Thursday, April 10, 2014

Guwahati - the river fish capital of India

Guwahati has an amazing variety of river fish based food on offer. The best in India, in my opinion. Surprised? Well, it's not Kolkata, inspite of the Bengali people being synonymous with Fish. Even more surprised? Well, in my opinion, Kolkata has too much of a mix of cuisines to handle ranging from Indian to Mughlai to Chinese, as a result of which the fish element has got completely lost in the maze. After my travels in Manipur, it was back to work in Guwahati. Before and after my work engagements, however, my mission was to seek out local places to eat. I found quite a number. Rice hotels. Cabins. And many more. Here is a glimpse of my amazing river fish journey in Guwahati. 

A common menu is a base 'thali', to which you can add on other options. Don't miss the green chillies, not too spicy, just right. 

'Borali' fish curry sounds like an attractive add-on.

'Katoli' fish fry is too tempting to miss, probably my first fish fry in a year. I usually stick to grilled and steamed fish. Breaking a habit once a year isn't too bad, is it? 

A late night feast results in a pretty reasonable bill. 

I was staying at Hotel Dynasty, rated as Guwahati's top hotel. Consequently, the indication was loud and clear. Eat anywhere but at the hotel, except for the unavoidable breakfast and boring conference food, that is. Sometimes instinct has a large role to play in locating unknown restaurants. Walking along one of the busiest streets you can imagine, made even busier by the impending Bihu (New Year) festival ahead, I happened upon a miniscule sign board that said: "Hotel Usha. Only Fooding". 

It's worth an investigation, I thought, as I climbed up the narrow flight of stairs to look for Hotel Usha, Only FoodingThere it was, a very basic restaurant, run by a family. 

Here too, I opted for the base thali and the add-ons. Yum. Yum. 

The bill included a bottle of mineral water. I was keen on returning in the night for dinner, but the owner said they shut down at 5 PM since they cater to the offices and stores in the area. He pointed me to another restaurant that happened to be right opposite Hotel Dynasty. 

On my way out, I found a little sign 'Hotel Usha' sign board that I had missed earlier.

Randhan Restaurant turned out to be relatively up-market compared to the other restaurants I had eaten in so far. They had air-conditioning, and actually had a menu which was quite well done. They stay open till 10 PM, so definitely worth a try after my conference. Here is the fish part of the menu. The full menu is very extensive. 

The thali is an afternoon option. Evening food needs to be ordered ala carte. For me, the choice is simple. Rice and Dal form the base. Fish would be the add on. Maybe 'Ari' this time. 

Can't eat just one fish, can I? So here comes another. The 'Hilisha' cooked in Mustard sauce is a massive delicacy all over the eastern part of India. The tiny bones of the 'Hilisha' fish seem to dissolve in the fire of the Mustard curry. Or maybe it was my will power that made the hair-thin bones disappear. 

A typical up-market evening feast at Randhan Restaurant resulted in a not so up-market bill at the end of the culinary journey.

While the accolade of 'Sea food capital' of India may be accorded to Maharashtra and Goa, IMO, Guwahati should be awarded the title of 'River fish capital' of India. Perhaps the visuals above have tempted you. You will not be disappointed. Head for the nearest local restaurant. 

Go for it!


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

So how do you travel around Manipur?

Of all the Indian states that I have travelled in, I would rate Manipur at the top of the excitement scale, till now. And the challenge scale, as well. As a solo traveller, I pictured myself standing for hours by dusty roads waiting for small vans to arrive, over loaded with people and luggage. 

Clambering on the top of the van and claiming your seat seems to be quite acceptable as a mode of transport. 

How about finding a tiny toehold on a foot board at the back of a van?

Travelling on public transport would work for those who are going from Point A to Point B. You will miss out scenic spots by the road because public transport vans and buses do not stop at random spots by the road. Traveling with a guide provides you the luxury of stopping the car, walking around, climbing up a 40 degree slope to take a look at pineapple plantations and then to admire the view of Imphal valley from the top. 

My knowledgeable guide Bashan had hired a friend's Hyunday i20 to take me around. This helped keep costs low, compared to hiring a taxi and a driver.

Further, Bashan stopped at a bus stop that contains a memorial. The event being remembered is the Malom Massacre. The soldiers of the Assam Rifles had fired indiscriminately at a bus stop where civilians, including old ladies and children, were waiting for buses. The para military forces got away with this killing. The memorial records the names of the victims. 

Bashan asked me whether I have heard of Ms Sharmila, a human rights activist who has been on a fast since the year 2000. Oh yes, the name did ring a bell. The 'Iron Lady of Manipur', as Ms Sharmila is called, has been protesting silently to remove the special powers accorded to the Assam Rifles forces to shoot first and ask questions later. She has been jailed on charges of attempted suicide, and kept in solitary confinement. According to Wikipedia, Ms Sharmila is released once a year, and when she continues to fast, she is arrested and put into her jail cell again to be force fed for another year until the next release.  

Ironically, not too far away in Moirang, I happened upon a car where interesting graffiti had been written on the mud that caked the rear of a parked car.

Manipur seems to represent a snapshot from the past. Spare parts of Lunas and Vespas are still sold, vehicles we used to ride back in the 1970s. 

The choice of hotels in Imphal is quite limited. I had enquired via email and phone before my trip. The top rated and much publicized hotel (Classic) was full. They referred me to their 'sister' hotel (Imphal), where I was quoted a rate of well over Rs 2.5k per night. Fortunately, my guide helped me find a room in Hotel Nirmala, where a small, economy room was available for Rs 500 and a much better room (double) was available for Rs 600. That worked great for me. I opted for this room. Very comfortable, mattresses of just the right firmness, clean, friendly front desk and very good room service. They accept Credit Cards, as well.

I would like to acknowledge the contribution of my guide Bashan Waikhom in making my trip to Manipur a memorable one. The WWII memorials, Lake Loktak, Sadu Chiru Waterfall, two ancient Meitei Temples, Rice hotels, Meat hotels, Snacks hotels, local distilleries and other sights, all of which were a part of the tapestry of my memories of Manipur. 

How did I get to know Bashan? I would like to thank the owner of the Indian Terrain Nature Club whom I 'met' via the TripAdvisor Forum, for having introduced me. The Indian Terrain Nature Club organizes group tours to the region.

My knowledge gathering about the WWII battles was enabled by the remarkable Battle of Imphal tour services that Hemant Katoch has put together. Thank you for your commendable work.  

Will I travel to Manipur again? Why not? Will I try public transport? Oh, certainly, at least for inter- and intra-state travel. Further, I may even consider crossing the border into Myanmar (Burma) if that is allowed using a visa. Need to start my research. There is much work to be done.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about my experiences as much as I have enjoyed compiling my story in pictures. 

Thank you for joining me!


The posts in this series are listed below.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

In and around Kangla Fort in Imphal

For those who are not aware, one of Manipur's contribution to the world is the game of polo. Sadly, no game  was scheduled when I visited. So I gazed at an empty ground. This is the main ground in the centre of Imphal. The large hoarding proclaimed: "WE GAVE THE WORLD THE GAME OF POLO."

Kangla Fort in Imphal has a considerable amount of Manipuri history within its walls. For Manipur, the Kangla Fort represents the beginning of their history, going back over 2000 years. The entry fee is a humble Rs 5. As much as a small packet of roasted peanuts from a roadside cart. 

The British captured Kangla in 1891 after stiff resistance from the Manipuri army. After India's independence in 1947, the Assam Rifles occupied Kangla until as late as 2004. Two moats guard the fortress city of Kangla, an outer and inner moat. 

Two huge figures guard the entrance to the coronation hall of Kings, called Uttra. The area was damaged during the air raids of World War II. 

The Ibudhou Pakhangba temple at Kangla Fort is a popular spot for worship. The grounds are large. Ancestor worship is commonly practised around the grounds of the temple. 

An enclosure nearby protects the snake like figures that are sacred to the Meitei people. Originally open, the figures have been protected due to vandalism. The photo below was taken from outside the glass walls. 

Legend has it that a powerful army general is buried at this spot. 

Ruins of the past era are found at the enclosure leading to the Govindajee Temple of the Old Palace. 

The Kings of Manipur actively encouraged cultural performances in the courtyard of the Govindajee temple. The temple was partially destroyed in an earthquake in 1868. 

Kangla Fort houses the Samadhi of Maharaj Bodhachandra, a fearless king who stood up against foreign domination. 

Field Marshal Slim from Britain was in charge of the Allied forces during WWII. He directed operations against the revolutionary Indian National Army (INA) supported by the Japanese. His home was within the Kangla Fort.

The photo below was taken at the private INA Museum in Imphal.

Kangla Fort is an extremely peaceful place to wander around. The slanting 
rays of the late afternoon sun with their play of light and shadow add an element of mystery to the environment.

The internal moat presents a serene picture late in the afternoon, draped by warm sunlight. 

Polo is synonymous with Manipur. There are several Polo grounds within the Kangla Fort complex.

Manipur, given its relatively small area and population, excels at several sports. The Sports Authority of India (SAI) has a sprawling campus in Imphal. The state Taekwondo competition was going on, which I had an opportunity to witness for a while.

The Shaheed Minar is a tall monument in Imphal that represents the indomitable spirit of patriotism of the Manipuris who laid down their lives in the last Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891. Martyrs were hanged to death at this spot in 1891. The Shaheed Minar seems to symbolize the loss of independence of the Kingdom of Manipur. The British took over Kangla Fort at that time.

The Nupi Lal Memorial Complex nearby is a tribute to the courageous Manipuri women who sacrifice thier lives fighting for justice against the British in December 1939. The gate of this memorial was locked.

I tried a closer look through the zoom lens of my little point and shoot camera. That's the best I could do. This memorial seems to be little publicized and little visited. The Tourism Department probably does not deem it worthy of being kept open as a monument.  Yet another instance of North Eastern patriotism going unrecognized and unsung? 

Manipur is famed for its classical dance and music. I got a chance to spend a few pleasant moments at a song and dance performance. The dancers are graceful, accompanied by music that is soft and melodious. 

Until my visit, I had not been aware of the number of patriotic incidents in Imphal. I was left wondering, unlike me, how many Indians have heard of the brave ladies who fought against British occupation? Further, I wondered how many Indians have heard about the existence of the Shaheed Minar in Imphal? 

Along with the brave exploits of the Indian National Army (INA) leading up to the Battles of Imphal and Kohima that attempted to win India's independence in 1944, these two patriotic acts of 1891 and 1939 have also been virtually consigned to the bins of history.   

It's never too late to learn history, is it? Well, do you think there is a likelihood of these heroic incidents ever appearing in our History text books?

<Add a wry smiley here>. 


The posts in this series are listed below.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Eating like a local in Manipur

Well, what would you like to eat while you are in Manipur? Daal maakhani? Butter naan? Hmmm... looks like you need to look very narrow, at one of the larger 'Hotels'. The larger hotels have these kind of dishes on their menus, in their restaurants and room service, food that you are likely to find almost anywhere in India. 

What you are going to find instead are the ultra simple local restaurants. The centre of Imphal around the Polo Stadium has a clutch of local restaurants. 

Local people eat there extensively, and the occasional tourist that may happen to drop by. Humble restaurants with local food. Old wooden tables with chipped laminated tops. Rickety benches to sit on. 

But then, the focus is not on the furniture. The menu is the Manipuri Meitei 'thali', predominantly vegetable and fish based. About half the dishes have fish in them. Fish with greens. Fish with vegetables. Fermented fish salad. Fish curry. 

No time to waste, time to dig in. The owner was suitable impressed at my interest in learning more about local food. 

The 'meat hotel' is a very common sight, the common 'meat' being chicken.

Several 'rice hotels' are found along the streets.

The furniture is, predictably, very basic. 

We decided on simple yellow daal and rice, with pickles on the side. All served with a smile.

The OK Hotel on M G Avenue right opposite Hotel Nirmala was my choice for dinner on a couple of occasions.  The menu is limited to rice, daal and chicken. Good enough for me. 

Many locals eat at OK Hotel, which is a reasonably good indicator of the quality of food served. It was closing time, about 7 PM. Several local folks were leaving, while one family remained.  

Evening snacks and tea are very welcome after a day on the road. Snack 'hotels' are even lower on the simplicity scale. Freshly cooked snacks. Yummy black tea, excellent flavour. 

Yet another evening snack house, the Meme Hotel. Maybe the words 'Hotel' and 'Restaurant' are used interchangeably? 

As always, just like at any Rice hotel or Meat hotel, hard working ladies do the cooking, cleaning and serving. Once again, simple furniture. Some combination of worn wooden tables, rickety benches, gaudily coloured plastic tables and equally gaily coloured plastic stools. Smiles all around. Simplicity personified, indeed. 

A typical evening snack with black tea looks simple, yet is wonderfully tasty.

One afternoon my guide Bashan took me over to the Kalakshetra where members of the travel and tourism fraternity had gathered for lunch.  Bashan had been invited, and he had called and asked them whether he could bring a guest along. Very kind of him!

Ah, the food was a yummy Meitei fish based thali. Thank you, folks, for your excellent hospitality.

Back at Hotel Nirmala, I tried room service on a couple of occasions.  My choice was Fish cooked in a Mustard curry. Yum, it surely was! 

Due to Manipur's geographical location, I ordered a Chinese dish one night. I was not disappointed, and was very impressed with the preparation. 

Travellers willing to try the Rice hotels, Meat hotels and local Snack hotels will not be disappointed. Travellers seeking Daal maakhani and Butter naan would find far fewer places to go to. 

Bon Appetit..!! 


The posts in this series are listed below.