8 January 2016

The Realm of the Maharajas

"The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page." – St. Augustine.

The "Land of the Maharajas" is an interesting travel destination as it boasts of rich cultural heritage and is an amalgamation of different travel experiences. The quintessential desert safari, the exquisite architecture and the grandeur of the palaces,a treasure trove of history, one can spend years trying to unearth its hidden gems.

Day 1: Arrival at Jaipur :

Jaipur, The Pink City of India - so called because its old districts were painted pink to welcome Prince Albert in 1876 – was more orangish really with its red-bricked buildings, forts, walls of little shops, garages, sculpted balustrades on both sides of the street...even the road dividers and car shutters:all of the same pinkish orange!

A city of ruins and fairytales: Of wars and turbaned princes on elephants! 

Fortunately for tourists, some of the city’s key monuments – the Hawa Mahal, City Palace, Jantar Mantar and Govinddevji Ka Mandir – are located within walking distance of each other. The voluminous structure of Hawa Mahal, made of pink sandstone and embellished with elaborate carvings in quicklime, is used on the cover of most tourism pamphlets on Rajasthan. The shimmering interiors of the mahal, unfolds over five levels. The Sharad Mandir comprises of courtyard where the autumn celebrations were held. Right above is the exquisite Ratan Mandir, glistening, (as the name derives) with "ratan" or precious stones and gems and beautiful stained glasswork on its walls, such that when the sun light falls on its walls, it bursts into an ecstasy of coloured reflections and splinters into shards of sparkling beams! The third storey, where the king used to worship Lord Krishna, is the Vichitra Mandir. The fourth storey – Prakash Mandir – consists of open terraces on both sides, this level offers great views of the city below spread like a carpet of castles! The top storey, Hawa Mandir, from which the monument draws its name, is an open roof. You may want to cling on to the walls for support, as the height and breeze can have a rather vertiginous effect.


Whatever else you miss in Jaipur, don’t leave out Amber fort. Combining Islamic and Rajput architectural styles, the imposing facade of the fort exudes elegance even from the outside, its red sandstone walls bright against the green water of the natural moat formed by Maota Lake, and its white marble domes glistening in the sun. The interior of the fort has exquisitely carved walls, roofs and terraces, separated by manicured garden mazes. The most beautiful part of the fort is the Sheesh Mahal. It is said a single ray of light could illuminate the entire hall, because of the clever placement of the tiny mirrors within.

 A day in Jaipur clearly takes you back in time to the glimmering golden age of the Rajputana!

Day 2: Pushkar and Ajmer

After staying the night in Jaipur, you need to make an early start for Pushkar. The pilgrimage site is less than 150 km from the capital, but the roads are especially bad after the monsoon. The town of Pushkar, in Ajmer district, is walled in on three sides by hills, and a sandy bank rides up to the fourth.

Pushkar Lake is a sacred lake of the Hindus. The Hindu scriptures describes it as "Tirtha-Raj" – the king of pilgrimage sites and relate it to the mythology of the creator-god Brahma, whose most prominent temple stands in Pushkar. The legend goes that the lake was created when a lotus fell from Brahma’s hand. According to the Hindu scripture Padma Purana, Brahma saw the demon Vajranabha (Vajranash in another version) trying to kill his children and harassing people. He immediately slew the demon with his weapon, the lotus-flower. In this process, the lotus petals fell on the ground at three places, where springs emerged creating three lakes: the Pushkar Lake or Jyeshta Pushkar (greatest or first Pushkar), the Madya Pushkar (middle Pushkar) Lake, and Kanishta Pushkar (lowest or youngest Pushkar) lake. When Brahma came down to the earth, he named the place where the flower ("pushpa") fell from Brahma's hand ("kar") as "Pushkar".

 Pushkar Lake is surrounded by 52 bathing ghats (a series of steps leading to the lake), where pilgrims throng in large numbers to take a sacred bath, especially around Kartik Poornima (October–November) when the Pushkar Fair is held. A dip in the sacred lake is believed to cleanse sins and cure skin diseases. Over 500 Hindu temples are situated around the lake precincts.

Surrounded by the Aravalli Mountains, Ajmer, the fifth largest city of Rajasthan, is a pilgrimage centre for the shrine of the Sufi Saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti .The Ajmer Sharif Dargah, is a shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti which is situated at the foot of the Taragarh hill, and consists of several white marble buildings arranged around two courtyards, including a massive gate donated by the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Akbari Mosque, built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. It contains the domed tomb of the saint. Akbar and his queen used to come here by foot on pilgrimage from Agra every year in observance of a vow when he prayed for a son. The large pillars called "Kose ('Mile') Minar", erected at intervals of two miles (3 km) along the entire way between Agra and Ajmer mark the places where the royal pilgrims halted every day. It has been estimated that around 125,000 pilgrims visit the site every day.

The Camels remind me of my friends. Remembering the old jokes, I smile."We'll marry you off to a camel from Rajasthan", they hooted! Gazing into the eyes of the silent beast, something inside me flips. Behind all the giggles, a lone voice sighs: "But at least they're better than us; Wild as they are. They don't pretend to be humans, like some beasts do."

 Dunking cynism in a tea cup I pass by the shops in Zohri Bazar and in and around Ajmer gate. Little shops selling  door hangings and wind chains with golden bells and glass bangles (red, blue and green in the morning light), jhumkas and beaded neckpieces, cloth raja-rani puppets wearing red and green badni sarees, miniature bronze camels, peacocks, elephants, dwarves, hump-necked bulls and goblins, paper notebooks wrapped in coloured velvets emblemed with miniature elephants, cane baskets, jewellery boxes embellished with pixie glass pieces.

Day 3: Jodhpur and Jaisalmer

Jodhpur, is the second largest city of India and is popularly known as "the blue city". To understand why Jodhpur is known as "the blue city" you should wander away from the market places and new town, and head into the older quarters of Jodhpur. Here, under the centuries-old protection of Mehrangarh Fort, whose foundations were laid in 1459, on the orders of the city's founder, Rao Jodha, many of the houses are painted blue.Some say the colour is associated closely with the Brahmins, India's priestly caste, and the blue houses of the old city belong to families of that caste.

The Mehrangarh Fort at Jodhpur is famous for its architecture, the views on offer, as well as its museum – which has a collection of palanquins, howdahs, weapons, paintings, and clothes. Inside, protected by glass orbs lay an array of armoury: Swords, shields, guns! Few steps to the right, inside petite glass orbs, a set of rings, a string of medals (the star of india medal, badges for military achievements, various honourary brooches from the queen of England!) glisten in the glow of the museum light. Outside the sunshine falls on the sparkling domes and turrets, setting it aflame : a sight of burnished gold!

Back in the fortified castle, climbing the steep stairs of the Mehrangarh fort, I'm met with an enchanting sight: A makeshift tent made of badni dupattas and shawls flanks the way for a little man with a flute.Clad in white dhoti, punjabi and vermilion turban the music of his flute makes the little raja and rani puppets housed by the tent, dance to its beats. A puppet show! The schoolgirls in their plaits and skirts, throng around him, each with a paise in hand. A few more steps above, a snake charmer played his bagpipe, for the beast in his basket. As the tune progressed, the slithering serpent with its hood bearing the mark of the Great Brahma's feet, swayed in rhythm from its cane basket, entranced, carried by the lull of the music.
The Sadar Bazar in Jodhpur is a shopaholic's heaven!

The road to Jaisalmer is a good one, and you can drive at over 100 km an hour nearly all the way through. For sunset, sand dunes and silhouettes, head straight for Khuri village. The resorts that organise jeep and camel safaris into the desert also put up folk entertainment shows and offer a typical Rajasthani dinner.

Also, whats a good tour without a taste of local delicacies?! So while in state, don't forget to try some of these - Dal bati churma, gatte ki khichdi, churma ka laddo, badam ka halwa, mawa kachori, kalmi vada and Balushahi - to get a flavour of Rajasthani haute cuisine!

Day 4: Sightseeing in Jaisalmer, arrival at Udaipur

Sonar Quila, whose yellow sandstone walls glitter in the sun, is the ‘Golden Fort’ made famous throughout the world by Satyajit Ray’s movie Shonar Kella. For those tourists who’ve seen the film, the actual fort can come as a surprise, drastically changed as it is from the seventies. Aside from an intricately carved Jain temple, the fort, which is nearly a millennium old, houses an entire village within its walls. The statue of Gangaur Mata, whose annual procession is one of the most festive events in Jaisalmer, is also housed in the fort’s museum.

Jaisalmer’s famous havelis include Patwan Ki Haveli and Nathmal Ji Ki Haveli. The Jain temple looks plain enough from the outside – but apparently, built at a time when raids were frequent, the dull exterior was a bid to fool the marauders. The interior of each of the temple’s five shrines and domes is a study in patience and aesthetic. The beautiful carvings can’t be photographed, though, as cameras and mobile phones are not allowed in the temple premises.

Also, while in Jaisalmer, don't forget to take time out for dune-bashing and camel Safari!

Among the busy hubbub of tourists and vendors, the bustling town also abounds in pigeons pecking the golden sand grains or bathing in the fountains of the Royal Queens' baths (now deserted of its rightful occupants). Amidst the countless arched windows of Hawa mahal, the frescoes and glittering glass walls of Seesh mahal, its turbaned paharedars stood guard against the gate adorned with the dancing peacocks.

Upstairs, from one of the view points, from the birds eye view of the entire city, it seemed like a carpet spread of castles.The town in that lazy noon was also a niche for camels resting and elephants with their tusks flashing like pillars of obedience beside their mahoots with canes.

  A man sold peanuts and travel guide under the banyan tree. Monkeys pranced about over the turrets and the pigeons pecked each others feathers and made love in the lazy light of the gloam.

Not all who wander, are lost! 
Happy Trotting! :)


A staunch bibliophile, a travel-head and an occasional painter, Ahona Das is pursuing her graduation in English 
from Presidency University, Kolkata. The columnist for ExPRESS Magazine is very interested in photography as well. Some of her other articles are as follows :-