkar royal family (descended from another fearless queen, Rani Ahilya Bai).
Now run by the half-American Richard Holkar, this is a luxury hotel a tad on the expensive side (approx $500 pp per night). However, it sits on the banks of the Narmada River and offers not just stunning views but an outstanding experience of royal life in its heyday.
New Delhi Dining
As in most big cities the world over, you’re spoilt for choice and Delhi seems to offer particularly eclectic fare for the foodie.
If you can stomach heavy food, I would recommend that you do not leave the city without experiencing at least one Mughlai meal, the cuisine handed down from Delhi’s pre-British Mughal past, full of rich sauces and heavenly breads and biriyanis, much of it laced with nuts and dried fruit and that unique garnish of ‘vark’, a wafer thin silver garnish that is quite harmless in small quantities.
Karim’s is perhaps the most authentic of the Mughlai restaurants and, if you don’t mind travelling through the crowded bazaars of Old Delhi, the Jama Masjid branch is the one to visit, although the South Delhi sister concern in Nizamuddin is pretty good too. Prices are very reasonable.
Being keen on Japanese food and a huge fan of Nobu and Zuma in London, I was astonished to find this superb Japanese restaurant tucked away on the rooftop of the MGF Metropolitan shopping mall in Saket.
With a smart bar and disco in the covered area, the terrace offers al-fresco dining, complete with lush bamboos and running rivulets. A lovely experience when the blazing Delhi summer day cools off at night or on a crisp winter night as the braziers are turned on.
The sashimi, flown in from Japan, is fresh and a version of Nobu’s black cod is ingeniously served up on a hot stone draped with a bamboo leaf. If you can, grab one of the huge, cushion-filled rattan pods scattered around the terrace, into which you can crawl with your friend/partner/lover for a truly unique experience. Prices are on the expensive side.
Punjabi By Nature
Finally, you cannot possibly leave Delhi without eating the food that the majority of its inhabitants are serving up on their own dining tables. The idea of ‘home stay’ tourism is on the increase in India but, if you prefer the anonymity of a hotel, do at least treat yourself to one Punjabi meal at Punjabi by Nature.
If you order the daal makhani or meat masala or paalak paneer, you will be eating like any other Delhi-wallah but it’s worth trying some of the more inventive dishes on the menu too: tandoori broccoli and champs (lamb chops to you!). Medium to expensive.
The Real Indian Experience
If you’re planning a trip round India and you want to go on a bespoke tour where everything is taken care of I can’t recommend Transindus enough.
They are a travel company with years of experience in India, an extensive network of English-speaking and highly professional staff across the country and particularly suited to ‘soft adventure’ travel for people who have left their back-packing days behind them.
By Jaishree Misra
About The Author
Jaishree Misra is an Indian bestselling author. Her latest book Secrets & Lies follows the lives and loves of four very different school friends. From their prestigious Delhi high school to living the high-life in London and Bollywood; each leads a well-heeled life that thousands would kill for. But a terrible secret from their past stands between them and their seemingly perfect lives. Are they brave enough to confront it or will it stay a secret forever?
Jaishree Misra was born and educated in India and moved to England in 1990. She has previously worked in special needs, child care, as a broadcast journalist and is currently employed as a film & video examiner at the British Board of Film Classification in London. She is married and has one daughter.
To find out more visit Jaishree’s website at www.jaishreemisra.com.
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