On the Lankan Heritage Trail

Published in Villa 88 magazine, Autumn 2016 issue

Exploring Sri Lankan history and heritage through its boutique hotels sheds light on some amusing, colorful and delightful stories, writes Priyanka Pradhan


Download PDF : https://www.scribd.com/document/329384167/Sri-Lanka-Boutique-Hotel

In the morning sun, colorful little birds gather for a quick dip in the small, tiled fountain which forms the center of the open courtyard, inside what was formerly an 18th century Dutch mansion. Gigantic pillars create tall shadows in the corridors of the refurbished mansion, while the pale walls and high ceilings offer a sepia-toned throwback to Dutch-era Sri Lanka.

As sunbeams illuminate the ancient doors and windows on the façade of the iconic Galle Fort Hotel, stories from the pages of Sri Lanka’s history come to life. The estate has seen times of strife and turmoil as well as that of prosperity, as it morphed from a princely Dutch mansion to barracks for the Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II, a post office, a bakery, and most recently, a pitch for Galle’s adolescent cricketers, before it was finally refurbished to become The Galle Fort Hotel in 2003.

The boutique hotel offers some unique insights into Sri Lanka’s journey through the ages. For instance, a suite named after a seven-foot tall eunuch, the Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho, commemorates his visit to Galle in 1406. The admiral had halted at Galle en route to an expedition to explore the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific with seven voyages, long before Cristopher Columbus set his anchor down on the sandy shores of Ceylon.

Recipient of the UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Award of Distinction, The Galle Fort Hotel is a treasure trove of such stories unearthed from history, culture and folklore. The architecture of the renovated estate also reflects more than one style and school of design. While a majority of the boutique hotel retains its Dutch charm, parts of it pay tribute to Sri Lanka’s British heritage as well as its ethnic Sinhalese flavor.

The Galle Fort Hotel’s sister property, the Thotalagala estate pays homage to this indigenous Lankan flavor. About 5 hours from Galle, in Sri Lanka’s northern Haputale district, a sprawling heritage boutique bungalow is nestled in the lap of hills, among 8,000 hectares of lush green. Formerly a tea planter’s bungalow, the 145-year-old property is restored to give connoisseurs from across the world an opportunity to sample the rich, homegrown essence of Ceylon tea. As the estate is fully functional, guests of the boutique property have the privilege of going tea picking with the planters for a more immersive experience and a glimpse into the traditional lifestyle of a tea planter.

A closer look inside the bungalow reveals seven luxury- themed suites based on personalities that shaped the history of tea culture in Sri Lanka- particularly Sir Thomas Lipton, who has the master suite dedicated to him in honor of his contribution to Lankan tea. Memorabilia from the British Colonial era, picnic breakfasts in the tea country and the traditional English cigar room in the bungalow make for an indulgent experience. Add to that, a kitchen with an exhaustive menu of local and international gourmet cuisines and on-demand services, Thotalagala aims to offer a decadent experience.

As the sun sets over the sea of green, just over the edge of the high tea table, it illuminates the not just the panorama of peaks and valleys but also that of history and heritage waiting to be explored through Sri Lanka’s luxury boutique stays. galleforthotel.com


Life of L’Afshar

Published in Villa 88 Magazine, Spring ’16 issue

A homegrown Dubai label reveals how it has influenced global fashion, says PRIYANKA PRADHAN

afshar 1-page-001
Download PDF: https://www.scribd.com/doc/303185958/Life-of-L-Afshar

She’s no ingénue on the global fashion stage. In just two years since its birth, Lilian Afshar’s accessories brand, L’Afshar, is loving the spotlight in the luxury retail world. Her dragonfly bug detail box clutches have made it to the pages of fashion editorials in French Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and The New York Times Magazine, and not to mention, into the hands of editors and bloggers from New York to Singapore and from Georgia to Australia.

A look at her extensive list of global stock lists makes one wonder how this homegrown Dubai brand rose to instant fame. “Oh Instagram!” she says. “It played a huge part in creating awareness across the world and sparking interest from boutiques, fashion editors and bloggers. It just happened so organically and naturally… none of it was pre planned. But apart from exposure, it also translates into sales because a lot of boutiques contact me to stock my clutches in LA, Singapore, London—from everywhere. When I ask them how they heard about my brand, they almost always say Instagram! It leads to private sales and customizations as well.”

But what is it about her clutches that catches the eye? Perhaps her 25,000 social media followers will be happy to answer that. It could well be the materials she chooses to work with. She managed to turn industrial-use elements such as marble and glass to craft delicate box clutches and emboss them with her signature emblem.

However, it hasn’t been the easiest journey for the designer. “I had to literally force the factories into creating the clutches for me,” she explains. “I had to look for industrial product makers because the kinds of materials I was using needed heavy machinery and techniques. These factories were not used to working with things like clutches or accessories—they used the techniques for huge walls of massive slabs of uncut stones so I really had to convince them to do it.”

Even the process of creating each of these clutches is remarkably unique. The colors are in liquid form when they are mixed on an industrial sized sheet for that marble effect. The marble swirl look on the clutches are created by hand, so each clutch is unique and by default, no two clutches can be identical. As a majority of her clients are from the Middle East, she also takes special care to cater to customizations such as names in Arabic on her clutches, making them even more exclusive and personal.

“I also want to experiment with unique and colored stones, maybe a rare marble,” she says. “It’s always a challenge because factories can’t use too many colors and options are limited, but its about find a way out.”

Speaking of challenges, Afshar’s main hurdle was the lack of any business background, to run her own label. But with help from family and by continually re-inventing herself, she now enjoys her multitasking life as an entrepreneur. “I’m not just a designer now,” she emphasizes. “I take charge of the creative side but also manage day-to-day business and run the brand. No two days are alike and I love that! Some days I’m in the factory when my hair is a mess and I’m sweating, while on other days I’m at a photoshoot. If I had just one position or role, I guess I’d get bored or maybe stagnant… perhaps because I’m a Gemini.”

Next on her radar is costume jewelry, using the same industrial materials and techniques that shot her clutches to fame. Soon, she is also looking to mix leather handbags with her box clutches—another intriguing juxtaposing of forms, textures and shapes.

Her inspirations and influences are at once minimalist, simple and bold. She admires labels such as The Row and would love to see one of her clutches in the hands of actress Jennifer Lawrence. Judging by her popularity amongst international stylists and editors, this might just happen sooner than later.

As she takes off to prepare for a more proximate dream, a bridal collection of clutches from L’afshar, one can’t help but observe her ethos as a designer— inventive, avant-garde, and transformative— precisely what her signature dragonfly-bug stands for.



Loy Krathong: A Feast For The Senses

Published in Villa 88 Magazine, Spring 2016 issue

Even as the gorgeous beaches of Thailand beckon, make another journey to explore the country’s rich cultural heritage through the festival of light.

Loy Krathong: Published in Villa 88 spring 2016 issue

Loy Krathong: Published in Villa 88 spring 2016 issue

Download PDF: https://www.scribd.com/doc/303180166/Loy-Krathong-A-Feast-For-The-Senses

Hearts pounded to the beats of drums, as young Thais paraded across the streets of the historic town of Sukhothai to celebrate the festival of lights, Loy Krathong. The costumes were a feast for the eyes while the taste buds were tantalized by street food such as roasted silk worms, potato pops and grasshoppers on skewers. If there’s ever a time to experience the country’s spectacular cultural side, it is this.

The parade kicks of with much fanfare and excitement, as locals flock to see elaborate sets and costumes that represent Thai identity, pop culture, as well as characters and episodes from local folklore. Soon after the parade, more than a hundred candles are lit in little pods decorated with leaves and flowers, to be set afloat on the lake.

It’s a rare pleasure to watch the festivities in Sukhothai, the birthplace of the Loy Krathong festival, as the quaint town comes alive in a frenzy of colors and lights. Rooted in 14th century Theravada Buddhist tradition and early Thai-Lao-Shan history, the festival comes from the legend of a beautiful woman called Nang Nopphamat. She was known to attract the reigning King Ramkamhaeng’s attention, by crafting a lotus-shaped o ering with a candle and fruit carvings, and floating it downriver. Ever since, the ‘Loy Krathong’, which could be loosely translated to ‘floating basket’, has been symbolic of good luck and hope for the Thai.

The cultural journey takes one next to the city of Chiang Mai, located in the beautiful mountainous province of Thailand. Known as the cultural capital of the country, Chiang Mai plays an important role in the evolution of Loy krathong and its sister festival, the Yi Peng. Here locals gather to light paper lanterns (called khom loy) with candles and illuminate the night sky, to symbolize letting go of bad luck and misfortune—a celebration that evolved along with Loy Krathong and coincides with the days of the festival, in the Lunar calendar. When seen in tandem, the floating water baskets and lanterns in the sky o er an unforgettable visual spectacle.

The last leg of the journey is the e ervescent capital, Bangkok. Fireworks, temple fairs and festivities light up the city while major roads are blocked and reserved for the legendary Loy Krathong to parade through the city—like the one in Sukhothai but with the inimitable signature of Bangkok’s raucousness, pomp and flourish.

Loy krathong is a beautiful time to experience Thailand for a more spiritual and cultural connection with the country. The festival helps understand local culture like little else can, leaving one with fresh hopes, luck and goodwill.


Palawan Islands, Philippines

Tropical Enclave

Published in Villa 88 Magazine, Winter 2015 issue.

El Nido Islands in the Palawan archipelago, Philippines, is attempting to woo nature enthusiasts and adventure seekers with its ‘guilt-free’ luxury eco resorts.  – Priyanka Pradhan


Download PDF: https://www.scribd.com/doc/294635262/Tropical-Enclave

The water was choppier than it looked from the 50-seater aircraft, flying low over the gently swaying palm trees on the Palawan Islands.

I was flying from Manila into El Nido luxury Eco Resorts, a cluster of privately owned islands in Palawan, in the wee hours of the morning with less than 10 Kgs of baggage and a boarding stub made of wood- a little to my bewilderment.

“We’ve replaced paper with these re-usable wooden passes to conserve the environment. Imagine how much paper is wasted as boarding passes everyday by airlines all over the world!”, said an official at the Island Transvoyager Inc. (ITI) which operates the private carrier to El Nido.

Soon after touchdown at the rather precarious –looking runway along the beach, a speedboat ferried guests to either of the four sprawling El Nido islands, nestled amongst 1,780 others, that make up the Palawan archipelago.

Now this was one bumpy ride on the waves, but distracted by the charms of the turquoise blue waters, no one seemed to mind. A pod of hornbills soared above us even as the sparkling clear waters introduced us to our seafaring companions, just below. The staccato rock face and uninhabited islets passed by silently, lending a haunting, rustic beauty to the panorama.

“We can go swimming with the whale sharks later…with plenty of sea turtles and sting ray for company,” the boatman quipped. “On my last dive I encountered a whale shark that was about 40 feet long!” he added, much to everyone’s wide-eyed excitement and his own, thinly-veiled amusement.

With a first impression like this, it was impossible not to look forward to a stay at Lagen Island resort, one of El Nido’s properties tucked away discreetly along a natural lagoon.

Out of the four island-resorts, Apulit, Miniloc, Pangulasian and Lagen, the latter is arguably one of the most beautiful. Overwater villas, a sunset pier and a shimmering infinity pool are embraced by a four-hectare tropical forest. But even more inviting is the bevy of friendly locals who welcome each guest with a traditional song, accompanied by acoustic guitars and smiling faces.

Inside the villas, prominent touches emphasize the resort’s pledge for sustainability. Renewable materials are used to construct these villas, rainwater catchment system is in place for each room, and the ‘Ten El Nidos’ guideline make an appearance across the resort’s properties to educate guests about this Environmentally Sensitive Protected Area.

The resort also supports local communities by using natural and handmade, locally- sourced products, encompassing what the folks at El Nido like to call, ‘guilt-free’ luxury.

Speaking of guilt, the resort’s decadent spa inspires a day of sloth, pushing back plans for exploring the great outdoors, to another day. With an exhaustive variety of treatments using hand-picked ingredients, exotic tropical fruits and indigenous herbs from the islands, one can’t be blamed for giving in to temptation. Oh well, blame it on the island vibe.

But there’s much to do outside the resort too. Kayaking across sleepy mangroves and secret lagoons, and snorkeling with schools of friendly Sergeant Major in the coral-rich waters takes up most of the day. For the fitter lot, there’s a trekking trail across the jungle and a steep climb on Snake Island, for sweeping views of the Bacuit Bay.

If that isn’t enough to feed the adventurous spirit, a cave exploration at one of the many towering limestone formations, certainly will.

As for me, scrambling on all fours between crevices of limestone caves and finding unknown species of spiders while I was at it, was not what I expected. Even so, I found myself doing cannonball dives off low-hanging cliffs and rock surfaces. Well, there must be something in the island air to make a 32-year-old attempt this.

Fresh catch of the day is served as a picnic lunch on the white-sand beach of Entalula island, another property of El Nido. Grilled fish, a basket of mussels and jumbo prawns are meant to eaten with white rice and soy sauce, in typical Philippine style. The famous tropical mango also makes a regular appearance at meal times.

Back at Lagen resort, the poolside offers a beautiful setting overlooking the moonlit lagoon and only the sound of waves in the distance. The nights are quiet– don’t expect wild parties at the bar but look forward to sophisticated, private evenings here. The days are deliciously slow too, filled with close encounters with nature and a heady measure of adventure and romance.

Nevermind the bruised knees and matted hair. It’s the island life, afterall.

Where to stay:
El Nido Lagen Island or El Nido Pangulasian island ( Higher end)

How to get there:
Island Transvoyager Inc. operates a private carrier that ferries guests to and fro, 3 times daily from Manila to El Nido Island.
Bookings via Email to El Nido Boutique and Arts Café

There’s Something About Rome

Published in Villa 88 Magazine, September 2015 issue. 

A trip to Rome reveals the city’s ancient past and modern charm – Priyanka Pradhan

Download PDF: Published in villa 88 Magazine, September 2015 issue

Download PDF: Published in villa 88 Magazine, September 2015 issue

In its three thousand-year-old, glorious and tumultuous history, ‘the eternal city’ has been the cynosure of politics, power, art and architecture. A stroll across ancient Rome tells stories of megalomaniac rulers and evil conspiracies, while its spectacular monuments and intricately carvedstone gargoyles set in centuries-old grand fountains leave you spellbound.

But the Roman experience begins even before touchdown, at Fiumicino Leonardo Da Vinci International Airport. Emirates’ Business Class service from Dubai to Rome offers a great introduction to the city with a range of fine Italian wine onboard, gourmet Italian cuisine, premium amenities from Bulgari.

Once you’ve landed, you’re most likely going to see St. Peter’s Basilica, the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, Piazza Navona, Trevi fountain and other tourist attractions straight off the bat. But here are a few ideas for a more immersive and entertaining adventure in the Italian capital.

Embark on a food trail starting from Campo Di Fiori for its famous ‘Forno’ joints (bakeries and all-day breakfast bars) and the food market for giant ‘limons’ and the juiciest cherries, condiments and fresh buffalo mozzarella.

Next, walk across to the Jewish Ghetto for delicacies such as fried zucchini flower and supplì—made from recipes passed down from Jewish families since as far back as the 15th century. For lunch, stop by Tratorria Monti (Via di S. Vito, 13/A, 00185 Rome) or the whimsically named, Drunken Cow (Hosteria La Vacca M’briaca, Via Urbana 29/30, 00184 Rome) for an authentic Italian kitchen.

Romans seem touchy about their gelato so be warned about flashy, branded geleto chains across the city that are regarded as ‘rip offs’, or as pronounced by an impassioned local, “Unethical and wretched”. Instead, look for quaint little geletarias such as Fior Di Luna (Via della Lungaretta, 96, 00153 Roma) which are considered authentic and produce gelato from locally sourced ingredients.

While the classic way to see Rome may be upon a Vespa scooter, a more fun and hassle-free (and fuel free) way is onboard a Segway. Glide across the ancient monuments, fountains and cobblestone lanes, navigate the crowds and street performers at major squares and finish off the trip with a breathtaking view of the Colosseum, illuminated by hundreds of electric lambs from within. http://www.romebysegway.com

Learning to make tiramisu from scratch, in the country of its origin definitely counts for bragging rights back home. Enroll in a class to make the popular Italian dessert over a fun afternoon and then take your masterpiece with you to enjoy at leisure—so you can have your cake and eat it too, quite literally.

Try Tiramisu Station, Via dei Fienaroli, 5, 00153 Rome.

Grafitti on the streets of Trastevere, Rome.

Graffiti on the streets of Trastevere, Rome.

Across the river Tiber, lies Rome’s bustling neighborhood, Trastevere. Historically, this neighborhood was a haven for immigrants, especially the Jewish community and Syrians, forming a sub-culture of its own. Trastevere retains much of its medieval architecture and old world charm in its winding cobblestone streets and somewhat eerie maze of narrow lanes. However, today, with innumerable boutiques, cafes, art galleries, trendy restaurants, and bars, it makes for an incredibly lively day (and night) out.

Walk into Bir & Fud (Via Benedetta, 23, 00153 Roma) for fun evening of Roman cuisine in true Trastevere style.

..But the journey isn’t over until you sample Emirates’ Business Class lounge for a luxurious experience, in keeping with the proverbial Italian ‘La dolce vita’ way of life. From being able to swap stories of Italy over the bar, to boarding directly from the Business Class lounge, Emirates  completes the Roman experience in style.

Download PDF: Within The Palms. Published in VILLA 88 SEPT 2015

Within The Palms

Published in Villa 88 Magazine, AW 2015 

Emirati artist and designer Latifa Saeed attempts to revive the UAE’s traditional crafts through industrial design and art

Words by Priyanka Pradhan

Download PDF: Within the Palms. Published in Villa 88 Magazine,  September 2015

Download PDF: Within the Palms. Published in Villa 88 Magazine, September 2015

How can design trigger nostalgia? How can design make tradition relevant?”

These are some of the questions that ran through the mind of interdisciplinary artist, Latifa Saeed, before she embarked upon a unique concept to bring industrial design and tradition together. The Emirati artist’s latest design installation project, Kinetic Khoos, is a series of sculptural toys for children—a concept that aims to revive the traditional Emirati craft of toy making by using natural raw material such as khoos or palm fronds. She hopes the project challenges one’s perception of a traditional craft to recognize its relevance today.

“Traditionally, palm leaves and fronds were used to make fans, food trays, food covers, baskets, mats, houses and boats,” she says. “Fronds were even bound together and lined with pitch to make water tanks. An inconspicuous use for palm leaves was children’s toys—I remember when older women used to show us how to play with them when we were young, showing us techniques on how to build a fan and make it fly, to weave a thick piece of fresh palm leaf strip, and palm dolls dressed in the sheila (headscarves) and thoab (traditional dress); it brings back memories, emotions and laughter.”
VILLA 88 SEPT 2015 Extensive research into the different types of weaves led to artistic exchanges with local artisans and offered her an insight into how traditional artisans work, fabricate and survive in the modern world. According to Saeed, the sharing of passions and ideas created an interesting dynamic between her and Sheikha, an artisan she collaborated with, on exploring ways to connect the contemporary to the past.

As part of the Design program for Contemporary art organization, Tashkeel, Latifa Saeed was selected for a second time to represent them at Dubai Design Days 2015 with her Kinetic Khoos project.

“It took about two weeks to complete a single toy from the collection, starting from design to industrial machinery to assembly,” says Saeed. “For the limited edition crab, which is part of the collection and is sold out now, it took almost two months to produce each piece.”

But the most challenging part of the project was learning the ropes of industrial manufacturing on the go. “It was difficult to convince the industrial manufacturers at first because the concept was new and unheard of—it was difficult for them to understand the idea, especially without a sample product at hand,” she says. “Also, sourcing materials and finding artisans who are willing to have their work artistically manipulated was a tough challenge.”

But “persistence and refusing to give up” made sure the project ran to fruition.

Her previous project, Braided, was also supported by Tashkeel and showcased at the 2014 City Scape exhibition as part of Dubai Design Days last year. Inspired by hair braids—a very popular traditional hairstyle for children in the Emirates, the project saw her crafting a collection of furniture using braided linen cushion tubes upholstered in a wooden frame.

Unable to find a child-friendly and functional headboard in the market, she created her own design by experimenting and re-imagining the classic buttoned headboard. She then developed the technique of braiding linen cushion tubes and gathering them into clusters to create a padded surface of an organic pattern.

Infact, it was a picture of a headboard using her ‘braided’ concept on Instagram, that caught the attention of Sheikha Lateefa, founder of Tashkeel, who offered to mentor her under the Tashkeel Design Program last year.

VILLA 88 SEPT 2015 057-page-001Her commissioned work entitled Pleated Chair for Tashkeel, followed her experimentation with the headboard and went on to win positive feedback at Dubai Design Days 2014.

While her work so far has been fairly diverse, using vastly different concepts and materials, she says what she’s currently working on is even farther away from what she’s ever done before. “It’s confidential,” she says. “But let’s just say we will have a presence at the upcoming Dubai Design Week (26-31 October 2015) where more will be revealed,” she adds mysteriously.

Saeed’s ability to work in different disciplines without allowing herself to become restricted by a certain material or methodology is reflected in her attitude and free- spiritedness. “I can never have a favorite piece, discipline or medium to work in,” she says. “I’m wholly in love with whatever I’m working on at the moment but I know my next project will be even more fascinating!” www.tashkeel.org