Category Archives: History

Hokka Trees in Diu-A prehistoric legacy or a colonial one?

These unique palm trees known as hokka can be found on almost every corner in the UT.

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Hokka trees in Diu 

The hokka tree has a fascinating history. Some say, they were planted here first by the Portuguese, who had brought them in from their African colonies. As you know, Diu was a Portuguese settlement until  1961. Other stories suggest they have existed here since the time India and Africa were one continent.

What we do know now is that these trees grow only in this region in India, making them standalone attractions in and around Diu town.

Hoka tree in Diu

A hokka tree in bloom. 

Now, the locals have been known to eat the largish seeds of the tree, although I wasn’t courageous enough to try any. Give me my apples, anyday. They did look somewhat interesting, though. The red skin, when peeled off, reveals a yellow flesh. The seeds can also be used to make liquor, sometimes of the spurious variety. So all those who like their taadi, beware!

The hokka tree is also known as the doum palm or the gingerbread tree and was considered sacred in parts of Africa. What makes hokka seeds or doum fruits special is that they stay well for days and months and well, a real long time, even after they are separated from the tree. Case in point: Doum fruits were found, well-preserved in King Tut’s tomb. Generally offered at funerals, the fruits were meant to accompany the Pharoah on his last journey.

So the next time, you’re in Diu, be sure to take a selfie with this celebrity tree.


Images courtesy:




Diu Fort –Standing the Test of Time

The Portuguese certainly knew what they were doing when they captured India’s West Coast in order to control trade routes. Judging by the sheer size and expanse of the outstanding and absolutely robust Diu Fort, no force could have stood a chance against the Portuguese.

Built in 1535 as a vantage point over the Arabian Sea, the Diu Fort covers 56,736 sq mts. (I know, right?) and is a huge delight to explore. I won’t be surprised if, while exploring the fort, you start to feel like an intrepid sailor out to discover new lands.

The entrance, with its double moat and imposing walls, can be pretty intimidating. One architectural feature that lent an air of friendliness to this otherwise formidable monument was this balcony here.

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The balcony for the melancholy Portuguese soldier. 

Granted, it was meant as a look-out. Nevertheless, it offered a certain degree of human contact. All that was missing was a cute Portuguese soldier, singing fado, drinking port wine and mournfully waving out to visitors.

The entrance has a huge iron door where one has to bend to enter the fort. From what little I know of this standard practice, the bending was meant to instill a sense of deference on part of the visitor.

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The entrance to the Fort. 

Walking around, the mind boggles at the grandiosity of this monument. Although sparsely decorated, one gets a fairly good idea of its functionality. There are numerous chapels inside the fort, indicating the presence of a great many soldiers. In addition, you’ll find storage rooms, underground tunnels and of course, canons that menacingly look out over the sea. Needless to mention, the fort was built to withstand long sieges. (Note, though that certain areas of the fort may be closed off. )


On one end of the fort stands a lighthouse. Westwards, you’ll  see the Panikota Fort in the middle of the sea, built by the Portuguese to defend the supply on their boats. The Panikota Fort looks like a ship and houses a small chapel dedicated to Our Lady Of The Sea, in addition to a lighthouse.

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The Panikota Fort

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A lighthouse inside the Fort ramparts



Signs of vibrant life prevailed inside the fort, thanks to this gorgeous Gulmohur. Other signs of life include a prison on the premises of the Fort, obviously off-limits to visitors.

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Gulmohur inside the Fort

Provide a good hour  at least to explore the fort from end-to-end. Wear good sports shoes and carry your water bottle and camera with you. This one is a must-do for all those who love their history and adventure.


All things Oman

Here’s more write-ups on Oman for all those who heard me on the air on Radio One today!


Discovering Tipu country

So you’re on the Shatabdi and it’s hurtling past vast fields and many rivers and non-descript stations where the guard is always holding a green flag, and the little kids waiting with their parents wave out madly, wishing someone from that speeding Shatabdi would wave back.

But have you ever wondered about the little towns where only passenger trains stop? The stations where gnarled old trees serve as shelter from the sun and the sole chaiwala shuts shop to have his lunch at home?

If yes, then welcome to Srirangapatna! A grand old Gulmohur tree welcomes you to this little town with all its rustic charm. And even before you can gather your luggage, the train tears off in a bid to get away from the little town and arrive in the big town of Mysore; for Srirangapatna lies about 120 km from Bangalore and 19 km from Mysore.

The Gulmohur at Srirangapatna railway station.

The Gulmohur at Srirangapatna railway station.

Stone columns in the courtyard of the Ranganatha Swamy temple.

You exit the station and spot the hallowed gopura of the Ranganathaswamy temple. It’s ironic in a way cos the town’s greatest attraction is a hop away from the railway station and you wonder if all you’d want to do is take darshan and move on to the big town yourself.

But you tell your rickshaw fellow to find you a decent hotel. For you have decided to stay the night and explore whatever there is to this town. Now if you’re an unplanned traveller and a bit of an ignoramus like I was on this trip, you don’t already know that Srirangapatna once belonged to the Hoysala Kings, then to the Vijayanagar Empire, then came under the Mysore Rajas before it became Tipu Sultan’s town.

Yes, the little town bears all these markings, and proudly. From its Hoysala and Vijayanagar architecture styles in the Ranga Swamy temple to the Islamic-style Gumbaz to the modern summer palace of Tipu Sultan and the ancient Nimishamba temple along the banks of the Cauvery. In fact, it is precisely this element of surprise of finding so much crammed into one small town that made the 30-hour trip so valuable.

Temples and reigning deities apart, who would’ve thought this natural island caused by the Cauvery could hold such away over kingdoms. Perhaps it is its geographical location is what granted the place its significance. Surrounded by the Cauvery on one side and with two artificial moats, Srirangapatnam was also a battleground for the East India Company as they attempted to dethrone Tipu and gain control over South India, thereby placing the Mysore Rajas, their allies in power.cau

Colonel Bailey’s dungeon

But Tipu proved to be a formidable enemy and defeated the British twice in the Anglo-Mysore wars. Most remarkable is the fact that Tipu’s crew had invented perhaps the world’s first war rocket, something even the colonisers had not encountered before. Familiar with his territory and with a loyal local following, Tipu had also forged contacts with the French, the Afghans and the Turks in order to gain support against the East India Company. Interestingly, the British officers arrested during the wars were lodged in what became known as Captain Bailey’s dungeon, named after a Company officer who languished there.

After all this strategising, where did Tipu go to chill out? Right here, in Dariya Daulat Bagh, his summer palace with its vast grounds and remarkably well-maintained frescoes and murals in the style of the Mysore paintings. Photography is not allowed inside the Palace. But rest assured that the murals will be imprinted in your mind’s eye.

Canons in front of the covered Dariya Daulat Bagh. The ppaintings need to be shielded from the sunlight, hence the bamboo curtains.

Canons in front of the covered Dariya Daulat Bagh. The paintings need to be shielded from the sunlight, hence the bamboo curtains.

The Masjid-e-Ala

And as a devout Muslim, Tipu prayed in the Masjid –e-Ala which he built when he ascended the throne in 1784. The mosque with its two minarets is an attractive sight and bears Persian calligraphy. And, let me mention here that Tipu spoke Persian, in addition to Hindustani, Arabic and Kannada.

Discovering Tipu’s legacy is nothing short of a lesson in patriotism. I don’t the ‘stand up for the national anthem’ kind of patriotism; I mean the ‘protect your land from evil colonisers’ kinda patriotism. Despite his fierce loyalty to his people, his aggressive stance towards the British and his secular nature he did not gain many allies. He was ultimately undone in the fourth Anglo- Mysore war by his own people and by the fact that the Marathas and the Nizams of Hyderabad had joined hands with the East India Company to do away with him. The spot where Tipu’s body was found in battle is today marked by this stone.

Where Tipu was found slain in the fourth Anglo-Mysore War

Where Tipu was found slain in the fourth Anglo-Mysore War

By far the most moving monument in Tipu country is the Gumbaz where Tipu is buried with his equally illustrious father Hyder Ali and his mother. The landscaped grounds, the wonderful mosque next door, the tremendous detailing on the teak doors, the granite structure and the teak pillars are overwhelming in their beauty. Inside you see rust-coloured stripes on the walls, symbolic of tiger stripes, since Tipu loved tigers, and came to be called ‘Tiger of Mysore.’

Tipu, his father and mother laid to rest here-the Gumbaz.

Tipu, his father and mother laid to rest here-the Gumbaz.

The carvings on the teak door to the tombs

The carvings on the teak door to the graves.

The detailing on the window to the tombs.

The detailing on the window to the tombs.












The tombs and  the tiger stripes.

The tombs and the tiger stripes.

This short trip to Srirangapatna has since made me rethink my idea of small towns. Every little town tells a story, and in Srirangapatna’s case, it is a mighty interesting one. So the next time you hurtle by that non-descript station, maybe you’ll ask yourself if it belonged to some ancient kingdom once. And for all you know, it might become your next travel destination.

Eating a piri piri or How not to learn Swahili

When the Kenya Airways inflight magazine is called ‘Msafiri’ and the bell in your head goes ‘ting’ because you’ve just realised, it’s the Kiswahili version of the word ‘Musafir’ from the Arabic/Urdu, you know there’s loads to discover about East Africa. 

The Kenya Airways inflight magazine-Msafiri.

The Kenya Airways inflight magazine-Msafiri.

Having lived in the Sultanate of Oman and fallen in love with it, travelling to East Africa became a sort of longing when I learned that Oman and East Africa had long held trade relations. Zanzibar, in today’s Tanzania was once part of the Omani Empire, until as recently as 1963 when Tanzania gained independence from the British, and many Zanzibaris migrated to Oman for a better life. Today, they speak Swahili, English and Arabic, and are considered to be perhaps the most multi-lingual race in the Gulf region.

Which explains the little tingle of excitement I felt when I realised there would be many such Arab/Swahili gems to be encountered on my trip to Kenya. Arab settlers had long colonised the East African coast (comprising modern-day Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi) waaay before the Europeans arrived. Both Swahili and Arabic are ancient languages, but the fact that they have borrowed freely from each other speaks for how closely they have lived. Consider for instance, the word ‘safari.’ It is derived from the Arabic, ‘safar’-meaning, to travel. Therefore, ‘safari’-the travel. What is interesting, is that it has been passed down to Urdu, and Hindi  (savari) and has been officially adopted into English with a slightly modified meaning ‘a wildlife safari,’ thereby restricting the word to what the English consider to be its African roots. As an extension, the word ‘msafir’ is from the Arabic musafir, meaning one who travels.

What is also interesting, is that Swahili, today is written in the English script first introduced to Africa by Christian missionaries. For centuries, Kiswahili used the Arabic script, so much so that the very word for the language is derived from the Arabic word ‘sahil’ or coast/shore. In the plural, it becomes sawahil, therefore, sawahili, the language of the dwellers of the coast.

My own knowledge of Arabic is fairly limited. But I like to think it is good enough to make certain connections. For example, the piri piri chilli. The Portuguese are famously credited with introducing this little demon to the world. But the term ‘piri piri’ comes from the Swahili pil pil (meaning pepper) -which became fil fil when the Arabs encountered it, and eventually exoticised as piri piri by the Portuguese through their colony in Mozambique. Portuguese sailors transported this chilli to their various colonies. The best-known result of the discovery and subsequent use of piri piri is in the chicken at Nando’s, a South African chain which stumbled upon the recipe from the various Mozambique settlers of Portuguese origin who had adopted the deceptive little bugger. So the next time you eat at Nando’s, think of this post.


The little firecracker-piri piri chilli at the Jinja vegetable market in Uganda

Although, having tried a piri piri in the vegetable market in Jinja, Uganda, I realised I didn’t have to eat it to understand its “fiery fiery” origins. It took me nearly 15 minutes to catch my breath after my lungs caught fire because a firecracker had gone off in my mouth. And the involuntary tears in my eyes did nothing to cool the burning sensation on my face. 20 minutes later, I emerged from the aftermath; my sinuses clear, my eyes, brighter, and the carbon dioxide residue in my lungs burned to a cinder, as my deep breathing proved. Now that’s what I call an agni-pariksha (test of fire). All hail the piri piri!

Note: This piece is based on a seven-day travel to Kenya and Uganda to visit the Masai Mara Game Reserve, Nairobi city and Jinja town, resulting in a brief but enlightening encounter with the Swahili language. And the language adventure was triggered by the Kenya Airways inflight magazine-Msafiri. Read the abso fab July issue here.

Understanding History-The difference between travel and a textbook

History was never my favourite subject in school. Nothing about Shivaji’s exploits, Akbar’s iconoclastic rule, or the “let’s shove freedom fighters down gullible children’s throats” kinda Independence struggle stories could sustain my interest for long. And yet, I am told I scored high in the subject. Probably cos my memory served me well, then. (Unlike now, where I have to spend 20 minutes searching for my glasses, which are resting quietly on the top of my head.) But I digress. Now, what was I saying? …

Aah, yes……history. Before I forget, let me tell you what made me revisit history-not the subject, not my 10th standard text book. It was travel that made the trading history of two rich and diverse lands come alive. Honestly, there is no better way to understand history than to travel. Within a span of a month, I happened to travel to the Gujarat coast first, then to revisit Oman, and got myself a history lesson quite by chance. Read on if you, too, would like to rediscover history.

Some of you know that I lived and worked in the Sultanate of Oman (better known as the 16th district of Kerala, 15th being Dubai.) Now, Muscat, Oman’s capital was the trading hub of the Gulf region with an Empire stretching upto East Africa, Zanzibar, in particular, and up to Gwadar, in present-day Pakistan. This was as recently as the 20th century. So when I visited Muscat’s famous promenade, the Muttrah corniche for the first time I was surprised to find homes with Gujarati names-Ramesh Bhuvan and suchlike. Also shocking, that most traders in the Muttrah bazaar were of Indian origin, particularly from Gujarat’s coast. What’s more, the Khimji family is of Gujarati origin and is one of Oman’s biggest industrialist families today heading the Khimji Ramdas Group of Companies. I’m told the first Khimji served as treasurer to the grandfather, or great-grandfather, perhaps of the present-day Sultan.

My Omani friend had told me that India and Oman had been ancient trading buddies. And since history, the subject, was never my forte, I imagined the trading items comprised innocuous stuff like ribbons and hair clips (the Chinese variety), and possibly spices and a regular consignment of the choicest Alphonso mangoes from Ratnagiri. Now, even you, intelligent reader, can tell, that my supposition was as far from the truth as Oman’s East coast is from India’s West Coast (671 nautical miles, to be precise).

It wasn’t until I landed in Sur, located 250 kms southeast of Muscat, did I realise that this trading business was SERIOUS SHIT.  Sur traded with Zanzibar and with Gujarat and used to deal in-wait for it, slaves. Yep, pretty grim stuff there. Until as recently as the 14th and 15th centuries, slaves from East Africa were brought in to Oman to be sent across the Middle East and parts of Europe that were dominated by Muslim rulers. This gave rise to a prosperous trade that even the Portuguese vied for for reasons of control and profitability.

Africans were largely considered to be a strong race and the men were shipped into these Middle Eastern Empires to perform manual labour or work as soldiers. Women were made to work in the Arab harems. Present-day Omani history covers up a great deal of this dark chapter since historical research reveals that the slave trade grew in recent times (and continued well into the 20th century) with the rise of the Omani Empire. In all fairness, it is a dark chapter in every country’s history.

Many of Sur’s descendants today boast of African heritage, with their curly hair and dark skin. In 1963, when Zanzibar gained Independence from its Omani Empire, many Zanzibaris came in to Oman, their mother country of the time.

But where does India figure in all of this? Didn’t I mention the slaves were brought into India via Oman to serve in the Delhi/Gujarat Sultanate? The Empire was at its peak in the 15th-16th centuries and the Abyssinians as they are now referred to by their politically correct name came to serve as soldiers or commanders.  Now here’s my Eureka moment associated with this grim past. I must mention there that I would never have had this Eureka moment if I hadn’t travelled to Ahmedabad recently, operative word being travel.

    • The Siddi Saiyyed Mosque in Ahmedabad was built by one of the Gujarat Sultanate’s most trusted slaves Abyssinians.

The Siddi Saiyyed mosque jaali

The official plaque outside the mosque says that Siddi Saiyyed was an Abyssinian in the retinue of Bilal Jhajar Khan, general in the army of the last Sultan Shams-ud-Din Muzaffar Shah III of the Gujarat Sultanate.

My later research revealed that the Siddis are the descendants of African communities shipped into India either by Portuguese slave traders or to a lesser degree, merchants who arrived from East Africa. The Siddis continue to exist around the coastal regions of Gujarat, particularly around the ports of Porbandar, and in the Junagadh-Gir regions. They were largely shipped to India as “gifts” for the Nawab of Junagadh. The Siddis today are largely Muslim but speak Gujarati and their children attend Siddi schools.

Now, let’s move on to the second chapter. Sur and Gujarat traded with each other with the help of large wooden vessels known as dhows. Dhows were hand-crafted vessels meant to survive the strongest of winds and the deadliest of storms. After all, the clever traders would follow the hardy monsoon winds on their way to and from East Africa. From June to October, the monsoon winds follow an easterly path across the Indian Ocean, and the traders set off from East Africa towards Oman and India. They  would return to their homelands with the retreating wind from November to March. As everybody knows, it is easier to follow the wind than against it. It was as if nature itself conspired to bring these countries together. That, or they were some very intelligent sailor people!

I had visited a run-down old dhow factory many times, a “must-see” in Sur, if many an Oman itinerary were to be believed. But I’m sure my guests never once thought of the significance of the lone dhow they saw being crafted in there by Malbari (Keralite) handworkers.

Here comes Eureka moment number two.

When I travelled to Veraval on my way to Somnath, there were at least two factories I passed by on the main road alone, where I saw workers hauled up on bamboo skeletts nailing planks together to create a most marvellous piece of wooden engineering; a dhow. Pictures I took of a Veraval factory and of the one in Sur are almost identical, as you will see here. It’s fascinating that this is a slice of history that has survived way beyond its expiry date. It was like looking in a mirror-671 nautical miles apart. Safe to say, Porbandar is India’s Sur and Sur is Oman’s Porbandar.

Dhows in Veraval, Gujarat, India Dhow in Sur, OmanWhich brings me back to the bottomline of this piece. That understanding history is not (only) about reading textbooks. It’s about travelling and putting the bits and pieces together yourself-not unlike a jigsaw puzzle. That’s as far as I’ve gotten with India and Oman’s trading history so far; with a chance travel to the places where it all began. Have yet to connect with the East African link. But this time, it won’t be pure chance-it will be a planned trip to Dar-es-Salaam and Zanzibar to rediscover history from the other side of the Indian Ocean. Maybe I’ll just save me the cost of the flight and hitch a ride on a dhow while I’m at it.

Muscat-How to be Indian and feel at home in Oman






There was once a young boy attending a posh school in England. Classmates would jeer at his brown skin, at his shy, reticent nature.
Where do you come from, they’d ask.
The Sultanate of Oman, he’d reply.
Where the heck is that?

The boy would whip out a map of the world and point to a piece of land located between East Africa and India.

Here! This is where I come from, he’d point firmly.

Years later, the young boy, Qaboos was to become the Sultan of Oman, the man who put his country on the map such that no one would dare ask where it was!

Oman, tucked away between big brother Saudi Arabia and little brother U.A.E was my country of choice. And this post is about my recent visit to Oman-3 years after I’d left it to return to India. When I’d first arrived in Muscat, I’d found the sight of the brown, barren mountains depressing. Today it’s these very mountains that have become my most enduring memory of Oman.

Friendships can be defined by how long they last. By that yardstick, Oman and I go way back-further than the four years I spent there as a tour guide, further than the three years that I spent missing it tremendously. Even further back….a past life, perhaps.

Visiting Oman this time round was like finding a piece of a jigsaw puzzle somewhere in my heart-a puzzle comprising myriad memories, images and conversations of all places visited and yet to be visited. The years just faded away like wrinkles off a freshly-ironed piece of clothing.

Muscat, the capital is so charming with its whitewashed low-rises nestled amidst the majestic mountains, it’s not hard not to like this city. Muscat means ‘anchorage’ and the city is a natural harbour. Colonists came and went and yet none was able to conquer the country. The Portuguese tried, though and were promptly driven out by the Imams of the Al Yaruba dynasty.  And sure as hell, the Portuguese landed in India soon after. Look at the map and it’s clear why.

Oman is India’s neighbour just across the Arabian Sea and everytime I fly into either city, I can’t help but think that the “unlikely event of landing on water” may not be that unlikely at all. So I intently watch the stewardess give safety instructions on how to inflate the life jacket.  And when I do arrive safely, I let out a soft “Al Humdullilah.”

Muscat is one of the cleanest cities in the world, and it’s ironic that it’s mostly an Indian cleaning staff that keeps it that way.  Oman’s road network is tremendous and yet, you have access to Oman’s first black-top road, Riyam Road, nearly 2 kms long, and offering spectacular views over Old Muscat, the Sultan’s futuristic Al Alam Palace flanked by the two Portuguese forts of Jalali and Mirani.

Follow the Riyam Road and you’ll head straight into old Muscat, past the Bait Zubair Museum with its private collection of traditional Omani clothing, jewellery and weapons and perhaps, one of the best photographs of Sultan Qaboos (*sigh*). But the loveliest part of Muscat is the traditional fishing village of Sidab that lies along the road to the stately Al Bustan Palace Hotel. The little village, though, is no less modern than its urban counterpart in greater Muscat, yet, in many ways, is representative of Muscat’s humble beginnings.


Muscat’s coast offers clean beaches worthy of a good swim, and Qantab is a popular weekend destination for locals. Picnicking is what Omani folks do best, that is when they are not playing football. Entire families will drive down to beaches and wadis in their Toyotas and unpack large amounts of food. Meat will be washed in the falaj (an ancient water channelling system carved out of mountains) and grilled on a wood fire. Much revelry will follow; little children will wave out to tourists, women will gossip and the men will be men.

Out at sea, though is another adventure altogether. Venture out in the morning hours and you’re likely to spot schools of dolphins frolicking about the speed boats full of tourists that race to catch up with them.  And if you’re very very lucky, on a cool winter’s day you might even spot a whale.

Back on land, head into the city along Muscat’s superefficient expressway and you’ll reach the Grand Sultan Qaboos Mosque, Oman’s largest and one of the most beautiful in the world. I’ve been here countless times on my tours, and yet, I can never say I’ve seen it all. There’s always something new to discover; how the sunlight falls along the corridors through the carved windows, or how the shadows of the columns line up to create a sun-shade effect, or how there’re always some new flowers to find in the superbly landscaped gardens.


If you’re in the Arab region, you’re likely to find a souq. Muscat’s Muttrah souq doesn’t at all disappoint. It’s where frankincense and attar mingle with the smell of zaatar and preserved lemons. Where you can buy a pashmina and find silver jewellery to match with it. Move away from the touristy sections and you’ll find local women in abayas haggle over the price of household goods and the older men gather to chat over kahwa and dates. Muttrah bazaar is more local than any other Arab souq, and that’s what makes it special.

Muttrah was a separate city altogether until 50 years ago, locked away at sundown behind giant doors during the reign of Sultan Said bin Taimur, the current Sultan’s father.  Then Sultan Qaboos came along and threw open the doors to Muttrah and old Muscat. He brought all the wilayats of what is Greater Muscat today, together, and turned Muscat into the capital. He rebuilt his father’s Palace and today, you’ll find government buildings built in the traditional style flanking the Al Alam Palace. This is the administrative capital of Greater Muscat.


My visit to Muttrah and Muscat, in general was further enhanced by an enjoyable people-watching experience as I sat in my favourite cafe by the corniche, sipping on pomegranate juice. Muscat is so diverse, in terms of culture, food, and people. It is multi-culti, to use the German short form for multicultural. It is so quaint and yet so progressive. It’s like finding the perfect blend of spices in your favourite rice dish.

Muscat’s openness and warm and welcoming nature are so endearing, it makes me want to return again and again. You fly two hours and before you know it, you’ve arrived. Oman is too close to my heart to ever qualify as a foreign country. It’s just like arriving home.



(Feb 2013)