Here is my much delayed Rajasthan travelogue. See the accompanying pictures if you haven’t already.
Rajasthan, which is India’s largest state, is also amongst the favourite tourist destinations in India. With a rich history and culture, it often forms part of the golden triangle that includes Delhi, Agra and Jaipur (along with other important destinations of Rajasthan). While most of you are aware of the numerous palaces and forts of Rajasthan, I would like to point out that Rajasthan is home to Kalibhanga, one of the older known ruins of the Indus valley civilization. Also, the Aravalli mountain ranges towards south-central Rajasthan are among the oldest mountains in the world.
Anyway, ancient Rajasthan had a long and diverse history of rulers, which include Sakas, Indo-Scythians, Gurjars, Arabs, and lastly Rajputs. Modern Rajasthan includes most of Rajputana, which comprises the erstwhile 18 princely states, two chiefships and the British district of Ajmer-Merwar. Marwar (Jodhpur), Bikaner, Mewar (Udaipur), Alwar and Dhundhar (Jaipur) were some of the main Rajput princely states. Bharatpur and Dholpur were Jat princely states whereas Tonk was princely state under a Muslim Nawab. Rajput families rose to prominence in the 6th century Hemu (second battle of Panipat) and Maharana Pratap of Mewar were historically famous rulers from the region.
Jatinder and I were planning a trip to Rajasthan for nearly an year. Finally, we chalked up a plan from Jaipur to Udaipur, including several of the most important places of Rajasthan. We barely had 10 days to complete the whole trip. We left for Jaipur, from Bombay, on December 8, 2013. One of Jatinder’s acquaintances agreed to host us in Jaipur for a day and a half. Jatinder, on the day of our departure, fell very ill, but because he had committed the plan to me and our tickets were booked, we took a risk and continued on our journey. The gentleman, who was to host us, very kindly picked us from the airport and took us to his ‘Haveli’ in the heart of Jaipur. A haveli it was; with several rooms and a multi-storeyed layout, which was more than 200 years old. There were many such old havelis around that area, most of which were in a dilapidated condition. Some survived because they were converted into hotels. The terrace commanded a terrific view of the city, with hills on one side and the sun rising from the other. The owners had plans to convert this haveli into a hotel as well.
Dec 8: The family treated us to a sumptous north-Indian breakfast, and while Jatinder wasn’t well at all, hecouldn’t resist the melting butter on the parathas. We chalked out the day’s plan with our hosts and started with the famous 18th century astronomical observatory called Jantar Mantar. Built by Sawai Jai Singh, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; and what a sight it was! We hired a guide to explain the intricacies of the various life-sized instruments like the solar clock, sun sign related instruments, measures for predicting eclipses, predicting constellations and alignments of various celestial objects etc. Without a guide, one would not understand how advanced and accurate these instruments were. We spent an hour in the complex, taking photos and listening to our very knowledgeable guide.
After visiting Jantar Mantar, we moved to the City Palace, which is opposite Jantar Mantar and is also a World Heritage Site.
Sawai Jai Singh II built the city palace in 1729. It includes the Chandra Mahal and Mubarak Mahal palaces and other buildings. The architecture is a fusion of the Shilpa Shastra of Indian architecture with Rajput, Mughal and European styles of architecture. The complex was full of tourists, both domestic and foreign. Right in the center was Mubarak Mahal. The complex was well-maintained and the architecture was breathtaking. There was a weapons museum, which holds a unique collection of pre-gun powder and post gun-powder weaponry. The Diwan-e-Khaas (meeting place) for the special few, was one of the best royal structures I’ve seen. The optimum sun light made outdoor photography all the more inviting.
On the left was the huge Chandra Mahal, parts of which were out of bounds for tourists. After another hour at the complex, we exited through the main gate and had some refreshments. Though it was December, the sun was very sharp and it was getting quite warm. One good thing that I had noticed was the availability of drinking water at both the places that we visited so far. Quite a luxury in India; for me it is of special importance as I refrain from buying bottled water.
We proceeded to the main city area. The main city was typical of any Indian city, crowded, polluted, lawless, and chaotic. However, it did set the clock back by a few hundred years by its remarkable and unique charm. Hawa Mahal or Palace of the Breeze, was built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh, and designed by Lal Chand Ustad in the form of the crown of Krishna, the Hindu god. Its unique five-storey exterior is also akin to the honeycomb of the beehive with its 953 small windows called jharokhas that are decorated with intricate latticework. The original intention of the lattice was to allow royal ladies to observe everyday life in the street below without being seen, since they had to observe strict purdah. Built of red and pink sandstone, the palace is situated on the main thoroughfare in the heart of Jaipur’s business centre.
Again, Jatinder went berserk with his wide angle lens taking numerous pictures of the structure, while I satisfied myself the visual delight that it offered. Since we had so many things to cover, and knowing that next few would take time, we moved swiftly to the famous Amer (pronounced Aamer) fort and palace complex.
Built in 1592 by Sawai Man Sigh I, it is one of the principal tourist attractions in the Jaipur area, located high on a hill. Right in front of the fort is Maota lake, while behind it, on a hillock is Jaigarh fort. The fortifications around the fort encompass a large part of the town (old Jaipur/Amer). When we reached there, I wanted to get to a better vantage point to capture the beauty of the fort.
Jatinder, not feeling well, decided to rest near the lake, whereas I undertook a small hike on the opposite hill, which commanded a fantastic view. Upon my rendezvous with Jatinder, we proceeded through the main gate (Ganesh gate) of the fort. It really was one of the grandest that I had ever seen and clearly was the most important fort of Rajputana. There were a large number of people there, different sizes and colors. From the other side of the fort, a large part of the residential area of the town was visible. Houses had different colored roofs, each signifying varying castes and social standing. The fort is connected via a underground tunnel to the Jaigarh fort above, which we decided to visit as well. On our way, we crossed many important parts of the fort including another stunning Diwan-e-Khaas. Just near the tunnel, I finally saw what Rajasthan and India has been famous for; snake charmers. There was also a Persian inscription; the first I had seen in Rajasthan.
The tunnel was around 800 meters long and we exited into an open passage area with Jaigarh above us. We decided to take a break and ate the packed lunch that we were carrying. Interestingly, some very violent and fearless birds made life quite difficult for us during our open air lunch. We continued our uphill climb during which we also decided to take a steeper shortcut that saved us around 15 minutes. Apart from offering stunning views, the fort houses a museum and canon foundry (started my Shah Jahan). The star attraction of the fort is the Jaivana canon, which is one of the largest mobile canons in the world.
We had something to eat at the only restaurant complex in the whole region (quite shoddy and expensive). Then we proceeded to Nahargarh fort.
Along with Amer and Jaigarh, Nahargarh completes the defense network for Jaipur. Nahargarh Fort stands on the edge of the Aravalli Hills, overlooking the pink city. The fort was originally named Sudarshangarh, but it became known as Nahargarh, which means ‘abode of tigers’. The popular belief is that Nahar here stands for Nahar Singh Bhomia, whose spirit haunted the place and obstructed construction of the fort. Nahar’s spirit was pacified by building a temple in his memory within the fort, which thus became known by his name. Until April 1944, the Jaipur State government used for its official purposes solar time read from the Samrat Yantra in the Jantar Mantar Observatory, with a gun fired from Nahargarh Fort as the time signal. The setting sun provided a beautiful overtone to the complex.
We spent around 45 minutes exploring the various sections and then took a taxi to Jal Mahal, which we wanted to reach before the sun set.
Unfortunately, we reached 5-7 minutes too late and the last rays of the sun disappeared from the facade of Jal Mahal. It is located in the middle of the Man Sagar lake, which served as a major water reservoir for Jaipur. The palace and the lake around it were renovated and enlarged in the 18th century by Maharaja Jai Singh II. There was a decent promenade around it, where Jatinder and I spent some time. Our spirits were lifted when a lady seemed to be taking some professional pictures of the structure with a 1.2 megapixel mobile phone camera! We returned to our hosts in the evening, who had planned for us to go to Chokhi Dhani, a Rajasthani theme restaurant complex. Despite his ill-health, Jatinder agreed and we spent the night eating and dancing amongst hundreds of tourists, some of which included Iranians!
December 9: We took an early morning bus to visit Ajmer, the famous shrine city, which is located 135 kilometers west of Jaipur. It was around a 2 1/2 hour bus journey. The terrain was slightly different, a little hilly and greener. We alighted at the bus station and had some sugar cane juice, before negotiating with a taxi driver to show us around and also take us to the nearby town of Pushkar.
First we headed to the famous shrine of Moinuddin Chishti. The Dargah is a highly revered site, built on the tomb Moinuddin Chishti is known as Garib Nawaz or the one who cares for the poor and disadvantaged. People from all over the Indian sub-continent visit his shrine, including a sizable number of non-Muslims. Singing qawwalis in honour of the saint is a popular way of reverence. In the past, Ustaad Rahat Fateh Ali Khan has performed a qawwali in the saint’s honour at this shrine.
Despite people of different shades and colors being present there, Jatinder and I stood out because of our non-traditional clothing and the lack of a skull cap. Most of the shop keepers, who lined both sides of the road to the entrance to the shrine, were very warm and helpful.
We even kept some of our stuff and shoes with one of them. The shrine itself was quite large and extremely commercialized. Inside the main complex, where the grave of the saint is located, it appeared to me that everyone was only present there to earn money. Jatinder, on account of being a Sikh, drew a lot of attention, and the priests really took him for a ride in their bid to extract monetary offerings. On the other hand, I, blatantly refused to pay anything, just sensed the place around and left. Cameras are not allowed inside the complex so the only pictures I have are the ones I clicked with my mobile phone.
While I was waiting outside for Jatinder, at least 2-3 groups of tourist-pilgrims asked me to take their photos, mistaking me to be one of the numerous instant photographers who provide services at places such as this. We left for Pushkar. On our way to Pushkar, we stopped by at lake Anasagar, which was quite scenic, though its fringes were typically full of trash.
Pushkar is one of the five sacred dhams (pilgrimage site) for devout Hindus. According to Hindu theology , the pond at the Katas Raj temple near Choa Saidan Shah in Chakwal district of Pakistan, has a theological association with Lord Shiva; it was formed by the tears of Lord Shiva which he is believed to have shed after the death of his wife, Sati. The story goes that when Sati died, Lord Shiva cried so much and for so long, that his tears created two holy ponds – one at Pushkara in Ajmer in India and the other at Ketaksha, which literally means raining eyes in Sanskrit, now in Pakistan. It is from this name that the word Katas is derived. Pushkad has, in recent years, become a popular destination for foreign tourists.
Pushkar is one of the oldest existing cities of India. It lies on the shore of Pushkar Lake. The date of its actual origin is not known, but legend associates Lord Brahma with its creation. Pushkar has many temples. Most of the temples are not very old because many temples were destroyed during Muslim conquests in the area. Subsequently, the destroyed temples were rebuilt. The most famous among all is the Brahma Temple built during the 14th century CE. Very few temples to Lord Brahma exist anywhere in the world. The Pushkar lake has 52 ghats where pilgrims descend to the lake to bathe in the sacred waters. Pushkar is also famous for its annual fair (Pushkar Camel Fair) held in November and also for its fervor-filled celebration of Holi.
We spent some time exploring the market and then went to the main lake of Pushkar.
Again, we were tricked into some holy prayers etc. by greedy priests (this time saffron ones). Apart from that, the place was quite peaceful and had a nice feel to it. Later, we went to a big gurudwara (Sikh temple) in the area, where a huge congregation of Sikhs was underway. For those who are interested, these Sikhs were followers of certain sub-sects within the Sikh fraternity. Most of them are from very poor and downtrodden sections of society and many of them are non-Punjabis. A lot of conventional Punjabi Sikhs (Khatri/Jat) don’t consider these guys to be Sikh, which is sad because a Sikh is simply one who follows the Sikh Guru. Anyway, we attended the prayer and ate at the langar (community kitchen) before taking the taxi back to Ajmer, from where we boarded a bus for Jaipur.
After dinner in Jaipur, we went to the railway station to board a train for Bikaner, in north-west Rajasthan.
December 10: We reached Bikaner in the wee hours. Jatinder was not feeling well at all and he urgently required some rest. We found a small place to dump ourselves for the night and got some much needed rest. In the morning, we went to a doctor to get some medication for him, just to be on the safer side. We still debate on whether the doctor was a doctor or a quack, or a pharmacist pretending to be a doctor.
Founded in 1488, Bikaner gets its name from its founder, Rao Bika, who conquered large arid tracts of north and north west Rajasthan. Though it was in the Thar desert, Bikaner was considered an oasis on the trade route between Central Asia and the Gujarat coast, as it had adequate spring water. Around a century after Rao Bika founded Bikaner, the state’s fortunes flourished under the sixth king, Rai Singhji, who ruled from 1571 to 1611. During the Mughal rule in the country, Rai Singh accepted the suzerainty of the Mughals and held a high rank as an army general at the court of the Emperor Akbar and his son the Emperor Jahangir. Rai Singh’s successful military exploits, which involved winning half of Mewar kingdom (Udaipur, which never accepted Mughal supremacy) for the empire, won him accolades and rewards from the Mughal emperors. Amongst the notable people from Bikaner is Reshma, the famous Pakistani folk singer, who migrated to Pakistan from Bikaner.
First, we went to see the famous Bhandasar Jain temple.
Out of the 27 beautiful Jain temples adorning the landscape of Bikaner city, this temple dedicated to the fifth Tirthankara, Sumatinath, is considered to be the most beautiful and also the highest. This temple was built by a Jain merchant, Bhanda Shah. The foundation of this temple was filled by pure ghee and dry coconuts. This temple is mainly famous for wall paintings and usta art. The temple is built of red sandstone and is divided in three floors. One can see the skyline of Bikaner by climbing to the topmost floor of this temple.
The priest, who was a little hostile to begin with, opened up later and showed us around the temple, including areas that are generally out of bounds for tourists, such as the roof. The roof commanded a great view of Bikaner town. He also turned out to be a photography expert and clicked a couple of really smart photos of Jatinder and me placing the camera on the floor. Later, he told us about how he was involved in the Nat Geo documentary about Bikaner as well.
Behind the Bhandasar temples was the famous Laxmi Nath temple, which we skipped visiting and headed instead for Junagarh fort through the old city. The old city was typical of a north Indian city; dusty, dirty, and chaotic. Nevertheless, it had a charm to it; a history to its air. The Junagarh fort was built under the supervision of Karan Chand, the Prime Minister of Raja Rai Singh, the sixth ruler of Bikaner, who ruled from 1571 to 1611 AD. The fort was originally called Chintamani and was renamed Junagarh or ‘Old Fort’ in the early 20th century when the ruling family moved to Lalgarh Palace outside the fort limits. It is one of the few major forts in Rajasthan which is not built on a hilltop. Before the present Junagarh Fort was built, an old stone fort existed in the city. This fort was built in 1478 by Rao Bika who established the city of Bikaner in 1472.
The fort complex was massive and we spent hearly 2 hours adoring the artistic and fortified sections. The current entrance is through Suraj Pol where as the other gates include Karan Pol, Daulat Pol, Chand Pol (a double gate) and Fateh Pol. The complex includes the Hari Mandir, which served as the royal temple, which hosted the royal family’s Hindu festivities. There are six palaces inside the fort viz. Karan mahal, Phool mahal, Anoop mahal, Chandra mahal, Ganga mahal, and Badal mahal. Besides these, the Bikaneri Havelies located both within and outside the fort in the Bikaner city’s by lanes are also of unique architectural style in home architecture.
Next, we headed towards the two famous palaces of Bikaner, Lalgarh and Laxmi Niwas, which are in a way part of the same complex. Laxmi Niwas is what interested us more. Laxmi Niwas Palace is a former residential palace of the king of the former Bikaner state, Mahārāja Ganga Singh in Bikaner in the Indian state of Rajasthan. It was designed in 1896 in an Indo-Saracenic style by the British architect, Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob, and built between 1898 and 1902. Upon its completion, plans were already drawn up, again by Jacob, to extend it into the much larger Lalgarh Palace which was constructed between 1902 and 1926. It is now a luxury hotel. The magnificent structure in red sandstone is one of the most popular destination for tourists who visit Bikaner.
Tourists are allowed to enter the complex for a fee which is redeemable against any F&B bill in the complex. We were escorted by a member of the hotel staff, whose job was to show the palace to visiting tourists. It was one of the most beautiful palaces I had ever seen. He showed us many rooms including card rooms, trophy rooms, a wooden bar, a room made virtually of gold and mirrors (Rajat Mahal), the royal suite etc. Most of these rooms are decorated with the carefully selected spoils of royal hunts.
Towards the rear side was a lovely swimming pool behind which are the residences for the members of the present royal family.
The lawns outside are often rented to millionaires, for hosting private functions. There was a wedding which was being hosted that day. I remember that the parties were from Chandigarh, which means some one had planned a lavish wedding party 800 km away from home while making arrangements for the whole contingent to be accommodated at Laxmi Palace!
Next, we headed for the camel research facility, also known as the National Research Center on Camel, or as Government Camel Breeding Farm, is located 8 km from the town of Bikaner in Rajasthan. This unique farm has around 230 camels. In the midst of the rolling sand dunes, the farm nurtures three different breeds of camels. Covering the area of over 2000 acres of semi-barren land, the farm at Jorbeer in Bikaner is an interesting tourist attraction of Rajasthan. The farm breeds the superlative strains of camels. It is very unique farm that encourages the concept of camel breeding. It also imparts important education to camel owners about better caring for their camels in order to optimize yield.
We spent an hour there exploring the camels, visiting the center that provided information about the activities conducted there, and sipping on some tasty camel milk.
The last destination for today was at Deshnoke, 30 km away from Bikaner, which houses the famous Karni Mata temple. On our way, we had some lunch at a road side dhaba. I had put Jatinder on a strict Daal Chawal diet to help his throat improve.
Karni Mata (2 October 1387 – 23 March 1538) was a female Hindu sage born in the Charan caste and is worshiped as the incarnation of the goddess Durga by her followers. She is an official deity of the royal family of Jodhpur and Bikaner. She lived an ascetic life and was widely revered during her own lifetime. At the request of the Maharaja of Bikaner, she laid the foundation stone two important forts in the region. The most famous of her temples is the temple of Deshnoke, which was created following her mysterious disappearance from her home. The temple is famous for its rats, which are treated as sacred and given protection in the temple.
Legend has it that Laxman, Karni Mata’s step son (or the son of one of her storytellers), drowned in a pond in Kapil Sarovar in Kolayat Tehsil, while he was attempting to drink from. Karni Mata implored Yama, the god of death, to revive him. First refusing, Yama eventually relented, permitting Laxman and all of Karni mata’s male children to be reincarnated as rats. The temple is famous for the approximately 20,000 black rats that live, and are revered in, the temple. If one of the rats is killed, it must be replaced with one made of solid gold. Eating food that has been nibbled on by the rats is considered to be a ‘high honor’. Out of all of the thousands of rats in the temple, there are a few white rats, which are considered to be especially holy. They are believed to be the manifestations of Karni Mata herself and her four sons. Sighting them is a special blessing and visitors put in extensive efforts to bring them forth, offering prasad.
Visiting this place was one of my most unique experiences till date. However well-known an atheist I might be, there was something about this place. The rats were so relaxed. They just went over your feet, came to your lap to eat (if you wish to), ate, ate, and ate, before falling asleep right in the middle of all the action. Almost none of the rats venture outside the temple complex, as if they know that they are protected and revered only inside the four walls of the temple. We took a lot of photos and made videos to better illustrate the scene. We had the honour of spotting a white rat (melanin deficient creature in demand!) as well. The rats would very agreeably pose for photos, including close ups and portraits. There were thousands of them all over. I noticed that some of them were fat and unhealthy probably on account of eating too much human food! The temple has been the subject of a well known BBC documentary as well.
We returned to our hotel in Bikaner, freshened up and had dinner in the market. Later we went to the railway booking office to figure out reservations for the journey to Jaisalmer. At the counter, I had a alteration with two rude men, who typically (and unfortunately for them) jumped the queue and ran into me. They responded to my request with aggression; Jatinder and I returned the favour and soon there was a huge scene at the counter. The police came in and we even scolded them for being soft on such people.
We took a passenger train to Jaisalmer. The train did not have any berths, so we had to just try and sleep on the 2nd class seats. Jatinder was quite unwell, which helped him fall asleep, but I remember all of those uncomfortable six hours that we spent waiting for Jaisalmer to arrive. We reached there early in the morning. There were piles of minerals (gypsum and limestone I think) near the railway station, which reminded me that we’ve reached the famous and historic city of Jaisalmer. It was about 4 am. We had booked a hotel in advance at Jaisalmer (because we were to spend two days there) and they sent a car to pick us up from the railway station.
December 11: The hotel was owned by a Marwari and was swarming with Bengali tourists. Jatinder and I rested till about 9 am before freshening up and having our breakfast at the rooftop restaurant.
The town stands on a ridge of yellowish sandstone, crowned by a fort, which contains the palace and several ornate Jain temples. Many of the houses and temples are finely sculptured. It lies in the heart of Thar Desert and has a population of about 78,000. Jaisalmer is named after its founder Maharawal Jaisal Singh, a Rajput king in 1156 AD. Jaisalmer means ‘Hill Fort of Jaisal’.
The majority of the inhabitants of Jaisalmer are Bhati Rajputs, named for Bhati, who was renowned as a warrior. The ruling family of the erstwhile Jaisalmer State belongs to Bhati Clan of Yadu Rajputs of Chandravanshi (Lunar) race who claim descent from Lord Krishna. During the Islamic invasion of India, Jaisalmer escaped direct Muslim conquest due to its geographical situation in the desert region. The Rawals of Jaisalmer agreed to pay an annual tribute to the Delhi Sultanate. The first siege of Jaisalmer occurred during the reign of Alauddin Khilji. It was provoked by Bhatis’ raid on a caravan filled with treasure. According to local ballads, the Bhatis defended the fort for seven years until the enemy army forces breached the ramparts. Bhatis, facing certain defeat, proclaimed the rite of jauhar, or self-immolation in order to avoid capture. Some Bhattis from the royal family migrated to Jaisal (now in Pakistan), and some migrated to Talwandi, now Nankana Sahib in district Nankana Sahib (Punjab, Pakistan), and others settled in Larkana (in Sind, Pakistan) under the name of Bhutto.
Jaisalmer was one of the last states to sign a treaty with the British. During the British Raj, Jaisalmer was the seat of a princely state of the same name, ruled by the Bhati clan of Rajputs. The present descendant is Brijraj Singh. Though the city is under the governance of the Government of India, a lot of welfare work is carried out by him and his family.
First, we just ventured around the market, trying to look for a cyber cafe from where we could book tickets for Jodhpur.
Unfortunately, we failed in that particular mission but already, we were getting glimpses of the famed architecture of Jaisalmer.
We walked through the old city area and reached the base of the famous Jaisalmer for, the fort, which is a commanding structure perched on a hill top overlooking Jaisalmer. It is probably the only major fort that still houses 1/4th of the residents of the city.
Jaisalmer Fort is one of the largest forts in the world and was built in 1156 AD by the Bhati Rajput ruler Rao Jaisal. The place was buzzing with activity with all types of vendors eager to showcase and sell their wares to the plethora of domestic and foreign tourists. First, we ventured through the endless by lanes, all of which were dotted with small handicraft shops. We headed towards the famous Jain temple located in the fort, as entry to it is time limited.
There were hundreds of people inside the temple, which pays obedience to the 16th Tirthankara, Shantinath, and 23rd Tirthankara, Parshva. The marble work was absolutely stunning, and Jatinder and I spent nearly 40 minutes inside it trying to capture the beauty of the temples through our lenses.
From the temple we headed to the palace complex, which has not been converted into a museum. It commanded the best view of the fort. A section of the palace (queen’s palace) collapsed a few years ago due to continuous degradation that the fort complex faces on account of population pressures. Then we headed to a point in the fort that offered the best views of Jaisalmer town. There was a huge cannon placed there, which understandably was used against intruders, from a great distance. The yellowish tinge of the town was clearly visible due to the sun shining on the sandstone-based constructions.
We overheard a guide explaining to his clients about the numerous Havelis of Jaisalmer, out of which 2-3 were the most famous. Havelis were houses of prominent businessmen and members of the royal court. Out of the three major Havelis, Salim Singh ki Haveli was right opposite where we were standing and the guide mentioned that the top two stories of the Haveli were torn down because the King did not like the fact that the Haveli’s height almost matched that of the fort’s palace.
From the fort, we headed to a well-known restaurant called Natraj, which was right next to Salim Singh ki Haveli. We had good food there and moved towards the Haveli. It was built by the Prime Minister, Salim Singh in 1815. It has a beautiful arched roof, with rows of blue peacocks below the arched balconies.
This superb mansion in yellow stone is covered with intricate carvings and has an elaborate projecting balcony on the top storey. It is said that the all powerful Salim Singh, once had two additional storeys to make it as high as the Maharawal palace, but the Maharawal (King) finally managed to have the upper storeys torn down.
From there, we went to see another Haveli, which was in the bazaar, called Nathmal ki Haveli. It was built for the Prime Minister in the late 19th century and is a display of sheer craftsmanship. The left and right wings of the mansion, which were carved by two brothers, Hathu and Lallu, are not only identical, but very similar and harmonious in design. It has a highly decorative facade with two yellow sandstone elephants guarding it at the entrance. The interior walls are ornate with splendid miniature paintings – flowers, birds, soldiers, elephants, bicycle as well as a steam engine.
The last, and the most important Haveli complex is the Patwon ki Haveli. The largest and the most magnificent of all the mansions, Patwon ki Haveli was built in 1805 by a Jain merchant – Guman Chand Patwa. This Jain merchant had made a fortune trading in jewels and fine brocade and hence the name Patwon ki Haveli (Mansion of the Brocade Merchant).
The front of the haveli has 60 latticed balconies so finely carved as if they have been created from wood than from stone. It has exquisitely carved pillars and extensive corridors and chambers. One of the apartments of this five storey high haveli is painted with beautiful murals in bold red and gold. Of all the havelis in Jaisalmer, it takes the cake for sheer magnanimity in size, shape, and style and is the most photographed haveli in the whole of Rajasthan. Inside the Haveli, there were architecture students from Gujarat on a study tour. My interaction with one of them revealed many interesting aspects of the Haveli’s architecture. There was also a nice area to rest in front of the Haveli, where Jatinder and I spent a good 30 minutes relaxing and taking experimental pictures of the Haveli.
Later, we hired a vehicle to take us a little away from the main city, so that we could get a panoramic view of the Jaisalmer fort. We found such a place and requested a lodge owner to let us use his roof, which he gladly allowed us to. Here is the pick of the clicks.
In the evening, we visited the famous Gadisagar lake, which is a picturesque water body to the south of Jaisalmer. It was a breathtaking site with pink sandstone structures lit by the setting sun. It was a haven for photography, and perhaps a lovely place to take a boat ride (Jatinder and I were in no mood to repeat our famous ‘couple’ Shikara ride in Kashmir). A little later, we hired two bicycles and went cycling towards the nearby Haveli styled 5-star hotels. We went there for night photography, because all of those hotels are beautifully lit at night. Let’s let the photos do the talking here.
December 12: We woke up quite late and spent the day lazing around, eating, and exploring the city. In the late afternoon, we planned our travel to the neighbouring villages of Lodhurva and then to the famous sand dunes, which are part of the Sam desert park. This was part of a semi-organized arrangement, which included to and fro transport and dedicated camels for the dunes.
We departed at around 3 pm. First, we stopped on our way and visited Bada Bagh, which is where the famous Chattris of Jai Singh II and his contemporaries are located.
These monuments are built in the memory of the king or other important people. Next was Lodhurva. Situated 15 km to the north-west of Jaisalmer, was the ancient capital of the Bhatti dynasty till 1156 AD, when Rawal Jaisal shifted it to Jaisalmer, when he founded the of Jaisalmer state. It is famous for the Jain temple dedicated to 23rd Tirthankara, Parshvnath, which was mostly destroyed in 1152 AD when Muhammad Ghori sacked the city.
From Lodhurva, we headed to Sam. The vehicle dropped us (around 12 of us) where camels were waiting for us. There were many more people, including annoying vendors selling snacks.
Camels carry two people on their back. I was a little worried that our camel was going to carry Jatinder and me, with a combined weight of almost 200 kgs. The camel owner said it would be fine and off we went, into the desert. There were many other people on camels, some screaming, some scared, some silent. Our camel was much slower and we were frequently passed by others, which gave us ample photography opportunities. In about 30 mins, we reached the heart of the sand dunes. Desert at its best. It was warm, a very distinct flavour of warmth. My back and butt were hurting quite a bit, so I decided to alight and walk the remaining journey, on foot. This gave me a wonderful opportunity to capture the stunning scenery.
After taking many photos, and being bugged by many beer vendors (ouch), I met a local guy, who agreed to pose for some great photos.
Later, I spoke to some other camel owners, who wanted me to race on their camels. I noticed that most of the camel owners were Muslims and were not speaking in Marwari. An important observation that I made was that the Muslim camel owners were speaking in Sindhi. Sindhi wow…the Sindh border was less than 50 km away from where I was standing, and being a major culture that it is, its influence percolates into the bordering areas of Rajasthan, Punjab, and Baluchistan.
I walked for almost 1.5 km in the desert and reached our reconnaissance point. Jatinder was missing, and I guessed that he must have taken the camel deeper into the desert for better views of the impending sunset. Sunset is a magical moment amongst the sand dunes and all the shutter bugs in the vicinity are found scrambling for space and the best angles.
After sunset, most people (including me) proceeded to the desert camp, where folk dance is performed and dinner is served.
Jatinder came about half and hour later and confirmed that he did go deeper into the desert. One thing about Jatinder is he never says no. So, it is likely that the camel owner tempted him to go deeper into the desert for some extra bucks, and Jatinder agreed.
At night, we returned by the same car that bought us here, to Jaisalmer. We took a train for Jodhpur (reserved seats…courtesy of my colleague who booked our tickets). The journey took around 6 hours and we reached Jodhpur in the wee hours.
December 13: We checked to the suite at Yogi’s guest house, which is one of the recommended places in the Lonely Planet guide book. We weren’t disappointed because the guest house was full of character, with old wooden furniture and lots of memorabilia greeting the majority foreign guests. The room was superb with a king sized teak wood bed and an attached bathroom…all for an affordable cost. We rested till around 9 am and then went to the roof top restaurant, which offered panoramic views of the city stretching from the magnificent Mehrangarh fort nearby to the distant Umaid Bhawan on the horizon.
Jodhpur was the seat of Marwar, one of the most prominent princely states of British India. Jodhpur was founded in 1459 by Rao Jodha, a Rajput chief of the Rathore clan. Jodha succeeded in conquering the surrounding territory and thus founded a state which came to be known as Marwar. Marwar, much to the hatred of Mewar (which we will come to later), became a fief of the Mughal empire and many top generals and nobles of the Mughal court were from Jodhpur.
Jodhpur is also famous for its woodwork, of which we had ample evidence in our hotel itself. After breakfast, we walked (mini trek) up to the famous Mehrangarh fort.
Built in the 15th century at the order of Rao Jodha, it is one of the nation’s best preserved forts, credit for which goes to the current Maharajas trust. At the entrance, I paid a fortune to purchase an audio guide, because I was very interested in knowing the authentic history of the fort. There are seven gates, which include Jayapol, built by Maharaja Man Singh to commemorate his victories over the Jaipur and Bikaner armies. Fatehpol gate was built by Maharaja Ajit Singh to mark the defeat of the Mughals. The palm imprints upon these still attract much attention even today.
Amongst the period rooms in the fort are Moti Mahal – The Pearl Palace, Sheesha Mahal – The Hall Of Mirrors, Phool Mahal – The Palace Of Flowers, and Takhat Vilas – Maharaja Takhat Singh’s Chamber. The architecture and intricacy of the artistry was beyond words. Amongst the various well-preserved galleries are Elephant’s howdahs, Queens Palanquins, Daulat Khana, Armoury, Paintings, Turban Gallery, and the Folk Music Instruments Gallery.
We spent nearly 3 hours in the fort complex before exiting and walking to the next destination, Jaswant Thada. It took us around 30 minutes to reach there on foot. The Jaswant Thada is an architectural landmark of Jodhpur. It is a white marble memorial built by Sardar Singh in 1899 in memory of Maharaja Jaswant Singh I. It is known as the Taj Mahal of Rajasthan, owing to the fact that it is made of white marble. The complex was exceptionally well-maintained by the tourism authorities. The place was green, clean, and breezy, offering views of Mehrangarh on one side and the whole of Jodhpur town on the other.
We had lunch in the heart of the city and proceeded towards Umaid Bhawan, which is the other significant landmark in Jodhpur. The Umaid Bhawan Palace was formerly known as Chittar Palace during its construction due to its location on Chittar Hill, the highest point in Jodhpur. Ground for the foundations of the building was broken on 18 November 1929 by Maharaja Umaid Singh and the construction work was completed in 1943. Perched high above the desert capital of Jodhpur, Umaid Bhawan Palace is the last of the great palaces of India and one of the largest residences in the world spread over 26 acres. Designed by famed Edwardian architect Henry Lanchester, the golden-yellow sandstone monument was conceived on a grand scale, in fashionable art deco style, and took 15 years to complete.The present owner of the palace is Maharaja of Jodhpur Gaj Singh. The Palace is divided into three functional parts – a luxury Taj Palace Hotel (in existence since 1972), the residence of the erstwhile royal family, and a museum focusing on the 20th century history of the Jodhpur royal family. On display are also some of the finest automobiles owned by the royalty of Jodhpur, including some vintage Rolls Royces and Bentleys.
The road to Umaid Bhawan was excellent, which I was later told was because it was a private road and was part of the King’s estate. The location and setting were sublime. We wanted to take some shots of the palace from a distance so we trekked to a better vantage points around 20 mins away from the palace. We managed to click some excellent shots aided by the setting sun directly reflecting on the palace.
Then, we hurried back to the palace complex, and spent some time exploring the excellent museum and admiring the vintage cars on display. The other two sections of the palace were out of bounds to general visitors with Taj operating a luxury hotel in the main complex and Maharaja Gaj Singh & family residing in the third enclosure. Till date, I had never seen a palace so magnificent as Umaid Bhawan. Its relatively younger age added to its beauty. I was told that room prices at the Taj Palace (Umaid Bhawan) go up to $2500 a night for the royal suites. You might want to check out their photo gallery.
In the evening, while returning, we wandered through the clock tower area of Jodhpur, around which is the main market. I wandered into a book store and ended up buying 20 odd books, weighing a good 20 kgs or so! I managed to get them packed in a gunny bag and loaded them on my head before returning to our hotel for dinner. We had dinner on our roof top restaurant followed by attempts to capture the Mehrangarh fort at night.
December 14: The next morning, we took a bus towards Udaipur, though we were not planning to go to Udaipur directly. First, we were headed towards the famous Jain temple town of Ranakpur, and time permitting to Kumbhalgarh fort. The bus dropped us off at Ranakpur, which was in the middle of nowhere. However, the terrain was noticeably different with far more greenery and hills surrounding Ranakpur. The air was much cooler too.
We entered the main temple complex, which was massive yet welcoming. There was a cloak room where tourists could keep their stuff and leave their shoes. The construction of this temple is well documented in a 1437 CE copper-plate record, inscriptions in the temple, and a Sanskrit text Soma-Saubhagya Kavya. Inspired by a dream of a celestial vehicle, Dhanna Shah, a Jain-Porwad, commenced its construction, under the patronage of Rana Kumbha, then ruler of Mewar. The architect who oversaw the project was named Deepaka. There is an inscription on a pillar near the main shrine stating that in 1439, Deepaka, an architect, constructed the temple at the direction of Dharanka, a devoted Jain. When the ground floor was completed, Acharya Soma Sundar Suri of Tapa Gachha supervised the ceremonies, which are described in Soma-Saubhagya Kavya. The construction completed in 1458 AD.
The main facade of the temple, dedicated to the Jain Tirthankara Adinath, was simply mind blowing.
Light colored marble has been used for the construction of this grand temple. The temple, with its distinctive domes, shikhara, turrets, and cupolas rises majestically from the slope of a hill. Over 1444 marble pillars, carved in exquisite detail, support the temple. The pillars are all differently carved and no two pillars are the same. It is also said that it is impossible to count the pillars. Also all the statues face one or the other statue. There is one beautiful carving made out of a single marble rock where there 108 heads of snakes and numerous tails. One cannot find the end of the tails. The image faces all four cardinal directions. In the axis of the main entrance, on the western side, is the largest image.
The temple is designed as chaumukha—with four faces. The construction of the temple and quadrupled image symbolize the Tirthankara’s conquest of the four cardinal directions and hence the cosmos. We tried very hard to capture the beauty of the complex through our lenses, but I don’t think we succeeded.
There were a number of western tourists, some with dedicated guides, and some were guided by the well-educated and helpful priests. After spending a couple of hours inside the complex, we ventured to a slightly higher vantage point, in an attempt to capture the grandeur of the complex through our lenses. Post the photography session (during which we witnessed many exotic birds…the place was like an oasis), we headed to the community kitchen for lunch. Lunch was served by volunteers and was simple yet delicious.
We dropped the idea of visiting Kumbhalgarh, which became our first itinerary casualty of this trip. It’s a pity we couldn’t make it, because Kumbhalgarh is known to be one of the most imposing forts in the world. We managed to negotiate with a taxi driver to drop us till Udaipur, which we reached by evening. The taxi driver also suggested a hotel, which suited us, and we decided to park ourselves there. Jatinder’s health had still not improved that much so we needed some rest before heading out in the evening. After dusk, I ventured out (Jatinder preferred to rest) towards the most vibrant part of Udaipur (banks of Lake Pichola) and had some really great dinner with a few other travellers from Holland and Germany. I also hired a motorcycle (Bullet) for the next day, because I made an impromptu plan to ride to Chittorgarh tomorrow. I returned to the hotel where Jatinder was resting after having his own dinner.
December 15: Today was Jatinder’s birthday. And what a place we were in to celebrate his b’day. We had breakfast at a German bakery (Udaipur is full of wonderful cafes, bakeries, and restaurants), got hold of the bike, and left for Chittorgarh. Chittorgarh, which is known for its massive and historically significant fort, was around 120 km by road. It took us 2 1/2 hours to reach Chittorgarh, where we were greeted by the views of a humungous fort overlooking the relatively newer town. We stopped to grab a quick drink and then rode to the top of the fort.
Chittorgarh Fort is the largest fort in India and the grandest in the state of Rajasthan. The fort, plainly known as Chittor, was the capital of Mewar (notice that now we are in Mewar and NOT Marwar). It was ruled initially by Guhilot and later by Sisodias, the Suryavanshi clans of Chattari Rajputs, from the 7th century, until it was finally abandoned in 1568 after the siege by Emperor Akbar in 1567. It sprawls majestically over a hill 180 m in height spread over an area of 691 acres above the plains of the valley drained by the Berach river. The fort precinct, with an evocative history, is studded with a series of historical palaces, gates, temples and two prominent commemoration towers. These monumental ruins have inspired the imagination of tourists and writers for centuries.
The fort was sacked three times between the 15th and 16th centuries; in 1303 Allauddin Khilji defeated Rana Ratan Singh, in 1535 Bahadur Shah, the Sultan of Gujarat defeated Bikramjeet Singh, and in 1567 Emperor Akbar defeated Maharana Udai Singh II who left the fort and founded Udaipur. Each time the men fought bravely rushing out of the fort walls charging the enemy but lost every time. Following these defeats, Jauhar was committed thrice by more than 13,000 ladies and children of the Rajput heroes who laid their lives in battles at Chittorgarh Fort, first led by Rani Padmini wife of Rana Rattan Singh who was killed in the battle in 1303, and later by Rani Karnavati in 1537 AD. The fort represents the quintessence of tribute to the nationalism, courage, medieval chivalry, and sacrifice, exhibited by the Mewar rulers between the 7th and 16th centuries.
We hired a guide, who would accompany us throughout the fort on his motorcycle (so we were both on motorcycles now!). Being a huge complex, I will not go into the details of each place that we visited inside the fort, but to summarize, we visited Vijay Stambha, Kirti Stambha, Rana Kumbha palace, Kalika temple, and Padmini palace. This took us a good 3-hours to finish. Lastly, we went to a handicraft store from where we purchased gifts for home.
The ride back from Chittorgarh was a little tiring and we reached Udaipur at around 5 pm. We rested for some time and then set out to explore the lovely banks of Lake Pichola. Udaipur was founded in 1559 by Maharana Udai Singh II as the final capital of the erstwhile Mewar kingdom, located to the southwest of Nagda, on the Banas River. Legend has it that Maharana Udai Singh II came upon a hermit while hunting in the foothills of the Aravalli Range. The hermit blessed the king and asked him to build a palace on the spot, assuring him it would be well protected. Udai Singh II consequently established a residence on the site. In 1568, the Mughal emperor Akbar captured the the fort of Chittor, forcing Udai Singh moved the capital to the site of his residence, which became the city of Udaipur.
As the Mughal empire weakened, the Sisodia ranas, and later maharanas , who had always tried to oppose Mughal dominance, reasserted their independence and recaptured most of Mewar except for Chittor. Udaipur remained the capital of the state, which became a princely state of British India in 1818. Being a mountainous region and unsuitable for heavily armoured Mughal horses, Udaipur remained safe from Mughal influence in spite of much pressure. The rajvansh of Udaipur was one of the oldest dynasty of the world. Maharana Mahendra Singh Mewar is the current ruler of the city.
Udaipur, by far was the cleanest city that I encountered in Rajasthan. This was also due to several NGOs being active in the area. People were very friendly and the bazaars were very lively. There were a LOT of western tourists as Udaipur is very popular with them. Known for its lakes and water bodies, it is often referred to as the Venice of India. That might be an over stretch, but it surely is a very picturesque town. We had dinner at a wonderful roof top restaurant that offered stunning views of the lake palace (which is now a luxury hotel in Lake Pichola) and the city palace.
After dinner, we retired to our room for some well-deserved rest.
December 16: The next morning we again went for breakfast by the lake side (to Dhobi Ghat) and ate some westernized dishes for a good hour or so. From there, we walked to Udaipur’s finest structure, the City Palace.
It was built by Maharana Udai Singh as the capital of the Sisodia Rajput clan in 1559, after he moved from Chittor. It is located on the east bank of the Lake Pichola and has several palaces built within its complex. The City Palace in Udaipur was built in a flamboyant style and is considered the largest of its type in Rajasthan. It is a fusion of the Rajasthani and Mughal architectural styles and was built on a hill top that gives a panoramic view of the city and its surrounding, including several historic monuments such as the Lake Palace in Lake Pichola, the Jag Mandir on another island in the lake, the Jagdish Temple close to the palace, the Monsoon Palace on top of an overlooking hillock nearby, and the Neemach Mata temple.
The entry fee for cameras was very high, so Jatinder and I decided to only take one camera inside the complex. I also hired an audio guide, which proved to be an excellent investment. The main entry is through the Bara Pol (Great Gate), which leads to the first courtyard. Bara Pol (built in 1600) leads to the Tripolia Pol, a triple arched gate built in 1725, which provides the northern entry. The road between this gate and the palace is lined with shops and kiosks owned by craftsmen, book-binders, miniature painters, textile dealers and antique shops. Other notable places included Amar Vilas, which is the uppermost court inside the complex, which is a raised garden. It provides entry to the Badi Mahal. Badi Mahal (Great Palace) also known as Garden Palace and is the exotic central garden palace that is situated on a 27 metres (89 ft) high natural rock formation bis-a-bis the rest of the palace. The rooms on the ground floor appear to be at the level of the fourth floor in view of the height difference to its surrounding buildings. There was a swimming pool there, which was used by the royal family for Holi festival (festival of colors) celebration. In an adjoining hall, miniature paintings of 18th and 19th centuries are displayed. In addition, wall paintings of Jag Mandir (as it appeared in the 18th century), Vishnu of Jagdish temple, the very courtyard and an elephant fight scene are depicted.
Other notable attractions included Darbar Hall, Fatehgarh palace, Jagdish Mandir, Manak Mahal, Mor Chowk, and the museum, which was made in part of the ladies’ Zanana. Before I forget, we also got good views of Udaivilas, the world famous luxury resort, from the palace. After spending nearly three hours in the complex, we had lunch and headed to the market place for some shopping. Udaipur, as I mentioned earlier, is a heaven for roadside shopping. We bought some souvenirs for back home and I bought a couple of painting, made by some very skillful local painters. In the evening, we went to Fatehsagar lake, where a group of Australians on hired motorcycles were stuck because one of their bikes had failed and they didn’t have the contact number of the bike hire guy. Incidentally, they had hired from the same guy from whom I did yesterday, so I promptly called him and helped them out.
Said to be the pride of the City of Lakes of Udaipur, Fatehsagar is an artificial lake to the north of Lake Pichola and to the north-west of Udaipur. It is one of the four lakes of the Udaipur city; the other three lakes are: the Lake Pichola (within the Udaipur town), Udai Sagar Lake (13 km to the east of Udaipur) and Dhebar Lake or Jaisamand Lake (52 km south east of Udaipur). Within the confines of the Fatahsagar Lake, there are three small islands; the largest of these is the island called the Nehru Park, which is a popular garden with a restaurant and a zoo, the second island houses a public park with an impressive water-jet fountain and the third island is the address for the Udaipur Solar Observatory (USO). The Nehru park is accessed by inboard motor boats from the bottom of Moti Magri. The promenade along the lake was quite lovely and obviously a favorite spot for tourists and locals alike to watch the setting sun. We did some photography and walked back to our hotel (long walk).
Dinner was again in the main market by the lake side (there are so many good restaurant to choose from), but this time on the western side of the lake. Interestingly, the whole section and market in a way dedicated to westerners and one gets a very European feel in that area. We were back in our rooms by around 10 30 pm, because we had a flight to Bombay early the next morning.
The flight was on schedule and both of us headed to work on the very same day. The Rajasthan trip was unique in a way that we managed to cover a lot of the state in very limited time. It was quite hectic at times, but we used the days for sight seeing and the nights for travel. The vibrant culture and history of the region is obviously a big draw to tourists from all over the world, and we were no exceptions.