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A Raiput capital

India day thirteen


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It was an apologetic Mehar who greeted us this morning – for the first time on the trip he had been unable to fill up with petrol the previous evening so we would have to stop on our way out of Udaipur. Of course this didn’t bother us in the slightest as it was a matter of minutes to stop at the petrol station and it gave me an opportunity to photograph more of India’s colourful lorries.

Our destination today was Bundi, but on the way we would visit the hilltop fort of Chittaurgarh, which occupies a prime position on a ridge of land above the modern day town of Chittor. From there a winding road ascends beneath seven gates to enter the fort. Inside are temples, palaces and towers, in various states of repair and many covered in beautiful and fascinating carvings. And all have a story to tell.

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Part of the fort from the ramparts

Chittaurgarh, or Chittorgarh as it is sometimes written, is the largest fort in India and indeed in the whole of Asia. From the 8th century, when it was built, to the 10th, and again from the 13th to the 16th, when it was finally abandoned after Akbar successfully laid siege to it, this fort was the capital of the kingdom of Mewar. The tales of battles fought here, of heroism and sacrifice, still resonate in the hearts of Indians it seems, although they are not much told outside the country and relatively few foreign tourists visit the fort. That is a pity, as it has a special atmosphere very different to the other forts on the tourist trails such as Jaisalmer or Agra’s Red Fort, owing in part at least to its more ruined state.

The three most significant events during the fort’s history were all sieges. The first was led by Allaudin Khilji, his eyes on Queen Padmini of Chittaur, in 1303 A.D. The second, in 1535, was led by Bahadur Shah of Gujurat, and the third in 1568 by the Mughal emperor Akbar. On all three occasions the women of the court committed Jauhar, mass immolation, rather than be seized and no doubt raped by the invading army. It is the bravery of these women, as well as the men who resisted the attacks, that has made Chittaurgarh such a byword for heroism among Indians.

We had been told in Jaisalmer that it was the only still-occupied fort in India, a fact that you will read in many sources. But when we came to Chittaurgarh we found that here too people still make their homes, in a village at the northern end of the fort. On arriving inside the fort, Mehar drove us to this village, as our guide lived there. We were later told that it had a population of about 5,000, living in this small area of the fort to which, under its UNESCO listed status (as part of a group of six Rajasthan hill forts which also includes Jaisalmer and Jaipur), residential occupation is restricted.

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Village temple and resident

We only saw a little of the village, which seemed to me at the same time unremarkable and yet extremely so – an ordinary-looking Rajasthani village in this very extraordinary setting. A sprinkling of temples, a variety of houses (a few quite smart, the rest less so, many painted Brahmin blue and all pretty old), cows and pigs wandering the streets …

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More residents!

Padmini Haveli

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The guide arranged for us by our tour company, Parvati Sukhwal, is a resident of the village in the fort, where she runs this guesthouse with her husband. She met us on arrival and welcomed us in her home with great Italian coffee (easily the best cup of coffee I had while in India) and a chance to use one of the guest bathrooms to freshen up after our drive. This gave me a chance to see one of the bedrooms as well as the public areas, so although we didn’t stay here I could see that while it is a fairly simple guesthouse, it is clearly run with a great deal of care and pride and in a very nicely restored haveli. The rooms are all en suite and vegetarian meals are available. Parvati in fact invited us back for a lunch of tomato soup and we would have loved to have accepted but we had our own accommodation already booked some distance away in Bundi and knew we would have to leave straight after our visit to the fort to get there on time.

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In the haveli

The guesthouse is run in partnership with a Swiss couple who live in Europe but visit frequently (that explains the good coffee!), and employs a number of local people. Both Parvati and her husband are qualified guides and offer tours of the fort and other nearby sights. But although she was supposed to be our guide, she explained that she had only recently had a baby and rather than leave him had arranged for her nephew to show us around. He was relatively young and I wasn’t sure at first whether he would make a good replacement, but I needn’t have worried. He proved to be one of the best guides we had in Rajasthan – very knowledgeable about the fort and the many stories associated with it, speaking good English and never rushing us when we wanted to take photos.

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Our guide (drawing a plan of the fort for us)

Our tour started by the reservoir in front of the Shiva Temple. Chittaurgarh is also sometimes referred to as the “Water Fort” because 40% of its area was given over to water bodies including ponds, reservoirs and wells. There were once 84 in total and together they held enough water to supply the fort for four years, meeting the water needs of an army of 50,000.

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Reservoir with temple beyond

Of these, 22 still remain. At our young guide’s suggestion, we stopped on the road that runs along the east side of the fort, which is relatively untravelled (most visitors stay around the “big” sights on the west side), for views of this reservoir. Beyond it is a Shiva temple dating from the 15th century. This location is not far from the inhabited village area and as you can see some locals use it for clothes washing. The combination of ancient temple and present-day activity made it a great photo stop, and having it to ourselves was a bonus.

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Washing clothes at the Shiva Temple

Jain Tower and Temple

This is one of two similar ornately carved towers at Chittaurgarh, and is located on the east side of the fort (the other, the Victory Tower, is on the west side – we will see it later). Also known as the Tower of Fame, or Kirti Stambh, this was built by a wealthy Jain merchant, Jijaji Rathod, in the 12th century.

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Jain Tower

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Details of carvings on the tower

The tower is 22 metres high and is dedicated to Adinathji, the 1st Jain Teerthankar, and the carvings include naked Thirthankar figures – their nakedness indicating that the tower is associated with the Digambars (a Jain sect known as the “sky-clad” who do not believe in covering the natural body) There are also some rather appealing elephants. The little pavilion at the top was added in the 15th century.

Next to the tower is a small Jain temple which we went inside. The tower is a place of pilgrimage for Jains and this temple is still active. Some websites label pictures of this as the “Meera Temple” but I believe that this is a different temple on the other side of the complex, near the larger Khumbh-Shyam Temple.

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Jain Temple

Suraj Pol

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Suraj Pol

Arriving in the fort from the town of Chittor, which lies on its west side, you will pass through a series of seven gates: Padan Pol, Bhairon Pol, Hanuman Pol, Ganesh Pol, Jodla Pol, Laxman Pol and the main entry gate, Ram Pol (Lord Rama’s Gate). But here on the east there is another impressive gate or “pol”, which is known as the Sun Gate or Suraj Pol because of this location. The heavy wooden gates are studded with iron spikes (just visible on the left side of my photo) to repel attack by elephants.

From this vantage point you have a great view of the plain below. Today this is peaceful farmland, with a small village also called Suraj Pol, after the gate. But in the past this was the site of many bloody battles, as the warriors of Chittaurgarh rode out to face their enemies and were often slaughtered. In the regular battles between Mughal invaders and Rajput rulers here, the Rajputs would do anything to avoid being captured alive and enslaved or tortured, so they would ride to their deaths rather than continue to resist the siege when defeat became inevitable – this practice was known as the saka. For the same reason the women would practice jauhar, mass immolation, along with their children – since the Mughals were believed to rape even the bodies of dead women.

Chittaurgarh is renowned for the three major acts of jauhar committed here, after defeat in three sieges. The first of these was led by Allaudin Khilji in 1303, the second in 1535 by Bahadur Shah of Gujurat, and the third in 1568 by the Mughal emperor Akbar.

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View from Suraj Pol

Adbhutnath Temple

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Three-faced Shiva

This seems to be another of the less visited sights in the fort and we had it to ourselves when our guide brought us here. It dates from the 12th century and is dedicated to Shiva – or rather, was dedicated to Shiva; it is now in ruins and many of its carvings defaced, so it is no longer considered holy, according to our guide. Nevertheless, it holds a beautiful image of the three faces of Shiva. A three-faced Shiva like this is known as Trimurti. The heads show him in his three forms: creation, protection, and destruction. In Hindu belief, Brahma is the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. His role is to preserve the balance of the universe through destruction in order to generate renewal.

By the way, and to avoid any confusion, the Samidheswar Mahadev Temple nearer the Victory Tower also has a three-faced Shiva which you will see photos of more often than this one, as it is more visited.

There are good views from here of the Victory Tower which we will visit shortly.

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Defaced carvings

Padmini Palace and Jal Mahal

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Padmini Palace and Jal Mahal

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Jal Mahal from the palace

Perhaps the most visited and photographed of Chittaurgarh’s many ruins is this, Padmini’s Palace. This is due as much to the story of Padmini as it is to the building itself.

Maharani Padmini was the wife of Rana Ratan Singh, and very beautiful. Hearing of her beauty Ala-ud-din Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi, laid siege to Chittaurgarh hoping to capture her. After seven months of siege, when those inside the fort were close to collapse, Ala-ud-din proposed to spare them if he could be granted one glimpse of Padmini. Ratan Singh agreed but didn’t permit a direct look. Instead a mirror was placed here in the building today known as Padmini’s Palace, while she sat on the steps of the small building in the lake, the Jal Mahal. Pretending himself to be satisfied, Ala-ud-din Khilji asked Ratan Singh to accompany him to the gate of the fort to see him off, and as the Rajputs were unused to subterfuge, Singh agreed.

Of course it was a trap, and he was captured by the Sultan’s army. Again Ala-ud-din proposed a deal – if Padmini would agree to go with him, her husband would be released. So she hatched a plan, agreeing to go with Singh only if her entourage of servants and companions could accompany her, as befitted a queen. Her wish was granted, but the palanquins that went with her to the gates of the fort held not maidservants but soldiers, who attacked the invading troops. Defeated Ala-ud-din retreated – only to return again the following year with more and better soldiers.

This time Chittaurgarh could not hold out and the Rajputs were overpowered. Their warriors died on the battlefield and Padmini led the women of the fort into the burning pyres in the first of the three acts of Jauhar to be performed here.

The other instances of Jauhar followed the two sieges of 1528 and 1568. Although similar to the practice of Sati, which we had heard so much about in Jaisalmer, it differs from it in that in the latter a widow or concubine committed suicide as a sign of devotion to her dead husband and grief at his death, while Jauhar was usually a mass act and was motivated by a desire to avoid being captured and raped by the invading Muslims – that is, to prevent something happening rather than a response to something that had happened.

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Jal Mahal detail

On the ramparts

This was another spot that our young guide led us to, which we would never have found on our own. About half way between Padmini Palace and the Victory Tower a path leads off to the left (if driving north) through a grey kissing gate. You walk across some scrubby ground for about five minutes and at the end climb on to the wall. If you then walk right for about 100 metres, you will get excellent views of the modern town of Chittor below and several of the fort buildings.

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View from the ramparts

Victory Tower

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Victory Tower

The Victory Tower or Vijaya Stambha rivals the Padmini Palace as the most visited and photographed sight in Chittaurgarh, and here you will certainly encounter the crowds. But as it is one of an impressive group of buildings, that is hardly surprising.

The tower is 37.19 metres high and was built by Maharana Kumbha in 1448 to commemorate his victory over Mahmud Shah I Khalji, the Sultan of Malwa, eight years earlier. It is part of red sandstone and part white marble, and is carved with images of gods and goddesses, seasons, weapons, musical instruments etc. Although we didn’t do so, it is possible to climb its nine stories and the views of the fort must be great from the top.

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Victory Tower details

Also in this part of the fort are several temples, including the Kalika Mata Temple which was built in the 8th century as a Sun temple but destroyed in the 14th century siege by Ala-ud-din Khilji. It was restored and rededicated to the Goddess Kali. Nearby is a partly ruined temple that frames the tower for good photos.

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Victory Tower from ruined temple

These temples look down on a garden that marks the spot where, according to our guide, some of the famous acts of Jauhar were carried out. Beyond is the Samadhishwar Temple dedicated to Shiva which dates from the 11th century and was renovated in 1428. Like the Adbhutnath Temple it contains an image of Trimurti Shiva, that is, three-faced, but we didn’t go in as we were running out of time at this point if we were to reach Bundi that afternoon.

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Samadhishwar Temple

The monkeys of Chittaurgarh

On the path leading to and from the Victory Tower we encountered a large troop of langur monkeys. They were totally unafraid of people, being obviously very accustomed to the attentions of passing tourists. Consequently, I got my best monkey photos of the whole trip here!

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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). I found them very attractive, with expressive faces and the tail curled rather elegantly. They are increasingly moving away from their natural habitats, which include forests, mountains and grasslands, to more urban environments. They are considered sacred in the Hindu religion and are therefore less likely to be regarded as pests than macaques, although they do regularly steal food and crops.

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This was also one of the spots on this trip where we found ourselves starring in other people’s photos, as a group of visiting school boys were all keen to pose with us here. In the end we had to turn down their requests as we knew we still had some distance to drive to reach Bundi that afternoon …

Posted by ToonSarah 18:34 Archived in India Tagged buildings monkeys temple ruins india fort rajasthan Comments (6)

“The work of goblins”

India days thirteen and fourteen


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Bundi

“The Palace of Bundi, even in broad daylight, is such a palace as men built for themselves in uneasy dreams, the work of goblins rather than of men.”

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View of the town from the palace

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House in Bundi

So said Rudyard Kipling of Bundi, contrasting it with other parts of Rajasthan (“Jaipur Palace may be called the Versailles of India…Jodhpur’s House of strife, grey towers on red rock, is the work of giants …”). And yes, Bundi’s palace did for me have a special charm of its own, due in part (ironically) to its somewhat dilapidated condition in comparison to the other forts we visited.

We only spent one night in Bundi, en route between Udaipur and Rathambore, but I found myself wishing it had been longer as I loved this little town and the cosy haveli where we stayed. We had time to explore the palace and to take a couple of short walks in the centre of town, but not to visit the fort that sits even higher than the palace, nor to see as much of the town as I would have liked.

The appeal of Bundi for me was two-fold – the sprawling, ill-kept but highly photogenic palace, with its fabulous paintings; and the equally photogenic old town with its blue-painted houses, temples and lively activity. But I am getting ahead of myself …

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On the road to Bundi

We arrived in Bundi late afternoon, after a morning spent exploring Chittaurgarh. With so much to see there we had to press on a bit during the afternoon to get to Bundi at a reasonable hour. In fact, our optimistic tour company had booked a tour of the palace there for us that afternoon, but Mehar rang the local office and was able to rearrange that for the next morning. We were grateful to him and to the guide who made himself available straight after breakfast that next day so that we could see the palace properly.

But again I run ahead of myself! We were on the road to Bundi … and while we didn’t make any further stops after the visit to Chittaurgarh I did manage to grab some photos of life on the road as we passed – more of the colourful lorries I so enjoyed seeing in Rajasthan, a woman leading her bullocks, and the usual over-laden trucks and bikes.

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Hotel entrance

On arriving in Bundi, Mehar drove us to the old town where a member of staff from our hotel, Bundi Vilas, was waiting to escort us. This is a small family-run heritage hotel in a 300 year old haveli in Bundi's old town, located immediately below the palace. It is a lovely, characterful place to stay, although not for anyone with walking difficulties – access is via a steep alleyway, which explained the escort as driving up to the door would be impossible. Hotel staff were also sent running to fetch our bags, for which we were very grateful, as even once through the door there are several flights of equally steep stairs to be climbed to reach the reception desk, and yet more to access the rooms.

It is worth the climb however! There are just seven rooms and I imagine they would all have the historic atmosphere that ours did - old stone pillars, carved screens and niches, attractive old wooden doors. You can really feel the history that seeps out of these old stones.

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Terrace by our room

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Our lovely room

But that history does not necessitate the sacrifice of modern comforts. We had an en-suite with large shower, wet-room style, and air conditioning. OK you have to wait five minutes when you shower before the hot water comes through (a quirk of the solar energy used) but you have a selection of toiletries, large thick towels, and a hair-dryer. Don't expect a TV or mini-bar though, although there is reasonable free wifi. Our room overlooked an internal courtyard so had no real view, although we could see the palace ramparts to our right. But the internal décor made up for the lack of view outside, and besides, with only one night here we were unlikely to spend much time in the room other than to sleep.

Nawal Sagar

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Nawal Sagar, evening light

We had arrived in Bundi with about an hour of daylight left so although the palace had by now closed we were at least able to go out for a stroll round the old streets. So we grabbed our cameras and headed out to retrace the short distance back to Nawal Sagar, which we had driven past on our journey to our hotel. This is a large square-ish artificial lake on the edge of the old town. There is a temple dedicated to Varuna, the Vedic god of water, half-submerged in the middle of the lake. You can get wonderful reflections in it waters of the palace and surrounding town. We found these reflections were at their best in the late afternoon when we first visited, as when we stopped here again the next morning there was more haze and more movement on the water.

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Views of the palace from the lakeshore

This is a great place for photography. In the evening locals were washing their clothes at its edges, and despite the lake water looking rather dirty, with rubbish floating in it, it must be clean enough to sustain fishes as there were lots of birds around the edges – egrets of different kinds, herons, cormorants. The only downside was that at this time of day the lake also attracts little biting flies – this was one of only two places on our trip where I was bitten.

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By the lakeshore

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Egrets and heron

Suraj Pole

The stretch of road between our hotel and the lake is Suraj Pole (Fort Street), and it proved a good spot for some street photography. There are some lovely, if somewhat dilapidated, houses:

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A beautifully painted doorway

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Wall paintings on a guest-house

As in so many other places too, I found many locals happy to be included in my shots (and perhaps more so as this is a relatively small and less-visited place, compared with, for instance, Udaipur or Jaipur). The tailor in the left-hand photo below saw me and my camera and looked up to pose, and the young girl on the right called out to me to take her photo when she spotted me taking pictures of a colourful doorway below the roof where she stood. When I turned my camera towards her she pulled this cheeky face!

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On Fort Street

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More images from Fort Street

We had pre-booked dinner at the haveli, which proved to be an excellent choice. This meal is served on the rooftop (weather permitting) at a time to suit guests. It is a set vegetarian meal, and judging by what we had, delicious. You will be asked in advance if you like spicy food or not, so there's no need to worry on that score – we said that we did, yet found it less spicy than some dishes we eat regularly at home.

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Palace at night from the hotel roof

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View from the breakfast terrace

We were welcomed onto the rooftop with an offer of drinks - beer, wine, gin and tonic. We enjoyed these while taking in the fabulous view of the illuminated palace and watching the bats flit overhead. To accompany the drinks we were given tasty vegetable pakoras. The dinner itself consisted of a fresh vegetable soup, followed by a selection of dishes - crispy vegetables, paneer cooked in a spicy tomato and garlic sauce, potatoes with peas, a yellow lentil dahl and Basmati rice. There was also sesame naan bread. Desert was a single ball of Gulab Jamon, rich and syrupy. Service was friendly and attentive and the cost very reasonable - just 700IR per person for all that food (extra for drinks of course)

The next day

We were woken early the next morning by the discovery that the courtyard overlooked from our room (and probably most of the buildings in Bundi) seemed to be a regular thoroughfare for the resident monkeys, who scampered through in search of food, sending a metal pot tumbling noisily to the ground and calling to each other!

Our breakfast was served one floor below the rooftop, on an open-sided terrace with views of the town. There was cereal and fresh fruit (we had banana and papaya), juice, tea or coffee, eggs cooked to order, toast and home-made jams. We had a busy day planned, with a visit to the palace to be followed by our drive to Ranthambore and a safari booked for the afternoon, so we couldn’t linger over this as much as we would have liked. Our host ensured we were served promptly and later saw us off with a friendly gesture of free postcards of Bundi, as well as making sure we had help to carry our bags back down those stairs and down the narrow lane to the car.

I can thoroughly recommend a stay at Bundi Vilas as providing a great combination of historic character and good value!

Bundi Palace

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Approaching the palace

With just a few hours for sightseeing here our main focus was on seeing the palace and it didn’t disappoint. Also known as Garh Palace, Bundi Palace was home to the rulers of Bundi for centuries, although the present king Ranjeet Singh lives in Delhi. Construction was started under Raja Rao Ratan Singh who ruled here 1607-1631, and the palace was added to in piecemeal fashion by his successors - something that is very obvious as you wander around.

Our guide told us that current ownership of the palace is disputed between two family members (the Michelin guide says the maharaja and his sister) following disagreements about inheritances. It was shut up completely between 1948 and 2000, and although now open to the public for visits, it has never been properly restored after those years of neglect, because neither family member will take responsibility for this until certain that they are spending money on property they own. Many bemoan this air of neglect, and certainly it is sad to see that many of the beautiful wall paintings here have suffered damage (some deliberate, some the result of time and weathering). But on the whole I found it was this very dilapidation that gave Bundi Palace a special atmosphere and made it stand out from other such places we had visited in Rajasthan.

You approach the palace via a steep cobbled path (be careful, as the stones are worn and quite slippery) which leads from a small parking area.

Bundi Palace: Hathi Pol

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Hathi Pol

Halfway up the path turns back on itself and you soon find yourself passing beneath the Elephant Gate or Hathi Pol. This is probably the most dramatic of several such gates we had seen on our travels, with two massive elephant statues high above it, reaching towards each other, their trunks entwined. As you pass through look up to see the marvellous ceiling painting and note the huge spikes on the wooden doors designed to deter charging elephants.

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Ceiling of Hathi Pol, and iron spikes

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Looking back out through Hathi Pol

Bundi Palace: Diwan-i-Am and Ratan Daulat

Once through the great gate you arrive in a large courtyard, the Ratan Daulat. This was built by Raja Rao Ratan Singh, as part of his original palace, and had stabling for nine horses.

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Looking up at the Diwan-i-Am from the Ratan Daulat

Above the stables, and looking down on the courtyard from the opposite side to the gate, is the Hall of Public Audience or Diwan-i-Am. To reach this you must climb the first of what will be several flights of steps. It is an open-sided pillared hall with a white marble throne overlooking the courtyard below. Here the maharaja would hear supplications from his people or address them on state occasions. The throne is ornately carved with elephants (something of a decorative motif here) but the rest of the hall is fairly plain apart from some wall paintings at each end.

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In the Diwan-i-Am

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Wall paintings and throne (from below)

Bundi Palace: Hall of Private Audience and private apartments

On a level above the Hall of Public Audience is that of Private Audience (every fort and palace we visited in Rajasthan had these two halls). Its most distinctive feature are the elephants that ornament the top of each of its many pillars – four elephants to each pillar, facing in each of four directions. I loved these, and they give the hall its alternative name, Hathiyasal or Elephant Hall.

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Elephant pillars

Facing this hall across an open courtyard is the Chhatra Mahal, the private apartment of the king, which was added by Raja Rao Chhatra Shabji in 1644. This has some interesting wall paintings, albeit rather damaged – by weathering, and I suspect disrespectful tourists, also probably the many monkeys who are left to roam freely through the palace. They are still worth seeing however, and include some scenes from the life of Krishna and colourfully painted ceiling beams.

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Looking out from the Chhatra Mahal

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In the Chhatra Mahal: wall and ceiling paintings

From the courtyard that lies between these two halls you get marvellous views of the town below and Nawal Sagar beyond. Incidentally, the building immediately below the walls with the chequered floor tiles on its flat roof is our hotel, and it was on that roof that we’d enjoyed a delicious dinner the previous evening. The photo at the top of this entry was also taken from this spot.

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View of the town

Above this level lie separate quarters for the king and the queens, the Phool Mahal and Badal Mahal, which unfortunately we weren’t able to visit. I understand that these are usually locked, but if you find them open (or find a guide willing to open them for you) they are well worth seeing for their painted ceilings.

Bundi Palace: hanging garden

Between the privately owned areas of the palace and the government-run Chitrashala is this small pretty garden courtyard, added by Raja Rao Ummed Singh in the 18th century. It was designed as a place for leisure and relaxation for the ladies of the court. Its sunken pool allowed them to bathe in its cool waters in reasonable privacy, before relaxing on the stone steps and thrones around its edges.

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The hanging garden

There are wonderful views from here of the Taragarh Fort on the hillside above, as well as of the town below. It’s also a good place to orientate yourself within the palace, as you can see some of the lower buildings through which we have just passed below you on the right, and the remainder around and above.

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View of Taragarh Fort, and of the town below

Bundi Palace: the Chitrashala

A highlight of our tour of Bundi Palace was this, the last part that we visited, the Chitrashala or Painting Gallery, also known as the Ummed Mahal (named for Raja Rao Ummed Singh who added it in the 18th century). Unlike the rest of the palace it is run by the Indian government (under the Archaeological Survey of India) and is consequently somewhat better maintained.

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The Chitrashala

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The whole of this pavilion is covered with paintings and is fabulous! Bundi is one of the few cities in India to have developed its own unique painting style. The “Bundi School” lasted from the 17th to the end of the 19th century. The most popular themes were hunting and court scenes, festivals and processions, court life, romantic tales, animals and birds, and scenes from the life of Lord Krishna. It was influenced by Mughal and Mewar styles but was, our guide pointed out, unusual in depicting figures in profile – most Indian paintings of that time show them face forwards. Other distinctive features include lively movement, dramatic skies and a unique way of depicting water with light swirls against a dark background.

I found more information about the Bundi School on this website: Bundi School of Art, from which I have copied the following extract:

“Colourful glimpses of history are provided by these paintings depicting hunting and court scenes, festivals, processions, animal and bird life, and scenes from the Raagmala and Raaslila -- Lord Krishna's life story. Also, courtly luxuriance and prosperity have been exhibited, major themes being young princesses looking into a mirror, plucking flowers and playing musical instruments. Graceful, well-proportioned bodies and sharp features bring out the elegance of the female figure. The gestures of the subjects of the paintings express more than their looks.

A study of the paintings revealed that the painters were masters of their brush strokes and the chiaroscuro of light and shade. The lines are mainly serpentine and circular in character. They were developed to capture complex and intense emotions. The deep brush marks add life to the clouds, trees, cascades, lotus flowers and flowing streams in the paintings. There is use of characteristic shades of blue, green and maroon reflecting the verdant greenery of the region, while bright colours are seen in the borders with red prominently appearing in the background. These paintings are made in gouache, an opaque watercolour that requires less preparation than oil. From a local Bundi artist we learnt that the colours used by the artists of miniatures were made from minerals, vegetables, precious stones, indigo, conch shells, pure gold and silver. The preparation and mixing of colour was an elaborate process and took weeks, sometimes months, to get the desired results. Very fine, specially created brushes were made for different kinds of paintings.”

The examples of Bundi School paintings here in the Chitrashala, which date from 1773 to 1821, are considered to be among the best. They are painted to a consistent colour scheme – green for backgrounds, white for human bodies and red, blue, black and yellow for traditional dresses. Every surface is covered, including the ceiling. Our guide pointed out some of the most interesting paintings, some of which I photographed:

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Animals fighting: an elephant and bull are fighting but the artist has very cleverly painted a single head which serves as that of both animals

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Lord Krishna: Lord Krishna is holding up Mount Govardhan and using it as an umbrella to protect the earth from the storms raging overhead caused by Indra, the god of thunder and rain. His defeat of Indra is celebrated in the Govardhan Puja festival, the day after Diwali.

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Picture map: A sort of map of Lord Krishna’s birthplace, Mathura. We were to pass through here a couple of days later on the train from Sawai Madhopur to Delhi, when our companion in the compartment pointed out the significance of the town

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Figures in profile

The streets of Bundi

Following our visit to the palace our local guide suggested that we might enjoy a walk with him in the town as he had spotted our keenness for photography – and of course we were quick to agree.

The original name for Bundi was Bundi-ka-Nal; “Nal” means narrow ways, and the name is still fitting today. And a stroll around these streets is a photographer’s delight! On the evening of our arrival we had explored a bit of Suraj Pole, between our hotel and the Nawal Sagar lake, but today’s stroll took us along Sadar Bazaar Road towards the eastern end of the old town. Both were equally fruitful in terms of photos, although the latter was more lively (and not just because of the time of day).

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Locals in Bundi

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Temple shrine to Ganesh

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These cheerful-looking vehicles are used to broadcast music during wedding and festival processions – I had seen quite a few on the roads as we travelled and was glad of the chance to get a good photo of this one parked on Sadar Bazaar Road

There were several signs here that really made me smile, mainly outside the restaurants. We didn’t eat at the Tom and Jerry restaurant (near our haveli on Suraj Pole - why eat pizza when you’re in India?!) and I would be surprised if it really is the “best food in Bundi”, but that sign, with its challenge to other inferior pizza places, did win my prize for “most amusing notice”!

The Ringo Star’s restaurant sign keeps it simple, with just a list of meals served, but I had to wonder if the former Beatle knows that there is a restaurant named after him in this remote Rajasthani town (even if the last “r” has been omitted from the surname). Another restaurant near the palace also caught my eye as I puzzled over the dish called “Hello the Queen”.

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Restaurant signs

An elephant and a horse

As we walked south from the palace on Sadar Bazaar Road I couldn’t help but notice the massive statues of a horse and an elephant that loom above you. A sign nearby explains their significance. The elephant is Siva Prasad and was a gift to the local ruler, Raja Shatrushal Singh, from the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, as a reward for bravery. Shatrushal Singh rode the elephant in battle many times, and when he died in 1707 erected this statue in his memory.

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The horse belonged to a later ruler, Raja Rao Ummed Singh (who you may recall had added the hanging garden and Chitrasala to the palace) and likewise was ridden into battle by his owner. He was honoured with a similar statue placed on the opposite side of the road, facing the elephant. I haven’t been able to find a date for this statue – Ummed Singh ruled from 1749 to 1770 and again from 1773 to 1804, but I suspect the statue of his horse may be more recent.

Shades of blue

Jodhpur may be known as Rajasthan’s Blue City, but Bundi must run it close in blueness. The view of the old town from the palace makes this very obvious, and a short stroll through its streets will throw up lots of colourful photo opps.

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Houses on Suraj Pole

This shade is known as Brahmin blue, because traditionally only houses owned by that caste could be painted this colour, although nowadays it is used more widely. As I explained on my Jodhpur page, there are two commonly cited reasons for the choice of this blue wash. One is practical – the colour is made by adding copper sulphate to the lime wash, because 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 therefore people of all castes use it.

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On Sadar Bazaar Road

I would love to have explored further but something very special awaited us – the chance to spot tigers in Ranthambore.

With a game drive booked for that afternoon, it was time to leave Bundi for what would be our final drive with Mehar ….

Posted by ToonSarah 16:54 Archived in India Tagged india palace rajasthan bundi street_photography Comments (6)

Tiger, tiger burning bright

India days fourteen and fifteen


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Ranthambore

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Like just about everyone else who visits, we came to Ranthambore with the aim of seeing tigers. And Ranthambore is all about the tigers. Every conversation you have here is guaranteed to start with “Did you see any tigers?” The answer is quite likely to be yes, although there are, as ever with wildlife, no guarantees ...

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Painted storks

We drove (or rather, Mehar drove!) to Ranthambore from Bundi, a drive of about three hours. We weren't able to stop too often for photos, as we had an afternoon safari drive booked and had left Bundi fairly late after a visit to the palace there. But we did stop briefly twice. The first was at a pretty lake where lots of Painted Storks and other birds were feeding. Painted Storks get their name from the bright pink feathers near their tails, which do look just as if someone had dabbed them with paint! They are found in the Indian subcontinent south of the Himalayas as well as in south east Asia. Wikipedia’s description of their feeding behaviour matches exactly what we observed:

“They forage in flocks in shallow waters along rivers or lakes. They immerse their half open beaks in water and sweep them from side to side and snap up their prey of small fish that are sensed by touch. As they wade along they also stir the water with their feet to flush hiding fish.”

Our second stop was to take photos of some young girls in colourful saris working in the fields. This was a shot I had been after for the whole trip, but it proved slightly difficult to get because as soon as the girls saw us and our cameras watching them over the hedge they stopped work to pose rather stiffly – very nice of them, but not what we had in mind! Luckily after a while they relaxed and went back to work, and I got my shots.

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They've spotted us!

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Back to work

Tiger Den Resort

Our base for our two nights near the national park was this fairly basic resort not far from the entrance. This was the least good of all the accommodation we used in Rajasthan, by some way. Of course a visit to Ranthambore is all about the animals and the quality of the accommodation comes second. But you get the same safari experience wherever you stay, and between drives you want somewhere to relax – and from what we saw there are better quality places than this in which to do that. Having said that though, Tiger Den is certainly more than adequate and not without its quirky charms.

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Our bungalow is the one on the far left

Our bungalow room was a good size and had all the basics, including a comfortable (but creaky) bed and air conditioning. The bathroom had a bath with shower over and basic toiletries were provided, although not as nice as those in other hotels we stayed in on this trip, and although there were sufficient towels, several were fraying and one unpleasantly stained. Some of the light fittings didn't work either, making the room a little gloomy at night.

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Our room

Wifi is available, at a cost - 500IR for two days' use on a single device. It only works in the reception and restaurant areas, although as our room was right behind the reception desk we found we could pick it up there too, which was a bonus. The “resort” has a swimming pool, which we didn’t use, and a small shop selling souvenirs rather than practical items.

Overall we found this a reasonable base for a couple of days but I wouldn’t choose it for a longer stay because of the dull and repetitive meals and unwelcoming bedroom. By the way, do check out the website, Tiger Den Resort, if you’re a fan of ludicrous hyperbole! Here’s a small sample:

“An ideal RE-SORT (yes, you will re-sort your self) to distress and detoxify away from the maddening crowd away from the constant ringing of your cell phones, emails, Internet and newspapers. You definitely deserve it, and we know you desire it as well. Come and live your dreams, of a peaceful life, close to nature, close to God, and above all close to yourself….

Experience immortal bliss and behold peace in your body, mind and soul. You will really hum the famous line by Robert Frost:
‘Woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promise to keep.
And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.’”

Arriving here meant saying farewell to Mehar. As we would be travelling back from here to Delhi by train there was no need for him to hang around while we did our game viewing, so he was headed back that afternoon, with more work waiting for him there the next day. We took some photos, exchanged contact details and promised to send pictures and to recommend him in our reviews and via the tour company. We were sad to say goodbye to him, but very happy to see him again briefly when we bumped into him at the station in Delhi a few days later where he was picking up another couple of tourists who had been on the same train as ourselves.

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Farewell to Mehar

Ranthambore National Park

Ranthambore can be regarded as something of a wildlife preservation success story; a former hunting ground for the maharajas of Jaipur, it is today a hunting ground of a rather different type for camera-wielding tourists. Its almost 400 square kilometres were declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1957 and it became a national park in 1981. Although you come here to see the wildlife, and the tigers in particular, it is worth saying that the park itself is beautiful in places and was especially so on our one early morning safari, when the light was at its best.

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Looking up at the fort

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Small temple by the lake

The park lies at the junction of the Aravalli and Vindhya ranges, and the landscape varies from grassy plains to rocky hills. The park is named for the fort that lies at its heart. Historically this changed hands several times, passing from Mewar rulers to the Rajputs of Bundi, from them to the sultans of Gujarat and from them to the Mughals under Akbar, before passing to the maharajas of Jaipur in the 17th century – hence the development of the area around it as their favoured hunting ground. Inside the fort are three Hindu temples and one Jain temple. It’s possible to visit the fort, although we didn’t do this, and Hindu pilgrims are allowed to walk up to the temples without paying the park entrance fee – you will probably see many on your way into the park.

Our first drive in the park

The basis for everyone’s activity when staying in Ranthambore are the safari drives. Regardless of where you stay you will have the same options and the same experiences – it is not your hotel which organises these but the park. The drives operate twice a day, leaving around 6.15/6.30 and around 14.30/15.00. They last about three hours, but that can include picking up other tourists from their hotels, unless you have paid the extra for a private safari.

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Rufous Tree Pie on our jeep

There are two types of vehicle used – open-topped jeeps seating six people, plus driver and guide, and so-called cantors, large vehicles accommodating 20 people. The jeeps offer the better experience as you are seated only three to a row rather than four, and can manoeuvre more quickly to reach the best viewing positions for the wildlife. To get a seat in a jeep seems to be something of a lottery however, as although you can book in advance, numbers are limited and there are no guarantees. We got our tour operator to reserve ours at the times of booking the holiday, about three months before our visit, but even then they could make no promises, and it was only on arrival in Ranthambore that we knew we were sure of the jeep places.

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Map by the entrance

The other lottery is where in the park you will go. Some areas are closed for visits, and the remainder is divided into nine zones. Each driver is allocated a zone by the forestry authority that administers the park, and only learns what zone they will be visiting about 30 minutes beforehand. For the tourist this means that it is pot-luck whether you get a "good" zone or otherwise (although this hasn’t prevented loads of online discussion about which is “best”). In practice however there is no saying what constitutes a good zone, as of course the tigers move freely between them, and a sighting in a particular zone on one day is no guarantee of a sighting on the following day.

You can book to do as many or as few drives as you want during your stay, but with little else to do here apart from relax by a hotel pool, you might as well do as many as you can fit in and afford. Received wisdom is that if you do three or more you have a close to guaranteed chance of seeing tigers, but of course there is no such guarantee. We met people who had done four drives and only seen tigers on the last of them, so three would not have been enough for them. Other people see them on their first drive and may ask themselves why they paid for more! It’s all a matter of luck, and the only thing that can be said for certain is that by increasing the number of drives you are increasing your chances.

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One of several lakes in the park

We had our first drive on the afternoon of our arrival and were allocated zone four (zone three is generally held to be the best!) The other four people in our jeep had already done a drive that morning but not seen a tiger, and as someone (our tour company? our hotel?) had told our guide that it was my birthday he was determined to find me one.

For a while though it seemed we would be unlucky, although we enjoyed getting our first views of the park which is, as I have said, very pretty. And there were plenty of other wildlife sightings:

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Spotted deer, also known as chitral, with faun

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Sambar deer

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A crocodile

We also saw a number of colourful birds:

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White-throated kingfisher and Bulbul

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Peacock

Then our guide got a message that a tiger had been seen in one of the neighbouring zones and was walking towards ours. Cue great excitement! The jeep was turned around and we headed back to a likely spot, where several other vehicles had also gathered, lining the road and looking towards an area of long grass. And we waited … and waited … Then our guide exclaimed – he had spotted movement at the edge of the grass. Most of us could see nothing at first but then we spotted him – a solitary male, some distance away, just emerging from the grass. We need binoculars to see him clearly, and I was grateful for the good zoom on my camera that ensured I got a couple of reasonable photos. He lingered for a while, turned and followed the edge of the grass for a distance, then disappeared into it again. Our first drive and we had seen a tiger!

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Our first tiger sighting

As we drove back to the park entrance we saw for ourselves that there is no “best” zone for tiger sightings. We passed the low chain barrier that separates zones three (generally talked of as the best) and four. Lined up on the far side were all the vehicles who had been allocated zone three that day, their passengers desperately hoping that the tiger we had seen was coming their way – but he wasn’t, and they would leave without a sighting on that occasion. We on the other hand were very happy – and I think our guide may have been the happiest of all at having found me a tiger on my birthday!

Evening at Tiger Den

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My birthday cake

Stays at Tiger Den are on a full-board basis, but the included meals are nothing special – rice plus the same, or very similar, curries served buffet style for both lunch and dinner. On this first evening the latter was served outside, with tables and chairs set round small bonfires. Unfortunately, the staff insisted on regularly dowsing the flames with kerosene (even when asked not to by some guests), making the eating area unpleasantly smelly. The food was unexciting but OK (I did like the stuffed potatoes), while the inevitable music and dance performance was quite fun to watch as a young boy did a sort of hobby-horse dance and one of the men was a flame thrower (more kerosene!)

The local agent had clearly told the hotel that it was my birthday as I found a cake awaiting me in the room after dinner that night – a sweet touch (very sweet, as it turned out – Indians love their sugar!). In fact, the staff here were the best thing about the place, as they were generally very friendly and attentive, anxious to hear if you had seen a tiger (we had), wanted more coffee (no thank you) or beer (yes please), and were enjoying your stay (we were).

Safari drive two

The next morning we were up early for our second drive in the park. The hotel provides much needed tea, coffee and biscuits for early risers, but breakfast would have to wait.

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Early morning in Ranthambore

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Tiger tracks

There was much to enjoy about this morning’s drive. Our companions in the jeep were friendly and interesting to chat to. Our guide was the best of the three we had. We were allocated zone two which is one of the prettiest areas and looked lovely in the soft early morning light. And we were told that there had been a good tiger sighting in that zone the previous afternoon and it was likely that he was still here. Wrong! Despite the best efforts of our guide and driver (even lingering slightly longer in the park than is strictly allowed), and seeing some tracks at one point, the tigers eluded us on this drive.

Funnily enough, that didn’t seem to matter over much, and I realised on reflection afterwards that in many ways this was my favourite of the three drives we took. The light was beautiful for photography, we saw lots of other wildlife and I got my best bird photos, and the lack of tiger sightings made it a more relaxed experience. Of course, had we not seen a tiger on our first drive we might have felt differently (luckily our companions had also seen some the previous morning).

Our best sightings on this drive included lots more chitral, some langur monkeys and a wide variety of birds.

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Chitral

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Langur monkeys

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White-throated kingfisher, back and front

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Bulbuls and Rufous tree pie

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Lapwing

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Brown heron

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Scops owl

Back at the hotel we had a leisurely breakfast and spent the middle part of the day relaxing, catching up on photo sorting, and eating the unexciting but included lunch.

Safari drive three

We had already seen one tiger but were keen to see more, so we were pleased to have this third drive in our schedule to increase our chances. It didn’t start well as the jeep was rather late in picking us up (so much so that the concerned hotel staff, spotting us still sitting on the terrace when others had already left) called the local agent to check that we weren’t forgotten. When the vehicle did arrive, we found that our companions for this drive were already in there and I suspect they may have caused the delay by not being ready for pick-up. No matter, we were off – and pleased to hear that we were to visit the much-coveted zone three!

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By Rajbagh Lake

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Cormorant

This took us past one of the several lakes in the park, Rajbagh Lake, where we saw cormorants and other birds, and a crocodile. We also got some nice shots of the ruined temples dotted around the lake and saw some Sambar deer among the trees.

But like all the guides, this one was keen to find tigers for us. He heard that there might be one in a certain spot so we headed in the direction of a path he thought the tiger might take, and parked up to wait. While we did so he showed us some photos of previous sightings on his phone – he was clearly proud of the photos and they were good but of course not the same as seeing for ourselves. After a while I found myself thinking it would be better to drive around seeing other wildlife even if it meant missing a possible tiger, but I didn’t say so as I had a feeling our companions (who were from another part of India and didn’t speak much English it seemed) hadn’t yet seen one.

Then a message came through that the tiger seen earlier had gone in the opposite direction and was now to be found in another part of our zone, with her eight month old cub! The driver started the engine and we were off, racing along the track to get there while they were still in view. And he made it, but our time spent waiting at the wrong spot had cost us a bit, as other vehicles were in better positions to see them. Our guide was confident though that mother and son would come our way, and he was right. They followed a path past the other vehicles and came right alongside our jeep.

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Walking away

This should have been a wonderful opportunity to get some great photos, but the experience was somewhat marred by the bedlam caused by the drivers and guides of all the other vehicles jostling for position to give their passengers the best view. While our guide and driver jostled with the rest, the vehicle was rarely still enough for photos, and when it was our guide stood up and blocked our view while taking his own video "to show his tourists", he said. In fairness, he did sit down when we asked, but by then the tigers were walking away and the best photo opps were past. I did point out that we too were “his tourists” and that we had very limited time here to see and appreciate the tigers, while he could come every day to take photos. I have also since complained about his behaviour to the tour company.

Still, we had seen the tigers at close quarters and that counted for a lot. And maybe one or two of the photos were OK! So we headed back to the hotel pleased to have had this second sighting and to have got so close to these magnificent animals.

Dinner on this second evening was in the restaurant and the food a little better, and we enjoyed sitting out on the terrace afterwards over a Kingfisher beer.

The next morning we left Ranthambore for Delhi, the last leg of our tour around Rajasthan. Meal timings here are planned around safaris, so breakfast doesn't start till 9.00 when the early morning ones return. This is fine if you're going for a drive, but if not you just have to wait, which was a little frustrating. However we had plenty of time before our pick up for the drive to the station at Sawai Madhopur, and the helpful driver who took us stopped on the way so we could buy cold drinks and snacks for the journey in a local shop, so we were all set for the six hour journey back to where we had started.

I have described this journey already in my Delhi entry but as it completes the circle I repeat it here – feel free to skip!

Our journey from Sawai Madhopur, near Ranthambore, took something over six hours. The train had started in Mumbai the previous evening so the second class a/c carriage where we sat was a sleeper one. We had been allocated both lower and upper berth in a four person curtained section, but only used the lower for sitting as the journey was an afternoon one.

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At Sawai Madhopur station

For part of the time we shared the section with a friendly young local couple. She spoke some English and chatted to us a bit about our holiday as well as pointing out one of the stations in which we stopped as being Mathura, believed by Hindus to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna, and offering us bananas.

I enjoyed taking my last long looks at the passing landscape, watching the largely rural communities we passed through going about their daily lives. This was to be our last day in the country (for this trip) as we flew home the next morning. The windows were just a little less grubby than had been the case on our first train journey and I was able to take some reasonable photos of the various sights.

The train pulled into Hazrat Nizamuddin station only slightly late. We were met there (and as I have already mentioned, bumped into Mehar) and driven to our Delhi hotel for one last night in India before our flight home. A last night, that is, for this trip, as we would quite soon be back …

If I have whetted your appetite and you would like to read about our next visit to this fascinating country, you can do so on my other blog: Return to India

Posted by ToonSarah 05:35 Archived in India Tagged birds monkeys wildlife india tigers rajasthan big_cats Comments (7)

About this blog

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From June 2005 to early 2017 I was an active member of another travel website, Virtual Tourist. When the site closed in February 2017 I had contributed 4,340 reviews which covered 261 destinations in 35 countries. I had uploaded 15,314 photos, and my pages had been viewed 849,092 times.

While there are plans underway to transfer those reviews to TravellersPoint I want to use this blog to recreate some of my favourite Virtual Tourist pages in a new format. The criteria for choosing these "favourites" include how much I enjoyed the trip described, how much I enjoyed writing about it, and my own subjective judgement of my photos and texts!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:51 Comments (10)

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