Category Archives: Maharashtra

Mumbai: An unlikely addition to your bucket list

A lot of people come to Mumbai to find a job, make a life or fulfil a dream. But do a lot of people aspire to travel here? Does Mumbai inspire the same kind of awe that Cherrapunji or Spiti Valley do? Probably not, but it’s definitely deserving of a different kind of awe. Because quite simply, there’s no other city like Mumbai. No other place comes with the kind of chaos, tolerance, haste and multitude that this city does. As a tourist, you might balk at the impossible fullness of Mumbai’s trains and the stench of its seedier areas. But peel back the layers and you’ll also find inspiration in its seafront and stories, its history and heart.

The sea

Marine Drive in the rains
Marine Drive at dusk

The Arabian Sea snakes along Mumbai’s coastline, endowing the city with many scenic seaside spots. The queen among them has to be the iconic Marine Drive, immortalised in numerous films, songs and literature. Be it in the wee hours of the morning when the promenade is full of joggers and dog walkers or at the mysterious time of dusk, when the sea shimmers in hues of pink, saffron and indigo, Marine Drive is ceaselessly lovely. If you keep walking along the promenade, you’ll reach Nariman Point, where you can sit in quiet contemplation. Bandra’s Bandstand and Carter Road offer much scope for romancing the sea as well. You can climb down the steps and make your away across slightly slippery rocks to get up close and personal with the waves (unsafe during high tide). If you’re driving, the route along the Bandra Worli Sea Link will leave you awed. You can also get a good view of the entire sea link from Bandra Fort. The beaches at Juhu, Versova and Mahim (Dadar) are also among our favourite slices of Mumbai’s shoreline.

The architecture

CST station, Mumbai lit up in the night
CST station at night

Time has stood still in the arches and domes of South Mumbai’s stately edifices, with a little help from restoration work. The sheer magnificence and detailing of CST station, the erstwhile Victoria Terminus is enough to put the city on your bucket list. For a small fee, you can explore the inner chambers of the station complex and enjoy bird’s eye views of the city. Other heritage buildings in the area include The Times of India building and David Sassoon Library. The entire walkway on either side of D. N. Road feels like a journey through Mumbai’s colonial era. The Gateway of India monument is a short ride away from CST station and an epitome of architectural excellence. From the ferry point, you can enjoy boat rides on the sea and even go up to Alibag or Elephanta Island. The CSMVS and Bhau Daji Lad museums are also treasure troves of fascinating history.

The gardens

Maharashtra Nature Park
Maharashtra Nature Park

We love discovering little havens of natural beauty even in concrete jungles. While Aarey Colony may be under threat due to the imminent metro line, the gardens at Malabar Hill, Powai and Maharashtra Nature Park in Dharavi are still available for a welcome break from urban life. We wish Mumbai had its own version of Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens or London’s Hyde Park but the charming Hiranandani Garden at Powai with little fish ponds, lakes and stone sculpures is a pleasure to visit. And if you like bird-watching and studying bees and butterflies, Maharashtra Nature Park, overlooking the mangroves of Mithi River is a must-visit. We’ve also spent many cheerful evenings at Kamala Nehru Park and The Hanging Gardens at Malabar Hill.

The shrines

Mount Mary Church, Bandra, Mumbai
Mount Mary Church

Mumbai was, is and will always be a wonderful amalgamation of different cultures, communities, tongues and faiths. One of the best ways to get a sense of the city’s culture is to visit its picturesque temples, churches and mosques. The Haji Ali Dargah situated off the coast of Worli is one of the oldest and best known shrines in the city. Mount Mary Church in Bandra is another well-known landmark, especially during Christmas and the annual Bandra Fair. The seaside Mahalakshmi Temple and ISKCON Temple in Juhu are worth visiting for their beautiful architecture and spiritual significance. We also love exploring little known churches in the by-lanes of South Mumbai.

Need to know

Things to do in Mumbai - history, architecture
Colaba

Eat: Streets take on a special significance in the Maximum City, for that’s where its residents come to shop, and that’s where they come for a flavourful bite. Mumbai’s street food specialities include vada pav, a kind of potato burger, pav bhaji, which is a gravy eaten with buttered Indian buns and various kinds of ‘chaat’ such as bhel, pani puri, sev puri, ragda pattice and dahi puri. If you’re worried about hygiene, try these at small-sized restaurants such as Som at Chowpatty.

Shop: Colaba Causeway has been our saviour since college days for its selection of pocket-friendly, yet trendy clothing, shoes, bags and accessories. Linking Road at Bandra is another option if you’re in the suburbs. But if you’re looking for speciality or bulk items, Crawford Market is your best bet. Here, you’ll find everything from cooking chocolate to decoration items and party masks.

Stay: There are several hotels in Mumbai to suit every budget, as well as homestays and guesthouses. The city is home to several luxurious five star hotels such as ITC Maratha near the airport and ITC Grand Central at Parel. These luxury collection hotels offer fascinating glimpses into Mumbai’s Maratha past and British colonisation and special weekend offers for staycations.

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Reclaim your childhood at Novotel Imagica Khopoli

I’ve always wondered why ‘playing’ with the aid of toys, or sometimes nothing at all, is only the purview of children. For adults, all ‘play’ is bound by rules, be it sports, video games or board games. Over a weekend at Novotel Imagica Khopoli, I realised two things – one, I was free to be a child again and two, I was no longer scared of amusement park rides!

Novotel Imagica Khopoli

This was the third Novotel I was visiting (read about Novotel Goa here), having visited the ones in Goa and Mumbai as well. From the decor style to the placing of the pool and the buffet restaurant, everything reminded me of classic Novotel elegance. Yet, this property had its own unique feel and several elements of colour and fun, in keeping with its proximity to Adlabs Imagica, one of the largest amusement park complexes in India.

My room at Novotel Imagica Khopoli

We stayed in a pool view room with a great bed, bathroom, television and a veranda that unfortunately, couldn’t be accessed. Do look for a room where the veranda can be opened, if you fancy a drink or smoke on the parapet. But what I loved most were the goblets full of welcome chocolates and an edible MAC make-up set!

Edible MAC set in my room at Novotel Imagica Khopoli
Don’t be scared – have a bite!

Cute cartoon characters

The first thing you notice when you enter the hotel is the adorable welcome party. It was so much fun shaking hands and clicking pictures with

Cartoon character at Novotel Imagica Khopoli
this cheery guy
Cartoon characters at Novotel Imagica Khopoli
and this strange looking one.

If you have kids along (and even if you don’t), you’ll love the ‘Irolic parade’ that the hotel conducts every day post breakfast. The parade dances through the entire hotel, infecting everyone with its spirit of revelry.

Irolic parade at Novotel Imagica Khopoli
Irolic parade at Novotel Imagica Khopoli

Delicious food

Vegetarian pizza at Novotel Imagica Khopoli
Vegetarian pizza at Novotel Imagica Khopoli

A major highlight of my stay at Novotel Imagica Khopoli has to be the consistently delicious buffet and a la carte options at The Square, and a chef who is ever ready to please and innovate. We were spoilt for choice at the lunch buffet but were still cajoled into trying an excellent ‘tandoori pizza’ and some chole khulcha prepared specially by the chef for us. The dessert counter was a delight too – the dark chocolate cakes were out of the world.

Dessert counter at The Square, Novotel Imagica Khopoli
Dessert counter at The Square, Novotel Imagica Khopoli

In the evening, it was a pleasure to enjoy a drink or two at Nitro Bar, the lobby bar with a live pianist, plush seating and speedy service.

Nitro bar at Novotel Imagica Khopoli
Nitro bar at Novotel Imagica Khopoli

Trek to Batthi Lake

There is so much to do in and around the hotel that you could easily spend an enjoyable weekend without visiting the amusement park. Being nature lovers, we were keen to explore the countryside. Our able guide Ravi took us on an enjoyable stroll through Sangdewadi village, then along some rough terrain until we reached the vast and serene Batthi Lake. It was much more enormous than we’d imagined. Our hike was over in an hour but if you have more time on your hands, you could also do a longer trek to Sarasgad Fort.

Trek to Batthi Lake
Trek to Batthi Lake
Sangdewadi Village
Beautiful countryside en route

Apart from trekking, you can also play billiards, table tennis, gesture-controlled video games and carom in the lobby area. By the poolside, there are also facilities for archery, rifle shooting, crossbow shooting, radio-controlled plane flying and water zorbing. When the rivers are lush, you could also try river rafting at nearby Kundalika River.

Dream weddings

Poolside wedding arrangements at Novotel Imagica Khopoli

One revelation during my visit to this Novotel property was that it’s an ideal setting for a medium size, posh Indian wedding. It’s close to Mumbai and Pune, has a large banquet, a poolside area that is ideal for functions, the facility to organise functions even in the amusement park, the logistics for lavish sound and special effects and rooms that can accommodate 300 guests at a time. I was privy to a colourful Marwari wedding during my stay and their pool party and sangeet function looked like great fun!

Adlabs Imagica

With 25 magical rides and attractions spread out over a vast expanse, you need an entire day to fully experience the delights of Adlabs Imagica theme park. Without much ado, here are the highlights of the rides I enjoyed most:

Lotus pool at Adlabs Imagica
Lotus pool at Adlabs Imagica

I for India: A brilliant experience in altered perception, the ride makes you feel like you’re in a helicopter, riding all over India and witnessing its best marvels from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. In reality, everyone is stationery and it’s only the screen that moves.

Deep Space: This was the scariest ride I’ve ever been on – it’s incredibly fast and adrenalin-pumping and all the turns and twists take place in absolute darkness. That’s why they call it ‘deep space’. But it’s all over in a matter of minutes.

Rajasaurus River Adventure: In terms of story-building, this is the ride I enjoyed most. A scenario is created, featuring a mad scientist and rare dinosaur remains. You then undertake the journey of a lifetime, ending in a super steep descent into water!

Mr India – The Ride: I wasn’t expecting much, considering it was based on a movie but the ride turned out to be truly fantastic. I sat in a car that jolted and jumped such that I felt like I was flying along with the characters on screen.

Wrath of the Gods: A fantastic ‘live show’ concept, you have a scientist revealing a cave with spiritual energy and then you get to witness the wrath of the Gods of fire, water and wind as they realise their resting place has been disturbed.

Salimgarh: This was my favourite ride because I love all things spooky. Prepare to be scared out of your wits as curses fly, corpses walk by and you brave the darkest of dungeons and the sharpest of weapons in this tunneled ride.

Scream machine ride at Adlabs Imagica
Scream, cos you’re flying high up in the sky!

Scream Machine: This is a must-do if you want to conquer your fear of heights. A giant swing shoots you up in the air and pirouettes you as you return to earth, only to fly up again! The ride is much longer than you’d think.

Nitro: The first ride you encounter when you enter Adlabs Imagica, Nitro is a classic roller coaster ride experience with upside down turns galore and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Crazy tea cups: Like giant wheels, these are a fixture at most fairs but it was my first time sitting on the revolving chairs since childhood and boy, did it leave me dizzy!

Snomagica

I didn’t have time for Aquamagica, the water park but I made sure I went to the 30000 square feet snow park and what an experience it was! I donned full snow gear and boots (provided complimentary) and trudged into this fairy tale wonderland complete with an igloo, a polar bear, a 50 feet tall snow dome, facilities for skiing and snow sliding, live snow fall and a DJ dance at the end. In a temperature of -5 degrees, I enjoyed a hair-raising slide down a snow slope, played with snow balls and posed on a throne of ice!

Snomagica snowman
Who’s cuter – the polar bear or me? No actually, don’t answer!

I can’t recall the last weekend where I had so much unbridled fun with such elegant luxury to return to in the night. I wholeheartedly recommend a weekend at Novotel Imagica Khopoli for you and your family.

Tips

Swimming pool at Novotel Imagica Khopoli
Go zorbing in the pool

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Rediscovering the pleasure of slow travel at Fratelli Vineyards

In all my trips until 2016, I can only name one where I had the luxury of doing nothing. Trust me, it’s the greatest privilege there is in this world and if you have it, you’re lucky indeed. That I could begin 2017 with yet another lazy retreat is a fact as sweet as the lingering aftertaste of sparkling wine.

Ever since I tasted an exceedingly good red wine by Fratelli at Gaylord’s 60th year celebrations, I’ve wanted to pay a visit to their winery and witness the viticultural alchemy for myself. Wine harvest in India begins from Jab-Feb and I schedule a trip to Fratelli Vineyards in Akluj, Maharashtra in the month of January. I would’ve been content to spend a weekend there but they insist on hosting us for three days. I know now, that this will be a holiday where the clock stops ticking and I can allow myself a peaceful siesta or two.

Fratelli Vineyards and Winery, Akluj, Maharashtra
We spend our time at the guesthouse
Fratelli Vineyards and Winery, Akluj, Maharashtra
dining and wining,
The guesthouse at Fratelli Vineyards, Akluj, Maharashtra
sleeping off the afternoons and
Green grapes at Fratelli Vineyards
enjoying winery and vineyard tours
Fratelli Vineyards, Akluj, Maharashtra
in the mellow light of sunset.

And how can I forget my disastrous attempt to ride a quad bike (a four wheeled contraption) which ended in me crashing into a wall? I have to admit though, it was exhilarating at first and I believe I’ll fare better next time!

The vineyard

Living next to acres of verdant vineyards has been a long-cherished dream and it comes true for a few days at Fratelli Vineyards. In the morning, I wake up to see the workers at the winery setting up the processes and the birds chirping excitedly in the garden surrounding the main building. That’s where our guesthouse is located, accessed by a spiraling staircase that is a work of art in itself. We arrive after a longish drive from Mumbai, have a late lunch in the dining room on the same storey and enjoy a little siesta, post which we are taken on a round of the Motewadi vineyards. We encounter row upon row of little green chardonnay grapes. Once they grow a little bigger, they will be ready for harvesting.

The winery

Our visit to the vineyard comes to a quick end with the descent of the sun and we promise to return the following morning. But for now, a tour of the winery lies between us and a much anticipated wine tasting session. The winery is vast and there are so many different sections, dedicated to various processes that are part and parcel of wine-making. In one automated belt, we witness the process of wine bottling.

In another, we see the process of labelling. But the most fascinating part of the tour is the room where countless bottles of white wine are being fermented, to be turned into sparkling wine. While there are many ways of making sparkling wine, the basic process involves the introduction of sugar and yeast to induce fermentation. Thereafter, the bottles are rotated (riddling) to allow all the sediments to accumulate at the neck and then be popped out. Finally, some residual sugar is added back to the bottle.

The process of fermenting wine at Fratelli Vineyards, Akluj, Maharashtra

While most of the wines at Fratelli Vineyards aren’t aged, the top one per cent of their grapes goes into making the premium SETTE vintage wines. The partly Italian heritage of Fratelli Wines was never more apparent than we entered the chilly, hallowed room where the casks and bottles of SETTE wine are displayed. I consider myself most fortunate that I was able to taste one of these the following day.

SETTE wines at Fratelli Vineyards, Akluj, Maharashtra

White and red wine-tasting

We have our tasting of three white wines on our first evening at Fratelli Vineyards and a session of red wine tasting with their assistant wine-maker the following evening. The wines we taste are chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. They’re all more robust than the light sangiovese bianco we had at lunch but I love the spicy notes in the sauvignon blanc and the smoothness of the chardonnay. The chardonnay is technically the most superior, we’re told. But I know I’ve given my heart to the sauvignon blanc. When it comes to cheaper wines, I stick with whites because it’s safer but at Fratelli Vineyards, I am reminded afresh of my original passion for the reds.

Wine tasting at Fratelli Vineyards, Akluj, Maharashtra
This is where our white wine tasting takes place.

Our red wine tasting session with the assistant wine-maker Vrushal Kedari and one of the distributors of Fratelli Vineyards proves to be an eye-opener in more ways than one. We work our way through a sangiovese red, a vintage SETTE 2012 and a premium blend of sangiovese, cabernet franc and syrah. If the M/S blend has us closing our eyes in quiet appreciation, the SETTE vintage astonishes me with its unparalleled taste and texture. A better Indian wine I haven’t had thus far. It is the brainchild of Piero Masi, the Italian winemaker who joined Fratelli in 2006 at the behest of the Secci family, who were in partnership with the Sekhri brothers in Delhi and Mohit-Patile bothers in Akluj.

Dining room at Fratelli Vineyards
This cosy dining room is where we had our red wine tasting.

A slice of Switzerland

Imagine visiting a piece of paradise that isn’t even on the map. On the afternoon of our second day at Fratelli Vineyards, I come face to face with a living reminder of Switzerland’s terraced vineyards. Right from the mountains in the background to the vineyards at their feet and the glistening lake in their midst, everything about Garwar Vineyards feels like an echo of the European sojourn I had. Of course, these aren’t terraced but the sheer range and beauty of the landscape leaves me speechless. Here is a destination designed for panorama and 360 degree shots – because it’s practically impossible to capture it all in one frame.

Garwad Vineyards, Maharashtra

On the advice of a staff member, we drive ahead of the elevated machan where we were to have our lunch and chance upon the promised rows of black grapes – so large that they might burst out of their skins any moment. It gladdens my heart to walk among these fields in the fresh winter breeze and imagine them populated with dozens of harvesters once the season begins (soon after we leave, as it happens).

Finally, after much exploration, we settle down at a table in the machan overlooking the vast vineyards, lake and mountains and contemplate the beauty of life over sips of delicious sparkling wine. The wind whips tendrils of hair across my face and I seize the moment for some ‘dreamy’ photographs (you’ll see evidence of these on my Facebook page soon). Some lovely rose wine follows the sparkling wine and a cloud of contentment settles over me. I partake of the lunch spread sparingly and then we decide to go in search of that lake in the distance. It’s only a short walk away, we’re told. We walk in the late afternoon sun, giggly from the wine and replete with the fragrance of the terrain. Presently, we come across the lake we were in search of.

Garwad Vineyards, Maharashtra

Currently, Fratelli grows 12 varieties of grapes in their three vineyards – these include seven reds and five whites. The whites are Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and Müller-Thurgau while the reds are Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon , Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Marselan and Petit Verdot. While all the wines are dry, they are very well balanced and leave a fruity aftertaste on the palate.

Fact file

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Getting there: The route to Akluj from Mumbai goes via Pune and Phaltan. It’s a six hour drive but if you live in Pune, you can reduce that by half. Here is the Google Maps link.

The guesthouse: The rooms are spacious, air-conditioned, have HD television, tea-coffee makers, room service and direct access to the lawns. Rates begin at Rs 6500 per person per night. When not touring the winery and vineyards, you can play pool in the dining room or carom, foosball and table tennis downstairs. The surrounding villages are also a pleasure to explore.

Contact details: Website | +91 1126592900 | Email

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In photos: Vinsura Winery, Nashik

Nashik is India’s own Napa Valley, dotted as it is with wineries and vineyards of all shapes and sizes. And while I’ve passed through several times, I’ve never really been to the famous vineyards thus far. Little Vinsura Winery tucked away in the onion village of Lasalgaon was my first proper visit to a winery in India’s Wine Capital. I didn’t have time to go to their vineyard but I did enjoy a sumptuous lunch, a visit to the rock garden and an enjoyable wine tasting session with proprietor Vikrant Holkar guiding us through the history and nuances of wine.

Vinsura Winery, Nashik
The entrance has a cellar door to distinguish it from a conventional ‘wine shop’ where often, every type of alcohol apart from wine is sold!

It’s surprisingly difficult to find a history of viticulture in India. Given our religious aversion to alcohol, the wine industry didn’t have much encouragement until the 20th century. I even recall a Sanskrit verse that preached against the ill effects of sura or wine. That wine needn’t be just an intoxicant but a healthful journey into the awakening of one’s taste buds is a notion heartily endorsed by Vinsura Winery. The owners Sadashiv Nathe, Pralhad Khadangale and Kishor Holkar were initially grape farmers. They decided to try and produce quality grapes for the many wineries in Nashik. When they met with success, they inevitably experimented with setting up their own cooperative winery.

Vinsura Wines
If you have time, you can watch a documentary on viticulture called ‘Grape to Glass’ before the wine tasting session.

Sankalp Winery eventually became Vinsura Winery after Vikrant Holkar went to New Zealand to study the science of wine production. Today, they have 250 acres of vineyards with a production capacity of 600,000 litres. I saw and tasted a variety of table wines at Vinsura Winery but they also have their own label of sparkling wine. They are in fact the third Indian wine maker (after Chateau Indage and Sula) to produce a sparkling wine in 2007. Come 2010, the proprietors introduced three aged wines, termed as ‘reserve wines’. Aged for two years in large oak barrels, these premium wines are much more expensive than the other table wines. (Source)

Vikrant Holkar, owner of Vinsura Wines
Vikrant Holkar expounds on the nuances of wine tasting.

According to Wikipedia, Persian traders introduced wine in India in the 4th millennium BC. The mughal emperor Jehangir apparently had a penchant for brandy wine. India’s burgeoning wine plantations suffered a setback when the phylloxera epidemic, also known as the Great French Wine Blight swept across the country. But everything was back to normal by the time The Tonia Group in Goa began manufacturing wine. This was the early 1980s and Tonia was assisted by French winemakers in its endeavours. Today, India is home to at least 90 wine producers and around 17 million litres are produced annually.

The rock garden

Rock garden at Vinsura Winery, Nashik
The rock garden has been built as a family recreational space
Rabbits at Vinsura Winery, Nashik
with cute birds and caged rabbits for petting.

The restaurant

Restaurant at Vinsura Winery, Nashik
We had a spicy thali consisting of gigantic portions of rice, roti, two vegetables, onions and pickle for lunch.

The terrace

Terrace at Vinsura Winery, Nashik
The terrace is a beautiful windswept place
Tent at Vinsura Winery, Nashik
where you can rent a 7.5 feet tent for the night.

Wine tasting session

Wine tasting at Vinsura Winery, Nashik
Different kinds of wine glasses – the smallest is for dessert wine while the tallest (a flute) is for sparkling wine.

Before tasting the wines, Holkar took us through the familiar process of swirling, sniffing and then swishing a large mouthful of wine to ascertain its various notes. One myth he helped dispel is that only red wine is healthy. The antioxidants in wine come from the skin of the grapes and while it is true that all of it is retained in red wine, around 95% is retained in rose wine and 90% in white wine. So the difference is negligible. Holkar also told us how port wine is made – it’s essentially wine remnants mixed with sugar and alcohol and hence much cheaper. He told us that red wine is the most bitter and white wine the sweetest. Rose wine is the oldest type of wine but today, people prefer either red or white.

Vinsura Winery, Nashik
Oak barrels in the wine tasting area

To be honest, I did not enjoy the red wine at all (too many dregs) but I quite liked the white wine and took home a bottle. The rose wine left me unmoved (too light) though my impression was far from negative. The dessert wine was treacly and sweet and though pleasant, not ideal for extended consumption. A wine-based soft drink we tried proved to be quite interesting and is an inexpensive choice for non-serious drinkers. We were unable to taste any of their sparkling wine. Holkar also showed us a device used to extract the oxygen out of an opened wine bottle so as to keep the rest of it fresh.While storing wine, remember that heat and oxygen are its worst enemies.

Wines at Vinsura Winery are available at heavily discounted rates. The wine tasting is priced at Rs 100 for four wines. Find more information here.

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Sarangkheda Chetak Festival 2016

I’ve had two major brushes with horses – the first was when I read Equus, an eerie play by Peter Shaffer that deals with a young man’s peculiar obsession with horses; and the second was when I befriended a few at the stables at my institute in Pune. I hardly think haphazard pony rides in Matheran and Mahabaleshwar count. But I’ll say this – even for someone who doesn’t ride, I’ve always been riveted by the strangely profound gaze of horses. One gets a distinct feeling that these are sentient beings, to be respected for their rare beauty and matchless grace. I encountered many such profound gazes at Sarangkheda, a one of a kind horse festival in northern Maharashtra.

Tents at Sarangkheda Chetak Festival 2016

We travel through the night to make it to Sarangkheda in the wee hours of the morning. The air is bitingly cold when we arrive at the cluster of tents on the banks of the Tapi River. But as the day proceeds, the weather turns hot and dusty, though not a speck seems to find its way to the snow white manes of some of the horses. The tents are equipped with bathrooms and comfortable beds, though water supply is erratic at times. But their proximity to the fair makes them an ideal choice for making the most of the festival. Sarangkheda is a 100 year old legacy rooted in the region’s reputation for horse trading. Owing to its central location in the Indian subcontinent and the Tapi River which provided fertile ground for feeding and rearing, Sarangkheda became a hub for the sale of horses. This usually coincided with Datta Jayanti, a tradition that has been upheld till date.

We arrive at the 20 acre ground after a sumptuous breakfast of poha, jalebi and kachori. The sheer number of horses is mind-boggling, as are some of the price tags. Padma, being the tallest horse at the festival, is pegged at a whopping one crore rupees. The 2300-2500 horses at the festival will participate in a number of contests based on both beauty and skills. The prize money usually ranges from 31000 to one lakh rupees but this is expected to go up to two lakh rupees next year. The stakes are high and the caretakers leave no stone unturned to adorn their horses with a variety of accessories and comb their manes to glossy perfection. Nearly the entire district appears to have converged at the fair and there are several food and shopping stalls to keep them occupied. Next door, a full-fledged mela is a riot of sounds and colours and the giant wheel can be seen from anywhere in the grounds.

A prize for distribution at Sarangkheda Chetak Festival 2016
A prize for distribution at Sarangkheda Chetak Festival 2016

The schedule here is flexible; so we settle ourselves at the main stage to watch whatever comes our way. Eventually, a few riders begin flaunting their skills on mares and stallions. We are amazed when one rider stands up on his horse in the middle of the arena! To his credit, he doesn’t falter while smoothly getting back into the saddle. A few beautiful horses are then paraded into the arena and curiously enough, a band begins playing loud music. We surmise that it must be a part of the festivities. Imagine our astonishment when a couple of the horses begin tapping their legs in rhythm to the music – an action that can only be described as dancing! I’m not very pleased to see the owners wield harsh discipline to make this happen but apparently, the dancing horses are highly in demand for wedding processions. We also see many horses rear on demand and stand almost upright, with some even walking around in that position.

Horse rearing at Sarangkheda Chetak Festival 2016
Padma rears, much to the joy of admiring onlookers

The race is to be held the following day in two categories between 42 contenders. Additionally, the descendants of Maharana Pratap Singh and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj will be present to confer the Chetak and Krishna prizes, which were the names of the most cherished horses belonging to each of these personalities respectively. We then see the nukra and nukri beauty contest held between pristine white stallions and mares respectively. The horses stand shyly, while the judges move around, judging them on various parameters like health, girth and level of upkeep. Participation in the fair is highly incentivised as sellers only have to pay a token fee of Rs 5 for the duration of the entire festival. This is perhaps why sellers travel from far and wide including Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu to showcase their horses at the fair. The previous day, a delegation from Tamil Nadu purchased 75 horses from various stud farms.

A white horse at Sarangkheda Chetak Festival 2016
A beauty contest contender

That night, we are regaled by Rajasthani singers and dancers with the riverside breeze adding to the charm of the entertainment. We enjoy a sound sleep in our tents and wake up to a glorious sunrise over the serene river. In the distance, a mighty bridge ferries a steady stream of vehicles into the village. It would be nice to spend another day in this faraway place but it’s time to return to Mumbai. On the way, we stop to admire the one-headed Dattatreya idol at the local Dutta Temple, an aberration since this God is always depicted with three heads, ascribed to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

The crowds outside the temple, with the fair in the background
The crowds outside the temple, with the fair in the background

We undertake a three and half hour drive to lunch at Vinsura Winery, located in Nashik district, India’s very own Napa Valley. Of all the wines we taste, I enjoy the Chenin Blanc the most. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that the colour white is an obsession even when it comes to equestrian beauty. It will be a while before I forget the dusty allure of Sarangkheda and the hypnotic sound of horses’ hooves.

Vinsura Winery

Fact File

  • When: 13-27 December 2016, 6am to 9pm
  • Where: Sarangkheda, Shahada taluka – 425409, Nandurbar district (400km from Mumbai)
  • Accommodation: Triple-occupancy tents at Rs 6000 per night, inclusive of meals
  • Website: www.sarangkheda.com

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