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Glamping in Rajasthan

India day eight


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Thar Desert stay

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Desert sunset

Rajasthan is in part a desert state, and a visit here, for a desert lover such as myself, would not be complete without spending a night in one of its desert camps. It was this that brought us to Dechu. The Thar Desert is the 17th largest in the world and home to 40% of Rajasthan’s people who for the most part eke out a living growing what crops they can in its arid soil or raising livestock. But in recent years eco-tourism has brought a much welcome boost to the region, and we were here to help!

We left our lovely Jaisalmer hotel, Fort Rajwanda, after breakfast and set off through the desert, at first retracing our steps eastwards from a few days previously but then branching off to the south towards Dechu. The drive took only three hours, mostly across flat scrubby desert.

Along the way we enjoyed seeing our first mongoose on the road, while I failed to photograph successfully, and a large herd of camels, some 400 strong, by which Mehar stopped for photos. One of the herders explained that one camel had fractured a leg and they were trying to separate it from the rest. This was a great photo opportunity and I also managed to shoot a video of the herd – I found their constant movement rather mesmerising.

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Another sight, well-spotted by Mehar, was a small antelope, I believe a Chinkara, resting under a bush in a lentil field. According to Wikipedia around 80,000 of India’s population of 100,000 of these live in the Thar Desert so it was perhaps not surprising that we saw several while there.

Near Dechu the scenery got more varied, with sand dunes dotted with stunted trees either side of the road. About seven kilometres beyond the town we turned off the road into Samsara Resort.

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Chinkara

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Scenery near Dechu

We didn't stay at Samara Resort itself but at the Desert Camp about eight kilometres away. However we arrived here around midday and were given the use of a room and the run of the facilities until our transfer to the camp some four hours later (in October when we visited it is far too hot in the desert during the middle part of the day so guests only spend the evening, night and first part of the morning at the camp).

The room we were given was really lovely (we dubbed it "the nicest room we never stayed in"!) and we enjoyed a good lunch in the restaurant and a few pleasant hours swimming in, and relaxing by, the pool. I am pretty sure this would be a great place to stay if you'd like to sleep in a proper bedroom and see the desert on excursions rather than spend a night in a tent, however luxurious.

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The nicest room we never stayed in, and hotel pool

But that was not for us – we were headed for a night under canvas …

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Our stay at the desert camp was one of the highlights of our trip to India. The whole experience was wonderful, starting with our late afternoon jeep transfer to the camp from the resort, which, although a distance of just eight kilometres as the crow flies, is lengthened into a mini safari through the surrounding countryside. The return journey the next morning was to take just 15 minutes, but this outward ride was more like 90.

Our luggage was transferred separately (the next morning it was to travel with us) and we had the jeep to ourselves. After a short ride along the main road we turned off on to a sandy track that wound among some scattered houses. We passed the government-run school and the all-important water tank. We made a wide loop through this area, at one point spotting some more Indian antelopes, Chinkara, like the one we had seen earlier on our journey to Dechu.

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Chinkara antelopes

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The grandmother

We stopped at one house to visit a local family. Obviously this was a bit set-up compared to the visit we had made with Mehar a few days previously (see my earlier blog entry), but it was nevertheless interesting and the family were very welcoming. Mum and Dad were away working in the fields, so we met the grandmother and children. All were very happy to pose for photos. Unlike that previous visit with Mehar, we were able to go inside the various buildings which included a kitchen, living/sleeping house and storage room.

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Family possessions

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With our hostess and her oldest grandchild

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The home

Leaving the village area we returned to the main road, only to leave it again after just a short distance. Now we were among the dunes proper, although in this desert you find scrubby growth on the dunes rather than the empty wide sweep of sand you see elsewhere. Our driver took us on a roundabout route that involved at least three very steep descents – the sort where you get something of the sensation of being on a roller coaster (although much more fun to my mind). We stopped for photos at the top of one dune, and at another the guide got out and borrowed my camera to take pictures of our descent from below – although I was surprised when I looked at the photos later to see that the steepness wasn’t that apparent. Much more effective was my own photo taken looking down on him just as we started down from the top of the dune.

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Jeep ride in the dunes

Eventually we topped one particular dune to find ourselves looking down on the camp. We dropped down into it and pulled up at the edge of the circle of tents.

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Samsara Desert Camp, late afternoon

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We were greeted with the news that our luggage was already in our tent, number three, and our camel was waiting for us, ready for the next part of the experience as soon as we had freshened up. So we hurried to our tent to leave our day bags, taking only our cameras with us on the next experience, a camel ride on the dunes. We have ridden camels in the past and it is something I always enjoy (although after an unfortunate encounter in Uzbekistan, which I will no doubt share here some time in the future, Chris is slightly less enthusiastic!)

On this occasion, we both rode on the same camel. I was up front and could hold on to part of the harness, but Chris, behind, had only me to clutch. If I had fallen, so would he! This was quite a short ride compared to the one we had in the Uzbek desert – just up and over the nearest dune, a short stop for photos and then up to the highest point from where we would be able to watch the sunset.

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Our camel gets a well-deserved rest, after carrying us both up the dunes!

Desert sunset

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We arrived by camel at the top of the dunes, to find that the camp staff had set out some cushions to sit on and laid on a musician playing the traditional Rajasthani double flutes. A few other tourists from the camp were already here, having come by jeep. There were drinks available (tea, coffee and water at no charge, plus soft and alcoholic drinks to buy). It was all very low-key – we all stood around or sat and listened to the music, drinking a beer or a G&T and chatting, as the sun got lower over the dunes.

It was quite hazy, so the sky was pretty rather than dramatic, but the photo opportunities were greatly enhanced when a local happened to drive his flock of sheep along the ridge of the dune right in front of the setting sun. The sand kicked up by their hooves filtered the rays and created a timeless scene that made a pleasant experience into a totally memorable one.

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Was it serendipity that brought him here at this moment? Does the camp choose this spot because the locals also come here – or even, dare I say it, encourage him to do so to enhance our experience? Those thoughts occurred to me, but no, I think we were probably just lucky as, since neither shepherd nor hotel staff looked for a tip there would have been nothing for them to gain by arranging the scene.

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After he moved on there was time to take a few more photos of the post-sunset sky, and now our camel took centre stage in the photos.

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Dancer

Then it was back to the camp, this time by jeep, to settle into our tent before the evening’s cultural performance and dinner.

Evening in the camp

In the hour before dinner traditional musicians played in an area of the camp set aside for these performances. There was cushioned seating for the audience, drinks could be purchased and the first course of dinner was served, consisting of stuffed potato chunks, chicken tikka and vegetable patties. While we had seen similar shows in several hotels already (and were to see several more before the end of our trip, this was probably the most accomplished of those we saw, with the quality of the dancing especially notable. These dances are traditional among the Thar Desert tribes as are the elaborate costumes worn by both men and women. I hope you enjoy my little video of the performance.

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Musicians and dancer

Cultural performance

Our evening meal started with small appetisers handed round as we sat listening to the music - chicken tikka, stuffed potatoes and vegetable patties, and we ordered beers to wash these down. We then went up the slope, lit by hurricane lamps, to the dining tent where like all the other guests we chose to eat outside on the terrace. The meal was a buffet with lots of choice, and I found some dishes nicer than others (a potato curry and another with cauliflower among them). You pay for any drinks but otherwise all is included. When we had finished our meal we sat out on the terrace a little longer, enjoying the desert air and a final beer.

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Our tent at night

Desert sunrise

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We slept very well in our “luxury” tent, which was both gorgeous and comfortable. It had twin beds inside, with a properly plumbed en-suite with large walk-in shower behind, and a terrace with loungers in front. The tents are set in a circle nestled under a large dune, with another dune opposite. Part way up this one is the dining tent where both dinner and breakfast are served, and at the foot of this dune is a circular area where the evening entertainment takes place.

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The camp at dawn

The next morning we woke early to the sound of the camp coming to life. Some of the staff were walking around collecting the lanterns that had been hung in the bushes and outside each tent the previous evening, while others were up at the dining tent on the opposite dune, starting to prepare breakfast. When we emerged from our tent we found we were the only guests to have done so, somewhat to our surprise. Yes, it was still early, but it’s not every day you get to enjoy watching the sunrise in the desert. Armed with our cameras we climbed up the steep dune on the far side of the camp and were there in time to see the sun rise over the tents circled below us. Well worth the effort of getting up and clambering up the dune!

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Desert sunrise

By the way, when I first went out that morning I did so with bare feet and really enjoyed the sensation of the cool morning sand between my toes. But it’s not a good idea to walk around like that on the dunes as there are some very prickly burrs that attach themselves to shoes and socks and would certainly be painful if they were to attach themselves to you!

Once the sun was up it was time to descend for breakfast, which was a good one, with eggs cooked to order and other items, including fresh fruit, pastries and toast, served at the buffet. The musician who had played the previous evening when we watched the sun set from the dunes also played during breakfast which was lovely.

Music at breakfast

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Farewell to the camp

All too soon though we were leaving the camp behind us, very pleased to have had this chance to experience a taste of the Thar Desert and a stay so different from those that made up the bulk of our tour.

If you get the chance to do this I totally recommend it as it really shows you another side to Rajasthan. Yes, it is all laid on for tourists and is somewhat artificial, but at the same time you are out in the desert and getting closer to a harsh but beautiful environment that is home to many local people. And of course the camp also brings employment and a much-needed source of income to some of those people. I was pleased to learn, for example, that the guide who accompanied us on the jeep safari and looked after us during our stay was from a village just a few miles away.

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Our jeep driver

We met up with Mehar back at the Samsara resort. It was time to head further south ...

Posted by ToonSarah 21:53 Archived in India Tagged desert culture india music camp camel rajasthan Comments (14)

A few hours in the Blue City

India day nine


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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The blue houses of Jodhpur, seen from Mehrangarh Fort

On the edge of the Thar Desert lies Rajasthan’s second city, Jodhpur. Often known as the Blue City, because of its many blue painted houses, it is also, due to the desert heat, the Sun City.

We only spent a few hours here, en route between Dechu and Narlai. It was enough for a good visit to the fort and a short walk in the markets of the old city. The briefness of this visit may account in part for why this was not my favourite of the cities we visited in Rajasthan, as may the less good than usual guiding. Nevertheless, we were glad we had visited the Blue City.

Mehrangarh Fort

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We started our explorations (and spent most of our time) at the Mehrangarh Fort which towers above the city of Jodhpur. The oldest part dates from around 1460 when it was founded here by Rao Jodha, the fifteenth ruler of Rathore, who moved his capital here from Mandore, nine kilometres to the north. It is from him that the city takes its name. Jodha’s chosen site for his fort and palace was this hill known as Bhaurcheeria, the “mountain of birds” or Cheeriatunk, “the Bird's Beak”. According to a legend, in order to build here he had to evict the hill’s only resident, a hermit known as Cheeria Nathji, the Lord of the Birds. The hermit cursed Jodha and his fort: “May your citadel forever suffer a scarcity of water!” Rao Jodha managed to appease the hermit by building a house for him in the city, and a temple in the fort near his cave, but this was only partially successful, as even today the area is plagued by a drought every few years.

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Jai Pol

Jodha also buried a man, Rajiya Bambi, alive in the fort’s foundations as a form of sacrifice to ensure the gods would look kindly on his endeavours! In return Rajiya’s family were promised that they would be forever looked after and protected by the rulers of Rathore – a promise that has apparently been kept to this day. Some even say that up to four men were entombed alive, one in each corner of the fort. Of these, one was supposed to have been Rajiya's own son and another a Brahmin named Mehran. The story of the three additional men is however disputed, as it seems unlikely that Jodha would pick two men from the same family, while a Hindu king sacrificing a Brahmin, i.e. a priest, seems equally implausible. Those who believe the legend point to the name of the fort, Mehrangarh, to prove its likelihood, while those who dispute it argue that the fort is named for the sun, known as “mehr” in Rajasthani.

Over the centuries that followed the Rathore family grew in power and as they did so they further developed and expanded their fort. Its battlements were strengthened by Rao Maldev (1532-1562), during whose reign they were at the height of their power. The main gates, Fateh Pol and Jai Pol, were each built to celebrate a great victory – against the Mughals in 1707, and against the army of Jaipur a hundred years later. Much of the palace that we see today is from the period of Maharaja Jaswant Singh (1638-1678). And perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the Rathores in all of this is that Mehrangarh Fort has never once been successfully captured in a siege, standing firm through every onslaught.

Incidentally, while Jodhpur is now part of the State of Rajasthan there is still a maharaja, although his title is mostly just decorative. He has a shiny new (well, early 20th century) palace in another part of the city, and his own website: www.maharajajodhpur.com/. But the Mehrangarh Fort still belongs to the family and is administered as a trust, established by the maharaja, Gaj Singh II, in 1972. The trust looks after the fort and the museum within it.

Our visit started as we passed through the Jai Pol (Victory Gate). This was built by Maharaja Man Singh in 1806 to commemorate victories over the armies of Jaipur and Bikaner. On the outside of this gate are some interesting paintings depicting these battles.

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Jai Pol battle scenes

Beyond this point you have a choice – a steep climb uphill through several more gates or, for a small additional fee (35 IR in 2015), taking the lift which has been cleverly cut into the rock. This had been prepaid for us by TransIndus and I wasn’t sorry to take advantage of it, but after our visit we walked down so we did get to see the other gates.

The lift deposited us in the Shrinagar Chowk or Anointment Courtyard. This was used for royal ceremonies such as the anointing of maharajas and you can see a throne used for the crowning of the current Maharaja Gaj Singh II. A board nearby has photos of that event.

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Shrinagar Chowk

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Throne and coronation scenes

From Shrinagar Chowk you get wonderful views of the city below.

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We lingered a while in the courtyard as a dance performance was taking place, part of the Jodhpur RIFF. This is the Rajasthan International Folk Festival, and it was something of a bonus for us that it was happening while we were here, as our tour of the fort was punctuated with music and dance performances. There is a week-long programme of staged performances, in the Mehrangarh Fort and elsewhere in the city, featuring Rajasthani, Indian and some international performers – I spotted Scottish folk, reggae (with musicians from Ghana, Iran, Germany and Bolivia), Brazilian Latin and Spanish flamenco among others. We didn’t get a chance to attend any of these, as we were only here for a few hours, but we did benefit from the several semi-impromptu performances that were taking place in different parts of the fort. These are described in the programme as “Fort Festivities” and are held on the first three whole days of the event (we were here on the second). The programme website in 2015 (www.jodhpurriff.org/) described these as follows:

“As you wander through the Mehrangarh Museum in the fort, taste the myriad flavours of a variety of traditional dance forms reflecting the distinctive root traditions of Rajasthan – some known and some not so well known. Various forms including Terahtaali, a devotional dance form of Kamad community honouring their folk hero Baba Ramdev; Kalbeliya, probably amongst the best internationally known of Rajasthan's nomadic communities, easily claiming to be the state's resident experts on snakes; Gair, the martial looking visual spectacle from Marwar”

I especially enjoyed the first performance we watched, in the Shrinagar Chowk, and made a little video of the dancers. I also found a good video on YouTube of another Gair dance performance and one of the Terahtaali.

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RIFF performers

Mehrangarh Fort: museum exhibits

Unlike many of the other forts we visited, much of Mehrangarh is devoted to museum-style exhibits rather than restored rooms – in fact, there are fourteen display rooms and just four “period rooms”. While this made a change, on the whole I preferred seeing the old furniture etc. in a room setting. It’s possible too that my experience of visiting these displays was adversely affected by our guide who, although informative, seemed much of the time to be in a bit of a rush, and in particular irritated us by several times by insisting that Indian visitors move aside to let us look in a display case. We would have been more than happy to take our turn, or to look at something else instead while we waited.

Having said all that, there was lots to enjoy and admire here. I was especially fascinated by the howdahs and palanquins displayed in the rooms around the Shrinagar Chowk, and our guide was helpful in pointing out the different constructions and designs. The howdahs were made of wood, and many were beautifully decorated in silver or gold. They were used by maharajas for travel or hunting (hence the lion that appears on many of them) and all have an additional smaller seat for a servant to sit and fan the important passenger.

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Howdahs

The palanquins could be used by men or women, and the design differs accordingly, with those for ladies having screens or curtains for privacy and little peepholes so they could look out.

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In the Palanquin Gallery

Other collections are dotted throughout the complex. Among those we saw were the paintings (in the regional Marwar style – very rich and colourful), various weapons (many of them intricately worked but of less appeal for me) and various treasures and textiles.

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Another of the exhibits

Mehrangarh Fort: state rooms

Although there are some wonderful treasures in the museum collections, and I liked a lot of what we saw, the best part of the fort for me were the four period or state rooms. I loved the richness of these rooms which are on the whole in very good condition – perhaps in part because you are not able to enter any but have to look in from a doorway.

Palace of Flowers / Phool Mahal

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This, possibly the grandest of the state rooms, was created by Maharaja Abhaya Singh (1724-1749) and decorated with gold seized in Gujarat as war booty. It is thought to have been the maharaja’s pleasure palace, where he would sit on his throne and be entertained by dancing girls, music etc. It was also used for private celebrations, such as birthdays. It was modified in the mid 19th century and the paintings around the cornice date from that time, although the wall and column painting is original.

Hall of Mirrors / Sheesh Mahal

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This is in the Raiput style, different from the Mughal Sheesh Mahals we had seen elsewhere (such as the Amber Fort) in having larger, more evenly shaped pieces of mirror rather than small mosaic fragments. Also, there are paintings superimposed on the mirror work in places and these show religious figures (among them Brahma, Shiva, Krishna and Ganesh all sit enthroned; while elsewhere Krishna plays the flute and Rama and Sita confer with Hanuman). These paintings have led to the conclusion that this palace was used not for the rather decadent pleasures enjoyed in such richly adorned rooms elsewhere but for worship or, as our guide suggested, meditation.

Takhat Vilas

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This colourful room was built by Maharaja Takhat Singh (1843-1873), the last of Jodhpur's rulers to live in the Mehrangarh Fort. It blends traditional styles with some more recent influences. Takhat clearly liked colour, as the glass balls hanging from the ceiling like giant Christmas ornaments show. There are also beautiful paintings on the walls and on the wooden ceiling beams, showing various scenes – some religious, some from folk tales and even a favourite sport of the Rathores, pig-sticking. The floor here is painted to look like a carpet.

Pearl Palace / Moti Mahal

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This is the largest and I believe the oldest of the period rooms at Mehrangarh, having been built by Raja Sur Singh (1595-1619). It was used as a hall of private audience, where the maharaja could discuss matters of state with his closest advisors. It is located within the Zenana or ladies’ section of the complex and has five alcoves which lead to hidden balconies where, it is thought, the queen and most favoured ladies of the court could listen in on the discussions and later their views sought by the maharaja. If this is so, he must have been somewhat ahead of his time in recognising the value of female advice!

Some more images from Mehrangarh Fort

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Visitors to the fort

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Museum guards

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Interior, and old doorway

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Leaving the fort

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At the Gadisar Lake in Jaisalmer we had seen the memorials to the wives who had committed sati (self-immolation) following the death of their husband, as was the custom in this part of the world at one time among the upper castes. We were to be reminded of that again here at Mehrangarh Fort. After our visit, as we descended the path down through the various gates, we saw by the Loha Pol (Iron Gate) these handprints on the wall. There are 31 on this side (the right as you go down) and five on the other. They commemorate the royal queens who immolated themselves on the death of their husbands, the maharajas. Among them were the six queens said to have immolated themselves on Ajit Singh’s funeral pyre in 1724 (as did 58 concubines though I don’t know if they were accorded any memorial).

The old city

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Ghanta Ghar and market

After our visit to the fort we went into the heart of the old city where bustling Sardar Market lies in the shadow of the old clock tower, Ghanta Ghar. The tower was built by Maharaja Sardar Singh (1880-1911), after whom the market is named. Our guide pointed out that it looked very English, but we thought it looked more Indian!

The market is, as are most markets, a great place for photography. Although there are tourists here aplenty, and also plenty of the items tourists love to buy (bangles, textiles etc.) it is very much a local market too, with streets selling all sorts of everyday foods and practical items. We walked through an area where most stalls had fruits or vegetables or herbs – one selling nothing but apples, another only shallots and yet another with mounds of fragrant coriander.

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Market stalls

In the surrounding streets we found small shops with a wider variety of goods, tiny temples tucked among them, and a few houses and hotels painted in the traditional Brahmin blue. And everywhere something else to photograph!

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Old town street scenes

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Jodhpur is often referred to as the Blue City, and with good reason. Many houses in the old city are washed in a soft shade of blue. Traditionally this colour was used only by Brahmins and is still most noticeable on the north side of town, known as Brahmpuri, where many of them live. There are two commonly cited reasons. One is practical – the colour is made by adding copper sulphate to the lime wash, because the copper is thought to repel the termites that live in this desert region. In the past this copper was expensive, so only the upper castes, the Brahmins, could afford it. The other reason sometimes given is one of status, as blue is a royal colour and the Brahmins wanted to associate themselves with royalty.

Today though, we were told, this blue shade one of the cheapest colour washes to buy, and people of all castes use it. We were also to find that it is not exclusive to Jodhpur as we saw many such blue houses in Bundi, among other places. Disappointingly we didn’t have time to walk the streets of Brahmpuri but we did find some beautiful blue-washed houses dotted around the market area of the old city.

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And, as everywhere we went in India, I found myself taking almost as many photos of the local people as I did of the sights. Characterful faces, colourful clothing and a way of life rather different from ours in England made for endless fascination. We passed one shop where the owner was hard at work giving it a new coat of paint ready for the festival season, and what a bright, cheerful colour he had chosen.

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Later our guide persuaded us to visit a shop selling what I had to admit were very lovely fabrics, but I resisted the urge to buy and instead sat back and enjoyed the patter of the rather flamboyant young man trying to persuade me to part with my money. You can see him below, modelling a shawl in a design he claimed was created especially for Donna Karan – or was this one for Hermes or some other famous designer???

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I know there was much in Jodhpur that we didn’t get to see, notably those blue Brahmin houses of Brahmpuri, but we still had some miles to cover to get to our destination for that night, Narlai …

Posted by ToonSarah 03:21 Archived in India Tagged people history india colour fort market music festival jodhpur rajasthan Comments (4)

A stay in a hunting lodge

India day nine continued - and day ten


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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In the seventeenth century Jodhpur’s royal family built a hunting lodge on the edge of a small village in the heart of the Aravalli hills, Narlai. Today that lodge is an exquisite hotel, and my favourite of all the places we stayed in Rajasthan – I would very happily have stayed longer here than the two days that we had.

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On the road to Narlai

We drove to Narlai from Dechu, where we had spent the night in Samsara Desert Camp, by way of Jodphur where we stopped for some hours to visit the fort and old town. The journey was otherwise uneventful but we enjoyed watching the desert scenery gradually change to a greener, more agricultural landscape, dotted here and there with small mountains. We spotted antelope at one point, or rather the large deer, Nilgai, that the locals sometimes call antelope and sometimes wild cows, but they moved before I could grab a photo - one, the male, leaping over a fence of some considerable height.

We passed through small villages that seemed a little more affluent than those of the desert, some with quite grand houses here and there. And arriving at Narlai we found it much the same, with a large white temple at its heart and a few streets of quite humble houses with just a sprinkling of smarter ones, plus a few local shops to serve the farming community. The other main source of income here is the hotel, Rawla Narlai, which is located right in the village and which was to be our base for the next two nights.

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Courtyard and bar

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Around the grounds

This hotel has been very tastefully converted, retaining bags of character, and still feels old, unlike the other heritage hotels we stayed in which were perhaps almost too well restored, albeit beautifully. Our room was really lovely, packed with historic detail and antique furniture, yet with the modern conveniences we appreciate such as good plumbing and air conditioning. There were tea and coffee making facilities and complimentary bottles of water. The king-size bed was very comfortable. We had seating inside and a day bed on the shady terrace outside. This room was in the older part – I gather that those in the newer wing are larger but have less character, and personally I am very happy we were where we were as the room was more than large enough and I wouldn’t have wanted to sacrifice the character!

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Our bedroom

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There are plenty of activities on offer, including jeep safaris and village walks, and we took advantage of some of these, but it was also a great place for some time out from our busy sightseeing schedule in Rajasthan. The hotel grounds are gorgeous. Bougainvillea, morning glory and frangipani flowers trail everywhere. There's a good-sized swimming pool tucked in one corner, while elsewhere there are pretty courtyards, fountains and lots of marble elephants – a bit of a theme here because of the huge carved marble elephant on the top of a rocky outcrop, Narlai Hill, that towers above the property.

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The swimming pool

Narlai Hill

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Rawla Narlai lies at the foot of Narlai Hill, a rocky outcrop typical of this landscape, on the top of which stands a huge white marble statue of an elephant (and hence you will hear locals refer to the hill as Elephant Rock). Although we didn’t do this, the hotel organise free escorted walks up the hill at sunrise – there are a lot of steps to climb but I reckon the effort would be rewarded.

Towards the bottom of the hill are several temples. From the hotel we could see the large one that nestles under the overhanging rocks, and in the early mornings and evenings could hear chanting carried from here on the breeze. This is the Temple of Shri Aai Mata, who was an incarnation of the goddess Ambe Maa, found in a garden in Ambapur (Gujarat) as a baby by Rao Bika Dhabi and brought up as his daughter. It is said that she visited Narlai and stayed in the Jekalji Mahadev Temple in the village from where she taught the local people. According to local legend she created an opening in a cave on the hills with lightening and in it placed a Jyoti (divine lamp) which burns with a continuous flame which produces kesar (a saffron coloured soot) instead of a black one.

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Shri Aai Mata temple

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Lord Shiva cave temple

Near the foot of the hill and right opposite the entrance to the hotel is a much smaller temple, set in a cave and dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is said that the sage Shri Narad meditated here to please Lord Shiva and that the village was named after him. So much for the temples on the hill. But about the elephant I have not been able to find anything – who put it there, why and when – all is a mystery!

Arriving here in the late afternoon we settled into our room; explored the grounds and took some photos; signed up for a couple of activities the next day; and spent a lovely evening which included an enjoyable and tasty dinner served by candlelight on the flat roof on top of the bar in the pleasantly cooling evening air. The food was excellent, especially the wonderful aubergine curry flavoured with mustard, and very reasonably priced.

A day in Narlai

With just a day in which to enjoy the facilities and activities here we were up fairly early and enjoying breakfast in the restaurant overlooking the main courtyard. Opposite this, on the far side of this courtyard, the hotel has a small shrine which on that morning, a Monday, was the focus for some activity.

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Shrine and village elder

The service at the Rawla Narlai is as attentive as everywhere, and that attentiveness seems to expand to include those living in the surrounding village. Every Monday morning the village elders are invited in for tea and a chat about village matters. I and another hotel guest spotted them while we were at breakfast and we went across to ask permission to take some photos, which was willingly granted. We had in mind to take photos from the courtyard but we were invited up on to the terrace (removing our shoes, of course) where I took these photos.

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Village Elders' meeting

This seems a great custom for the hotel to have introduced, as it helps to ensure good relationships between local community and hotel, and if any problems did arise they can be talked through straight away. Mostly though it seemed to be an excuse for a good gossip and plenty of tea!

A walk in the village

After breakfast we went for a walk in the village with a member of the hotel staff, a local resident. Narlai is a small village with an unusually large number of temples (even by Indian standards). It faces some of the same challenges as rural communities everywhere, with a declining population caused by some younger people drifting away, tempted by big city life and its wider opportunities. But its streets have thriving little shops, mainly catering only to locals; its farmers manage to feed their families and have produce over to sell; its people benefit from the opportunity to work in or for the hotel; and overall it has a more affluent (or more accurately perhaps, a less struggling) character than many other places we went.

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Houses in the village

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Of course you can always walk around on your own (the hotel is right in the middle of the village) but going with a local like this enables you to be invited into some village houses. Although having said that, I was also asked inside one by a woman who, when I asked permission to take a photo, insisted on me coming in so that she could pose with her goat which was clearly a prized possession!

We also went in a few local shops – two clothing, one jewellers (and they were very much local shops, not tourist ones). I was tempted by a gorgeous pink skirt in one but it was so traditional I knew I would probably feel silly wearing it at home! The other woman in our group of four did buy a petticoat which I was pleased about as these local village shops must appreciate the additional custom the hotel brings.

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Village shops

In addition to seeing the general life of the village we made a brief stop at the Lord Shiva temple in a cave right by the hotel. We also saw several other temples, small and larger, which are dotted around the village, including the main Jain temple, Shri Adinath, which has a huge elephant outside and was being restored at the time of our visit.

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Village temple

But the highlight, or rather many highlights, of this walk were the large number of village people who greeted us, willingly posed for photos and generally made us feel very welcome here.

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Villagers in Narlai

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In particular the walk gave us a great opportunity to photograph the colourful traditional dress of Rajasthan, thanks to the openness of the women we met and their willingness to pose for us. This is always very colourful. It consists of an ankle length skirt, a short top (this may just skim the waist or stop higher up, leaving the midriff bare) and a long piece of cloth known as a chunari. This protects them from the heat and is also often used to cover or partly cover the face.

Mehar told us that it is the village daughters-in-law (those who have married into local families and come to live with their husband’s family, as is customary) who are expected to cover their faces, especially in the presence of older relatives, men and strangers. Having said that, many whom we met, here and elsewhere, seemed pretty relaxed about dropping the cloth to say hello, smile and pose for photos etc. I noticed that different colours seem popular in different villages. In some we had passed through the predominant shades were orange and yellow, or red and green, while here in Narlai it was pink, purple and reds for the most part.

The women’s adornments often include a large number of bangles worn on the upper arms. These are usually just of white plastic. It seemed to me that they may be cut from pot lids, although I could be wrong! But wealthier women wear metal, even sometimes gold, bangles.

Regardless of wealth though, it is traditional to wear an elaborate gold decoration in one side of the nose, a tradition that some here still follow even on a regular working day it seems. These nose rings are worn throughout India, with different styles popular in different region. In Rajasthan the most usually worn is the nathni, a large but delicate hoop connected to the hair with a thin chain. The women in my photos below though have a rather more elaborate version of this. I didn’t ask, but maybe it was a special occasion in their family (we met them in the same house).

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We spent the middle part of the day relaxing by, and in, the hotel’s pool and enjoying a light lunch there, before our next activity …

A leopard safari

This is one of several optional excursions offered by Rawla Narlai. It costs 2,000 IR per person and you can choose to go first thing in the morning or late afternoon. We chose the latter and set out at 4.30 PM with a number of other hotel guests in three separate jeeps. They reckon on spotting leopards on about 80% of the trips, so you have a good chance – as you can see from my photos, we were in luck!

The hotel employs some trackers who know the habits and movements of the local leopard population and who go out walking the surrounding area during the day on the lookout for them. If they have a sighting they radio the guides leading the safaris. The leopards tend to stay in one place for some time, so the jeeps have plenty of time to get to the site.

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Tracker on the lookout

On our safari we had headed out of the village to the foot of the nearby Elephant Rock where leopards are apparently often sighted and where one had been seen that morning. We had no sighting here, though we did see some langur monkeys playing on a Jain temple roof. Then the call came – a female leopard with two cubs had been spotted some miles away. We immediately turned back through the village, out on to the main road and headed towards the site where we found the other two jeeps from the hotel already in position, with all eyes, cameras and binoculars trained on the top of a nearby rocky outcrop. There she was! Part-hidden by an outcrop of rock, but definitely there! Her cubs were harder to spot, staying mainly behind the rock, but we did get some glimpses of them too. Of course, being at some distance, it was hard to get great photos, but a few of those I took did come out well enough to at least serve as a record of the experience.

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Leopard on the rocks

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You can just see a cub in this one!

We stayed at this spot for quite a while, taking photos of the leopards, while the hotel guides handed out bottles of water, tea from a flask and sandwiches. As well as the leopards, we saw an antelope and quite a lot of peacocks. There was a hazy sunset which developed into a lovely pearly pink light, and an almost full moon had risen before we finally left and headed back to the hotel. In all the safari lasted about two hours and seemed to us to be very reasonable value for what we had paid – though of course we might feel differently had we not seen any leopards!

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Sunset and moonrise

That evening we ate again at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant – there really isn’t any other option here, but as it serves excellent food at a reasonable price we didn't have a problem with that!

Monkeys at Narlai

On our second (and last) morning at Narlai we woke early. I just happened to be looking out of the window when I spotted movement on a roof top - a monkey. We jumped out of bed and soon saw that it was a whole troop so of course we threw on some clothing, grabbed our cameras and hurried outside. It was a troop of langur monkeys passing through, or rather across, the hotel, stopping at a couple of trees that obviously had fruit that is to their taste. There were several cute babies among them and we took loads of photos as they paused briefly on the roofs before continuing on and into the trees. After about five minutes or so they moved on, and we could see them leaping across the roofs of the village beyond, no doubt heading towards more favourite trees, or to scavenge from rubbish heaps.

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India’s langurs are Grey or Hanuman Langurs (the latter name taken from the Hindu god). They are a pale or yellowish grey with a black face and long tails (up to 100 cm and always longer than their body), and rather attractive, I think. They are considered sacred in the Hindu religion and are therefore less likely to be regarded as pests than the macaques which live in this region too, although they do regularly steal food and crops. Watching them was a lovely way to start our day and ensured one more happy memory to take away from Narlai.

After another good breakfast it was time to say goodbye to Narlai, with some reluctance. There had been no time to climb Elephant Hill at sunrise, no time for dinner at a nearby step well (another of the activities offered by the hotel) and no time for a further wander on our own through the village.

But Ranakpur and Udaipur awaited us …

Posted by ToonSarah 21:47 Archived in India Tagged people animals monkeys india village rajasthan customs narlai street_photography big_cats Comments (7)

The Four-Faced Temple

India day eleven


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Ranakpur

Bidding a somewhat reluctant farewell to the beautiful hunting lodge of Rawla Narlai after breakfast, we were nonetheless eager to see what further wonders Rajasthan had in store for us, and were not to be disappointed. On a wooded hillside in the Aravalli range, north of Udaipur, is an exquisite Jain temple, intricately carved in white marble – Ranakpur, our main objective for the day.

The temple only opens to visitors at midday so we took our time on the drive, stopping from time to time to take photos – women at work in the fields, a troop of lively langur monkeys.

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On the road to Ranakpur

We made a slightly longer stop in Sadri to stretch our legs and take a few photos. It was a few weeks before Diwali and already the flower sellers were out in full force with their garlands of marigolds and other flowers. As everywhere in Rajasthan we found that many people were happy for us to take photos, although a couple of women here said no.

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In Sadri

This is a busy market town and something of a hub for the surrounding rural communities in the Aravalli hills. Many people here are Jains and there are a couple of small temples in town, but it is most notable for its proximity to perhaps the greatest of India's Jain temples at Ranakpur.

Ranakpur is dedicated to the first Jain tirthankar Bhagvan Adinath. It was built in the 15th century and today stands as a monument to the vision of its founder, Dharana Shah, as well as to the skill of the sculptor who designed and created it, Depak, and of course to the devotion of the many Jains who have worshipped here over the centuries and who continue to do so today – this is both historical sight and living place of worship. The main temple n the complex is Chaumukha Mandir, and it was there that we spent most of our time on this visit, as do most people who come here.

Chaumukha Mandir

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Chaumukha Mandir means Four-Faced Temple and it is so-called because it has a four-way symmetry, with four entrances and four identical images of, to whom it is dedicated – each facing in a different direction. The interior consists of 29 interconnecting halls, 80 domes and 1444 individually engraved pillars, no two of which are alike – and it is stunning.

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This Jain temple at Ranakpur is widely considered to be the most beautiful in India, and one of the most important. It was built in the 15th century, inspired by the vision of one Shreshti Dharana Shah, a minister in the court of Kumbha Rana, the ruler of Mewar. A devout Jain, who had taken a vow of lifelong celibacy, Dharana Shah had a dream in which he saw the Nalinigulma Viman, a divine flying chariot mentioned in Jain mythology, and he resolved to build a temple to resemble this heavenly image. He persuaded Rana Kumbha to donate some land and he agreed, encouraged to do so by Acharya Somasundarsuriji his spiritual teacher.

Dharana Shah then set about the search for an architect to bring his vision to reality. Many famous artists and scholars submitted designs, but none was quite right, until a more humble sculptor named Depak presented his ideas. These impressed Dharana Shah and he could see that his vision would be realised by this man, and so their partnership was formed and over the next fifty years the temple constructed, at a cost (it is said) of ten million rupees – a fortune at that time. The result is spectacular, both outside and, especially, within. Each of the 80 separate domes is carved in concentric bands, and the whole building is covered with delicate lace-like carvings and geometric patterns. The brackets connecting the base of the domes with the top are covered with figures of deities.

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Chaumukha Mandir exterior

Visiting the temple

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Entrance to the temple

The temple is reserved for prayer in the mornings so is only open to tourists from midday, closing at 5.00 PM. Entry is free but you must pay 100 IR for photography (the fee is per camera, including phones, so leave any you don’t want to use with your driver if possible). You can also pay 200 IR for an audio guide, which is reasonable given the large amount of interesting information it conveys. You are required to leave photo ID when renting this, so that means handing over your passport. Mehar assured us it would be safe; we were given a receipt and both were returned OK after our visit, thankfully.

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Some rules for visiting

When you visit Ranakpur you are a guest of the Jains and it is only right that they ask you to follow certain rules connected to their beliefs – but there are quite a lot of them, as the sign indicates. The most important ones to be aware of are:

~ dress respectfully, with long trousers or skirts (below the knees) and shoulders covered
~ remove your shoes at the entrance
~ do not wear or carry any leather (belt, wallet, purse etc.) – your driver will look after these if you have one, or you can hire a locker
~ don’t take in any food or drink, even water – again, leave these with your driver or use a locker
~ don’t take any photos of the idols
~ don’t touch any of the carvings
~ women who are menstruating are not allowed to enter (I don’t know whether or how they check this but it would be respectful to obey)
~ pay the fee if you want to take photos, and carry the ticket you’ll be given in case challenged (we weren’t)

Inside the temple

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Inside the temple

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Priest in the temple

When we entered we were approached by a Jain priest who wanted to say a prayer for us. We agreed and he chanted something but then asked for a donation to the temple. Although this seemed not unreasonable, we then realised that every monk was doing the same; however, after we had been seen to refuse the next two who approached us I think they got the message and stopped trying! It was only later that I spotted a line in the leaflet that accompanies the audio guide: “No Tips to Staff”. Nevertheless, it made for a pleasant little encounter and we didn’t resent paying the small tip.

I so loved wandering around in here and taking photos. Remember, you have to pay for that privilege and even so are not allowed to photograph any idols, which are the Buddha-like figures. But there is so much else to keep you and your camera busy – wonderfully carved details on the pillars, hidden corners with unexpected glimpses of the world outside, other visitors (both tourists and worshippers – but be discreet), and more. Although to be honest photos don’t really do this place justice, as it has a special, rather calm atmosphere that has to be experienced first-hand.

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I found the audio guide very helpful and comprehensive – in particular if you want to understand more about what you are seeing and about Jainism. There are 17 numbered stops in all, although I only listened to about half I think. The first few are the most useful in explaining the history of the temple and the religious beliefs that influence its design. After that I played the tape just at those points where something in particular caught my eye or intrigued me.

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Details of carvings

Look out for the dancing goddesses that adorn the pillars, the many representations of the idol or Tirthankara, the large marble elephant statues (well, you won’t miss those!), and especially the marble rock in which over a hundred intertwined snakes have been carved. Taking photos of the latter is strictly forbidden, but you will find plenty of images on the internet from those who have clearly ignored that rule and not been spotted. I won’t collude with their disrespect by posting links, but if you search for “Ranakpur snake heads” you will be rewarded!

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Marble elephants

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Details on pillars

The Jain religion

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We had learned a bit about Jainism when visiting the temples in Jaisalmer Fort a few days previously, but I repeat it here as it really helps to know some of this when visiting here – both to understand what you are seeing and also to explain the reasons for all those rules.

At the heart of Jainism is respect for the welfare of every being in the universe and for the health of the universe itself. Jains believe that animals and plants, as much as human beings, contain living souls that should be equally valued and treated with respect and compassion. Unsurprisingly, Jains are strict vegetarians and live in a way that minimises their use of the world's resources – they were “green” long before most of the rest of the world realised the necessity of conservation. They believe in reincarnation and that the final reward for those who follow the religion’s tenets is an eventual escape from the continuous cycle of birth, death and rebirth to live for ever in a state of eternal bliss. There are no gods – the faithful pray to 24 idols who represent the tirthankaras – people who have achieved that liberation from the cycle of reincarnation and now show the path to others. It is to the first of these, Adinath, that this temple is dedicated. The idols look to the uninitiated a little like Buddha, but you can recognise a Jain idol as it always sits with legs crossed and hands folded while the Buddha may be seen in a wide variety of poses.

Jains follow three guiding principles, known as the “three jewels”: right belief, right knowledge and right conduct. The latter means following the five mahavratas or vows, of which the most important is non-violence and the others non-attachment to possessions, not lying, not stealing, and sexual restraint. There are two major sects: the Digambara (meaning "sky clad" – i.e. naked) sect and the Svetambara (meaning "white clad") sect. The Jains at Ranakpur belong to the latter group.

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White clad Jain in the temple grounds

The Sun temple

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Sun temple detail

There are several smaller temples in the same complex as Chaumukha Mandir – one dedicated to Neminath (the 22nd tirthankar), one to the Parasnath (the 23rd tirthankar) and one to Surya Narayan, the Sun god. At Mehar’s suggestion we visited the latter, which is just a couple of minutes’ walk from the main one, near the entrance to the car park.

This dates originally from the 13th century but was rebuilt in the 15th. It is much smaller than the huge Chaumukha Mandir but is equally intricately carved, this time from white limestone rather than marble. There are dancing goddesses, horses, little elephants, and all sorts of filigree patterns.

You have to remove your shoes to go inside but otherwise there are fewer rules than for the main temple as far as I could tell, and no fee to pay for photography.

By the way, there is also a Hindu temple dedicated to the Sun just to the south of and outside the Jain temple complex. We didn’t visit this but I mention it as I have seen some confusion between the two elsewhere.

The Aravalli Hills

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After some days in the desert it was a surprising and pleasant change to find ourselves among these wooded hills (much as I love deserts). After leaving Ranakpur in particular, to drive south towards Udaipur, the road wound upwards with hairpin bends in a manner reminiscent of a much more northern climate. We stopped at one point to get great views back down the road towards Ranakpur’s many domes and could see then what a wonderful setting this temple has.

The Aravalli range runs south west to north east across much of western India. Its northernmost point is in Delhi, Raisina Hill, where Lutyen’s Presidential Palace stands (see my Delhi entry - Manic traffic, atrocious pollution, endlessly captivating). I hadn’t realised when we were there a week or so before this that I was standing on the last peak of such an ancient chain of mountains. These are very old mountains, no longer growing in height as the tectonic plates beneath them have stopped moving, and have been worn down over the millennia – unlike the much newer Himalayas to the north which are still rising.

We followed the winding roads through the hills towards Udaipur …

Posted by ToonSarah 21:31 Archived in India Tagged temple india rajasthan ranakpur jain Comments (7)

City of lakes

India days eleven and twelve


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Udaipur

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Fateh Sagar

Udaipur was the southernmost point we visited in Rajasthan on this trip – after this we would turn north again towards Delhi. The city’s setting in the Aravalli Mountains, and around a string of man-made lakes, gives it a unique character among Rajasthan’s cities.

You are never far from the water here, so views are often more scenic. Local life focuses to some extent on the lakes, creating a more relaxed vibe than elsewhere, and the city’s efforts to become the cleanest city in India have borne fruit, at least in the centre.

We spent the largest part of our day here exploring the City Palace, an amazing structure which is actually many palaces in one – all piled on top of each other on the eastern shore of the oldest lake, Pichola. We also had time to stroll in one of the oldest streets, visit a temple and some pretty gardens, but not, unfortunately, to take a boat ride on the lake and visit the famous Lake Palace hotel, nor to visit the Monsoon Palace. Another day here would have been good – but I could say the same about almost every place we visited on our tour of Rajasthan!

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Langurs beside the road

We drove to Udaipur from Narlai via Ranakpur, stopping to visit the stunning Jain temple there en route (see my previous entry). We also stopped in a bustling small town, Sadri; drove through the Aravalli Mountains with some beautiful views; and had plenty of chances to photograph the traditional rural Rajasthani way of life. There were oxen pulling ploughs and turning water wheels to irrigate the land (I made a little video of the latter and tipped the woman operating it for her trouble), and men and women (the latter in the most colourful of saris) working in the fields. We also saw several troops of the Langur monkeys whose antics never failed to make me smile!

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Threshing and drawing water

Waterwheel

By the time we arrived in Udaipur it was late afternoon. We checked into our hotel, the Lalit Laxmi Vilas Palace, which lies a little way out of the oldest part of town on the shores of Fateh Sagar, one of the city’s many lakes. This rather grand old hotel is part heritage property, part newer. We had a large room in the newer (cheaper) wing, but with a lovely lake view that more than compensated for any lack of character, and a window seat from which to enjoy it.

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Hotel entrance and our room

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View from our room

While our reception here was welcoming it was also a bit stifling. A friendly girl from reception showed us to our room, and the bell boy followed with the luggage and showed us all the facilities (expecting a good tip, of course) and also explained how we could give feedback and mention him by name. While he was still doing this the phone rang - it was reception wanting to know if we liked our room. And as he left a lady from the spa arrived to tell us that we could book a massage and the prices were displayed in the room (so clearly that we hadn't needed her visit to point this out!) This over-solicitousness continued throughout our stay - for instance, one morning at breakfast three different staff members hovered over us offering to fetch coffee, bread, pancakes etc., despite it being a buffet! While well-meaning it became a bit wearing at times.

One bonus of our stay at the Lalit Laxmi Vilas Palace was the view over Fateh Sagar Lake, especially at sunset. The hotel faces west across the lake and in on a ridge above it, so perfectly positioned to catch the final rays of the sun as it goes down behind the hills on the opposite shore. The hotel makes the most of these, with musical entertainment as the sun sinks and drinks served on the small terrace overlooking the lawns. But with most if not all rooms facing towards the lake, we found we could just as easily enjoy the sight from the comfort of our own room with its strategically positioned window seat!

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Lake view, late afternoon

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Udaipur sunsets

Evening entertainment is provided in the rather incongruous form of bagpipers who played "Scotland the Brave", among other tunes, as the sun set over the hills on the other side of the lake! I just had to make a video of that. Later there was a puppet show and later still the ubiquitous Rajasthani cultural performance.

The hotel has three restaurants. On that first evening we chose to eat in Aangan, which serves Indian food and has outside seating with a view of the lake. The food was OK but the menu very limited as they were having a kebab festival which meant that we were restricted to choosing between a set platter of meat kebabs or one of vegetarian ones, with both of us having to eat the same. Prices though were reasonable (we paid 3,200IR which included three drinks and a three course set meal). A shame, as I think their regular menu would have suited us well and made this a good choice.

On balance we probably liked this hotel among the least of all those we stayed in on this trip. It looks very grand, and has wonderful views - these are its best feature. But it lacks some of the facilities you would expect of a hotel with these pretensions, such as a bar (!) and swimming pool (it would have been better by far to use the lawns for this purpose than to add a third unnecessary restaurant). Also, while I did feel staff really wanted to be helpful, the attentive service felt drilled rather than genuine.

Udaipur's lakes

Arriving in Udaipur it is immediately obvious why it is so often called the “city of lakes”. A string of them runs through its heart and you are never far from water here. All the lakes are interconnected, and you will see different numbers cited, as it seems to depend on whether you count the smallest stretches of water as an actual lake or not. Wikipedia suggests that in total there are three main lakes in the upper catchment area above the city, six lakes within its municipal boundary and one lake downstream. Our guide on the other hand said there were just five in the centre. In practice though you will probably be most aware of just three – Pichola with its famous Lake Palace in the southern part of the city, Fateh Sagar in the more modern northern part, and smaller Swaroop Sagar which links the two.

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Pichola from near the City Palace

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Swaroop Sagar

The lakes are not natural; they are all manmade. Pichola is the oldest, constructed in 1362 and extended in 1560, while Fateh Sagar was added in 1678 and Swaroop Sagar in the mid-19th century. In the past there have been considerable problems with water pollution, caused by poor treatment of sewage, but there have been efforts in recent years to clean up the lakes. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t recommend bathing here. It is possible though to take boat trips on both Pichola and Fateh Sagar, and I wished we would have found time for this during our brief stay.

City Palace

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Most of the next morning was devoted to the building which dominates Udaipur’s old town, the City Palace, which stands on the east bank of Pichola Lake. It was founded by Rana Udai Singh II in 1559 – according to legend he chose this spot on the advice of a hermit who was meditating here and whose blessing he sought. It has been developed and much added to by subsequent generations of maharanas to create what is actually a whole complex of palaces – most sources describe eleven in total. Part of it is still occupied by the Mewar royals, who in today’s democratic India have retained their titles (and wealth) but no power. They run the complex as part tourist attraction / museum, part heritage hotel.

Entrance fees can be confusing as there are many ticket options, depending on which parts of the complex you want to see. Our tour was pre-paid as part of our holiday but if buying your own ticket you’ll want to study the options in advance (not easy, as the official website doesn’t explain them properly!) I did however spot at least one ticket counter part way round the tour where those who wanted to add extra sections could do so.

The publicly accessible parts are something of a rabbit warren of narrow passages, steep stairways, and hidden courtyards. We were very glad we had a guide, although the audio guide you can hire would also be helpful in finding your way and ensuring you don’t miss anything.

You enter the palace either from the south, as we did, climbing up a path with great views of Pichola lake (see above) and passing the private quarters of the maharana, or from the north via the old city and the Badi Pol, the main gate. Either route leads you into the Manek Chowk, a large courtyard with lawns which was created in around 1620.

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City Palace seen from Manek Chowk

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Park your elephant here

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This is the main ceremonial area of the palace and is still used today for royal festivities and public events. The buildings of the palace tower above you on the courtyard’s west side. Near the northern end of the courtyard you will see some large indentations in the ground which our guide explained were where elephants would be tethered (you will get a better view of these later, looking down from above). A large wall in the north west part of the courtyard was used for elephant wrestling – two elephants would stand one each side of the wall and wrestle each other with their trunks (you can see photos of this inside one of the palaces).

On the wall of the palace look out for the large sun – the Mewar maharanas worshipped the sun and would greet it each morning. In the event of cloudy skies, they would greet instead a pure gold sun mounted on an inside wall of the palace, and to encourage the people to do likewise they had this gold plated version mounted here.

From the Manek Chowk you pass through the Toran Pol, with its heavy spiked gates and a wonderful painting on the ceiling of the arch depicting dancing girls.

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Toran Pol

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Ganesh Deodhi

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Glass inlay decoration

One of the first sights of note on our explorations of the City Palace was the Ganesh Chowk, off which is this small statue of Ganesh, the Ganesh Deodhi. It was sculpted in marble in 1620 and is an object of reverence. It is set in a small niche and surrounded by beautiful glass inlay work depicting girls with fans, flowers and vines, peacocks and more.

From here we climbed some steps which led to the Rajya Angan, the earliest courtyard of the palace, built by Rana Udai Singh II in the 16th century. The early coronation ceremonies of the Mewar rulers took place in this courtyard. A room off this courtyard has displays about Pratap Singh and his famous horse, Chetak, who carried his master to safety despite having been shot in the leg during the Battle of Haldighati fought between the Rajputs and Mughals in 1576; once Pratap was safe, Chetak died of his wounds. Chetak is depicted in this model wearing a strange elephant-like truck, which was intended to deter attacks from the battle elephants who were trained to wield swords in their trunks and slash the enemy. It was just such an attack that caused Chetak’s wounds, so we can assume that the disguise was not good enough to fool the elephants on that occasion at least.

Pratap and
Chetak

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From the Rajya Angan we climbed further to the Chandra Mahal which was created by Rana Karan Singh II in the early 17th century as a leisure place for the rulers. In the centre is a large basin carved from a single piece of marble which is thought to have been used during Holi celebrations. It is also said that on the occasion of Karan Singh’s wedding the basin was filled with 100,000 silver coins which were later distributed among the poor of Udaipur. A balcony to one side of the courtyard offers fantastic views of the lake below.

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View from Chandra Mahal

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Wall carving, Chandra Mahal

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Roof detail, Chandra Mahal

The next part of the City Palace that we came to on our tour was the Badi Mahal or Garden Palace (also sometimes known as Amar Vilas after its creator, Rana Amar Singh II). This dates from 1699 and was designed as a summer house. It has a marble basin in the centre and is planted with trees, like a roof garden (we are 30 metres or so above ground level here). Around the edges are terraces with 104 intricately carved marble pillars to support their canopies.

You can get some great views of the town below from here. It was also from here that my photo (above) of the elephant tethering pits in the Manek Chowk was taken.

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In the Badi Mahal

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Badi Mahal windows and view

From here we descended (I think!) past a room which displayed paintings of court life to one of the most ornate rooms, the Kanch ki Burj. Like the Chandra Mahal this dates from the reign of Rana Karan Singh II. Its walls are covered with red zig-zag mirrors (a 19th century addition) and it has some beautiful tile-work and a mirrored dome.

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Kanch ki Burj

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Continuing our tour we came next to the Badi Chitrashali Chowk, a square courtyard built during the reign of Rana Sangram Singh II (1710-1734). This space was used for music and dance performances, and was another of my favourites. It is decorated with blue tiles imported from China and windows of brightly coloured glass in which it is possible to frame a photo of the city below.

Beyond lies a terrace which provides another good spot for views - the city from one side, and Lake Pichola from the other. You can also look down into Manek Chowk and get a more detailed look at some of its features less easily visible from ground level, such as the statue of Ganesh in my photo below. There were a lot of visitors here all jostling to get the best photos so you may have to be patient!

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Views from the Badi Chitrashali Chowk of the city and of Manek Chowk

From here, steps lead down to the Moti Mahal or Pearl Palace, its walls covered in mirrors and coloured glass. This is another of Karan Singh II’s additions – he seems to have liked rich colours and ornamentation. He was also responsible for the Manek Mahal or Ruby Palace which lies on the far side of the Mor Chowk.

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Moti Mahal

We passed then through a succession of rooms, the names of which I didn't always note although my camera was kept busy!

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We came at last to one of the City Palace's most photographed and acclaimed areas, the Mor Chowk. This is arguably the most beautiful of the palace’s many delights. Some other parts are more colourful, and it lacks the views of other courtyards, but its decorative elements are among the most exquisite and it has a pleasing uniformity of design. The stand-out features are the five mosaics of peacocks, commissioned by Rana Sajjan Singh in 1874. Each is made from about 5,000 pieces of coloured glass and stones. They are protected by windows so hard to photograph without reflections, but I got my most successful image by putting my lens right against the glass to capture the intricacies of the work – each fine strand of the feathers is a separate shard of green glass, for instance.

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Although easy to overlook when focusing on the peacocks, the rest of the courtyard is also beautifully decorated, especially at the upper levels.

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Upper levels of the Mor Chowk

At this point I confess I started to tire and although I took more photos of the remaining rooms and palaces these were mostly of small details that caught my eye, and at times I omitted to note where we were exactly within the complex!

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Manek Mahal

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Details - door, painting, lamp

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Detail of carved wall

I have written a lot about the City Palace and shared lots of photos, and yet this was not all we saw here! It’s an amazing place and you could quite easily spend the best part of a day here. As it was, we were here for several hours and still missed things I am sure.

City Palace Road

After our visit to the City Palace we took a walk along this road which I found held a wealth of fascinating activity and photo opportunities. Udaipur prides itself on being among the cleanest of Indian cities, and while that cleanliness seems only to apply to the very centre (we saw the ubiquitous rubbish heaps everywhere else) it was definitely in evidence here. There was also perhaps less traffic than we had become used to in the cities we visited, at least at the top end of the street, making it easier to find the best position for a photo. But as everywhere we found locals happy to see our cameras and for the most part to be included in our shots, when they realised this was the case.

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This was also a good place to find local crafts, and although I didn't buy anything here (we stopped later in the day in a cooperative where I got a lovely cushion cover however), I did enjoy photographing the many puppets on display. Some of the shop signs raised a smile and made for good photos too.

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Jagdish Temple

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Where City Palace Road becomes Jagdish Temple Road there is the large Hindu temple that gives the latter street its name, perched somewhat incongruously (or so it seemed to me) above a row of shops. This was built in 1651/2 by Rana Jagat Singh, and is dedicated to one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu, Jagannath. A black stone image of him stands inside, carved from a single stone (no photos allowed here), and around this central shrine are four more dedicated to Lord Ganesh, the Sun god, the goddess Shakti and Lord Shiva. A brass image of Garuda (the half-bird, half-man vehicle of Lord Vishnu), stands in a separate shrine in front of the temple. Outside every surface is decorated with carvings – elephants of all sizes, lions, images of Vishnu, scenes from the life of Krishna, dancing nymphs and all sorts of geometric and floral shapes.

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Jagdish Temple

Sahelion Ki Bari

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These pretty gardens dotted with fountains are a peaceful oasis in this busy city. The name means “Courtyard of the Maidens” and commemorates a group of 48 young female attendants who accompanied a princess to Udaipur as part of her dowry. The garden was laid out by Rana Sangram Singh in the early part of the 18th century. It is said that he created it for his queen and these 48 companions, to give them somewhere to relax away from the court.

Although not large, there is quite a lot to see here, with several distinct parts to the garden. Near the entrance are lawns, and a square walled garden with a large pond in the centre of which is a pretty white marble chhatri. Water is something of a theme here – there are several other pools and numerous fountains ornamented with cranes and other birds, as well as elephants. A later Maharana, Bhupal Singh, added a group of rain fountains whose sound is designed to mimic rainfall (a rare treat in this desert state). Some fountains in the gardens play constantly, while others are activated by clapping your hands nearby.

There are also plenty of flowers, including oleander and bougainvillea. Some of the fountains were imported from England and the gardens show an English landscaping influence in places, just as English gardens of that period were often influenced by Indian styles.

There is a small entry fee (our guide paid so I’m not sure what this was) but the outer lawns are accessible free of charge and are a popular picnicking spot for locals.

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Fountains of Sahelion Ki Bari

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Gardeners

From here we drove back to Fateh Sagar, the lake a little to the north of the centre, where we stopped for lunch at a lakeside hotel. Later we stopped on a bridge over Swaroop Sagar which had super views in both directions. We could see locals washing their clothes at the water’s edge and had a good distant view of the Monsoon Palace. We met some local school boys too, keen to pose for photos!

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At Swaroop Sagar

We also visited the crafts cooperative where I bought my pretty cushion cover, before returning to the hotel to relax and catch up with emails etc. It was then that I wished that the hotel had used its extensive grounds for a swimming pool rather than a third restaurant!

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But after another lovely sunset it was in that third restaurant that we ate our dinner. This is the Garden Grill. Its tables are set out among the trees and there is a nice view of the palace that houses the hotel, but not of the lake. Service was again stiflingly over-attentive (we were the only guests dining there as the hotel was quiet that night) and the food, which is "multi-cuisine" but all quite spicy (think Cajun chicken and Indonesian satay), was merely average. But we enjoyed the setting and the birds (stilts, I believe) that wandered the lawns between the tables. A full moon rose over the hotel palace and made a lovely backdrop to our final evening in Udaipur.

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Tomorrow we would turn our sights northwards again ...

Posted by ToonSarah 12:25 Archived in India Tagged buildings people india palace garden udaipur rajasthan street_photography Comments (7)

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