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Tales of life and death in Jaisalmer

India day seven continued


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Before and after our visit to the fort we wandered the streets of the old city of Jaisalmer, with its honey-coloured havelis with ornately carved sandstone windows. Beyond we found eerily atmospheric cenotaphs, and beyond that the desert …

Gadisar Lake

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Our first stop on our day’s sightseeing tour here was at this very photogenic spot on the edge of the old town. The lake is also often referred to locally as Gadisar Tank, as it is manmade – built as a reservoir for the city of Jaisalmer by Rawal Jaisal, the first maharaja of Jaisalmer, and later restored and improved by Maharaja Maharwal Gadsi Singh in about 1400 AD. There are a number of temples and shrines not only around the lake but also out in the middle, and several ghats once (but no longer) used for cremations.

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On Gadisar Lake

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A large number of catfish live in the lake. Our guide Gaurav had bought some slices of bread from a local lad as we walked along the road and we were soon to find out why. He tossed a few pieces into the water and it immediately began to churn as the fish jostled to grab a bite. I don’t think I have ever seen so many fish so close together in a body of water at one time!

It is possible to hire boats here, and it’s also a good place for birdwatching, as well as for photography as I hope you can see.

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The main path down to Gadisar Lake leads beneath a lovely sandstone gate, the Tilon-ki-Pol (meaning Gate of Tilon), which dates back to the 14th century.

The story goes that Tilon was a famous dancer (some people say prostitute) in the court of the maharaja. She wanted to pay for a gate to be built here, so that she would be remembered after her death. But the maharaja refused permission because he would have to pass under it to go down to the lake, and this he felt would be beneath his dignity as a great ruler (another version of the tale puts the maharaja in a better light by suggesting that he felt it would detract from the importance of the lake as it would become the main feature here). Whatever the truth of his displeasure, while he was away on court business she had it built anyway, and when he returned and threatened to pull it down, she added a temple to Krishna on the top so that it would become sacred and therefore not to be destroyed even by a king.

To get a good view of the gate don’t walk through it to the lake but instead follow the road a short way past it and head down to the water further to the east.

Sati memorials

Some of the structures around Gadisar Lake have small memorial stones, beautifully carved, which Gaurav told us commemorated women who had immolated themselves.

In fact, I have since learned, they commemorate first and foremost the men who died and were cremated at these ghats, but also their wives who practised what is known as sati – self-immolation on the funeral pyre of their husband. The stone with the carving of a man on horseback is a memorial to the man, while that with the figures with their hands folded is for the wives, with the number of figures showing how many wives performed sati.

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This seems a horrific idea to Westerners, and probably these days to most Indians too, but Gaurav told us that it was not so long ago that sati was still practised here. His own great grandmother had immolated herself on the death of her husband (I didn’t think to ask about the date, being quite shocked at the revelation, but I would guess that it must have been in the first part of the twentieth century, long after the practice was officially banned in India). Later that day we were to visit the Brahmin cenotaph of Vyas Chhatri where he told us that this (to me) gruesome sacrifice had taken place.

Meanwhile though we spent the rest of the morning exploring the fort (as described in my previous entry), and the afternoon in the old town that surrounds it …

Old town architecture

After spending much of the morning in the fort and taking a short break for a cold drink in one of its many rooftop restaurants, we made our way down into the streets of the old town below. These are not dissimilar in many ways to those inside the fort, but perhaps a little wider and with more traffic in places.

As in the fort, there was so much here to photograph – more Ganesh paintings (see my previous entry for an explanation of these), more beautiful buildings, more colourful details and local dress.

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Street scenes in the old town

Havelis

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Patwa Haveli

Jaisalmer grew up as an oasis town on the camel caravan routes between East and West, trading silk, spices, indigo and precious and semi-precious stones. The caravans would stay here to rest and resupply, and the high tolls they paid enriched the city and the Court. Its merchants became wealthy, as did its bankers (both, by the way, professions favoured by the large number of Jains who lived here, who shun agriculture because it conflicts with their belief regarding the sanctity of every living thing). These rich merchants and bankers naturally liked to show off their wealth in the grandeur and beauty of their homes. Furthermore, the relative liberalism of this western border town when much of northern India was under Mughal rule, attracted artists and craftsmen, whose skills flourished here. Thus many of the city’s houses, all built in that lovely golden sandstone, are further embellished by carvings, and of these the most gorgeously elaborate are the mansions or havelis of the rich. You can find havelis in many places in India, but Jaisalmer is particularly noted both for the large concentration of them in a relatively small city, and for the delicacy of the carvings in the sandstone.

You will see such beautiful stonework in both the fort itself and in the lower town streets, but the best examples of havelis are probably those in the latter which is where these photos were taken. Here you will find the one considered the most beautiful of all, the Patwa Haveli. This was built over a period of about 50 years from 1805 onwards by a Jain merchant, Guman Chand Patwa, as a home for his five sons consisting of five adjoining houses. The many oriel windows projecting out over the street maximise the use of space in the small town plot, while the carved sandstone lattice screens let in cool air in the desert heat. This building is open to the public but I have to say that by the time we reached this point in our hot day’s sightseeing we were running out of energy so we contented ourselves with views from outside. Although the streets here are narrow there is a small open square opposite making photography a little easier than it might otherwise be (Gaurav told us that the city government had cleared this space deliberately, which made me wonder what had been destroyed in the process).

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Patwa Haveli

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Haveli architecture in the old town

Other havelis of note are Nathmal and Salim, but really you will find this wonderfully detailed stonework on so many houses here that you will be spoiled for choice! Whichever you visit, there are three distinctive features to look out for. Firstly, the carved sandstone screen known as a jaali, which you find on many old buildings in Mughal India. Secondly, the decorative stone oriel window called a jharokha as seen in such profusion on the Patwa Haveli. Both of these elements could be partly prefabricated and installed in even quite modest houses which explains perhaps why so many houses in Jaisalmer look so fabulous. The third element, again easily seen on the Patwa Haveli, is the deep downward curve of the small roofs that shelter the windows – a style brought by the Mughals from Bengal.

Shopping for silver

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Mehar had told us on the drive to Jaisalmer that one of the things it was famous for was its silver-work and silver jewellery, and I love silver jewellery! So I determined that a bangle bought here would make a nice souvenir of my trip. I asked Gaurav for advice (yes, knowing that his chosen shop would be one that paid him to bring us there, but also knowing that TransIndus guides are under strict instructions not to rip tourists off and only to recommend good places). He suggested that he could take us to a family business, run from their home in the old town.

We arrived at the house, slipped off our shoes, and descended to the basement which serves as the shop. There were two other customers seated on the low cushions – one another tourist, an American woman and her daughter picking out presents for friends back home; the other a local woman choosing with great care the jewellery she would wear at her wedding. I asked the man serving us if I could see some bangles and he emptied a large bag on the floor at my feet! He demonstrated the clever design, a speciality here – the bangles are hollow and can be twisted to put on and take off, clicking into place to hold them. I rummaged for a short while until I found a design I liked, and he then helped me unearth it in the correct size.

I was pleased that there was no “hard sell” here – OK, it was suggested I might like to wear more than one bangle, or buy another for a friend, but neither of these points were pressed when I said no thank you. The service was pleasant and the buying experience more relaxed than in a shop, so I was happy with Gaurav’s recommendation, and with my purchase, which I wore almost daily for more than a year following this trip. Sadly though, it was one of very many holiday-bought pieces of jewellery that were stolen when we were burgled in spring 2016, and this photo of the pile of bangles on the carpet is my only record of it – that, and the memories, which no burglar can take away.

Vyas Chhatri

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After a break at our hotel, the Fort Rajwada, and a swim in its lovely pool, Gaurav picked us up again to go to see the sunset, a popular outing in Jaisalmer. From what I have read it seems that many people visit Bada Bagh, the cenotaphs of the Jaisalmer Royal Family, but our Brahmin guide brought us to these instead. The place had a particular meaning for him, as he explained that it was here that his great grandmother had performed immolation on the death of her husband, according to the then-tradition, as he had told us that morning by Gadisar Lake.

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The name of Vyas Chhatri refers to the structure of the tombs – these small domed pavilions seen in so much of Mughal architecture. It is not usual in Hinduism to erect such tombs for the dead, as Hindus believe that their souls will be reborn through reincarnation, but when the Mughals brought Islam to India they brought with it the custom of erecting tombs which gradually become popular among Hindus too in some regions, especially in these western desert parts. Kings and important people would be honoured and remembered in these “tomb gardens” which were established in prominent spots such as this hillside and were open to the public.

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This is still an active cremation site so be prepared to see the remains of fires and wood stacked for future use. I have seen some visitors suggest that this makes it inappropriate to visit as a tourist attraction, but I felt it was no more so than visiting a graveyard, for instance, and the fact that it was suggested by a local with a direct connection to the place reassured me further on that count. Be prepared for this though, and for the fact that if a cremation has recently taken place you may even, as one shocked tourist whose account I read (The creepy beautiful cenotaphs of Rajasthan), come across smouldering ashes.

The same writer also notes with some revulsion that funerals in this part of India at least are still caste-based, so only Brahmins will be cremated here while other castes each have their own site. I find the whole caste system bewildering and somewhat anachronistic, but by this point in our trip had learned to accept that to many of the locals we spoke with it was an unquestioned way of life – although perhaps even more so to a Brahmin like Gaurav.

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The latter had suggested that we head for a spot about five minutes’ walk away to watch the sunset, and most visitors there at the time did this, presumably because it offers a view of the town and fort beyond. But after checking it out quickly we decided to stay by the cenotaphs themselves and were rewarded with much better photos as a result, as you can frame the setting sun with the structures, which really glow in this light.

Entry to this spot is free but there’s a small charge of 50 IR for camera use – do pay this as you will want to take photos!

Once the sun had set it was back to our hotel for dinner in the same Sonal restaurant where we had eaten the previous evening. We enjoyed our meal of a minced lamb kebab, potatoes stuffed with nuts and dry fruit, and dal, washed down with a couple of beers, while reflecting on a busy and fascinating day in the city that has probably stayed with me more than most others visited on that trip.

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Hotel view, the following morning

Posted by ToonSarah 07:17 Archived in India Tagged buildings people sunset india city rajasthan jaisalmer customs Comments (2)

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)

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