Bela Banker

  • Five Days in South India

    Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Day 1

    I flew from Bangalore to Madurai before embarking on a two and a half hour drive to Chettinad where I stayed at the Visalam Hotel.

    In February, when the weather is pleasant in South India, I traveled to Chettinad and Tamil Nadu to explore the Hindu temples of Madurai and Thanjavur. The exquisite Chettiar cuisine was another reason for my visit! I flew from Bangalore to Madurai – a short non-stop flight on Jet Air. Unfortunately, the airline didn’t transport my bag to Madurai so I was forced to go shopping. Equipped with local, colorful clothes, I was excited! After an easy, two-hour drive from Mudurai to Chettinad, I arrived at Visalam Hotel. It is a grand, 75 year-old house that has converted to luxurious simplicity. The rooms are very large and one could feel the heritage, art and architecture of olden times.

    Day 2

    Today, I explored Chettinad on a bullock cart.

    Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    After a delicious steaming local South Indian filter coffee, we walked around the village and admired the abandoned mansions that lay still with its history of the past. Later on, I took a bullock cart ride and stopped by some local structures. Its architecture of open court yards, tall steel pillars and beautiful tile work was impressive. It seemed that time has stopped here and I was living in the past. The Chettiars – a caste of traders and bankers – built these mansions beginning in mid-19th century and ending just after India’s independence. Most of these homes are looked after by caretakers now – the Chettiars long gone from them. This place is so unlike any other part of India. The region is also full of beautiful boutique hotels, local tours and cooking classes. I was lucky enough to also visit the cotton weavers, the Athangudi Tile Factory and a Shiva temple.

    Late Morning, I visited Chettinad’s capital of Karaikuddi. I enjoyed a lunch with a 75 year-old doyen of Chettinad culture and cuisine at Bangala Mansion. Her mansion was full of guests from all over the world enjoying the cuisine!

    Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    I drove to Thanjavur and enjoyed a culinary session and cultural performance at Hotel Svatma.

    From Chettinad to Thanjavur – the drive was about three hours. Welcomed by tall trees and the beautiful fragrance of jasmine, I arrived at Hotel Svatma. The hotel has a spiritual feel with an indulgence of luxury. In the afternoon, I took part in a culinary session with a local chef. I learned to make the South Indian snack of paniyarams and a traditional South Indian sweet sheera. In the evening, I enjoyed an amazing dance performance of Bharat Natyam. The young dancer had traveled six hours from Chennai to perform! That night, my lost bag (completely intact!) arrived at the hotel. I was more than delighted!

    Day 3

    Today, I visited the 11th century Brihadeeswarar Temple and a tour of the Thanjavur streets.

    Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    The morning began quietly with the local, in-house priest chanting the Vedas. My guide for the day took me to the 11th century Brihadeeswarar Temple – a UNESCO World Heritage monument. The temple was built by the Chola Empire. Of its sculptures, the most distinct ones are those of Shiva’s 108 dancing postures. Following this, I visited the bronze-casting and bronze gallery. Afterwards, we walked the Thanjavur’s streets to explore its cultural heritage. I met the Tanjore painting artist and explored Bommai Kolu – the wooden and clay dolls. I even bought a clay doll as a souvenir since they are locally crafted.

    Day 4

    I explored the 16th century Nayakar Palace and visited the famous Meenakshi Temple.

    Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    The breakfast at Svatma was a wonderful spread of East and West cuisines. Omelets for the western palates and fresh, thin rice and lentil pancakes (called dosa) for the ones who want to try the local fare. An easy drive on a well-paved road was a comfortable way to reach Madurai. After checking into the hotel, I went to explore the palace and then the famous Meenakshi Temple. Many people were there for prayers and blessings. The architecture of the temple is stunning.

    Day 5

    On my last day, I participated in an interactive walking tour for an authentic experience of the local lifestyle in Madurai.

    I loved the early morning tour of Madurai. We went to small streets where our guide, Karthik, took us to off-the-beaten-path back streets and fruit and vegetable markets. The city was waking up to the hustle and bustle of the local Tamil morning traditions. My favorite stop was the flower market – the scent of roses and jasmine filled the air. After some leisure time at the hotel, I caught my flight to Bangalore.

    Local Market | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Local Produce Market | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Roses | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    I was born in Bombay (now called Mumbai), and have lived in the USA for more than 30 years. I have a passion for travel, for exploring, learning new cultures and being in new places. I love India and like to introduce all our clients to the colors, sounds, scents, traditions and food found throughout India. I customize all India trips and take our clients off the beaten path, where they can touch the heart and soul of the country. Other than travel, I love to read, cook, hike and spend time with my four boys.

    August 10, 2018 • Bela Banker, India, Travels • Views: 2277

  • Celebrate Diwali and Holi in India

    Celebrating Diwali

    October through March is the best time to travel to India, but I simply love to be in India when there is a festival. Growing up in Bombay (now Mumbai), we would wait for our Diwali holidays from school. Mom would make delicious sweets and we would decorate our home with lanterns, diyas (clay lamps), marigold garlands, and Rangoli. We always got new clothes for the festival, and my brother and I would celebrate by lighting sparklers. Diwali is the Hindu New Year and festival of lights signifying victory of good over evil. It falls between October and November.  The exact dates change each year based on the Hindu lunar calendar, but traveling during that time in India showcases beautiful celebrations, gorgeous decorations and people in festive moods. Diwali is a 5-day celebration.

    Celebrating Diwali | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Celebrating Diwali | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Diwali Celebrations | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Diwali Celebrations | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Holi Festival

    Another festival that I celebrated growing up with my family and friends was Holi– a festival of color. It is a spring festival that celebrates life with color that falls in March! Holi celebrations start on the night before with a huge bonfire and prayers so that evil can be destroyed the way it did in the Hindu legend, by burning a demoness named Holika. Young and old, rich and poor, family and friends, all celebrate this festival by smearing color. The festival also marks the end of winter and the abundance of the upcoming spring harvest season.

    Powder Colors for Holi | Photo Credit: Shutterstock

    Powder Colors for Holi | Photo Credit: Shutterstock

    Holi Festival in Nepal | Photo Credit: Shutterstock

    Holi Festival in Nepal | Photo Credit: Shutterstock

    If you want to travel during the festivals, plan your India journey around the following dates:

    • Diwali Festival in 2018 begins November 7th
    • Holi Festival in 2018 begins on March 1st with a bonfire and followed by a smearing color day on March 2nd
    • Diwali Festival in 2019 begins October 27th
    • Holi Festival in 2019 begins on March 20th with a bonfire and followed by a smearing color day on March 21st

    I was born in Bombay (now called Mumbai), and have lived in the USA for more than 30 years. I have a passion for travel, for exploring, learning new cultures and being in new places. I love India and like to introduce all our clients to the colors, sounds, scents, traditions and food found throughout India. I customize all India trips and take our clients off the beaten path, where they can touch the heart and soul of the country. Other than travel, I love to read, cook, hike and spend time with my four boys.

    November 29, 2017 • Articles, Bela Banker, Destinations, India, Travels • Views: 4576

  • Explore Hampi

    A few weeks ago, I was in Hampi in Karnataka, South India, which is a World Heritage Site. I arrived at Toranagallu by overnight train from Bangalore. After a wash and change at the Hyatt Place, my guide and I headed towards Hampi. The first impression is of the magnificent large landscape with huge boulder rocks.

    Boulder Landscape

    Boulder Landscape | Photo Credit: Bela Banker/Swain Destinations

    There were intricately carved temples all over the place. We then took a wonderful coracle ride on the Tungabhadra River.

    Coracle Ride

    Coracle Ride | Photo Credit: Bela Banker/Swain Destinations

    The ruins of the 14th century Hampi, and seat to the Vijayanagara kings, covers an area of 10 miles. Hampi sprawls across a spectacular barren and boulder strewn landscape. The remains of palaces and baths and audience hall tells a tale of a kingdom that was grand and of fabulous wealth. There is an awe inspiring image of Hindu God Lord Vishnu which is carved from a single boulder and is the incarnation of half man and half lion. Watching the sun go down between the boulders, captures a moment in your heart that will stay with you.

    Ruins of the 14th century Hampi

    Ruins of the 14th century Hampi | Photo Credit: Bela Banker/Swain Destinations

    The Boulder Resort, where I stayed offers a stunning view of the rocky terrain. The luxurious cottages at the resort fit perfectly with hiking trails , organic gardens and delicious food.

    I was born in Bombay (now called Mumbai), and have lived in the USA for more than 30 years. I have a passion for travel, for exploring, learning new cultures and being in new places. I love India and like to introduce all our clients to the colors, sounds, scents, traditions and food found throughout India. I customize all India trips and take our clients off the beaten path, where they can touch the heart and soul of the country. Other than travel, I love to read, cook, hike and spend time with my four boys.

    March 29, 2016 • Bela Banker, Bloggers, India • Views: 2570

  • Why Travel to India?

    ss-india-taj-camels-web

    A few years ago, when I started planning travel journeys for Swain Destinations to my home country – India, I came across a local friend of mine-who wanted to challenge herself, to open her heart and travel to the unknown. She wanted to do something significant to mark a transition in her life. She craved for adventure, something that would make her feel alive! So the place to have that experience is India. Why India? One has to be ready for India, mentally, culturally, spiritually and romantically.

    It is like no other country.

    It is so colorful. You will get mesmerized by the vibrant display of flower garlands everywhere that are offered to the Hindu gods.  The saris and comfortable ‘salwar- khameez”  – Punjabi dress – tunic that they wear over baggy pants with a matching dupatta or a scarf draped around their neck are beautiful.

    India is slow travel. In order to immerse in its’ culture – you need to travel at a slower pace.  Everything takes time. You need to see and feel each place that you visit.

    The greatest thing about traveling in India, especially coming from the west – is that you will be constantly surprised by what you see every day.  Like a cow standing on a sandy beach. It may be strange sight for you for the first time, but it will soon become normal after you see a few of those unusual sights.

    The food is fresh and full of flavor. There is a wide variety for people who can stand the spice, and those who cannot.

    The sunsets in India are stunning. No two are alike. Be it in the city or at a beach, the colors of the sky merge from hues of orange, reds and maroons.

    I have visited the Taj Mahal three times, and every time I have been blown away.  The story of Taj is a touching love story. I have to pinch myself to really believe that something so beautiful exists in this world.

    India is a great place to shop. Colorful linen tops, carpets, brass items, gems and more.

    Mumbai’s film industry, Bollywood, is the world’s largest – bigger than Hollywood. These movies provide a fascinating insight into Indian pop culture.

    Harvard, Stanford and all the top business schools make it their business for all their students to spend time in India. It is one of the fastest growing economies and is making an impact globally.

    Some of the Palace hotels are magical! Like the Umaid Bhavan in Jodhpur and the Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur.  Kerala’s backwater cruise is incredible.

    Ladakh in the Himalayas is perfect place to travel from June to October and from October to March the rest of India.

    A trip to India is life – changing, it is a trip good for your spirit and soul.

    Let me plan your trip to India!

    Happy Travels,

    Bela

    February 13, 2015 • Articles, Asia, Bela Banker, Destinations, Travels • Views: 4496

  • Top Places to Stay and Things to Do in Nepal

    Recently our very own Bela Banker went to Nepal to visit some of the incredible sights in this Himalayan country. Here’s the list of some of the unique places to stay and must-do activities in the country! Continue Reading

    I was born in Bombay (now called Mumbai), and have lived in the USA for more than 30 years. I have a passion for travel, for exploring, learning new cultures and being in new places. I love India and like to introduce all our clients to the colors, sounds, scents, traditions and food found throughout India. I customize all India trips and take our clients off the beaten path, where they can touch the heart and soul of the country. Other than travel, I love to read, cook, hike and spend time with my four boys.

    October 20, 2014 • Articles, Asia, Bela Banker, India, Travels • Views: 4983