Our Vegetarian Food And Drink Journey In Shillong

The moment anyone gets to know about the trip we recently undertook to parts of North-East India, the first question they usually ask is – ‘What did you eat there? I have heard there is no vegetarian food to be found there!’. Now, after our brief sojourn in the North-East, I know that this is a myth – of course, there is vegetarian food to be found there! The husband and I had the same doubts, the same apprehensions, before we undertook this journey – all laid to rest now.

Finding vegetarian food in the North-East, Shillong included

Yes, the North-East is predominantly a meat-eating province. People here are used to eating animals of all sorts, every part of the animal, without wasting anything. That doesn’t mean that there are no vegetarians at all here. There are locals and tourists in the North-East who prefer vegetarian food, and consequently, there are restaurants there that cater to them. Pure-vegetarian places might be tough to come across, but you will surely find vegetarian food in places that serve non-vegetarian food – you should be okay with that before you undertake a trip to the North-East. Also, if you are going to be constantly on the go, flitting from one place to the other, you might not be able to find a purely vegetarian eatery where you are.

Shillong, in Meghalaya, being a major tourist attraction and a town, has a generous smattering of restaurants, small and big. Most of these eateries are located around Laitmukhrah and Police Bazaar. There are several stalls selling eatables of all sorts around tourist spots in and around Shillong, like Umiam Lake, Don Bosco Cathedral, Ward’s Lake, the Don Bosco Centre For Indigenous Culture, and Lady Hydari Park. Walk around any of these areas, and explore the local foods at your pace, that’s what I would recommend!

Our foodie sojourn in Shillong, Meghalaya

Now that that is off my chest, let me tell you all about the vegetarian fare we enjoyed in Shillong, one of the places we stayed at in the course of our holiday.

Indian sweets at a nameless sweet shop in Laitmukhrah

Post our sojourn at the ancient Don Bosco Cathedral in Laitmukhrah, Shillong, we headed to a little sweet shop without a name, nearby, for cups of tea. It was tea ‘o clock too, but the husband and I got fascinated by the Indian sweets on display in the glass showcase at the front of the shop. We ended up ordering some, and getting delighted by one of them in particular.

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Top left: Rasmalai, Bottom left: Mishti doi, Top right: Gulab jamun, Bottom right: Malai chamcham – the sweets we sampled at the shop

The gulab jamun here was average, and the mishti doi was sour and utterly forgettable. The malai chamcham was beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, though – so very well done, fresh and light and mildly sweet. The rasmalai here was exquisite, too.

I don’t remember exactly how much we paid here, but I do remember that it wasn’t much. The grub here was far, far less expensive than it would have been in a place like Bangalore.

Vegetarian Khasi fare at Red Rice, Police Bazaar

In the bustling Police Bazaar area in Shillong, restaurants are aplenty. You’ll find pure vegetarian food here, as well as eateries serving a mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian fare. Then, there’s the plethora of street food available here – in the evenings, this area veritably turns into a street food haven, especially for meat lovers.

We wanted to sample some Khasi fare, the food of the Khasi tribe that majorly inhabits Shillong. At our tour operator’s suggestion, we headed to Red Rice in Police Bazaar, a place that prides itself on serving authentic vegetarian and non-vegetarian Khasi food. We ended up thoroughly enjoying our meal here.

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Left: The vegetarian Khasi thali that we had, Centre: Buddha’s Delight, Right: Khasi-style red rice, at Red Rice

The husband had a vegetarian Khasi thali that was an extremely simple, yet hearty affair. The daal cooked with greens was simply beautiful, as was the mustard-y onion salad. The mixed vegetable curry and chutney that were part of the thali were oh-so-flavourful, too!

I got myself a bowl of Khasi-style red rice and one of Buddha’s Delight, the last one being a mix of soup, thin noodles and veggies. The Buddha’s Delight was, again, such a simple thing, but so very flavourful – adding oodles of oomph to the plain red rice.

It was, sort of, marvellous to see how a meal could be cooked up with so little ingredients and yet be fulfilling. We, city-dwellers, do have a lot to learn from people like the Khasis, who live every day in the face of hardships.

We paid about INR 250 for this meal, as far as I can remember.

A blah dinner at Cafe Shillong

Most of the travel guides we read about Shillong seemed to mention Cafe Shillong, all praises for the local bands that play here over the weekend and the wonderful food the cafe serves. When we visited, though, it was a week day, and there was no band.

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Part of the decor at the famed Cafe Shillong

The food here, sadly, didn’t meet the high expectations that we had had. The vegetable clear soup we ordered was strictly okay – watery and lacking in taste. The Pasta Arabiatta was just average, too, as was the Singapore Fried Rice. Well, maybe, this isn’t a great place for vegetarians, I am guessing!

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Left: Vegetable clear soup, Centre: Pasta Arabiatta, Right: Singapore fried rice, at Cafe Shillong

Cafe Shillong happens to be an expensive place, with prices at par with several high-end cafes in Bangalore. I think we paid about INR 900 for this meal.

Pav bhaji and aloo chop at a nameless shop in Laban

Walking around the streets of Laban in Shillong, we came across this small shop run by a Marwari gentleman, a place without a name that sold only vegetarian food. Apart from regular fare like parathas, chowmein and fried rice, this eatery also sold tea, aloo chop, pav bhaji and a variety of chaats.

We had lunch at this little shop one day, and absolutely loved the aloo chops that we tried out. The tangy, spicy, mustard-y sauce that was served with the aloo chops was just brilliant – it was a Shillong special version that tastes both like chilli sauce and kasundi. Must try!

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Left: Pav bhaji, Right: Aloo chops with mustard-chilli sauce and tomato sauce, at the nameless shop in Laban

The pav bhaji we had at this shop wasn’t mind-blowing, but was definitely good.

A beautifully simple Khasi meal at Dew Drop In

While in Shillong, we had the opportunity of staying at Dew Drop In, a lovely place owned by a Khasi family. Our Khasi hosts were more than happy to cook us an authentic local meal with vegetarian ingredients. Here, we got to sample Khasi daal (made with greens), mixed vegetable curry, jado stey (a Khasi dish of rice cooked with turmeric, green peas and onion), a pickle made with local sour berries, along with rotis, curd and green salad. Every single dish that was a part of this meal was absolutely delicious – simple but hearty, well cooked and flavourful.

(Read more about Dew Drop In in my post here!)

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The delicious meal we had at Dew Drop In. Centre: Rotis, From top left, in clock-wise direction: Khasi daal made with greens, mixed vegetable curry, jado stey, pickle, curd and green salad

I know for sure that I am going to try making the Khasi daal and jado stey at home!

Gorgeous juicy pineapples en route to Shillong

On the way to Shillong from Guwahati, you will come across many little stalls that sell a variety of things, from pickles made the old-fashioned way to local varieties of bananas, jackfruit, banana flowers, pineapples and arum root.

We made a pit-stop at a couple of these stores, and the beautiful pineapples here were what caught our fancy the most. We ate the loveliest ever pineapples here – perfectly ripe, so sweet the slices felt like they were dipped in sugar syrup, so juicy the juice ran down to our elbows when we bit into them. The taste of these pineapples still lingers on in my mind, and I now realise how much the fruit available in Bangalore pales in comparison to this gorgeousness.

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Left: One of the little shops selling pickles, pineapples and a variety of other things, en route to Shillong from Guwahati, Right: The gorgeous pineapples that we sampled at one of these stores

Apparently, the weather, the rolling slopes of the hills, the soil all over Meghalaya are extremely conducive to growing pineapples, and they abound in the state, lovely ones at that.

An utterly forgettable dinner at Lamee’s

One of the days we stayed in Shillong, we dined at Lamee’s – a big, multi-cuisine eatery that offers both vegetarian and non-vegetarian fare – at Police Bazaar. Sadly, the meal was utterly forgettable, with everything that we tried out lacking in flavour.

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Left: Green salad, Centre: Vegetarian chowmein, Right: Burnt garlic fried rice, at Lamee’s

The vegetarian chowmein at Lamee’s was nothing special, and neither was the burnt garlic fried rice.

The prices at Lamee’s are on the higher side, though. I remember paying about INR 700 or so for our meal.

Vegetarian momos and jhalmuri near Ward’s Lake

We tried out the vegetarian momos from one of the street-side stalls outside Ward’s Lake, for all of INR 20. The momos had a thick, floury shell (as opposed to the thin covering I am used to in momos in Bangalore), but the filling was delicious. The same was the case with the vegetarian momos we tried out at a street-side stall in Police Bazaar, too.

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Left: A plate of vegetarian momos, Right: Jhalmuri, outside Ward’s Lake

The jhalmuri we had from another street stall at Ward’s Lake was not great, though.

Local berries at Golf Course

We came across this lady selling assorted local berries, while walking around the Golf Course in Shillong. She was sweet enough to oblige us for some photographs, and sweeter to offer the bub a toffee!

We had a good time trying out this berry and that. Most were lip-puckeringly sour, though, and, I am sure, would have made for gorgeous pickles. I forget the local names, though.

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Left: The lady selling local berries at the Golf Course, Centre: The assorted berries the lady had on offer, Right: One of the types of berries that we sampled – sour, sour, sour!

You can find these berries on sale at Police Bazaar, too, in case you are interested, along with oranges, apples, bananas, strawberries and litchis.

The lovely litchi drink from Bangladesh

Our cab driver suggested that we should try our this litchi drink from Bangladesh, commonly available in Shillong. We picked up a couple of bottles, for INR 10 each, and they were absolutely delightful!

We even got some of these bottles back to Bangalore as souvenirs!

In conclusion…

Well, that was all about the food (and drink) that we tried out while in Shillong. So, you see, vegetarians aren’t exactly in a position to starve to death in this part of the world, at least not in Shillong? 🙂

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I hope you have been reading and enjoying my other posts about our trip to North-East India! If you haven’t, here are the links for you!

The beginning of school, and a schoolmoon

Visiting the abode of Kamakhya, the powerful menstruating Goddess

10 reasons to plan for at least a day’s stay in Mawlynnong, Asia’s cleanest village

Playing hide-and-seek with the clouds in Meghalaya

10 experiences we thoroughly enjoyed in Shillong

The living root bridge of Nohwet village, near Mawlynnong

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10 Experiences We Thoroughly Enjoyed In Shillong

Our recent trip to the North-East began with a brief stop at the sweltering Guwahati, where the only thing we managed to do was visit the famed Kamakhya temple, that too from the outside. The next morning, armed with a good night’s rest, all rejuvenated and excited, we set out for Shillong by road, an approximately 2.5-hour journey if you don’t come across any major traffic jams. We were to stay in Shillong for 2 days.

The roads between Guwahati and Shillong are excellent, and we had a very smooth drive. In fact, we wouldn’t even have realised we had neared Shillong if the quality of the air hadn’t begun to change after a certain point. The closer we got to Shillong, the clearer, the crisper, the colder, the air became. Shillong itself was cold, in the peak of the monsoon season, and we set about sightseeing with jackets and umbrellas in tow.

A brief note about Shillong

From the time of the British rule until 1972, Shillong was the capital of the state of Assam (back then, an undivided state as Meghalaya hadn’t yet been formed). In the year 1972, when Meghalaya became a separate state, Shillong was retained as its capital, while Guwahati was chosen as the capital of Assam.

Shillong is a small but extremely beautiful city – with rolling hills, flowers, waterfalls and pine trees all around. The city enjoys pleasant weather all year round, thanks to its location of about 4000 feet above sea level, but is all the more beautiful in the period from March to June.

The city gets its name from U Shyllong, a revered deity of the local Khasi tribe. Shillong has also been nicknamed ‘Scotland of the East’ because, apparently, the beautiful weather and rolling hills of the city reminded the Britishers of Scotland.

Close on the heels of the British, Christian missionaries arrived in Shillong, establishing churches and schools and spreading Christianity among the local tribespeople. Some of the educational institutes established in Shillong during this period – St Edmunds and IIM-Shillong, for instance – have made the city proud and famous. You will find several relics from the British rule and the reign of the missionaries in Shillong, including the city’s famous rock-and-roll culture. Most of the locals here still follow Christianity, introduced to them by the missionaries. Archery, golf, football and polo are popular sports here.

10 experiences we thoroughly enjoyed in Shillong

We fell in love with Shillong at first glance. As we explored the place, a little on foot and a little by cab, this love only deepened.

Shillong is a popular tourist destination, and it was teeming with people when we visited. We were lucky, though, to manage some off-the-beaten-track experiences here, along with checking out the local tourist spots.

Would you like to know which experiences in Shillong we loved the most? Here you go!

1. Gorging on gorgeous pineapples en route to Shillong

On the way to Shillong from Guwahati, you will come across many little stalls that sell a variety of things, from pickles made the old-fashioned way to local varieties of bananas, jackfruit, banana flowers, pineapples and arum root.

You will come across a vast number of pickles here – bamboo shoot, mango, local berries, gooseberries, raw mango, local fish varieties, and what not. These pickles are made (and sold at these stalls) by people residing in the villages, in the mountains en route. Most of these pickles contain nothing but salt, chilli powder and oil, and are preserved the ancient way – using sunlight.

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One of the little stalls that we passed en route to Shillong from Guwahati. Look at all those bottles of pickles lined up!

We made a pit-stop at a couple of these stores, and the beautiful pineapples here were what caught our fancy the most. We ate the loveliest ever pineapples here – perfectly ripe, so sweet the slices felt like they were dipped in sugar syrup, so juicy the juice ran down to our elbows when we bit into them. The taste of these pineapples still lingers on in my mind, and I now realise how much the fruit available in Bangalore pales in comparison to this gorgeousness.

The families manning these stalls are very friendly too, and we had a lovely time clicking photographs of them and talking to them as we ate.

2. Basking in the beautiful views of the Umiam Lake

About 15 km away from Shillong lies the beautiful, beautiful Umiam Lake. This 220 square km man-made lake was built as part of a hydroelectric project by the Assam State Electricity Board. Over time, the lake has grown to become a major tourist attraction and picnic spot for the locals. Now, you will find stalls selling snacks, photo ops, washrooms, a play area for kids, adventure sports and boating facilities here, too.

The lake looks exceptionally lovely, breath-takingly so, during sunset. You can view the lake from a viewpoint on the highway passing above it, too, and this view is extremely pretty as well.

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Aerial view of Umiam lake, from the highway above. Isn’t that super picturesque?

They say the Umiam lake looks different at different times of the day, depending on how the light falls over the waters. It looks different in different seasons, too, apparently. We spent some quiet time here, just sitting and gazing at the calm, seemingly unruffled waters of the lake, in awe of its beauty.

3. Getting up close and personal with the ducks at Ward’s Lake

All of us – the husband, bub and I – absolutely loved Ward’s Lake in Shillong. This large lake, with a big garden around it is so very pretty! In a lot of ways – the variety of trees in the park, the sloping grounds, the cobbled pathways – reminded me of Sims Park in Ooty, a place beloved to the husband and me.

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Part of the beautiful, beautiful Ward’s Lake in Shillong

We spent quite a bit of time at Ward’s Lake, leisurely walking around the garden, soaking in the beauty around us. We had a lovely paddle-boat ride in the lake – something we dismissed as a very touristy thing to do initially, but absolutely loved it once we got into it. The bub loved, loved, loved watching the ducks at the park in action – they are so used to people that they get really, really close to you; we had never seen ducks at such close quarters before.

If we had had more time, I’d have loved to lounge around in Ward’s Lake for hours on end, reading a book and just inhaling as much of that pollution-free air as I could.

4. Exploring the delights of Police Bazaar

Police Bazaar is one of the biggest markets of Shillong city, a bustling place that is best explored on foot. Here, you will find shops selling everything, from readymade garments, cosmetics, footwear and groceries to the locally produced betelnut, knives, berries, plants, fruits and vegetables and bamboo handicrafts – all at very reasonable rates.

In this bazaar, you will find several traditional eateries, modern cafes, bakeries and sweet shops, too. Come evening, and the bazaar comes alive, transforming into a food lover’s paradise, with road-side stalls selling kebabs, chaat, roasted peanuts, noodles, chowmein, fried eggs, and what not.

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Women prepping the locally grown betelnut at Police Bazaar, Shillong

We loved the time we spent walking around the bylanes of Police Bazaar, taking in the sights and sounds and smells, trying to capture as much of the action as we could on camera, bargaining and shopping, understanding the ways of the locals, experimenting with local food.

Yes, the Police Bazaar area can become quite crowded, especially during the evenings, but I would highly recommend a visit here. This place will definitely give you a taste of local flavours.

5. Checking out the ‘Skywalk’ at Don Bosco Centre For Indigenous Culture

The Don Bosco Centre For Indigenous Culture in Mawlai, Shillong, is a great starting point if you want to understand the cultures of the many tribes that reside in North-East India. The museum houses pictures of the various tribespeople, their clothing, utensils and jewellery, as well as life-size models depicting their daily lives. The little shop in the museum sells Meghalaya-special souvenirs, such as locally grown tea and turmeric powder, as well bamboo handicrafts. There is a small cafe in the museum premises, too, which will give you a taste of North-Eastern food.

To be honest, the husband and I weren’t too impressed with the museum. It is extensive, yes, and it is definitely a good place to understand North-Eastern cultures. That said, there was an air of commercialisation around it, that feeling of there being too many models and not enough actual relics from the past like you would expect to see in a museum like this. That said, I still maintain that this is a place you mustn’t miss out on, on your visit to Shillong.

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A church, set against the backdrop of the city and the hills, as seen from the Skywalk

The part of the museum that we absolutely loved was the ‘Skywalk’, a winding pathway that takes you up, up, up, from where you can get breath-taking views of Shillong. Don’t forget to check out the Skywalk whenever you visit the museum!

6. Soaking in the peace at the Shillong Gaden Choeling Monastery

The Shillong Gaden Choeling Monastery is not your typical tourist destination. It is a place of worship for Buddhist monks, a small place nestled in the foothills of Lumparing, Shillong. It is a scenic place, though, and a very peaceful one.

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Prayer wheels at the monastery

We visited the monastery early in the morning, while incense was being burnt near the prayer wheels and the chants of the monks filled the air around us. There were no other tourists, and the place emanated a pleasant, peaceful, relaxed vibe. We just walked around for a while, looking at this and that, and that sat in to bask in the peaceful atmosphere. Absolute bliss, I tell you!

7. Staying at the home of a Khasi family, at Dew Drop In

The husband and I have always loved staying in homestays wherever we go. We think it is a great way of understanding local culture and cuisine, a wonderful opportunity to interact with locals. Now, with the bub travelling with us, homestays work out best for us, where we manage to get kid-friendly food and other necessities under the same roof, without too much of a hassle.

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Dew Drop In, the charming homestay we stayed at, in Shillong

While in Shillong, we were thrilled to know that our tour operator had arranged for a day’s stay at Dew Drop In, the home of a Khasi (one of the local tribes) family. The property is extremely beautiful, well managed and maintained. We had a delightful time staying here, looking around the place, admiring the artful way the house has been done up, checking out the gorgeous plants here, just chatting, reading on the terrace, and gorging on some wonderful Khasi food. Our guests were super friendly and courteous, taking care of our every need, and that made our stay all the more pleasant.

Don’t miss staying at this place whenever you are visiting Shillong. I can assure you that the experience will be totally worth it!

8. Relaxing at the Don Bosco Cathedral

The Mary Help Of Christians Cathedral in Shillong, popularly called the Don Bosco Cathedral is quite a popular tourist spot in the city. And why not? The church, said to be one of the oldest is Shillong, is a beautiful, beautiful Gothic structure. The surroundings are lush green, filled with the flowers that are a common sight all over Shillong. What’s more, you get a majestic view of the mountains of Shillong if you climb all the way to the top of the cathedral. I also hear the Cathedral housed refugees in times of war, saving them from the clutches of hunger and death.

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At the Don Bosco Cathedral, Shillong

This is the sort of place that fills you with peace the moment you set foot in it. There is that charming, old-world aura to the place, and memories of all those prayers that must have taken place here rush to you as you walk around. All that unadulterated, natural beauty around is sure to make you feel heady, as is the beautiful weather of Shillong. We spent a couple of hours here, much more than the average 15-20 minutes usually allotted to this place, just relaxing and soaking in the loveliness of it all. We absolutely loved every bit of it.

9. Walking along the very pretty golf course

The golf course at Shillong is a beautiful, beautiful thing. You might think – as we did, initially – about what exactly there is to see at a golf course. But, there is! This golf course is a huge expanse of green, dotted with pine trees, with some gorgeous views.

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At the beautiful Golf Course, Shillong

You must spend some relaxed time here, like we did – walking around, soaking in the peace, sampling local berries from the women vendors who frequent the place, taking pictures of the amazing surroundings, reading a book or listening to music, collecting pine cones, sitting below the pine trees and taking in their gorgeous scent as the wind ruffles their branches… this surely is a place that needs to be cherished.

10. Hogging authentic Khasi food at Red Rice and Dew Drop In

Being the foodie that I am, I wanted to try out at least a few authentic Khasi dishes while we were in Shillong. Considering that we are pure vegetarians and that the people of the North-East are predominantly meat-eaters, this was a slightly difficult task. Thankfully, our tour guide directed us to the right places where we did manage to get hold of some very authentic, vegetarian Khasi food.

During our stay at Dew Drop In, our Khasi hosts were more than happy to cook us an authentic local meal with vegetarian ingredients. Here, we got to sample Khasi daal (made with greens), mixed vegetable curry, jado stey (a Khasi dish of rice cooked with turmeric, green peas and onion), a pickle made with local sour berries, along with rotis, curd and green salad. Every single dish that was a part of this meal was absolutely delicious – simple but hearty, well cooked and flavourful.

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The very Khasi meal we had at Dew Drop In

Another such beautiful meal was at Red Rice in Police Bazaar, a small eatery that prides itself on serving proper Khasi food. Here, we sampled a Khasi thali, served with the locally consumed red rice. It was, sort of, marvelous to see how a meal could be cooked up with so little ingredients and yet be so fulfilling, so lovely. It set me thinking as to how we city dwellers do have a lot to learn from these people of the hills, who live every day in the face of hardships.

Khasi fare is definitely something that I want to try out in my own kitchen. Hopefully, soon!

In hindsight…

Well, that is all about the experiences we loved having in Shillong city. But then, of course, that is not all there is to Shillong. There is a whole lot more to be felt, explored, in the city, and I am so sure we have simply touched the outermost fringes. Beneath its touristy, vibrant exterior, there are surely layers to Shillong that we can fathom only when we make several more journeys to the place.

Apart from these experiences, we also visited the Rabindranath Tagore museum and Lady Hydari Park in Shillong. In this post, though, I chose to write only about those experiences that we absolutely loved.

I hope you had fun reading this!

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Have you read my other posts about our North-East trip? If you haven’t yet, please do!

The beginning of school and a ‘schoolmoon’

Visiting the abode of Kamakhya, the powerful menstruating Goddess

10 reasons to plan for at least a day’s stay at Mawlynnong, Asia’s cleanest village

Playing hide-and-seek with the clouds in Meghalaya

10 Reasons To Plan For At Least A Day’s Stay at Mawlynnong, Asia’s Cleanest Village

About 80 km away from Shillong and Cherrapunjee, amidst the hills of Meghalaya, there lies a little village called Mawlynnong. In June 2015, the village was recorded to have 500 residents.

Nature is at its bountiful best in and around the village, as it is everywhere in Meghalaya, and the Indo-Bangladesh border isn’t very far. These aren’t the things that the village of Mawlynnong is known for, though. The village – often referred to as ‘God’s own garden’ – is known for the cleanliness it maintains. The Discover India magazine did a feature on the place in the year 2003, calling it ‘the cleanest village in Asia’. Mawlynnong, slowly and gradually, began to get famous post this. Today, it has hundreds of tourists visiting it, wanting to check out whether it is actually as neat and clean as claims have been made for it to be.

I got interested in Mawlynnong after seeing this video about the place, a while ago, a WhatsApp forward. I thought it was definitely a place that I would like to at least ‘check out’. Then, I mentally added the place to my ever-growing list of places-I-must-visit. Little did I know then that my wish was about to come true, and soon enough at that.

When we were planning for our ‘schoolmoon’ to parts of North-East India, our tour guide asked if we would like to visit Mawlynnong. It was then that a tubelight flashed on in my head, and I made the connection – The video I had seen some time ago? That place was in North-East India, near Shillong, where we would be staying for a bit. We HAD to visit it – this was a God-made plan! ‘Of course!,’ I told him. And that was that.

‘Not many people stay in Mawlynnong, though,’ he warned us. ‘Most tourists just go there, look around for a while, take a few pictures, and then head back. There’s nothing much to do there – it’s a small village, after all. You guys will be staying there for a night, since you are on a week’s holiday,’ he clarified.

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When We Reached Mawlynnong..

… after a ride through extremely scenic roads, we realised what our tour guide had meant. Charming as the village was, with its huts and cobbled streets and greenery everywhere, it was small – we could walk through its length and breadth in the matter of an hour. However, at the end of our day’s stay in Mawlynnong, the husband and I had fallen in love with the place. Mawlynnong had turned out to be the highlight of our entire trip – the place we had bonded with the most. When it was time to go, we left Mawlynnong with heavy hearts, wishing we could have been there longer, promising each other we would come back to the village, hopefully soon, hopefully for longer.

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See how seriously the village takes cleanliness?

Yes, there’s nothing much to do in Mawlynnong, if you consider the place from a tourist’s perspective. But, that is precisely what we loved here. We loved the way silence engulfed us here. We loved the fact that there is nothing – absolutely nothing – to divert your attention from the village – no TV in the homestay we stayed at, no Internet connection, no WiFi. We loved walking through the clean, clean, clean village, listening to the sound of a mountain stream gushing by, admiring the little gardens in everyone’s front yards. We loved talking to the locals, watching them go about their everyday business. We loved the quaint, ancient church that the village houses. We loved climbing up on to the viewpoints that have been built in the village, here and there, gawping at the views that they had to offer.

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A treehouse that acts as a viewpoint, in Mawlynnong village

So, whenever you get around to planning a trip to Meghalaya, the husband and I would urge you not to make Mawlynnong just a stop-over. We would highly recommend staying here, soaking in the charms of the village, at least for a day.

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10 Things We Enjoyed Doing In Mawlynnong, And Think You Would Too

Here are the things we loved doing in Mawlynnong, things that we would suggest you do too.

1. Walk around the village.

A walk around the village is surely something that I would suggest you do, either early in the morning or in the evening. Take the time to watch the villagers go about their daily chores, and be prepared to get touched by how simply they lead their lives. Talk to them, learn about their lives, the way we did – we found them so friendly and jovial!

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One of the houses in Mawlynnong village. Prettiness, ain’t it?

The village is small, but very pretty, with cobbled streets and huts with thatched roofs, little gardens in the front yard and roosters crowing in them. And, yes, Mawlynnong is really as clean as clean can be – it is tough to come across a speck of dirt on the roads. Villagers take sanitation and cleanliness seriously, and any locals or tourists who litter, defecate or spit on the roads are instantly penalised. Bamboo dustbins line the streets, and that is the only place trash goes to in this village, very seriously. Smoking is prohibited, and the use of plastic is extremely limited. There is no home without a toilet.

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A house in Mawlynnong. Can you spot the pineapples on the porch?

What is commendable is that this cleanliness drive is an initiative not by the government, but by the village itself. I understand there was once a bad bout of cholera in the village, following which the villagers decided to always actively keep their surroundings clean. They have been at it ever since.

This is no ordinary Indian village – you will surely enjoy walking through its nooks and crannies.

2. Visit the beautiful, ancient village church.

Mawlynnong houses the Church Of The Ephiphany, a beautiful, beautiful structure that was established as far back as 1902. It is a delight to walk around the church, imagining village life as it might once have been, when it would have been inhabited by the Britishers. There are still hints of the British Raj here – the very English accents of the locals, their difficulty in comprehending Hindi, their very Christian ways of living and praying.

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Church Of The Ephiphany, at Mawlynnong

The church doubles up as the village school and, as we walked around, we heard the voices of kids repeating their lessons aloud after their teachers. Their melodious voices and cherubic faces (we couldn’t resist a peek in!) lifted our spirits to no end.

3. Check out the neighbouring plains of Bangladesh.

If you climb up – high, high, high – on one of the few viewpoints in Mawlynnong, you can view the plains of Bangladesh that are right next to the village. The bamboo viewpoints are very well constructed, and the one that we climbed up on was quite sturdy and easy to access. The view from the top is lovely – you get a bird’s eye view of the entire village, all the greenery it is filled with, as well as the beginning of Bangladesh.

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Those plains in the distance, beyond the stand of trees? That’s where India ends and Bangladesh begins. Viewed from atop a viewpoint in Mawlynnong village.

You would be required to pay a small sum (INR 20 per head, I think) to use the viewpoints.

4. Breakfast at a village shack.

There are no fancy restaurants or even medium-sized eateries in Mawlynnong. There are a few small shacks, though, that serve a limited number of snacks, drinks and food items. Most of these shacks have the owner’s family living out back.

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One of the shacks serving tea and snacks in Mawlynnong village

It is a good idea to sit down for a while at one of these shacks, nibbling on some snacks and sipping on a cup of tea as you look out at the villagers going about. It is an experience that will surely rejuvenate you, for the fact that it is so very simple.

5. Shop for souvenirs at a local store.

As you walk around Mawlynnong village, you will come across a few stores (thatched huts that act as stores, actually) selling pineapples, jackfruit and some other souvenirs.

Bamboo is abundant in this part of the world, so you will definitely come across some bamboo artifacts. Considering the proximity to Guwahati – home of the rhinos and Kaziranga National Park – Mawlynnong also sells rhino souvenirs. Most of these souvenirs are quite reasonably priced, and you might want to pick some up for family and friends back home.

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A shop selling fruits and snacks, at Riwai village, just outside Mawlynnong

I treasure the papier mache rhino toy that I bought for Bubboo at one of these stalls, as well as the bamboo tray and miniature waste-paper basket I bought here as keepsakes.

6. Sleep to the light of the fireflies and the sounds of the forest.

At Mawylnnong, we stayed at one of the few homestays within the village. This was no luxurious place, mind you, just a basic place to stay with very basic facilities. We absolutely loved it, though.

We were asked to keep the wooden windows open because of the high humidity levels and cover ourselves with the mosquito nets that had been provided. Bedtime that night proved to be an experience that we will surely cherish, for a long time to come. As we lay down on our beds, the sounds of the forest (there’s a veritable forest in Mawlynnong, what with all the greenery around!) enveloped us. We stopped talking, and just listened – insects chirping, birds calling out, the wind rustling among the trees. We glanced up to see fireflies dancing around above our mosquito nets.

A short while later, it started raining heavily – a thunder shower. Every time lightning struck, it would be so loud that we would jump, feeling as if our very bed had been hit. The sounds soon lulled us to sleep.

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Stairway leading deeper and deeper and deeper into the greenery, in Mawlynnong village

We woke to more forest sounds – birds chirping incessantly, a mountain stream gushing nearby in full force, crickets singing – and those of people beginning their morning chores.

For city dwellers like us, who have gotten overly used to living in a concrete jungle, this experience was nothing short of bliss. I would do it all over again, in a heartbeat.

7. Bathe in the mountain stream.

There is a gorgeous, gorgeous mountain stream flowing right through Mawlynnong. It was in full force when we visited, thanks to the rainfall.

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A stream gushing by.. we thoroughly enjoyed the cold waters of this stream!

We had an absolutely delightful time getting into the cold, cold, cold waters of the stream, bathing under a canopy made by trees, watching crabs scuttling by. The bub loved this experience so much she refused to get out of the stream!

8. Bask in the greenery surrounding the village. 

Mawlynnong is blessed with abundant greenery and natural beauty, like I said before. Betel nut, pineapples, bay leaves and the plant used to make brooms abound here. As per our cabbie, Mawlynnong is one of the country’s biggest producers of betel nut, bay leaves and brooms, supplying them to different states!

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Check out how green the village is, and how clean the roads! All the trash goes into these cone-shaped bamboo baskets that line the streets.

We had never seen fresh bay leaves or the jharu (broom) plant before we visited Mawlynnong, and thoroughly enjoyed these little discoveries. This was also the place where we saw, for the first ever time, pineapple growing on a plant and a blood orange tree (we had always seen these fruits only on supermarket shelves before!).

Sitting on the little balcony of our homestay, looking out at the blessedly green village is another thing that we loved, loved, loved doing. Fat chance of doing something like that in an urban jungle like Bangalore!

9. Gorge on the gorgeous pineapples.

The weather, the rolling slopes of the hills, the soil all over Meghalaya are extremely conducive to growing pineapples, and they abound in the state. You can spot pineapples growing here, in the wild, just like that. There is something special about pineapples of Meghalaya, too – they are beautiful things, too, very sweet and juicy. We had some of the best pineapples we have ever had, in Meghalaya, fresh in a way fruits in the city can never be, explosions of flavour in our mouths, naturally sugary sweet, juice dripping down to our elbows. Mawlynnong – part of Meghalaya, too – was no exception.

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Our first sight of pineapple on a plant!

 

Whenever you visit Mawlynnong, don’t forget to pig out on the locally grown pineapples!

10. Check out the balancing rock.

Mawlynnong is also home to the ‘balancing rock’, the surprising natural phenomenon of a large rock balanced on a tiny one. It is a small sight, true, nothing very grand but, hey, where else do you get to see such a thing?

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The balancing rock at Mawlynnong

You need to pay a small token of INR 10 per head to visit the rock and photograph it. Don’t miss it!

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Tips for travellers

  1. We didn’t see any ATMs in the village, and most of the shacks and stalls accept only cash. Make sure you stock up on cash before you plan for a stay in the village.
  2. Just outside of Mawlynnong, the village of Riwai houses a beautiful living root bridge and an Eco Park. These can be visited en route to Mawlynnong, before you enter the village. Alternatively, you could make the short trek of about 1.5 km to these sites during your stay at Mawlynnong. Do check with your tour operator regarding this.
  3. Private or shared taxis are the only way to enter Mawlynnong. You can easily find cabs plying to Mawlynnong from both Shillong and Cherrapunjee.
  4. A boat ride at Dawki and the Indo-Bangladesh land border at Tamabil can be done en route to Mawlynnong. Please check with your tour operator on this.
  5. Considering that there are only a handful of homestays in Mawlynnong, each with just a couple of rooms, you might want to book your stay well in advance, whenever you plan to visit.
  6. Though Mawlynnong can be visited throughout the year, March-August is the best time to do so. This is when the village is at its greenest best, thanks to the monsoon rains.

Are you tempted enough to plan a stay at Mawlynnong?

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I hope you have been reading, and enjoying, stories from our recent trip to North-East India. If you haven’t, here are the links for you!

Visiting the abode of Kamakhya, the powerful menstruating Goddess

Visiting The Abode Of Kamakhya, The Powerful Menstruating Goddess

An almost three-hour flight journey took us from Bangalore to Guwahati, Assam, the first leg of our recent journey to North East India. The plan was to stay in Guwahati for a day, and then move on to Shillong, from there on to Cherrapunjee, then to Mawylnnong, higher and higher and higher in the hills of Meghalaya.

Guwahati, the largest city in Assam, was sweltering hot when we landed, at about 8.30 AM. The owner of North East Explorers, who had planned this trip for us, met us at the airport. He was quick to assure the crestfallen us of better weather in Meghalaya – where we were to spend the bulk of time during our holiday. With him, we drove to the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati, the first pit-stop of our holiday.

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The beautiful exterior of the Kamakhya temple

I have been fascinated by the Kamakhya temple ever since I read about it, a few years ago. I had heard that this is the temple of the ‘menstruating goddess’, the goddess who bleeds once every year and that people consider her menstrual blood sacred enough to dip their handkerchiefs in it and carry them home, as tokens of good luck. This temple was, definitely, one of the spots I had eagerly wanted to visit, as we planned out this trip to the North East.

History and significance of the temple

Maata Kamakhya or Kamakhya Devi, also known as Maa Shakti, is the presiding deity at this temple, located on the Nilachal Hill, a short drive away from the city centre. The temple is believed to be over 2000 years old, but has been destroyed and rebuilt a few times in the course of time. The structure that exists now is said to be about 500 years old.

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View of the city from atop Nilachal Hill

This temple has several legends associated with it, one of them being about Sati, wife of Lord Shiva. Centuries ago, King Daksh, father of Sati, organised a great yagya, to which he invited everyone except Lord Shiva. Sati went against her husband’s wishes and visited her father’s house, only to be met with humiliation. Saddened, Sati jumped into the sacrificial fire to end her life. On hearing of this, Lord Shiva came running to King Daksh’s place and, in a fit of anger, began performing the tandav nritya (the dance of destruction), holding Sati’s burning body in his hands. Parts of Sati’s body began falling on earth – apparently, 51 different parts of her body fell at 51 different earthly places, most located in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Later, Shakti Peethas (temples that are storehouses of power) came into existence at each of these 51 places. The Kamakhya temple, one of the Shakti Peethas, is the place where Sati’s female organs fell.

Every year, around June or so, the idol of Kamakhya Devi in the temple is said to menstruate. The temple remains closed for the three days of menstruation, when the Goddess is said to be resting. The water that is used to cleanse the idol collects in a pool outside the temple, and this water turns red during the three days that the Goddess is believed to menstruate. After the said three days come to an end, the temple re-opens with the fanfare and celebration of the Ambubachi Mela, a festival that attracts devotees, tantrics, photographers and tourists from all over the world.

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Bells tied by devotees outside the Kamakhya temple

Kamakhya Devi is believed to be a highly powerful Goddess, having the ability to grant all the wishes of her devotees. Thousands of young women visit the temple daily, to pray for wedded bliss and fertility. The temple is considered to be an important spiritual destination and a must-visit tourist spot in the city.

Our experience at the temple

When we visited the temple, it was a weekend. At about 9.30 AM, there was a huge, huge, huge queue of people waiting to get into the temple, snaking up as far into the hills as the eye could see. We had no VIP pass (an idea that I’m not very fond of, to be honest), and, from the looks of it, would have to stand in queue for at least 3 hours to get inside the temple. The walk into the temple, too, would involve much pushing and rushing, being shut in rooms a la Tirupati.

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Pooja items on sale at various shops outside the temple

From the quick look-around that we had outside the temple, though, an unmistakable aura of commercialization came through. Touts called out to us, asking if we would like to meet the Goddess directly, without wasting any time. A number of priests told us they could perform a special pooja for us, in return for a small fee. Scores of shopkeepers tried to cajole us to buy pooja items from them and leave our footwear with them. All this while, throngs of people pulsated around us, pushing and pulling and jostling. The atmosphere was not unlike that at Kalighat in Calcutta, a place whose touts we had been warned against by numerous cabbies. At the Kamakhya temple, the surroundings were, sorrily enough, way too overwhelming and frustrating. I don’t mean to offend anyone’s sentiments here – I’m merely stating what we felt.

(Here‘s a much more prosaic depiction of the surroundings at the Kamakhya temple.)

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The bathing area behind the temple

We were exhausted, hot and hungry, having started from Bangalore as early as 2.30 AM, and the bub was beginning to get cranky and disturbed. The OH and I quickly decided to pay our respects to the Goddess from the outside, and head to our hotel. That is just what we did.

Tips for travellers

  1. The temple is located at a height of about 800 feet, atop a hill. Vehicles can be driven right up to the temple.
  2. There are several viewpoints built around the temple, from where you can get magnificent views of Guwahati city.
  3. There are a huge number of people visiting the temple every day, more so on weekends, festivals and other auspicious days. The temple is open from 8 AM to 1 PM and then from 2.30 PM to 5.30 PM, daily. If you wish to avoid crowds, you should probably consider visiting closer to noon or in the early afternoon.
  4. Beware of the touts who offer devotees a ‘quick’ darshan, in spite of the crowds, in exchange of some money.
  5. You can leave your shoes at any of the several shops selling pooja paraphernalia around the temple, before you enter. You might be required to buy some stuff from them in return, or pay them a small amount for safeguarding your footwear.
  6. General entry to the temple is free of cost, involving a humongous crowd. You could get Special Entry and VIP tickets from the temple ticket counter too, which are believed to get you easier access. For defence and police personnel, these tickets are available at slashed prices.
  7. Photography and videography is prohibited inside the temple.
  8. Animal sacrifices are allowed at the temple, on certain days. If you want to avoid gory scenes, please find out the days these sacrifices are allowed, and plan your visit accordingly.
  9. There are small eateries around the temple where you can grab a quick bite, if you want to.

 

 

 

Travel Shot: Madurai Malli| The Jasmine Flowers Of Madurai

The minute we entered our hotel in Madurai, we were assailed by the heady scent of jasmine. This was no ordinary scent, mind you, but a haunting, beautiful perfume that I haven’t come across with jasmine flowers anywhere. I looked around and, soon enough, found the source of the scent – a strand of jasmine flowers laid before the idol of Ganesha in the reception area. The famous Madurai malli! That moment, more than anything else, drove home the fact that we had, well and truly, arrived in Madurai.

For the uninitiated, the temple town of Madurai is well known for the special variety of jasmine flowers that it produces – popularly called Madurai malli or Madurai mallige. These flowers, grown abundantly in Madurai and surrounding areas, have thicker petals and longer stems, making it easier for flower vendors to string them. Also, these flowers retain their fragrance and freshness for up to two days, making them a huge hit with tourists and locals alike.

Apparently, it is the topography and climate of Madurai that lends the malli its special qualities and fragrance.

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Madurai malli for sale outside the Meenakshi Amman temple

So feted are these flowers, in fact, that they have received their own Geographical Indication (GI) tag! They have found mention in ancient Tamil scriptures as well.

In Madurai, you will come across these flowers for sale everywhere – on pavements, outside big showrooms, in marketplaces and, of course, outside the famous Meenakshi Amman temple. They are commonly sold by quantity here, though – a string of 100 flowers will cost you a certain amount (I forget exactly how much) – as opposed to sale by length (mozham) that I have seen in case of jasmine everywhere else.

How could we resist buying the mallige while in Madurai? I wore strings of them in my hair every day, and basked in the glorious fragrance of them.

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I hope you have been reading and enjoying my posts about our recent trip to Madurai. If you haven’t, here are the links for you!

On a jigarthanda trail in Madurai

Our street food (and drink) journey in Madurai

Madurai Diaries: Of hogging at Nagapattinam Halwa Shop

Thoughts after visiting MS Subbulakshmi’s house in Madurai

Gopu Iyengar’s, Madurai: Serving delicious for 80+ years

Bun sandwiches, 4 ways

Travel shot: Panneer drakshe aka Indian Gulabi grapes

Azhagar kovil dosai| Black urad dosa

The other Azhagar temple in Madurai: Koodal Azhagar kovil

 

 

3-Ingredient Amrakhand| No-Cook Mango Shrikhand 

I first heard the name ‘Amrakhand‘ while we were visiting Pune, en route to Shirdi. The name sounded royal, like something made for a king in the kitchens of his palace. And why not? Amrakhand is, indeed, a regal treat, made with the choicest of mangoes, a fruit often touted as ‘the king of fruits’. Deck it up with slivers of almonds and a dash of saffron, and this beauty can brighten up anyone’s day.

Amrakhand! Now, if that is not a bowl of sunshine, what is?

Considering how beautiful amrakhand tastes, this Maharashtrian delicacy is extremely simple to make. All it needs are a few everyday ingredients. It is, basically, a version of shrikhand – mango shrikhand.

Here‘s my recipe for the amrakhand.

Ingredients (serves 2):

  1. 1 cup fresh, thick hung curd
  2. 2-3 tablespoons powdered sugar, or to taste
  3. 1 medium-sized, ripe mango
  4. A couple of strands of saffron (optional)
  5. 5-6 roasted, unsalted almonds, chopped (optional)

Method:

1. Peel the mango and chop all the flesh into cubes. Puree this in a mixer.

2. In a large mixing bowl, mix together the hung curd, mango puree and powdered sugar. If you are using saffron and almonds, mix them in too.

3. Let the mango shrikhand chill in the refrigerator for a couple of hours, covered, by which time it will set.

4. Serve chilled or after letting it thaw for about 15 minutes.

Notes:

1. Use curd made from full-fat milk for best results.

2. To make the hung curd, line a colander with cotton cloth and place it over a wide vessel. Pour the curd into the cloth-lined colander and let it sit for 2-3 hours. All the water from the curd would have flowed into the vessel at the bottom by this time, and you will find thick, creamy curd in the colander. Use this residual thick curd for this recipe.

3. Use fresh curd that isn’t too sour.

4. To make this mango shrikhand, use a variety of mango that isn’t too stringy. I used a Banganapally mango. Also, use a mango that is ripe and sweet, not too sour, but firm and not squishy.

5. Do not let the hung curd sit out for too long before you proceed to make the amrakhand. In that case, there are chances of the hung curd turning sour. You could make the hung curd in advance and refrigerate it, till you are ready to make the amrakhand, but trust me when I say it tastes best when freshly made hung curd is used.

6. You could add any variety of chopped nuts to the dish. I prefer adding roasted, unsalted almonds.

7. Do not blend the amrakhand after adding the sugar powder and pureed mango, otherwise the dish might get watery.

You like? I hope you will try this out at home too! 

Gopu Iyengar’s, Madurai: Serving Delicious For 80+ Years

While I was researching for our recent trip to Madurai, the name Gopu Iyengar’s popped up often. I read about this all-vegetarian little eatery being touted as one of the best places in Madurai for South Indian snacks, particularly the variety of dosas that they serve and their vellai appam. Of course, we had to include a visit to Gopu Iyengar’s while we were in Madurai!

The history

Long, long ago, a certain Gopala Iyengar was working as a waiter in one of the old restaurants in Madurai. He was a good, hard-working and earnest person, much liked by everyone. When the owner decided to sell the restaurant, he found a willing buyer in Gopala.

In the year 1930, Gopala launched his own restaurant by the name of Gopu Iyengar’s, on West Chitirai Street, near the famed Meenakshi Amman temple. On the menu were traditional South Indian tiffin items like dosas, idlis, vadas, thavalai adai, pongal and halwa. The eatery became hugely popular, with dignitaries like Supreme Court Judge AR Lakshmanan and former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu K Kamaraj making it a regular haunt. Priests from the Meenakshi Amman temple began eating here too. The fame of the hotel spread far and wide, and locals began referring to the place as ‘Moolai Kadai‘ (‘corner shop’ in Tamil, thanks to its location at a corner of the street).

Over time, Gopu Iyengar’s launched a second outlet on the bustling Bypass Road in Madurai, too. They also began selling some of their signature snacks and pickles online. I was also surprised to see this ancient, traditional hotel having an active and well-maintained Facebook page!

The branches, presently owned by Gopala’s son RG Srinivasan, remain open from 6.30 AM to 10.30 AM in the mornings and from 3 PM to about 7.30 PM in the evenings. It is believed that the menu and style of preparation of dishes here still the way Gopala Iyengar planned them out.

Gopu Iyengar’s, West Chitirai Street

While in Madurai, we decided to visit the old, first outlet of Gopu Iyengar’s, rather than the new one on Bypass Road.

The old outlet of the eatery was not difficult to find at all. It is, indeed, a small, hole-in-the-wall place that we might have missed if we weren’t really looking for it, but I am sure the throng of people getting in and out of it would have drawn us to it eventually. A blackboard by the door told us about the day’s specials, all in Tamil.

Both times we visited, the few tables and chairs inside were full of people who seemed to be relishing their tiffin on plantain leaves, slowly sipping on their filter coffee. Both times, we got a table after a short wait, and were soon relishing our own tiffin and coffee too. I don’t know how this works – it felt like we weren’t rushed at all, we were given time to leisurely enjoy our food, with the people waiting outside being managed efficiently as well.

Inside, the eatery retains its old-world charm – the interior still probably looks very much the same as it did when the place was started in 1930. Peeling paint on the walls, framed pictures of Indian gods, an old-fashioned cashier’s desk by the door, barebones tables and chairs, the lack of fancy cutlery, waiters in T-shirts and veshtis, a little washbasin to clean your hands, a bin where you drop the plantain leaves after you eat, all add to the quaint atmosphere of the place.

The food and drink story

Like I said before, Gopu Iyengar’s is an all-vegetarian outlet that mostly serves traditional South Indian tiffin items, and is particularly famous for its vellai appam and dosas. Every day, there are different specials, announced on the blackboard, while the signature dishes as well as the most-ordered ones are served every single day.

The eatery prides itself on serving fresh, homely food, made without the use of any artificial colours, flavouring agents or preservatives.

Over the course of our two visits to Gopu Iyengar’s, we tried out quite a few items, most of which we absolutely loved. I’m so glad to see that this eatery hasn’t taken its reputation for granted and, even after over 80 years of existence, is serving finger-licking delicious fare to its patrons.

Here is a round-up of all the food we sampled at this eatery.

Vellai Appam: At Gopu Iyengar’s, you are brought a plate of vellai appams first, even before you have decided what you are going to have. That is de rigeur. You could refuse them if you want, but why would you do that? These vellai (white) beauties are things of joy, after all. These appams, a recipe from neighbouring Chettinad, are nothing but deep-fried balls of lentil batter. We found them quite delectable, albeit a tad oily. The two types of chutney we were served alongside these appams made for perfect accompaniments to them.

Filter Coffee: Filter coffee was good, wherever we sampled it in Madurai. Gopu Iyengar’s was no exception.

Plain Dosa: The dosa here was very well done, just the way I like it – neither overly soggy nor overly crispy. It was quite homely and delish,  a far cry from the thick and greasy dosas that you get in most hotels these days.

Podi Dosa: Again, this dosa was made beautifully, just the right texture, sprinkled with a liberal dose of karuveppalai (curry leaves) podi (powder). The dosa tasted lovely, but we didn’t particularly like the taste of the podi within.

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On the left: Vellai appam, On the right: Podi dosa, both at Gopu Iyengar’s

Idlis: The idlis we sampled here were lovely, pillowy soft and delicious. They were quite homely too, as against the grainy idlis that you get in most restaurants now.

Ulundhu Vadai: The ulundhu vadais – deep-fried rounds of urad daal batter – were absolutely delectable. They were perfectly fried, neither overly crispy nor underdone. The coconut chips and curry leaves in the batter took the taste to a whole new level.

Godhumai Dosa: The godhumai (wheat) dosa here was another delicious affair.  It was, again, homely and made just right.

On the left: Bun halwa, On the right: Idlis and vadai, both at Gopu Iyengar’s

Bun Halwa: On one of the days we visited Gopu Iyengar’s, we were lucky to find bun halwa in the list of specialties. The halwa, made with bakery buns, came to our table in a little plastic cup. It was absolutely delish, loaded with ghee and dry fruits. It is a distant cousin of the Hyderabadi shahi tukda, if you may.

Prices and service

We found the service to be quite fast. The waiters were courteous, friendly, and attentive.

The prices are highly reasonable, considering the quality of the food here. We don’t remember the exact amounts of the bills we paid, both times we visited, but we do remember that they were quite, quite reasonable.

Though the place is small and cramped, it is neat and well-managed.

Verdict

Don’t miss this place whenever you are in Madurai. Do gorge on the lovely traditional fare here!

I’m not sure if the quality and taste of the food at the (relatively) new Bypass Road outlet matches up to this one. The West Chitirai Street branch is the one we visited and loved, and the outlet that I can’t recommend highly enough.

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I hope you have been reading and enjoying my earlier posts about our Madurai trip! If you haven’t, here are the links for you.

On a jigarthanda trail in Madurai

Our street food (and drink) journey in Madurai

Bun sandwiches, 4 ways

Madurai diaries: Of hogging at Nagapattinam Halwa Shop

Travel shot: Panneer drakshe aka Indian Gulabi grapes

Thoughts after visiting MS Subbulakshmi’s house in Madurai

Azhagar kovil dosai| Black urad dosa

The other Azhagar temple in Madurai: Koodal Azhagar kovil

Travel Shot: Kumbakonam Vettalai (Betel Leaves)

Degree coffee is certainly not the only thing that Kumbakonam is famous for, we realised while researching for our recent trip to this temple town.

Apparently, the town also happens to be one of the leading producers of betel leaves and areca nuts. In fact, the betel leaves produced in Kumbakonam are believed to be among the best in the world, as far as quality is concerned.

Armed with this knowledge, we were well prepared to keep an eye out for local paanwallahs in Kumbakonam, so we could taste a couple of these famed betel leaves.

We had, sort of, expected these betel leaves to be all over Kumbakonam, but they were so not! We came across just a few shops selling them, that too only in the local flower-fruit-vegetable market.

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Kumbakonam vettalai aka betel leaf for sale, in a market stall

When we finally got our hands on a couple of these betel leaves, we were surprised at just how fresh and strong in taste they were. They filled our mouths with a spicy juice that just isn’t present in the betel leaves we get in big cities like, say, Madras or Bangalore. The Kumbakonam vettalai is, definitely, different. Neither the husband nor I are betel leaf connoisseurs, and hence, unable to elaborate more on this.

Do try out some of the famed vettalai whenever you are in Kumbakonam!

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I hope you have been reading and enjoying my other posts about Kumbakonam! If you haven’t, here are the links for you.

Acquainted, finally: Degree coffee in Kumbakonam

What dining at a 100-plus-year-old eatery feels like: Sri Mangalambiga Vilas, Kumbakonam

Kumbakonam, in the midst of Masimagam

Kalyana Sundareswar Kovil, Thirumanancheri: The temple of marriages

Travel shot: The man and his friend, the beast

Garbharakshambigai temple, Tanjore: Abode of the mother who protects the womb

Garbharakshambigai Temple, Tanjore: Abode Of The Mother Who Protects The Womb

The Garbharakshambigai temple, about 20 km away from Kumbakonam, was one of our destinations on the recent trip we undertook. Thousands flock to this temple, located on the banks of the river Vettar, in the village of Thirukkarugavur, in the Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu. Most of these devotees seek the blessings of Garbharakshambigai (‘the Mother who protects wombs’ in Tamil) one of the presiding deities here.

Walking around inside the Garbharakshambigai Temple..

It is believed that Garbharakshambigai, one of the incarnations of Goddess Parvati, holds the power to grant pregnancy to those of her devotees who seek it. She is also believed to have the ability to guard the foetuses of her devotees, and protect them from anomalies, ill health, miscarriage, and other woes. There are literally thousands of women who can prove this point – they will tell you of how they begot children because of their prayers to Goddess Garbharakshambigai, reciting the mantra meant for her, and partaking of the ghee distributed for the benefit of pregnant women at this temple. The Goddess is also believed to aid her devotees with a relatively easier delivery.

The other presiding deity at this temple, Mullaivananthar (Lord of the jasmine garden), is an avatar of Lord Shiva, husband of Goddess Parvati. Offering one’s prayers to the Lord is believed to cure one of any chronic disease.

History of the Garbharakshambigai temple

As per legend, the origin of the temple has to do with a couple – the husband was called Nidhruva and the wife, Vedikai. The couple, whose job was to serve two revered sages in a place called Mullai Vanam (jasmine garden), was childless. At the advice of the sages, the couple prayed to Goddess Parvati, and Vedikai was soon blessed with pregnancy. One day, during the course of her pregnancy, Vedikai was extremely tired and was resting, when another revered sage called Urdhvapada visited their abode. Vedikai was alone then and, in her state of tiredness, failed to hear the sage call out to her. Urdhvapada felt terribly insulted by this and, without knowing about Vedikai’s pregnancy, cursed her to suffer with a dreadful disease. The disease soon inflicted Vedikai, and began to eat away at the foetus in her womb, too, devastating her.

Vedikai once again prayed to Goddess Parvati, who appeared before her and promised to protect her foetus. The Goddess then placed the foetus in a pot and safeguarded it till the term of Vedikai’s pregnancy ended, and the couple received a male child, whom they went on to name Naidhuruvan. Goddess Parvati continued to extend her grace towards Vedikai by sending Kamadhenu, the divine cow, to provide milk to Naidhuruvan.

Extremely pleased by these benevolent acts of the Goddess, Vedikai and the other sages prayed to her, requesting her to stay back with them. And so she did. Later, a temple was built to commemorate the Goddess, and the place (that was earlier called Mullai Vanam) came to be known as Thirukarukavur (‘village of the temple deity who saves wombs’, in Tamil). Since then, it is believed, the Goddess, in the form of Garbharakshambigai, has been safeguarding the interests of pregnant women.

When Kamadhenu descended on earth to offer her milk to the child, a spring of water arose where her hooves were planted, right in front of the temple. A tank was later built to enclose the spring, which came to be called Kshreeakundam. This tank exists at the very same spot even today.

The tank in front of the temple, apparently the spot where Kamadhenu’s hooves dug into the earth

No one is sure about exactly how old this temple is, but it does find mention in a 7th Century Tamil work of literature called Tevaram.

The story of our visit

Conception and pregnancy was a tough game for the husband and me, for a variety of reasons. Every moment of my trying for conception and then, during my pregnancy with Bubboo, had tension and worry underlying it. My mother, having heard of the many miracles of Garbharakshambigai, would pray every day for the baby in my womb. I was too scared then to not religiously consume the ghee that my mother managed to get for me from the temple, via some relatives. Coincidence or not, our darling Bubboo came into this world hale and hearty. So, on our recent trip to Kumbakonam, we absolutely had to visit this temple with Bubboo, and pay our respects to the Mother.

We hired a cab to take us from Kumbakonam (where we were staying) to the temple, and back. This turned out to be a good decision, because there are no great places to stay or eat around the temple. Roads en route were good, and we had a comfortable and safe ride.

The temple is not too big, but not too small either. It is beautiful and serene, filling you up with a sense of peace the moment you enter. We had a nice and relaxed darshanam, albeit a tad emotional one, recalling the huge turmoil we went through before Bubboo was born. It was good to find the temple retaining a rustic, old-world charm and a total lack of commercialisation, in spite of it being so popular.

Tips for travellers

  1. The nearest railway station to Thirukkarugavur is Papanasam, while Trichy is the nearest airport.
  2. Before you visit, do check on the pooja timings and proceedure.
  3. Kumbakonam and Thanjavur are relatively big towns, from which travel to this temple by road is easier. Accomodation and good food is easily available at both places, as are cabs for hire.
  4. ATM facilities might not be available at Thirukkarugavur, near the temple, so make sure you are carrying enough cash with you when you travel.
  5. If you do pray at the temple for a child, it is advisable to return here with child, to thank the Goddess.

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I hope you have been reading my other posts about our visit to Kumbakonam, and enjoying them too. In case you haven’t, here you go!

Acquainted, finally: Degree coffee in Kumbakonam

What dining at a 100-plus-year-old eatery feels like: Sri Mangalambiga Vilas, Kumbakonam

Kumbakonam, in the midst of Masimagam

Travel Shot: The man and his friend, the beast

Kalyana Sundareswarar temple, Thirumanancheri: The temple of marriages

Kalyana Sundareswarar Kovil, Thirumanancheri: The Temple Of Marriages

Just a short drive away from Kumbakonam, 25 km to be precise, lies the quiet little village of Thirumanancheri in the Nagapattinam district of Tamilnadu. The village has thousands of people flocking to it every day, all thanks to the Kalyana Sundareswarar temple that it houses.

It wouldn’t be wrong to call the Kalyana Sundareswarar (‘the beautiful god who facilitates weddings’, in Tamil) temple ‘the temple of marriages’. This temple, where Lord Shiva (along with his wife Goddess Parvati), is the presiding deity, is famed for expediting weddings. A special pooja is performed at the temple for all the visiting male and female devotees who are desirous of marriage – irrespective of whether they are single, divorced or widowed. There are thousands who have entered into matrimony after a visit to this temple, and these couples then visit the temple together to thank God and to light earthen lamps so as to seek His blessings for a happy and long wedded life.

The facade of the Kalyana Sundareswarar temple, Thirumancheri

Legend has it that, thousands of years ago, it was in the village of Thirumanancheri that Lord Shiva got married to Goddess Parvati, thus granting the place sacred status. This legendary wedding is what, in fact, gives the village its name – ‘Thirumanam‘ means ‘marriage’, and ‘Cheri‘ means ‘village’, in Tamil. Over the years, the Kalyana Sundareswarar temple in the village has become famous for conducting poojas that help weddings happen.

Years ago, my husband’s family had prayed at this temple, asking for a suitable wife for him. Coincidentally or not, a year or so later, ‘we’ happened. On our recent visit to Kumbakonam, we drove down to Thirumanancheri, as a married couple, to offer our respects to the deity. Quite late – seven years into our marriage, yes – but we did get to it, finally, with the bub in tow, too. It surely felt good, cute almost, to light lamps together with the husband, at the temple. The bub had a good time of it all, pretty amused to see her Amma and Appa sporting garlands around their necks, as part of the ‘couple pooja‘ at the temple!

Considering how famous this temple is, particularly in the south of India, it was pleasing to see that it wasn’t commercial at all, the way a whole lot of temples in India are going these days. Performing the pooja here was a breeze. This is a small and simple, but beautiful, temple, and I hope it stays that way.

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I hope you have read my other posts about Kumbakonam, and enjoyed them too! If you haven’t, here are the links for you.

Acquainted, finally: Degree coffee in Kumbakonam

Travel shot: The man and his friend, the beast

What dining at a 100-plus-year-old eatery feels like: Sri Mangalambiga Vilas, Kumbakonam

Kumbakonam, in the midst of Masimagam