Why We Love India
Travel+Leisure India|July 2021
Just when we thought India had beaten the odds and overcome the pandemic, a deadly second wave hit the country in April 2021. Life came to a standstill again, the streets were stripped of their colours, the intricate social fabric of communities torn apart, and the international borders sealed. Now, coronavirus cases are on the decline again, the door is ajar, and hope peeks out. As India waits to welcome visitors to its shores, around the world people who share a special connection with the country recall their most cherished memories and express a yearning to come back—once travel is safe again.

KASHMIR DIARIES

A writer, journalist, and events producer for the British Library, BEE ROWLETT lived in India from 2015 to 2018 and is a regular on the panels of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Within UK’s sealed borders, she and her family often leaned on their travel memories of India for comfort.

BEE ROWLETT

AUTHOR

KEEPING THE FAMILY distracted in lockdown had its challenges. Along with watching box sets and arguing, a favourite pass-time was the “if you could travel anywhere” conversation. Obviously, it’s always India (we lived there for the formative years of our kids’ lives) but where? Which would be the dream destination, once travel possibilities began to reopen? We debated the merits of Jaipur’s sun-lit walls, Tamil Nadu’s rolling coasts, the deodar pines of Mussoorie, beach breakfasts in Goa.

In my dreams I revisit my old neighbourhood in New Delhi. If I could go anywhere right now, I would walk past the flower stall, under the amaltas, neem and silk-cotton trees, via the paratha-wallah on my way to the Delhi Ridge Forest. I’d come back via the gardens behind the Nehru Planetarium to spot peacocks roosting. And I would give just about anything to see the friends I miss with all my heart.

But this is a travel piece and I have to choose a tourist destination. Perhaps the most unforgettable of all, and the most frequent winner in our lockdown squabbles, is Kashmir. Kashmir was a love-at-first-sight thing. Our first foray began in neighbouring Ladakh, where we joined families sledging in the snow and rode mountain bikes down from Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable pass. How could the next part of our trip possibly measure up?

But it did. Heading over the breathtaking peaks of Zoji La , we drove on mountain-clinging roads that peered down the dizzying drop. It was like leaning out of the open door of an aeroplane in flight. Layer by layer the most extraordinary landscape opened before our eyes. As we rolled down into the valley, the inspiration for the legend of Shangri-La, our love affair with Kashmir began.

We stayed in Rah Villas Sonamarg (rahvillas. com) in the meadow of gold, named for the yellow crocuses that cover the valley in spring. Its owner, Nazir Rah, has just opened the stunning new hotel, Rah Bagh Srinagar (rahbagh.com), that we are all still waiting to visit. Each day was filled with hiking, pony riding, bonfires, and river dips. Everywhere we went, people talked to us, shared with us, joked with our children, and taught us Kashmiri words.

Kashmir gets under your skin, and after that first trip, we went back for repeat visits, summer hikes in Sonamarg, and winter skiing in Gulmarg. We were addicted to kahwa, and I became obsessed with the genius of the kangri—a clay pot filled with hot embers and carried under a big woollen robe called phiran. It’s your very own personal heating system.

Perhaps the most memorable place we stayed was Butt’s Clermont Houseboats, on Dal Lake. The boats are lined with carved cedarwood and draped with elegant crewel embroidery. The windows on one side look into a field of towering pink hollyhocks, and on the other, straight onto the peaceful lake waters to the snowy peaks beyond.

Staying in Butt’s Clermont Houseboats is like visiting the home of a venerable relative. Mr Butt took over from his father, and the pride he takes in the establishment is well deserved. The guestbook lists decades of famous visitors from all walks of life, all equally touched by the historic sense of the place. When he brought over a large antique dish loaded with red and yellow cherries, it felt like we were on holiday in an oil painting.

My passion for Indian trees went into overdrive at the sight of the towering chinar trees, arching way above us. We woke early to ride in a shikhara to the floating vegetable market. We revelled in the mindbending symmetry of the nearby Mughal Garden. And on, and on. The image of my kids playing on the boat with a fishing rod is my laptop screen saver, and it is the memory that kept me going through many days of lockdown frustration.

I often think about the people we met. Tourists have a duty to look beyond the shimmering surfaces and into the lives of local people. For Kashmiris, pandemic isolation followed on the heels of lengthy internet blackouts. The Kashmiri poet Naseem Shafaie has said of the region’s conflict, “Something has to be done to make the Valley green again.”

Travelling to this heart-stoppingly beautiful part of the world and supporting its local economy is just a start.

Bibhu Mohapatra

FASHION DESIGNER

MEMORIES OF HOME

NYC-based fashion designer BIBHU MOHAPATRA is a global icon today, but his Indian roots continue to influence his philosophy. The pandemic left him grief-stricken and apart from family, but it also made him introspect about his craft and strengthened the bond with his home state of Odisha.

BY AINDRILA MITRA

You’ve been living outside India for nearly two decades. What do you miss about the country?

Obviously, family comes to mind first, and my memories of childhood, specifically of my mother who has had such a huge influence on me and my path to becoming a creative individual. My life there [in India] with my parents and siblings, my friends, those summer evenings with power cuts, the street foods—these memories became super precious to me soon after I left India. The past year of being unable to see my family and spend time in India has deepened my appreciation for so many things, from the food and the lights and colours to the people and the sense of spirit and community. We recently lost my beloved brother at the age of 58 to COVID-19, so all these things that I grew up with, including him, feel acutely close to me now.

How would you define India in a sentence?

To quote Mark Twain, “India is the cradle of the human race... and our most valuable and most artistic materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only!”

You have done substantial work for promoting Indian craftsmanship, especially with Odisha. What are your favourite Indian products?

The Odisha handloom and ikat textile are my favourite heritage crafts from my home state. In addition to this, the native textiles from other states, the various embroidery arts, [and] jewellery (both fine and tribal) are things I always pay attention to. It is so important to me to draw more attention and appreciation to the incredible craftspeople of India, and I hope that I can do that through our designs as well as the relationships we build with different artists and collectives. As an Indian, I have a duty to support these crafts and the artisans who have been keeping them alive, by allowing people to see them in new and inspiring ways as well as appreciate their origins.

What’s your take on the Indian fashion landscape and where do you think we fit on the world map?

Having been born and raised in India, having travelled the world, and now being based out of New York City, I have come to realise how truly global India is. I think there are a lot of stereotypes around Indian culture and fashion, [and] I hope we can start to break through some of these images and assumptions to see how truly influential Indian designers and fashion can be. India and its artisans hold the golden key to a vast part of the global luxury fashion business.

How do you think the fashion world will evolve post the pandemic?

While the pandemic has challenged so many industries, families, and small companies—mine included—I think it has also given us a valuable moment to go inwards and reassess what’s important and how to drive more value to our communities and planet. I hope the fashion industry moves further away from the disposable mindset, starts to deepen the appreciation of craft, time, and the cost of resources and labour, and looks at fashion not just as an everyday thing, which it is, but also as a collectable practice.

What is the impact that COVID-19 has had on the sustainability movement?

People have become more thoughtful about their purchases, [and they] are investing in easier, more comfortable clothing that is adaptable. They are also planning for when they will really get dressed up, savouring that chance to wear a suit or a gown or something a little wild. We are all craving that, and it’s a good thing—to express ourselves again through our clothing and our style, but with a conscious mindset for consumption.

What would you say to travellers heading to Odisha for the first time?

Odisha is the greatest-kept secret of India. Be it natural resources, historically significant monuments, coastal cuisine, amazing crafts that are centuries old, or the newly discovered landscape for business and commerce development, Odisha and its people have a lot to offer—to the rest of India and to the world. There may be many places where the 21stcentury Indian dream started, but Odisha is where that dream is going to be fulfilled.

The one thing about Odisha that you feel passionately about?

Its people! You will not find people this caring, loyal, [and] hardworking with a great work ethic anywhere else in the world. As an experience, a trip to Lake Chilika in winter for a tryst with migratory birds is a must.

Whenever you are in India, what are the things you always do?

After landing in Mumbai, the first thing I do is hit some of my favourite places in the city, such as the textile shops on Linking Road, a meal at Trishna, and visits to the shops in Kala Ghoda, including my tailors. When I reach Bhubaneswar, I make it a point to visit the temples, including the Jagannath Temple in Puri and the Konark Sun Temple. Once I arrive home, after a train ride from Bhubaneswar to Rourkela, I visit some old joints from my childhood. The schools, the playgrounds, the local music shop, the pani-puri-wallah, etc. Before I arrive, I have the mindset of a tourist, but upon arrival, I become a son of the soil. My roots call me and I run to them.

What is on your India bucket list?

Kashmir, Leh/Ladakh, all southern and coastal states, and in-depth travel throughout the country to explore traditional arts and crafts.

Diipa Büller-Khosla

SOCIAL MEDIA INFLUENCER

INDIAN INFLUENCE

DIIPA BÜLLER-KHOSLA longs to come back home, this time with her new-born daughter in tow. The fashionista reminisces about her time spent in the country, from the treks to the meals and the lessons learnt along the way.

BY AINDRILA MITRA

What do you miss most about India?

India is and will always be home. Whenever [I’m] away, there is a constant longing to return to my country. Of course, there is my family and the people I hold close to my heart that I miss wholeheartedly, but also the beauty of the country.

According to you, what’s the most special thing about India?

One thing that’s truly special about India is the warmth of its people, as well as the energy, as it has such a vibrant and lively atmosphere... Not to forget the delicious food it offers!

Speaking of food, can you recommend three dishes that one must try in the country?

Although it’s almost impossible to pick only three dishes out of the abundance of delicious foods the country is acclaimed for, you can’t really say you’ve been to India without having had biryani, any kebab dish (trust me, you can’t go wrong with a good kebab!), and masala dosa.

What have been your fondest travel experiences in the country?

A memory that will forever be with me is a journey I took to the Himalayas. I believe that India has the most beautiful mountain ranges on this planet. I got to experience the [Himalayan] ranges for the first time on a trek in high school. Every step I took brought a feeling of gratitude and appreciation. It showed me that when we go through the hardest times (it was a very difficult route), we also live through the most beautiful experiences. The sights were a feast for the eyes.

What are your recommendations for a first-time visitor?

Firstly, avoid the popular cities as they can be overwhelming. Instead, discover places in Rajasthan, the Himalayas, Kerala, and coastal areas like Goa. If you have a chance to visit the beautiful forests that India has to offer, don’t skip the opportunity.

How would you introduce India to your daughter?

Since India is my home, I consider it a duty to show our daughter my motherland. The thought of introducing the beautiful country to her excites me. We have family and so many loved ones to introduce her to, as well as show her the place where I grew up when I was her age. As soon as it is safe to travel and experience India with her, we will be on the next plane!

What was your last trip like?

The last trip I made to India was in early 2020. I travelled back to do a TEDx talk in the beautiful city of Amritsar. The organisers of the show flew down my parents to witness my talk. It was such a proud moment, something I will always remember very fondly.

Your top five brand/designer picks from India?

Recognition must be given where it’s due. There are so many incredibly talented Indian designers and brands that I love; to name a few: Sabyasachi, Gaurav Gupta, Anamika Khanna, Raw Mango, and Amrapali Jewels.

Places that define your Indian experience, and places that you’d like to visit the next time you’re here?

I’d definitely like to visit the Himalayas again, this time with Oleg (Diipa’s husband) as he’s never been [there]. Furthermore, going back to Mumbai for work and to reunite with all the people that I adore there.

Any message for people travelling now, as the pandemic retracts?

It’s unfortunate that we live in a time when there are so many restrictions and safety precautions that we must follow all of a sudden, however, your health is of utmost importance, so prioritising your safety is something to be aware of when travelling. I understand the struggle of all the travel junkies out there, being one myself; being unable to return home for over a year now has been tough! However, sooner or later, we will all be able to continue our journeys across the globe stress-free.

Gary Mehigan

CELEBRITY CHEF

THE OZ CONNECTION

English-Australian Chef GARY MEHIGAN ’s love for Indian food is no secret. Nine years after his first trip to India, the celebrity chef recalls some of his fondest memories of the country.

BY RASHIMA NAGPAL

What brought you to India the first time? What was your first impression?

I was invited to be part of the Oz Fest in Delhi back in 2012. I instantly fell in love with the colours, sounds, culture, wonderful sense of humour, and goodwill that India shares with Australia. And of course, the food was so exciting! My last visit was in November 2019.

Which places in the country have you visited so far?

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