Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ram's Ayutthaya in Thailand!


Anubha Kathuria Bellani, as published in ET
Whenever I thought of Thailand it either used to be a mouth-watering experience (what with the foodie in me loving all those spicy curries and seafood), or else a common shared joke among friends about those notoriously popular Thai massages. But when I got a chance to visit this land of Smiles, as is fondly called by the locals, with my globe-trotting husband I was pleasantly surprised. Frankly, I wasn't prepared for such a heady mix of cultural bonanza laced with a distinctively Indian flavour. Like, when you meet someone they greet you with folded hands just like our very own namastae. This gesture is called 'wai' and the hands shape like a closed lotus bud often offered to Lord Buddha as a symbol of purity.
Another striking similarity when visiting any place in Thailand is their adaptation of Valmiki's Ramayana. Basic story remaining the same that of Prince Rama and wife Sita, of victory of good over evil, it has been adapted to suit the Thais. 'Ramakian' pervades all forms of Thai artistic expressions. From murals on the palace walls to the dance-dramas and even as the most popular story line for puppeteering. However, when heard from the tour operators at the Hilton, where we were staying, about a city called Ayutthaya –Thai version of our very own Ayodhya – I was intrigued. That's when we decided to take a day's tour from Bangkok and opted to take the bus to Ayutthaya and return by the boat. We were told that the bus would leave at 6am sharp considering the notorious Bangkok traffic jams (all Thai VVIPs travel in their stretch limo's with motorcycles in tow so as not miss important deadlines!). Though it was a pain waking up at such an unearthly hour it was well worth it.
En route to Ayutthaya approximately 18km short of it, we halted at the Bang Pa popularly known as the Summer Palace. Originally built by King Prasat Thong who was the ruler between 1630 to 1655, this palace was used by later kings as a country residence. This Palace lay abandoned for nearly 80 years. However, during the early Bangkok period, King Rama V commanded several more buildings to be added in this compound. These include pavilions and halls constructed in Thai, Chinese and European architectural style. Modern in construction and though varied in style, they are resplendent with the liberal use of gold and colour. The national symbol, that of the garuda graces almost all buildings.
After the guided tour of the palace we proceeded to Ayutthaya. Located about 85km north of Bangkok, the city is also called Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya. It has been the Thai capital from 1350 till 1767. And for these 417 years the kingdom of Ayutthaya was the dominant power in fertile region of the Menam or Chao Phraya Basin. The official year of its "founding" is 1350 by King Ramathibodi I. This island-city is situated at the confluence of three rivers, the Chao Phraya, the Pasak and the Lopuri.
The main attraction is the ruins of the Ancient Palace, which was built by King U Thong. Several building were added later including the Wat Phra Si Sanphet. Built in the 14th century and used by several kings, this temple held the same ceremonial function for the royalty as the Temple of Emerald Buddha in Bangkok nowadays. Some other notable buildings are Wihan Somdet Pavilion, Sanphet Prasat Pavilion,Chakkrawat Phaichayan, Pavilion, Banyan Ratnat Pavilion and the Tri Muk Building.

Walking underwater in Mauritius

as published in Economic Times
When I married the guy of my choice, everybody kept telling me I was walking on the clouds. But when that guy took me for our honeymoon, he made me walk under water, literally. Mauritius is one of the rare places on the globe where one can do this. Yes, we went to the honeymooner's paradise – Mauritius. Even before we touched down, the aerial view from my window seat was spectacular. Miles and miles of white sandy beaches and palm tops swaying to a universal rhythm. The sights, sounds and the smells put one immediately in the mood that dominates this little island – forever on a holiday!
The sparkling water with glinting beaches and coral reefs were awe-inspiring. Formed of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, the island has a central plateau, is dotted with mountains and criss-crossed by rivers. The coral reef is the third largest in the world and surrounds almost the entire island. These reefs create tranquil lagoons that protect it from the open seas making it a perfect spot for professional divers and first timers alike. Mauritius is balmy and warm round the year, which means whichever month you choose to visit you can swim, jet, snorkel, parasail or sunbathe. One can never really get bored with the limitless facilities for all kinds of water sports – water skiing, surfing, canoeing, water biking, banana boat rides and more.
Ours was an action-packed holiday in many ways than one. During the nine days that we were there, we took various small tours. A trip to Grand Bassin, a natural lake inside the crater of an extinct volcano, Pamplemousses Botanical Gardens with its huge signature Victoria Amazonica water lilies and the talipot palms, Chamarel or the seven earths popular for coloured dunes of volcanic ash in seven patterned colours, Cassela Bird Park and Ile aux cerf, a tiny island off the east coast. But the most unique experience was the underwater walk.
We decided to take a Captain Nemo's Underwater Walk programme. After getting picked up from our hotel Le Mauricia in Grand Baie, we were transported to the middle of the ocean by a motorboat, where we were welcomed by a group of divers who were our guides for the trip. Once mid-ocean we were hitched up in a launch from where we took the plunge down. Prior to which, we were given instructions and taught some basic sign language to be used underwater to indicate our level of comfort. They dressed us up in some really heavy metal belts that would help us keep under water when we were finally lowered on to the ocean floor with a box-like helmet. Oxygen is pumped from the boat so that we could breathe normally.
Once we hit the ocean bed and got acclimatised to our surroundings, it was a different world altogether. Schools of exotic tropical fish, perhaps wondering what aliens like us were doing in their domain, were all around us.
Spotting varied hues simply unimaginable to the human palette were an overwhelming number of fish. Fluorescent fish, zebra fish, and yet more fish. Phew! It sure was a fishy world down there.
Our guide handed us pieces of bread to hold and we were mobbed by more fish. I was scared for a moment and just let the bread go. Our guide, who might have been secretly enjoying our discomfort, even told us to hold hands and do a little jig of our own. It seemed as if we had walked quite a distance. But when we were pulled atop the surface, we were probably just within some 20 metre depth.
The next day, we took the glass-bottomed boat and were ferried to almost near the same place were we had dived a day ago. Sitting on the benches we watched through the glass bottomed boat and were thrilled at the thought of really being there. But just as an aside, when I spotted the water snake I was aghast, and wondered if I had been on the boat ride first, I would have probably chickened out of the walk!

shhhhh……is kilae main jinn hai…

Kotla firozshahkotla ferozshah
Delhi is a city of contradictions like no other. Home to many architecturally modern buildings it also houses monuments from across the centuries among its midst.  DSC05225Delhi has so many facets that though I have been living here for years it still is an enigma of sorts. so when I chanced upon an opportunity to discover the city of jinns, I jumped out of the bed at 6.30am….hangover of saturday night notwithstanding.
A couple of us met at the gates of Kotla Firozshah to explore the trail of genies and the lost city of firozabad built by Muhamad Tughlaq.DSC05176 (Aside:The first thing that always jolts me is the entrance fee to these breathtakingly awesome monuments…5 bucks…come on now charge more and maintain more.)DSC05173
This was my first visit here and I was amazed to realise that one has crossed this place so many times without really noticing it. another example of me living in a limbo.
On entering the fort the fragrance of many incense sticks, the tranquility around the area, and the greenery envelops you. DSC05189There are nooks and crannies, all around and in the fort where the faithful have tied threads, lit incense and offered pots of milk and kheer to appease the jinns living here. Some have pasted and tucked in their petitions praying for the fulfillment of their desires.DSC05239 Interestingly the petitions are in urdu, hindi and even english…like love faith transcends language.
A little gyan about our Sultan Tughlaq (1351-88)- he was a keen builder and is also merited with constructing 2 levels of Qutab Minar (the ones in marble) that were destroyed earlier by lightening. He mobilized the transfer of 2 Asokan pillars that are in Delhi. One pillar takes pride of place in this compound itself. By the way he was also the first Sultan to have started the jaziya tax on Hindu population.
Kotla Firozshah has 3 main structures Jami masjid, a baoli or a stepwell, and Asokan pillar. 
DSC05221The mosque is raised above ground level and on each side below is a colonnade giving access to the vaulted chambers, this is where most petitions for the jinns are stuck on the walls.

On moving out from here we came across the structure that is believed to be built to support the Asokan pillar from the 3rd cent BC . DSC05244There are milk pots around here too and the resident kittens smirk at you when you cross them.DSC05234 A rickety and small gate where you have to duck to enter proves a challenge to the generously endowed. This leads you up the stairs and to the base of the pillar. Now like everything else this one too has a story as to how this was transported here. Our sweet guide told us that the entire city of Ambala was involved in one way or the other with or without choice in bringing the pillar down and transporting it safely to Firozabad. The huge monolitih sandstone pillar inspires awe and is about 13 mtrs high. Some used to call it the Bheema’s stick too. Inscriptions on the pillar include the Devanagri and Brahmi script.
The circular baoli is not open to public but our guide had taken the requisite permissions and the chowkidar Daya Shankar ji of the handled moustache opened it for us. DSC05269The guide told us that permission is required now since this place has witnessed a couple of suicides too. DSC05265The steps leading to the baoli are very dark and when we all along with Daya Shankar ji reached the baoli,  prodded him on the existence of jinns…to which he passionately replied “arrey sir koi jinn nahi hota sirf deewar kaali pad jaati hai agarbatti se aur phir hum toh Hanuman Bhagat hain….bhoot pisach nikat nahi aave, mahavir jab naam sunawae.” This left the group in splits. However if you really do ponder yes the walls of this protected monument are turning all sooty black. There are many big fish in the baoli and when I was coming out I spotted too many bats …had I realized earlier I may not have stepped down. DSC05276
One can also spot many eagles circling this place DSC05233
as some jinns are fond of the non vegetarian stuff too. Jinns or no…the faithful or non believer…this place is beautiful and a must visit. Next time I may petition Winking smile

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

My Baker stole my coffee cup

I love my cup of coffee totally and absolutely black no sugar please. So when my when I grow up I wanna be a baker (this week it is this) son Arnaav chose to bake a coffee cake I was perplexed…I hadnt ever done it before. But well gave in to his pesterations (that’s a new mommy word) for the sake of some semblance of peace or was it a piece of coffee cake.
Well to give the chef her due we followed Nita Mehta’s recipes. I always find her recipes to be fool proof and easy to follow. So here goes the recipe and a step-by-step for my fellow drooling mums. It is a cake walk and a child of 9 can easily find his way around it with the help of a grown up obviously, since this one involves boiling coffee etc.
So slip into your aprons and have a go at this one.DSC05330
2cups flour (maida)
1 and half tsp baking powder
3 eggs yolks and whites separated ---Arnaav found this step really weird and not too appetizing Winking smile
1 cup butter (100 gm pack)
1 and 4th cups of sugar
2tbsps of coffee powder
2tbsp of rum (Mom is this cake ok for kids? hehe)
half tbsp of melon seeds (we didn’t have them so substituted with sunflower seeds by Tong Garden)
For Coffee Sauce you will need
1 tbsp coffee, one-fourth cup sugar, half cup water(mum u know water is made of hydrogen and oxygen), 1 tbsp butter ( I used only half), 1 tbsp cornflour dissolved in half cup water
OK so heres what to do with the arsenal now!
  1. mix sugar, coffee and water in a pan and heat till sugar dissolves. Keep aside to cool. add rum (optional).
  2. sieve flour with baking powderDSC05334
  3. beat egg whites till stiff and soft peaks are formedDSC05337
  4. beat butter and yolks till creamy
  5. add sugar-coffee syrup to butter and yolks mixture. add some seeds melon or sunflower. this is for the crunch.
  6. stir in sifted flour in 2 batches. mixDSC05340
  7. fold egg whites gently till well mixed. do this in 2 or 3 batches
  8. transfer to a greased and dusted tin. we used a loaf tin.
  9. bake in preheated oven at 180 deg for 40 minutes
  10. cool and transfer to a serving dish.DSC05346
Prepare the sauce by boiling half cup water with sugar, coffee and butter. simmer for a minute and then add in the dissolved cornflour paste and stir till it coats the spoon.DSC05348
Prick the cake all over with a fork and pour the sauce nicely over it and also let it flow down the sides too.DSC05352
Cut the cake with a suitably impressed dad and eat it too.DSC05354
By the way it was one of the most awesomest cake I have had.
Psst I see many cookery shows and not 1 chef says blah this hasn’t turned out nice Smile