Ampersand "In the Know" - A Travellers Guide to India
‘India has always had a strange way with her conquerors. In defeat, she beckons them in, then slowly seduces, assimilates and transforms them’. So wrote author William Dalrymple in the epic tale White Mughals and, while conquerors are not a 21st century phenomenon in the subcontinent, both visitors and residents of India will testify to the almost supernatural power the country exerts over people. The clatter and din of street life, the drone of religious chanting, the throbbing cities and the collective roar of over a billion opinions are coloured in by rainbow flashes of life lived with an intensity of both light and darkness utterly unique to India.
In the spirit of truly getting under the skin of this vast nation, Ampersand Travel has asked 20 personalities from the fields of fashion, media, design, food and travel to share a glimpse into their own love affairs with the subcontinent revealing personal ‘in the know’ tips gathered from their lives and travels.
1). WILLIAM DALRYMPLE, AUTHOR
Award-winning author, historian and journalist William needs little introduction. His books have brought the complex nuances and intrigues of Indian history to life to millions of readers. He lives in a farmhouse (complete with goats and chickens) in south Delhi with artist wife Olivia and their three children.
Where is your favourite place to visit in India?
It changes each year. I used to think it was the enchanting Mandu in Madhya Pradesh. Then Goa became the great love before I moved on to Kerala! They are each equally special and worth exploring. I love the Tamil south – Tanjore and all the delightful temple towns.
Your work captures so many characters, past and present across India. Who has been inspiring to meet?
India is so vast that even after 30 years of living here there are places and things that I experience for the first time. I have encountered such a huge array of characters from theyyam artists, temple dancers from Kerala; Jain nuns and tantrics who live by a cremation ground in West Bengal. A tantric is a person who practises tantra, a Hindu belief system with elaborate rituals. I have learnt and been moved by so many of them. There are so many stories still to be told.
2). RITIKA DHAMIJA, OWNER, IQRUP + RITZ
Ritika is one half of design duo Iqrup + Ritz and splits her time between her Delhi farmhouse and London as well as her husband’s native country, Greece.
Where do you go to…
Retreat and recharge:
Himalayan hill stations are perfect for this. I love the Oberoi Wildflower Hall property just beyond Shimla. It has gorgeous views and is perfect for hiking and outdoor yoga. Vana near Dehradun is also on my must-do list to visit.
Find creative inspiration:
We often go to Rajasthan on sourcing trips. The state is an inspiring cacophony of architecture, pattern and colours. In Jodhpur, we stay at the Raas Hotel which is a blissful mix of contemporary and traditional architecture. Lie in bed and gaze through the pierced screens at mighty Mehrangarh Fort.
Eat the best food:
For something a bit off the beaten track it's worth visiting the yummy fast food ‘dhabas’ in Amritsar, Punjab – seek out Kesar Da Dhaba which is right next to the Golden Temple and famous for its Lachcha Parantha and Tawa Chicken.
Take a loved one somewhere memorable:
On my husband’s first trip to India I took him to Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh which has the highest density of tigers in India. Needless to say my husband has become a wildlife enthusiast and we've now been to other major parks; Corbett in Uttarakhand and Ranthambore in Rajasthan.
3). FIONA CAULFIELD, AUTHOR, LOVE TRAVEL INDIA GUIDES
Fiona is a leading voice on travel and design throughout India and author of the bestselling Love Travel guides. She lives in Bangalore, Karnataka.
What is your exciting find of 2016 in Bangalore?
I am thrilled about Manu Chandra’s new restaurant Toast and Tonic. Eclectic, innovative and truly adventurous cooking from one of India’s young and most talented chefs. Here Manu’s passion for seasonal ingredients comes alive. Confidant world class cooking celebrates local flavours and sets a new standard in Indian contemporary dining. Don’t miss the warm Asparagus & local Avarekai beans tossed with Peanuts, Lemongrass and Ginger.
Where is the best shopping in India at the moment?
Currently I am most excited about Kolkata and have just released an 80-page book revealing the makers in that city. It is an amazing hub for the distinctive hand-weaves of Bengal, and offers unparalleled textile shopping. I much enjoy spending time with Darshan at Weavers Studio and am impressed with up-and-coming textile designers including Amrita and Santosh of Ssaha Works who are doing innovative work with khadi weaving it with silk, linen, jute and even bamboo. Kolkata has an active local fashion scene including Sanjukta Roy who is creating gender fluid garments from gamcchas (handwoven towels) and lungis (sarongs). I also love the legendary New Market that is home to turn-of-the-century bakers, Portuguese cheese makers, Tibetan jewellers and even a sports store selling locally-made duck feather shuttlecocks.
4). LADY BAMFORD, FOUNDER, DAYLESFORD AND BAMFORD
Carole Bamford, married to JCB magnate Lord Bamford, escapes to India whenever she can to both source exquisite products for her brands and to connect with a charitable cause close to her heart, several eponymous girls schools throughout Northern India.
What are your early memories of visiting India?
In the 1960s I went to Rishikesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas, to dabble in transcendental meditation. It was the cool thing to do; I was just following the Beatles, really. But I have an affinity to the place which has never left me.
What is it that you admire about India?
India has been such an inspiration to me on many levels. There is something very special about this exuberant country, always a new discovery around the corner. I am a long standing admirer of their artisan craftsmanship – breath-taking in its diversity.
5). MEGAN MORTON, STYLIST
A Sydney-based interiors stylist, Megan’s passion for India has led her to create bespoke group tours to the subcontinent.
How has India impacted you from a creative point of view?
India has brought me such life affirming joy that its positive reverberation spills over to my work, my family life and day-to-day relationships. Creatively, it teaches me so much about measure, method, mindfulness and meaning.
What is your insider tip for shopping treasures in Rajasthan?
I use Fiona Caulfield’s Love India guide books like a bible for shopping and I am open to the rest by way of stylist sniffer dog intuition, chai wallahs nearby and other stars in the shopping alignment! Everything I have ever bought in Rajasthan I have loved dearly. I go to upmarket locations as well as authentic markets on my pursuit for treasure.
6). PRIYA KAPOOR, PUBLISHER, ROLI BOOKS
Delhi-based woman of letters and social figure Priya hails from a family that quite literally spans the subcontinent. Originally Punjabi but settled in Calcutta, as it was then, for many generations before fleeing to Varanasi in 1942 to avoid the Japanese bombing of the city. Priya travels across India in search of the next big thing in the world of publishing and is a true adventurer.
Most romantic place you know in India?
I guess it depends on how you define romantic. For me, it has always been some place where you have few distractions or feel the pressure to be seen at the latest hip restaurant. In short, somewhere outdoors, either the jungle or the hills, and, in that respect, I find the camp at Sher Bagh in Ranthambore National Park or my 150-year-old house in Landour, Mussoorie to be two of the most romantic places I know.
Which inspirational person has stayed in your memory?
Norbu, our driver we were lucky to meet in the mountain city of Leh. I immediately took to him because of his calm demeanour, wicked sense of humour, immense knowledge and a contentment that is difficult to find today. He had been educated at one of the best schools in Delhi but chose to go back to Ladakh so that he could be close to family and lead a contented life. When he feels he has made enough money for the season he takes off with a group of old friends and goes rafting down the Zanskar River, or camping and fishing. One of the most wise and fulfilled souls I have come across.
What book would you take on a road trip?
I really want to re-read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy which I read nearly 20 years ago. Alternatively anything by travel writer Pico Iyer.
7). AMIN JAFFER, INTERNATIONAL DIRECTOR, ASIAN ART, CHRISTIE’S
Amin, who divides his time between London and Delhi, is a true aesthete in every sense, not to mention serious art historian and advisor. Amin writes about, lectures on and curates Indian art and culture with an élan and informed knowledge spanning an astonishing variety of subjects.
How would you describe the art scene in India?
It’s an exciting time with the art scene a dynamic and fast-paced environment. It seems unbelievable now that it was, not that long ago, a few galleries, now we have so many as well as a major art fair, a (Kochi) Biennale and Indian artists are also featuring in museums and exhibitions around the world and have been rivalling big western names for renown for many years now.
Which Indian clothes designers do you like?
I have sherwanis (long men’s fitted jackets) made in Jaipur by East-West Tailors, in Civil Lines. I also admire Rajesh Pratap Singh – his clothes fit beautifully.
8). MAITHILI AHLUWALIA, OWNER, BUNGALOW 8
Owner of contemporary fashion and homewares boutique, Bungalow 8, which counts Madonna and Suzy Menkes among its fans, Maithili is a Mumbai girl through and through, having been raised in a colonial bungalow in the city by her famed jewellery designer mother, Jamini.
Where do you go to find India at its most authentic and atmospheric?
Within an Indian home! It's among the people that you feel the pulse of a city. Boutique homestays offer visitors a wonderful chance to get to know the locals, some of which can be quite grand.
With Mumbai being such a super-metropolis do you have a place within the city to retreat and recharge?
The Breach Candy Club and the United Services Club, both overlooking the Arabian Sea, but in different parts of town; the former being the best spot for a swim and the latter for a brisk walk. The setting elevates both these experiences to magical levels.
9). ATSU SEKHOSE, FASHION DESIGNER
Originally hailing from the North Eastern region of India, Delhi-based Atsu Sekhose is a rising star on the fashion scene loved by Bollywood starlets and known for his ‘tribal ballgowns’.
What is your favourite Delhi dining experience?
My favourite dining place in Delhi is Dzükou Tribal Kitchen, Haus Khas. The restaurant serves delicious authentic cuisine from Nagaland, a hilly state bordering Myanmar in the Northeast of India, with a traditional bespoke Naga interior created by the dynamic owner, Karen Yepthom.
Where do you retreat to?
Not strictly in India but bordering it – someday I would love to have a retreat house in Bhutan. Called the world's happiest country and one so close to my heart that I would love to make it my second home!
10). PETER D’ASCOLI, ARTIST AND TEXTILE DESIGNER
Native New Yorker and Delhi resident Peter D’Ascoli specialises in textile collections celebrating India’s heritage. He is a staple on the capital’s social scene with his French wife, Catherine, throwing memorable parties at their exquisite home in the south of the city.
Where do you escape to in India for recharge and/or inspiration?
La Plage restaurant on Ashvem beach in Goa – there is a fabulous buzz at Christmas which is both a peaceful retreat being on the sea but also a place to meets lots of old friends. Also Samode Palace – a sublime 16th-century fort outside Jaipur which I find joyful and tranquil, a perfect place to read and dream amidst beautiful frescos.
What are your favourite dining destinations in Delhi and Mumbai?
In Delhi – Coast Café in Hauz Khas Village for coastal Indian and Cafe Lota at the Craft Museum (wonderful food with the craft exhibitions nearby). In Mumbai – The Table for sophisticated fusion and great cocktails and Swati Snacks for authentic Gujarati vegetarian.
11). MOLLY MAHON, BLOCK PRINTING DOYENNE
Sussex-based textile designer Molly is well-known for her block printing and vibrant colour palette, working closely with highly skilled craftsmen in Jaipur. She gives a percentage of her profits to the charity, Dr Grahams Home that supports a school for orphans at the foothills of the Himalayas.
Which place first ignited a love of India for you?
My heart was stolen when I first rode through the gates of the Pink City that is Jaipur. With my hair blowing out behind me as we weaved through the traffic in a tuk tuk I felt a new energy and a sense of excitement. The noise, the colour, the smells, the details of decorative markings on the buildings, the buzz and the difference to home; it all filled me with inspiration for my designs and in fact life!
Where in Jaipur do you return to for…
A perfect stay:
47 Jobner Bagh – a small boutique hotel run by a warm and welcoming family. The design is simple and calming. Once the Raja of Jobner’s grounds, there are still lovely gardens where you can sit out in the jasmine-scented evenings. The linen is crisp and the food utterly delicious.
Tapri Café. I enjoy the feeling of being in a cafe where the locals all come to chat, as opposed to sitting in a place aimed at tourists. I felt like I had been let into a secret when I was taken here. Enjoy a chai or one of their hand-crafted teas and a great spread of Indian eats.Alternatively, breakfast at the Sujan Rajmahal Palace in the 51 Shades of Pink Restaurant. Sublime food and decoration, especially if you are a pink-a-holic like me. Even the waiters wear pink turbans.
I love the tiny boutique shop called Rasa. It is owned and run by a couple who are (like us) reinterpreting block printing and using the printing technique to make contemporary goods. A sophisticated collection of clothing and homeware.
12). JAISAL SINGH, HOTELIER AND AUTHOR
Born to the family who built a lot of New Delhi, Jaisal Singh was raised by conservationist parents. Jaisal, along with wife, Anjali, runs the burgeoning portfolio Sujan hotels which has brought a new responsible luxury benchmark to India's hotel scene. Regularly appearing on best-dressed lists, Jaisal has authored books on polo and Ranthambore Wildlife Park and is Vice-President of Relais & Chateaux.
What is your favourite place in Rajasthan to experience the culture at its most authentic?
Sujan Jawai – our camp in an area of untrammelled wilderness between Jodhpur and Udaipur. Apart from being an area of outstanding natural beauty, it’s a spiritual place dotted with temples, where people and big cats are at peace with each other, which makes it very unique in today's world.
If you could build a retreat house anywhere in the subcontinent where would it be?
I actually have the fortune to have a retreat house in Ranthambhore Park which is perfect for a tiger fanatic like me!
13). ABHIMANYU ALSISAR, RAJA OF KHETRI
A dynamic young prince, Abhimanyu is passionate about Rajasthani heritage. He launched the now-renowned music festival, Magnetic Fields, at his rural palace, Alsisar and is also working on developing India’s first art-centric hub at the ancestral village surrounding the property.
What is your insider tip for shopping on Jaipur?
There are always the bylanes of the walled city which I love most, Johri Bazar, Chaura Rasta, Haldiyon ka rasta. These markets have little streets which are like treasure troves, you never know what you are going to find there. Jaipur also now has a host of boutique stores stocking some great indie designers. My wife runs Tokree and another gem is Teatro Dhora, both exciting young Jaipur design houses.
Where in Rajasthan do you find the most authentic and unique atmosphere?
Authentic Rajasthan lives in its villages, and many landowners now open their fascinating palaces to guests across the desert state. My own property Alsisar Mahal has been passed down generations and we have opened it up to guests travelling to the Shekhawati region with its ancient murals and friendly locals.
14). MICHAEL CURTIS GREEN, DHURRIE DESIGNER
Oxfordshire-based Michael runs Mahout Lifestyle, designing and importing delightful dhurries with traditional Indian motifs in striking contemporary colours. His wife, Mary-Anne Denison-Pender, is a noted authority on luxury travel in India.
Where would you choose for an unforgettable celebration and family Christmas?
It would have to be the dramatic Rajbari, just south of Calcutta. The 18th-century dramatic architecture lends itself to a spectacular party. For Christmas en famille, I would go to the idyllic trio of villas at Ahliya by the Sea in Goa or the charming Glenburn Tea Estate outside Darjeeling.
How do you seek out creative inspiration on your travels?
Literally walking around old palaces, temples and forts. I constantly see patterns and forms to inspire in the rich heritage, whether it’s windows, doors or carvings. I love working in a contemporary twist to designs without losing the authentic tradition of the dhurrie, which has been such a big part of Indian life.
15). JAMES JAYASUNDERA, FOUNDER, AMPERSAND TRAVEL
The son of a Sri Lankan diplomat, James has explored every corner of the Indian subcontinent over the last 40 years. Launching Ampersand Travel has brought him to many untouched and fascinating places which he delights in revealing to clients. Vanity Fair recently named James as the go-to man for luxury travel in South Asia.
Which property in India has a truly special atmosphere and style?
My favourite property is Ahilya Fort in the small town of Maheshwar in Madhya Pradhesh. It’s just exquisite, overlooking the sparkling Narmada river and next to a glorious temple with slender spires and delicate finials. Life here is still slow and filled with daily rituals. Morning pujas in the fort’s temple, women washing and drying sarees on the ghats below, the children reciting their tables in the nearby school, the hypnotic clackety-clack of the local weavers, the calls of fruit sellers and the bells ringing in the evening aarti. For me, it captures the true essence of India. No amount of money in the world could re-create this scene. It all happens daily whether you are there or not.
Which city would you recommend for a first time traveller to India and where to stay in that city to get into its heart?
I suggest people start with the lake city of Udaipur for the simple reason that it is beautiful and surprisingly calm for a city of its size. Udaipur is the perfect place for a gentle introduction to India and the Taj Lake Palace must be one of the most romantic hotels in the world. I love cities like Delhi, Kolkata, Jaipur and Mumbai but their charms are best enjoyed once you are rested and relaxed.
16). ROHINI WAHI, DESIGN BLOGGER AND JOURNALIST
Rohini Wahi is East London based but loves to draw on India’s vast pool of design inspiration and influences in her work. Besides penning features for the likes of The Daily Telegraph, Rohini has recently launched lifestyle brand Napensea and runs successful blog, The Beat My Heart Skipped.
What is the most beautiful hotel in India in your eyes?
When I am lucky enough to be in Mumbai, a city that caters really well for the new generation of luxury connoisseurs – I love to visit Abode hotel and soak up the atmosphere. Known as Mumbai’s first boutique luxury hotel, it is situated in a 110-year-old building in the bustling heart of historic Colaba and pays homage to the city's bohemian past. It's just a gem and feels it could be anywhere but in the heart of a busy city.
If you had one weekend in India, where would you spend it and with who?
Ah, my heart belongs to idiosyncratic Kolkata where I was born, and the leafy sanctuary of my grandparents’ home. My grandmother is my best friend and my favourite shopping companion – I would spend it with her. We would spend the weekend visiting our favourite craft boutiques, bustling street markets and daydreaming about the architecture we pass still steeped in imperial splendour (albeit well worn). We might stop for tea at the Taj Bengal or a pastry at iconic Fleury’s on Park Street then carry on to the air-conditioned haven of a Crossword Bookstore, returning home laden with treasures. Bliss!
17). VISCOUNTESS SITA DE VESCI, FASHION DESIGNER
Rome-based Sita has India in her blood as the granddaughter of the late Maharaja of Burdwan. She regularly visits Delhi and Kolkata and spends part of her winters in Goa. Her eponymous swimwear and accessories label is stocked across the globe from St Barts to Mumbai.
What is your treasured place in India to return to for…
Joy Shoes, in the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, Mumbai, is my favourite place to shop. They really do make the best Kolhapuri chappals in India. Kolhapuris are a type of traditional leather sandals and this is a hereditary craft, practiced by men and women equally. I buy them in every colour. They are beautifully hand-made, super comfortable and look great! Joy shoes have a fabulous selection for men, too.
Sublime Restaurant on trendy Morjim Beach in Goa owned by my dear friend Chris Saleem Agha Bee. There is no better place for feet-in-the-sand laid-back fine dining. The fusion food is eclectic and imaginative with emphasis on fresh/organic produce and the vibe is magical.
18). FEROZE GUJRAL, PHILANTHROPIST
A media personality and entrepreneur, Mumbai native Feroze founded the Gujral Foundation, which funds higher education in the arts and is the sole Indian patron at the annual Venice Biennale.
Your family roots are in the central Indian city of Hyderabad, once home of the legendary Nizams and the magnificent Taj Falaknuma Palace, what are your reflections on the city?
I grew up during the last moments of a grand old city of deep importance and courtly culture. The Mughals, and the great Nizams had with their immense wealth, culture and excesses raised Hyderabad from a provincial capital to a place of awe. The land of the famous Golconda diamonds, home of exquisite language, cuisine, music, mansions and great style… It is still a place, although faded, that everyone should visit at least once.
19). MALLIKA BASU, COOK AND FOOD WRITER
Mallika Basu has a desire to translate Indian cookery for the modern urban professional. Originally hailing from Kolkata and now living in London, Mallika writes and blogs about her love of 'Desi Khanna' or Indian food, refreshing age-old recipes into something fresh and exciting.
First dish you ever made?
I was born and brought up in Kolkata, in a prominent political family then sent off to England for my undergraduate degree, with the recipe for one chicken curry and one lentil dal! My first recipe, if I am honest, was Bournvita "cooked" in milk, with slices of banana and biscuits! I cooked it for my Bengali grandfather who ate every bit of it and even said it was good.
Number one tip for cooking Indian food?
Simplify the spices. The best way to start experimenting is to pick a simple recipe that uses two to three spices and grow the spice collection from there. The spice markets of Old Delhi is an unforgettable place to delve into and soak up the aromas of thousands of scents - the soul of Indian food!
20). DAISY FINER, TRAVEL EDITOR
Daisy Finer lives in Gloucestershire but can regularly be found exploring lesser-known parts of India, from desert to jungle. She is currently writing about the subcontinent’s delights for Conde Nast Traveller UK and her own health and wellbeing website, SPA.Kitchen.
Where in India have you discovered a truly authentic approach to wellness and would return to again and again?
I’m not very good at going back to places, because there is always somewhere new to experience – but I recently returned from the new ila spa at the 18th century palace hotel of Raas Devigarh in Rajasthan which was truly special. What’s lovely is that nothing is restrictive – there is a wellness food menu you can dip into if you like, but no-one tells you what is wrong with you, or weighs you, or makes you do press ups! It’s a real immersion into an ancient Indian landscape, with all the excitement of Udaipur just a hop away.
Where do you see the wellness scene moving towards in India?
It is interesting to see that India is at last starting to offer the sort of luxurious healing that people have long craved of it, but have not really been able to find. Vana in the foothills of the Himalayas has marked a quantum leap forward – clean lined architecture, delicate and delicious food, incredible treatments and a high-end design hotel atmosphere. If Devigarh is a step back in time to a deep and mystical spirituality – with Mawari horse murals and candlelit corridors – Vana is a sophisticated, modern vision, with a new day spa outpost in Delhi, too. Between them I think these two hotels offer the best that India has to offer – traditional healing techniques delivered in a modern way to a spa savvy audience.
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