India’s Kochi: Calm, Complex and Compelling
By Ben G. Frank
To reach “Incredible India,” I flew, non-stop about 8,000 miles in 16 hours. I soon learned that time and distance pale when it comes to falling in love with India, this land of miracles and vast horizons. It is hard to believe that India stretches from the tropics right up to the temperate regions, from near the equator to the coldest heart of Asia.
As I traveled in the chilly north in December I was captivated by the bazaars and forts in Delhi, the perpetually compelling Taj Mahal in Agra, the Gateway of India monument in Mumbai (Bombay), yet I kept hearing about another India; the one in the south, where tourists feel the breath of history as they traverse a beautiful scenic region known as “God’s own country.”
Sharing the South with God
Enthralled with thoughts of warmer weather, sunlit beaches, verdant islands, palm trees, and above all, the calmness of an area (it’s even relaxing in the airports), I flew to Kochi, formerly called Cochin, in the State of Kerala which is often described as the “land of coconut.” Setting down in a landscape replete with spice and exotic plants; seeing men walking around in short sleeve shirts, I removed my jacket to enjoy the sunshine in this city made up of lagoons, islands and inlets divided by narrow waterways.
I have wanted to visit this region that stretches out along the blue Arabian Sea because I wanted to observe the cultural remains of past migrations to India---the route taken by the first humans out of Africa thousands of years ago. It is also a region that will attract the well-traveled client: one who has been to India perhaps, or a first-timer with time enough to see both northern sites as well as adding the south for an unforgettable combination. This is a region that will attract special interest clients -- those interested in Jewish heritage, or honeymooners, for instance.
Kochi, often called “Queen of the Arabian Sea,” and slightly smaller than Switzerland, is the epitome of India long ago. A port-of-call for traders for thousands of years, the Arabs began trading way before Islam. The earliest mosque in India is said to be the pretty old wooden prayer hall at Cranganore, north of Kochi.
European Settlements and Occupations
Occupied by the Portuguese in 1503, the city was the site of the first European colonial settlement in the country and remained the capital of Portuguese India until 1530 when it moved to Goa. Kochi was later occupied by the Dutch and the British and was the first princely state to willingly join the Indian Union when India gained independence in 1947.
The Jews, it is said, traded with Southern India in spices as far back as King Solomon, and it is in Kochi where one finds the oldest Jewish enclave in this nation of 1.3 billion. The Jewish community has been a part of the Indian mosaic for more than two millennia.
Very early on, Near Eastern Christians settled here on the Malabar coast where Kochi stands only 170 miles from the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent. The city is proud of the country’s oldest European–built church, St. Francis, erected in 1503 and a popular sight. Vasco da Gama, the first European to reach India was buried here for 14 years before his remains were transferred to Portugal. The tombstone remains inside the church now used by the Church of South India. Sunday services are held in English at 8 a.m.
Kochiites, as the residents are called, are an important element of South Indian culture, certainly influenced by different foreign settlements.
Walking the streets, one can easily see the diversity in people’s faces: Tamils, Gujaratis, Jews, Sikkimese, Anglo-Indians, Konkanis and Tuluvas. They speak Malayalam, the main language of communication and medium of instruction, although nearly everyone speaks English in this state, a state my excellent guide P. Ghopal proudly tells me has the highest literacy rate in India.
Within Kochi and outside the city, visitors will marvel at the splash of traditional Keralan dress, a marked contrast to western clothes. Men wear colorful long white cotton lungi, a long piece of cloth wrapped around the waist, with batik patterns. South Indian women wear saris.
Heading to Mattancherry, a part of old Cochin City , specifically to Synagogue Lane in what is called Jew Town and one of the centers of the Kochi spice trade, I notice that shopping is in full swing. Alongside small houses, kiosk-type stores and booths dot the area. Crowded, busy, lively, friendly salespeople in a section known for bargaining and antiques.
On Synagogue Lane, we met Sarah Cohen in her souvenir shop, sewing yarmulkes (skull caps) for tourists. “We’re happy,” she said, referring to Cochin Jews, but perhaps “happier when our people were here.” Most Jews of Cochin emigrated to Israel after the Jewish state’s independence in 1948. Sixty years later, only about a dozen Jews live near the synagogue and another 50 reside in Ernakulam, another section of Kochi.
All the guides, tourist brochures and maps highlight this synagogue built in 1568. The original building was destroyed by the Portuguese in 1662 and rebuilt by the Dutch two years later. Scrolls of the Old Testament and a number of copper plates inscribed with Hebrew scripture are preserved in this house of worship at the end of Synagogue Lane.
Stunningly bedecked with chandeliers and colored glass lamps, the synagogue has been declared a historical monument by the Indian Government. Hand-painted China tiles highlight the floor of this Paradesi Synagogue; they were shipped from Canton in 1762 and no two tiles are alike. Outside this place of worship, which has the distinction of being the oldest surviving synagogue in the Commonwealth of Nations, looms a graceful clock tower built in 1760 and displays dials in Hebrew Malayalam and Roman numerals. This prayer house, which is open Sunday to Friday, from 10 a.m. to noon and from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., stands on the ground near the palace of the Maharajah of Cochin overlooking a Hindu shrine.
Beyond Bazaars and Bargains
If bazaars and bargaining are not your client’s style, they can travel to the bustling town of Ernakulam to textile stores such as Seematti located on Mahatma Gandhi Road, and near the Taj Residency hotel. Seematti is a multi-story textile shop, though I am told those interested in pashminas are apt to find better deals up north.
Guide P. Gopal points out the Kairali Shop, also on Mahatma Gandhi Road, known for exclusive products such as wood-carvings, metal, cloth fiber. The Kerala State Government runs the shop; no bargaining permitted. In fact, there’s no “negotiating” price in any shop in Ernakulam, according to Gopal. Not too many tourists arrive; no parking facility. However, a short 20 minute walk from the Taj Residency can bring one to Kairali.
Incidentally, because shopping is such an integral part of tourism, Kerala holds an annual Grand Kerala Shopping Festival in December.
Among the must-sees in Kochi: Koder House at Fort Kochi, the first European town. Built during the British period, Kodae House is a heritage hotel with a fine restaurant.
Kochi has a population of about 600,000 but an extended metro-area counts 1.5 million. Visitors notice the economic boom taking place here, the high rise apartment buildings and offices, the likes of which reflect that India is on the move with a nine percent economic growth rate and the world’s fastest growing major economy after China.
Kochi, where even the streets are calm, remains a place that you can indulge yourself,---especially after visiting the 19-million-mega-metropolis of Mumbai. Boat rides are very popular here. For example, guests at Taj Malabar and Taj Residency hotels can take a harbor cruise which starts at 5 p.m. and concludes at 7 p. m. Sailing around the islands in the backwaters and watching the city skyline from a slow-moving boat can bring about that peaceful interlude that one occasionally needs on this sub-continent.
Those lucky enough to be in Kochi during August /September, can witness elongated snake boats in the Vembanad Lake.
For the very high-end traveler, Taj Malabar is a heritage, five-star hotel located at Wellingdon Island. Old World charm reigns here; the name of the swimming pool is “Infinity.” From the pool, visitors enjoy the sunset and slow moving ferry boats, ships, and even single-oar canoes.
I also found the four-star Taj Residency, to be sophisticated and extremely comfortable for American tourists as guestrooms are spacious. Don’t overlook a super buffet, a view of water scenery and the evening entertainment.
There, I met tour operator and coordinator Anil Avraham who prepares itineraries. Avraham, who speaks English and Hebrew, handles many groups. He raves about observing Chinese fishing nets, a throwback to the ancient maritime trade. These nets at the entrance of the harbor and along the backwaters were introduced by the court of Kublai Khan. Avraham recommends visits to the tea plantations, the lakes, the wildlife of Kerala, a paradise for those interested in the outdoors where I admire the remarkable foliage. Call 011-91-84606-3553; E-mail email@example.com
Not to be missed is the Bolgatty Palace, located on Mulavukad Island that was built by the Dutch in 1744. A bridge connects the island to Kochi. Once a mansion of the British Resident, this structure now stands as a high-end hotel managed by the Kerala Tourist Development Board.
Ah, Goa, the trendy in-destination, especially for honeymooners. The “hedonism of its sun, sand and sea,” calls to me and like thousands of tourists who still want to stay south of Mumbai, but who love the civility found in Kerala, we head north.
But not too far north; even though I am an intrepid traveler, I want to stay close to the safe, natural harbors I found in Kochi, a corner of “God’s own country.”
Traveling with Land Experts
Agents designing FIT programs may want to contact certified guide P. Gopal, whom I would highly recommend. He charges about $35 per day for local touring and $80 per day for excursions beyond the regional limits, can be reached at cell 011-91-959-567-4243; E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Raju Banerjee, business development manager of award-winning Indus Travels, agrees with this writer that “ the south is nature at its best.” She went on to say that the area “is totally different” from the north of India ---especially “the culture and the influences of the Christian missionaries.” Indus is selling a new tour called “Classical South India.” Call 866-978-2997; www.industravels.ca
Anshuman Khanna, a travel consultant at SITA World Travel in Encino, CA., highlighted SITA’ s “Silks and Spices” 15-day deluxe tour, that travels through the backwaters of southern India with stays at a lodge or resort on Lake Vembanad. The tour starts in Mumbai and goes to Bangalore, Chikmagalur, Mysore, Cochin, Kumarkom, Periyar City, Madurai and Chennai. Call 800-421-5643; ext.1507; www.sitatours.com
Sky Bird Travel and Tours has launched Sky Vacations with the eight-day, “Classical South India” tour, from Chennai, to Kancipuram, Mahabalipuram, Madurai, Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, Kumarakom ending at Kochi. Call 877-666-3113; www.skyvacations.net
Picasso Tours’ 12-night “The Exotic South” tour, travels from Chennai, to Tanjor, Madurai, Ponticherry, Cochin, a journey which ends in Mumbai. A three-night extension to Goa is offered. Call 888-463-4249; www.picassotours.com
STI Travel LLC located in New Jersey announced a new portfolio of FIT & Group Tours to India. Two years ago, STI inaugurated its new office in New Delhi, India, which operates inbound and outbound tour packages to several destinations in the Middle East, China, South America and Europe and India from the U.S.
In early 2009, STI Travel will roll out its “Signature Journey Series” to India, which was designed to appeal to special interests such as: Wellness, Royal Retreats, Eco-Tourism, wild Life and others. Call 800-570-0304; or visit www.sti-travel.com
For Agents Only
Sans Incredible India organizes comprehensive air-inclusive fam tours for travel agents leaving every Thursday priced from $1,599. Two one-week options are being offered. The Gold Fam includes Delhi-Agra-Ranthambore-Jaipur; the Green Fam covers Mumbai-Kochi-Periyar-Kumarakom. Call 888- 9C-INDIA; 347-323-2252; E-mail email@example.com
So Many Flights to India
Air India offers 41 direct flights from the U.S. and Canada, and also flies daily non-stop from New York to Delhi and Mumbai. Delta Air Lines has launched ( a new daily nonstop flight between Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Mumbai, although it has discontinued its flights from New York to Mumbai.
Continental Airlines flies non-stop from Newark to Mumbai and Delhi. Lufthansa has grown in the India market and counts 45 non-stop flights weekly from Frankfurt and Munich to six gateways in India.
Within India, this writer can attest to Mumbai-based Jet Airways, India’s largest privatized airline that is in the midst of a massive global expansion.
My flights on Jet Airways, from Delhi to Mumbai and on to Kochi and back to Mumbai were convenient and reliable.
For information, contact the India Tourist Office, 800-953-9399; 212-586-4901 (E. Coast), or 213-380-8855 (W. Coast), or visit www.incredibleindia.com
August 2008 Feature
India From the Sacred to the Sublime
From the trend-seeking tourist to the sophisticated traveler, Maharashtra, India’s third largest state, has an array of unforgettable tourism offerings and attractions that include ancient and historic sites of tremendous religious importance, well known in India, but still relatively unknown abroad.
Maharashtra is located in the southwestern region of the country. The state boasts breathtaking landscapes of tropical forests, tiger reserves, impressive mountain ranges, relaxing beaches on the Arabian Sea and the cosmopolitan capital of Mumbai (Bombay). Home to hundreds of archaeological sites of significant historical importance and four UNESCO World Heritage Sites — the mystical Ajanta and Ellora Caves, the Elephanta caves, and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai (Bombay) — Maharashtra boasts of tourism offerings found nowhere else in India.
The sacred town of Shirdi, located approximately 140 miles northeast of Mumbai (Bombay, Maharashtra’s capital) is best known for being the home of the 19th Century Hindu saint and spiritual pioneer, Shri Sai Baba. Although there are no accounts of his birth or early years, Sai Baba lived in Shirdi, where he preached and acted on his ideas of love, peace, religious tolerance and forgiveness. Sai Baba grew to be one of the most popular spiritual figures of his time, and was, and is still known and revered throughout India for his powers to treat ailments.
Visitors to Shirdi can explore Sai Baba’s life first-hand by visiting the places he frequented including Dwarkamai, a holy mosque where he resided, and Lendi Baug, a flower garden planted and maintained by the guru. Nonetheless, the most popular site in the city is the Shirdi Sai Baba Temple, the resting place of the saint which is now a pilgrimage spot, attracting millions of devotees of all religions, castes and creeds from around India. The temple is a beautiful stone shrine that was built in 1919 over the tomb of Sai Baba and is set among beautifully cultivated grounds, surrounded by serene ponds and fountains. Visitors are encouraged to visit the site, particularly on Thursdays (the day Sai Baba is revered) when thousands of people come to Shirdi to pay homage to him. The Shirdi Sai Baba Temple is opened daily from 5:15 a.m. to 10 p.m. www.shirdisaitemple.com.
The "Wine Capital of India," Nashik, is also known as the “Holy City” due to the numerous temples and religious sites that exist there. Located about 100 miles northeast of Mumbai, Nashik is a striking and colorful city, particularly in the northern section along the banks of the Godavari River.
The banks of the Godavari River, known as Panchavati, are surrounded by dozens of temples and holy sites and are a great place to shop for religious artifacts and other colorful souvenirs. Millions of pilgrims descend upon Panchavati, where the Hindu deities Lord Ram, Sita and Laxman supposedly resided for some time. This area holds tremendous religious significance and mystery, accented with strong scents of incense and magical views of pilgrims bathing along the banks of the holy river.
Nearby, another incredible and mystical experience can be had by visiting the Sita Gumpha, a holy cave next to one of the city’s five famous banyan trees in Panchavati. Here, the Hindu deities Lord Ram his wife Sita, and Lakshman are said to have prayed to Lord Shiva. To enter this small, two-room holy site, pilgrims have to crawl through a very narrow staircase that descends into the cool and magical cave. The first room holds a gilded, silver idol of Lord Ram, Laxman and Sita, and the other contains a small, ancient Shiva Linga. It is in this second room where Sita is said to have meditated for many years.
This popular temple is only one of 12 Jyotirlinga, or shrines, where the Hindu Goddess Shiva is worshipped. Trimbakeshwar is well-known for its charming architecture, elaborate sculptures and for being a sacred bathing place for pilgrims from all over the world.
Finally, Nashik is also renowned for what is said to be the most spectacular religious show on Earth, the Maha Kumbh Mela. Kumbh Mela is a sacred Hindu pilgrimage and bathing festival that occurs every 12 years in four locations in India. Attended by millions of devotees from around the world, this celebration is truly a sight to behold. The festival commemorates the redemptive story of a holy nation in pursuit of victory from the evil Danavas (demons) which plagued the city with a curse. Today, this legendary tale is reenacted by pilgrims taking ritual baths at the banks of rivers, and by partaking in singing holy chants, prayer sessions, religious discussions, and assemblies. This incredibly visual and spiritually fulfilling festival is accented by the magical colors of Nashik, along with devotees adorned with colorful powders. The next Maha Kumbh Mela festival will be held In March/April 2013. Visit www.kumbhmela.org
Why Visit India in Summer
Rajeev Kohli, director of marketing for India-based Creative Travel India says, “There is a lot of misconception out there why India cannot be visited in summer. Not all true. There is a lot one can do in summer and the best part is that we can leverage our volumes from the season into some great deals into the off-season.”
Some of the reasons include: The best value possible - you get to stay in some of the finest hotels in the world at prices that you would pay for a four-star hotel in the winter. For wildlife lovers, late April and May are the best times of year to see the famous Indian tiger. Clients can enjoy the monuments without the crowds and their hotel with lower summer occupancies
The nearest airport is Aurangabad, and the nearest railroad is Kopargaon. The Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation runs bi-weekly roundtrip bus service to Shirdi from Mumbai while Shirdi can also be reached by bus, private coach or taxi from any of the major cities in the region. Nashik is linked by rail to all of the major cities in the State of Maharashtra and is also connected by major roads and highways to the rest of the country.
Call India Tourism at 800-953-9399; 212-586-4901; West Coast: 213-380-8855; www.incredibleindia.org or visit the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation site: www.maharashtratourism.gov.in
Mumbai’s Secret Weapon: Bollywood
Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra, is the fastest moving, most affluent and industrialized city in India. As part of India's beautiful west coast, that runs down from Gujarat, through Mumbai to Goa, Karnataka and Kerala, Mumbai was blessed with a natural harbor that was developed by the British and remains one of the busiest ports of India, handling about 40% of India's maritime trade.
Mumbai (till recently known as 'Bombay'), derives its name from the local deity Mumba Devi, whose temple is still there. The Portuguese predecessors of the British preferred to think of the name as Bom Baim, the Good Bay. Mumbai is a group of seven islands, which today are known as Colaba, Mahim, Mazgaon, Parel, Worli, Girgaun and Dongri. Large expanses of open sea have been filled in, and tidal swamps have been reclaimed as the areas known as Churchgate and Nariman Point today.
Young and Trendy
While Mumbai has its classic sights, what has brought this city to new relevance and to the attention of new young travelers is its Bollywood.
Located in Mumbai, it is home to the world’s largest film industry, producing an average of 900 feature films per year (over 450 movies more than Hollywood). Almost a century after the Lumière Brothers (inventors of the cinématographe) unveiled six silent short films in Mumbai in 1896, Bollywood has transformed itself into the pride of India, providing an affordable and magical escape. Movie tickets are among the cheapest in the world, costing approximately 20 cents. Despite the low cost, India’s $8 billion film industry grosses over $1 billion in sales per year accounting for over 73% of Asia Pacific’s movie tickets.
Recent trends show that Bollywood has become increasingly popular in the United States with the success of films such as the joint Bollywood/Hollywood production, “Bride & Prejudice”, the adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, “Bend It Like Beckham”, “Monsoon Wedding”, and Deepa Mehta’s controversial “Fire,” all marking the arrival of Bollywood into mainstream U.S. pop culture.
Additional evidence of Bollywood’s rise in popularity is witnessed among today’s pop culture as seen in Shakira’s Indian movie-themed performance at the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards and the success of Bombay Dreams, Bollywood’s first musical to hit Broadway, produced by the legendary Andrew Lloyd Webber, with music by composer A.R. Rahman. Moreover, in living rooms across the U.S., Bollywood fans can enjoy the best titles via “Bollywood On Demand” provided by Comcast, the largest cable television provider, and through video rental companies like Blockbuster and Netflix.
Why do people love Bollywood so much? Masala films (named after the Hindi word meaning “blend of spices”) are typically over three hours long and feature not only rich romance, but lavish sets, vivid costumes and dynamic music with dance performed by the industry’s greatest talent. Masala films are filmed in India’s most gorgeous settings, such as Maharashtra’s historic forts, or in the cosmopolitan city of Mumbai, providing viewers with a glimpse of the country’s wealth. In addition to awe-striking locales, dynamic performances are built into melodramatic plots with instantaneous shifts in location and even numerous costume changes between verses songs. Music from Bollywood films often times become so popular that they turn out to be as popular as the films themselves. With Bollywood stars such as filmmaker Satyajit Ray, awarded the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, to the beautiful Ashwairya Rai, former Miss World and India’s leading actress who stars along Meryl Streep in "Chaos" that was released in 2008, and with internationally-acclaimed films such as “The Namesake” and “Lagaan,” Bollywood will continue to be a household word in the heart of America in the near future.
Classical Sites in Mumbai
The classic attractions include the Gateway of India, a travel icon in Mumbai, which was once the principal port when the visitors arrived in India by ship. Its architecture takes its leads from the conventional Arch of Triumph, mixing elements from Muslim styles of 16th century Gujarat.
One of the most popular promenades of Mumbai is the Marine Drive, built on reclaimed land during 1920, and running along the shoreline of Back bay, it starts at Nariman Point, and sweeps around by Chowpatty beach up to the Malabar hills. Chowpatty Beach is among Mumbai's famous beaches and is a popular spot for people seeking nightlife. It is also a setting for the vibrant annual Ganesh Chaturthi Festival.
On top of the Malabar hills are the Hanging Gardens and Kamala Nehru Park, which offer superb views over Mumbai. Some distance away from Malabar Hills is Mahalaxmi Temple, the oldest temple in Mumbai, dedicated to the Goddess of Wealth. Haji Ali tomb and mosque is located nearby, and can be reached by a long causeway, which can be crossed at low tide. Other attractions of Mumbai include the Juhu beach and the Nehru Planetarium.
Within a 30-mile radius, are excursions worth including in any itinerary. The Elephanta islands are about 16 miles northeast of Apollo Bunder, or Gateway of India, while about 25 miles from the center of the city are the Krishnagiri Upavan National Park, Kanheri caves and the Manori beach, Montepezir and Jogeshwari Caves and Bassein, which separate Mumbai city from the mainland.
Call the India Tourism at 800-953-9399; or on the West Coast 213-380-8855; or visit www.incredibleindia.com
India Drives Business its Way
By Maria Lisella
During the last five years, foreign visitor arrivals to India have grown by almost 80%, reflecting unprecedented growth. Worldwide, 4.5 people million visited India in 2006 compared to 3.2 million the previous year. In an interview with JF, Snar Lyne Khyriem, Regional Director of the India Tourist Office in New York said, “In 2005 we counted 680,534 U.S. visitors so we passed the half million mark but our goal for 2010 is one million.” By all indications, this goal is safely within India’s reach.
India is reaching the public through successful films such as the Bollywood/Hollywood production of Bride & Prejudice, a take off on Jane Austen’s classic, Pride and Prejudice, Bend It Like Beckham, Monsoon Wedding, and Deepa Mehta’s controversial Fire, all of which have played a leading role in the arrival of Bollywood into mainstream U.S. pop culture and ultimately curiousity and travel to India.
Praveen Syal, Managing Director of Indus Travels notes, “There has been a remarkable change in the last few years in the general perception of India from a third world poor country to a dynamic developing powerhouse of Asia. There are lot more business people traveling to India from North America today due to changed economic climate in India.”
Flush with airlift, India is continuously attracting eye-catching new accommodations, matched only by a flurry of new tour programs both affordable and luxurious.
While the region of Maharashtra has embarked on its own voyage to more recognition, the rest of India is also attracting big business to its IT centers in Bangalore and Hyderabad, for instance.
This past summer, Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) participated in an Investment Forum in New York City to highlight the importance of tourism as an economic force. Bhushan Gagrani, Managing Director of MTDC and Secretary of Tourism and Cultural Affairs of the Government of Maharashtra met with key business to discuss the State’s promising tourism outlook.
Airlift Out of India
The Economic Times, India’s leading financial daily, reported that founding member Lufthansa championed Air India’s membership in Star Alliance, which was recently confirmed making Air India the first Indian carrier to join the big leagues in a global alliance. Star Alliance, which includes Air Canada, Air New Zealand, ANA, Austrian, bmi, LOT, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Spanair, Thai Airways, United, US Airways and VARIG. www.airindia.com
For the past three years, Lufthansa customers have been benefiting from its close cooperation with Air India, as the German carrier also grew in the Indian market, offering 45 non-stop flights every week from Frankfurt and Munich to six gateways in India — Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Mumbai. www.lufthansa.com
SWISS began service to Delhi on November 25, from Boston, Chicago, New York, Miami, and Los Angeles for connections to Delhi and Mumbai through Zurich. Special introductory round-trip Economy web fares to Delhi start at: $1,275 from Boston and New York; $1,400 from Chicago; $1,525 from Los Angeles, and $1,425 from Miami for travel through December 13. www.swiss.com
With the touchdown of its Boeing 777-300ER aircraft at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport last month, Jet Airways completed final preparations for its new daily service from JFK to India, via Brussels International Airport. Flights from Newark Liberty International Airport and from Toronto's Pearson International Airport brings the total to three daily flights from North America. www.jetairways.com
Kingfisher Airlines launched direct daily services connecting Bangalore to Mangalore and Mangalore to Chennai. With a daily flight in each direction, these new routes will provide convenient service for business and leisure travelers alike. Visit www.flykingfisher.com
Glamour, joy and excitement characterized the regional World Travel Awards (WTA) Ceremony held at The Leela Palace Kempinski in Bangalore, India, where the winners of the Asia, Australasia & Indian Ocean Awards were announced. The Leela Palaces-Hotels-Resorts group, in fact is among the most expensive lodging in India and its executives like it that way as they embark on an aggressive three-year expansion plan that will double room capacity by introducing six new properties, bringing the group’s total to 10. The new properties will be in Gurgaon Delhi, to open Spring, 2008; Udaipur, winter, 2008; Chennai, winter, 2009; and by 2010 in South Delhi; Hyderabade; and Pune, representing a total investment of $300 million. Visit www.theleela.com
Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, among Asia Pacific’s leading luxury hotel groups, recently signed an agreement with Pallazzio Hotel and Leisure Limited to manage the Shangri-La Hotel, Mumbai, opening at the end of 2009. The hotel will be Shangri-La’s fifth property in India following Shangri-La Hotel, New Delhi, which opened in September 2005; the Shangri-La Hotel, Bangalore; Palm Retreat Shangri-La, Bangalore; and Traders Hotel, Bangalore, all of which will open in 2009. Visit www.shangri-la.com
While splashy high-end properties garner attention, the Wyndham Hotel Group recently reached an agreement to construct at least 38 Super 8 and Days Inn hotels in India. The move is designed to accelerate hotel development in the country. Visit www.wyndham.com
Breaking new ground in India, CC Africa and Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces’ joint venture offers the country’s first and only wildlife circuit. This partnership provides guests with the ultimate interpretive wildlife experience in India based on a proven sustainable ecotourism model. CC Africa's collaboration with Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces rests on decades of expertise in running luxury safari lodges offering unique wildlife experiences, coupled with legendary Taj service. This is a union of like-minded hospitality companies pooling vast resources and experience to build a circuit of extraordinary lodges in India’s renowned Tiger Reserves in the state of Madyar Pradesh. In keeping with both companies’ shared and deeply entrenched social and conservation principles, development programs are being established to engage neighboring communities in making small, meaningful differences. Visit www.tajsafaris.com
Tours du Jour
Last spring, India travel specialist and consolidator, Sky Bird Travel and Tours launched Sky Vacations with an eight-night/nine-day tour from Delhi to Rajasthan, visiting Udaipur, Jodphur, Jaipur, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra and Sikandra; seven-night/eight-day “Classical South India” tour from Chennai visiting Kanchipuram, Mahabalipuram, Madurai, Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, Kumarakom and Cochin; and six-night/seven-day “North India, Golden Triangle” tour from Delhi to Jaipur, Agra and Fatehpur Sikri.
According to Arvin Shah, Chairman, Sky Vacations: “Sky Bird Travel has been recognized as an airline consolidator of distinction, driven by its excellence in service. In the travel business for over 30 years in the United States, we now present “Sky Vacations” where you, as a traveler, can experience India in all its beauty and majesty. We offer a wide choice of itineraries that give a glimpse of India’s ancient past, its rich and varied cultural heritage, and a taste of its delectable cuisine, known all over the world.” Call 877-666-3113; E-mail: India@skyvacations.net; www.skyvacations.net
Long-standing specialist in tours to India is award-winning, Canada-based Indus Travels that has recently introduced its Luxury Collection. Its stock in trade, is to cater to travelers looking for a personalized travel experience . For agents, Indus takes the guesswork out of preparing itineraries to one of the most fascinating destinations in the world. If there is a formula, it is simple and effective.
Says Praveen Syal, Managing Director, “Our tours are designed and run by us. We do not sell other companies’ tour packages.”
What he sees most however, are Besides India, Indus also custom-designs travel to Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Dubai. Call 866-978-2997; www.industravels.ca
Likewise, conglomerate Picasso Tours, which also distributes products under its other divisions -- Splendida Italia, SwissMadeTours, Nordique and Picasso Cruises -- has introduced a new product line to the subcontinent dubbed Ports of India.
Programs focus on north, south, central, east and west India in a series of programs with enormous variety and options. The Exotic South, for instance, is a fully escorted 12-night tour that travels from Chennai, to Tanjor, Madurai, Ponticherry, Cochin and ends in Mumbai. Priced from $2,025 per person double for land arrangements; air is additional but Picasso can and will assist agents with consolidator prices. A three-night extension to Goa costs about $700 per person double. Call 888-463-4249; E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; visit www.portsofindia.com
Collette Vacations, which offers over 160 tours to all seven continents, announced it would add India to its already impressive list of destinations. India is quickly emerging as the new "must-see" destination of the world.
“India is a destination that touches all of your senses. There's this mystical aura that permeates its culture and land, which is such a part of its charm," says Nancy Davids, Collette's product manager for Asia and Hawaii.
Collette's program, “Mysteries of India,” will include a two-night stay in a palace, stays at five-star Taj Hotels, an elephant ride to Amber Fort, a horse and carriage or "Tonga" ride to the Taj Mahal, a visit to Mother Theresa's Charity Home, and an opportunity to dine with a retired military serviceman and his family. Call 800-541-3788; www.collettevacations.com
Goway Travel, one of Canada's leading tour operators, reports bookings to India have been drawing record numbers of North Americans. "India seems to have taken off for many travelers wanting that "best value" vacation to an exotic destination", says Doug Vogl, Product and Marketing Manager, Asia. "Consumers see that India offers an extremely affordable vacation permitting them to visit cities like New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Mumbai, Varanasi and Madras - to name a few." Goway's ultimate package is the fully escorted 22-day Splendors of India- one of their signature Holidays of a Lifetime trips. Call 800-387-8850; E-mail email@example.com.
Gutsy Women Travels, a tour company started in 2001 and now a division of Gate 1, designs trips for women, has added India to its 2008 schedule. The 11-day trip features Northern India with visits to Old and New Delhi, Agra and the Pink City of Jaipur. Said April M. Merenda, President and Co-Founder of Gutsy Women Travel. "India is one of the most intriguing places on earth, a wonderful contrast of ancient and modern, but the logistics of navigating India can often be quite daunting. What we have done is taken care of all the coordinating and tailored an itinerary that appeals to women travelers. Call 866-464-8879; E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; www.gutsywomen travel.com
Trains, Tigers and Wine
In October India welcomed two new attractions. The Vidarbha Queen Express, India’s first jungle safari train and the Deccan Odyssey. Vidarbha visits Tadoba National Park, Maharashtra’s oldest Tiger Reserve, endowed with biodiversity and home to the Royal Bengal Tiger, India’s national animal ,currently in danger of extinction. Other tiger reserves in Maharashtra are the Melghat Tiger Reserve located on the southern region of the Satpura Hill Range, 140 miles from the Nagpur Airport close to Chikaldhara, in the north east of the State and the Pench Tiger Reserve.
Planning for the future, the Government of Maharashtra along with The Japanese Bank of International Cooperation has embarked on a $95 million investment to conserve the Ajanta and Ellora region.
The Deccan Odyssey (below), India’s newest began its 2007-2008 season on October 3. The Deccan Odyssey takes visitors on an seven-night journey departing every Wednesday from the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) in Mumbai (Bombay) between October and April.
The Deccan Odyssey features 21 air-conditioned coaches which include two world-class restaurants, a spa, gym, hair salon, steam/sauna, and massage, yoga and business centers. The world-renowned Taj Group operates the spa, dining and housekeeping facilities, which includes 24-hour room service. Visit www.maharashtratourism.gov.in
Wes Anderson's new movie release The Darjeeling Limited set aboard a train with the same name. Greaves Tours’ prices start at $2,065 per person double land-only through April 2008. Its famous cousin, Palace on Wheels, is priced from $2,205 per person double for land arrangements only. Call 800-318-7801; www.greavesindia.com
The University of Adelaide, Australia recently signed an agreement to open India’s first wine institute in association with Chateau Indage, India’s largest wine-making company and a pioneer in the Indian wine industry. The institute, located in the town of Narayangaon, 50 miles from Pune, will be fully operational in 2008. www.chateauindage.com
For information, contact India Tourism, 800-953-9399; 212-586-4901; or on the West Coast, 213-380-8855; www.incredibleindia.org
July 2007 Feature
Madhya Pradesh, a State for Mind and Body
By Maria Lisella
Called the “Heart of India,” Madhya Pradesh not only happens to be set in the center of the country, but it is also considered a link to the spiritual soul of India. Home to the cultural heritage of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Islam, the State is rife with monuments, exquisitely carved temples, stupas, forts and palaces and its own heartbeat.
Additionally its natural beauty varies from its very consistent wide plateaus to spectacular mountain ranges, meandering rivers and miles and miles of dense forests that are home to sought after wildlife in sylvan surroundings.
Usually, the tourist path to India skips Madhya Pradesh, but travelers are discovering the romance, mystery and seductiveness of this region.
The small national park of Bandhavgarh nestled within the picturesque Satpura hills, makes it one of India's most scenic parks. The landscape features tropical forests and woodlands, and steep rocky hills with flat grasslands in the valleys below. This forested area is renowned for tiger, leopard, jackal, jungle cat, wild boar, sloth bear, nilghai and sambhar and boasts the highest density of the Tiger population in India as well as the White Tiger. Until recently, White Tigers had not been found in the old state of Rewa for many years and the last known was captured by Maharajah Martand Singh in 1951.
Today, the exclusive Taj Hotels owns and operates a 12-suite property known as Mahua Kothi, a name that draws its inspiration from one of India's most beautiful trees, the Madhuca Indica, commonly known as the butter tree. Pronounced ma-hoo-a, this tree with its fleshy off - white flowers plays a central role in festivals and rituals, as the vitamins, minerals and sugar-rich flowers are used in a number of ways. The twelve suites or Kutiyas (jungle village huts) are newly built in the 40-acre grounds of the renowned tented camp formerly known as Churhat Kothi. The original Kothi (homestead) remains but all guestrooms have been extensively renovated.
An Introductory offer of $600 per person per night offers a full jungle package in high season (Nov. 1 to April 15) that includes all meals, accommodations, safaris including elephant safaris, transfers and other amenities. Call 011-91 983 328 9941; E-mail email@example.com; www.tajhotels.com
Unmarked on most maps of India, tiny, dusty Khajuraho seems at first a drab village, until visitors get a good look at the temples. Close up you cannot miss the entwined bodies, the burst of creativity and the sensuality of this paean to the physicality of achieving a higher state of spiritualism.
Of the 85 temples that took the Chandella dynasty 100 years to build, just 22 survive. Those 22 are gems set on granite bases. The tower and spire profiles against the sky symbolize the mountains where gods are said to reside. During the 11th century, the temples of Khajuraho were set on what was once a man-made lake that pilgrims visited by rowing from one temple to the next. Tourism arrived in 1968 with the establishment of an airport.
Today, a Son-et-Lumière, Sound and Light Show evokes the life and times of the great Chandela Kings and traces the story of the temples from the 10th Century to the present day. Mounted in the complex of the Western Group of temples, the 50-minute show runs in Hindi and in English every evening. Amitabh Bachchan, the Indian super star, narrates the story of Khajuraho in his mesmerizing voice. Among the accommodations available in Khajuraho are the Hotel Chandela, a 98-room Taj property with a swimming pool; a 56-room Holiday Inn also with a pool; and the Kairali Ayurvedic Health Spa among others.
Perched along the Vindhya ranges at an altitude of 2,000 feet, Mandu, with its natural defenses, was originally the fort capital of the Parmar rulers of Malwa. Towards the end of the 13th century, it came under the sway of the Sultans of Malwa, the first of whom named it Shadiabad - 'city of joy'. And indeed the pervading spirit of Mandu was of gaiety; and its rulers built exquisite palaces like the Jahaz and Hindola Mahals, ornamental canals, baths and pavilions.
Each of Mandu's structures is an architectural gem; such as the massive Jami Masjid and Hoshang Shah's tomb that are thought to have inspired the master builders of the Taj Mahal centuries later.
For more information on India and Madhya Pradesh, call the India Tourist Office, 800-953-9399; on the west coast, 213-380-8855; www.incredibleindia.org
June 2007 Feature
MAHARASaHTRA: Gateway to India
As India's third largest state in terms of area and second largest in terms of population, Maharashtra and its increasing tourism industry has a lot to offer visitors. Located on the southwestern coast of the Indian subcontinent, the Arabian Sea makes up the state's western coast and Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India's largest city, is the capital.
More than Just Business
“We propose to position Maharashtra both as a business hub as well as a gateway to leisure activities. Since Maharashtra is industrially the most progressive State in India, it also can provide leisure destinations from the long stretches of unspoiled, unpolluted beach fronts on the State’s 720 kms of coastline, to other places of scenic beauty throughout the State,” said Vishwas Dhonde, spokesperson for the Maharashtra Tourism Development Company in Mumbai.
At the heart of the State is the cultural energy of Mumbai (Bombay), the cradle of the world’s largest and fastest growing film industry, “Bollywood”. Here, over 120 films are produced per year, showcasing glamorous film stars, elaborate sets, magical tunes and intricate choreography. Visitors can experience the magic of the cinema in person by visiting Film City, where many Bollywood blockbusters are filmed.
Originally a Portuguese colony in the 17th century, Mumbai (Bombay) has evolved into the commercial capital of India. This cosmopolitan metropolis is home to over 17 million people who speak over 12 languages and practice virtually every religion in the nation. Mumbai’s busy and high-paced streets lead visitors to world-class cultural institutions, fabulous shopping, spectacular dining and an incredible nightlife.
Maharashtra houses 80% of the cave complexes in India, some dating back to the 2nd Century BC. Maharashtra also has 350 forts including marvelous sea forts like Murud-Janjira and Sindhudurg. With 35 Wild Life Sanctuaries and six National Parks -- including two Tiger Reserves -- the State of Maharashtra offers these unique destinations for holidays to all types of tourists,” said Dhonde.
Maharasthra is home to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the majestic Ellora and Ajanta Caves. Composed of 34 monasteries and temples dating from A.D. 600, the Ellora Caves host sanctuaries devoted to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, which illustrate the spirit of tolerance that was characteristic of ancient India. The Ajanta Caves, 27 breathtaking rock-cut caves, are famous for their vivid frescoes that depict the life of the Buddha and date back to the 2nd Century B.C.
Maharashtra is surrounded by over 350 spectacular, centuries-old forts commissioned by many of the rulers of the region, can be visited by travelers today. One of the most popular is the Jazira-Mehruba Fort in the coastal town of Murud-Janjira. Built in 1511 by the Siddis, it still stands after numerous attacks by the Portuguese, the British and the Marathas.
An excellent way to visit all of the major sites of Maharashtra is to board the elegant Deccan Odyssey train for a tour of the region. A joint venture between the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation and Indian Railways, the Deccan Odyssey train is a private, 96-passenger first-class hotel, featuring private elegantly appointed suites and bathrooms, two restaurants offering exceptional cuisine, a gym, and a spa.
Maharashtra’s cuisine is a product of the region’s many ethnic influences. Delicious meals relatively unknown outside of India can be sampled throughout the state, including the ever-popular bhelpuri. Sold everywhere, this sweet, sour and crunchy snack is a combination of fried thin dough mixed with puffed rice, boiled potatoes, chopped onions, peanuts, besan sticks, green coriander and sweet tamarind and chili chatnis, all topped off with a squeeze of lime.
Colorful festivals are celebrated year-round and one of the most popular is the Festival of Janmashtami, the birth of Lord Krishna, in July and August. Mumbai streets fill with thousands of participants building human pyramids to reach pots of butter hung high up in the air, imitating the god's childhood pranks.