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Into the Thar Desert

India day five


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Onwards to Khimsar

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Friendly locals

Leaving Jaipur we headed west, deep into Rajasthan. Now we were truly in the desert state. The first part of the journey was on a good multi-lane toll road, less interesting for us than the rural roads. After a while though we left this and took a fairly rough road that wound through small villages and into the Thar Desert. In places there was construction work that meant we had to leave the road altogether, at times driving directly over the desert sand! As we passed through the villages some locals would wave to us, and in one these two guys spotted my camera and indicated I should take their photo - so I did!

The most notable sight on the journey was our first Indian antelope, a Nilgai, which Mehar spotted, stopping for us to take photos from the car, but other than that we didn't stop until we reached Khimsar – a journey time of about six hours, although it would have been less without the road works. As always we had enjoyed watching life beside the road, but this was among the less interesting of the several drives we had in India.

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Nilgai

Khimsar

Around a 450 year old fort on the edge of the Thar Desert a small town has grown up, consisting of little more than a market, some shops and a bus station. These serve the surrounding rural community and those who work in the fort, which is today is both home to the Thakurs, former rulers of the Kingdom of Khimsar, who built it, and also a heritage hotel. Confusingly the town is also sometimes referred to as Khinvsar or Khinwsar, but the fort always (as far as I can ascertain) as Khimsar.

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Khimsar Fort

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We spent one night here as a break on the long drive between Jaipur and Jaisalmer. There are no sights as such in Khimsar, unless you consider the magnificent fort, but as we wanted to see something of ordinary daily life in the region this suited us perfectly.

Arriving quite late in the afternoon we decided to resist the temptation of the rather lovely swimming pool in favour of a stroll around the village with our cameras. We found that most people were friendly and didn't mind those cameras in the slightest – indeed, many asked us to take their photo. This shopkeeper and his son were among these, and he gave us his address so we could send the pictures (which we have since done). A couple of women did shake their heads, no, so we respected this of course.

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Local people, Khimsar

The main street is lined with small shops and is also a bus terminal, so there is plenty of activity. Cows and goats wander freely, men gossip or play cards in the shade, women pick through vegetables to select the best for the evening meal. Several small boys, and not so small ones, posed on motorbikes or scooters - one teenage lad rushing from a shop to do so as we passed. The bus sounded its horn multiple times to signal departure, but there was always one more person to squeeze in first.

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Local cafe

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Market scene

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More of the locals

Near the entrance to the fort is a small temple and a couple of statues. One of these, near the fort, is I think of a former Maharaja. But as I said, a walk here isn't about finding the historical sights but those of daily life as it unfolds here in this Thar Desert village.

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Statue and temple, Khimsar

Khimsar Fort

We spent the night in this rather stunning heritage hotel, the first of a number that we stayed in on this trip and although not my favourite (that honour goes to Narlai), it was probably the grandest and certainly the largest. Quite apart from the photo opps to be had on its doorstep when wandering around the town, the hotel itself provides plenty – beautiful flowers, lovely old architecture and views of the surrounding countryside from the ramparts.

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This is a historic fort now converted to a hotel, although the owner (a descendant of the Thakurs of Khimsar who once ruled this region and were themselves descendants of Rao Jodhaji, founder of Jodhpur) still lives in one wing. Construction of the fort was started in 1523 but apparently the family only lived here from the 18th century onwards (I don’t know what they did with it prior to that!) It is a large sprawling complex of buildings built in beautiful honey-coloured sandstone. The grounds are quite extensive and include a lovely looking pool. There is also a spa, tennis court and small gym. Entertainment in the form of traditional musicians and dancers, and a puppet show is laid on in the evenings. For car enthusiasts, there is a collection of vintage cars on display in the royal garage.

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View from the hotel

We had one of the standard rooms but it was nevertheless very large and comfortable. It was located towards the back of the main building on the upper floor, and we had a small staircase in our room that led to a door out on to a roof terrace – perfect for star gazing, although it was a rather hazy night.

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Pool with our block beyond

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Our bedroom

Traditional Thar Desert musicians

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Musicians in front of the ruins

When we arrived at Khimsar Fort we were told that local musicians would perform below the ruins of Fateh Mahal that evening. There is a story attached to these ruins. They are named after Fateh Pir Baba, a Sufi saint who blessed the ruling family. When he died, he was buried here next to the fort walls. At that time a residence was being built just next to the spot chosen for his tomb. The ruling chief died during the construction and people said that this showed that the saint's spirit was not in peace. Work was halted and the building was left incomplete.

A small performance area has been created here, with a semi-circular seating area. We went along as directed and found a group of five here. One of the musicians tried to teach us to play his traditional castanet-like instruments, but we couldn't get the hang of the grip, so left him to it! We certainly weren't going to emulate the girl who danced on knife blades (even if these weren't sharp – we had no way of knowing) and on nails!

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Musicians

The performance was quite short but we enjoyed it and I loved the colourful costumes too. I made a short video which I think gives a good flavour not only of the performance but also of Chris’s reaction when the knives were brought out!

After the show finished we went for dinner. With very little available in the village we decided to eat in the hotel, as I imagine most guests do. As far as we could gather (the staff have quite limited English compared with other hotels we stayed in) it's possible to get an a la carte meal in the restaurant, but in the dry winter months most people, including us, opt for the buffet served up on the ramparts. While buffets are not my preferred option, the setting made up for that – a lovely view of the fort itself, a pleasant breeze after the afternoon's heat, and music drifting up from the village.

We stayed on a while after dinner enjoying the setting and another beer. To be honest the setting was the best thing about this meal, as the food was really just ordinary. They have something of a captive market – as I said, few visitors are likely to venture into the village to eat (it's very much just a local village with no tourist facilities, even of the most basic nature). Still, the location was lovely, the service friendly (our waiter kept bringing more poppadums to go with our post-dinner beers!), and the price very reasonable, so we were pretty happy with our evening.

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And after dinner, a stroll around the ramparts back to our comfortable room, to rest before another long drive tomorrow.

Posted by ToonSarah 11:27 Archived in India Tagged people india hotel fort village dance music rajasthan khimsar Comments (9)

The golden city and its fort

India day seven


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A morning in (and around) Jaisalmer Fort

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Jaisalmer Fort from Gadisar Lake

Deep in the Thar Desert in the far west of Rajasthan is a golden city. A fairy tale fort sits on a ridge overlooking the town, still home to many families whose houses cluster within its sheltering walls.

This was possibly my favourite of the larger cities we visited in Rajasthan. I loved its remoteness, its border-town mentality, and the beauty of its golden architecture. And I enjoyed the personal stories of life (and death) here shared with us by our guide Gaurav, who lives in the fort.

We saw so much here, and I took so many photos, that I am splitting our day, focusing here on Jaisalmer Fort itself, and in my next entry on the city that has grown up around it.

Jaisalmer Fort

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View from the fort

This is the second oldest fort in Rajasthan, one of the largest in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and almost unique in India in being still inhabited (most sources, and our guide, claim that it is unique in this respect, but Chittaurgargh, which we were to visit later in our trip, also retains its village).

The fort was built by the Rajput ruler Rawal Jaisal in 1156 AD, hence its name. It sits on the top of Trikuta Hill, dominating the city and the surrounding area. Built in the local honey-coloured sandstone it resembles a giant sandcastle!

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There is only one way into the fort, through a series of gates on the eastern side. After passing through the first of these you cross a large open space, where we saw a young girl perched on a frame under the ramparts. Seeing us approach she stood up and we could see that she was a tightrope walker. Balancing traditional pots on her head she walked the rope, deliberately swaying it from side to side. She did several tricks too, all the time watched by her anxious father below. Our guide explained that her mother before her had done the same. She had obviously taught her daughter well as she was very impressive. We were told 50 IR was an appropriate tip but felt she deserved more, and she was very grateful for the 100 we gave her, saying that it would bring us good karma. That may or may not be true, but it certainly brought us good photos! I also made a little video of her in action. I understand that she is here most days so you should have a good chance of seeing her.

From here you follow a path that twists and climbs past several more gates, of which the most ornate is the Suraj Pol or Sun Gate (look for the bats roosting in its shade). Once through the Suraj Pol the road turns back on itself as it climbs, passing beneath the Ganesh Pol and Hawa Pol (Gate of the Wind). The twists in the road enable it to climb steeply and also made the fort easier to defend – or rather, harder to attack.

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At Suraj Pol

Eventually you reach the square at the heart of the fort, the Dashera Chowk. From here a maze of narrow alleys weave through the fort, lined with old houses, many of them in beautifully carved stone. Many are still family homes, and only Brahmin families can live here, with the houses being passed down from father to son.

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Details of fort buildings

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Other houses have been turned into restaurants or hotels and this is causing some problems as the large amount of water they use drains away down through the sandstone and is causing damage to the historic structure. Most of the restaurants offer roof-top views and almost all claim to be the best. We later stopped for a cold drink at one and the view was certainly very good. Was it the best? I cannot say!

Gaurav explained that when he was growing up in Jaisalmer it was quite a poor city, with a lot of unemployment. This is a desert region where people struggle to grow many crops and there are few industries. But when tourists started to discover the city, things changed, and today they are the main source of income for most locals – working in hotels or restaurants, or as guides, or running desert tours etc. Perhaps that explains why they promote these services with such enthusiasm. Occasionally though this approach misfires. While I am sure we would all enjoy a “Lovely Jubble Camel Safari”, a “Bloody Good View” or maybe a stay in “Hotel Paradise”, I am not so sure about “Child Beer” or “Killa Corner”.

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Jaisalmer Fort signs

Our guide Gaurav lives here in the fort (he pointed out his own house as we passed) and naturally knows it really well. We spent quite a lot of the morning here, wandering the streets and taking photos. He took us down a number of back streets less often visited by tourists where often we were the only people apart from the residents – many of whom called out a greeting to Gaurav, and to us, as we passed.

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Locals

I was very much struck by the number and variety of lovely old doors here – some ornately carved, others painted in bright or more subtle colours. In the fort especially we saw that even newly built or restored houses followed the traditional styles and often had a particularly elaborate door even if the rest of the building was relatively plain. But it was the older ones that were the most photogenic to my eyes, having much more character. Here are a few of my favourite door photos, including one example of a more modern door so you can see the efforts people go to in order to keep up the levels of ornamentation – the residents here clearly take a lot of pride in the history and traditions of their city.

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Old doors

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Modern door

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This was a great opportunity to take loads of photos of all the little details that I love so much and which help to paint a picture of life in this rather unusual town within the fort. Gaurav explained much of what we were seeing – the “seven chillies and one lemon” hung outside many of the houses for luck, the Hindu swastika (also lucky), the paintings of Ganesh.

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On many of the old houses in Jaisalmer, both inside the fort and in the lower town, I noticed these colourful paintings of the god Ganesh, and asked Gaurav about them. He explained that it is the custom here to paint an announcement of a significant family event on the wall of the house, and a painting of Ganesh announces a wedding. The couple's names are given, and the date of the wedding. This is by way of open invitation – anyone can come along, regardless of if they know the families involved or not. With possibly several thousand to feed, as well as a dowry to find, marrying off your daughter can be an expensive business - and Gaurav told us that he has four!

Once the wedding is over the Ganesh painting remains until gradually with time it fades. Some may see these adornments on the walls of such historic buildings as defacing them, but houses, however old, are meant to be lived in and these customs are part of life here – proof, if needed, that Jaisalmer Fort is not a museum but a living town.

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Jain temples

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There are seven Jain temples within the small area of the fort, of which we visited two – Chandraprabhu (dating from 1452) and Rishabanatha (1479). These sit side by side on a small square in the south west part of the fort. You pay a small fee (in 2015 this was 200 IR plus an additional 50 IR for photography) which covers entry to both, and must leave your shoes, leather belts and bags, water bottles and any other food or drink outside. A man outside has the job of keeping an eye on your things. Note that a sign outside asks women not to enter at certain times of the month.

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Security guard at the temples

Inside the first, Chandraprabhu, Gaurav led us up to the balcony level and told us something about Jainism and its belief system. At its heart 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.

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In Chandraprabhu temple

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In Rishabanatha temple

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Monk in Chandraprabhu

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In Rishabanatha temple

There are no gods in Jainism – 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. 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.

Photography is permitted, even encouraged. We were to find when we visited the great Jain temple at Ranakpur later in our trip that there, photos of the idol are strictly prohibited, but that certainly isn’t the case here in Jaisalmer – in fact, a monk (or so I assumed he was) in the first temple suggested we took a photo (and of course make a donation in return). Of the two temples you can go into, the right hand one Rishabanatha, which was the second we visited, is better lit and therefore easier to photograph.

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In Rishabanatha temple

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Idol in Chandraprabhu temple

Laxmi Narayan Temple

We also saw a couple of Hindu temples in the fort and went into one, the Laxmi Narayan Temple, dedicated to Vishnu. Unlike the Jain temples, here there is no fee, but photography inside the building is strictly forbidden although you can take pictures in the courtyard outside.

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Outside Laxmi Narayan Temple

As the name suggests this temple is dedicated to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, but also to her husband Lord Vishnu – known as the preserver in the holy trinity of Hindu gods. It was built in 1494 but apart from that fact I have not been able to find out much about it.

Inside the temple people were bringing offerings of food to the priest or Brahmin. This food is later distributed to the poor. They ring a bell on entering, which shuts off the outside noise. Most of those we saw, including our guide, touched certain points on the different shrines inside, and a few were chanting. We felt somewhat privileged to have been invited inside but also slightly awkward, as this was no tourist sight but a genuine place of worship.

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View of the city from fort restaurant

From here we made our way to one of the restaurants at the edge of the fort (one of so many offering us "the best view") where we relaxed for a while over a cold drink, chatting more to Gaurav and planning the afternoon's activities.

But these are for another entry ...

Posted by ToonSarah 02:05 Archived in India Tagged buildings people temple india fort rajasthan Comments (2)

A few hours in the Blue City

India day nine


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The blue houses of Jodhpur, seen from Mehrangarh Fort

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

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

Mehrangarh Fort

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

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Jai Pol

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

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

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

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

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Jai Pol battle scenes

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

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

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Shrinagar Chowk

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Throne and coronation scenes

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

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

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

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

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RIFF performers

Mehrangarh Fort: museum exhibits

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

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

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Howdahs

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

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In the Palanquin Gallery

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

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Another of the exhibits

Mehrangarh Fort: state rooms

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

Palace of Flowers / Phool Mahal

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

Hall of Mirrors / Sheesh Mahal

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

Takhat Vilas

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

Pearl Palace / Moti Mahal

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

Some more images from Mehrangarh Fort

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Visitors to the fort

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Museum guards

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Interior, and old doorway

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Leaving the fort

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

The old city

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Ghanta Ghar and market

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

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

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Market stalls

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

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Old town street scenes

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

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

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

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

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

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

A 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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