Touring Mahabalipuram, the Temple Town

Your Puducherry itinerary is incomplete if you have not allotted a detour for Mahabalipuram. It falls somewhere midway between the Chennai and Puducherry East Coast road, 60 kms from Chennai, to be precise. We turned towards Mahabalipuram on our way back from Puducherry. Reached the temple town at about 11am, when the sun was high up in the sky and bus-filled tourists and devotees had started swarming the temples and caves. Too bad, we thought to ourselves, should have left Puducherry early to beat the crowd and the sun in Mahabalipuram.

For the one who is in two-minds whether to visit Mahabalipuram or not, here’s our verdict – we too had been in doubt, but when there, we realised that the place is beautiful and should be in your itinerary. Just that, you should time it wisely – either come here early in the morning and enjoy the place in quietude or come in the evening when the Shore Temple gets even more beautiful with the evening sun.

Temples and caves in Mahabalipuram date back to the 7th century, and are examples of the distinct Dravidian style that defines architecture in South India. Rich in religious beliefs and folklore, the town attracts both devotees and the curious traveller.

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3 Things To Do At Mahabalipuram

  1. Go to the Rock Cut Temples & Caves: Almost like the Ajanta-Ellora temples and caves, the one here in Mahabalipuram are set along a hillock and spread through the sprawling grounds, with one temple here and another there, carrying tales from India’s popular Gods and the Mahabharata. So what if you do not believe in Gods and the Godesess? Hire a guide just to know about the folklore, about how Arjuna meditated for 12 years or how the Guru Dhronacharya would behead bad students/disciples, or how Lord Krishna ensured that a giant round rock stood in the slope of a rocky hillock but couldn’t be moved by any force of nature or man. We also saw a snake on a rock just off the Shiva-linga cave, almost as if confirming that Lord Shiva resided there!! The tour can take upto an hour depending upon your interest for the place. It opens as early as 6 in the morning. Best time would be the early hours, if you ask me. 
  1. Check out the Shore Temple: True to its name, the Shore Temple is located on the shore of the Bay of Bengal, about a kilometre away from the Rock Cut Temples. There’s ample parking space, so do drive down. We had anticipated the usual, run-of-the-mill south Indian temples, but no, we were wrong. Set in sprawling, very well-maintained grounds, the temples were built with blocks of stone and look really old. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, there isn’t much religious activity here. People flock here to see the architecture and the beautiful background. Early morning or evenings would be the best time to visit. 
  1. Eat at Moonrakers: That, only if you love fishes. It must be just about a kilometre away from the Temple premises. A 3-storied restaurant that serves sea-fishes like crabs, ,lobsters, prawns and makes a big show of its fresh catch, Moonrakers is for people who love sea-food but can, in a big way, ignore hygiene and pathetic service. Food is average.

 You could also shop from the local memorabilia shops that dot the streets lining the above-mentioned destinations, but be aware that they are crazy-priced. Hard negotiations are a must. We did take fancy to the stone figurines, but gave them a pass, when we realised that we weren’t interested in the smaller ones and that the bigger ones would be a challenge to bring back home.

Drive from Chennai to Puducherry via East Coast Road

Puducherry is just a little more than 150 kms from Chennai if you take the East Coast Road, popularly known as the ECR. We took the East Coast road for Puducherry since we had heard about the scenic drive. The driver was more than happy, for, he said that the road has lesser traffic compared to the Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR). It is true that the East Coast Road (ECR) drive is beautiful – one hour into the drive and you can see the Bay of Bengal no so far away on your left. Rice fields, little villages, back-waters, temples, fisheries, shrimp farms, stone sculpturing shacks, crocodile farms dot the entire stretch.

Stop by the Muttukadu Boat House, if you want to boat on the back-waters of the Bay of Bengal.

And then comes the Madras Crocodile Bank, about 35 kms from Chennai. Famous for the crocodiles, snakes and turtles, the park is not only a delight for the animal enthusiast, both young or the young at heart, but also educative. A tour of the whole park will take you about 45 minutes, and you would have seen hundreds of crocodiles, King Cobra, Anaconda, very small poisonous snakes, phython etc and also the milking of snakes.

You must stop by Mahabalipuram, or Mamallapuram, as it is called now, for the rock-cut cave temples, the big-balancing rock, and the beautiful Shore Temple on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. The temple town is also famous for its stone sculptures. See if you want to buy any. The complete tour of the place takes about 2 hours.

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Important to know these about the Chennai to Puducherry drive (via the East Coast Road):

  • The East Coast Road is a 2-lane road. Traffic is very fast. Without stopping, Chennai-Puducherry are just about 3 hours away.
  • There aren’t many good places to eat in the East Coast Road. One, Sangeetha, just an hour away from Chennai, is very average with pathetic service. Another, Midland Restaurant, about an hour away from Puducherry is no better. It is better to carry your own food/snacks for the drive. However, you can get a few local fruits while crossing the little villages.

Restaurant Review: Blue Nile in Pune

Blue Nile is one of the most iconic Irani restaurant’s in Pune. Known for its Biryani and kebabs, it is a no frill place. And despite that, is packed to the brim during weekdays with office goers and families alike.

How is the food at Blue Nile, Pune? Our regular there has been their Mutton and Chicken Biryani. Both has the right amount of spice and are high on flavour. The Irani style biryani is perfect for those who like little spice or bland food. Good quality rice served with small pieces of dry mutton/chicken, zero gravy and a small pack of butter to be mixed with the rice. Nice and tasty but not for most Indians. This time round, since we were a few of us from a meeting, we ordered the Bheja Fry too. Disappointed, for the brain fry was a little off, covered with batter and fried, which left the brain a little uncooked and smelly.

Fairly priced, their biryani servings are enough for one and service is quick though not very friendly. The staff moves around with Tabs, taking orders with little patience for you to think or take suggestions.

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How is the ambience at Blue Nile, Pune? As already mentioned, it’s a no-frill place. Has almost an old-world setting. So, do not expect a high-funda ‘ambience’. Fairly large place with very common-place tables and chairs. The only negative is the washroom – very dirty. One sink was chocked and overflowing and the other had no water. So basically of no use at all.

Final word on Blue Nile in Pune: Good location and clean dining area is a positive and makes it quite popular with locals and visitors alike. Try it at least once, if in Pune.

 Blue Nile Pune location: No. 4, Bund Garden Road, Opposite Pune Club, Bund Garden Rd, Sangamvadi, Pune, Maharashtra 411001

The World — Getting More Indian Than You Think

“Shah Rukh Khan?” “Amitabh Bachchan?” “Salman Khan?” “India? India?” “We love India!” Sellers at the congested Sharia as-Souq were calling out to us. We were in Aswan. Egypt. It was November 2010, just 2 months before the Arab Spring Uprising! Maybe it was our wheatish complexion or the unmistakable Indian features, that got the sellers so excited. We, on our part, were amused that Bollywood is popular here too, in the country of the pyramids, thousand year old temples, Pharaohs, Nefertiti….

Then in June 2011 came the next surprise. We were in Jungfraujoch, in Switzerland, popularly known as the Top of Europe. Why? Because, at 3500 meters, Jungfrau is the highest railway station in all of Europe; is one of the most picturesque train rides overlooking the Swiss Alps, and the most amusing – in cogwheels trains! Excited and freezing, when we reached Jungfrau this June morning, we get the biggest surprise of our life – Restaurant Bollywood, serving amongst other things, daal, rice, curries, samosas…!!! Thoroughly amused, we conclude, Thanks to Yash Chopra!!!

 Lyon. A charming little town in France that is famous for its Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière perched on the Fourvière Hill. We had taken the funiculars to see the Basilica, and then, came down to see the old city of Lyon on foot. Guess what do we find here? A restaurant selling both ‘Madrasi and Tandoori’ food!! Lyon? Of all places?? We were mighty surprised.

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With experiences such as these, you realise, that across the world, countries are taking the Indian traveller seriously, that the world is getting more Indian than you think!!! Be it in offering surreal wedding destinations in exotic locations, or honeymoon packages in the most romantic of places, or offering complete vegetarian (read, Jain) fare in hotels, Indian tourists have become so big that they are being seriously catered to, being offered tailor-made stay-food-tour options. Why? When we went to Bhutan this year, most hotels and restaurants served Indian food. You can easily speak in Hindi with the locals out there! So too in Little India in Singapore.

Till about 10 years back, when it came to international tourism, most Indians preferred Thailand, Dubai and Singapore. That has changed greatly in the last 10 years. We Indians are getting increasingly curious to see every nook and corner of the world.

But a few Indian tourists have been giving the country a bad name in tourist circuits owing to their loud behaviour, lack of travel etiquettes, ignorance/disrespect to cross-cultural nuances. Sample this – surreptitious clicking of photographs in Thai temples, walking on the Stupa base in Bumthang, Bhutan — embarrassing, painful…

Let’s hope that with increased travel, Indian travellers develop a sense of respect and responsibility – respect for the country they visit and responsibility towards maintaining the good name of their own country.


Restaurant Review: Yoko Sizzlers in RCity Mall, Mumbai

When we landed in Mumbai almost 8 years back, our orientation of the MaximumCity had happened with Yoko Sizzlers in Santacruz, Bade Miyan in Colaba, Naturals Ice-Cream, Vada Pav….Over the years, however, our foodie sorties to sizzler joints has reduced. Which is why when we had a little shopping to do at R-City Mall the other day, we decided to go to Yoko Sizzlers for dinner.

How is the ambience at Yoko Sizzlers in RCity Mall, Mumbai? You enter a smoke-filled room and you know you have entered a sizzler joint. Same with Yoko Sizzlers everywhere. Pretty well-laid out, and somewhat plush interiors, you will be relieved to find it not as cramped as their outlet in Santacruz. The staff is courteous and helpful too.

How is the food at Yoko Sizzlers in RCity Mall, Mumbai? Oh! Completely their signature stuff. Absolutely the same look, same taste. I wondered how they maintain the uniformity.

I ordered a Mutton Satelite – a pepper sauce based sizzler in a bed of boneless mutton pieces, boiled mushrooms, babycorns, tomato, carrots and other vegetables. The mutton pieces had been seasoned well and had an awesome taste. My husband ordered Mixed Grill – a sinful mixture of steak, kidney, liver, mutton chop, chicken sausages in pepper sauce and topped with a fried egg.

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The quantity they give will make sure you won’t have to order desserts. So much that I had serious difficulty finishing it off.

Meal for 2 if you order just sizzlers, about Rs 1400.

Final Word on Yoko Sizzlers in RCity Mall, Mumbai. It is almost the ‘same ole place, but closer home’ now. We’d love to go back there again. Good place for families, friends and colleagues – which means, can get noisy, without anybody bothering. J

5 Must-Eat Dishes & Drinks When in Bhutan

When we looked up for food while planning our Bhutan trip, we came across dishes such as – Ema Datshi, Phaksha Paa, Jasha Maru….and we were sure that we were in for a good time in Bhutan as far as food was concerned.

We were in for a surprise though. Most hotels in Bhutan serve Indian food as if you were in India. We excitedly hopped in to the restaurant of our first hotel, Hotel Druk in Phuentsoling, asking for Ema Datshi, and the hotel staff pointed to the India buffet dinner. Disappointed, when we told Sonam, our guide, about not wanting Indian food in Bhutan, Sonam admitted that most hotels make only Indian or Continental food, if not requested otherwise. So, from then on, our standing instruction to him was that we’d eat only Bhutanese food throughout the trip. And although we still got a lot of Indian and Conti at numerous places, we managed to  have a fair share of Bhutanese cuisine too.

It amazed me to find that the Bhutanese food habits are not very different from that of the Indians. Especially Indians living in hills and in cold places. Theirs is a rice-based society. The Bhutanese don’t eat much breads or even the Indian roti. The other reason why they are similar to India is because they import heavily from India – everything! From juices to vegetables etc. Having said that, here’s what you can eat differently in Bhutan:

  1. Ema Datshi! That’s what everybody asks for the moment they step into the Bhutan soil. Ema Datshi, a dish made with chillis and cheese, is Bhutan’s national food. Yes, it’s spicy! So think before you leap, but no chickening out once served. Although I am not a huge cheese fan, I loved the Ema Datshis. Maybe the cold weather and the wholesome taste of the cheese with spicy chillis does the trick. We loved Ema Datshi with Red Rice.
  2. Which brings me to the next must-have when in Bhutan — Red Rice!! Small, rounded, sticky, pinkish in colour (although called red rice), red rice is tasty and is more fibrous that the normal white rice. We loved it for its coarse taste, and also kept raving about it since it was a good consolation for the absence of wheat in our diet. Further, typical Bhutanese dishes like Ema Datshi and Phakshaa Paa, taste good with red rice. 

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  1. Ah! Phaksha Paa. Jayanta loved this Bhutanese pork dish that is normally very spicy. I am not much of a pork lover. Hence, the miss. And Jasha Maru – the chicken dish that was our staple for most part of the trip. Also try the No Sha Huentse – Beef cooked in a spinach gravy.
  2. Momos! How can you be in this hill country and not think of Momos? We ate then every where – off the street shops, at restaurants, everywhere. You mostly get Chicken Momos here, unless you have ordered Pork Momo well in advance for them to buy the required ingredients.
  3. And finallya must-drink – the Red Panda Beer – which is available everywhere in Bhutan. Must be their staple drink, for it is cheap too and Jayanta had a merry time drinking at least 2 bottles every evening. I, on the other hand, loved the Po Cha (Butter Tea), that felt just right for the chill of the high altitudes and the evenings.

 Bon Apetit!

Restaurant Review: Shalimaar Restaurant in Andheri East, Mumbai

We wanted to eat out last Tuesday night, it being a holiday due to polling the next day. My daughter blurted out that she’d like to eat the Galauti Kebab and Parantha at Kakori House. We thought of Kakori House in Andheri East, and then thought, why not try out a new place? Shalimaar or Persian Darbar. Hadn’t been to both, and wanted to try out one of them for that evening. Settled for Shalimaar.

How is the ambience at Shalimaar, Andheri East? Well, most joints along side the Andheri-Kurla stretch are relatively new, owing to the spurt of commercial complexes that have come up in the last couple of years. That’s why too, most of these joints cater to the office-going crowd.

Shalimaar in Byculla is quite popular for its food. But was never known for hygiene. Shalimaar in Andheri East, however, couldn’t afford to do that. Its clientele was different here. And hence, a well done up, 2-floor restaurant with good lighting. But you will find traces of negligence in a chipped plate or the not-washed dress of the staff or in some of the dishevelled-looking staff themselves. Jayanta asked me to ignore all of these even while I was making a mental note. But when my daughter pointed to a small cockroach that crawled up from under the table, I was upset. The staff, to whom we complained, said that it was very difficult to get rid of the cockroaches from the restaurant. I pointed out to a regular pest control regime. He nodded. What else could he do? We moved to the next table though.

How is the food at Shalimaar, Andheri East? I will be honest. After the cockroach sighting, I had lost my appetite.

We had ordered for a plate of Mutton Shammi Kebab and Mutton Tikka. Didn’t order any drinks – they don’t have liquor license; and silly cocktails is not what we wanted to spend money on. For the main course it was, Mutton Kadhai Gosht with Rumali Roti and Mutton Dum Biryani. For desserts, it was Shahi Tukda and Matka Rabdi. And now for the food review…independent of the cockroach sighting…

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Mutton Shammi Kebab had too much channa daal in it; there was a strong after taste of the dal; not very spicy, actually, pretty bland. The Mutton Tikka had a dangerous red colour, but was nice and soft; very spicy though, my daughter couldn’t eat it. The Mutton Kadhai Gosht came in a, well, kadhai, and had this dangerous red colour that made me write it off as ‘bad’ as soon as I saw it. It turned out to be very mild though. My daughter ate her portion of the roomali with the Kadhai Gosht. The Mutton Dum Biryani was nice, not very greasy, but not great either. The rice was well cooked, but didn’t have the flavour. And the nutton didn’t have much taste. Pretty bland.

The Shahi Tukda was a large triangle of bread in sweetened milk served with cream. Didn’t like it much. They served it piping hot. I am fond of chilled Shahi Tukdas. My fault, I didn’t mention it to them. Jayanta, my daughter and my Mom loved the Matka Rabdi. Found it just the right sweet.

Total bill for all of the above came to INR 1300. Meal for 3 adult and a child.

Final Verdict on Shalimaar, Andheri East: Food isn’t bad. But not great either. Their rates are good for large groups. But average place to eat, if you ask me!

Blogging With Indiblogger at @WordUp

 This post has been long overdue. Almost a month now!!! Despite the nagging ‘need to write about it’ thought in my head, I simply couldn’t pick it up in the last 3-4 weeks – was buried under the work of organising Powai Sharadotsav 2014……

Indiblogger had organised an exclusive event on blogging on 20th September in Mumbai. It was out and out for blogging and since, I had/still have a lot to learn about, I made it a point to attend it despite my crazy schedule. Did I take the right decision? Read on…

About #WordUp with Indiblogger: The event had been organised at one of Mumbai’s most popular pubs – BlueFrog!!! The choice of venue sure did amuse me. After all, I was looking forward to tips on blogging and its technical aspects, and look where they had called it. At the place where the whole world lets it hair down!! Seriously? Seriously!!!

And what do you see when you enter, after the usual round of registration? That the food counter is loaded with breakfast spread on your right, and on your left, the famed BlueFrog stage stuffed, as usual, with every ammunition for a rock concert!!! I smiled to myself, This is gonna be fun.

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And fun it was!! Post the breakfast of nice sandwiches and cookies and tea, we found ourselves grooving to the numbers the Indiblogger team belted out. And when everybody showed signs of enough adrenaline in their blood, we were told about the line-up for the day — speakers from every walk of ‘blogging’ were there to talk about, yes, blogging. So we had talks on social-media in the world of politics, blogging tips, how to promote blogs, how to monetise blogs, legal aspects of blogging (yes, that too!), blogging and social entrepreneurship, ethics while blogging, fashion and blogging, Video-blogging (yeah, that was a new concept) and more. Every speaker had started blogging from scratch and shared their struggle/success story in full earnest.

Takeaway from #WordUp with Indiblogger: I can’t begin to say how much I loved it!!! Be it softer details such as the informal set-up or the hospitality of the BlueFrog staff; or the program line-up. It remained a house-full event throughout the day – no yawns, no restlessness even after lunch!!

Every speaker had so much to share. And in all sincerity. The knowledge-sharing was enriching and inspiring, be it Lakshmi Rebecca’s video blogging, or Anshul Tewari’s youth-stirring social blogging, or the creative story-telling by Snigdha Manchanda, or amit Agarwal’s blogging tips, or Scherezade Shroff’s seriousness about fashion blogging and the others. I learnt so much from everybody!!!

Came back feeling so good about the event, that i promised myself to incorporate all the learning in my blog. And promised too, to write about it!

Kudos Indiblogger!! Perfect event. No lapse no where. Every tiny detail thought of and planned. You guys are smart!!! Keep up the good work!!

Sight-Seeing in Paro, Bhutan

For most people, Paro is their first destination in Bhutan. That’s because, most people fly down to Bhutan. For us though, Paro was our final destination. We’d be going back from Paro via Phuentsoling to India. And we were stationed there for 2 nights and one day. The first night saw us arrive from Gangtey, tired and crying for sleep. Paro sight-seeing would start the next day, we promised ourselves as we bade one another good-night.

Taktsang Monastry, Tiger’s Nest: Paro visit’s iconic destination! That’s the reputation the Taktsang Monastry commands. Popular the world over as the Tiger’s Nest, millions arriving in Bhutan don’t leave it withour having trekked up the hills to visit the monastery made famous by Guru Rimponche’s visit on the back of a tigress to kill a tiger demon. I have written in detail about the Tiger’s Nest trek in my previous blog – read it here — Tiger’s Nest Trek

Note that the Tiger’s Nest takes up a good half part of your day. We had started early, and so, had completed our climb by noon. Post lunch, we went to the following places with Paro City, all close to one another.

Rinpung Dzong: Right at the heart of the beautiful Paro city, it stands over the city almost as if in vigil for its people. Majestic and sprawling, the Dzong, as is usual with all of the Dzongs in Bhutan, houses a Monastry as well as the Paro administrative offices. Its premises is the venue for the famous Paro Tsechu (Paro Festival of Dances) in Mar-april. The very fact that the area would be swarming in colours and beautiful magic, made us long to see it.

Ta Dzong or the National Museum of Bhutan: The Ta Dzong overlooks the Rinpung Dzong. In fact, it had been built in the 17th century to be a watch tower for the Rinpung Dzong. The government converted it to a museum sometime mid-20th century, and housed some of Bhutan’s most expensive and precious pieces of art, paintings statues, textiles and stuffed animals there. A strong earthquake had caused considerable damage to this beautiful tower, and the Dzong has since been under renovation. A number of the art pieces has been moved to a building a little away from the Ta Dzong temporarily.

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National Museum of Bhutan (Temporary): With the Ta Dzong under repair and renovation, the National Museum has been shifted to a temporary building a little above the Dzong itself. It houses a numerous sections such as masks used in different festivals, textiles, utensils, etc and also a very extensive section on the different types of wildlife found in Bhutan. One place where you get to see all what Bhutan cares for, it rich history and its rich culture.

By now, it was evening. We hung around the main city square looking for things to buy or Momos to eat. And then, headed straight back to our hotel – Hotel Olathang. Next morning was for the Chele La, or the Chele Pass.

Chele La, Chele Pass: Touted as one of the highest motorable Pass in Bhutan, we made it a point to drive down, nay, drive up to the Chele La before we bade Bhutan goodbye. An hour’s drive through a winding road in the hill covered with lofty pines and their beautiful yellow flowers, we were at the Pass. Our heart was heavy when we realized that this was probably the last sight in our Bhutan trip. We didn’t want to go back from this beautiful country. Instead, we wanted to walk down the Pass to the other side. We couldn’t. Sigh!! And came back to our hotel to check out.

Checked out, had lunch at a local restaurant in Paro, and started our 5 hour drive back to Phuentsoling. A night’s halt at Hotel Druk once again, and the next morning, we crossed into the Indian side to go to Darjeeling. Holiday wasn’t over yet. Bhutan sojourn was.

Goodbye Bhutan. We loved it there!!


Restaurant Review: Mainland China in Powai, Mumbai

I am not very fond of Chinese cuisine. Which is why, we hardly got to the Chinese restaurants as a family. But 3rd October was different – it was a hot and humid evening at the Durga Puja grounds and we craved for a good place with some good air-conditioning. We had dined at Mia Cucina only the previous night, didn’t want to go far as we had to get back to the Puja grounds for a rock concert, and hence, settled for Mainland China, promising myself that I’d eat only dumplings there.

How is the ambience at Mainland China, Powai? Stylish, plush and very well-laid out. However, Chinese Cuisine being popular with most Indians, the place is thronging with guests at all days of the week, and can get noisy with some many family groups and office groups coming here for meals.

How is the food at Mainland China, Powai? The staff member who waited upon our table helped us choose our meal. We ordered steam Chicken Siu Mai and Mongolean Lamb Skewers, over White Wine and Pinacolada. The Siu Mai were one of the best!! We devoured them in seconds. So were the Lamb skewers. They also made the Pinacolada just right!!

For the main course, we ordered Mixed Fried Rice, Singapore Chicken Rice Noodles and Roast Lamb in Pepper Sauce. I personally loved the Rice Noodles. Extremely light and tasty, I even liked eating them without the lamb. Jayanta loved the friend rice and lamb.

We didn’t order desserts, as our sweets intake had gone up by leaps and bounds over the Durga Puja week!!

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Final Word on Mainland China, Powai – Go if you are a lover of Chinese food. You will love it there at Mainland China!!!

Memoirs of a warring couple who agree only on travel and food


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