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The golden city and its fort

India day seven


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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 (3)

Tales of life and death in Jaisalmer

India day seven continued


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

Gadisar Lake

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

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On Gadisar Lake

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

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

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

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

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

Sati memorials

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

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

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

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

Old town architecture

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

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

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Street scenes in the old town

Havelis

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Patwa Haveli

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

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

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Patwa Haveli

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Haveli architecture in the old town

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

Shopping for silver

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

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

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

Vyas Chhatri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hotel view, the following morning

Posted by ToonSarah 07:17 Archived in India Tagged buildings people sunset india city rajasthan jaisalmer customs Comments (4)

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 (6)

A stay in a hunting lodge

India day nine continued - and day ten


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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In the seventeenth century Jodhpur’s royal family built a hunting lodge on the edge of a small village in the heart of the Aravalli hills, Narlai. Today that lodge is an exquisite hotel, and my favourite of all the places we stayed in Rajasthan – I would very happily have stayed longer here than the two days that we had.

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On the road to Narlai

We drove to Narlai from Dechu, where we had spent the night in Samsara Desert Camp, by way of Jodphur where we stopped for some hours to visit the fort and old town. The journey was otherwise uneventful but we enjoyed watching the desert scenery gradually change to a greener, more agricultural landscape, dotted here and there with small mountains. We spotted antelope at one point, or rather the large deer, Nilgai, that the locals sometimes call antelope and sometimes wild cows, but they moved before I could grab a photo - one, the male, leaping over a fence of some considerable height.

We passed through small villages that seemed a little more affluent than those of the desert, some with quite grand houses here and there. And arriving at Narlai we found it much the same, with a large white temple at its heart and a few streets of quite humble houses with just a sprinkling of smarter ones, plus a few local shops to serve the farming community. The other main source of income here is the hotel, Rawla Narlai, which is located right in the village and which was to be our base for the next two nights.

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Courtyard and bar

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Around the grounds

This hotel has been very tastefully converted, retaining bags of character, and still feels old, unlike the other heritage hotels we stayed in which were perhaps almost too well restored, albeit beautifully. Our room was really lovely, packed with historic detail and antique furniture, yet with the modern conveniences we appreciate such as good plumbing and air conditioning. There were tea and coffee making facilities and complimentary bottles of water. The king-size bed was very comfortable. We had seating inside and a day bed on the shady terrace outside. This room was in the older part – I gather that those in the newer wing are larger but have less character, and personally I am very happy we were where we were as the room was more than large enough and I wouldn’t have wanted to sacrifice the character!

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Our bedroom

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There are plenty of activities on offer, including jeep safaris and village walks, and we took advantage of some of these, but it was also a great place for some time out from our busy sightseeing schedule in Rajasthan. The hotel grounds are gorgeous. Bougainvillea, morning glory and frangipani flowers trail everywhere. There's a good-sized swimming pool tucked in one corner, while elsewhere there are pretty courtyards, fountains and lots of marble elephants – a bit of a theme here because of the huge carved marble elephant on the top of a rocky outcrop, Narlai Hill, that towers above the property.

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The swimming pool

Narlai Hill

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Rawla Narlai lies at the foot of Narlai Hill, a rocky outcrop typical of this landscape, on the top of which stands a huge white marble statue of an elephant (and hence you will hear locals refer to the hill as Elephant Rock). Although we didn’t do this, the hotel organise free escorted walks up the hill at sunrise – there are a lot of steps to climb but I reckon the effort would be rewarded.

Towards the bottom of the hill are several temples. From the hotel we could see the large one that nestles under the overhanging rocks, and in the early mornings and evenings could hear chanting carried from here on the breeze. This is the Temple of Shri Aai Mata, who was an incarnation of the goddess Ambe Maa, found in a garden in Ambapur (Gujarat) as a baby by Rao Bika Dhabi and brought up as his daughter. It is said that she visited Narlai and stayed in the Jekalji Mahadev Temple in the village from where she taught the local people. According to local legend she created an opening in a cave on the hills with lightening and in it placed a Jyoti (divine lamp) which burns with a continuous flame which produces kesar (a saffron coloured soot) instead of a black one.

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Shri Aai Mata temple

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Lord Shiva cave temple

Near the foot of the hill and right opposite the entrance to the hotel is a much smaller temple, set in a cave and dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is said that the sage Shri Narad meditated here to please Lord Shiva and that the village was named after him.

So much for the temples on the hill. But about the elephant I have not been able to find anything – who put it there, why and when – all is a mystery!

Arriving here in the late afternoon we settled into our room; explored the grounds and took some photos; signed up for a couple of activities the next day; and spent a lovely evening which included an enjoyable and tasty dinner served by candlelight on the flat roof on top of the bar in the pleasantly cooling evening air. The food was excellent, especially the wonderful aubergine curry flavoured with mustard, and very reasonably priced.

A day in Narlai

With just a day in which to enjoy the facilities and activities here we were up fairly early and enjoying breakfast in the restaurant overlooking the main courtyard. Opposite this, on the far side of this courtyard, the hotel has a small shrine which on that morning, a Monday, was the focus for some activity.

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Shrine and village elder

The service at the Rawla Narlai is as attentive as everywhere, and that attentiveness seems to expand to include those living in the surrounding village. Every Monday morning the village elders are invited in for tea and a chat about village matters. I and another hotel guest spotted them while we were at breakfast and we went across to ask permission to take some photos, which was willingly granted. We had in mind to take photos from the courtyard but we were invited up on to the terrace (removing our shoes, of course) where I took these photos.

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Village Elders' meeting

This seems a great custom for the hotel to have introduced, as it helps to ensure good relationships between local community and hotel, and if any problems did arise they can be talked through straight away. Mostly though it seemed to be an excuse for a good gossip and plenty of tea!

A walk in the village

After breakfast we went for a walk in the village with a member of the hotel staff, a local resident. Narlai is a small village with an unusually large number of temples (even by Indian standards). It faces some of the same challenges as rural communities everywhere, with a declining population caused by some younger people drifting away, tempted by big city life and its wider opportunities. But its streets have thriving little shops, mainly catering only to locals; its farmers manage to feed their families and have produce over to sell; its people benefit from the opportunity to work in or for the hotel; and overall it has a more affluent (or more accurately perhaps, a less struggling) character than many other places we went to.

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Houses in the village

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Of course you can always walk around on your own (the hotel is right in the middle of the village) but going with a local like this enables you to be invited into some village houses. Although having said that, I was also asked inside one by a woman who, when I asked permission to take a photo, insisted on me coming in so that she could pose with her goat which was clearly a prized possession!

We also went in a few local shops – two clothing, one jewellers (and they were very much local shops, not tourist ones). I was tempted by a gorgeous pink skirt in one but it was so traditional I knew I would probably feel silly wearing it at home! The other woman in our group of four did buy a petticoat which I was pleased about as these local village shops must appreciate the additional custom the hotel brings.

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Village shops

In addition to seeing the general life of the village we made a brief stop at the Lord Shiva temple in a cave right by the hotel. We also saw several other temples, small and larger, which are dotted around the village, including the main Jain temple, Shri Adinath, which has a huge elephant outside and was being restored at the time of our visit.

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Village temple

But the highlight, or rather many highlights, of this walk were the large number of village people who greeted us, willingly posed for photos and generally made us feel very welcome here.

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Villagers in Narlai

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In particular the walk gave us a great opportunity to photograph the colourful traditional dress of Rajasthan, thanks to the openness of the women we met and their willingness to pose for us. This is always very colourful. It consists of an ankle length skirt, a short top (this may just skim the waist or stop higher up, leaving the midriff bare) and a long piece of cloth known as a chunari. This protects them from the heat and is also often used to cover or partly cover the face.

Mehar told us that it is the village daughters-in-law (those who have married into local families and come to live with their husband’s family, as is customary) who are expected to cover their faces, especially in the presence of older relatives, men and strangers. Having said that, many whom we met, here and elsewhere, seemed pretty relaxed about dropping the cloth to say hello, smile and pose for photos etc. I noticed that different colours seem popular in different villages. In some we had passed through the predominant shades were orange and yellow, or red and green, while here in Narlai it was pink, purple and reds for the most part.

The women’s adornments often include a large number of bangles worn on the upper arms. These are usually just of white plastic. It seemed to me that they may be cut from pot lids, although I could be wrong! But wealthier women wear metal, even sometimes gold, bangles.

Regardless of wealth though, it is traditional to wear an elaborate gold decoration in one side of the nose, a tradition that some here still follow even on a regular working day it seems. These nose rings are worn throughout India, with different styles popular in different region. In Rajasthan the most usually worn is the nathni, a large but delicate hoop connected to the hair with a thin chain. The women in my photos below though have a rather more elaborate version of this. I didn’t ask, but maybe it was a special occasion in their family (we met them in the same house).

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We spent the middle part of the day relaxing by, and in, the hotel’s pool and enjoying a light lunch there, before our next activity …

A leopard safari

This is one of several optional excursions offered by Rawla Narlai. It costs 2,000 IR per person and you can choose to go first thing in the morning or late afternoon. We chose the latter and set out at 4.30 PM with a number of other hotel guests in three separate jeeps. They reckon on spotting leopards on about 80% of the trips, so you have a good chance – as you can see from my photos below, we were in luck!

The hotel employs some trackers who know the habits and movements of the local leopard population and who go out walking the surrounding area during the day on the lookout for them. If they have a sighting they radio the guides leading the safaris. The leopards tend to stay in one place for some time, so the jeeps have plenty of time to get to the site.

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Tracker on the lookout

On our safari we had headed out of the village to the foot of the nearby Elephant Rock where leopards are apparently often sighted and where one had been seen that morning. We had no sighting here, though we did see some langur monkeys playing on a Jain temple roof. Then the call came – a female leopard with two cubs had been spotted some miles away. We immediately turned back through the village, out on to the main road and headed towards the site where we found the other two jeeps from the hotel already in position, with all eyes, cameras and binoculars trained on the top of a nearby rocky outcrop. There she was! Part-hidden by an outcrop of rock, but definitely there! Her cubs were harder to spot, staying mainly behind the rock, but we did get some glimpses of them too. Of course, being at some distance, it was hard to get great photos, but a few of those I took did come out well enough to at least serve as a record of the experience.

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Leopard on the rocks

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You can just see a cub in this one!

We stayed at this spot for quite a while, taking photos of the leopards, while the hotel guides handed out bottles of water, tea from a flask and sandwiches. As well as the leopards, we saw an antelope and quite a lot of peacocks. There was a hazy sunset which developed into a lovely pearly pink light, and an almost full moon had risen before we finally left and headed back to the hotel. In all the safari lasted about two hours and seemed to us to be very reasonable value for what we had paid – though of course we might feel differently had we not seen any leopards!

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Sunset and moonrise

That evening we ate again at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant – there really isn’t any other option here, but as it serves excellent food at a reasonable price we didn't have a problem with that!

Monkeys at Narlai

On our second (and last) morning at Narlai we woke early. I just happened to be looking out of the window when I spotted movement on a roof top - a monkey. We jumped out of bed and soon saw that it was a whole troop so of course we threw on some clothing, grabbed our cameras and hurried outside. It was a troop of langur monkeys passing through, or rather across, the hotel, stopping at a couple of trees that obviously had fruit that is to their taste. There were several cute babies among them and we took loads of photos as they paused briefly on the roofs before continuing on and into the trees. After about five minutes or so they moved on, and we could see them leaping across the roofs of the village beyond, no doubt heading towards more favourite trees, or to scavenge from rubbish heaps.

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India’s langurs are Grey or Hanuman Langurs (the latter name taken from the Hindu god). They are a pale or yellowish grey with a black face and long tails (up to 100 cm and always longer than their body), and rather attractive, I think. They are considered sacred in the Hindu religion and are therefore less likely to be regarded as pests than the macaques which live in this region too, although they do regularly steal food and crops. Watching them was a lovely way to start our day and ensured one more happy memory to take away from Narlai.

After another good breakfast it was time to say goodbye to Narlai, with some reluctance. There had been no time to climb Elephant Hill at sunrise, no time for dinner at a nearby step well (another of the activities offered by the hotel) and no time for a further wander on our own through the village.

But Ranakpur and Udaipur awaited us …

Posted by ToonSarah 21:47 Archived in India Tagged people animals monkeys india village rajasthan customs narlai street_photography big_cats Comments (9)

City of lakes

India days eleven and twelve


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Udaipur

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Fateh Sagar

Udaipur was the southernmost point we visited in Rajasthan on this trip – after this we would turn north again towards Delhi. The city’s setting in the Aravalli Mountains, and around a string of man-made lakes, gives it a unique character among Rajasthan’s cities.

You are never far from the water here, so views are often more scenic. Local life focuses to some extent on the lakes, creating a more relaxed vibe than elsewhere, and the city’s efforts to become the cleanest city in India have borne fruit, at least in the centre.

We spent the largest part of our day here exploring the City Palace, an amazing structure which is actually many palaces in one – all piled on top of each other on the eastern shore of the oldest lake, Pichola. We also had time to stroll in one of the oldest streets, visit a temple and some pretty gardens, but not, unfortunately, to take a boat ride on the lake and visit the famous Lake Palace hotel, nor to visit the Monsoon Palace. Another day here would have been good – but I could say the same about almost every place we visited on our tour of Rajasthan!

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Langurs beside the road

We drove to Udaipur from Narlai via Ranakpur, stopping to visit the stunning Jain temple there en route (see my previous entry). We also stopped in a bustling small town, Sadri; drove through the Aravalli Mountains with some beautiful views; and had plenty of chances to photograph the traditional rural Rajasthani way of life. There were oxen pulling ploughs and turning water wheels to irrigate the land (I made a little video of the latter and tipped the woman operating it for her trouble), and men and women (the latter in the most colourful of saris) working in the fields. We also saw several troops of the Langur monkeys whose antics never failed to make me smile!

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Threshing and drawing water

Waterwheel

By the time we arrived in Udaipur it was late afternoon. We checked into our hotel, the Lalit Laxmi Vilas Palace, which lies a little way out of the oldest part of town on the shores of Fateh Sagar, one of the city’s many lakes. This rather grand old hotel is part heritage property, part newer. We had a large room in the newer (cheaper) wing, but with a lovely lake view that more than compensated for any lack of character, and a window seat from which to enjoy it.

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Hotel entrance and our room

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View from our room

While our reception here was welcoming it was also a bit stifling. A friendly girl from reception showed us to our room, and the bell boy followed with the luggage and showed us all the facilities (expecting a good tip, of course) and also explained how we could give feedback and mention him by name. While he was still doing this the phone rang - it was reception wanting to know if we liked our room. And as he left a lady from the spa arrived to tell us that we could book a massage and the prices were displayed in the room (so clearly that we hadn't needed her visit to point this out!) This over-solicitousness continued throughout our stay - for instance, one morning at breakfast three different staff members hovered over us offering to fetch coffee, bread, pancakes etc., despite it being a buffet! While well-meaning it became a bit wearing at times.

One bonus of our stay at the Lalit Laxmi Vilas Palace was the view over Fateh Sagar Lake, especially at sunset. The hotel faces west across the lake and in on a ridge above it, so perfectly positioned to catch the final rays of the sun as it goes down behind the hills on the opposite shore. The hotel makes the most of these, with musical entertainment as the sun sinks and drinks served on the small terrace overlooking the lawns. But with most if not all rooms facing towards the lake, we found we could just as easily enjoy the sight from the comfort of our own room with its strategically positioned window seat!

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Lake view, late afternoon

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Udaipur sunsets

Evening entertainment is provided in the rather incongruous form of bagpipers who played "Scotland the Brave", among other tunes, as the sun set over the hills on the other side of the lake! I just had to make a video of that. Later there was a puppet show and later still the ubiquitous Rajasthani cultural performance.

The hotel has three restaurants. On that first evening we chose to eat in Aangan, which serves Indian food and has outside seating with a view of the lake. The food was OK but the menu very limited as they were having a kebab festival which meant that we were restricted to choosing between a set platter of meat kebabs or one of vegetarian ones, with both of us having to eat the same. Prices though were reasonable (we paid 3,200IR which included three drinks and a three course set meal). A shame, as I think their regular menu would have suited us well and made this a good choice.

On balance we probably liked this hotel among the least of all those we stayed in on this trip. It looks very grand, and has wonderful views - these are its best feature. But it lacks some of the facilities you would expect of a hotel with these pretensions, such as a bar (!) and swimming pool (it would have been better by far to use the lawns for this purpose than to add a third unnecessary restaurant). Also, while I did feel staff really wanted to be helpful, the attentive service felt drilled rather than genuine.

Udaipur's lakes

Arriving in Udaipur it is immediately obvious why it is so often called the “city of lakes”. A string of them runs through its heart and you are never far from water here. All the lakes are interconnected, and you will see different numbers cited, as it seems to depend on whether you count the smallest stretches of water as an actual lake or not. Wikipedia suggests that in total there are three main lakes in the upper catchment area above the city, six lakes within its municipal boundary and one lake downstream. Our guide on the other hand said there were just five in the centre. In practice though you will probably be most aware of just three – Pichola with its famous Lake Palace in the southern part of the city, Fateh Sagar in the more modern northern part, and smaller Swaroop Sagar which links the two.

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Pichola from near the City Palace

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Swaroop Sagar

The lakes are not natural; they are all manmade. Pichola is the oldest, constructed in 1362 and extended in 1560, while Fateh Sagar was added in 1678 and Swaroop Sagar in the mid-19th century. In the past there have been considerable problems with water pollution, caused by poor treatment of sewage, but there have been efforts in recent years to clean up the lakes. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t recommend bathing here. It is possible though to take boat trips on both Pichola and Fateh Sagar, and I wished we would have found time for this during our brief stay.

City Palace

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Most of the next morning was devoted to the building which dominates Udaipur’s old town, the City Palace, which stands on the east bank of Pichola Lake. It was founded by Rana Udai Singh II in 1559 – according to legend he chose this spot on the advice of a hermit who was meditating here and whose blessing he sought. It has been developed and much added to by subsequent generations of maharanas to create what is actually a whole complex of palaces – most sources describe eleven in total. Part of it is still occupied by the Mewar royals, who in today’s democratic India have retained their titles (and wealth) but no power. They run the complex as part tourist attraction / museum, part heritage hotel.

Entrance fees can be confusing as there are many ticket options, depending on which parts of the complex you want to see. Our tour was pre-paid as part of our holiday but if buying your own ticket you’ll want to study the options in advance (not easy, as the official website doesn’t explain them properly!) I did however spot at least one ticket counter part way round the tour where those who wanted to add extra sections could do so.

The publicly accessible parts are something of a rabbit warren of narrow passages, steep stairways, and hidden courtyards. We were very glad we had a guide, although the audio guide you can hire would also be helpful in finding your way and ensuring you don’t miss anything.

You enter the palace either from the south, as we did, climbing up a path with great views of Pichola lake (see above) and passing the private quarters of the maharana, or from the north via the old city and the Badi Pol, the main gate. Either route leads you into the Manek Chowk, a large courtyard with lawns which was created in around 1620.

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City Palace seen from Manek Chowk

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Park your elephant here

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This is the main ceremonial area of the palace and is still used today for royal festivities and public events. The buildings of the palace tower above you on the courtyard’s west side. Near the northern end of the courtyard you will see some large indentations in the ground which our guide explained were where elephants would be tethered (you will get a better view of these later, looking down from above). A large wall in the north west part of the courtyard was used for elephant wrestling – two elephants would stand one each side of the wall and wrestle each other with their trunks (you can see photos of this inside one of the palaces).

On the wall of the palace look out for the large sun – the Mewar maharanas worshipped the sun and would greet it each morning. In the event of cloudy skies, they would greet instead a pure gold sun mounted on an inside wall of the palace, and to encourage the people to do likewise they had this gold plated version mounted here.

From the Manek Chowk you pass through the Toran Pol, with its heavy spiked gates and a wonderful painting on the ceiling of the arch depicting dancing girls.

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Toran Pol

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Ganesh Deodhi

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Glass inlay decoration

One of the first sights of note on our explorations of the City Palace was the Ganesh Chowk, off which is this small statue of Ganesh, the Ganesh Deodhi. It was sculpted in marble in 1620 and is an object of reverence. It is set in a small niche and surrounded by beautiful glass inlay work depicting girls with fans, flowers and vines, peacocks and more.

From here we climbed some steps which led to the Rajya Angan, the earliest courtyard of the palace, built by Rana Udai Singh II in the 16th century. The early coronation ceremonies of the Mewar rulers took place in this courtyard. A room off this courtyard has displays about Pratap Singh and his famous horse, Chetak, who carried his master to safety despite having been shot in the leg during the Battle of Haldighati fought between the Rajputs and Mughals in 1576; once Pratap was safe, Chetak died of his wounds. Chetak is depicted in this model wearing a strange elephant-like truck, which was intended to deter attacks from the battle elephants who were trained to wield swords in their trunks and slash the enemy. It was just such an attack that caused Chetak’s wounds, so we can assume that the disguise was not good enough to fool the elephants on that occasion at least.

Pratap and
Chetak

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From the Rajya Angan we climbed further to the Chandra Mahal which was created by Rana Karan Singh II in the early 17th century as a leisure place for the rulers. In the centre is a large basin carved from a single piece of marble which is thought to have been used during Holi celebrations. It is also said that on the occasion of Karan Singh’s wedding the basin was filled with 100,000 silver coins which were later distributed among the poor of Udaipur. A balcony to one side of the courtyard offers fantastic views of the lake below.

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View from Chandra Mahal

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Wall carving, Chandra Mahal

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Roof detail, Chandra Mahal

The next part of the City Palace that we came to on our tour was the Badi Mahal or Garden Palace (also sometimes known as Amar Vilas after its creator, Rana Amar Singh II). This dates from 1699 and was designed as a summer house. It has a marble basin in the centre and is planted with trees, like a roof garden (we are 30 metres or so above ground level here). Around the edges are terraces with 104 intricately carved marble pillars to support their canopies.

You can get some great views of the town below from here. It was also from here that my photo (above) of the elephant tethering pits in the Manek Chowk was taken.

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In the Badi Mahal

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Badi Mahal windows and view

From here we descended (I think!) past a room which displayed paintings of court life to one of the most ornate rooms, the Kanch ki Burj. Like the Chandra Mahal this dates from the reign of Rana Karan Singh II. Its walls are covered with red zig-zag mirrors (a 19th century addition) and it has some beautiful tile-work and a mirrored dome.

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Kanch ki Burj

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Continuing our tour we came next to the Badi Chitrashali Chowk, a square courtyard built during the reign of Rana Sangram Singh II (1710-1734). This space was used for music and dance performances, and was another of my favourites. It is decorated with blue tiles imported from China and windows of brightly coloured glass in which it is possible to frame a photo of the city below.

Beyond lies a terrace which provides another good spot for views - the city from one side, and Lake Pichola from the other. You can also look down into Manek Chowk and get a more detailed look at some of its features less easily visible from ground level, such as the statue of Ganesh in my photo below. There were a lot of visitors here all jostling to get the best photos so you may have to be patient!

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Views from the Badi Chitrashali Chowk of the city and of Manek Chowk

From here, steps lead down to the Moti Mahal or Pearl Palace, its walls covered in mirrors and coloured glass. This is another of Karan Singh II’s additions – he seems to have liked rich colours and ornamentation. He was also responsible for the Manek Mahal or Ruby Palace which lies on the far side of the Mor Chowk.

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Moti Mahal

We passed then through a succession of rooms, the names of which I didn't always note although my camera was kept busy!

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We came at last to one of the City Palace's most photographed and acclaimed areas, the Mor Chowk. This is arguably the most beautiful of the palace’s many delights. Some other parts are more colourful, and it lacks the views of other courtyards, but its decorative elements are among the most exquisite and it has a pleasing uniformity of design. The stand-out features are the five mosaics of peacocks, commissioned by Rana Sajjan Singh in 1874. Each is made from about 5,000 pieces of coloured glass and stones. They are protected by windows so hard to photograph without reflections, but I got my most successful image by putting my lens right against the glass to capture the intricacies of the work – each fine strand of the feathers is a separate shard of green glass, for instance.

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Although easy to overlook when focusing on the peacocks, the rest of the courtyard is also beautifully decorated, especially at the upper levels.

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Upper levels of the Mor Chowk

At this point I confess I started to tire and although I took more photos of the remaining rooms and palaces these were mostly of small details that caught my eye, and at times I omitted to note where we were exactly within the complex!

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Manek Mahal

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Details - door, painting, lamp

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Detail of carved wall

I have written a lot about the City Palace and shared lots of photos, and yet this was not all we saw here! It’s an amazing place and you could quite easily spend the best part of a day here. As it was, we were here for several hours and still missed things I am sure.

City Palace Road

After our visit to the City Palace we took a walk along this road which I found held a wealth of fascinating activity and photo opportunities. Udaipur prides itself on being among the cleanest of Indian cities, and while that cleanliness seems only to apply to the very centre (we saw the ubiquitous rubbish heaps everywhere else) it was definitely in evidence here. There was also perhaps less traffic than we had become used to in the cities we visited, at least at the top end of the street, making it easier to find the best position for a photo. But as everywhere we found locals happy to see our cameras and for the most part to be included in our shots, when they realised this was the case.

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This was also a good place to find local crafts, and although I didn't buy anything here (we stopped later in the day in a cooperative where I got a lovely cushion cover however), I did enjoy photographing the many puppets on display. Some of the shop signs raised a smile and made for good photos too.

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Jagdish Temple

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Where City Palace Road becomes Jagdish Temple Road there is the large Hindu temple that gives the latter street its name, perched somewhat incongruously (or so it seemed to me) above a row of shops. This was built in 1651/2 by Rana Jagat Singh, and is dedicated to one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu, Jagannath. A black stone image of him stands inside, carved from a single stone (no photos allowed here), and around this central shrine are four more dedicated to Lord Ganesh, the Sun god, the goddess Shakti and Lord Shiva. A brass image of Garuda (the half-bird, half-man vehicle of Lord Vishnu), stands in a separate shrine in front of the temple. Outside every surface is decorated with carvings – elephants of all sizes, lions, images of Vishnu, scenes from the life of Krishna, dancing nymphs and all sorts of geometric and floral shapes.

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Jagdish Temple

Sahelion Ki Bari

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These pretty gardens dotted with fountains are a peaceful oasis in this busy city. The name means “Courtyard of the Maidens” and commemorates a group of 48 young female attendants who accompanied a princess to Udaipur as part of her dowry. The garden was laid out by Rana Sangram Singh in the early part of the 18th century. It is said that he created it for his queen and these 48 companions, to give them somewhere to relax away from the court.

Although not large, there is quite a lot to see here, with several distinct parts to the garden. Near the entrance are lawns, and a square walled garden with a large pond in the centre of which is a pretty white marble chhatri. Water is something of a theme here – there are several other pools and numerous fountains ornamented with cranes and other birds, as well as elephants. A later Maharana, Bhupal Singh, added a group of rain fountains whose sound is designed to mimic rainfall (a rare treat in this desert state). Some fountains in the gardens play constantly, while others are activated by clapping your hands nearby.

There are also plenty of flowers, including oleander and bougainvillea. Some of the fountains were imported from England and the gardens show an English landscaping influence in places, just as English gardens of that period were often influenced by Indian styles.

There is a small entry fee (our guide paid so I’m not sure what this was) but the outer lawns are accessible free of charge and are a popular picnicking spot for locals.

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Fountains of Sahelion Ki Bari

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Gardeners

From here we drove back to Fateh Sagar, the lake a little to the north of the centre, where we stopped for lunch at a lakeside hotel. Later we stopped on a bridge over Swaroop Sagar which had super views in both directions. We could see locals washing their clothes at the water’s edge and had a good distant view of the Monsoon Palace. We met some local school boys too, keen to pose for photos!

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At Swaroop Sagar

We also visited the crafts cooperative where I bought my pretty cushion cover, before returning to the hotel to relax and catch up with emails etc. It was then that I wished that the hotel had used its extensive grounds for a swimming pool rather than a third restaurant!

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But after another lovely sunset it was in that third restaurant that we ate our dinner. This is the Garden Grill. Its tables are set out among the trees and there is a nice view of the palace that houses the hotel, but not of the lake. Service was again stiflingly over-attentive (we were the only guests dining there as the hotel was quiet that night) and the food, which is "multi-cuisine" but all quite spicy (think Cajun chicken and Indonesian satay), was merely average. But we enjoyed the setting and the birds (stilts, I believe) that wandered the lawns between the tables. A full moon rose over the hotel palace and made a lovely backdrop to our final evening in Udaipur.

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Tomorrow we would turn our sights northwards again ...

Posted by ToonSarah 12:25 Archived in India Tagged buildings people india palace garden udaipur rajasthan street_photography Comments (9)

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