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The road to Jaipur

India day three continued


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On the road

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Encounters on the road

Leaving Fatehpur Sikri (see previous entry) behind us we headed west to Jaipur, driven by the ever-reliable Mehar and stopping en route to see the Chand Baori step well in Abhaneri and the nearby Hindu temple.

Abhaneri: “Well” worth the detour

Abhaneri is a small rural Rajasthani village that lies just north of the main road that leads west to Jaipur, famous for its ancient step well and an interesting Hindu temple. The village dates back to the 9th century A.D. and was originally called “Abha Nagri” – the “City of Brightness”. Legend has it that Goddess Harshat Mata, to whom the temple is dedicated, in a joyous mood spread brightness all over the village. The name has since been corrupted to Abhaneri.

Our main purpose in stopping here was to see the ancient step well, which is considered is one of the oldest, largest and most impressive of these huge tanks which dot the Indian desert landscape.

However, I actually found the temple the more interesting of the two sights there, especially as the worshippers there welcomed us and allowed us to take photos.

Chand Baori step well

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Step well

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The traditional solution in this part of India to the challenge of the scarcity of water was to construct these impressive step wells. These were huge tanks designed to harvest and store what rain water there was. Chand Baori is one of the oldest, largest and most impressive of these. It takes its name from the local ruler who built it at some time between 800 and 900 A.D., King Chanda of the Nikhumba Dynasty.

The well is 20 metres deep and with 13 levels. On three sides flights of steps lead down these levels to the water at the base. The air here is five or six degrees cooler than at the surface, so as well as providing the local people with water Chand Baori also served as a community gathering place during the intense heat of summer. On the fourth side, the north, is a multi-storied corridor and two projecting balconies with shrines to Hindu gods, including Ganesh.

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Carving detail

We also spotted a small shrine in one of the small buildings on this side at the top, used by guides and the security guard. These buildings are later additions, although I haven’t been able to find out their exact date. The main structure of the well has been restored, hence its fairly solid and new appearance.

Despite its large scale construction and functional purpose, the stone is beautifully carved in places, and the geometric patterns made by the steps rather pleasing – indeed, it reminded me rather of a painting by Escher.

There is no admission fee as such but if you accept the services of one of the guides who will hurry over to greet you then of course you should tip, and in any case the guy looking after the site, who will ask you to write in the visitors' book, will expect some rupees for his trouble. We tipped him, and wrote a few words, but passed on the guide as Mehar had already given us an outline of the well's history. Also, as we had already spent quite a long while at Fatehpur Sikri and still had nearly 100 miles to drive to Jaipur, we didn’t want to take the time needed to go down to the bottom. OK, I have to admit too that the thought of climbing up again in 38 degree heat didn’t much appeal to me either!

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The small shrine at the step well

Harshat Mata Temple

The Hashat Mata Temple was built by the same King Chanda responsible for the step well. It is no coincidence that they lie side by side, as the faithful could go to the step well to wash before coming to pray here. The temple was however destroyed in the late 10th century by Mahmud Ghazni, founder of the Ghaznavid Empire and the first ruler in history to assume the title of "Sultan”, who invaded this region around that time. Despite this destruction many of the temple’s carvings remain, though some are damaged or lie scattered on the ground around the platform on which it stands. The temple is, I gather, slowly being restored which explains why some carvings have now been reinstated and also why I spotted white painted numbers next to some of them, presumably to aid the restoration team in placing them correctly.

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Temple carving

The temple is named for the goddess Harshat Mata, who seems to be something of a patron saint for the village. She is considered to be the goddess of joy and happiness, always cheerful, and she imparts her joy and happiness to the whole village – hence the name “City of Brightness”.

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Although some locals were worshipping here at the time of our visit, they welcomed us with a smile when we climbed the steps and didn't mind us watching from a respectful distance nor taking photos. I also shot a piece of short video, mainly to capture the chanting.

The carvings in particular are beautiful and repay close inspection, and the atmosphere with the chanting and smell of incense on the air added to the experience of our visit. I was very pleased we had wandered over from the step well to check this out.

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Temple carvings

Returning to the car after our explorations, and glad of its effective air conditioning, we set off westwards. Altogether it was a long drive of about six hours from Agra to Jaipur, but even apart from the sights at Fatehpur Sikri and Abhaneri, it was an interesting one. This is after all India where life is lived by the roadside and is colourful, frenetic and intriguing.

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On the road to Jaipur

Among the things that caught our eyes were a herd of camels waiting patiently to cross the busy road, bullocks dozing in the shade, a holy man walking his holy cow, beautifully decorated trucks, school children coming out of school, stalls selling all sorts of goods and people queuing to buy. And a continuous stream of vehicles all driven as if only they had any real right to be on the road and only they had a destination so important that they must go first in every situation!

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Camel herd ...

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... and herder

I found this and all our road journeys through Rajasthan fascinating, but I was to hear a story that evening that showed that not everyone agreed with me. A woman staying at our hotel described how she had met another lady a couple of days earlier in Agra, who had just arrived by car from Delhi. So horrified was she at this experience that she had declared that she was never travelling on an Indian road again and demanded that her tour company arrange rail tickets for the rest of her stay as an alternative. It wasn’t known whether the company had agreed to her request or not, but if so I reckon she missed out on a lot. While I enjoyed our train journeys in India, as giving a different view of the passing landscape, travelling by road has the big advantage that you can stop when you see something of interest (as we did when we saw this camel herd). And I even came to enjoy the manic driving and to trust that maybe most of the drivers did, as Mehar claimed, know not only what they were doing but also, importantly, what others were doing too.

We arrived in Jaipur in the late afternoon and checked into the hotel that was to be our base for the next two nights, Shahpura House.

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Shahpura House: hallway and one of the lounges

I had slightly mixed feelings about this small heritage hotel in a quiet Jaipur suburb. It has many great attributes. The public rooms are stunning, as you can see from my photos, exuding a great sense of history. The staff are charming and friendly, eager to please. There is a nice swimming pool, where I enjoyed a dip after a hot day's sightseeing, and a spa which I didn't use. One of its biggest charms is the lovely rooftop restaurant where we ate tasty curries on both evenings, with traditional Rajasthani music and dancing.

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Evenings at the rooftop restaurant

However there was an air of amateurism about the place that became a little wearing after a while. Service was painfully slow, with two different bar men coming back three times to double check our drinks order and/or room number, for instance, and an afternoon sandwich ordered by the pool taking almost an hour to arrive. Wifi was free, but available only in the lobby and lounge, and even there frustratingly slow.

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Our room was lovely – large, and simply but attractively furnished, with a seating area with wardrobe and mini bar, and sleeping area beyond (twin beds with pretty pink throws). The bathroom had a walk-in shower with rain shower head, and was provided with plenty of toiletries and thick towels. We had an in-room safe, air conditioning and fans, and state-of-the-art light controls. The beds were on the firm side, which I prefer and found comfortable, but the noisy A/C (or heat of the room if that was turned off) meant that I didn't sleep as well here as elsewhere. And even had we wanted to, sleeping in was not an option - the staff were going about their work by 6.00 AM and this is an echoey building.

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The main downside to our stay, apart from the aforementioned erratic service, was that our room was in a wing that was still being restored and it was a bit disconcerting to have to access the room via a staircase with an unfinished banister, and walk along a corridor with an unfinished floor and blocked off corners, to the background noise of hammering and sawing. Several times I had to step over tools left on the floor or over trailing cables. There was a lot of dust from the marble polishing which found its way into our room, making the floor permanently dusty. And although the room once reached was as I have said lovely, and clearly newly decorated, we couldn't help but conclude that they really shouldn't have opened the wing up for use before finishing the building work. The air of unfinished business extended into the room too. Some of the sockets didn't work and on the second day we had no hot water morning or evening. Worse, there was an exposed dangling electric cable in the bathroom right next to the shower, which looked decidedly unsafe, and although they did offer to tape it when we mentioned our concern they never did, and we just got used to avoiding it.

On the whole though I was glad we stayed here as it was a wonderful building to experience. But anyone else booking a room would be advised to check that it’s not in an unfinished wing, as further expansion seemed to be planned, and to go prepared to put up with haphazard, albeit charming, service.

Shahpura House was our home for the next couple of days as we explored Jaipur and nearby Amber Fort, to be described in my next couple of entries ...

Posted by ToonSarah 14:37 Archived in India Tagged temple india jaipur rajasthan Comments (2)

Hilltop citadel

India day four


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The Amber Fort

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Amber Fort from Maota Lake

This is what a fort should look like, perhaps – high on a hill, dominating the surrounding countryside, large and apparently impregnable. But climb the hill and pass through those fortified gates, and you find yourself in another world – a world of elegant and sumptuous palace architecture, mirrored halls and pretty gardens.

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Gardener in the fort

Amber or Amer Fort (in any case, the “b” is not pronounced) is situated about 11 kilometres from Jaipur and usually visited from there. There has been a fort here since the 10th century AD but most of the current buildings date from the 17th.

We came to Amer on the morning of our day spent in and around Jaipur, and spent several hours exploring the various courtyards and beautiful buildings here – with more time in our schedule we could easily have spent longer! As well as the wonderful decorative features, I loved the views from the fort of Maota Lake at the foot of the hill and the surrounding landscape.

The fort was established in what was the Kachwaha capital by the then king, Man Singh I, in 1529, on the site of an earlier 10th / 11th century fort. It was added to significantly in the early 17th century by his grandson Jai Singh I who was an army general during the reign of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (he who built the Taj Mahal – I fancied I saw his influence in places here, if only in the use of white marble). In 1727 the Kachwahas shifted their capital to Jaipur but continued to maintain the fort, partly because it is home to an important temple, the Shila Devi Temple.

The name "amber" derives not from the colour of the sandstone, as I had assumed prior to visiting, but from the goddess Amba Mata (Mother Earth) who was worshiped by local tribes here long before the fort was built.

Your first view of the fort will probably be, as ours was, from the far side of Maota Lake. It is worth stopping here for some time as it’s the perfect spot from which to take some photos. As well as Amer Fort you can see the neighbouring Jaigarh Fort, part of the same defensive complex. The lake is also a good place for bird-watching it seems – I spotted several stilts, egrets and herons.

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Fortified hilltop

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Stilt and egret

It was very busy when we were here, not only with tourists but also groups of pilgrims on their way to celebrate the Saraswati Puja festival at the temple in the fort. Their colourful flags and clothing added to the charm of the scene and really got our camera shutter fingers busy!

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Pilgrims by Maota Lake

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Elephant or jeep?

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The most popular way to visit the fort is by ascending the hill on an elephant, but we were here at the time of the major Hindu festival, Saraswati Puja, and the elephants had been given a holiday. We were to see why when we arrived in the fort and saw the courtyard they normally occupy, Jaleb Chowk, taken over by the pilgrims. From a conversation overheard at our Jaipur hotel I gather that tourists who were disappointed by the lack of elephant rides at this time could choose to do one somewhere else nearby – although I guess that it wouldn’t be the same as arriving in a fort by this means. And in any case, there has been some criticism by animal welfare groups of the way in which elephants are kept and used here (poor housing conditions and abuse of the animals). Our tour company TransIndus doesn’t recommend tourists riding them to the fort and, much as I love the romantic idea, I would have followed their advice even had the option been open to us. As it was, it was a choice of a long hot uphill walk or a jeep. You can guess which I chose – especially as the jeep had been prepaid and included in our tour cost.

It’s quite a bumpy ride as you rattle upwards through the narrow streets of the small town of Amer that lies in the shadow of the fort, but an interesting one as you get glimpses of local life in passing. Don’t hope to take many photos though, as it’s more or less impossible to hold a camera still!

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View of the fort's walls from where we caught the jeep

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Musician by arrival area

Taking the jeep meant that we arrived at a different gate from those walking – the Moon Gate (Chand Pol) rather than the Sun Gate (Suraj Pol, where the elephants when operating also arrive). But both gates lead to the same point, the Jaleb Chowk.

Jaleb Chowk

This large courtyard, the first of a series we will pass through, was the fort’s parade ground. I have seen the name translated variously as ““the quadrangle where horses and elephants are tethered” and “a place for soldiers to assemble”, but in practice both were true even if only one (I believe the latter) is an accurate translation. Here the Maharaja would inspect his troops and here those same troops would, on returning from battle, display their war loot. The women of the palace could look down on these scenes from the screened windows above.

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Jaleb Chowk

Today it is usually the place where the elephants that bring tourists to the fort are tethered, but as I have explained, when we visited the courtyard had been taken over by the many groups of pilgrims visiting the temple that lies just off one corner of Jaleb Chowk, to mark the festival of Saraswati Puja. So for us it was a different, but very colourful scene.

There are two gates opening on to Jaleb Chowk – on the eastern side the Sun Gate or Suraj Pol, and on the west the Moon Gate, Chand Pol. Stately processions would have entered the fort only through the Suraj Pol. In my photo above, taken from the next level, the Sun Gate is on the right and the Moon Gate on the left. You can see the many temporary canopies erected to shield pilgrims from the sun as they waited their turn to go into the Sila Devi temple. This lies in the south west corner (bottom left of my photo and out of shot). This is where the Maharajas used to offer animal sacrifices (usually a buffalo) until that practice was stopped here, I think in the 1980s (if I remember our guide’s talk accurately). Today’s pilgrims bring offerings of food instead. We weren’t able to go inside the temple because of the festival but I believe it is usually possible.

In the photo below you can see the Sun Gate more clearly, and pilgrims gathering nearby, probably having just completed the walk up to the fort. On the distant hills you can see the old walls that still surround Amber and Jaigarh Forts, and just a corner of the latter in the top left.

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Jaleb Chowk and Suraj Pol

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Suraj Pol

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Pilgrims and pilgrim flag

On the south side of the courtyard is a wide staircase leading up through the Singh Pol (Lion Gate) to the next part of the palace.
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Singh Pol from the far side

Diwan-i-Am

The second courtyard of the fort is dominated by the Hall of Public Audience or Diwan-i-Am. As the name suggests, this was where the Maharajah would meet the people, respond to petitions and settle disputes. It was also the place where certain festivities were celebrated – victory in battle, the birthday of the Maharajah and more. It was constructed in the early 17th century, built from red sandstone and marble, and modelled on similar halls in Mughal palaces. It combines Mughal and Raiput styles, with decorative elements such as elephant trunk brackets and vines. The roof is supported by sandstone columns on the outer edges and marble ones within.

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Diwan-i-Am

You can get some great views from here of the Saffron Garden or Kesar Kyaari on Maota Lake below. It is named for the saffron flowers that used to be planted here.

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View of Maota Lake and Kesar Kyaari

While we were here there was some minor restoration work going on and it was interesting to watch the men working to clean the carvings and bring them back to their best.

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Taking a break from restoration work

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Restoring the Diwan-i-Am

Next to the Diwan-I-Am is the Sattais Katcheri, where scribes would sit to receive and record revenue brought to the Maharaja. I have read that both this and the Diwan-i-Am are frequented by monkeys but there were none here when we visited, perhaps because of the restoration work in progress.

From this courtyard the fort’s best known gate leads to a third.

Ganesh Pol

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Ganesh Pol

The Ganesh Pol, or Elephant Gate, connects the second and third courtyards, and is the most richly decorated of all the gates here – a riot of colour, both frescoes and mosaics, with flowers, vines, flower vases and intricate geometric designs. The design of a large central arch flanked by two smaller ones on each side, one above the other, shows the influence of Mughal architecture here (the Taj Mahal has the same arrangement, for instance) and has led to speculation that it was made by Sawai Jai Singh II, the founder of Jaipur, rather than his father, Jai Singh I.

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Ganesh

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Ganesh Pol decorations

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In the Suhag Mandir

Above the main arch is a fresco depicting Ganesh, the Hindu god, with the customary mouse at his feet and on either side a slender cypress tree. Unusually Ganesh is here shown in profile rather than the more usual face forward pose. Walking beneath him you must make two right-angled turns through the gate – a design intended to impede invading armies.

From the lattice-screened walkway above the gate, known as the Suhag Mandir, the ladies could look down on the activity in and around the Diwan-I-Am. Also from here the maharani would await the maharaja’s return from battle and sprinkle scented water and flowers down on him in welcome and gratitude for his safe homecoming.

After passing through the gate you will be able to climb to the Suhag Mandir yourself to enjoy the same views the ladies in purdah would have had, and to get good views too of the next courtyard.

Aram Bagh and Sukh Mandir

Passing through the Ganesh Pol you come to the third courtyard, the heart of the private part of the palace where the maharaja held court. Unlike the earlier ones, which are paved, this has a garden laid out in the traditional Mughal charbagh style, divided into symmetrical quarters. In the centre is a star-shaped pool. You can get a good view from above by ascending the stairs above the Ganesh Pol to the Suhag Mandir, which gives you an opportunity to really appreciate the symmetry of this style of garden.

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Aram Bagh and sweeper

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Sukh Mandir details

To your right as you look from the gate is the Sukh Mandir, known as the “pleasure palace” or “temple of contentment”. This was where a maharaja would relax, no doubt with his maharani (queen) and some of the women of the harem. It is clearly designed for such relaxation. A channel running through it carries water which flows out into the pool of the Aram Bagh, helping to keep the marble rooms cool. The doors are of sandalwood and ivory, and the walls are decorated in a more subtle, restful style than the ornate rooms elsewhere – quite a contrast to the Jai Mandir which lies on the opposite side of the gardens.

Jai Mandir and Sheesh Mahal

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Sheesh Mahal

Opposite the Sukh Mandir on the other side of the Aram Bagh (that is, your left as you pass through the Ganesh Pol) is possibly the most sumptuous building within the fort and also its most famous. The Jai Mandir (Hall of Victory) is divided into three sections – the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience) on the ground floor at the front, the Sheesh Mahal (Hall of Mirrors) behind this, and the Jas Mandir (Hall of Glory) on the upper floor – although some sources refer to the whole of the lower part as the Sheesh Mahal. Certainly its decorations merit that. Ceilings and walls are studded with thousands of small pieces of glass and mirrors, reflecting light and a multitude of images and colours.

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Sheesh Mahal

One explanation for the decoration that I read is that the queen was not allowed to sleep in the open air although she loved to see the stars shining. So the king ordered his architects to design a room where she could do that, as the candlelight reflected from all the mirrors was said to resemble a thousand stars. I think this explanation is unlikely however, as the queen would have slept in the women’s quarters around the fourth courtyard, the Zenana. It was probably the maharaja himself therefore who liked to sleep under the stars!

Around the outside of the Jai Mandir are marble panels carved with exotic flowers and little insects. Some of the flowers are said to imitate other insects and animals such as a hooded cobra (look at the leaf near the bottom right of the first photo below).

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Jai Mandir: details of carvings

The Zenana

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Our guide

The final courtyard in the complex is the Zenana. This is the oldest part of the fort, built at the end of the 16th century during the reign of Raja Man Singh I. It originally formed the main palace but was later converted into the Zenana or "women's quarters" to house his twelve wives and concubines. Each queen/maharani and concubine had her individual suite of rooms here so the maharaja could visit one without the others knowing. In the centre of the courtyard is a covered pavilion, the Baradari, which formed the gathering place for the women. Here they would gossip and no doubt try to assert their own status within the ranks based on wealth, looks and the frequency of the maharaja’s visits!

Unfortunately I had a small problem with my camera here, which jammed – I think the heat got to it, as it did a couple of times on this trip. It sorted itself after turning off and waiting a while, but by then we were on our way out of the fort. The heat must have got to me too, as stupidly I didn’t think to take any photos on my phone! So at this point I run out of images …

We also ran out of energy around here too, and decided to head back to the city for refreshments and to see some of the sights there. On the way though, we made one further stop, to see the Jal Mahal.

Jal Mahal: the Lake Palace

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Jal Mahal

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We stopped briefly for photos here on our way back into town from the Amber Fort. The Jal Mahal sits in the south west corner of Man Sagar Lake, a man-made lake created in the 16th century when a dam was built across the Darbhawati River to address water shortage problems in Amer. The palace itself is thought to have been used for Maharajah picnics and duck hunting parties, but no one seems quite sure. It is partly sunk, with four floors hidden under water (when the lake is full), and has been neglected for over 200 years, but our guide told us there are now plans to restore it and open it as a hotel. If done well (and the Indians do these things very well) it will be an amazing place to stay!

The lake too has been badly neglected in the past, with pollution caused by untreated sewage and a build-up of silt on the lake bed. In recent years a number of bodies, including tourism and government organisations, have worked together to address this and the lake has been considerably cleaned up. A sign of this is the gradual return of bird life, although not in the numbers and variety (yet) that they once were. Nevertheless just from the roadside I spotted a number of egrets, Chinese cormorants, a brown heron and a few moorhens.

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Egret, heron and cormorants

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We were here in the morning when unfortunately the light is not at its best for photographs – I imagine it could be wonderful in the late afternoon or at sunset. However we did have an interesting encounter here which made the stop more memorable. On the terrace overlooking the lake we met an enterprising young lad offering to show us some magic. We decided to invest a few rupees in his performance and he performed some sleight of hand tricks with coins, cups and small stones. At times it was easy to spot him palming the objects, but at other times he surprised us, making the coins "pass through Chris's head" from ear to ear, pass from his ear to my nose, and even from my ear to fall from Chris's "private parts"!! It was entertaining to hear his patter and well worth the 50 rupees our guide suggested we give him. If you want to see him and enjoy one of his tricks, check out my little video.

After this we headed back into the city, and our explorations there will form the subject of my next entry ...

Posted by ToonSarah 00:46 Archived in India Tagged people history india fort jaipur rajasthan amber_fort Comments (6)

The Pink City

India day four continued


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

In Jaipur

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Jaipur street scene, early morning

After a morning spent at nearby Amber Fort, our afternoon was devoted to a few of the sights in Jaipur itself. Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan state and its largest city, although after the hubbub of Delhi where we had been a few days earlier it seemed relatively small to us, and a fascinating bland of orderliness and activity. Cars, rickshaws, motorbikes, pedestrians and the odd cow weave amongst each other while the pink sandstone buildings add a touch of serenity as a backdrop to the chaos.

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Snake charmer near the Hawa Mahal

The city was founded in 1743 by Ram Singh’s ancestor Jai Singh II, the Raja of Amer. He clearly took the responsibility of founding a new city very seriously, studying several books on architecture and applying the principles of Vastu Shastra, a traditional Hindu system of architecture which among other things aims to achieve harmony between man-made structures and nature. Unusually for Indian cities the centre of Jaipur was built on a grid system, divided into six blocks. The palace and other state buildings were built in the central block, while the remainder held shops, homes and so on. You can still see this pattern if you look at a map of the city.

Jaipur is often known as the Pink City as many of the buildings in the centre are built of pink sandstone, and those that aren’t, are painted the same distinctive shade. This goes back to the time when the then Prince of Wales, heir to the British throne and later to rule as Edward VII, came here on a state visit and (for some reason) the ruler Sawai Ram Singh decided to paint the city in his honour. Since then it has been the law that all buildings in the old town must be so painted and along with the even grid pattern it makes for a very uniform appearance, which is somewhat at odds with the typical Indian chaotic activity on the streets.

Hawa Mahal

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Hawa Mahal

We had already had a glimpse of the city before heading to the Amber Fort that morning, as we stopped briefly by the Hawa Mahal. Of all the pink buildings in the Pink City, this must be the most photographed. It is a fantastical concoction of oriel and bay windows, coloured glass, carved screens in stone and wood, delicate pointed arches – all piled up in five ever-diminishing storeys. To photograph it at its best, with the warm glow of the sun, you must get here in the morning as it faces east and loses its rich colours once in shadow later in the day, which is why we had made a stop here.

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Hawa Mahal

The Hawa Mahal was built in 1799 as part of the City Palace to provide the ladies of the royal court with a series of rooms from where they could observe the life of the city while maintaining their strict purdah. The shape is designed to resemble the crown of Lord Krishna, the Hindu god, while the many small holes that pierce the screens are there to allow the cooling breezes to penetrate – hence its name which means “Palace of the Winds”.

We didn’t go inside but you can do so, and there’s a small museum inside which has some armour and miniature paintings I believe.

Jantar Mantar Observatory

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The large sundial

This was one of our favourite sights in Jaipur, and indeed, one of Chris’s favourites from the whole trip – he found it totally fascinating, as did I. For both of us it had a double appeal – not only the amazing science behind it but also the strangely modern beauty of its structures.

The observatory, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, was built for the Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, founder of Jaipur, in 1738. He was a keen astrologer and this is the largest of five similar structures built in India in the 18th century to observe the heavens and measure its movements (the others are in New Delhi, Ujjan, Varanasi and Mathura). Its 19 instruments perform functions such as measuring time, predicting eclipses, tracking major stars, determining the declinations of planets, and calculating celestial altitudes.

The observatory was used until around 1800 but fell into decline in the 19th century. It was restored under British rule in 1902 (but unfortunately with some changes to the materials employed) and again in 2006.

The small sundial here is accurate to within 20 seconds and the large one to an astounding two seconds, although you have to adjust from Jaipur time to Indian Standard Time to assess the accuracy of this – a notice nearby will tell you by how much to adjust. Two large marble bowls (one of which is shown below) crossed with copper wire indicate in which zodiac sign the sun currently sits.

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Marble bowl

Nearby a striking set of twelve instruments, one for each sign, pinpoints the precise day. Parents would have used these to set the basis for the drawing up of the astrological chart for their new-born child, to be used at key points in their life, especially in choosing a marriage partner. Indeed these things are still important for many Hindus, though they no longer use this observatory to calculate them.

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Zodiac instruments

If you are interested (and understand more about the science than I can claim to do), Wikipedia has a full list of all the instruments and their purpose: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jantar_Mantar_%28Jaipur%29. And a guide is useful at the site as they will explain to you the main functions. But whether interested in the science or not, this is a great place to come for photography, as the sculptural shapes of the various instruments cast their shadows and form interesting abstract patterns that change constantly as you move around the site.

Spice market

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In the spice market

For a slice of local colour (and scents) the spice market is wonderful. A narrow alleyway lined with small shops all selling the typical spices of India - turmeric, chillies, peppers, ginger, cardamom.

Our guide suggested a walk here when we said we were more interested in photography than shopping, and it was a great recommendation. Although all the shops sell very similar goods, he explained that locals all have their favourite vendor, and pointed out the one where he always shops.

We also saw a sugar shop with sugar in all sorts of shapes, including sugar glasses. Wives buy and fill these with water, making sweet water to offer to their husbands for the Karwa Chauth Hindu festival on 30th October. On this day married women pray that their husband will have a long life, prosperity and good health.

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Sugar glasses

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Women shopping for sugar

Nearby flowers sellers were stringing garlands for the many festivals around this time of year, as they were everywhere we went on this trip. On a colourful journey this was one of the most colourful spots of all.

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Flower garlands

Block printing

One of the most traditional crafts in the Jaipur area is block printing on cotton or silk, and you are likely to be offered an opportunity to see craftsmen at work. Of course this is also an opportunity for them to persuade you to buy (I succumbed - see below), but even if you don't want to buy it is worth going to see the work that goes into these textiles, and perhaps to have a go yourself!

We went to the Shree Carpet and Textile Mahal where we were first shown the technique by a father and son working together on a design. The colours are all natural – turmeric for yellow, spinach for green, saffron for orange and so on. They work as a team, so the father was doing the first colour and the son following behind to do the next, carefully aligning his block with the first print. We were told that the minimum number of colours (and therefore blocks) used in a pattern is four, and there can be up to nine.

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Father and son at work

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Printing the first colour, and one of the carved blocks

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"Our" handiwork

The father then showed us some different blocks and invited us to have a go. To be honest he did most of the work – inking the block and placing it on the fabric. I then hit it to make the print, but not hard enough, so he did that too! When Chris's turn came, he was able to hit harder so at least he could do that part of the operation. Normally fabrics are then dried for four days in the sun, which is when the vivid colours appear, but as there was no time for that the man dipped our piece of fabric in a vinegar solution which speeds the colour fixing process. He then blotted it dry and we left it with him while shopping. By the time we came out of the shop our handiwork was more or less dry and we could take it away as a souvenir of our visit.

Of course, we understood that along with the demonstration would come some pressure to buy – pressure which we planned to resist (although at the back of my mind I thought I might maybe buy a cushion cover if I saw something in suitable colours that I liked). The fact that we bought something rather larger, a fabric throw big enough to cover a double bed or make into a duvet, is, I assure you, not because of especially high-pressured selling (which we are pretty good at resisting) but because we were impressed both by the goods on offer and the reasonable prices. Having seen for ourselves the block printing process we could appreciate the work that went into making these items and we were confident too that we were buying a genuine hand-made piece. You can soon check this if you are in any doubt, as machine-printed fabrics appear perfect while those printed with this technique, using the small hand-held blocks, show the staggers and uneven lines where one block meets the next. You can see this clearly on the right-hand side of the border of our throw in this photo.

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Our purchase

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Musicians at Shahpura House

On this, our second evening in Jaipur, we again ate at the rooftop restaurant of Shahpura House, welcomed by the same friendly waiter who had served us the evening before. We enjoyed a shared starter of chicken kebab with mint chutney, a very tasty potato dish with cumin, and a Rajasthani speciality of chicken in a spicy tomato and yoghurt sauce. Prices are very reasonable, especially when you factor in the live show - traditional Rajasthani musicians and dancers. And you can linger after dinner over a drink and watch more of the show, which on some evenings also includes traditional puppets. We were to see several of these “cultural shows” during our time in Rajasthan, but as our first this one was especially memorable.

Posted by ToonSarah 13:50 Archived in India Tagged buildings india jaipur rajasthan crafts Comments (2)

Into the Thar Desert

India day five


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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)

Of cranes and camels

India day six


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

The road to Jaisalmer

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Flowers at breakfast

Today was another long but fascinating day on the road in Rajasthan, starting from Khimsar Fort hotel where we experienced a uniquely Indian twist on the buffet breakfast. Food was indeed set out on long counters for us to help ourselves, as you might expect, but somehow the staff were too keen to be helpful to have really grasped the buffet ideology and they kept bringing us things – a second glass of juice, toast, bananas … The room itself was lovely, with sunlight flooding in through tinted windows and portraits of generations of the family staring down at us as we ate. Had we not been excited to see what lay ahead for us on the road we would have been somewhat reluctant to leave this magnificent hotel.

Our drive to Jaisalmer from Khimsar, with the ever-helpful Mehar, took about five hours (not including stops). The road took us through small villages and across the Thar Desert landscape. Some may find this dry flat landscape dull, but I have always loved deserts and I enjoyed this drive a lot. And we made some particularly interesting stops en route too.

A warm welcome

As we drove through the Thar Desert towards Jaisalmer I asked Mehar if he thought it would be possible to stop to photograph some of the small round grass-thatched houses that we saw either side of the road.

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A desert home

I had in mind a few shots from distance with the zoom, if he felt that would not be resented. But when he spotted a suitable home and stopped the car he suggested that we walk over to it. Would they mind, we asked - not at all, he replied.

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The welcoming committee

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The family

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Our hostess

So we strolled among the succulents and a few low-growing gourds to be welcomed by two children near the entrance (it was festival time and there was no school). Their mother came out to join them and when Mehar asked if we could take photos, agreed willingly - and not just of the house, we could photograph her and the children too. An older brother came over to join us, then children from another nearby house came running. We were causing quite a stir!

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The neighbours arrive

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Decoration on the ground
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The family shrine

Mehar explained how the hut outside the wall was for the cows, while inside there was a large sleeping hut, a slightly smaller cooking hut, and two little ones to store grain. The family also own a nearby stone house, which has electricity, but prefer to use that only when the weather is cold and during the rainy season. The rest of the time these grass-roofed houses are cooler and they are happy there.

On leaving we offered the mother some rupees in thanks, so she might buy some things for the children perhaps, but she didn't want to take it, saying she was simply happy that we had visited. Mehar persuaded her though, helped by her small daughter who took the notes willingly!

Most of the children then followed us to the car, insisted on posing for more photos there, and then waved us off. Mehar had never stopped at this place before, so this was far from an everyday occurrence for them, and I do feel they enjoyed it as much as we did - it certainly didn't feel at all voyeuristic as some of those contrived "visit a village home" tourist experiences can do.

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The family

The cranes of Khichan

On the road between Khimsar to Jaisalmer we passed through Khichan, a rural village that would be unremarkable were it not for the fact that it has become the wintering place of choice for a huge number of Demoiselle cranes. Mehar suggested a stop here on our drive from Khimsar to Jaisalmer, and always up for seeing as much as possible on our sometimes long drives between the various cities we visited, of course we said yes. He said there would be lots of birds so I imagined a nature reserve of some sort, but this is something rather different.

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Demoiselle crane in flight

On arriving in the village he turned off the main road for just a short distance. He parked up and we paid the small fee (10 IR per person, plus 20 IR for the car) and walked up a short slope to the edge of the lake. There on the far side was a large flock of the cranes. The noise was considerable and it was fascinating to watch them as they were continually on the move – some taking briefly to the air before landing again on or near the water, others wading and drinking or feeding.

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The cranes of Khichan

But why are they here in such numbers? Well, this is a village with a significant population of Jains, who value all living things. In the 1970s a married couple here were given the job of feeding the pigeons, something that Jains do all over India (as, from what I observed, do many Hindus). As winter approached some demoiselle cranes started to join the pigeons and eat the grain that this couple were spreading on the ground. During the course of that first winter about 100 cranes came, and the next winter 150. But the local dogs started to hunt the cranes, so the couple asked the village assembly to make land available to create a safe feeding place for the cranes. This was agreed as the people here loved the cranes because of their vegetarianism and monogamy. Other villagers helped to build a fenced-in chugga ghar (bird feeding home) and local traders donated grain. From this small beginning a major migration has grown up, with thousands of cranes visiting the village every winter.

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There are tiny frogs too!

Feeding them has become a major initiative for the locals. There are now a number of feeding houses where the cranes congregate each morning for breakfast, before moving on to spend their day by the lakes on the edge of town, such as the one we visited. At night they leave to roost in the fields around the village, before returning the next morning to feed again. It’s possible if you are here early enough to watch the feeding, but if you come later as we did you can visit the cranes by the lakes. The small fee you pay goes towards buying the vast amounts of grain needed.

It’s not a bad idea to bring binoculars if you have them as the cranes congregate on the far side of the lake. We let Mehar have a look through ours, which he enjoyed, and some of the local village boys who were hanging around also had a go and seemed to find the new perspective on their avian visitors rather fun!

Other sights along the road that day included several of the colourful lorries I never tired of photographing (and one of these was possibly the best of the trip, featuring a vibrant Taj Mahal!), several antelopes, a group of camels crossing the road, and a stop at a level crossing for the Brikaner to Jaisalmer train to pass.

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Antelope

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Colourful trucks

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Passing train

Fort Rajwada, a beautiful heritage hotel

Jaisalmer is known as the "Golden City" because of the sandstone with which it is built, which glows gold in the sunlight, and arriving at Fort Rajwada in the late afternoon we could see that golden glow on the ornate entrance gate as well as on the building itself.

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Hotel gate

As everywhere, we were given a friendly welcome, with a cold drink, cooling towels and a garland of artificial flowers. We were then shown to our room, which was lovely, as was the building overall. The pool looked tempting, but we decided to leave that for the following day and instead made use of the hotel wifi to catch up on messages (the hotel offers a small amount of free wifi, after which you have to pay for a package according to the amount you want, although slightly annoyingly you can't use and then pay for what you had, but instead have to say in advance what you want).

At about 5.00 pm there was a knock on our bedroom door. Opening it I found a couple of men with a cleaning trolley offering "evening service". They insisted on closing our curtains for us and switching on the lights – both tasks we could have done easily for ourselves had we wanted to. As it was, with more than an hour of daylight left, we immediately reopened the curtains as soon as they had left, and switched off the unnecessary lights! It was helpful though to have our supplies of bottled water topped up and that alone was maybe worth the tip they so obviously anticipated.

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Flaming tomatoes!

We could have had a barbecue dinner by the pool here, but it was rather a warm evening we decided to eat in the air conditioned restaurant, Sonal, where you can choose between a buffet and a la carte meal – and naturally chose the latter as I’m not fond of buffets. I like to be served at table rather than scramble for access to the food among sometimes over-eager diners, and I also question the hygiene aspects when food can have been siting there for some time. This proved be a good decision – the food was all delicious and was brought to the table in rather spectacular style, with small tea lights burning inside the delicately carved tomatoes that ornamented each main dish. We returned the following evening and were equally happy with our meals and the service. Perhaps our tip on the first evening had been on the generous side, or maybe the waiting staff appreciated guests who chose from the a la carte menu – either way the head waiter welcomed us back with a broad smile and insisted we move from the table near the door where we had been seated to one he considered much better on the far side of the room!

Overall Fort Rajwada made an excellent base for our explorations in Jaisalmer – explorations which will follow in my next entry …

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Our room, and the pool

Posted by ToonSarah 09:35 Archived in India Tagged people birds desert india hotel rajasthan jaisalmer khichan Comments (9)

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