A breakfast buffet

During our post-pandemic travel through India we found that the breakfast buffet at all the hotels have converged to a standard menu. Cut fruits, some salad, sprouts and a cheese platter are close to the beginning, next to fruit juices and tea or coffee. The fruits are predictable: pineapple, melons, papaya, or watermelon. You could have a pile of bananas or orange nearby, but I don’t think I’ve seen chikoo or custard apple at breakfast. Confronted with this again on our weekend visit to Chilika lake, I decided to practice my plating. I placed a few cubes of the industrial cheese, and some fruits and sprouts, before squeezing lime over the fresh ingredients.

The next stage through the buffet brings you to cooked food: idli and dosa, parathas or kulchas, and sometimes puri. This being Odisha there were puris instead of paratha. The family committed sacrilege on the plate by having her puris with yoghurt. I kept to the straight and narrow path: potato sabji. Plating Indian food is never easy, and I had to depend on the colour to make the serving look good in a photo.

The meat comes late. In fancy places you can get cold cuts and an egg station where they’ll do your eggs to order. Here I they had boiled eggs and cooked sausage. I’m more fond of potato wedges (The Family raised a quizzical eyebrow) than the sausage, but protein is protein. The peas did not assuage the eyebrow.

Finally it was time to sit back and relax. I’d had several cups of tea through the rest of the breakfast, but I can always have another. There was surprising amount of choice in the bakery section to make me vacillate between a croissant and a slice of brown bread. But The Family picked carrot cake, so I had a slice of tea cake to go with my last tea. I’m glad my daily breakfast is so much simpler.

Beach food

Beautiful silk sarees seem to be the choice of beach-wear this year in Puri. You can hardly enter the water in them. It’s also rather stormy, with a chance of hurricanes right now. So the thing to do seems to be to amble on the sand and look for things to eat. The man balancing a whole lot of pans on his shoulder offered four kinds of Odiya sweets, including rasgulla. But I’d stopped at every sweet shop on my way down to the beach, so I gave it a miss.

I was very tempted by the heap of guavas. Nearly ripe guavas, sliced up and sprinkled with salt and powdered red chili is an all time favourite beach food. I’ve eaten it from Goa, down the Kerala coast, up the east coast from Madurai to Bengal, and further east to Myanmar and all the way to Vietnam. I smelt the guavas. Not yet ripe enough, unfortunately. There are some who prefer the fruit very green, but I’m not one of them.

But there was a life save: tender coconut. Just the thing on this hot and humid day. The vendor chopped off the top and gave me the water. Then he split the coconut into two to give me the gelatinous white flesh, still sweet and tender. You scoop it up with a piece of the shell. Very eco-friendly. No single use item there. Not even the coconut. After you’ve finished with it the shell and the coir are used. Perfect beach food for the day.


Puri, an old temple town, is a hodge-podge of architectural styles from many periods. But the Grand Road, the road along which the massive vehicle of Jagannath passes, is lined with buildings from the last century. Early 20th century architecture is very decorative. Even ordinary houses here have ornate plaster work balconies: botanical curlicues and peacocks are common, as are very bright colours. And what I saw were not ordinary houses.

When it comes to the ashrams, the decorations become mesmerizing. Mythological scenes abound. What could be done earlier in expensive stone or fragile earth, was now done in plaster. Some are executed in the then newly popular westernized style picked up from Raja Ravi Varma and his followers, but others recall temple statuary from the region. But the exuberance of the colours is completely local. Driving through the countryside outside Puri you’ll see modest houses painted in the same bright colours, standing out against the greenery of fields. All of the decorations you see here belong to gateways. In the last picture in the gallery above you see one of the gates, a massive made-to-order cast iron affair (interestingly, of all the gates I saw, this was the only one in which the dwarapala was not a lion). The iconography is largely of Vishnu, of course. The small icon of the Varaha avatara (featured photo) was a wonderful example of this style.

Across the road from these ashrams was a building with totally different aesthetic on its frontage. The colours and the style were imitation British. I wondered why it was so different. There was no clue from its current use. It had shops on the ground floor and a hotel in the upper floors. Quite a good spot if you want to take photos of the rath yatra, I thought.

Midweek mobile 8

Puri, an ancient temple town, is the perfect place for street photos. No camera can be more discreet these days than a phone; bystanders can seldom tell whether you are taking a selfie or a photo of the street. Gone are the days when you saw a photographer and you would walk around them. These days you could land up photo-bombing a selfie. I walked about taking more shots than I could ever use. I had a few destinations in mind, and since these small lanes are a little confusing, I had my maps and location service on. I knew that all this can eat charge like a hungry spider. This time I was going to track exactly how much.

Normally I charge the battery fully, and it gives me a low battery alert when the charge has fallen to 15% of its capacity. On the average I have to charge my phone every three days. That means in an average hour I use 2.3% of the charge. After an hour of walking, I saw that maps and camera had each been on for the hour. Maps had eaten 3% of charge, but the camera had eaten just over 10%. This was just the camera software, since the display is counted separately. This agreed with my previous experience, that I would need to charge my camera after a day’s shooting.

To understand why, back up a little. These photos are zoomed in by a factor of about 4 to 8. With a DSLR setup you would not expect to capture the details of the old man’s mustache using a 15 mm diameter lens which has a focal length of 26 mm. The sensor size on my phone is almost 8 times smaller than that on most DSLRs, and therefore catches that much less light. The sharpness that you see comes from the number of output pixels in the image. That pixel density is due to intense computation, including two components that I’ve explored before: computational super-resolution and image averaging over a very large number of images. Driving the software that tries to compensate for the hardware limitations is what uses up so much charge. Algorithms will improve in future, mass market hardware will become better, and processors will run cooler. But until then, the carbon footprint of phone photography will remain several times larger than that of communication.

Phone photography changes our expectation of the interaction of camera hardware and image so dramatically that it is worth rethinking what photography means. I intend to explore this a bit in this series.

Mustachioed guardians

Odisha has its own modern style in temple guardians. In other parts of India and south-east Asia you might find fearsome Yakshas, or the temple god’s familiar, perhaps a monkey warrior or a bull, perhaps a figure of a Garuda. In Odisha this diversity of guardians is visible in temples which are more than a century old. But now, the dwarapalas are almost always a pair of lions.

I walked through the lanes around the Jagannath temple in Puri taking photos of these lion guardians. Most of these secondary temples are small, and the lions are the smallest element in them. But large or small, they have heavy dark mustaches, turned upward and often stylishly curled. In fact I saw only one pair of lions which had a representation of whiskers. One of the pair is shown in the featured photo.

Here is the last guardian I saw. I advanced on it, with my phone held out towards it. Undaunted, it stood its ground, refusing me entry. It was guarding a plastic chair, not a temple.

Well-beaten paths

Some periods of history are turbulent enough that scholarly work is hidden under contending views. Our times are among them. As a result, the history of Puri and the Jagannath temple has become obscure again. What we do know is that it is one of the older towns in the area. The kingdom of Kalinga, was originally part of modern day Odisha, and has at times had an empire which covered large parts of peninular India. It is definitely as old as Magadha, the ancient kingdom which originated in present day Bihar, and grew to be one of the largest Indian empires, with a cultural reach which eventually included most of Asia as well as Greece and Rome. That culture carried Buddhism from Magadha, where Gautama preached his new religion before the time of Alexander of Macedonia, and the Pali language across the world. It is said that this outreach was catalyzed by the bloody battle in year 261 BCE between these two states which was fought close to Puri. What is known about the temple of Jagannath is that it was rebuilt by a king of the Ganga dynasty, perhaps in the 10th century BCE, so it must be older.

You need to enter the Singhadwar, the Lion gate, to see the temple complex. Little is visible from outside, and having visited once, I was not inclined to brave it again. Crowd management has definitely improved since my last visit to Puri, and it was hard to take a photo of the gate. I suspect, from its style, that the stone gate and wall was built during the Maratha occupation in the 18th century. In this region Jagannath is not an inaccessible deity, but one who is treated as part of the household, part of normal life. Walling off his temple seems to be part of a different view of the religion.

I left behind these knots where history gathers and walked on into the little spaces of daily life. The lanes around the temple are narrow, just wide enough for a rickshaw or an auto, after you subtract the space needed to park a motorbike (like in the featured photo). I passed the open doors to houses with little gardens and courtyards. In this part of Odisha a wedding in the family is often announced by a little wall painting. This one has a representation of Jagannath’s sister, Subhadra. Around here you need only paint the concentric circles representing eyes to invoke Jagannath and his family.

Temple towns contain unremarked layers of history. These old stone pillars frame a doorway into a hostel for pilgrims. The stone pillars are at least three centuries old. Looking at the carvings in the set in front, I thought they could be significantly older. Part of the construction is definitely from the early 20th century, and, as you can see, something is being built even now. I wonder which small Raja first endowed this home for pilgrims.

A few steps on, there was a grand gate. The inscription over the gate announced an ashram in Odiya and Bengali and Devanagari. The rotunda and its screens supported by a circle of pillars and topped by a tower seemed to be something from the 19th century, perhaps very early 20th century. The sect probably originated in Bengal, which makes it likely that it was funded by Bengali traders who began to become wealthy in the 18th and 19th centuries.

But the most interesting sight was inside the wide open doors of this little music shop. The variety of percussion instruments is amazing. But what goes beyond and becomes astounding is the thing that has the pride of the place: the automated drummer. I hope I’m not around when it starts to play.

Fresh old food

Something different? If you want something different, take a walk in the neighbourhood of one of the old temple towns of India. Yesterday I strolled around the lanes of Puri, near the Jagannath temple. This is old enough to have given the word juggernaut to the English language in its own recent history. I had my eyes on the hundreds of sweet shops that line these roads. Pilgrims need sustenance. This shop caught my eye. Malpuas were fried and soaked in syrup as I watched, and next to them was a tray of the khajas which this temple town is famous for.

I have never understood how this famous speciality of a little-known town called Silaon in Bihar came to be associated with Puri in Odisha. Perhaps it goes back to the famous war between Magadha and Kalinga (circa 260 BCE), the war whose effect was the spread of Buddhism through the then-known world: eastwards all the way to Japan, westwards to the Indo-Greek kingdoms of Asia. Temples are the amber which preserve old customs. This man, with his ascetic’s matted hair, was hard at work passing on a bit of old tradition to the future.

Some dhabas and restaurants in Amritsar

Amritsar is a food lover’s destination, as I wrote in an earlier post, when I took you on a tour of its street food. I’ve also written about the langar ka khana at the Golden Temple. Let me whisk you through lunch and dinner today. Our stay was too short for us to try out a larger number of places. I had short listed a few eateries before starting, based on reading other travelers’ stories, but it was too long. Coincidentally, a couple we know were traveling at the same time, and, by exchanging notes with them, we eliminated a couple of places where their experience was not so good, or very close to what we had already tried. We didn’t only go by what other travelers recommended though. There’s nothing like the advise of locals, and we incorporated them.


There are several places which people recommend for parathas, but I’d read about Kesar da Dhaba in old memoirs of Amritsar. It dates from well before Gandhi’s Salt March, and its location in the very atmospheric lanes east of Darshani Deori added to its charm. We wandered through those lanes, and picked up some local achar, before reaching the dhaba. We were not at all disappointed by the butter-soaked parathas and the dal (featured photo). It was not easy to have that plate and finish our superbly creamy lassi. The dal is cooked for twelve hours, we were told, but the paratha is absolutely fresh from the tandoor.

Amritsari Fish

The locals agreed with travelers about Makhan’s Fish. The Amritsari style of fish is either baked in the tandoor or lightly fried. Two kinds of fish are commonly used, Sangara (red snapper) and Sohal, which, I was told, is a local fresh water fish. Our server advised a fried Sangara and a tandoori Sohal. The preparation was typical of genuine Punjabi cooking, light on masala, and emphasizing the freshness of the ingredients. I overdid things a little by adding on a plate of the mutton tikka. This was an amazing dish, the pieces of mutton cooked in ghee until they were soft and melting. The Family went light on the mutton because she wanted to end the dinner with a kulfi. We hadn’t had kulfi in Amritsar before, but I could only have a little taste of their delicate saffron infused version.

Kulchas and Puris

Amritsar Kitchen is not on any traveler’s list, because it opened in early 2020, just before the lockdown. But their food is amazing. The Family had kulchas for breakfast, but I tried out their puris. They came with a choice of one of four accompaniments, but the servers were happy to let me taste all four: the usual potato sabji, another of pumpkin (sweet from the pumpkin and a slight sourness of amchur), one of chana, and one of sprouted moong. Anirudh gave me a taste of something they were trying out: a masala gur. A nice accompaniment.

Paya and mutton paratha

We almost didn’t get to what I consider the high point of this trip, as far as food was concerned: Pal Dhaba. We arrived for dinner on a Tuesday, when it is closed. So we went back for lunch the next day. I’m glad we did. They have a superb paya (goat’s feet, it’s called kharora here). Its rich taste told us that it had been slow cooked for a long time. Another delight was the keema paratha. The old man who served us sat down at the next table and told us about the keema. The minced mutton had been slow cooked till it yielded up its fat, then cooked until it had been absorbed again. I fell in love with it, and ordered a second one. I did not need a dinner that night.

Clear the air

It is time to say this. The epidemic and the enforced lockdown continues to show what a strange universe we had locked ourselves into. The walls we had built around our complicated social and economic world have collapsed and through these gaps we can see new possibilities. When we build up again, there will be a push to instantly return to what we had earlier, but it will be good for us to see how flimsy the supporting arguments were.

The air is so clear ten days after the beginning of the lockdown that from the rooftops of Jalandhar one can see the high Himalayas. We’d driven through this city almost two years ago, when we spent a week in the lower Himalayas. Passing through the traffic snarled up in the city I never realized that we were only 450 Km from Srinagar in Kashmir. This air can be kept clear. Change from oil to electric. Electric scooter technology is cheap and widely available. Just the will to change the tax structure to favour a new industry is lacking. Autos on the road are another major polluter, but changing their two-stroke engines to battery would be another step towards clean air. It can be done at a cost much smaller than the lockdown.

Dolphins on Marine Drive in Mumbai! Whales visiting the oil rig at Bombay High! These are not fake videos. We saw different dolphin videos taken by a lot of people, from a lot of different angles. So this we can be take as verified. Just one day of reduced noise pollution in the sea brought dolphins into Backbay. That’s not something I’ve seen written about even in the literature from a century ago. The incidental conversation in the whale video indicates that this is probably not fake. We will not be able to recover this perhaps, because the world’s supply chain moves through the seas. On the other hand, I know some extremely good engineers, and they should be able to put their minds to lowering the noise made by ships, if they can make a living doing it. After all, energy lost to noise is produced by burning fuel, so less noise is an incremental increase in efficiency. In any case, it is good to see how quickly nature can begin to reclaim the earth.

Peacocks dancing through the streets of Mumbai! Who would have thought! I didn’t even know there were peacocks left withing the city. That’s hope for the future. We do have small green lungs in the city. I hope videos such as this give people a reason to hope that planning for more patches of greenery will help preserve these wonders right here, next to our homes. I think a lot of small patches with trees will help.

Away from the big bad city, one has seen videos of elephants roaming through the streets of small towns. That may not be to everyone’s liking. There is a growing body of scientific thought that says that the increasing instances of new diseases, SARS, MERS, Zika, Ebola, and COVID-19, is due to human activity encroaching on parts of the world which were the natural range of other species. It sounds reasonable, because the new diseases are not coming from the already-dead lands of Europe and the US. They are arising in parts of the world where there are ancient ecosystems newly destroyed. We have known for years that human-elephant conflict is due to us taking over their land. Now perhaps we are facing bigger threats as we take over new ecologies.

Enough of a Sunday sermon. Let me end with this wonderful video of a fawn of the spotted deer, Cheetal, galloping in the waves of the Bay of Bengal. The video is verified to come from Puri, that famous temple town and beach resort. What a wonderful sight! I cannot go out to see wildlife right now, but it is coming in to see us today.