Monday, November 28, 2016

We Visited Kaziranga – 31 Oct to 03 Nov 2016

After a hectic ‘Destination Wedding’ at Shillong we made our way to Kaziranga on 31 Oct. Normally ‘Kaziranga Forest Reserve’ is open to the public from 01 Nov every year; however this year they had opened the reserve a month earlier. We left Shillong around 11 AM and reached our guest house around 6 PM. The children stayed at ‘Wild Grass Lodge’. November to April is the best time to visit Kaziranga Park.

Kaziranga National Park is the oldest park in Assam covering an area of 430 Sq kms along the river Brahmaputra to the North and the Karbi Anglong hills to the South. Kaziranga National Park is one of the last areas in eastern India undisturbed by  human presence. It is inhabited by the world's largest population of one-horned rhinoceroses, as well as many mammals, including tigers, elephants, water buffalo, panthers, hog, swamp, gaur and sambar, bears, and varieties of birds. The land is quite level all over the park, which is mainly covered by dense and tall elephant grass due to its flood-plain ecosystem. Located in the Brahmaputra Flood Plains of Assam, the park is prone to annual floods. During the monsoon season the rising water levels of the Brahmaputra and water flowing down from Karbi Anglong and Naga Hills through various rivers and streams inundate the low lying areas of Kaziranga. The normal inundation is important for maintenance of floral and fauna diversity in the park. The floods also recharge the water bodies and improve soil fertility.

The Great Indian One Horned Rhinoceros is the species that Kaziranga was established to protect and this species continues to be the focus of management and anti-poaching activities at Kaziranga. As a result, it harbours the single largest concentration of this species and its numbers today stand at around 1855.

One has the choice of selecting a particular range for the safari and rides. Central Range, Western Range and Kalapahar located at Kohora and Eastern Range from Bokakhat. It is better to discuss with the hotel staff and the tourism department and then select the ranges for your rides.  We were recommended to visit the Western and the Central Ranges both by Elephant and Jeep, Eastern Range only by jeep.

The best way to negotiate the park is either by jeep safari or elephant rides. Jeep safaris run both in the morning and evening, whereas the elephant ride is undertaken in the mornings only. One needs to book seats in advance. I preferred the elephant ride as it takes you closer to the animals. The elephants happily trample the tall elephant grass and take us just meters away from a rhino. The grass is such a good cover that a rhino might be standing twenty feet away from you and you would not know it. However, the jeep travels a larger area and the chances of sighting other wild life are greater. One morning we stopped at a ‘Tiger Corridor’ for a long time hoping to catch a glimpse of the exclusive ‘Royal Bengal Tiger’. The cacophony generated by the monkeys and the deer was very indicative of its presence.

Carry a good camera with zoom to capture these enchanting animals as they stroll lazily in the plains. Go on as many rides and safaris as possible, it increases the chances of sighting wild life. In any case the main purpose of the visit is to sight wild life and enjoy what nature has to offer. 

DRDA Guest House at Oriole, a government of Assam property, where we stayed was extremely homely and comfortable. Every evening we joined the children at ‘Wild Grass Lodge’ for dinner. The dining and the sitting area are large and well ventilated with a high ceiling. There is lots of space around the lodge for the children to run around.  The food is reasonably good considering its location.    

Watching a rhino in the wild is a different experience all together. The rhino has a thick, almost sculptured hide and reminds one of the armour that the knights of old would wear. They are far more peaceful than the hippo and may threaten to charge only if their young ones are with them. We saw one pregnant rhino, too huge to move, wallowing in a tiny body of water. She was not at all bothered by our presence and calmly continued wallowing. 

However it was a different story with Akhila. As their jeep was underway, a huge rhino crossed over to the road from the under bush and was extremely agitated to find a jeep within her imaginary safety arc. The rhino immediately assumed an attack posture,ready to charge. The jeep driver fully aware of the consequences quickly reversed the vehicle and withdrew to a safe distance.

Rhinos graze and roam around in the river plains with utmost ease and confidence, knowing full well, no danger lurks in the high grass. Except old age, flooding from river Brahmaputra and unscrupulous poaching they have very little to fear.

I now leave you to enjoy a bit of Kaziranga through my lens.

Water Body

Riverine flood-formed lakes known as, Beels

Totally silent and eerie

A lone Hog deer

A lone rhino

Shubs at the watch tower

By the lake

Boat used for river navigation

Another rhino

Jeep safari

Another hog deer

Wild boar

Finally the sun sets 

A lone elephant

Adjutant Stork on the tree top

A pregnant rhino waiting for her day

Taking her massive weight off in the pond water.

Herd of water buffaloes

Nair Sudhi and Jai

A rhino appeared from no where

Some more deers

A lovely sight of water body

A herd of elephants

Enjoying the moment

You cannot get any closer

A fascinating animal

The armoured plated rear

A close up

After a lovely dinner at the Wild Grass

The whole family

Really a royal animal

At the entrance

Monday, November 21, 2016

Abode of the Clouds - Blah Is Ord

I love you not for who you are, but who i am by your side
Most of the weddings these days are very predictable, boring and routine in nature. Go to the wedding hall, stand in a queue to wish the couple, handover the gift, pose for a group photograph, exchange pleasantries with a few common friends and relatives and proceed meekly to the food table. If you are lucky – Lord Soma – the top Indian god of liquor joined by Bacchus the Greek god of grape harvest, wine making and wine may descend on earth and open a bar. In which case, all the tipplers involuntarily gravitate towards the bar and partake of some elixir to alleviate the mood.

Our daughter Akhila married Anirban in 2004 and became Blah. Since then the Blahs have become an integral part of our life. Around the same time, Anirban’s sister, Priyanka came from Shillong to do her schooling in Bishop Cottons, Bangalore. She stayed with us for a short while when pursuing her studies. We have seen Priyanka grow from a playful fourteen year old teen to a vivacious, bubbly and talented woman. In later years we have looked forward to her visits and enjoyed her company immensely.  

Priyanka navigated the ‘Sea of life’ with aplomb. Like any sea voyage, there were some stormy nights but more often, calm seas and fair winds propelled her. Every ship requires a strong anchor and she found one in Nick - an affable gentleman from Manchester. Nick is popularly known as ‘The Ambassador of Good Times ‘and also the Reserve Brand Ambassador for Diageo’. What I simply adore about Nick, is his guts. In his own words “I remember quitting my sensible job with HSBC bank after graduating with a BA in History and Politics with Philosophy from the University of Leeds, to become a bartender, despite the disappointment in my parent’s eyes and disbelief of my peers. ‘You’re going to work in a pub selling beer… when are you going to get a REAL job?’ Times have changed for the better and my parents are now very proud of my success.”

I have been on the other side of his bar and have delighted in sampling his cocktails. It was indeed an honour to be served such exotic combos from a ‘Master Mixologist’. HSBC’s loss is definitely our gain.

True to her nature, Priyanka insisted on getting married in Shillong, her birthplace. She wanted something unique and special – it may have been her hidden desire to showcase Meghalaya ‘Abode of Clouds’ in general and Shillong, popularly known as the ‘Scotland of the East’ to all the people attending the wedding.

Incredible Meghalaya - on the way to Shillong
So, all the preparations for a ‘Destination Wedding’ (DW) started in right earnest. Rita, Anirban, Akhila,Indranil and Disha joined hands to organize the wedding in Shillong. The in-house wedding planners went to great lengths to ensure a dream wedding and venue – nothing was left to chance. Nick and Priyanka created a website giving all the details of the wedding. 28 October 2016 was selected as the D Day.

There’s a lot to be said for a DW. Only genuine well wishers will travel hundreds of miles to attend the wedding, participate earnestly in all the events and enjoy the bonhomie that is generated.

26 Oct 2016. Meet and Greet. We landed in ‘Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport’ Guwahati at 1030 h. We were greeted by our designated taxi driver and whisked off to Shillong. After a picturesque three hour drive we arrived in Shillong and checked into ‘Hotel Centre Point’. 

‘Blah is Ord’ posters, banners, taxi stickers greeted us everywhere. The organization was excellent and executed with military precision.

Vivek and Indranil at the Center Point lobby
Refreshed and rearing to go, we reached the Blahs’ official residence ‘Shailabaz’. The spacious bungalow was lit up beautifully and full of cheerful guests. After some hellos and hugs we settled down to some serious ‘Elbow Bending’ to ward off the cold.  The entire Blah clan was there to participate in the wedding. Nicks parents, sister and his close friends from England and Australia added cheer to all the ceremonies. More importantly Priyanka’s young friends brought in the much needed fun and frolic. Friends of Anirban and Indranil had travelled many miles to make the function a success. Ayaan, Samara, Agastya and Aarin the bride’s nephews and niece, running around in gay abandon, completed the scene. The Prabhakars and Bhavsars joined the merriment in all earnest, as the first event ’Meet and Greet’ started to unfold.

Blahs’ official residence ‘Shailabaz’.

Priyanka and Nick with Jai, Lisa, Pappu and June,
Excellent weather, good friends and a cozy bonfire made a very heady combo – we talked, drank, ate and bonded with each other for a long time.
This was an exceptional way to start a wedding.

27 Oct 2016. Mehendi and Sangeet. ’While the girls got ready to attend the ‘Mehendi Ceremony’, early in the morning, I went along with my dear buddy KM Nair to play a round of Golf at the 5/8 Gorkha Training Centre. The course is extremely picturesque but very challenging with all its ups and downs. Tired but contented, we left the GTC after a sumptuous breakfast.

Picturesque Golf Centre at 5/8 Gorkha Training Centre 

At the Mehendi
‘Shailabaz’ was a beehive of activity; three Mehendi specialists were busy drawing intricate patterns on the hands of all the ladies. One could not help noticing the look of absorption especially on the faces of Ord ladies. All of them were simply thrilled with the idea of Mehendi on their hands and feet. One male guest even got a mehendied-tattoo on his arm!  

The men kept themselves busy with easy banter, well supported by beer and pork. If ever you want to put any Khasi, Jaintia or Garo on line; you simply threaten to turn him into a vegetarian. No meal is complete without pork. My wife, who is a pure vegetarian by choice, was in for a shock when she asked the caterer ‘what is there for breakfast’, prompt came the reply, “for non vegetarians there is pork momos and for vegetarians there is chicken momos’.

In the evening we all gathered at the ‘City Hut’ restaurant for the ‘Sangeet’. In addition to the inner circle, lots of local guests from Shillong joined the merriment. Mr Ankush had been specially flown in from Mumbai to manage the bar. It was amply evident that he made a lot of people happy and cheerful. The bridegroom surprised all of us with a song and dance and many others joined in with foot tapping Bollywood numbers.

Pretty girls of Prabhakar family

Indranil with the Bhavsars

Anirban and Katyal enjoying a drink

Priyankas friends - life of the party

Steve and June - all happiness

Kids engaged in a game

Disha busy with the Blahs

All the Blahs

Friends of Anirban and Indranil

Mr Ankush with the master

Sudhi and Nair our guests from Bangalore with Akki

Vivek Shubs and Resh

Lisa turn to be melodious

The Blah Boys in action

Brides friends

28 Oct 2016. Wedding. Everyone took it easy the next morning. Had Mr Jeeves been present at ‘Centre Point’, he would have been in great demand to prepare his iconic ‘pick me up’ restorative. The success of the ‘Sangeet’ was very evident. By now, all the guests were on first name basis with loud greetings, bear hugs and good humored friendliness. The breakfast hall and the reception had become an annex of the Blah House.

All of us checked out of ‘Centre Point’ and moved the action into the ‘RiKynjai” resort. Located 20 Kms from Shillong the resort overlooks the picturesque ‘Umiam Lake’. RiKynjai translates from Khasi as ‘Serenity by the Lake’. The architecture is inspired and derived from the original Khasi thatched huts. The d├ęcor showcases many charming khasi pots and weaves. The rooms are extremely well appointed and spacious. Each suite is built at three different levels – the bathroom, living and study and finally the balcony, which faces east and overlooks the entire expanse of the lake.  The view of the lake and the surrounding hills is simply breathtaking. The early morning view is something to be cherished as the sun rises and illuminates the entire area.

Ri Kynjai symbolizes the innate essence of ‘Meghalaya’.

View from the room
The Blahs could not have chosen anything better than this location to solemnize the union of Priyanka and Nick.

The guests sat on the lawns facing a small gazebo, waiting in anticipation, as the bridegroom accompanied by his best man arrived at the altar. Nick absolutely loves ‘Star Wars’ so instead of ‘Here comes the bride’, we heard the strains of the Star Wars theme. Ayaan, Agastya and Aarin marched in front of Priyanka wearing their Star Wars masks and strewing rose petals along the way. Priyanka, looking absolutely stunning, followed, along with her mother Rita and brother Anirban. Indranil started off the simple ceremony, a Sanskrit shloka invoking the blessings of Lord Ganapati was read out by Jayanti and Ayaan read a poem out for Priyanka. The couple exchanged rings and read out their vows. Indranil declared them man and wife. It was all over in a jiffy.

Bride with brother and mother
Straight from Star Wars

Exchanging rings

Man and Wife

All set to throw the bridal bouquet

Akhila all thrilled as Ayaan catches the bouquet

Steve and Nick with friends

The pillars of Blah family

Finally a photo op for me with Jai

After some high tea, all the guests retired to their own rooms to rest and refresh. The wedding reception in the resort’s main hall started with the newly married couple cutting the wedding cake followed by speeches from many near and dear ones. The party gained momentum and at one point of time the dance floor was jam packed with all the guests gyrating to popular melodies.

Cutting the wedding cake

The dance after

29 Oct 2016. Picnic to Mawphlang. Continuing with the revelry the next day, the Blahs had organized a picnic to Mawphlang, a village in the East Khasi Hills district, 50 kilometers from the hotel. The word ‘Maw’ means "stone", maw phlang means "grassy stone”. Mawphlang is home to the ‘sacred grove’. Stepping into the forest reveals an astonishing network of plants and trees, all connected, some of them, which are believed to be more than 1,000 years old.

Mawphlang,  village

In the grove

A visit to the sacred grove is not complete without learning about its history. 

The Blahs, formerly known as Langblah, migrated from Jaintia Hills in search of new land which promised better food and security. Finally the clan settled down in Mawphlang. The Blah Clan took a chieftain and everything was under their control. Over time Mawphlang village became famous and many other clans settled under the Chieftain of the Blah clan. At the end of Mawphlang Syiemiong War, the Blahs handed over the control of the village to the Lyngdoh.

Folk lore notes that the sacred grove is protected by the village patron God ‘U Ryngkew U Basa’. No one is allowed to take out anything from the sacred grove; any transgression invites the terrible wrath of the forest deity.

Our day ended with a walk in the sacred grove followed by chow mien, pork curry and rice.

Incidentally do not forget to buy some Shillong noodles from the local market to carry home. Lakadong Turmeric grown in Jaintia Hills is said to be one of the best in India. I have been using this for the last ten years and I certainly vouch for its quality. Lakadong Turmeric is a much sought after variety as it has high curcumin content. It is a location specific variety grown in Meghalaya only.

30 Oct 2016. Drive to Cherrapunjee. We started early in the morning to visit Cherrapunjee and other tourist attractions in the area. The sun was bright and the skies clear with no chance of any rain in the world’s wettest region. Our first halt was at a way side restaurant where many went in to enjoy hot rice and pork curry.

Having a ball in front of the restaurant

We then visited ‘Arwah Cave’ in Sohra close to Cherrapunjee. Opened from October last year and spread over more than 3 km, the Arwah Cave in Sohra has impressive rock formations and fossils of marine life embedded in the rocks. The interior of the cave is well lit in many places and it is really a magnificent place to visit. A steep climb takes us to the cave, overlooking a lush valley. The whole journey in the cave was very interesting – at times narrow, slippery and winding. One has to exercise extreme caution to avoid bumping one’s head against the protruding rocks. The trip was fun.

Akki making he way 

Thereafter we visited Nohkalikai Falls which always plays hide and seek with the clouds. If one is lucky you can see the waterfall emerge from a veil of thick cloud and plunging 1,099 ft. The sight is breathtaking.

Nohkalikai Falls s plays hide and seek with the clouds.

For lunch, we went to Kutmadan resort. “Kut madan” means “The End of the Land” in Khasi language. This is where the land just decides to tumble down a steep cliff and meet the plains below. 

Panaromic view from Kutmadan

As the hills meet the plains, simultaneously India meets Bangladesh, and Kutmadan just happens to be the best seat in the house to witness this confluence of two nations. The ring side view was worth driving for such a long distance.
Ringside view

The food was even better. The spread included many varieties of pork, country chicken, bamboo shoot delicacies and exotic pickles. Rita and Priyanka had spared no effort to create the best ambiance for the trip.

In the evening ‘Shailabaz’ was once again alive with Diwali celebrations. Children had fun lighting up flower pots, sparklers, bhoomi chakras and other crackers.

As the night progressed and the clouds descended, the guest decided to call it a day. Many were leaving Shillong very early in the morning.

The ‘Destination Wedding’ came to a close after five days of hectic partying, meeting old friends, forging new friendships and enjoying every bit of Priyanka and Nick’s wedding.

I wish to thank the Blah Clan for giving us this wonderful opportunity to enjoy a typical ‘Destination Wedding’. The Blahs have taken this concept many notches up.

We finally wish Priyanka and Nick a very happy and long married life.

While you are at it, please read some more blogs on marriages in India