Friday 27 May 2016

Village Stays in India.

Last Sunday, the Times Of India supplement, Times Life, carried an article on ‘Rustication’ or rustic vacations that urban dwellers are increasingly searching for. I am no different. Having been born and brought up in the Maximum City, Mumbai, I have discovered that my heart lies in rustic India, in the beauty of the small, unspoilt villages and mountains, more specifically. There is something so heart warming about staying in villages and farms, breathing the pure air, eating food fresh from the farm and the pristine surroundings. Here’s a round-up of some of the village stays I've experienced and each one has been memorable. Of course there are more to come. Maybe, I’ll do part two on village stays sometime.
I've listed these in no particular order, although I've started with places closer to home.
In the alpine pastures in Spiti.
Velas: I visited Velas in February this year to see the hatching of the endangered Olive Ridley turtles. I stayed at Amol Soman’s spicefarm. The sea, sand, turtles, climbing mango trees, lip smacking Konkani food and lush spice farm made this a memorable experience. The rooms are no-frill, very basic, since Velas is relatively new to hosting people from the cities. But to make up for that is the sea (which I had all to myself when I visited), just a ten minute walk from the home-stay, the verdant spice farm and the relaxed pace of village life, which has not yet become touristy. Room tariff is Rs 700 including food and accommodation if you go as a couple or Rs 1000 only for the stay if you travel solo.
New born Olive Ridley turtles in Velas.

I had the whole Velas beach to myself. 

Amol Soman's spice farm. 

Lunch under a mango tree. The taste increased manifold :-)

A raw cashew nut.
Shreeyog Paryatan: I had visited this sleepy village in Sindhudurg with my husband in January 2015. It was a road trip, passing through sugarcane fields, vendors selling heaps of the fiery Kolhapuri chilies on the road side and passing through the bumpy roads on the ghats. The home-stay is run by the elderly Kadams who will treat you like their own family member. Mrs. Kadam is an excellent cook and even allows you to decide what you want to eat for the next meal and cooks accordingly. 25 kms away is the peaceful and non-touristy Tarkarli beach. Read my review on Tripadvisor. I do not wish you give out their contact details on this forum. So if you are interested, contact me. Tariff is Rs 1200 onwards for food and accommodation.
The vegetable garden in Kadams' house.

Fresh farm produce being sold on the way to Tarkarli.

Mrs. Kadam is a cook par excellence. 

The Tarkarli beach only for us. 
Panchgani: I did not stay in Panchgani, but had gone for strawberry picking in January this year. But if an opportunity presents itself I would stay on a strawberry farm too, so I’ve listed it under village stays. Panchgani is the lesser known and non-touristy cousin of Mahabaleshwar, where people from Mumbai and Pune escape to, during parched summers. Panchgani has stays for all kinds of budgets. Think of leisurely walks, picking strawberries in the numerous farms, eating gavran (village) Maharashtrian thali and basically doing nothing but relax.
Strawberries by the heaps.

Picking strawberries on the farm.

Rows of strawberries.
Rainforest retreat: The Rainforest Retreat or the Mojo Plantation is situated in a village called Gaalibeedu, around 10 kms from Madikeri, in Karnataka. I had volunteered for vanilla hand-pollination and also did a wall-art in one of the cottages depicting the local bio-diversity. The 25 acres of the entirely organic plantation grows coffee, vanilla, cardamom, pepper and fruits like pineapple (the best I’ve ever had), papaya, bananas, etc. The owners Sujata and Anurag Goel will make you feel at home, talk about Nature and bio-diversity with such passion that you are bound to leave from there with more knowledge about the environment and be more awed by Nature’s intelligence. The staff is extremely sweet and courteous. They invited me to their home for coffee in the wee hours of the morning, since I was to leave at 6 am. Tariff starts from Rs 2000 onwards. Website:

Inside the Rainforest Retreat.

Misty mornings with the song of the birds.

Food was delicious to say the least. 

Ravi, one of the staff who was extremely courteous and extremely knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of the region.

This cutie pie of a calf took fancy to my bag and wanted to eat it. A refreshing change from the boring grass, you see! 
Sullia: A friend had invited us to his brother’s wedding. The venue turned out to be a 100 acre organic family farm. With sections devoted to swaying coconut trees, towering areca nut trees, square paddy fields, the farm is a peninsula of sorts, surrounded by a river on 3 sides, making the soil rich and fertile. The highlight was seeing and eating the flesh of a cocoa pod, drinking water from a well (ah, so sweet) and gathering arecanuts which  freshly plucked by the dexterous tree climber. The wedding was completely, what we urban people would call, eco-friendly, though for them it’s a way of life and they make no deal about it! This is a friend’s farm which we were fortunate to visit and stay in, so it’s not for visitors :-)
Inside the farm.

See how the decoration is entirely made with leaves, fruit and flowers.

Eating a cocoa pod.

Fresh okra. 
Bhujodi: There was no farm here, but the warmth and love of my hosts at Bhujodi village, where I painted a wall, made this a wonderful experience. The simplicity and down-to-earth nature of these award winning handloom artists, Vankar Dayabhai Ala, his son, Ashok bhai and family makes me want to go back and visit them again sometime. I was kept well hydrated with copious quantities of buttermilk to beat the heat, simple, scrumptious rustic food grown on their farm (which I couldn’t visit), and stories and anecdotes from their lives as artisans. A bonus was watching the entire process of weaving apiece of cloth as the artisans hummed and sang Kabir bhajans.  Since I was painting the wall outside theirhouse, they hosted me.

A cow staring at me in Bhujodi. 

Ashok Bhai posing in front of my wall art. 

Homely food at Ashok Bhai's house.
Kukma: This was another village where I stayed during my Kutch trip. I was put up in a rustic-chic guest house at KHAMIR, an organization that promotes Kutchi handicrafts, and excellently so. I used to wake up before sunrise, grab some masala chai in an earthen cup (kulhad) and walk around the campus being amused and entertained by birds chirping on a high decibel, getting ready to fly off in different directions for food and admiring the gorgeous sunrise on the barren landscape with sparse trees. I painted a wall here too. See the pictures here. The food is simple and delicious and the staff is very helpful. The buildings are made entirely out mud, which keeps the interiors cool in the desert summer and the d├ęcor is simple yet elegant. They also arrange for cultural tours in Kutch. Tariff starts at Rs 750.
The simple yet elegant guest house at Khamir. 

Cups of masala chai over sunrise.
Spiti: Well, in trans-Himalayan Spiti, you will be spoilt for choice when it comes to village stays, because except Kaza, the small town, there are only villages everywhere. I stayed at 5 different villages in Spiti. In Langza, I stayed the longest, volunteering in my host’s green peas farm. The job mainly involved weeding. Also helped with some cooking. Then I went to Komic, the highest inhabited village in Asia at the height of 5150 meters above sea level. In 2013, when I had visited there were only 13 houses and the total population of the village was 32 people. Next was Demul, Lhalung and then Tabo. Spiti is spectacularly beautiful from any village, so take your pick. Many backpackers and trekkers just  walk up to a village, knock on a door and ask to stay. Home-stays charge from Rs 150 to 300 for food and accommodation. The toilets are dry compost, owing to the dry, arid land and fragile ecosystem. The people are unbelievably kind and simple, because they have not yet been corrupted by people outside, but that may change soon with the promotion of tourism.
The entrance to Spiti. 
That's me pulling outs weeds on the farm. 

Spiti has many monasteries, their bright, lively colours contrasting with the browns and greys of the arid landscape. 

The highest inhabited village, Komic, as seen from the Komic monastery.
Ruhil Dhar and Kharapthar: I wanted to volunteer for apple harvesting last year so I visited a friend’s apple orchard in Himachal Pradesh, which his family has been managing for many generations. Both are remote villages, so you may not have heard of it. The work was hard for a city girl like me, but I managed to put in 5 hours of work everyday. The workers taught me how to climb trees, balance myself on slender branches, pluck the apples, without destroying the buds, collect them in the bag hung on my shoulder/neck and pass it down to the person standing below, successfully, without falling down. I enjoyed every bit of it. That together with the scrumptious, lesserknown traditional Himachali dishes like siddu, mash ke vade, etc made by my friend’s loving grandmother and served with liberal amounts of ghee, had me return with lovely memories.
The beautiful surroundings at Kharapathar.

Walking through the clouds and fog. 

A fully laden apple tree.

Variety of Himchali/Pahari delicacies. 
There are so many more villages to visit in so many other states in India, I've barely scratched the surface. Hope to visit many more soon. My aim is to visit at least one village in each state :-)

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Wednesday 18 May 2016

The Stunning Paintings of the Gifted Jesuit-Artist Antonio Moscheni.

Inside the St. Aloysius Chapel. 
During our visit to Mangalore, on the way back from green Sullia, we visited the St. Aloysius chapel. I was so awed and inspired by the paintings inside the Chapel that I think it warrants one post dedicated to the master artist- Antonio Moscheni, the man behind the stunning art.
The Chapel from outside. 
Let me begin by talking a bit about the Chapel. The St. Aloysius Chapel was built in 1882. The southern wing of the building was reserved as a Chapel as a place of prayer for the students. The Chapel has a large prayer hall with 2 aisles on the side. There are paintings on the ceiling of the main hall, the arches and also the ceilings and walls of the aisles. The paintings on the ceilings are done on canvas and the ones on the walls are fresci.
On the ceiling are oil paintings and the walls have fresci. 
The central rows of paintings on the ceiling depicts the life of St. Aloysius to whom the Chapel is dedicated. The paintings depict his childhood, his first communion, seeking admission to the Jesuit order, his service to people during plague in Rome and so on.
The borders that you see on the walls and around the paintings are all painted. 
The sloping part of the ceilings depict the Apostles. Antonio’s love for flowers can be seen in his paintings, as each panel has a different variety of flowers, and very much life like.
The upper arches of the main hall also depict the lives of the Saints of the Church. The life of Jesus is portrayed on the paintings in the aisle. The largest painting in the Chapel is on the rear wall, opposite the main altar. It shows Jesus with a group of children and is considered the best of Moscheni’s work. Due to seepage of rain water the painting was damaged due to fungus and calcium carbonate crystals but has been now restored, excepting the right hand bottom corner to show the difference between the damaged and restored part.
The largest painting in the Chapel, of Jesus with children is considered as Antonio's best work. 
The stones or bricks with which the whole Chapel is paved were brought from Bergamo in Italy. It gives the illusion of steps.
The tiles for the flooring were brought from Bergamo which gives the illusion of steps. 
It was in 1899, that Brother Anotnio Moscheni was called from Italy to infuse colour and life in the walls  of the Chapel. Brother Antonio was born in Stezzano in Italy on January 17, 1854. He attended the famous Academia Carrara in Bergamo and went on to study in detail and contemplate the master pieces in the Vatican as well for a year. He had also earned a great reputation as a master painter decorating the Sanctuary of Madonna Del Campo in Bergamo. His recognition as a world class painter came during the official exhibitions of his paintings in Milan and Turin in 1883 and 1884 respectively. But he chose to enroll himself as a lay brother in the Society of Jesus in 1889. The senior Jesuits recognized his talent and lest it go waste, after his novitiate,  deputed him to paint churches in Albania and Piacenza.

The statue of Brother Antonio Moscheni. 
He was then asked to go to the then little known place in India, called Mangalore, to paint a Chapel. He readily took up the offer.  He came to Mangalore in 1899 and completed the painting of the Chapel in over 2 and a half years, single handedly.
Notice the intricate flowers and every other detailing.

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As a Jesuit, he had his religious and spiritual duties to perform, after which he would spend long hours suspended on the scaffolding, painting the walls of the chapel all alone and in climate hard on a European.   Working with the fumes of the oils and varnishes, in low light conditions (there was no electricity in those days) and in the high humidity and sweltering heat was taking toll on his health. After sunset when it was too dark to paint, he would return to his room to plan the next day’s work. In his spare time he would illustrate scenes from the scriptures and at the time of his death he had drawn 10 volumes of illustrations.
The pillars which look like marble were actually painted that way by Antonio to give that effect. 
The paints he was accustomed to in Italy were not readily available in India and it would have been very expensive to import them, so he made his own paints using vegetable dyes. He achieved an incredible feat of painting the Chapel in 2 and half years, whereas the restoration work by the INTACH team itself took 4 years by 7 specialists. It is worthy of note that Moscheni did not have any models to base his work on. He relied solely on his imagination, honed by meditation to conjure up the pictures which he translated into paintings. Moscheni shared a deep love for Nature which is evident in his paintings which abounds in fruits and flowers. Painting garlands of local flowers seemed to be his specialty. His ancestral house in Italy still has flowers from his earlier work as an artist. Nowhere on his paintings has he used his initials, dedicating his work solely to God. Moscheni single handedly painted every inch of the Chapel, a total of 829 sq. meters within 2 and a half years.
This looks like a statue, doesn't it. It's actually a painting in monochrome. Unbelievable, right? 

Every inch of the chapel was painted by Antonio. 
The paintings are now 115 years old and are restored every 25 years. It takes around 4 years for the restoration, during which time the Chapel is closed to visitors. The last restoration was in 1991-94 by the INTACH-Lucknow team lead by Dr. O.P. Agarwal.
This metallic thing in the centre is a painting too, as are the pillars.

The statues on either side of the altar are paintings in monochrome. 
After completing the painting in the St. Aloysius Chapel, Moscheni was invited to Mumbai, then known as Bombay, to paint the interiors of the Holy Name Cathedral, which, in spite of the challenges of the vaulted ceiling he painted in one and half years. He was to return to Italy after that but was requested to come to Cochin to paint another Church. He took that up although he was ill due to the humid and tropical climate. This along with the difficulty that no one spoke his language and he did not know the local language. Then there was an outbreak of plague in Mangalore in 1902, when the Father in charge of the hospital asked for volunteers and Moscheni signed up as one in spite of his own health issues. Realizing that his days were numbered, he worked harder to finish his assignment in Cochin, which he did in a span of 5 months. His body eventually gave up and he had to be admitted to the Carmelite Hospial in Magnamey, where he breathed his last at the age of 52 on 15th November, 1905. 
You guessed's a painting, not a statue, as are the cherubs. 
The Chapel is open every day from 9 am to 6 pm.  A Guide is available to explain the paintings and the Art from Tuesday to Sunday from 9 am to 1.30 pm and 2.30 pm to 6 pm. The service of the Guide is free although people may make a contribution towards the maintenance of the Chapel. Photography is strictly prohibited inside. I requested the Guide inside to send me these pictures, so that I could use them for this blog post. My gratitude to him. 

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