• Indian Fabrics: Silks and Spectacles

    Indian fabrics are a feast for the senses. The vegetable dye hues form an unmatched combination of style and texture that I find magnetic. With this in mind, I set out to the center of Indian handloom weaving, Maheshwar. There, I learned that these fabrics are not only beautiful but also cultural touchstones.

    Indore Today, Indian Fabrics Tomorrow

    Ahilya Fort | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Ahilya Fort | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Indore netted the countrywide award for the “Cleanest City” for three consecutive years and its reputation is well-earned. I spent the night at the beautiful Radisson Blue hotel before my journey to Maheshwar the next day. In the afternoon, I visited the Lal Baag Palace which belongs to the Holkar royal family. Built in the 1920s, the home is elegant, complete with lavish interior and beautiful gardens. A statue of Queen Victoria sits in the gardens, a nod to Indian history. Afterward, I toured the night market of Sarafa Bazaar. The Bazaar is a haven for adventurous foodies like myself and I sampled the local delicacies of poha, jalebi, dahi vada and malpuas. Sarafa served as a fitting appetizer for the journey to Maheshwar, the capital of Indian fabrics, the next day.

    A Stop in Mandu

    Mandu | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Mandu | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    After a delicious buffet breakfast at Radisson Blue, I departed to Mandu where I met my guide, Pervez. Together we visited Jahaz Mahal, the Ship Palace. Vast and well-planned, Jahaz Mahal is a sight to behold, sitting like a magnificient ship between two lakes. Additionaly, I also saw my favorite sight in all of Mandu, the Roopmati pavilion. The pavilion provides spectacular views that overlook the Narmada valley and is in close proximity to Baz Bahadur’s Palace and Rewa Kund. Built in the 16th century, both sites feature big courtyards, high terraces, and a reservoir that supplies water to Roopmati’s Pavilion. Before hitting the road, we ate lunch at a local restaurant and reflected on Mandu and its gems.

    Maheshwar, Capital of Indian Fabrics

    Prince Richard Holkar | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Prince Richard Holkar | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    The striking Ahilya Fort greeted us when we made our way into Maheshwar. It was around 5pm and the Fort stood engulfed in evening light;  an unforgettable sight. Our rousing introduction continued when we were warmly welcomed to Fort by our hosts, the Holkars. Our hosts greeted us with garlands and we were given a tour of the grounds before settling into our rooms. Afterward, we joined Prince Richard Holkar and some other guests for a drink and watched a spectacular sunset over the river. The Ahilya Fort is 250 years and I can confidently say that it provides an experience like no other. Prince Richard is so warm and inviting, always sitting and chatting with guests. He made us feel like we belonged there which is the highest compliment that I can pay to any host.

    Indian Fabric Market By Day

    Narmada River | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Narmada River | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    After breakfast on the terrace, we made our way into the city to watch local weavers create beautiful fabrics. Visits at the Rehwa Society and then the outlets at Women Weave at Gudi Mudi were vivid windows into the weaving of Indian fabrics. The weavers use beautiful silks and cottons and I bought a Maheshwari sari for myself. I wore it as we walked the small lanes of Maheshwar with its cloth handlooms, art workshops and hotels. The locals were so friendly and greeted us with warm smiles. After lunch, we took a boat ride on the Narmada river to enjoy the sunset with hot tea and fresh biscuits. Dinner was an Indian thali set up at the courtyard with flowing red flowers and beautiful lit clay oil Indian lamps called diyas. It was the perfect way to end the trip.

    I traveled back home attired in my beautiful Maheshwar fabrics and saris. They serve as reminders of my time in India; a fulfilling and wondrous time.

    Sunset over Narmada River | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Sunset over Narmada River | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    November 18, 2019 • Bela Banker, India, Travels • Views: 852

  • 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

    August 10, 2018 • Bela Banker, India, Travels • Views: 3765

  • 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

    November 29, 2017 • Articles, Bela Banker, Destinations, India, Travels • Views: 9520

  • 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.

    March 29, 2016 • Bela Banker, Bloggers, India • Views: 3902

  • 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

    October 20, 2014 • Articles, Asia, Bela Banker, India, Travels • Views: 7033

  • Christmas around the World

    While Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations seem to engulf the United States and Europe in December, there are celebrations in other parts of the world as well. Continue Reading

    December 20, 2013 • Asia, Australia, India, South Pacific Islands • Views: 7317