The best Luxury Resorts in Kerala for the perfect honeymoon!

I’m back to Dharamsala after a roller-coaster ride that was the Kerala Blog Express 2016 – an all-sponsored trip across God’s Own Country – promoted and organized by Kerala Tourism for selected travel writers! I have so many stories to share, but I’d like to begin by this recommendation, which was the sole thought that kept raging in my head throughout – I wish this was a couples’ retreat.

Kerala is just so breathtakingly stunning, dreamy and romantic!!! If you’re getting married this year (or not!) and are tired of the same old honeymoon spots every second couple in India is nowadays vacationing at, take my word and opt for Kerala! You remember all those gorgeous landscapes from Mani Ratnam movies? They’re not just good camera work, they’re really REAL!! And you have to go see it yourself. What with its clean beaches that look like little corners of heaven, the surreal canals (“backwaters”) weaving through tiny civilizations, colorful towns and hillstations covered in tea plantations – Kerala has enough ammunition to deport you to your childhood fairytale fantasies! The best part of it all is how you can find peace in the most crowded places, thanks to the many gorgeous resorts across the state, some of which I am reviewing below to help you plan your trip! From lake-side rooms, to rooms with a pool floor, and if that doesn’t do it for you – there’s the floating houseboat for complete privacy! Here are my top picks from the best luxury resorts Kerala has to offer, perfect for a romantic getaway from your busy city life:

 

Vivanta by Taj, Kovalam

The private lake of Vivanta by TAJ, Trivandrum, Kerala
The private lake of Vivanta by TAJ, Trivandrum, Kerala

Vivanta by TAJ, Trivandrum was my pre-arrival accommodation, and I was like WHAA? If this is pre-arrival, what will happen once the trip really begins? I was welcomed with a traditional aarti, shell necklace, coconut water, and a smiling staff! It was almost time for the sunset, so the staff quickly arranged for my luggage to be sent to the room, and arranged to send Raul and me to their “private beach” (WHAT!?) And sure enough, the hotel has its own small little piece of heaven, even after 15 days from that evening, I very clearly remember how happily I sat by, with no sound but that of the waves hitting the rocks on the shore. Being a mountain girl at heart, it was the closest I have ever felt to loving the ocean! They also have a pretty infinity pool, two restaurants,  a spa that offers complimentary morning yoga sessions, and a perfect little coffee shop.

It was the perfect seed to what was going to be my blooming love-affair with Kerala!

Price Range: Rs. 18,000 to Rs. 20,000

 

Spice Routes Houseboats, Alleppey Backwaters

Sunsets from Spice Routes Houseboat on Alleppey Backwaters, Kerala
Sunsets from Spice Routes Houseboat on Alleppey Backwaters, Kerala

FLOATING HO– USE! I don’t think I need to sell the concept any further. Short video from our houseboat to show you what to expect!

PS: You will be amazed by the hospitality on-board! The video is from the houseboat “CLOVE”, I’ve heard “Cinnamon” is even better 🙂

Price Range: Rs 18,000 (1 bedroom) to Rs. 28,000 (4 bedroom)

 

Kumarakom Lake Resort, Kumarakom, Kottayam, Kerala 

The infinity pool at Kumarakom Lake Resort
The infinity pool at Kumarakom Lake Resort

Hands down the one place that will stay in my memory for a very long time! Why? How can you ever forget the first time you stayed at a cottage with an open shower and your own private pool and Jacuzzi? YES! Kumarakom Lake Resort oozes luxury in every aspect – be it the opulent cottages with a vintage yet modern feel, an infinity pool which is the perfect sunrise spot, early morning relaxing yoga session by the lake or a world-class property so huge, you need a car to take you around! If there’s only one luxury resort you want to save up for, let it be this!

Price Range: Rs. 13,000 (Luxury Pavilion Room) – Rs. 48,000 (Presidential Suite with Private Pool)

Honeymoon package (3N/2D): Rs. 63,000 (Luxury Pavilion Room) – Rs. 1,55,000 (Presidential Suite with Private Pool)

 

The Zuri Kumarakom, Kerala Resort and Spa – Kumarakom, Kottayam, Kerala

The private lake of Zuri Kumarakom Resort, KeralaThe private lake of Zuri Kumarakom Resort, Kerala
The private lake of Zuri Kumarakom Resort, KeralaThe private lake of Zuri Kumarakom Resort, Kerala

Just when I thought no amount of luxury can beat my stay at Kumarakom Lake Resort – Enter The ZURI Kumarakom, Kerala Resort and Spa, with a super tempting “Maya Spa” – one of the largest in South India and offering Ayurveda, Western and Oriental therapies, on the platter! This also turned out to be the first afternoon I had free in all the days on the trip, so I jumped at the prospect. I won’t go into unnecessary details about my massage (I think it deserves a blogpost!), but I will say that it was pretty darn perfect!

PS: Luxury cottages here have a private pool AND a private lake!

Price Range: Rs. 8,750 (Zuri Room) to Rs. 23,300 (Presidential Pool Villa)

Honeymoon Package (2N/3D): Rs. 34,000 (Zuri Lagoon View Room) to Rs. 60,000 (Presidential Pool Villa)

 

Greenwoods Resort, Thekkady 

By this time in the trip, I had seen rooms with a private pool, Jacuzzi, lake, and a luxury cruise – you can understand how high our expectations were by now. But what Greenwoods lacked in appearance, they more than made up with hospitality! My my, if I had to choose one hotel that could teach all the others a lesson or two about what “serving” your customers really is, it would be Greenwoods! The staff was so sweet, accommodating and curious about our everyday experiences, they instantly won the hearts of every blogger (EVEN the ones who weren’t staying at other resorts) The property was quite pretty, with a lot of greens, a gorgeous treehouse coffee shop, and a swimming pool. They organized special activities for their guests like saree draping, traditional dance, and the best of it all – sapling plantation! YES, we all got a chance to plant a sapling in the resort, which will be named after us, so that there is a little something of us that stays at the resort even when we don’t! Now what better way to begin your married life than with such a heartwarming memory?

Price range:  Rs. 7000 (Standard Room) to Rs. 35,000 (Presidential Pool Suite with Warm Pool)

Honeymoon Villa with Pluge Pool: Rs. 15,000

 

Vythiri Resort, Wayanad

The Vythiri Resort in Wayanad knows exactly what everyone wants to hear! A perfect eco-friendly, jungle hideout, the choice of rooms ranges from treehouses to rooms with a private jacuzzi!  Just watch the video, I need not say more!

Price Range: Rs. 15,000 (Vythiri Haven) to Rs. 30,000 (Honeymoon Pool Villa) &

Luxury Tree-House Accommodation: Rs. 20,000 

Vythiri Exclusive Honeymoon Package (2N/3D): Rs. 38,000 to Rs. 53,000

 

Kunnathur Mana – Ayurveda Heritage  Spa Resorts

The traditional pool (hamaam) at Kunnathur Mana Ayurvda Heritage, Kerala (Picture Credits: Hotel Management)
The traditional pool (hamaam) at Kunnathur Mana Ayurvda Heritage, Kerala (Picture Credits: Hotel Management)

They had me at “Ayurveda Heritage”! Kunnathur Mana Ayurveda Heritage Resort is a Government approved Ayurveda hospital in Kerala with GREEN LEAF Certification. One thing I most vividly remember about Kunnathur Mana is feeling relaxed even while I was so tired and sick – the place is full of positive energy! The 130 year old heritage of this ancestral property can still be seen in the way the property has been maintained. And GUESS WHAT? Remember all those Mughal “hamam” baths we have only seen or heard about? This place has one and they actually let you swim in it (under the supervision of a life guard of course as it is 25 feet deep!) This makes it the only heritage place all over India that offers this experience!!! The biggest plus of this place though is, regular tourists will never choose to stay here!

Price Range: Rs. 10,000 (Aniyara) to Rs. 15,000 (Pool view Palliyara)

Inclusive of Ayurvedic Doctor Consultation, one suggestive therapy / massage, one day medicines (if required), Ayurvedic meals (if advised) and one-hour Yoga / Meditation.

 

Xandari Harbour, Kochi

Now, we visited this property only for our farewell dinner, but I have confirmation about their hospitality from other bloggers who chose to stay back a few extra days in this property. Xandari Harbour in Kochi was the most chic and classy hotel we saw during our trip!

 

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My Kerala bucketlist, via Bollywood!

"Bannke titli dil uda" - State of mind right now!
“Bannke titli dil uda” – State of mind right now!

 

It’s almost here. Just a week to go. Well yeah, for Valentine’s Day too, but more importantly – MY FIRST TRIP TO KERALA BECA– USE I WON THE KERALA BLOG EXPRESS 2016!!!

Q. What’s better than winning a 2 week, all-sponsored trip, to a state you’ve always admired, by the State Tourism Board?

A. Being the only blogger from India, among 27 travel bloggers from across the globe! Isn’t that super exciting?

So, being the only Indian on this trip, I felt it is my moral duty to give my fellow-participants a small sneak-peak of Kerala (Hey NaMo, see I’m trying!), by showing them a glimpse of Kerala from our movies!

You’re probably wondering what level of crazy does one have to be to build a travel bucketlist from Bollywood references. Well, you’re talking to a girl who left Mumbai to live in the mountains after watching Highway! So yeah, call me crazy, but trust me I’ve done worse.

So here it is, my Kerala wishlist / bucketlist, as compiled through any / every Bollywood movie I have ever seen with the tiniest Kerala connection!

PS: I’m sorry I included GUPT, Karma will come get me one day! On the bright side, I didn’t include Nishabd.

PPS: Crazy “north-Indian girl sees South India” stereo-types coming your way. Filter kaapi, anna. Pardon me, Kerala’ites.

 

Location: Alleppey Backwaters
Movie: Dil Se

EVERYONE has to agree – Preity Zinta dancing on that Alleppey houseboat raised the bar of hotness in Bollywood, matched only by Malaika Arora Khan dancing on the train, in the same movie! This is also my first memory of Kerala on celluloid (Even though Bombay released before Dil Se, I watched this first!)

 

Location: Athirapally Falls, Thrissur
Movie: Guru

All my personal hatred towards Aishwarya Rai aside, this is possibly the most beautiful picturisation of Athirapally waterfalls, which also turns out to be the most common / famous shoot site in Kerala. (The village scenes are not from Kerala)

 

Location: Malayatoor Reserve Forest, Idukki
Movie: Raavan

Guess I should just rename the article to “My Kerala bucketlist via Mani Ratnam“. Here’s another masterpiece!

Remember Abhishek Bachchan’s secret hideout in the middle of a forest, a river passing by, with that huge Vishnu (or was it Buddha?) idol in the middle? I would kill to camp there for a night, or ten. Shot in the Silent Valley Forest Reserve in Kerala, that one place gave me Kerala wanderlust goals for life. I doubt we will be allowed to visit though (It’s supposed to be a restricted forest zone).

PS: I couldn’t find a video of the said hideout, but here’s a song from the movie shot at the Athirapally Waterfalls. How gorgeous is this place 😀

 

Location: Munnar Tea Plantations, Munnar
Movie: Chennai Express

Dream Sequence: THAT drive along the winding road, surrounded by the beautiful Munnar Tea Estate on one side and spectacular backdrop of the Western ghats on the other! Now Darjeeling sure is my second favorite place in India, so hey Munnar, you really have big shoes to fill!

 

Location: Periyar National Park, Kumily
Movie: Gupt

Warning: The dance in the below mentioned video is performed by thorough unprofessionals. Please DO NOT judge us Indians by the dance moves in the video below. But do judge us from the beauty of that national park. It’s something about those tree stumps in the middle of the lake, and the simple boat floating over the quiet waters, that got my attention!

 

Location: Bekal Fort, Kasargod
Movie: Bombay

Hands down THE BEST song of the century! This song has been my favorite since childhood, even before I had watched, or heard, about the movie. And guess what? It’s shot at the largest fort in Kerala – Bekal Fort in Kasargod. C-a-n-n-o-t-W-a-i-t!

 

Location: Meesapulimala, Idukki
Movie: Chennai Express

Forgive me Lord, for I have sinned. I have recommended two Rohit Shetty songs in one article.

But I couldn’t stop myself. This song might have very few shots from Kerala, but you see, it has colors, culture, sarees, filter coffee (I did warn about the stereo-typing), traditional dance, a glimpse of South India’s spectacular temples, in short – it’s everything I’m looking forward to on this trip!

 

This could be the first (and possibly the last) time I’m saying this: I can’t wait for Valentine’s Day! 😀

 

 

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Recollections 2015 – Travel Photo Essay

It all began with a dream to touch the skies, to live closer to nature, to be a mountain child. It all began in 2014, but 2015 is where it came true. 2015's biggest gift to me was shifting to Dharamsala, and for that, I will be forever grateful!
It all began with a dream to touch the skies, to live closer to nature, to be a mountain child. It all began in 2014, but 2015 is where it came true. 2015’s biggest gift to me was shifting to Dharamsala, and I’m grateful to the universe for making that happen!

New Years Eve! That time of the year when we’re all getting ready (some reluctantly) to turn over a new leaf, start a new chapter, initiate a new cycle. Of the much-awaited countdown, the name-sake resolutions, the promises and the hopes, and the most-elusive midnight kiss. But amidst all this excitement, a word of caution – the past is not something to be left behind like a forgotten friend; stepping into anything new without accumulating all our experiences and learnings from the past just doesn’t feel right. So here I am, looking back at the year that was, how it changed my life, and how I can look forward to a brighter 2016 filled with many more adventures!

PS: I haven’t edited the pics below because I want to remember them without any filter (#TooMuchEmo)! But I do hope y’all like it that way too 🙂

The year began with an impromptu trip to Jaipur, primarily for the (over-hyped) Jaipur Lit Fest - something I've been trying to attend since 4 years. With the fest being a total bummer, encountering a rather disturbing eve-teasing incident, and gate-crashing a lavish Indian wedding - Jaipur was a sweet and sour experience, marking the perfect path for the year to come.
The year began with an impromptu trip to Jaipur, primarily for the (over-hyped) Jaipur Lit Fest – something I’ve been trying to attend since 4 years. With the fest being a total bummer, encountering a rather disturbing eve-teasing incident, and gate-crashing a lavish Indian wedding – Jaipur was a sweet and sour experience, marking the perfect path for the year to come.

 

Being someone who feels uncomfortable in a room filled with more than 5 unknown people, attending the Hampi Rath Yatra was a learning experience for me. I had to push myself to not run away from the crowd, to enjoy the furor, be a part of it even. Traveling alone does make you push your personal boundaries, this was one of those for me.
Being someone who feels uncomfortable in a room filled with more than 5 unknown people, attending the Hampi Rath Yatra was a learning experience for me. I had to push myself to not run away from the crowd, to enjoy the furor, be a part of it even. Traveling alone does make you push your personal boundaries, this was one of those for me.

 

Men perform a ceremonial dance at a local temple in Hampi. I was shy at first, being the only non-local around, a girl at that, dressed in weird hippie clothes, but then the pujari of the temple walked up to me, put tikka on my forehead, and invited me in for the ceremony.
Men performing a ceremonial dance at a local temple in Hampi. I was shy at first, being the only non-local around, a girl at that, dressed in weird hippie clothes, but then the pujari of the temple walked up to me, put tikka on my forehead, and invited me in for the ceremony. Mischief managed!

 

Spiti Valley - Check!
Travel to Spiti Valley – CHECK!

 

Spiti topped my travel bucket-list since 2014, and 2015 finally made the dream come true. As mesmerized as I was with the gorgeous landscape, the one memory of Spiti I hold close to my heart is is the warmth, compassion and love I received from the Spitians. I met some truly beautiful souls here, who make Spiti stay on top of my bucket-list, still :)
Spiti topped my travel bucket-list since 2014, and 2015 finally made the dream come true. As mesmerized as I was with the gorgeous landscape, the one memory of Spiti I hold close to my heart is the warmth, compassion and love I received from the Spitians. I met some truly beautiful souls here, who make Spiti stay on top of my bucket-list, still 🙂

 

We've grown up listening to tales of the grandeur of Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai and Durga Puja in Kolkata. Having seen the former every year since childhood, checking off Durga Puja in Kolkata from my bucketlist sure was a plus! I loved how vibrant, festive and embracing the city was, didn't feel like a tourist for a bit.
We grow up listening to tales of the grandeur of Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai and Durga Puja in Kolkata. Having seen the former every year since childhood, checking off Durga Puja in Kolkata from my bucketlist sure was a plus! I loved how vibrant, festive and embracing the city was, didn’t feel like a tourist for a bit.

 

Visiting the ancient pottery town of Kolkata - Komurtulli, has hands down been the most picturesque experience for me. Even the glorious valley of Spiti did not excite me as much as this little village did. Every nook and corner of Komurtulli is a photographers delight, and if you care to sit with the potters and hear their stories - that'll be the icing on the cake!
Visiting the ancient pottery town of Kolkata – Komurtulli, has hands down been the most picturesque experience for me. Even the glorious valley of Spiti did not excite me as much as this little village did. Every nook and corner of Komurtulli is a photographers delight. The place also inspired me to fulfill my age-old dream of being a journalist, as I traveled across the city to find a particular potter and interviewed him for my blog (which I still have to transcribe – good thing I never became a journalist!)

 

The best part about India is that everyone is always ready for a photograph. Just a smile and a please (for the tough ones!) does the trick.
The best part about India is that everyone is always ready for a photograph. Just a smile and a please (for the tough ones!) does the trick.

 

Many call Kolkata as a city with a soul - I think it's because of how intimately attached the city is to its culture. Exploring Kolkata with Kathleen was a blessing!
Many call Kolkata a city with a soul – I think it’s because of how intimately attached the city is to its culture. Exploring Kolkata with Kathleen was a blessing!

 

Be grateful, always. Choose happiness, always! A slum kid playing football barefoot on the street, using slippers to mark the goal-post.
Be grateful, always. Choose happiness, always! A slum kid playing football barefeet on the street, using slippers to mark the goal-post.

 

Sunderbans Chalo - check! A fisherman wades through the low tide at moon-rise with his fishing net
Sunderbans Chalo – check! A fisherman wades through the low tide at moon-rise with his fishing net

 

Watching a special folk dance performance at our humble Sunderban homestay
Watching a special folk dance performance at our humble Sunderban homestay

 

Wish you all a very happy and dazzling 2016 filled with lots of travel and adventures!
Wish you all a very happy and dazzling 2016 filled with lots of travel and adventures!

 

 

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Bidding farewell to Himachal’s best book café!

Location, book and shawl courtesy: Illiterati Cafe Photo Courtesy: Abhinav Chandel
Location, book and shawl courtesy: Illiterati Cafe
Photo Courtesy: Abhinav Chandel

Edit: Even while the previous owner of the cafe has left, the cafe was left in good hands, and continues being the lovely, cozy and all-welcoming place it originally was! Yes, it is very much operational, and kicking ass no less! 

_
Writing about something you’ve grown very very fond of, the fondness almost bordering addiction, is the most difficult thing to do, well almost. As I sit in my verandah, trying to write a goodbye ode to my favorite café … all I can really think about is how I wish I could be writing this at Illiterati, with belgian fries and mausambi juice for company.

Why am I writing about some place that has already shut down? What’s the point in praising a place no one can visit anymore? Well, something this beautiful deserves to be preserved for posterity, even if only with words and pictures. I want to capture and save a part of this café on my blog, so that ten years down the line, when I’m old and probably bored with my existence, I can look back and remember how much joy this little place in the mountains gave me, pick up the phone and make a trip to meet the owner, wherever he will be then.

Have you been to Illiterati? If you have, you already know what I’m going on about. I’ve spent months nestled in the same couch of the café, just sitting and noticing reactions of people who walk in for the first time, and it almost always would be “WOW”. It’s hard to not love a place that has books for walls, an unrestricted view of the mighty Dhauladhars, soulful live piano music in the background, and amazingly weird people around. Oh, and not to mention, a delightfully mouth-watering fare on the menu! But what beats it all, is the soul of this place, so pure, positive and giving, where everyone finds a reason to stay, to call it their own, to never wanna leave. With Yannick playing the piano, Aymon lost in his own world dancing around the place, Devanjali jumping from one table to the other, Manan secretly praying that someone orders a Belgian Waffle, Julian feeling too important for the mundane busy with his iPad, Lekmon and Rikten chattering away in Tibetan, Atisha browsing weird Youtube videos to complement his weirdness, Ten Tsering pestering him to play Maar Daala, Nalin trying to find something he lost last night (again), Lakhan in the kitchen asking for his special chai, Abhinav walking in with a bunch of tired travelers from his photowalk, Elena going through the coffee-table books to find something new to sketch, Mudita complaining about her soup while Manu’s thinking about the next poker night – oh, they met at this place like so many other couples, Dolker reaching in style on her Enfield, Divya reading the same book about plants – AGAIN, the kids loitering around trying to get their hands on any phone that has Subway Surfer… and Fondue, well Fondue just being Fondue – there really was no good explanation for whatever went on here, and still there always was, at least for me! This is the place that made Himachal so beautiful for me, and for many I know. It was where everyone was welcomed back, and where everyone met to say their goodbyes. It has now been no more than 4 days since the café shut shop. Of course there will be another café here soon, maybe the same café with a different owner, maybe a different café altogether, but it is hard to imagine being the same ever again.

Illiterati - Books, books, and books, oh and coffee.
Illiterati – Books, books, and books.

 

A regular evening scene at Illiterati. Picture Courtesy: Abhinav Chandel
Oh, and conversations over coffee. Picture Courtesy: Abhinav Chandel

 

One of the many impromptu jam sessions. Yannick on the flute for a change.
One of the many impromptu jam sessions. Yannick, the cafe owner, on the flute for a change.

 

The worlds most serious comic reader.
Will miss reading comic books so seriously.

 

Cafe with a view.
Cafe with a view.

 

Cafe with a view - part 2
Cafe with a view – part 2

s

No explanation for randomness
No explanation for randomness

 

The worlds best work-station!
The worlds best work-station!

 

The one thing I can keep with me. Illiterati's plantable bookmarks made of seed paper!
The one thing I can keep with me. Illiterati’s plantable bookmarks made of seed paper!

 

The life and joy of the place!
This! How can this ever be replicated.

 

They say it’s not really a goodbye until it’s a goodbye. Unfortunately in this case, it already is!

STORIES FROM SPITI – Lama Kanpo: The Gyu Mummy – TRAVEL PHOTO ESSAY

The view from the starting point of the Gyu Village in Spiti. You can see the yellow speck on the mountain where the Gyu Mummy resides.
The view from the Gyu Village in Spiti. You can see the yellow speck on the mountain where the Mummy resides.

 

The quaint little village of Gyu does not attract many tourists. Being the village closest to the India-Tibet border, foreigners require a special inner-line permit to visit Gyu. Should you take the effort? Definitely, because this village is home not just to the living, for eere resides, since centuries, Lama Kanpo aka The Gyu Mummy, which brings with it a very interesting story.

The residence / temple of Lama Kanpo - The Gyu Mummy

The residence / temple of Lama Kanpo – The Gyu Mummy

 

So let me take you through my journey to Gyu…

Probably the most exciting part of my hitch-hiking experience in Spiti – my journey from Tabo to Gyu in a truck, and back on an Indian Army water tanker!

I woke up at the crack of dawn, I was out by the main street at 5 AM, and it was deserted barring the one truck that was just getting ready to leave. A little hesitant at first, the Alia fever in me caught up quite easily, and I ran to get what I had, and well – luckily for me they were heading in the right direction. The fact that the truck driver is still stalking me even after almost a month since that ride, is a story for another time.

My Highway experience, tinted brown when the truck driver started stalking me!
My Highway experience, tinted brown when the truck driver started stalking me!

 

The truck dropped me off at the junction marking the start of Gyu village, where stood before me the haunting 8 km uphill walk to the village.

The 8 km walk to Gyu, although tiresome, is insanely beautiful!
The 8 km walk to Gyu, although tiresome, is insanely beautiful!

 

Touch-base: the Indian-Tibet Border Police camp, where the cops directed me to the trek route to the Gyu Mummy! And what a beautiful walk this was.

While you can directly take your car / jeep right to the doorstep of the Gyu Mummy, walking up from the ITBP post is another alternative. Hardly a 10 minute walk, mainly steps.
While you can directly take your car / jeep right to the doorstep of the Gyu Mummy, walking up from the ITBP post is another alternative. Hardly a 10 minute walk, mainly steps.

 

I didn’t know what to expect from this visit, I just knew my trip would’ve been incomplete if I didn’t. What should you expect from a mummy? Maybe a dark dingy room that smells of the dead? But I was surprised at entering the room, the sight of the mummy was anything but creepy. The room was very nicely maintained, well lit with butter lamps lining up the walls and incense sticks working their magic. However, you won’t notice any of this at first, because the moment you step inside, the first thing that greets you is a withered cadaver, neatly tucked inside a glass case.

Lama Kanpo - The Gyu Mummy, Spiti
Lama Kanpo – The Gyu Mummy, Spiti

 

A shriveled torso with blackened skin, said to still be in meditating position though you can’t see the whole body as it’s covered with yellow silk, hollow eye sockets that hauntingly stare back at you, and one visible hand, with bony fingers curled as if rolling invisible prayer beads of a rosary.

The skin blackened over time and exposure to burning candles, the eye sockets of the Gyu Mummy stare back at you.
The skin blackened over time and exposure to burning lamps.

 

Fingers curled around invisible prayer beads.
Fingers of the corpse curled around invisible prayer beads.

 

I stopped over at the ITBP (India-Tibet Border Police) camp later, where the officer in charge – Nanak Chand Thakur went all out with his hospitality, too surprised to meet an Indian girl traveling alone! We sat together for almost an hour, he sipping chai and me having aaloo gobhi and paranthas very graciously cooked by the jawans, when he started reciting local tales about the mummy – some facts, some fiction.

So as the story goes, back in 1976 during an excavation project by the ITBP, an axe hit something that wasn’t earth and drew out blood. On further digging, the body of a Lama was discovered, still sitting in meditation position, in monk clothes, long hair and nails.

The site where Lama Kanpo's corpse was found by ITBP, under the white chhorten you see in the distance. These have been reconstructed after the earthquake of 1975.
The site where Lama Kanpo’s corpse was found by ITBP, under the white chhorten you see in the distance. These have been reconstructed after the earthquake of 1975.

 

Guessing from the maroon color of robes and yellow belt that was found on the body during excavation, it is believed that Lama Kanpo was a monk of the Gelugpa order. Recent reports have confirmed that the body is easily 400-500 years old. The mummy was shifted to the newly constructed temple later in 2006, where it now peacefully meditates, albeit a few noisy visitors with cameras, some even trying to take selfies 🙂

Meditate in Peace, Lama Kanpo!
Meditate in peace, Lama Kanpo!

Stories from Spiti – Chai at Key Monastery! – Travel Photo Essay

View from our lodging facility at Key Monastery.
View from our room at Key Monastery. Which, by the way, is also the best place for star-gazing!

The one place that single-handedly kept Spiti on the very top of my travel bucketlist! This will probably sound silly, but then most of the things I end up doing are silly so what the hell. Remember Highway, the scene where Alia is sitting and staring at the mountains on the other side. “Aisa lag raha hai ki woh mujhe bula raha hai, kaash hum waha jaa paate”, and Randeep Hooda very lovingly agrees to take her across. I’m not talking about those mountains, but the monastery in the background – that’s Key Monastery.

"Tumhe pahad pasand hia ya samundar?" Alia Bhatt and Randeep Huda at Key Monastery in the movie Highway.
“Tumhe pahad pasand hia ya samundar?” Alia Bhatt and Randeep Huda at Key Monastery in the movie Highway.

I have been lusting over that sight ever since I saw the movie, and I had never imagined that the actual place could be thousand times more spectacular!

The majestic Key Monastery in Spiti Valley that reminds me of a white balloon afloat a high mountain.
The majestic Key Monastery in Spiti Valley that reminds me of a white balloon afloat a high mountain.

Key Gonpa!!! The crown jewel of my entire trip to Spiti. I ended up staying here more than at any other village, and given a choice I wouldn’t have ever left! Technically, all the monasteries in Spiti have lodging facilities for travelers, but none come even close to the experience you’ll have at Key. For one thing, at Key you’re not put up in a guest house, you live in the existing Lama quarters, at Rs. 200 per night, including meals that will be cooked by and for the resident monks. The kitchen at Key Monastery beats every café, anywhere in the world, because here’s where conversations flow over endless cups of butter tea. When I visited, the Lama incharge of the cooking duties was Kunga ji, and he is the most adorable Lama I have ever met. Always smiling, always up for a chat (over a cup of chai, mind you!).

Time: 5:30 AM Place: Kitchen - Key Monastery. Pic: Lama Kunga preparing chai for us, always the first to be up and going!
Time: 5:30 AM
Place: Kitchen – Key Monastery.
Pic: Lama Kunga preparing chai for us, always the first to be up and going!

The evening I reached the monastery, I entered the kitchen to try and meet someone who could tell me what are the lodging facilities, and I met Kunga ji running around, serving all the monks. It was only 7 pm, but that’s regular dinner time at the monastery, and the tiny kitchen was bustling with more monks than it could accommodate, and one tiny traveler who looked utterly lost. Kunga ji noticed this and immediately came over with a plate of piping hot rajma and tingmu (Tibetan bread), “baitho baitho, pehle khana khao (sit sit, eat first!)”, and immediately 2 monks got up from the only bench in the kitchen to offer me a seat. I resisted,  but I was overpowered by 5-6 monks “aap humare guest hai, aap baitho! (You are our guest, you should have a seat!”).

And I knew in that moment that this place would steal a piece of my heart forever.

The bus to Key Monastery leaves from Kaza everyday at 5 PM, and returns the next morning at 9 AM.
The bus to Key Monastery leaves from Kaza everyday at 5 PM, and returns the next morning at 9 AM.

 

School-time for the young monks at Key Gonpa!
School-time for the young monks at Key Gonpa!

 

A Buddhist native who walks up to the temple every morning despite his old age, and is a regular face at the monastery.
A Buddhist native who walks up to the temple every morning despite his old age, and is a regular face at the monastery.

 

I was lucky to be at the monastery on one of their most important days. It was the annual ceremony of Yenne Gaaye (Khetol), – a tradition of the Gelugpa religion of Buddhism, wherein all the 300 monks from Key Monastery visited each and every house in the village to conduct prayers and offer blessings. I was lucky to accompany them through this pilgrimage, visiting houses, indulging in the lovely hospitality of the locals, and chai – lots and lots of chai.

 

Don't have count of how many chocolates I ended up having in lieu of the Yenne Gaaye celebrations.
Don’t have count of how many chocolates I ended up having in lieu of the Yenne Gaaye celebrations.

 

Monks from the temple, walking towards the Key Village to begin the annual ceremony of Yenne Gaaye.
Monks from the temple, walking towards the Key Village to begin the annual ceremony of Yenne Gaaye.

 

Young monks share a light moment.
Young monks share a light moment.

 

Prayers offered in the fields of Key Village.
Prayers offered in the fields of Key Village.

 

Followed by chai of course! There's always time for chai.
Followed by chai of course! There’s always time for chai.

 

Families welcoming the monks into their home for the traditional prayer ceremony.
Families welcoming the monks into their home for the traditional prayer ceremony.

 

Giving the entourage of 300 monks and us 4 travelers some company, this couples joined us throughout, playing some lovely music.
Giving the entourage of 300 monks and us 4 travelers some company, this couple joined us throughout, playing some lovely music.

 

Lunch scenes on the terrace, under sun so bright & cruel, I kept awkwardly jumping while eating and pulling at my clothes. I'm sure the kids had a great laugh later.
Lunch scenes on the terrace, under sun so bright & cruel, I kept awkwardly jumping while eating and pulling at my clothes. I’m sure the kids had a great laugh later.

 

Lunch prepared for us by the villagers. By far the yummiest and most fulfilling meal I've had on my travels.
Lunch prepared for us by the villagers. By far the yummiest and most fulfilling meal I’ve had on my travels.

 

 

After almost 3 hours of walking around with the monks, I legs gave up on me and I decided to stay back at the village, where the villagers didn't let me be without a second helping of lunch.
After almost 3 hours of walking around with the monks, my legs gave up on me and I decided to stay back at the village, where the villagers didn’t let me be without a second helping of lunch.

 

I couldn't have left without learning to make butter-tea from Kunga ji. This is me preparing butter tea for the early morning prayer.
I couldn’t leave without learning to make butter-tea from Kunga ji. This is me preparing butter tea for the early morning prayer.

 

Didn't feel like leaving the monastery. Farewell pictures taken with Lama Kunga, Lama Gompo and the rest of us.
Didn’t feel like leaving the monastery. Farewell pictures taken with Lama Kunga, Lama Gompo and the rest of us.

5 ways to untravel Spiti Valley!

The valley of Spiti isi full of many incredible sights like this one!
The valley of Spiti isi full of many incredible sights like this one!

My fascination with Spiti Valley began when I saw Alia Bhatt pointing at a mountain and asking Randeep Hooda, her knight in shining armor, if there was any way they could go there! It wasn’t so much the scene than was the gorgeous monastery in the background that caught my attention, and I’ve wanted to visit the tantalizing valley of Lahaul-Spiti ever since! But what I didn’t expect is, not only will I get to see this monastery, but also live there… cooking, laughing and living with the monks.

Well, no points for guessing who is the over-elated city girl who just returned from Spiti!

Rudyard Kipling couldn’t have been more accurate when he called Spiti “a world within a world”. The valley has the most incredible landscape that’s green and blue and brown at the same time! You encounter a new sight at every turn, and every sight makes you wanna sit and stare in silence, until the end of eternity! But the real charm of the valley begins when you get over its exterior beauty (which is not so easy to do, I mean just look at that place!!!) and notice the exceptional purity the locals live with. Being low on budget, I opted for hitch-hiking (Dad if you’re reading this, it’s not as bad as it sounds), in cabs, in jeeps, in trucks – behind trucks, in buses – on buses… and not once did I have an unpleasant experience (which being a solo female traveler came as quite a surprise!). The people in Spiti literally open their homes and hearts for you, they all want to hear your story and share their own, and more often than not – they go out of their way to make sure you feel at home.

  1. Stay at Key Monastery – Undoubtedly the most beautiful experience from all my travels – staying at Key Monastery! Spiti boasts of a purely homogenous Buddhist society belonging to the Mahayana sect of Vajrayana Buddhism, and is home to numerous monasteries with history dating back more than 1000 years. While each one of these monasteries is worth a visit and is glorious in its own way, Key monastery holds a special place for how incredibly inviting it is! You walk into the kitchen at the monastery and are invited by monks for a cup of chai, no matter what time of the day it is, you can live in the Lama quarters of the monastery (at just Rs. 200 per night, including meals!), indulge in their irrefutable hospitality, sleep under the gorgeous starlit skies in the veranda, and I was lucky to also attend the annual Gaaye celebration of the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism! I may always recommend things on my blog, but never before have I been this confident about my recommendation. Take my word on this – this is an experience you shouldn’t miss!
  2. Go country with lovely homestays – I met this incredible lady from Mane village, who welcomes travelers to live at her house, and shares the finer way of living the Mane life! You can learn weaving, making chhang (Local beer prepared with semi-fermented barley), or simply experience the country life with her assistance. Similarly, you will be able to find humble homestays at Lhangza, Gomik, Demul, Dhankar, Lhalung, Cyoto or Tashi Gang, and I personally feel this will be the best way to discover the charm of Spiti!
  3. Finding Fossils – The Spiti we see today is an incredible sight of monstrous mountains with rock formations made by the force of wind and water over epochs, and the serpentine Spiti river adding a touch of elegance to the rather rugged landscape! It is also a known fact that the Tethys Sea ran through this mountain desert till about 60 million years ago, and in Spiti you can still find proof of this geological past. Step into Lhangza village and you will see kids running to you with stones in their hands. Look closely and you’ll realize they’re not stones, but actually fossils of maritime life, that probably died 100 million years ago. Innumerable such fossils can be found with a short walk to the Lhangza naala, all you have to do is walk 🙂
  4. Meditate in Caves – A visit to Spiti will be incomplete if you don’t visit Tabo, which has the oldest continuously functioning Buddhist monument of India, famous for its wall paintings and murals. In its millennium of existence, the gonpa boasts of not having seen a day without prayer. But that’s not the only treasure Tabo holds, walk across the mountains adjacent to the tiny village and you’ll come across many meditation caves, some with interesting artwork inside.
  5. Rent a bike – One thing about Spiti, traveling locally can be quite expensive if you don’t have your own car. Cabs charge approximately Rs. 1000+ for 10kms, and while that pricing is totally justified considering the wear and tear these vehicles are subjected to on really difficult (or at times, non-existent) roads, not everyone can afford the luxury. So what do the rest of us do? While I chose to hitch-hike as I didn’t feel fit enough to do this, I came across a few people who rented a bike (which are easily available in Kaza), mounted it on a local bus while going uphill, and cycled their way back to Kaza on the descent. I can only imagine how exhilarating and challenging that experience must be, adrenaline rush max!

So that’s about interesting activities in Spiti. You can also go on an wild-life exploration trip, but for that you have to visit later in the winters. The best person to guide you with this will be Karan Bedi, who owns Hotel Deyzor (which, btw, is also the best hotel recco I can give even though I didn’t stay there myself). Just go to the cafe and ask for him, he organizes many culture & adventure tours in and around Spiti that you can easily be a part of.

I have so many stories to share from my short affair with Spiti. Working on a few photo-essays to take you through my journey, stay tuned 🙂

 

 

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How traveling made me an entrepreneur!

Flashback – May 2014: I visited McLeod Ganj immensely intoxicated by a supreme Highway and Queen overdose. It was my first solo trip as a traveler- my affair with the Himalayas! 2 months of living in McLeod Ganj, and backpacking around Himachal, the only thing I prayed for, every single day, was for one more day. Little did I know this in-between-jobs’ visit to the mountains will change my career graph forever!

I returned to Mumbai only in July, when I got an interview call from a company I had always dreamt of working for. I was to meet one of the owners of the company for the position of a celebrity manager. Having worked in entertainment and lifestyle PR for 3 years, and television production for 1, this job sounded like just the thing I should be doing next! Cracking the interview was not so difficult, but that’s when the tricky part began – the mountains had spoilt me, I wanted to return – I couldn’t chain myself to a 9-5 job again, no matter if it was with my dream company!

So despite numerous warnings from friends, family and my own mind – I turned it down, knowing very well that I was being a fool. It’s easy to fantasize about travel, the difficult part is making it work. I couldn’t travel if I didn’t have a job, but I couldn’t travel the way I wanted if I took up a job either. At the same time, I didn’t want to do something I didn’t love just for the sake of making money. Exactly a year ago, today, after weeks of planning, innumerable meetings and multiple rejections, I started my own PR and communications agency – The Owl Post. In just one year, we’ve grown from a one-person-venture to a 6 member team. I no longer live in Mumbai – I shifted to the very place that inspired the birth of this company, to McLeod Ganj. We have some great clients on-board, some of them congratulated me when I decided to shift to Dharamsala and said they were proud of me (Dream clients, right?). And above all, we have a team that has grown so much in the last year, which is one thing I will always be proud of! The journey hasn’t been all rainbows and butterflies, but I’m not complaining. As I reflect upon the year gone by, I can only thank that first solo trip to McLeod Ganj for changing my life, for making me an entrepreneur, for making me independent not only in terms of career and location, but also in spirit! Had it not been for the will to travel, I don’t think I would have ever mustered the courage to start up on my own. I would have taken up that job, and would probably be running around trying to make some overpaid celebrity’s career work while getting underpaid by some other entrepreneur. Being able to do what you love, and being able to do it your own way, is the best feeling ever. Today, my dream to travel and that of a perfect work life are working so much in harmony, each trying to not come in the way of the other, each complimenting and completing the quest for the other, just like Yin and Yang, opposites but incomplete without the latter.

Today, when people ask me how I manage to live such a life, telling me “it’s not possible”, I tell them this story and ask them to sit back and think what they can do. Not everyone can be a travel writer, not everyone can be a travel photographer, not everyone can get a job as a tour guide, not everyone can start a backpacking company. So what do the rest of us who want to travel do? I have been in your place, and now I am here – I have seen and touched the grass on both the sides, and the only thing I can say is there are no rules and nothing is impossible. If you want to travel, find a way to make it happen, and not by following what I did, or what your favorite travel blogger chose to do. Do what you think you’re best at! A person who saves for months to travel once in 6 months is as legit a traveler as the one who makes money on the road. Give yourself some time, jot down your strengths, look into our skill sets, figure what you can do, and then go do it! If I could do it, I believe anyone can. The only trick is to never let your love for travel die, that flame will guide you through the tough times and lead you to your destination. Keep traveling, keep dreaming, keep living!

PS: Happy birthday to my baby venture – www.theowlpost.in ! 🙂

Never stop dreaming!
Never stop dreaming!

Why I prefer slow travel, and why you should try it too!

I’d like to know you better, let’s take it slow?

National Geographic Traveler India recently conducted a travel meet about slow travel, of which my friend Natasha was a panelist. She asked me if I’ll be in Mumbai for the session, but that was the week I moved to Dharamsala. She said she would love to use my example in her talk, and that – for the first time – made me realize how much I enjoy slow traveling!

When I made the decision of moving to McLeod Ganj, some of my friends and everyone in my family instantly reacted – “AGAIN?” I don’t blame them. I first visited this place exactly a year ago. What started as a volunteering trip for a month, ended up being a two month stay during which I hardly worked. For the sight-seeing and travel I did in those 2 months, I could’ve easily completed the trip in 15 days. But I didn’t, I couldn’t, and given a choice I’d still go back and do the same thing again. I came back to the same place again within 3 months to stay for a fortnight. And 9 months later, when I made a conscious choice to live in the mountains, I didn’t have to think twice about the place I wanted to call home! I wonder why that is?

Some think it’s weird that I go back to the same place, meet the same people, spend days and weeks at stretch eating at the same café. Some would say this isn’t travel. But what really is travel, I ask? Very simply put, isn’t it just a way to relax, unwind, and experience life in a different way than you have? Isn’t it about meeting new people, gathering new experiences, learning about new cultures? Isn’t the main reason we travel, to step out of our comfort zone and live life the easier, healthier way? Isn’t it about the journey, and not about the destination? “Sight-seeing” as we popularly know it in today’s world, can’t possibly be the parameter for travel. If it were, I wouldn’t ever feel the need to leave the ever-changing city of Mumbai that offers unique sites and experiences on a daily basis! For the longest time I thought I enjoyed traveling alone as opposed to traveling with a group of friends. But then I have enjoyed the company of my friends when we backpacked around North-East India in a short span of 15 days, or a short weekend trip to Pondicherry with my Bangalorean colleagues. No, it’s not as simple as being alone or with a bunch of friends. It’s about the time you invest in really “knowing” your destination.

Back in the city, we are so time-bound, that every time we get a chance to step out and explore, we try cramming our itineraries with every possible “must-visit” site, not realizing that we’re involuntarily planning an even more hectic schedule than the one we’re trying to escape. We try putting everything on the map, 4 days in Cherrapunjee, visiting so and so site in a stop-over at Shillong, 3 days for north Sikkim, 2 days for West, 4 days for Darjeeling, a quickie with Kolkata on our way back. You end up coming back home with more pictures in your DSLR, than memories in your heart.

Haven’t you ever imagined what it would be like to not care about which day of the week it is? Monday morning blues, mid-week inspirations, TGIF, Saturday brunch, Sunday hangovers?

No morning alarm, no weekend plans, no agenda, no schedule, no “dressing up”, no formalities! Waking up at crack of dawn, to the sound of chirping birds, and the sun peeking through your window pane.

Staring at the same mountain ranges every morning and noticing how different they look by the passing hour.

Walking back home in a lane with no lights, with fireflies lighting up the way and the moon shining down the street.

Like-minded people you met here, that understand what you’re trying to find without you having to explain it to them!

Spending days at your favorite café, chatting and playing card games with the owner and his friends, not a single worry in the world!

The Café staff knowing exactly how much food you usually have, and packing it for you if you miss a meal.

Meeting new people from across the world every day and marveling over how incredibly unique each and every person is!

Lifting your bag any time and going away for the weekend with a random stranger.

Walking 2 kms to eat that perfect chocolate mousse at Kunga, and walking 4 for seeing the sunset at your favorite resort in Naddi.

Shared cabs, state buses, and asking bikers for a lift to the city!

Knowing most people by face and not by profession.

Bird-watching, star-gazing, finding faces in the clouds, walk in the forests, trekking in the mountains, photowalks.

Learning macramé, reading books, yoga in the morning, street jams at night, and maggi by the waterfall.

Soaking your feet in the river and listening to the Highway soundtrack.

Judging people on first appearances, then talking to them and realizing how fickle city life really makes you!

Above all, I love how I can do nothing all day and not feeling guilty about it!

Slow travel is all about discovering the discovered. About spending some quality time with a place you’ve given your heart to. It’s about marriage, and not about dating. It’s about a career, and not about a job. It’s about family, and not about relatives. It’s about soulmates, and not about infatuation. Slow travel is about companionship, and not about company.

 

Maybe it’s just me, but maybe you should try it too?

Sit back, relax, get to know your destination better! Picture credits – Abhinav Chandel

Help keep our travel trail clean. Don’t litter, motivate your friends to do the same!

City girl in the mountains!

If you’ve read my older posts you will know, I’m a girl from Mumbai who has always dreamed of living in the mountains, like every other city girl! After years of dreaming and feeling absolutely jealous of the people who made it happen, I finally took the great leap of faith and have moved to Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh!

I chose the wonderful city of McLeod Ganj as my soulmate because this is where it all started. Exactly this time, last year, I took my first ever solo trip to McLeod Ganj, and have ever since been so fascinated by the owerpowering grandeur of the Dhauladhar mountain ranges that I never really felt at home when I returned to Mumbai. Moving back here now feels like a completion of my karmic circle, and though the thought of living alone in a strange city seems daunting at times, I’m confident this move will lead me towards a harmonious union with myself, with my self mandala!

This morning, I woke up at the crack of dawn to the sounds of chirping birds! I stepped into the balcony to this gorgeous view of the sun peeping out of the mountains. It took me back to the days of primary school, where our drawing class assignments would include “A Scenery”, and like most kids with not a single bone of creativity in their body, I always chose to draw the simple mountains, with half the sun peeping between the peaks colored yellowish orange, and straight rays like cat whiskers colored yellow, a tree on the right corner of the page, and a small slope-roofed hut on the left corner with a ugly looking stick figure standing next to his humble abode. I couldn’t have imagined it then, but today staring at this incredible sunrise, I realized how lucky I am to witness the sight of my childhood imagination in flesh!

Sunrise and the Dhauladhar ranges!
Sunrise and the Dhauladhar ranges!

 

Here’s to a new life in the mountains, I hope to take you through my journey through regular pics and blogposts! Stay with me 🙂