Iraqis

Ancient Iraq (Mesopotamia) and the surrounding areas are known as the Cradle of Civilization. My 2-week enlightening experience of present day Iraq proves what an amazing civilization it would have been and how resilient her people are even now.

People and Atmosphere

I had pre-conceived notions of what Iraq would be like- a war ravaged country with bomb blasts almost every week in their cities. I thought I would see burnt car tyres and road blocks, gun-toting Army men, armoured vehicles on their highways and old cars on their roads. I expected to see bumpy and broken down roads and run-down houses. (All images fuelled by those seen on TV and in newspapers).

But boy! Was I wrong. The places we visited were nothing like I imagined them to be. Right from our air-conditioned Mercedes buses to the many luxury SUVs I noticed on the roads…to the well-maintained buildings we passed by and the hotels we stayed at, everything was near perfect. Their highways were 4-laned, clean and in good condition. Even the narrow lanes, by-lanes and roads in the cities were clean-in fact even their garbage pick-ups were mechanized (very unlike in India).

Our hotels had well-appointed rooms and bathrooms with latest fixtures and fittings. Even our towels were freshly laundered and sealed in individual wrappings when we checked-into our hotel rooms (I have not seen this even in 5-star hotels). The hotel staff was attentive and most understood Hindi or English.

I imagined there would be many destitute on the streets especially close to the shrines- but there were hardly any and the rare ones we saw, sat quietly by the side of the road not pestering anyone. (Bonding- Spiritual, Social, Cultural) I also thought the locals would be wary of foreigners, but this was furthest from the truth. They were welcoming, polite, friendly and loved India, Indians and of course Hindi movies 🙂

There were numerous foods stalls and restaurants-small and big, and they were super hygienic. The aromatic smell of freshly baked breads (multiple types of these), kebabs and shawarmas filled the streets we walked on every day. Iraqis love their tea and numerous vendors sold flavourful Iraqi chai (they would clean each glass with hot water before serving). The buffet at our hotels was unbelievable, especially considering that we were in a country with poor economy. Table full of baklavas and puddings, cheese, salads and mains were served for every meal.

The one other thing that impressed me was the excellent internet bandwidths. The Wi-Fi never failed and there was never a drop in the download speeds. Their economy might be down, but their bandwidths are certainly not.

Masjids

Thousands of people daily visit the shrines of Moulana Ali’s at Najaf and Moulana Hussain’s and Moulana Abbas Alamdar’s at Karbala, and even then they were well- maintained with constant vacuuming, cleaning and renovations. The very many other masjids and historical places that we visited during our trip were also clean with constant maintenance- this despite the fact that this region has been affected with violence and destruction. (Bonding- Spiritual, Social, Cultural)

Bazaars

The most colourful and full-of-life souks I have even seen. From knick-knacks to prayer items to yards of material, household items, to gold and silver, and meat, food and bread-everything was sold in narrow,scrupulously clean but interconnected by-lanes. A truly Arabian atmosphere was seen here. Hundreds of people would walk these lanes picking up bargains and in the evenings, supper for their homes.

Almost everyone in my travelling group picked up finger-rings and pendants with semi-precious stones (akik, topaz, sapphire, opals, etc.), colourful head scarves, tasbih (prayer beads), masallahs (prayer mats) and many other souvenirs. The shop-keepers would cheerfully strike bargains, offer free samples of dry-fruits and try to please all customers.

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A vendor selling jewellery

It was lovely walking down their curving streets (even though they were chock-a-block with people), watching the many artefacts on display and taking in the different aromas of food, trays of their local sweets, spices and the crackle of the falafels frying in hot oil.

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An Iraqi man selling bread rolls

Safety

I was never really concerned for my safety though my friends back home were worried. There was frisking at regular intervals and though a tad inconvenient, it kept us all safe. Even we women would walk in the streets throughout the night and no one would bother us. It was in fact ultra safe even for women.

Iraq has natural beauty and a lot of history and I would love to come back to explore. Iraqis are proud of their culture and history. The people of this Cradle of Civilization are welcoming and full of hope despite their many problems. I pray that this land of the Euphrates River eventually attains their lost peace and prosperity.

Travel:

We flew into Najaf, about 100 km from the capital Baghdad. The shrine of Moulana Ali is located here and this city is considered one of the holiest cities in Shia Islam.

We travelled by bus from Najaf to Karbala-a distance of 80 km. Karbala is another very important centre for Islam.

-Tamanna S. Mehdi

Palaces, Lakes and Memories

It isn’t always about how much sight-seeing we do on a holiday, but rather how much we enjoy in the company of people we travel with. My recent holiday to Udaipur, was just that- time spent in the dear company of friends I have grown up with.

Whether we were waiting for our cabs or spending anxious moments stuck in autos in the narrow gullies of the old city or while we trudged along the castles and forts or even when we were haggling for a good bargain- all we did was enjoy and laugh. It was the most stress free, laidback and carefree holiday I’ve had.

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Happyness!! 🙂

Our good times also had a lot to do with the city we chose to visit. Udaipur is a laid back city where nothing is more than a 10 minute cab/auto ride away. The soothing water of the lakes around which the city is situated adds to the calmness of this place. The city is steeped in history and has an old-world charm to it. Its narrow curving lanes with family run shops with residences having jharokas (overhanging enclosed balconies) is reminiscent of an earlier era that we hardly get to experience in our modern architecture. It is also very clean- the roads were garbage free, very unlike what we are used to in India.

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Silver market… Notice the windows…they are residences

Lakes

Udaipur is built around the two main lakes-Pichola and Fateh Sagar and the many bridges across its back waters connect the different localities. We stayed at Hotel Lakend built right on the banks of the Fateh Sagar Lake and it turned out to be a good decision. The area around here is less crowded and more easily accessible.

But suffice to say that Lake Pichola was where all the action was- an array of hotels and lake front restaurants offered the perfect places to chill and relax. Swarms of ducks swam past us as our motor boat revved around the lake on a cold January morning. We stopped at the Jag Mandir, an island on the lake and sailed past the Taj lake palace hotel built on another island in the centre of the lake. (What-e-‘Numa) The City Palace and the very many other hotels and ghats on the banks formed an idyllic setting.

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On the Lake Pichola

Palaces

The whole city is full of palaces and forts. We chose to visit the City Palace, the Monsoon Palace at Sajjangarh and rode the ropeway at Dudh Talai to the top of a fort.

The City Palace is a huge complex and has many palaces built in it. It is grandiose with both Rajasthani and Mughal architecture. The views of Lake Pichola from the many sit-outs and jharokas here were stunning.

The Monsoon Palace is a little away from the city and we hired a taxi to go up the Aravalli mountain range where the palace is located at 3100 ft above sea level. Offering panoramic views of lakes, palaces and surrounding farm lands, this palace is located in a forest reserve and was built by Maharana Sajjan Singh of the Mewar Dynasty in 1884.

The cable car ride was a very touristy thing to do but the ride up was worth it- for the beautiful views. Every spot offered breath-taking vistas of the lakes, the very many castles and the quaint old city.

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View of Dudh Talai, Fateh Sagar lake and the city from atop the cable car

There is a lot more sight-seeing to do especially for history buffs, and if you have the time, I recommend it.

Shopping

Silver jewellery, handicrafts, hand painted cards, clothes, shoes, bags, durries from Jaipur… you name it, and you get it here at excellent rates. The curving interconnected gullies of Hathipole and Chandpole markets are where we spent a good part of our afternoons and evenings. Covering the many shops by foot, peeking in the stores and striking friendly bargains, we all came back with excess baggage 🙂

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(Needs no caption) 😉

Food

We felt that most of the food at the restaurants catered to foreign tourists and lacked an authentic local taste. We tried the ‘must eat at places’ from all the blogs we read up on, but weren’t very thrilled with the food. We heard a lot about Savage Garden and Ambrai, but apart from their very stunning locations, we did not find the food very appetizing. Upre also has a lovely setting, but the food was strictly okay.

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View of the Ambrai restaurant

The only place that lived up to its reputation was Hotel Natraj on the station road. A vegetarian place serving Rajasthani and Gujarati thaali, it was our most authentic experience at local food on this trip. The Daal baati churma was an excellent addition to our already wonderful meal. We washed it all down with namkeen chaas and meetha paan at the end.

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Rajasthani Thaali, Natraj Hotel

The malai khajla, a very famous Bohra sweet found its way back home as well. It is a puff pastry filled with fresh cream. Before it is eaten, it is warmed and hot sugar syrup is poured over it…hmm…yumm…

So, pack a bag, take a break and make your own memories!

Location: Udaipur is in Rajasthan and is accessible from all major metros and cities by air, rail and road.

Weather: The average night time temperature is about 7 C this month (January).

Tip: Book a hotel preferably close to the lakes.

Tamanna S. Mehdi

 

 

What-e-‘Numa

This was my second visit to this Grand Palace cum converted luxury hotel. I felt no less like royalty this time as well. The first time I came here was for an Italian dinner at Celeste and now for their high-tea.

Since it is converted into a luxury hotel, the Celeste to me was a value addition to the hotel. This time, however, to be booked in for ‘high-tea’ in this city of Nizams, reiterated to me how ‘colonial’ a time it was when the British ruled India and how that culture seeped into the Royal way of living at that time. What was more interesting was when I was asked by the reservations desk, “if we would like the Nizami or the English high-tea”. It must have been a very multi-cultural time then, as is now.

I had read a few reviews about the food, and I wasn’t disappointed by what they served us. But then, we weren’t just coming here for the food (of course we skipped lunch so we could do justice here), but for the experience- from the feeling of how perhaps a royal Begum would have felt when she traveled on the beautiful curving drive up to her magnificent palace perched on top of a hill (at 2000 ft above sea level) overlooking her city and its beautiful people to how she dined and lived in style.

The roads leading to the palace are crowded with constant traffic and small by-lanes, but as we took the turn towards the hotel, the entire atmosphere changed. In stark contrast to the constant honking and melee of people, cars and buses, this serene private drive-way was almost eerily quiet. The tar roads gave way to un-laid kacha roads. It was like going back in time, right from the word go.

At the first check-point, as our names were checked off the list by the polite guards with a subdued ‘Adaab’, it was that instant feeling of being transformed into another time- a far cry from the present day Hyderabad, though we were just a few kilometers away from the main city. I admit I pinched myself a couple of times ;).

We went up the lovely drive way past stables and a parked buggy on one side, and the massive city on the other up to the second gate (yes, there are quite a few gates before we reach the palace itself). After parking our car and taking the opportunity to take a few of our pictures at the edifice, the security checked us in. Again, really politely without making it awkward (like in other public places). Politeness in talk and manners was an integral part of theNizamiculture and the staff at the hotel encompass this beautifully, right from the guards to the waiting staff to the many other people we met at the hotel.

After another short golf-cart ride past manicured gardens, we reached the main entrance to the palace-hotel itself. After another tehzeebi greeting, the guard ushered us to the main stairway leading up to the hotel. Built over 32 acres, the property is built over many levels. Our dining room was further down and though we were hungry by now (it was almost 4 pm), we strolled slowly admiring the intricate ceilings, the elaborate library with its rare Britannica editions and books in various languages to another huge garden with water fountains and gardeners silently tending to the lawns on this beautiful July afternoon.

The tea spread was impressive with different types of Indian and British teas to choose from and the fresh scones with cream and jam just melted in our mouths. From the lukmi to the delicately made sandwiches and small crisp pies, it was difficult to choose a favorite dish. The dessert table had the yummiest Khubani ka meetha apart from delectable pastries and tea cakes.

After our tea, we went for a guided palace tour of the main building. The palace is built in the shape of a Scorpion (as that was the sun-sign of Nawab Vikar-ul-Umra). It was interesting to see the lovely oil paintings and pictures, the Venetian chandeliers, the children’s study and bedrooms, and the living area with a large billiards table. We also went to the main private dining table (which we were told is the largest in the world and can seat 101 guests at a time) and the royal begum’s bedroom. They did live in style.

Since all this history and walking around had whet our appetite, we came back for round of freshly brewed tea and coffee and could not stop gushing about the opulence of the aristocrats and their lifestyle.

It was about 5:15 pm when we heard strains of Qawwali music in our dining area. We quickly followed the sound and came upon a private performance ofQawwali singers dressed suitably in dervish caps rendering the beautiful “Allah Hu” Sufi song. They even asked us for requests and sang them for us. The setting of this musical performance- the Gol Bunglow which was in open air with the old Hyderabad city and distant hills in the background in the early evening light- gave it an almost magical charm. The golden glow of the setting sun coupled with the lights slowly coming on in the city- it was a fairy tale setting.

As we left the palace at about 7pm, it was a clear sky brilliantly lit by stars. The slight chill in the air caught us off-guard. We realized it wasn’t just the temperature dip; it was the kick back to reality. 🙂

Falak-numa in Urdu means ‘like the sky’. I did feel like a royal bird soaring high up into the clouds. Visit here to experience the old-world royalty, to feel like a Nizam.

History of the Palace

The palace was opened in 1893 as a private residence and then converted into a heritage luxury hotel in 2010 by the Taj group. It was built and owned by Nawab Sir Vikar-ul-Umra, Prime Minister of Hyderabad (1884 to 1897) and later by The 6th Nizam of Hyderabad. Designed by an English architect, the palace has a blend of Italian and Tudor architecture.

Location

Falaknuma Palace is in Hyderabad city. The city is well connected by rail, road and air from all metros and main cities India. The drive to the palace goes through the bustling old city past the world-famous Charminar (it is about 5 kms from here) chock-a-block with traffic. We took an alternate route via the PV Narasimha Rao Expressway.

-Tamanna S. Mehdi

Mysticism and the Kumbh

The term ‘Kumbh Mela’, nostalgically reminds me of all those Hindi movies where children separated in the ‘Kumbh’ only to be reunited years later, and hence I burst in giggles when my parents inquired if I wanted to see the ‘Kumbh’ at Ujjain with them last month.

A succor for travel, the travel bug in me couldn’t pass this fantastic opportunity. Notwithstanding 40C+ temperatures, we set out daily to tour the many grand ‘akhadas’ (pandals) where swamis and sadhvis along with their disciples from all across the  country and the world have congregated for this month-long religious communion called ‘Simhasth 2016’ on the banks of the Shipra river at Ujjain.

What made the trip more memorable was being in the company of the religious head of our Mahdi Bagh community, His Holiness Sydena and Moulana Amiruddin Malak Saheb who was especially invited by Swami Avdheshanand Giri (head or mandaleshwar of the Juna Akhada and the Chief Head of the Simhasth) to inaugurate the nine-day ‘Ram Katha’ discourse by Murari Bapu.

Every akhada where Moulana Amiruddin Malak Saheb visited, He was accorded the utmost respect and was immediately invited for a personal audience with the swami. It was indeed a ‘divine’ example of tolerance and communal harmony. As we, about 100 of us accompanied Him, we were also made equally welcomed and got invited to partake in their ‘bhandara’ (prasad) which comprised of basic but extremely hygienic and tasty vegetarian food.

We were the cynosure of all, when we hired about 25 e-rickshaws one evening and moved in a kind of convoy touring the many akhadas (some big, some small). Many motorists and bystanders curiously kept looking at the lot of us as we passed by babas with fancy titles like ‘Environement baba’, ‘Pilot baba’, the tantriks, the aghoris (they engage in post-mortem rituals), the kinners(transgenders) and the naga babas. There were some babas that have been standing on one leg for many years or some with one arm in the air.

We also walked around the many ‘ghats’. ‘Ram Ghat’ on the Shipra River is where the ‘shahi snaan’ takes place on the first day of the Simhasth and is considered the most holy. To divert the devout and the many crowds of curious tourists and onlookers, many such ‘ghats’ are made along the river, so all can take a dip in the river. Temporary bridges are made connecting the banks of this wide river to facilitate quick movement of people. Strategically made fountains in the middle of the river and water spraying from the bridge, created a kind of a mist, keeping the place cool, despite the bright sun and high temperatures during the day. At night, the whole river was brightly lit up with colorful lights adding to the festive atmosphere.

In the four days of my trip to Ujjain this time, I can honestly say, that this unique experience is going to last with me for a life time. As a tourist at this grand event, to see the magnanimity of it and the bhakti of people from all walks of life- it is definitely to be seen to be felt. Religious harmony in India indicates there is love and affection between different religions in India and these past few days symbolized the best example of living in harmony in our pluralistic country.

The Kumbh Mela is held in Ujjain once every twelve years when Jupiter “enters” Leo, or simha. Hence, the Ujjain mela is known as the Simhasth Kumbh Mela and is being held from 22nd April to 6th May, 2016 this time.

Ujjain city

Apart from this current significance, the city itself has a large population of people from all religious communities living in harmony. The narrow by-lanes of the city are famous for its old architecture with intricately carved doorways and windows.

There is also a huge bangles market. A wide array of food, both sumptuous vegetarian and non-vegetarian are widely available. The sight of the big ‘kadahi’ with gulab jamus simmering away is a sight for a connoisseur.

Connectivity

Indore is the closest airport about 55 kms from Ujjain and is connected by flights from major cities. There is also a railway station at Ujjain.

-Tamanna S. Mehdi

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