India’s strangest street food

Everyone knows that the best eats in India are served on the streets. Street food is a way of life in the subcontinent, and generations of travellers have picked up the habit, feasting their way from Mumbai to Mamallapuram on a diet of aloo tikki (spiced potato cakes), vada pav (potato dumplings in a white bread bun) and chhole bhature (spiced chickpeas with fried bread).

India is one of the world’s greatest cooking pots, as well as one of its greatest melting pots, but amongst the familiar street eat treats are some more unusual offerings to tempt adventurous palates. Here’s my pick of the pavement menus:

Petha

Spend any time in the central plains and you’ll soon spot India’s petha-wallahs, their wooden handcarts swarming with hundreds of buzzing bees. The sweet treat luring all these winged hangers-on is a delicacy from the royal courts of Agra: candied cubes of ash gourd, enjoyed by residents of Uttar Pradesh for centuries.

Petha was allegedly a personal favourite of the Emperor Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, and despite the insects swarming over vendors’ stalls, its high sugar content acts as a preservative so it’s usually safe to eat on the street. Look out for it at bus stands, train stations and markets in Uttar Pradesh and beyond.

Red ant, a key ingredient in chaprah
Red ants – the special ingredient in chaprah © Rajeev Minj/CC by-SA 4.0

Chaprah

India was the birthplace of chutney – indeed, the word comes from the Hindi verb chatna meaning ‘to lick’ – and every region has its own unique take on this distinctively Indian condiment. But chutney made from red ants might be a step too far for all but the most ambitious eaters.

In Bastar in Chhattisgarh, red ants and their eggs are pounded with chilli, ginger and other spices to make a pungent, fiery relish. You’ll see chaprah being sold in bowls made from leaves in village markets across the region, eaten .

Eri Polu

Eating insects has become a traveller rite of passage in Southeast Asia, but you’ll find similar exoskeleton-covered treats in Assam, where Indian culture brushes up against the hill-tribe culture of neighbouring Myanmar and southern China. Assam is famous for its silk saris, but the industrious silkworms that make it also crop up as a portable snack.

Having spun their valuable cocoon, silkworm pupae are re-employed as a street food ingredient, boiled with ginger and other spices as a munchable street food delicacy for Assamese market shoppers on the go. Eri Polu is usually served with khorisa, fermented bamboo shoots.

Paniphal, a popular street food across India
Purple and green paniphal, ready to eat © Teacher1943/CC by-SA 4.0

Paniphal

In street markets across India, particularly around Kolkata and West Bengal, look out for piles of alien-looking pods, usually dark green or purply-black, like pint-sized props from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Congratulations, you’ve just had your first close encounter with paniphal (singhara): the Indian water chestnut, or water caltrop.

Hidden inside that weird-shaped pod is a white, starchy tuber, that stays deliciously crisp and crunchy, even when cooked. However, a little caution is required as uncooked paniphal can carry the parasitic flukes that cause fasciolopsiasis; stick to the boiled version to be safe and wash with clean water before peeling.

Tilli

For travellers used to sanitised, pre-packaged choice cuts of meat back home, the Indian enthusiasm for offal can take some getting used to. In the Maharashtran city of Pune, it’s chargrilled buffalo spleen that titillates local gourmet tastebuds.

Famed (or notorious, depending on why you speak to) for its sharp, almost acrid flavour, and sour, rotten smell, tilli is definitely an acquired taste. And not everyone feels the need to acquire a taste for meat marinaded in bile; try it and come to your own conclusion.

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Understanding India’s Shakti Peeth temples

If you spend any time in India, you’ll hear the term shakti peeth. In a country overflowing with sacred sites, these landmark Hindu temples have an extra level of significance. You’ll probably encounter your first shakti peeth by accident, but you’ll soon learn that these ancient shrines form a network stretching right across the subcontinent, part of a Tantric belief system dating back to the earliest days of Hinduism.

Stay a little longer and you may learn the origin story of these singularly sacred shrines. The tragic tale of the marriage of Lord Shiva and the goddess Sati, and the paternal snub at a ritual sacrifice that led Sati to immolate herself in the sacred flames, providing the inspiration for centuries of widows taking their lives on their husband’s funeral pyres.

As the story goes, the heartbroken Shiva marched across the heavens carrying his wife’s charred remains, and parts of her disintegrating body fell at different spots across the subcontinent. Each became the sacred site of a shatki peeth temple.

Most of the 51 shakti peetha (or 108, depending on which scriptures you believe) lie in what is now India, but a handful were separated off into Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal by the unthinking hand of colonial boundary makers.

So, having learned that shakti peeth temples are important, which of the 51 temples are the ones to visit? Here’s a top five:

Kolkata's Kalighat Kali Temple.
Kalighat temple is surrounded by crowded bazaars © shankar s./CC by-2.0

Kalighat Kali Temple, Kolkata, West Bengal

Being linked to the ancient cult of shakti worship, the veneration of divine feminine creative power, many of the shakti peeth temples are associated with ritual sacrifices. So it is at Kolkata‘s venerated Kalighat Kali temple, sacred to the most fearsome incarnation of the Hindu mother deity. It was here that the toe from Sati’s right foot fell as the great goddess crumbled.

In times past, human sacrifice was commonplace across Bengal, but today it is goats and pigeons who fall to the sacrificial swords at Kalighat. For those who would rather avoid the gruesome spectacle, it’s as interesting to wander the temple compound as crowds of devotees pay their respects in the Bengali hut-style temple, rebuilt on the site of a much older temple in 1809.

The Jagannath Temple, Puri
The imposing rooftops of the Jagannath Temple compound © International Vaishnavas Portal

Vimala Temple, Puri, Odisha

The ancient Vimala temple at Puri has been absorbed into the fabric of the legendary Jagannath temple, the setting for India’s most famous chariot parade during the Hindu festival of Rath Yatra in June or July. The shrine is said to mark the precise spot where Sati’s navel fell during Shiva’s cosmic march of grief.

Although the Vimala shrine represents just a small part of a much bigger temple, it has huge religious significance, and many devotees regard Vimala – another of the myriad incarnations of the mother goddess – as being more important than Jagannath, the patron deity of the complex.

In many ways, the temple at Puri is the physical embodiment of the power struggle between Shiva worship and Vaishnavism that has defined the evolution of Hinduism through the centuries. Befitting the reputation of the Shakti cult, devotees once threw themselves under the wheels of the chariots at Rath Yata to die in the sight of the divine.

Taratarini temple, an ancient shakti peeth temple near, Brahmapur
The ancient stone chapels of the Taratarini temple © santosh.nahak12/CC by-3.0

Taratarini Temple, Brahmapur, Odisha

Lying off the tourist circuit on the southern coast of Odisha, the Taratarini Temple at Brahmapur marks the resting place of one of the breasts of Sati, adding special significance for followers of the cult of the mother goddess. Set on a green hilltop overlooking the Rushikulya River, the ornately carved shrine is a fine example of the Kalinga architectural style.

Rising to an amalaka (notched disk) finial, the temple’s tiered levels were carved from local stone in the 17th century, but the tradition of worshipping the twin goddesses Tara and Tarini dates back much earlier. The name Tara is part of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, dating the temple’s origins to at least the time of the emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC.

Kamakhya, one of the most important shakti peeth temples.
The distinctive beehive rooftops of the Kamakhya temple © Arpandhar/CC by-SA 4.0

Kamakhya Temple, Guwahati, Assam

Perhaps the most powerful of the shakti peetha, the Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati, capital of Assam, marks the landing place of Sati’s yoni, or vagina, giving it very special significance in the Tantric tradition. Animal sacrifices are a long-standing custom here, and on feast days, the floor of the cramped, stone chamber at the centre of the temple runs red with sacrificial blood.

The first temple at Kamakhya was constructed in the 8th or 9th century, but this ancient structure was destroyed by the forces of the Bengali sultan Ala-ud-din Husain Shah in the 16th century, and Kamakhya was extensively rebuilt in the curious hybrid style seen today. It’s one of the most atmospheric temples in the Northeast, and a living link to traditions that predate the rise of Hinduism in the subcontinent.

Muktinath Temple, a shakti peeth in Nepal

Muktinath Temple, Jomsom, Nepal

From Northeast India to Nepal. Enshrining a natural gas flame that has reputedly been burning for centuries, the temple of Muktinath near Jomsom is perched at a breathless 3710m above sea-level. Revered by both Hindus and Buddhists, this ancient shrine is said to grant moksha, liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth, to devotees who make the pilgrimage through the foothills of the Annapurna mountain range.

It is the scenery as much as the architecture that makes Mukinath so special. The tiny tiered temple, in the classic Nepali style, is surrounded by an amphitheatre of Himalayan peaks. Before the opening of Jomsom airport, Mukinath could only be reached after days of trekking from Pokhara, but today, it’s possible to get here in a day, albeit with a draining increase in altitude. Jeeps also rumble up to Jomsom via a rough dirt road from Pokhara.

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India’s most unusual temples

People often say that god exists in everything, and in India people take that idea to its logical conclusion. Dotted around this spectacular subcontinent are surprising shrines to sportsmen and Bollywood superstars, and temples paying homage to humble household objects. Even rodents get their time in the religious spotlight. Here’s a pick of the most unusual temples in India.

Karni Mata Temple, Bikaner, Rajasthan

Rajasthan punches above its weight when it comes to surprising temples, and at the Karni Mata temple at Deshnoke near Bikaner, the sewer rat is elevated to divine status. The 25,000 writhing rodents that seethe over the piles of food offerings left at this early 20th-century shrine are worshipped by devotees as the reincarnated children of the goddess Karni Mata, patron deity of the royal house of Bikaner. Visit and you’ll have rats literally crawling across your feet, but we advise against taking any of the prasad (sacred food) offered to pilgrims.

Deshnoke has its own tiny train station, within walking distance of the temple, but its just as easy to charter a vehicle in Bikaner, or swing by on one of the buses that zip between Bikaner and Jodhpur along Highway 62.

Master Blaster Temple, Atarwalia, Bihar

Few would deny that Sachin Tendulkar, scorer of the highest ever tally of international runs, is a cricketing god. The legendary batsman officially retired from the game in 2013, but the Master Blaster is still adored with almost religious devotion, literally at Atarwalia in Bihar, where a statue of Tendulkar is venerated in the first temple dedicated specifically to cricket. This unusual shrine was the brainchild of Bhojpuri actor Manoj Tiwari, and it comes with its own cricket ground and sports academy.

Atarwalia is a dusty detour off the highway between Varanasi and Aurangabad in Bihar, hear the town of Bhabhua, but you can continue by road from Aurangabad to Gaya and Bodhgaya, where the historical Buddha achieved enlightenment.

Om Banna Shrine and its sacred motorcycle
Another busy day at the Om Banna shrine © Clément Bardot/CC by-SA 4.0

Om Banna Shrine, Jodhpur, Rajasthan

The Enfield Bullet motorcycle is the king of the Indian road, so it seems only appropriate to give it the full religious treatment. At the Om Banna shrine in Pali near Jodhpur – known locally as ‘Bullet Baba’ – a miraculous motorcycle is the focal point for devotion, after it reportedly teleported back to the scene of the accident that killed its rider in 1991. Motorcyclists stop by daily to shower the venerable Enfield Bullet with flowers and light incense sticks and sacred lamps to pray for safe passage on India’s perilous highways.

The Bullet Baba shrine sits beside Highway 62 between Jodhpur and Pali, an easy leaping-off point for the outrageously elaborate Jain temples at Ranakpur. From Ranakpur, it’s an easy trip south to Udaipur with its palaces and mirrored lake.

Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh Gurdwara, Jalandhar, Punjab

For many Indian workers, a visa to work overseas is a golden ticket for a higher wage and a better life. Millions pray for an H1B or H2B visa to work in America, and devotees hope to tip the odds in their favour by leaving offerings of model airplanes at the Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh Gurdwara in the village of Talhan near Jalandhar. Locally, the Sikh gurdwara is known as hawai jahaj, the airplane shrine, and as many as 100 model aircraft can arrive at the shrine daily, left by devotees hoping for a ticket to a new life abroad.

Jalandhar is a busy city of over a million in the dusty plains northwest of Delhi, but most visitors zip past on the Grand Trunk Road from Delhi to Amritsar. Stop by, and you can visit a string of temples, monuments and museums.

Brahma Baba Temple, Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh

There’s nothing unusual about praying for more time, but at Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh, things go the other way. Devotees flock to the temple to offer clocks to the supreme deity in the hope of having wishes granted. As the story goes, a local man left a clock as an offering in the tree beside the shrine and his dream of becoming a truck driver was fulfilled. Word got out, and today, pilgrims from all religions visit the shrine to offer their own timepieces in the hope of a similar result.

Jaunpur is off the tourist trail, but worth a visit in its own right for its interesting collection of Mughal monuments, including the imposing Atala and Jama Masjid mosques and the Shahi Bridge, built on the orders of the emperor Akbar. It’s an easy detour northwest from Varanasi.

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An ode to Jet Airways

With the suspension of flight operations by India’s Jet Airways, and rival airlines lining up to take over its airport slots in Delhi and Mumbai, it feels like the end game for another of India’s private airlines. Like Kingfisher before it, Jet grew too big, too quickly, and put optimistic acquisitions ahead of sound business decisions.

From a personal perspective, though, I’ll mourn Jet’s passing. Jet was always my go-to airline in India, an island of calm in a chaotic subcontinent. Even though the airline’s much touted ISO 9001 rating was for service rather than safety, Jet always felt like a stable, safe operation.

Boarding at a small, regional airport such as Leh or Bagdogra, climbing onto a Jet aircraft felt like entering the genteel, comforting world of international airspace, even for a short domestic hop. In-flight amenities were international standard, with neat subcontinental flourishes, like the cooling jal jeera (lemon juice with mint and cumin) served when boarding in business class.

In short, Jet Airways felt like a grown-up airline, with a network befitting a national carrier, whereas the national domestic carrier, Indian Airlines (since subsumed into Air India) seemed to be stuck in a 1980s time warp, from the livery down to the lackadaisical service. I still remember being served a lunch hand-made in the departure lounge to carry on board myself on my first internal flight on Indian Airlines in the early 1990s.

Plane wing with mountains on the approach to Leh
Mountains crowd in on the hair-raising approach to Leh © Joe Bindloss

By contrast, service on Jet was generally excellent, delays were infrequent, and the fleet was regularly refreshed with gleaming new planes that offered reassurance for nervous flyers, particularly when changing from the heirloom aircraft used by carriers such as Alliance Air to buzz around the Northeast States.

It may be that Jet finds a sponsor to save it from liquidation, in which case the cessation of flights will be temporary, as promised on the Jet Airways website. But with staff being poached by other companies, that may be a thin hope. In the meantime, I’ll be preparing a lone bugle salute for the airline that carried me safety through the Indian skies for more than 20 years.

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Surprising Indian history in Canterbury

Scratch the surface of British history in almost any situation and traces of colonialism will appear. On a Bank Holiday weekend trip to Canterbury Cathedral, I was surprised to discover not the spectres of Thomas Becket and the Black Prince, but the ghosts of the Sutlej campaign – one of the most mercenary missions by the East India Company in the quest to seize control of India.

Navigating the medieval stairways and stacked stone levels of Canterbury’s World Heritage-listed cathedral, I spotted a string of memorials to sons of empire amongst the tombs of ruff-collared 17th-century nobles. Men such as Colonel Bolton and Captain Willes, killed in the battle of Mudki, and Major Baldwin, fatally wounded in combat at Feroze Shah in the Indian Punjab.

Huntingdonshire Regiment memorial, listing battles from Indian history
Huntingdonshire Regiment memorial © Joe Bindloss

The majority of the colonial-era memorials inside Canterbury Cathedral date from the 1840s and the notorious Sutlej campaign, or First Anglo-Sikh War. This largely forgotten piece of Indian history lined up the chess pieces for some of the most bloody events during the Partition of India.

The Mughals were just one of many adversaries opposed to the British conquest of India, and the Sikh kingdom of Ranjit Singh presented a major obstacle to the expansion of the empire into modern-day Pakistan. Despite cordial early relations, with the Great Game afoot, it was only a matter of time before the British pressed for an advantage.

Colonial memorial in Canterbury Cathedral
Aliwal memorial at Canterbury Cathedral © Joe Bindloss

Following the death of Ranjit Singh in 1839, the Sikh kingdom started to fracture, and the East India Company saw an opportunity to push westwards into the Punjab, which at the time was part of a kingdom extending as far as Kashmir and the Northwest Frontier.

After a string of now forgotten battles – at locations such as Mudki, Feroze Shah, Aliwal and Sobraon, in the little-touristed hinterland west of Ludhiana – the Sikhs were forced to sign the Treaty of Lahore, ceding Kashmir and the territory between the Beas and Sutlej rivers to the British.

Armoured gateway at Faridkot
Fearsome armour on a royal gateway in Faridkot © Joe Bindloss

Visiting this sleepy corner of Punjab today, with its dry farmland, wandering cow herds, dusty townships and immaculate, white gurdwaras, its hard to imagine any significant events happening here. But for a few brief years in the 19th century this was the front line in the Great Game between Britain and Russia.

Dotted around the countryside, in backwater towns such as Faridkot and Bathinda, are the time-ravaged fortresses from which Sikh regiments marched out to face the superior weaponry and rapacious ambition of the British empire. Indian history still bears the scars.

The East India Company later sold Kashmir back to the Raja of Jammu, Gulab Singh, a piece of political chicanery that left a Muslim-majority province under the control of a Sikh maharaja, prompting communal resentment that spilled over with deadly consequences during the Partition of India in 1947.

After the Treaty of Lahore, the diminished Sikh kingdom limped on for a few more years, until the Second Anglo-Sikh War in 1848, when Lord Dalhousie annexed the whole of Punjab for the East India Company, placing all of the territory between Chandigarh and the Northwest Frontier under British control.

Colonial memorial in Canterbury Cathedral, recalling battles from Indian history
Memorial in Canterbury Cathedral to Frederick Mackeson © Joe Bindloss

Because of the number of Kent-born soldiers who served in globe-trotting regiments during the colonial period, the country has long ties to Indian history. A carved marble slab inside Canterbury Cathedral recalls the death of Frederick Mackeson, commissioner of Peshawar, born in Hythe and killed, to quote his memorial, by ‘a Mahometan fanatic’ and ‘foul assassin’, as the East India Company tried to extend its control over the Northwest Frontier in modern-day Pakistan.

Hythe still has links to the subcontinent today, thanks to the Royal Gurkha Rifles, who have been based at Shorncliffe Army Camp near Cheriton since 2001. The Major of Hythe is a regular speaker at events in the Nepal Embassy in London, recalling over a century of ties between the UK and the only nation in South Asia to evade the clutches of the British Empire.

A carved wooden door panel at Canterbury Cathedral
Moorish gate at Canterbury Cathedral © Joe Bindloss

Leaving Canterbury Cathedral after admiring the mesmerising stained glass, I spotted another incongruous carving: a time-worn wooden door plaque, with four faces divided by the cross of Saint George, immediately reminiscent of the flags of Sardinia and Corsica. With the family dragging me on towards a pub lunch, I made a mental note to start researching the links between Canterbury and the Four Moors, a symbol of the Crown of Aragon since the 14th century.

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