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Eat, pray and love in Pune: A 4-hour drive from India's Mumbai

A morning class at the Osho Ashram, amid a bamboo grove near Koregaon Park.
A morning class at the Osho Ashram, amid a bamboo grove near Koregaon Park.PHOTO: OSHO
A set meal (above) includes a generous mix of curries, rice, vegetables and appetisers made of lentil, gram, coconut and other spices, all priced less than $10. The melt-in-the-mouth Shrewsbury biscuits from Kayani Bakery are a must-buy.
A set meal (above) includes a generous mix of curries, rice, vegetables and appetisers made of lentil, gram, coconut and other spices, all priced less than $10. The melt-in-the-mouth Shrewsbury biscuits from Kayani Bakery are a must-buy.PHOTO: DURVANKUR
A set meal includes a generous mix of curries, rice, vegetables and appetisers made of lentil, gram, coconut and other spices, all priced less than $10. The melt-in-the-mouth Shrewsbury biscuits (above) from Kayani Bakery are a must-buy.
A set meal includes a generous mix of curries, rice, vegetables and appetisers made of lentil, gram, coconut and other spices, all priced less than $10. The melt-in-the-mouth Shrewsbury biscuits (above) from Kayani Bakery are a must-buy.PHOTO: VIDHU AUL

In this Indian city, you can savour very English biscuits, meditate in an ashram and enjoy the history, architecture and shopping

You have to give it to the city of Pune, which so successfully holds its own, even when it is a four-hour drive from India's captivating commercial capital, Mumbai.

Pune is touted as India's education, defence and technology hub, but among my most salient recollections is the round, buttery Shrewsbury biscuit made in the city.

Also, despite the rich history and culture, it is the sight of young women covering their faces with scarves, much like female militia, speeding on two-wheelers that you will not forget in a hurry.

  • Getting there

  • Singapore Airlines and SilkAir fly to several cities in India daily and you can then take a domestic flight to Pune.

    The recommended route would be to fly to Mumbai (Singapore Airlines has two flights a day) and then take the road or the rail to enjoy the gorgeous scenery of the western mountain range from Mumbai to Pune.

    Several taxi services will drive you straight to Pune from the airport itself.

    If you would like to use the rail, head to the historic Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (www.cr.indianrailways.gov.in), where there are several direct trains to Pune.

Pune, located in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, is a modern city with history, both contemporary and ancient, intertwined in much of its everyday life. The Maratha, Mughal and British empires have left strong imprints and shaped much of what Pune epitomises today.

Possibilities abound to eat, pray and love, so your next trip to Mumbai can be designed to include Pune.

Eat: Punekars, as residents of the state are called, are known to lead an austere life, with simple living and high thinking well regarded. However, they are by no means frugal eaters.

Some Pune stores, which were opened in the later part of India's freedom struggle (1857-1947), are well known for their sweet and savoury treats.

Kayani (6 Dr Coyage Road, East Street, Camp), bakery's speciality is the very English Shrewsbury biscuits, among many other types of cakes and cookies.

The melt-in-the-mouth biscuits packed in simple boxes are a must-buy. Try getting a fresh batch baked in the morning.

Among the savoury nibbles, the most well-known are crisps and a shredded potato snack with dry fruits from Budhani Bros Waferwala (682, Gurukrupa, Taboot Street, Camp).

You can buy a typical Maharastrian snack made of flour and ground spices called Bakad Wadi from a store called Chitale Bandhu (www.chitalebandhu.in).

Once you have finished stocking up on the goodies, focus on the main meals of the day.

Go to Vaishali for a traditional south Indian breakfast of dosa (crisp crepe made from a rice batter), uttapam (thick savoury pancake with onion and tomato toppings), idli (steamed rice cake) and vada (fried doughnut-shaped dumpling made of a lentil batter).

Lunch could be a typical Maharashtrian set meal at Shreyas or Dhurvankur (1166, Tilak Road, Hatti Ganapati Chowk), which has dishes unique to this region.

The set meal is a generous mix of curries, rice, vegetables and appetisers made of lentil, gram, coconut and an assortment of spices, all priced at less than $10.

The set meal includes mango-based desserts or drinks. The arrival of the mango season is a hugely celebrated event in the state.

For dinner, get a taste of Pune's nightlife at Koregaon Park, south of the Mula-Mutha River, which is host to cuisines from Italian to Malay to Spanish.

Pray: Pune is also known for the Osho Ashram (www.osho.com), located in the green neighbourhood of Koregaon Park.

Founded by the controversial Swami Rajneesh, the Osho International Meditation Resort is a modern- looking building with tall bamboo barricades interspersed with black stylish walls and offers various meditation programmes to members.

Guests can opt to live in the guesthouse, opposite the meditation resort, or look for more economical options and homestays in the neighbourhood.

The dress code is long maroon robes, the mood is bohemian, as the sessions range from laughter and dance meditation to traditional yoga and even a karaoke night thrown in. The ashram has its share of fans and critics, but it is worth a visit to discover which one you want to be.

Pune is filled with festive fervour during the Ganesh Festival and home to several temples of Lord Ganesh/ Ganpati (the popular Hindu god with the body of a man and face of an elephant).

One of my favourites is the Kasba Ganpati (www.kasbaganpati.org). Located in an ancient wada (traditional housing complex) and more than a few centuries old, the Kasba Ganpati idol is a bright orange abstract Ganesh with animated eyes.

Legend has it that the Maratha ruler Shivaji's mother, Jijbai, built the temple in 1630. The Kasba Ganpati, along with Dagdusheth (www.dagdushethganpati.com) are temples where devotees of Lord Ganesh visit all year round.

The festivities during August and September during the Ganesh festival are monumental. Notwithstanding large crowds, loud music and general chaos, it is an experience worth being part of.

Love: The history, the architecture, the day-trips, the diversity, the shopping - there is a lot to love in Pune indeed.

You could start with an early morning walking tour, organised by a few enterprising people who lead walks all over the old city. They will enlighten the visitor about the wada (traditional housing complexes) and peth (localities or neighbourhoods) and the stories about people who once lived there.

Visit the Tribal Cultural Museum (28, Queen's Garden, Band Garden Road), which is testament to India's status as an anthropological laboratory of the world, thanks to its racial, cultural, linguistic and religious diversity.

The Aga Khan Palace (Nagar Road, Kalyani Nagar), constructed with white marble, is also significant as Mahatma Gandhi and his wife Kasturba were prisoners there during India's fight for independence.

If you have more time, go to the stunning Jadhavgarh Fort (www.fortjadhavgadh.com). It is now a luxury resort and gives one a sense of what it might have been like to live during the Maratha regime.

Leave enough time and energy for shopping. There is a lot to pick from but my top picks are a shopping arcade called Wonderland (MG Road, Camp), on the aptly titled Main Street. It has everything from traditional fabrics such as Narayan Peth to Indian fashion jewellery.

Also head to Appa Balwant Chowk (NC Kelkar Road, Narayan Peth) in the old city for books from all genres and ages.

Visit Tulsibaug Wada for metal and brass idols and household ware. Almost as a reflection of the city and the fusion of new and old that it exemplifies are two kitsch stores - Either Or (www.eitheror.in) and The Little Quirkshop (www.facebook.com/TheLittleQuirkshop).

Visit both and you could pick up stuff such as Bollywood-themed coasters, funky tropical T-shirts and bags that depict Mona Lisa as an Indian bride.

It is a fascinating contrast but, like much of the city of Pune, it will leave you less in shock and more in awe.

stlife@sph.com.sg

Vidhu Aul, originally from Pune, is a travel writer based in Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 21, 2015, with the headline 'Eat, pray and love in Pune Getting there'. Print Edition | Subscribe