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Thursday, 15 February 2024 | Exotica


A hotel that can be only accessed by boat. A marriage hall doubling up as a hotel. Modern towns spilling over into highways. Colonial ones returning into a cul-de-sac. Rivers emptying into the sea. Culinary adventures and misdventures. An unconventional and humbling lesson in technology. A disappearing chilli market. Squeaky clean roads and conscientious citizens. Well, in some parts. Devotees of various Hindu gods easily outnumbered by devotees of Bachchus. And groceries selling filter coffee. Chandan Mitra chances upon the many contradictions and commonalities that make up a mosaic called India as he drives down from Delhi to the country’s southern most tip in an epic coastal sojourn. Shobori Ganguli freeze-frames the journey. Presenting first of a two-part series

Uttaranyat Samudrasya            

Himadreshchaiyva Dakshinam

Varsh tad Bharat

Naam Bharati yat ra santatih

This is a sloka from the Vishnu Purana, presumed to have been composed in the 13th century. The remarkable aspect about this sloka is that long before scientific mapping came into practice and centuries before satellite pictures were available to cartographers, Indian scholars had defined the contours of this vast subcontinent with such accuracy.

I recall reciting this sloka to friends in 1991 when I first drove to Ladakh, the northern extremity of the current boundaries of India. It so happened that the same year, I had occasion to reach Kanyakumari, the southern tip of the Great Indian Peninsula to report on a nationwide yatra launched by the then BJP president, Murli Manohar Joshi.

This ancient land, bound by snowy peaks to the north and deep oceans to the south, consisting of an incredible variety of people separated by ethnicity, language, culture, cuisine and religion, has fascinated me since childhood. Apart from worshipping its shape and form as Mother India, I had nursed a desire to circumambulate this magnificent country to familiarise myself with its myriad diversities that nevertheless come together to create an incredible spiritual unity. In his autobiography, The Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru had referred to a “silken bond” that unites the people of this vast land. It is this bond, he argued, that made people from the deep south (modern Tamil Nadu), undertake a pilgrimage on foot all the way to Kashi (Varanasi). It is the same bond that makes people across the country look upon the River Ganga as the soul of India; that mantras recited during Hindu religious events refer to all the major rivers — Ganga, Yamuna, (the now extinct) Saraswati, Sindhu (Indus), Brahmaputra, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery. At pujas, it is customary to collect water from all the sacred rivers as part of the ritual. These are the unspoken silken bonds that have bound this country together for millennia despite political upheavals.

Probably inspired by this legacy, a modern Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1996-2004), declared his intention to bind the country physically through a network of roads. He visualised three schemes — the Golden Quadrilateral connecting four metros on the four corners of India (Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai) the East-West, North-South Highway connecting Imphal to Porbandar and Srinagar to Kanyakumari. His third grand plan — Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana — was aimed at linking all villages with a population of 1,000 and above with metalled all-weather roads that gave access to the nearest highway. Soon after he announced his grandiose plan, I made up my mind to traverse the entire GQ. In 2005, I drove down the Delhi-Mumbai leg of the Quadrilateral. In 2010, I drove from Delhi to Gangtok and returned via Kolkata, traversing some of the East-West Highway under construction, and the second leg of the GQ. But that still left two other legs of the Quadrilateral incomplete.


With this grandiose plan of circumambulating India, at least peninsular India, I set off from Delhi on Sunday, February 7, with driver Mahesh in tow, as wife and colleague Shobori was scheduled to join only from Bhubaneswar. Delhi to Kolkata is a good 1,500-km drive, not do-able without a stopover. Varanasi being pretty much midway, it makes sense to drop anchor in the holy city.

However, I had never imagined getting a hotel room in Varanasi would be as difficult as it turned out to be. After Taj Ganges regretted, it was suggested I try Jukasso Inn, which stands at the head of a ghat and thus overlooks the Ganga. Although they did have accommodation to offer, the problem was that the hotel could be accessed only by boat as the lane behind it was too narrow for a car to navigate. Car-borne hotel guests are meant to leave their vehicles at a parking lot near Assi Ghat at one end of the city and jump onto a hotel boat to ferry them to their destination. Although a novel idea, I thought it would be inappropriate to leave a car loaded with luggage for a long journey, so far away, besides the time that would be consumed to and from the hotel. Next I tried Hotel de Paris, which I recall from my childhood was a plush colonial hotel in a midst of sprawling gardens, beyond the Cantonment. The reception clerk virtually discouraged my secretary pointing out the hotel’s negatives, such as no AC, no TV and early closure of the kitchen.

Baffled by the near-impossibility of locating just one room for one night in a city teeming with hotels, my inquiries revealed (a) this was peak foreign tourist season and (b) early February was cluttered with weddings and baraatis had booked every available room. Just when I was thinking of changing my night halt to Allahabad, my son Kushan spoke to a friend of his who owned Diamond Hotel in Lanka, a populated mohalla (locality) of the city. He was happy to provide me dinner, bed and breakfast and I promptly grabbed the offer.

The journey to Varanasi was expectedly hassle-free. The only point that merits mention is that there are no well-appointed eating places on the way. Even the Yamuna Expressway — a world class highway — has no decent places for food. Surprisingly, chains like McDonald’s, KFC and Dominos haven’t opened outlets yet. Having left Delhi without a proper breakfast, I was forced to make do with a soggy veg burger at one of the functional cafes next to a toll booth. I regretted the demise of Reliance fuel outlets, many of which had A-1 dhabas attached to them providing sumptuous meals and fast food. Hope they reopen soon!

Finding good food remained an issue throughout the journey. Although I did stop at a dhaba for lunch, more for my driver’s benefit than mine, the food was unremarkable. The “Shudh Vaishno” revolution of the 1990s has, sadly, done great disservice to roadside dhaba food. I don't mind that nowadays dhaba food is fully vegetarian (although the anda bhujia that smelt of fresh butter and spicy chillies is sorely missed) , but the quality of dal and seasonal veggies has also declined. Further, dhaba owners tend to push inedible paneer preparations down your gullet, which is most off-putting). On a couple of earlier journeys down NH2, I had stopped at an attractive, air-conditioned restaurant near Kanpur that surprisingly offered delicious desi American Chopsuey. But this time I failed to locate it. Probably it has been demolished to make way for a multi-storey apartment block.

Worse, even chai shops are not easy to locate on our fast and furious highways. The few that are still in business have moved onto the service lane as and where you have them running parallel to the highway. So you need to really look out for the once ubiquitous tea shop. I finally found one just before Varanasi on the beehad (undulating badlands that signal proximity to river basins) of the Ganga. Just as I was settling down with a second cup, an elderly gent softly warned us to leave quickly as my SUV was attracting too much attention and this region was still dacoity-prone. Startled, I gulped down the tea and sped towards Varanasi, barely 50 km away.

We set off from Varanasi after a neat breakfast at 9 am, early enough to avoid the city's maddening traffic. The highway was truly splendid and soon we slipped into Jharkhand after crossing the Sone River Bridge, one of the world’s longest. It was easier to find tea shops on this stretch as the number of trucks and other goods carriers increased. But finding a decent place for lunch remained a problem. I was not keen to stop at a typical dhaba here as a meal necessarily involved fish and rice. Much as I love such a meal, it is avoidable while driving as rice has a tendency to make you feel sleepy. Finally around 3 pm, I spotted a nicely decorated restaurant with outdoor seating serving mostly snacks. That suited me fine although I had not bargained for the mandatory paneer in the form of “cheese pakora”, the only substantial snack on offer and like other suburban restaurants cheese here meant what Europeans call cottage cheese and we know as paneer.


THE southern part of Jharkhand, which we entered soon after our sparse lunch, is criss-crossed by a myriad seasonal rivers, originating in springs or lakes in the Chhota Nagpur plateau and eventually flowing into the Ganga. Rivers such as Ajay, Mayurakshi, Damodar and Barakar assume menacing proportions in the monsoon (Damodar was known as Bengal’s sorrow), but are little more than pools of stagnant water for the rest of the year, dotted with huge boulders. After the construction of the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) network of small and big dams, flooding has reduced in magnitude but the quantum of water in the dams has also declined over the years. The banks of these streams are lined with fine sand which is nowadays mined heavily by building contractors. At any given point, one can find at least a dozen lorries parked on the banks, labourers busily loading sand onto them. The constant movement of heavy vehicles has damaged the surface of the highway in these parts. Also, NHAI is busy widening the stretch and constructing more flyovers to give smooth passage to and from Kolkata. Roadworks and the frequent diversions on account of construction activity delayed our progress. Besides, burgeoning towns like Asansol and Durgapur have spilled over onto NH2. City traffic on the highway has led to many traffic lights being installed at intersections while speed breakers have become another irritation on this stretch.

To make matters worse for us, rains came down that evening almost without warning, causing slush to accumulate on the road side; consequently the windshield of our car got repeatedly splattered with mud. We reached Burdwan (now spelt Barddhaman) past 8 at night, about two hours behind our estimate. The drive having been strenuous since we crossed into West Bengal, I needed some chai and snacks rather desperately but most shops were closed by this time.

Shaktigarh is a small sleepy town on the outskirts of Barddhaman whose claim to fame is copyrighted ownership of an elongated gulab jamun variant called langcha, which for some mysterious reason is available only here. There are about two dozen shops on both sides of the highway all bearing the langcha prefix, such as Langcha Mahal, Langcha Palace, or the less ostentatious Langcha Ghar. Adam Smith would have been impressed to see his definition of Perfect Competition at work here. All shops serve langcha, samosa and tea and these are priced the same across all outlets and taste exactly the same. Judging by the fact that they have co-existed for around 50 years, business has evidently thrived for all.

By the time we stopped at one, samosas were over. I had two powerfully sweet langchas, two cups of chai and proceeded on the last section of the day’s journey. By then, the rain had stopped and we tried hard to make up for lost time. But the traffic was too heavy to allow rapid progress. More misfortune befell when I took the wrong exit to Chinsura due to a misleading road sign. I had to retrace 10 km and finally took the right connecting road, reaching home on the banks of the Hooghly River (as the Ganga is known here), past 11 pm. I had planned to stay over at my ancestral home an extra day, so fortunately there was no great hurry.

The next day was spent idling, watching boats sail past from the terrace of my home. I had contested the Hooghly seat for Parliament in 2014 without success but made many friends in the town where I lived for five years in my childhood and also received my elementary education.

The town of Hooghly apparently derives its name from the Dutch Ogolim, meaning godown. It was a river port once upon a time. The Portuguese came here first and built a most impressive church at Bandel, adjoining Hooghly town to the north. South of the twin town of Hooghly-Chinsura is Chandernagore (now Chandan Nagar), which was under French occupation till the early 50s. The twin town of Hooghly-Chinsura (now Chuchura), and its adjacent habitations like Chandan Nagar, Bandel and Srirampur on the banks of the Ganga are a treasure trove of architectural history, Chandan Nagar in particular. Large European-style mansions overlooking the wide river were once the abode of indolent zamindars and other time-servers of the colonial Sarkar Bahadur. French Governor Dupleix’s Palace and other official buildings along the impressive Strand in Chandan Nagar should be a must-see for visitors. Similarly Chuchura’s clock tower, erected to mark the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign, is among the best maintained clock towers of British times. Banerjee Cabin and Tower View restaurant on the Clock Tower Circle still serve superb tea and mutton cutlets. Most patrons order “Ekta cha aar ekta half”, (a tea and a half) meaning a cup of tea and an extra, empty cup to share the beverage and thus cut expenses.

Having rested and refreshed, I resumed my journey on Wednesday, February 10. My destination was Bhubaneswar, capital of Odisha, approximately 550 km from Hooghly, bypassing Kolkata. Fortunately, road planners built a connector from NH2 to NH5 (Kolkata to Chennai). So I effortlessly glided into the second leg of the journey.


An unintended culinary misadventure over lunch at the well-appointed A-One dhaba near Digha (Bengal’s popular beach resort), threw driver Mahesh completely off balance for the rest of the day. Unable to figure out the menu card in English, he ordered Single Tadka Dal, missing out the egg that was suffixed to “Single.” A particularly stringent vegetarian, he was unaware that Bengalis despise having a purely vegetarian meal. After a couple of helpings of the dal laced with scrambled egg, he rushed out of the restaurant in mortal dread of having committed sacrilege. He did not touch a morsel for the rest of the day and could not stop talking about the misunderstanding. I decided to drive without break from here on, since I realised Mahesh was thoroughly traumatised and might lack concentration.

Bengal merges uneventfully into Odisha. Their border districts of Midnapore (Medinipur) and Balasore (Baleswar) share language, culture and cuisine. Stopping a couple of times for chai and samosa, I finally reached the outskirts of Cuttack, the erstwhile capital of Odisha just after sundown. This is the eastern strip of the state and rivers become huge as they approach the sea, particularly Mahanadi, northernmost among the set of gigantic rain-fed rivers that includes Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery. After crossing the humungous Mahanadi Bridge, we were on the outskirts of the present capital.

Bhubaneswar, famous for its magnificent Lingaraj Temple, was selected as the state’s new capital after Independence, around the same time that Chandigarh was developed in Punjab. Although well-planned and rightly chosen to be a Smart City recently, it is not as impressive as Chandigarh. But its roads are wide, tree-lined and its Government Sector is very well maintained. Although I had been there umpteen times, I failed to locate its best hotel, Mayfair Lagoon, at the first try, probably as it was quite dark by now, and had to ask bystanders a few times.

One of my interlocutors gave a piece of advice I won’t forget in a hurry. Having missed a crucial right turn very close to my destination, I asked him for directions whereupon he loudly remonstrated: “Google kar lijiye na!” All these years I have entertained healthy disrespect for new technology for seeking directions on the road. I would jokingly tell friends that the best GPS in India is the man at a paan shop or chatting on a street corner. Deeply humbled by the man’s comment, I vowed not to ridicule technology again and indeed it turned out to be most helpful as my journey progressed.

Mayfair Lagoon, owned by entrepreneur Dilip Ray in the heart of Bhubaneswar, is a magnificent and picturesque hotel built around an artificial water body. Overflowing with foliage, it makes for a serene and restful stay after a busy day’s work, or drive in my case.

I decided to stay an extra day in Bhubaneswar to participate in the Saraswati Puja or Basant Panchami which happened to be on February 12. It was my good luck that Saraswati Puja is observed in the hotel itself. After offering prayers to the Goddess of Learning, something I religiously observe every year, I headed for the airport to receive Shobori. As planned, we proceeded straight from the airport to Gopalpur-on-Sea to spend a couple of days at Dilip’s latest showpiece, Mayfair Palm Beach. I was astounded to see it post-renovation. I had stayed here with my parents way back in 1968, when it was an Oberoi property and a pucca, single-storeyed colonial hotel. The abandoned building, then a single-storey structure, was taken over recently by the Mayfair group but sadly got battered by recurrent hurricanes. However, Dilip painstakingly repaired it each time and no trace of the damage remains.

Rightly proud of the way he has rebuilt the hotel, Dilip says it is India’s only beach resort as no other major hotel gives direct access to the beach from the building. To create a village atmosphere on the beach, he has built a tea shack which serves freshly-made pakodas, jhal-muri and tea in earthen cups or kullads around 5 every evening. Although the Bay of Bengal is rough at the best of times, the hotel employs trained life-guards or nuliyas who escort the adventurous into the water. Next morning I spent an hour battling the waves which is a thrilling experience if you are adequately protected. Here I must mention a waiter in particular, a gem when it comes to looking after guests. We met CD as he is known to all guests and colleagues alike, first in Gangtok in 2007. Courteous to a fault, he insists on plying you with food every few hours, ignoring protestations. Usually he decides on the menu, too, and there is always fresh fish and prawn in his repertoire.


From Gopalpur-on-Sea to Visakhapatnam was a short hop, just over 200 km, but we chose to drop for a night because the next intended stop, Guntur, would have been too long a drive. Visakhapatnam has graduated to a bustling, modern city, a far cry from the haphazard port town it used to be in the 60s when I first came here. Intrepid travellers like my former colleague Dwaipayan (Riju) Bose and his wife Pallavi were in touch on Facebook throughout our journey, giving us tips about eating places. Their recommendation for Vizag was Kamat’s, a homely restaurant growing in size and popularity all the time. Even the receptionist at our hotel (The Gateway) said, “Good choice. We go there whenever we have a party”, affixing another seal of approval on the eatery. Kamat’s is located on the RK Beach and we couldn’t miss it, given the long line of cars parked on both sides of the road as we approached the place. The restaurant has obviously grown rapidly in recent years, so they’ve covered the terrace and made an extra floor to accommodate diners.

Kamat’s does not have an elaborate menu. Choice revolves around curries of several types — chicken, mutton, fish and vegetable. Of course, there are starters too but the preferred meal is simple: Curry of your choice and rice and roti/paratha. We ordered a mutton and fish curry along with some rice. Obviously there is a family secret in the curry recipe because its taste was simply exquisite. Undoubtedly it was the best curry I have ever had and that’s saying a lot considering I have tasted curry in every part of the country apart from, of course, my own home.

Despite being a busy port, in fact, the only deep water sea port on the East coast, and a major business centre, Visakhapatnam is a picturesque city; literally sandwiched between the rocks and the sea. A lot of construction is happening nowadays; large multi-storeys are coming up on the slopes of the Eastern Ghats to the west of the city. Commerce is prospering, judging by the number of malls and multiplexes on the main roads. You know you have reached South India by the number of jewellery shops that line the high street of every city here. Indians’ obsession with gold is on full display in Vizag.


We were advised by the Taj Hotel staff to skip Guntur and drop anchor in Vijaywada next. Guntur, we were told, did not have hotels up to the mark and indeed internet search seemed to bear out the warning. Anyway, Guntur, which I insisted on visiting in order to purchase its world famous red chillies, was just 60 km from Vijaywada. An unfortunate accident in Rajamundhry, which fortunately did not cause much damage, delayed us considerably as several hours were spent at a police station filling in details. As a result we reached Vijayawada past midnight. Luckily, the room service of the Fortune Hotel conjured up some tasty biryani even at that hour. By the time we hit the bed, dog tired and not a little tense on account of the accident, it was 2 am.

The next morning we had only one agenda: Look for red chillies in Guntur. Upon reaching the crowded market town on the other bank of Godavari, we discovered that the chilli market existed no more, only scattered shops sold this prized variety. Shobori, who is inordinately fond of chillies, shopped to her stomach’s content before we headed back to the hotel for some afternoon siesta.

Our next stop was Nellore because once again I had decided to skirt Chennai city and reach Fisherman’s Cove in Mahabalipuram on Chennai’s outskirts, and that wasn’t a do-able proposition from Vijayawada in one day’s driving. Nellore, too, is a sprawling commercial hub, unfortunately not overflowing with decent hotels. Internet search led us to Vintage Inn and there was nothing vintage about this marriage hall doubling up as a functional hotel catering essentially to wedding parties. In fact, the hotel did not even have its own restaurant, leave alone room service. The waiter, invariably called Babu in these parts, came up with a menu card from a nearby restaurant for our dinner. Before that we went for a stroll on Nellore’s crowded streets only to find every building decked up in gaudy lights as marriages were happening everywhere. Shobori shopped for some exquisite silk saris before returning to our resting place (calling it a hotel would be a gross exaggeration). We left earlier than usual, stopping for breakfast at a crowded restaurant near the bus terminus. Obviously a popular eating joint, it served deliciously soft idlis and piping hot dosas, just what we were hoping for.

It must be said that roads in Seemandhra were the best we encountered in the journey. Also the roadsides were remarkably clean. Whenever we stopped for filter coffee, which was really excellent, we found the shops squeaky clean and all paper cups painstakingly picked up and dumped in dustbins by customers — a sight unusual in most of India. Swachch Seemandhra is closer to reality than Swachch Bharat. After leaving Nellore, we entered Tamil Nadu in no time and opted for the Chennai bypass as pre-decided. Although we did not formally enter Chennai, the Ring Road gave us a good idea of the southern metropolis. The long elevated by-pass also allowed a bird’s eye-view of Chennai city, which I have visited many times, but Shobori hadn’t. Although it was still February, it was getting hot and hotter from the time we entered southern Seemandhra. Chennai needless to say was blazing hot particularly in the afternoon. We were really looking forward to reaching Mahabalipuram on the seashore.


The sight that greeted us on reaching the Taj property exceeded expectations. As we had been given an upgrade by the affable manager, Souvik Bhattacharya, we were escorted to a cottage overlooking the Bay of Bengal, looking resplendent in the falling afternoon light. Rows of palm trees swaying in the sea breeze made the view even more spectacular. I had been to Fisherman’s Cove some 20 years ago for a marketing conference of the (now extinct) Sunday Observer, of which I was then Editor. It was then just a four-storey block of rooms overlooking the sea. The exquisite oval cottages with a balcony running along came up some 15 years ago and were fully refurbished after the tragic tsunami of 2004. After a stroll on the beach, water droplets showering us all along, we felt truly relaxed and rejuvenated. We were glad to stay an extra day in the fabulous surroundings. Next day, we went for a reviving massage at their well-appointed spa. But bad luck befell me that evening as I came down with inexplicably high fever and could barely stay awake even for dinner.

Next morning I felt quite energetic but still decided to consult the hotel doctor who said I was okay to travel but advised not to strain too much. We had a sumptuous lunch at a roadside shack in the former French outpost of Pondicherry (Puducheri). Quite surprised to find a roadside shack advertising Italian food and run by Auroville inmates, we did not hesitate to abruptly stop to partake some fabulously home-cooked lasagna and chocolate ice-cream.

My initial intention was to drop anchor at another former French outpost of Karaikal, half-way between Chennai and Rameshwaram. (Puducheri and Karaikal on the Bay of Bengal coastline and Mahe on the Arabian Sea coast come under the Puducheri UT administration). But we were advised by hotel staff against that and instead proceed further south. While driving through Karaikal, we realised why we were told not to stay there overnight. Rarely have I observed so many temples and liquor shops exist cheek-by-jowl. Perhaps as a result, Karaikal turned out to be a very noisy town milling with devotees of various Hindu gods but easily outnumbered by devotees of Bachchus, the Greek god of liquor. Friend Dilip Ray had recommended a resort called MGM, which we located around 10 pm at Velanganni or Velankanni, approximately 20 km south of the port town of Nagapattinam on NH55.

The sprawling MGM Velankanni turned out to be the preferred hotel for Christian pilgrims who throng the revered St Anne’s Church nearby. The first question I was asked at the reception was, “Which service would you like to attend — early morning or mid-day?” We booked ourselves into a double-storey cottage equipped with a living/dining room, kitchenette on the ground floor and two bedrooms on the upper floor. Apparently, the resort is favoured by NRIs who stay here for several days and visit the many churches that dot the landscape.

Because of my viral infection, we decided to skip a visit to the widely revered Church of St Anne. Incidentally, fishing is the main occupation of the local population as the land is saline and also dotted with salt pans. Most fishermen on the Tamil Nadu coast are Christians, which explains the presence of the large number of churches, old and new.

All along the highway, we noticed groceries here served tea and coffee too. Shopkeepers carry home-made filter coffee in large stainless steel containers and serve the beverage in paper cups. This is a big departure from grocery shops in the north, which are usually not located on the highway and also do not serve hot beverages.

We crossed the Pamban bridge that links Rameshwaram and Dhanushkodi to the mainland of India. The journey across the 8 km-long road bridge, with a rail bridge running alongside, is magnificent with the azure blue Bay of Bengal on three sides and below. Hundreds of fishing boats crowd the marine product-rich shallow waters of the Palk Strait. We crossed the engineering marvel, stopping occasionally to take photographs. Actually, the main reason for my determination to take the detour to Rameshwaram was to drive across the sea link, India’s most spectacular. Often you need a diversion to set you back on course.

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