A Travellerspoint blog

India

A stay in a hunting lodge

India day nine continued - and day ten


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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 to.

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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 below, 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


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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


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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)

A Raiput capital

India day thirteen


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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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


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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 its 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 is 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 is 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)

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