Traipsing around Haryana

The small North Indian state of Haryana abuts Delhi. It’s good for a short drive from Delhi into Gurgaon for a meal and some shopping. Alternately, you can venture much further, going as far as the state capital, Chandigarh, and its environs.


Good Thai food and a pleasant ambience

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 20, 2013

My husband and I both love South East Asian food, so when someone told us that the Vivanta Hotel—a Taj Hotels property—offered the best Thai food in Gurgaon, we decided to cash in some Taj discount vouchers we had. Thai Pavilion, on the first floor of the hotel, was where we headed one drizzly afternoon for lunch.

Approached past a bar counter and small lounge (with beautiful giant brass hands, very typically Thai), the restaurant is a very pleasant combination of elegance and warmth. The ceiling and walls are polished wood, the upholstery is a mix-and-match of beige, gold-patterned crimson, gold-patterned black, and tan. There’s an orchid on each table, and the water tumblers are of coloured glass. Classy, but not intimidatingly so.

The restaurant was largely empty when we arrived; only two other tables were occupied. A waitress greeted us, led us to a table, and got us the menus. Though they do have a good enough range of alcoholic beverages, both of us settled for a fresh lemonade each and then got down to deciding what we wanted for food. Since we did want a dessert each, and don’t have massive appetites, we opted to skip a starter and have only a main course, followed by a dessert. In typical South East Asian style, portions are for at least two people each, so we ordered a pad thai (with mixed meats and vegetables); a stir-fried minced pork with soya sauce, garlic, basil and beans; and a stir-fried morning glory with yellow bean paste. This last dish was at the recommendation of the (very knowledgeable and helpful) waiter who took our order.

Within minutes of our placing our order, our drinks arrived (well iced, which gets special marks from me!). Along with that, our waitress brought us a complimentary amuse-bouche each: a deep-fried vegetable dumpling sitting on a bed of fried rice noodles mixed with fresh juicy pomegranate seeds. After she’d placed these in front of us, she pointed out the sauces on the table and identified them for us: a spicy peanut sauce, a honey and chilli sauce, and a hot chilli sauce. "The honey chilli sauce goes with the fried dumplings," she informed us. And yes, it certainly did—the dumpling was delicious, crisp on the outside and tender inside.

Our main course too was served up within about ten minutes of our having ordered our food. All three dishes, we realized, came in portion sizes that were rather too large for us, but we gamely carried on and finished it all off. Part of the reason for that was also that it uniformly good. The moo phad kaprao (minced pork stir-fried with garlic, soya, chillies and basil) came studded with inch-long pieces of succulent green beans that provided an interesting textural contrast to the pork. (This particular dish, by the way, is available with either pork or tenderloin, at the same price).

The other main dish we’d ordered was the vegetarian one, phad pak bung tao jiew: stir-fried morning glory with yellow bean paste. This one was the perfect complement to the pork, a relatively gently flavoured (but yet very flavourful) dish of lots of morning glory greens (water spinach) tossed with garlic and the yellow bean paste—and studded with bits of the beans. Both my husband and I loved this to bits.

The phad thai we’d ordered was a mixed one, with prawns, chicken, and vegetables (broccoli, carrot, beansprouts, etc). Since I’m a vegetable freak, I’d have liked some more of the veggies, but they were fairly adequate for the average diner. The noodles tasted delicious, and the sprinkling of roasted peanuts was very generous—totally up my street!

We had a look through the dessert menu when we’d finished, and discovered that Thai Pavilion has some rather unusual (for India, at least) items listed: a steamed custard in a baby pumpkin, for example; or a spiced crème brulée with dried rose petals. Both of us finally settled for chocolate-based desserts: I ordered a hot Thai chocolate soufflé, while my husband opted for a ‘dark Callebaut chocolate strata with crackling almond crunch’.

The desserts, while both good (and each with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side), were nothing like what we’d have expected to get. My soufflé, for instance, didn’t really resemble a soufflé at all. It was a mid-sized tart (granted, very light pastry) filled with a delicious and fluffy dark chocolate filling, not rich and heavy enough to make me regret it, but not a soufflé, really. And not, by any means, hot. I couldn’t even understand why the menu referred to it as a ‘Thai’ soufflé—unless it was for the bits of shredded coconut I could feel (not taste, mind you) in the filling.

Similarly, my husband’s dessert didn’t strike him as being of ‘dark chocolate’ at all; and the ‘crackling almond crunch’ turned out to be just a few slivers of toasted almond plastered on the chocolate icing covering a rolled chocolate cake. Not anywhere as exciting as it had sounded on the menu, even if it wasn’t a bad dish.

Our bill was Rs 3,281, inclusive of taxes but excluding a tip. That’s fairly expensive, but we’d been expecting that, since Thai Pavilion is, after all, in a five star hotel. Except for the slightly disappointing desserts, this was a meal we enjoyed a lot. The food was excellent, the ambience pleasant (the music, by the way, is quite eclectic, even though all of it was from South East Asia—ranging from the very traditional to pop). Definitely a place to eat if you’re looking for good food in Gurgaon.

Thai Pavilion
Plot No 01, Sector 44
Gurgaon, NCR, 122004
0124 667 1234

Much potential, but a disappointing visit for us

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 20, 2013

I’d read about the Urusvati Museum of Folklore a few months back, and had been wanting to visit ever since. Since we live in east Delhi, driving all the way to Gurgaon takes some effort—and Urusvati isn’t even in the heart of Gurgaon; it’s beyond. One weekend, having finally decided it was high time we visited, we checked up the museum’s address, got the GPS directions on to my husband’s phone, and set off.

For most of the way, this is a good road—it’s a National Highway, broad and smooth, the road that connects Delhi to Jaipur. Shortly after the second toll station, on the way to Manesar, a sign on the left indicated that we had to turn left for Urusvati—and we found ourselves on a very muddy, dug-up road leading to the museum. This was one of the bumpiest rides I’ve ever had in the National Capital Region, and the 2.5 km to the museum seemed like an eternity.

We finally arrived at this museum, in a set of triple-storeyed buildings, without anything really to identify them as the museum. Sacks full of concrete stood around, along with stone slabs and other construction material, and wending our way through it all was a chore. Finally, a man (a labourer on what we discovered was a construction site) directed us to an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair who admitted that yes, this was the museum. "We’re closed for renovations right now," he told us. "But if you want you can go upstairs and have a look at some of the artefacts." Since we’d come all this way, we decided we may as well accept the offer.

We were therefore escorted up a flight of stairs to a very dimly lit set of rooms where the artefacts that form the museum’s collection have been stored while the construction is in progress. A lot of the exhibits were draped in clear plastic sheets, many were dumped together in quite a higgledy-piggledy way, and with no particular order to them. We did, however, manage to get some impression of what this collection is all about.

It is, of course, as the name suggests, a museum of folklore—so there are panels of text that tell (in English and Hindi) famous folktales from North India: the story of Heer-Ranjha, Mirza-Sahiban, Nal-Damayanti, Habba Khatoon, etc, mostly supported by visual elements in the form of paintings, dioramas, and so on.

Besides these (which are primarily romances), there are descriptions (and depictions) of other forms of storytelling traditionally used in Indian folklore—for example, kaavad, a form used in Rajasthan, where the storyteller would perform with the help of a small folding wooden triptych-like thing, on each panel of which one scene from the story was painted. The museum has a collection of kaavads, open at different stages of a story, so you can see what is meant.

This, to us, seemed the extent of the ‘folklore’ in the museum. The rest of the exhibits—folk costumes, jewellery, musical instruments, handicrafts and folk art, photographs of folk dancers, religious items (such as a palanquin used in the famous Dussehra processions in Kullu)—are interesting, folksy, even beautiful, but not strictly folklore. The dioramas and life-sized models are very typical of Indian museums, unimaginative and no great shakes. The labelling, while mostly adequate, is often restricted to another collection (‘Wedding Objects’ reads one ambiguous label on a display case containing a bunch of very intriguing objects connected to Punjabi weddings, many of which a non-Indian, or even a non-Punjabi, may not be able to identify).

Since a large number of the exhibits were either stored away or out of bounds, we were done with the museum within about 15 minutes. In any case, what was there was mostly pretty dusty and too badly lit for us to appreciate it. We came downstairs and were met by a lady—apparently the owner (this is a private museum)—who apologized for them not having posted a notification anywhere online regarding the museum being closed. (Even if they’d pasted a ‘Closed for Renovation’ printout on the sign on the main road, we would’ve been spared the bone-rattling drive from the highway). But she did tell us that the museum will reopen by about November 2013, when it will also include two art galleries, and facilities that will allow residencies for artists.

The Urusvati Museum of Folklore, when it’s open, is open from 10 to 6.30 on all days except Monday. Tickets cost Rs 50 per person; we were allowed in for free since the museum was in such a mess. I’m guessing that when this opens, it might be quite an interesting place to visit—rather like a Gurgaon version of Delhi’s Crafts Museum—but I doubt if I can muster up the energy to attempt another visit.

Urusvati Museum of Folklore
Madhuram, Shikohpur Village
Gurgaon
09810605910

The best parathas around

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 20, 2013

The Grand Trunk Road—National Highway 1—is nothing if not long (well, all the way from Kolkata to Lahore in Pakistan), and on a road that long, you need places to eat and sleep and take toilet breaks. When it comes to eating, few places can beat the dhabas that appear almost every few kilometers in northern India. A dhaba is usually a pretty barebones eatery, often just a shack with plank tables and chairs, with a limited number of items on the menu, the pots and pans generally lined up along the front of the counter. Some dhabas, however, have made it big. Ambala’s Puran ka Dhaba; Dharampur’s Giani ka Dhaba—and Murthal’s Gulshan ka Dhaba.

Murthal lies about an hour’s drive from Delhi on NH1, on the road to Karnal. Murthal’s a small town, and Gulshan’s is successful enough to have spawned a series of shameless imitators: on two previous trips, we ended up eating at dhabas that called themselves Gulshan, but turned out to be complete frauds. This time, we’d done our homework and found out exactly which one was the real McCoy, so we pulled up close to noon at the one and only Gulshan’s, with huge cut out letters in yellow plastic in front.

Despite its fame, Gulshan’s is still a dhaba: a huge shack covered with a solid roof, but open in front (good, actually, because we could park just about ten feet from where we sat down). There are wooden deal tables and benches; each table has a small water cooler, a packet of paper napkins and a large jar of spicy mixed pickles. All along two ends are counters that sell soft drinks, potato chips, packaged snacks, even digestive mixes!

Gulshan’s menu is largely northern Indian: dals (lentils), vegetables, and so on. Strangely enough, pizzas are also part of the repertoire, and advertised all round the place. The specialty though is parathas—stuffed breads that are traditionally panfried, but in Gulshan’s case, roasted. We place our orders: parathas stuffed with paneer (a soft fresh cheese), boiled potato; grated cauliflower; and chopped onion. Each paratha comes with a good-sized helping of lightly spiced stuffing, and a generous dollop of unsalted butter on top, melting richly into the hot paratha. We refuse our waiter’s suggestion that we order plain yoghurt and a dish of buttered lentils—dal makhani—since the parathas are filling enough. We do succumb to the temptation to have dessert, though: a bowlful each of chilled kheer, a creamy rice and milk pudding garnished with raisins, chopped pistachios and cashewnuts, and powdered cardamom. Bliss.

Twenty minutes later, we’re sated and happy. The ambience may be nothing to write home about, but the parathas are excellent, the staff brisk and efficient if not brimming with friendly cheer. And the best part? With juices and a large tip included for our waiter, the bill comes to only Rs 200. Now that’s what I call value for money!

Gulshan Dhaba
National Highway 1
Murthal, 131001

Odd, but interesting

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 20, 2013

Commonly known simply as the Rock Garden, this is Chandigarh’s biggest tourist attraction. That may not be particularly impressive in itself (since Chandigarh is notoriously short of things to see), but the Rock Garden is worth a visit. The Rock Garden isn’t historic, and it isn’t precisely pretty either. But it’s distinctly wacky, and definitely an interesting aspect of modern Indian art.

The Rock Garden dates back to 1976 and was the brainchild of a former civil servant called Nek Chand. Nek Chand came up with the idea of using waste material- broken crockery, shattered glass bangles, and the like- to create works of art, all of them housed in a specially landscaped park which would include more recycled material within it. What emerged from Nek Chand’s efforts is the Rock Garden.

From the moment you reach the car park at the Rock Garden, you see signs of this unusual form of art: a bunch of clay peacocks (big birds, at any rate), covered with pieces of broken pottery, stand atop the wall that marks the boundary of the park. Once inside, you follow a pathway- sometimes narrow, sometimes wide, but always flanked on either side by walls made of sacks of hardened cement- in a well-defined route through the Rock Garden. The path meanders, up and down, along artificial pools and waterfalls, on roughly hewn steps and through narrow corridors and very low doorways.

A lot of it is decorated- with coloured mosaics crafted from bits of broken pottery, and with a large number of animal and human figures. These, like the birds on the boundary wall, are mainly made of clay or cement, and are studded with almost anything that nobody needs any more: brightly coloured broken glass bangles, shards of beer bottles, bits of pottery- mainly white, but some painted- and even ceramic insulation from old electrical switches and poles ("Looks like Swiss cheese," I hear a teenager remark). The animal and human figures are virtually symbolic of the Rock Garden. There’s something unique about the disproportionate limbs, the almost childishly straight lines, and the veritable armies of duplicate figures- women, men, girls, boys, monkeys- that stand all over. This may not be high art, but it’s different.

The Rock Garden has a recreation area right at the end of Phase 3. It’s a large enclosed area with stalls selling souvenirs, colas, ice cream, Indian snacks and potato chips; there is a camel on which you can buy rides; there’s a `funny mirrors’ gallery where you can see your reflection go from skinny giant to rotund midget; and there are swings.

Entry to the Rock Garden is Rs 10 for adults and Rs 5 for children. Wear good walking shoes- stretches of the path are rough. Also note that once you’re inside the park, there isn’t any way out in between. Whether you like it or not, you’ve got to do the entire route. The entire circuit takes about an hour at a leisurely pace.

Nek Chand Rock Garden
Sector No.1,Chandigarh,Chandigarh,160001, India
Chandigarh, India
085 58 882810

Not great, but a good location

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 20, 2013

For a state that’s notoriously short on tourist attractions, Haryana has a pretty active tourism department, with a chain of motels—all named after birds—across the state. Just about every town has a motel, so we weren’t surprised to discover that Pinjore had one. The Budgerigar Motel, moreover, actually lies within the gardens, tucked away on one side just before you descend the stairs to the main terraces of the garden.

We arrived at Pinjore on a hot day in May, after having spent nine days in the gloriously beautiful, cool hills of Himachal. Pinjore, dusty, dull and crowded, looked awful. Once we turned into Yadavindra gardens, things looked worse: there were tourist buses parked everywhere, and what looked like hundreds of tourists.

Budgerigar came, therefore, as a pleasant surprise. Lush lawns bordered with flowerbeds and trees spread out in front of the motel. The façade is mainly carved stone. Inside, it’s dimly lit, somewhat run down, but better than a lot of other government-run hotels I’ve seen. Our room is on the ground floor, with a cheesy sign beside the door: "Welcome to your nest." The room’s large, with a double bed, wardrobe, luggage rack, dressing table and chair, sofas, coffee table, and even a low divan against one wall. The TV shows loads of channels, and the air-conditioning’s efficient.

The bathroom’s a disappointment, though. It’s clean, but weird. There’s no bathtub—no surprise there—but there’s a low wall separating the shower, along with the regulation bucket and mug, from the rest of the bathroom. The geyser sits in a loft-like space, with wooden bars across it, above the sink. And high up on the wall are two large ventilators looking out onto the corridor outside. What with people chatting and moving around constantly in the corridor, and all the sound drifting in through the ventilators, it’s a little noisy in the loo.

We soon discover other irritants. There’s soap and towels for only one person. On the bed, there’s nothing to cover with. And since the phone doesn’t work, Tarun has to go and ask for all of these things personally. The phone, they tell us, will take time, and since we’re only here one night, can we please bear with it?

The restaurant’s a short walk from our room, and serves an eclectic menu—mainly north Indian food, but with some Chinese food, along with sandwiches, burgers, and other so-called Continental stuff thrown in. We stick to Indian, and it’s so-so, a little too oily. The view from the restaurant’s huge plate glass windows, which overlook the orchards of Pinjore, is fabulous.

All in all, I’d say the Budgerigar is all right. Yes, it could’ve been smarter and cleaner and more efficiently managed, but the location is great. And, given the general standard of government-run hotels in India, this one’s definitely above average.

Rooms can be booked at the Budgerigar by writing to haryanatourism74@hotmail.com. Unfortunately, they need an advance payment of 100%. Inconvenient, especially as you can’t pay online.

Budgerigar Motel
Yadavindra Gardens, Pinjore, Haryana
India, asia
01733-267759

An interesting example of Mughal gardens

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 20, 2013

In the 1600’s, the Mughal emperor Shahjahan, renowned as an aesthete (he built the Taj Mahal), laid out a series of gardens. These followed the Persian charbagh pattern: lawns, trees (usually mango, but in Kashmir, the oriental plane tree with its lovely maple-like leaves), flowerbeds, and a water course. The gardens were generally laid out on a hillside, in a series of terraces, with open pavilions of carved stone on each level. Shahjahan wasn’t the only one creating gardens, though; so were his noblemen, since imitation, of course, was considered the height of flattery.

One such nobleman was Fidai Khan, who created the Mughal gardens at Pinjore, today on the border between the states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. Pinjore lies in the Himalayan foothills, so Fidai Khan was able to save time and money: his workers didn’t need to create artificial terraces. The gardens were laid out, and Fidai Khan, along with his household, came here to spend time in the hills, unaware that the local populace didn’t at all welcome the `outsiders’. The local hill folk decided they wanted none of Fidai Khan and his people, so they played a trick on the nobleman’s household. The water in Pinjore was deficient in iodine, as a result of which many of the local villagers suffered from the disfiguring condition known as goitre—and the villagers made it a point to send, as servants at the gardens, only those who had goitre. Fidai Khan’s ladies were horrified, and fearing that they too would fall victims to goitre, persuaded Fidai Khan to pack up and head back to the plains!

The gardens at Pinjore have today been changed so much, it’s hard to recognise these as Mughal gardens. Although the lawns and the flowerbeds are pretty, the sandstone pavilions (each with sparse but delicate carving) have been painted over lavishly in a bright creamy-yellow colour. One of them has even been converted into a busy, crowded café—horribly commercial. The water channel has been lined with blue ceramic tiles, and studded with ugly metallic fountains (the fountains and the water course would originally have probably been dressed red sandstone). All in all, it’s clean and picturesque—but the modern version of a Mughal garden just doesn’t appeal to me.

Yes, one little bright spot, though: on either side of the main gardens are vast green orchards, full of mango and chikoo (sapodilla) trees. When we visited—in May—the trees were laden with fruit, and the orchards were wonderfully soothing and quiet.

If you’re staying at the Budgerigar Motel (which is technically inside the gardens) entry is free. If you’re a visitor, a nominal fee is charged: about Rs 20. Try not to visit on the weekends, when hordes of tourists from nearby Chandigarh descend upon the gardens. The gardens are open from 9 AM to 10 PM, so time your visit for shortly before sunset, when you’ll be able to see them in daylight and at night, when they’re illuminated.

Yadavindra Gardens

Pinjaur
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