Category Archives: Rajasthan

Royal Rajasthan: 7 Wow Places for your 7 Vows

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY pick out seven dream locations in Rajasthan for the ultimate destination wedding 

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Few places can match Rajasthan for the sheer opulence and grandeur it imparts to a destination wedding. With forts and palaces doubling up as venues, there’s no better location for Maharaja style nuptials. Ghodis (horses) are too plebian; here the groom arrives in style on elephant back or in a vintage car.

Monuments brought alive with 3D laser mapping, processions carrying mashaals (torches) and entertainment that ranges from local folk musicians to international pop stars; whatever you want, if you have the budget, you can get it. Here’s a look at seven wow places for your seven vows.

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Suryagarh, Jaisalmer
The splash of celebratory orange safas (turban) over fort turrets and ramparts, lavish floral arrangements, starry skies and a cool desert breeze; Suryagarh on the Jaisalmer-Sam Road has wowed many as an unforgettable wedding venue. By day, mandaps and pavilions bedecked with orange and white parasols add colour while thousands of lamps light up niches around the Bawdi (stepped tank) by night.

With classy rooms in the main building for guests and exclusive haveli and suite Residences in a quiet corner ideal for the bride and groom’s family, the 77 rooms can accommodate the whole band, baja, baraat. Rait Spa offers specially designed beauty and wellness therapies for a pre-nup, using locally sourced Thar sand and Luni river salt, besides a stunning indoor pool and gym.

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The top notch cuisine blends the best of international fare with Indian cuisine, served in a variety of dramatic locations – from a lavish Halwai Breakfast in the central courtyard, Silk Route Dinner and Sangeet at the Enchanted Garden by the Lake to Wedding by the Bawdi at the Baradari pavilion of the Celebration Garden. Small celebrations take place in the Mehendi Terrace and musical evenings at the Tulsi Garden. Sundowners, strains of the algoza (double flute) and performances by Kalbeliyas and Manganiyars on the dunes culminate in fireworks, making it an unforgettable exeprience.

Kahala Phata, Sam Road, Jaisalmer 345001
Ph +91-02992-269269, 78271 51151 www.suryagarh.com
Tariff Rs.14,000-1,00,000

Jet Airways flies to Jodhpur, from where Suryagarh is 285km/5hrs by road.

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Neemrana
Located south-west of Delhi in Alwar district, Neemrana’s advantage is its proximity to the national capital. Set against the Aravali hills, the sprawling 15th century fort palace is one of India’s oldest heritage hotels and a destination in itself. The Rs.7 crore renovation project took 15 years and it shows! Cascading down a hillside over 12 tiers of lush landscaped terraces, Neemrana is a stunning location for weddings. From the first regal wedding in 1992 (a London-Singapore affair) to a Punjabi royal bash, it has played matchmaker in many an alliance.

Various functions can be held in the fort’s seven palace wings overlooking 6 acres of terraced patios, alcoves and magnificent gardens like Uncha Baag, Mukut Baag and Sirmaur Baag. Blending Sultanate, Rajput, Mughal and colonial styles, each room is unique – Paashan Mahal (Rock Palace) is built around a rockface of the Aravalis, Uma Vilas has terrific hill views, Chandra Mahal was the old Hall of Justice while Francisi Mahal is a French suite. Enjoy alfresco dinners, Ayurvedic massages, two swimming pools – Raj Kund and the exclusive Surya Kund and Mahaburj restaurant serves excellent Rajasthani and North Indian cuisine.

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There’s plenty to do for guests with camel rides, audio tours, camel cart rides to an 18th century stepwell, vintage car rides and a 5-track Zipline, the first in India, by Flying Fox. Being a hill fort, be prepared to walk and climb high steps to reach different levels. For a smaller, more intimate experience, try Neemrana’s Hill Fort Kesroli near Alwar.

122nd Milestone, Off Delhi-Jaipur Highway, Neemrana, Alwar District 301705
Ph 01494 246007, 9310630386 www.neemranahotels.com
Tariff Rs.6,500-28,000

Jet Airways has several flights to IGI Airport, Delhi from where Neemrana is just 108km

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Udaipur
Steeped in romance and the beauty of its seven lakes interlinked by canals, Udaipur has hosted many a celebrity wedding. In 2004, actress Raveena Tandon got married to film distributor Anil Thadani at Jagmandir Island Palace at Lake Pichola and the whole place transformed into a giant film set with Bollywood biggies flying in from Mumbai. The venue was immortalized in the Bond flick Octopussy.

New York hotelier and Bollywood dilettante Vikram Chatwal married model-turned-entrepreneur Priya Sachdev in 2006 with lavish pre-wedding parties like the masquerade-themed Fantasia that took place in the Zenana Mahal of the City Palace. The sterling guest list of 600 from 26 countries included Bill Clinton, Naomi Campbell and P Diddy, flew in on chartered planes from Bombay, Udaipur and Delhi during the 10-day bash.

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Jagmandir Palace featured again in the marriage of tycoon Sanjay Hinduja with Anu Mahtani in one of the mega wedding spectacles of the country. The global cuisine from 16 countries was served to 16,000 guests in a week-long celebration. There were traffic jams; caused not by the BMWs flown in from Mumbai for transporting guests but due to 208 private chartered planes! The wedding bill alone was £15 million with top artists like J-Lo and Nicole Scherzinger performing at Manek Chowk, a Mughal garden in the City Palace. The mehendi was held at the Shiv Niwas heritage hotel while the starlets stayed in £3,000-a-night luxury suites at Oberoi Udai Vilas.

Besides Fateh Prakash Palace and Shikarbadi Hotel in Udaipur, the HRH Group also lets out Gajner Palace, Karni Bhawan Palace in Bikaner and Gorbandh Palace in Jaisalmer for regal weddings. Udaipur’s advantage is the profusion of excellent lakefront hotels that serve as great nuptial venues. Ferry guests in style at the Taj Lake Palace, opt for a Wedding Package at The Leela Palace or escape to the hilltop fort palace of Devigarh.

HRH Group of Hotels, Udaipur
Ph +91-294 2528016-19, 1800 180 2933, 1800 180 2944
Email events@eternalmewar.in, crs@hrhhotels.com www.hrhhotels.com
Tariff Rs.23,500

Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur 313001
Ph +91 0294 2428700, 2428800 www.tajhotels.com
Tariff Rs.29,000 onwards

The Oberoi Udaivilas, Haridasji Ki Magri, Mulla Talai, Udaipur 313 001
Ph +91 0294 243 3300 www.oberoihotels.com
Tariff Rs.30,000 onwards

Jet Airways flies to Udaipur

Umaid Bhawan Palace/Jodhpur/India

Jodhpur
The big ticket wedding of actress Elizabeth Hurley and Arun Nayar in 2007 didn’t last as long as it took to build the Umaid Bhawan Palace, but that doesn’t dent the eternal charm of Jodhpur. The opulent golden-hued sandstone palace floored well-heeled guests like Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Mick Jagger, Sting, Diana Ross and others. Set amidst 26 acres of lush gardens with 347 rooms, it is the sixth largest private residence in the world, with as many as four indoor and six outdoor venues to accommodate a dream Maharaja style wedding.

The palace has a private museum (with a Champagne Museum Walk), marbled squash courts and a subterranean pool under the palace decorated with zodiac signs on the pathway. Pamper yourself at Jiva Spa. Typically, a two or three-day wedding celebration begins with a cocktail dinner by the Poolside, a Mehndi ceremony at Mehrangarh Fort, Sangeet at the ornate Marwar Hall and Wedding-cum-Reception at the famous Baradari Lawns.

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The Mehrangarh Fort itself is a great location for a destination wedding as the lofty citadel is lit up in laser lights while the revelry on the ramparts continues late into the night. For a price, wedding planners can also organize an elephant polo match for guests. Don’t want to break the bank? Try Ranbanka Palace or Ajit Bhawan.

Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur 342006
Ph +91 291 2510101, 2510100 www.tajhotels.com
Email umaidbhawan.jodhpur@tajhotels.com
Tariff Rs.77,400

Jet Airways flies to Jodhpur

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Deogarh Mahal
Located between the two nodal hubs of Udaipur and Jodhpur, Deogarh or the Fort of the Gods was once the fourth largest jagir (estate) in Rajasthan. In the aristocracy of the Mewar court, the Rawats of Deogarh were counted among one of the sixteen umrao’s (senior feudal barons) of the Maharana of Udaipur. Built around 1670, their citadel is now a luxury heritage resort run by the Deogarh family.

Its 75 rooms stretch across three locations just 5km/15 min apart – 16 luxury Swiss camps at Khayyam, four exclusive suites at the renovated lakefront hunting lodge Fort Seengh Sagar and the rest at the Mahal (palace). Each room is reflective of a different era with Gokul Ajara, Moti Mahal and Ranjit Prakash rooms dating back to 350 years! With wide courtyards and terraces, there are several locations for various events.

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Gala evenings feature folk music and dance while one has a choice of theme dinners – Royal Desert Dinner at Khayyam with folk artists, Lake-side Dinner at Seengh Sagar or a Chowki dinner with low seating on chowkis, silver ware and typical Rajasthani menu. Fruits, vegetables, milk products and oils are all in-house, lending freshness to the typical Mewari cuisine. The Mahal can take care of all your needs – from elephants, buggies, royal processions, vintage cars, mandap décor, puja accessories, fireworks right down to the purohit!

Deogarh Madaria, District Rajsamand 313331
Ph +91-2904-252777, 253333 www.deogarhmahal.com
Tariff Rs.8,500-25,000

Jet Airways flies to Udaipur and Jodhpur, from where Deogarh is 135 km and 175km respectively.

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Jaipur
With its pink sandstone monuments, opulent palaces and festive spirit, the Pink City seems perennially drenched in celebratory hues. No wonder, businessmen, Bollywood stars, TV actors, royal scions, NRIs and foreign visitors, all make a beeline to Jaipur for their nuptials. Shivraj Singh, the prince of Jodhpur, got married to Gayatri Kumari of Askot here in a glittering ceremony in 2010. Jaipur’s advantage is the wide range of hotels geared up to host a wedding, with all facilities at hand – brass bands, vintage cars, elephants, artists and the best of shopping.

The stunning monuments and palaces like Raj Palace and Jai Mahal Palace also form a great backdrop for pre and post wedding shoots. Taj Group’s Rambagh Palace, voted among the top romantic hotels in the country, offers multiple locations and experiences. The royal meal is served in peacock thalis at the Rambagh Lawns, while private lunches are arranged at the royal hunting lodge.

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You could have an intimate family dinner in the Rajput Room or a royal Indian feast at the former palace ballroom Suvarna Mahal, with 18th century French décor and massive crystal chandeliers. Saving all that money for your honeymoon? Opt for Shiv Vilas Palace or Alsisar Haveli in town or drive out 43km northwest of Jaipur to Samode Palace, snug in the Aravalis. For nearly two and half centuries, the palace and its tented camp Samode Bagh have hosted weddings. Have the mandap or sacred fire in the beautiful courtyard and a royal banquet in the opulent Darbar hall.

Samode House, Gangapole, Jaipur 302002
Ph +91-141-2632370, +91-1423-240013-15 www.samode.com

Alsisar Haveli, Sansar Chandra Road, Jaipur 302 001
Ph +91-141-236 8290, 236 4685, 510 7157 www.alsisar.com

Jet Airways flies to Jaipur

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Ranthambhore
When Katy Perry and Russell Brand got married in 2010 at Aman-i-Khas, a luxury resort outside Ranthambhore tiger reserve, it didn’t escape the attention of wedding planners and matchmakers looking for theme weddings! A local priest officiated over their grand Hindu wedding and Katy even put on a nath (nose ornament) and mehendi for the occasion. The nuptials featured a procession of 21 camels, elephants, horses, dancers and musicians. Part of the Aman group of hotels, the venue (and its tariff) is ideal for small, exclusive gatherings.

Each of the ten high-ceilinged tents is inspired by the airy abodes of Mughal emperors while on hunts or expeditions. You can opt for a ‘Machan’ wedding with the ceremony (sans the sacred fire) taking place on a platform 20 ft off the ground and guests watching the proceedings from elephant back. For a more regular affair, choose a swank hotel like Nahargarh to tie the knot.

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Aman-i-Khas, Sherpur-Khiljipur, Ranthambhore Road, Sawai Madhopur
Ph +91-7462 252 052 Email aman-i-khas@amanresorts.com www.amanresorts.com
Tariff Rs.1,06,000

Nahargarh, Village Khilchipur, Ranthambhore Road, Sawai Madhopur 322001
Ph +91-7462-252281-83 Email alsisar@alsisar.com www.nahargarh.com
Tariff Rs.25,000

Jet Airways flies to Jaipur, 160km from Ranthambhore

 

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the Cover Story on Destination Weddings in the October 2016 issue of JetWings magazine. 

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Desert Rain: Trails across the Thar

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY piece together Thar’s glorious past from fragments of ruins, cenotaphs, folklore, forgotten forts and caravanserais along the Silk Route

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The road shot across the Thar, a monochrome landscape resembling a gargantuan oatmeal cookie, toasted by sun and time to an uneven brown. All of a sudden, the endless parched expanse was broken by a vast carpet of green, speckled with vegetation. Stray horses lapped at water puddles on the fringes. We rubbed our eyes. It was no mirage. We were staring at the result of an indigenous rainwater harvesting practice that has provided sustenance in these barren tracts for centuries!

At an unmarked location near Jaisalmer beyond the reach of Google Maps, we were on the bespoke Desert Remembers trail, beautifully curated to present Thar’s lesser known history and folklore. The ancient Paliwal Brahmins, who prospered from trade on the Silk Route, were geniuses in agriculture and practised an innovative farming technique. Studying local topography and geology, they identified flatlands and built embankments above an impervious gypsum layer to trap rainwater. These precious aagor (catchment areas) caught the first rains and a network of dhoras (drains) channelled water throughout the khadin (community farmland), ensuring it remained a shallow oasis.

IMG_8974-Horses slake their thirst near a khadin

Low ridges to our right formed the mineral rich gravely uplands that gently sloped towards the fertile silty basin on our left. The harnessed rainwater was flooded into the low lying fields and held for two months. The impervious gypsum layer enabled the soil to resuscitate, assuring a round of crops annually and sometimes, even a post-rain crop. No one owned the land and the entire community collectively shared the harvest! Their water management was so legendary, the Paliwals were believed to possess powers to summon rains at will.

As we drove past a sandstone pillar, we noticed deities and inscriptions carved on it. Our host Manvendra Singh Shekhawat explained that it was a govardhan, ancient water markers venerated as shila-ji (holy stone) by locals. Sometimes precious metals would be buried under the posts, with etchings of the ruling planetary deity, aligned to constellations in the sky. It doubled up as a navigational aid and served as life-saving signposts for travellers in the past. After a full day, we finally retired to the comfort of our base Suryagarh.

IMG_8992-Govardhan or water markers

Many of the hotel’s design elements were inspired by its surroundings – the jharokas overlooking the central courtyard from Jaisalmer’s havelis, windows and friezes from Khaba Fort and stone walls and ceiling design from Kuldhara. Champagne and snacks heralded the launch of the Residences at Suryagarh, an exclusive section of private suites set away from the main hotel.

Each handcrafted sandstone haveli offered a sense of private luxury while a large open courtyard, reminiscent of Paliwal villages, was based on the community living concept. Wide windows and pillared corridors framed the vastness of the desert while the warm décor, sunken rooms and furnishings exuded sophisticated charm. In a rare tribute, each room was named after the chief karigar (mason) who built it!

IMG_8910-Suryagarh's elaborate halwai breakfast

The next day, the prospect of waking up for before dawn for ‘Breakfast with Peacocks’ seemed too much effort, so we settled for a leisurely Halwayi Breakfast in the courtyard. It was an asssault course of farsan (snacks), which were consumed in no particular order – kachori, aloo bonda, mirchi pakoda, fafda, samosa, laddus, gulabjamun, fruits, fresh juices, followed by assorted parathas, curd and a variety of pickles and chutneys. It was carnage.

Going by our diet, it would seem we were setting out to conquer Khaba Fort, not visit it. As we disembarked, a turbaned manganiyar clicked his castanets to a soulful rendition of the folk classic “Padharo mhare des.” We could have sworn he was perched in the central jharoka of the Suryagarh courtyard moments ago but had magically transported himelf here. Once a flourishing caravanserai, Khaba Fort housed a small museum with fossil rocks and info boards that traced Thar’s geological history. It was hard to believe that 60 million years ago, the desert was a watery world hemmed by the Arabian Sea but over time the seabed had become an unending sea of dunes.

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The next stop was Nav Dungar temple, one in a series of nine hill deities, atop Jaisalmer’s second highest point. Members of a desert cycling expedition from Barmer to Jaisalmer halted here for a breather as raucous ravens and vultures lazily circled overhead. The black desert road swooped down the rugged hills and snaked across the arid lands. En route camels and goats flocked to the khejri trees for nourishment and shade. A group of Muslim women waited by the roadside, their vibrant odhnis (veils) billowing in the wind as chunky traditional silver jewellery glinted around their necks, arms and feet. They smiled, noticing how captivated we were by the raw ethnic beauty of their kohl rimmed eyes and gold disc nose studs.

Even before our calorie loss from the day’s exertions could reach double figures, we had reached Joshida Talao, a royal pleasure haunt by the lake. A stone pavilion stood forlorn, once a resting spot for weary travellers. Khejri trees drooped into the small lake as if quenching their thirst. Every now and then, a tractor with blaring music would roll by to replenish water tankers that supplied nearby villages. Reclining on bolsters, we were plied with refreshments and succulent char-grilled meats as we listened to the strains of the algoza (double flute). Perched on a lakeside platform, our troubadour seemed more magician than musician with his acts of teleportation.

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We raced in a trail of dust, feeling lost in the overwhelming emptiness until we saw a lone sign of habitation – a dhani (settlement) of Bhils. This nomadic tribe was apparently cursed by goddess Parvati for not appreciating a gift from Lord Shiva. Tracing their lineage to Parvati’s brothers, the Bhils are doomed to wander till perpetuity. Even to this day, Bhils don’t farm. In a land that believes in community living, the Bhils live as nuclear families, moving every few months to another place.

Their hut had no electricity but a cellphone was left to charge on the roof, plugged into a solar panel! Goats bleated in a pen while a lady rolled chapatis on a clay stove inside. She barely had enough for her family; yet she invited us with a broad smile – “Come, have dinner with us!” Their indomitable spirit of survival in these harsh climes with the barest minimum and innate goodness to open their hearts and homes, moved us deeply.

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Despite the apparent nothingness all around, there was much to cover – cenotaphs of merchants and travellers, retracing old trade routes on camel safaris, ancient stepwells and tanks, hillocks with fossil remains, the sweet water wells of Mundari and the midnight Chudail (Witches) Trail at Kuldhara; the Thar indeed held many secrets. The size and scale of the ruins hinted at untold prosperity. But what looked innoccuous in the day seemed shadowy and ominous by moonlight. It was in the course of one night that the Paliwals abandoned their 84 settlements en masse. Some ascribe their migration to high taxation, a lascivious ruler or locals poisoning their wells out of jealousy. Whatever the cause, they left no trace of where they went.

Since we had explored Jaisalmer’s yellow sandstone mansions and jharokas earlier, we opted out of the city tour. The famous hill fort had inspired Satyajit Ray to pen the mystery novel Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress), which he directed into a Bangla movie in 1974. Based on a reincarnation theme, the adventure revolved around detective Feluda and a kid who had a recurring dream of deserts and peacocks. We could identify with that kid.

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We drove to Lodhruva, an old trading town and capital of the Bhati rulers before Rawal Jaisal shifted it to Jaisalmer. The 12th century Jain temple of Parswanath, the 23rd tirthankara, was bedecked with garlands. Local kids eagerly guided us around the complex to the sacred Tree of Life, a fabulous wooden structure carved with flora and fauna besides the snake-hole where people offered milk (the lucky ones got to see the serpent)! We were fine with unlucky.

Unfortunately, Lodhruva was raided by Mahmud of Ghazni and Mohammed Ghori several times. After years of neglect, the temple was renovated in the 70s. The sacred sandal paste on our forehead felt cool in the dry desert wind. We sighed and carried on. Like the Bhils, we too had long resigned ourselves to a nomadic life of travel…

Rajasthan_Lodhruva Jain temple IMG_9364_Anurag & Priya

Fact File

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Jodhpur Airport, from where Jaisalmer is 300 km/6 hrs by road and Suryagarh is a 20 min drive from town on Sam Road.

Where to Stay: Stay in palace rooms, suites or the new Residences, with signature Rajasthani cuisine in various fine dine settings. http://www.suryagarh.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unedited version of the article that appeared in the September 2015 issue of JetWings magazine.

It’s the time to Fresco: Painted Havelis of Shekhawati

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore a region north of Jaipur often described as the ‘largest open air gallery of Rajasthan’

Mahansar Fort heritage hotel owner IMG_0328Anurag Priya

Origin of Shekhawati and its havelis
The haveli was to the baniya (merchant) what the gadh (fort) was to the Rajput. In 15th century, Rao Shekhaji (1433-88), baron of the Shekhawat sub-clan of the Kachhwaha dynasty conquered a vast region north of Amber, which was called Shekhawati. Over time, his descendants set up smaller thikanas (fiefdoms). However, the birth of the haveli (palatial home) can be traced to the rise of the Marwaris. After the decline of the Silk Route, this merchant community migrated from the desert region of Marwar around 1820 to the ports of Calcutta and Bombay, amassing huge fortunes. Though Marwaris ventured far for business, they always returned for three things – weddings, religious ceremonies and buildings. Strewn across 13,784 sq km, hundreds of painted havelis vied to outdo the other, making Shekhawati the largest open-air gallery in Rajasthan.

Bagar Piramal Haveli renovated by Neemrana into a hotel IMG_0125_Anurag Priya

The land of millionaires
As per oral folklore, Shekhawati once had 22 crorepatis. Some of India’s biggest business houses have their roots here – Oswal, Mittal, Ruia, Lohia, Birla, Dalmia, Goenka, Singhania, Agarwal, Khetan, Modi, Kothari, Jalan, Poddar, Morarka, Jhunjhunuwala, Piramal… Built in 1928, The Piramal Haveli in Bagar was the home of Seth Piramal Chaturbhuj Makhania who made a fortune in Bombay, trading in cotton, silver and opium. Renovated by Neemrana and the closest Shekhawati hotel from Delhi, the haveli has a large garden and two pillared courtyards with colourful wall tiles and kitsch frescoes of flying angels and gods in motorcars. Presence of the British in Jaipur since 1803 finds ample reflection in the murals. Ph 01592 221220-21, 9310630386 http://www.neemranahotels.com

Ramgarh frescos - even undersides of domed chhatris serve as a canvas IMG_0630_Anurag Priya

Myriad themes
Mural painting was an elaborate process that involved application of different materials and techniques in multiple layers. The laborious task of grinding sandela or kara, a smooth paste was left for women or boys. Scenes depicted cover ten broad themes – decorative designs, daily life, religion, raga mala, folk mythology, historical events or personalities, flora and fauna, erotica, maps or places and the British and their contraptions. Most chhatris or domes include a rasamandala in the ceiling – a dancing circle in which Krishna miraculously replicates himself so each Gopi finds him dancing next to her.

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Tales of romance
Besides popular love stories like Laila-Majnu and Heer-Ranjha, Shekhawati’s murals have a recurrent theme of a couple astride a camel portraying Rajasthan’s most popular romantic tale – Dhola-Maru. Married off as kids, Dhola returns as an adolescent to fetch his wife. En route they encounter bandits Umra-Sumra and like a true Rajput wife, Maru repels the attackers while Dhola urges his camel onward. Paintings also represent lesser-known folk tales of Binjo-Sorath; Binjo mesmerizes his young aunt Sorath with his veena as she dances to his tunes. Sassi-Punu recounts the legend of Punu, a prince who weds Sassi, an abandoned princess raised among washermen. Tragically, Punu is kidnapped and Sassi dies in search of him in the desert…

Nawalgarh-Rajasthanis in a steamer IMG_2011_Anurag Priya

United Colours of Shekhawati
Long before 19th century natural colours like lampblack and red, green and yellow ochres were in use. Lime was a substitute for white and to lighten other hues, while indigo, ultramarine, vermilion, verdigris, gold and silver were reserved for puja rooms and bedrooms. Indian Yellow, made from gomutra or urine collected from cows fed on mango leaves, was rarely used. In 1860, German chemical pigments like artificial ultramarine, chrome red and emerald green reached India and remained popular till World War I, until supplies were hit. Inspired by ‘Made in Germany’ paint tins, many painters randomly emblazoned the word “Germany” to depict anything English! Maroon was popular between 1820-65, red and blue held sway between 1860-1910 while multi-coloured paintings using cheap European paints dominated 1900-50.

Dundlod-Fort interiors IMG_1585Anurag Priya

Dundlod: The Far Pavilions
In 1750, Thakur Kesri Singhji chose the site for Shivgarh Fort at the behest of local saint Dundlu Maharaj and named the village Dundlod. The beautiful diwankhana (assembly hall) has paintings of maharajas astride famous horses. Current owner Kanwar Raghavendra Singh (Bonnie Bana), who sourced 25 Marwari horses for the 1978 TV series The Far Pavilions, ended up buying them after the shoot! With partner Francesca Kelly, he runs Royal Equestrian & Polo Centre, organizing riding holidays across Rajasthan. The old well Sethon ka Kua and town square doubled up as a Partition era market in Pinjar. JP Dutta’s film Ghulami too was shot here and in Fatehpur, where most recently Salman Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan was filmed. Ph 9829212176, 9414208518 http://www.dundlod.com

Dundlod Seth Arjun Das Goenka Haveli Museum IMG_1457_Anurag Priya

Mansions with museums
Seth Arjundas Goenka Haveli Museum in Dundlod is a beautifully restored 1875 haveli showcasing merchant life in 19th century displaying old artefacts in 20 rooms. The richly carved fortified gate leads to the mardana (men’s quarter), an outer courtyard for visitors. Life-size clay figures depict the merchant, customers and punkha-walla, who manually swung the cloth ceiling fans. He was usually deaf and mute to ensure that business dealings remained secret. The inner courtyard or zenana recreates household scenes with large vessels, ladies at the chakki (stone wheel), cooks rolling out chapatis in the rasoi (kitchen) and earthen pitchers in a paniyada (narrow water storage room). Ph 9884053841 Mohan Goenka (Caretaker)

Nawalgarh Roop Niwas Kothi horse safaris IMG_1745_Anurag Priya

Far from the madding crowd
Founded by Thakur Nawal Singhji in 1737, Nawalgarh stands on an erstwhile grazing ground for horses, but is among the most modern towns in Shekhawati. Wrapped by a parkota (high wall), the town is marked by four pols (gates) – Bawadi, Mandi, Agoona and Nansa Darwajas. When the town outgrew these confines, Roop Niwas Kothi or ‘Rawal sab ki Kothi’ an old country house on a 100-acre patch became the family’s favoured retreat. The heritage resort has an impressive stable of Marwari horses and is owned by Bhanwar Devendra Singh who runs Royal Riding Holidays. Ph 01594-222008 http://www.roopniwaskothi.com

Nawalgarh-Dr Ramnath A Poddar Haveli Museum IMG_1977Anurag Priya

The art of haveli restoration
Nawalgarh’s Morarka Haveli was built by Jairam Dasji Morarka in the latter half of 18th century. After years of disuse, its renovation began in 2004 under conservation expert Dr Hotchand. Instead of cement, limestone, lal mitti (red mud) and river sand were used to strengthen surfaces. Marble dust and slaked lime replaced synthetic resins to reinforce plaster. Over 700 frescoes and 160 sculpted doors and windows, charred by smoke, dust and dirt were restored using traditional methods. Another renovated mansion nearby, Uttara Haveli was built in 1890 by Kesardev Morarka. Since the family did not dwell here long, it was opened for transiting relatives during functions. It was dubbed Uttaron ki Haveli (house of those who come and go), which morphed into Uttara Haveli. Ph 9649578317 http://www.morarkahavelimuseum.com

Nawalgarh-Dr Ramnath A Poddar Haveli Museum IMG_1940_Anurag Priya

Dr Ramnath A Podar Haveli Museum, a window to Rajasthan
Philanthropist Anandilal Podar built the haveli in 1902, which was converted into a museum and a centre for art, culture and heritage by his grandson Kantikumar R Podar. Restoring 750 frescoes spread over 11,200 sq m, he named the museum in memory of his father Ramnath A Podar. It has several interesting galleries on Rajasthani lifestyle, musical instruments, festivals, jewellery, miniature paintings, handicrafts, forts, palaces, bridal costumes, artworks in stone, wood and marble, besides turbans! Ph 01594-225446, 223138 http://www.podarhavelimuseum.org

Ramgarh Freco Hotel IMG_0665Anurag Priya

There are Ramgarhs, and there’s Ramgarh Sethan
Excessive taxation by Bikaner state led to the decline of Churu and the formation of Ramgarh. To protest the harsh taxes imposed by Thakur Sheo Singh of Churu, the Agrawal community of Podars left his territory in 1791 and founded a new town 16km south, with help from the Rao Raja of Sikar. In order to differentiate it from other Ramgarhs, they called it Ramgarh Sethan or Sethon ka Ramgarh (Ramgarh of wealthy merchants), vowing to outshine their former home. True to their word, Ramgarh reflects the wealth they amassed and spent to beautify their havelis. Today, Ramgarh holds the largest number of frescoes in Shekhawati. The Khandelwal family renovated the century old Khemka Haveli into the Ramgarh Fresco Hotel and organizes walking tours around the painted town. Ph 9971133230 http://www.ramgarhfresco.com

Ramgarh Shani Mandir IMG_0496Anurag Priya

Mirror mirror on the wall
Ironically, Ramgarh’s biggest mansion Sawalka Haveli was built in defiance of the Podars. Being old settlers, the Podars didn’t allow the Sawalkas into their territory, so Motilal Sawalika built a magnificent abode just outside the city gates! A short walk away is the Shani temple built by Gurudayal Khemka in 1840. The porch ceiling depicts mythological themes while mirror work on the interior walls is done using glass brought from Belgium and Persia around 1850.

Mahansar fresco-train IMG_0274_Anurag Priya

Weird contraptions of the Western world
The earliest depictions of Europeans in the frescoes are as army officers and troops. By mid 19th century their strange machines began to appear – paddle steamers and cargo boats that plied along the Ganga. While the railway was introduced in India in the 1850s, the first mural featuring a locomotive dates to 1872. Being the perfect frieze to divide a wall horizontally, the train fad caught on, sometimes even showing erotica in the carriages! By end 19th century, modern age contraptions shared wall space with camels and elephants – bicycles, cars, manned balloons and aeroplanes, locally called cheel-gadi (eagle craft). Western women were depicted listening to gramophones or playing netball.

Alsisar-Jhunjhunu wala ki Haveli  IMG_2163Anurag Priya

The Golden Room of Mahansar
The lofty Narain Niwas Castle in Mahansar was built in 1768 by Nawalgarh’s founder Thakur Nawal Singh for his second son Thakur Nahar Singh. Thakur Maheshwar Singh, the eighth generation scion, runs it as a simple heritage hotel with great sunset views from the terrace. Nearby, is one of the best painted havelis in Shekhawati – Sone Chandi ki Dukan or Golden Room built in 1846 inside a Podar haveli. Named after the gold and silver leaf used to decorate its walls, the vibrant frescoes show intricately rendered scenes from the Ramayana, the life of Krishna and incarnations of Vishnu. Ph 01595-264761, 99282 76998 http://www.mahansarfort.com

Castle Mandawa hall IMG_7193_Anurag Priya

Mandawa, the heart of trade
Being an old trading outpost on the Delhi-Bikaner route, Mandawa prospered greatly; its 175 havelis are ample proof. Perhaps the best specimens are Gulab Rai Ladia Haveli and Murmuria Haveli with its bizarre East-meets-West theme. Thakur Nawal Singh built Castle Mandawa in 1755 and rooms in its zenana display antique murals to objects in marble with antique armour and family portraits showcased in the diwankhana (drawing room). Ph 0141-2374112 http://www.mandawahotels.com

Fatehpur-Haveli Nadine le Prince IMG_0798Anurag Priya

Fatehpur’s French connection
Originally built in 1802 by the Devras, the richest family of silk traders at the court of the local ruler, the Nandlal Devra Haveli was purchased in 1998 by artist Nadine le Prince, a descendant of French painter Jean-Baptiste le Prince. Nadine restored its frescoes using local artists and opened a cultural center that exhibits her artwork alongside French and Indian modern artists covering contemporary to tribal art. Next door the 200-year old Saraf Haveli has original paintings with Belgian glass inlay but marred by a provision store run by the caretaker inside! Jwala Prasad Bhartia Haveli built in 1925 displays stunning wall murals and exquisite teak doorways chiseled by jangids or traditional wood carvers. Ph 01571-233024 http://www.cultural-centre.com

Alsisar Mahal IMG_2114Anurag Priya

Alsisar: Thirst for honour
Alsisar recounts the legend of two sisters Alsi and Malsi. Unable to bear a taunt faced by his sisters who went to draw water from the village well at lunch, Nawal Singh abandoned his field and vowed to consume water and food only after digging his own well. The Bhan siblings dug through the night until they struck water. Alsi settled down at this sar (water source) which was called Alsisar, while Malsi moved to a nearby place, thus named Malsisar. Besides Alsisar Mahal, site of the Magnetic Fields festival, the town has numerous temples, wells, cenotaphs, dharamsalas and mansions like Indra Vilas, a 100-room haveli set in a ten-acre compound built by Indrachand Kejriwal in 1595. Jhunjhunuwala ki haveli, built by Seth Kasturimal 170 years ago has two rooms with inimitable mural paintings. Ph 0141-2364652 http://www.alsisarmahal.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 19 May 2015 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at www.cntraveller.in/story/inside-painted-havelis-shekhawati

Deogarh: Escape to royalty

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY indulge in the royal pleasures of Deogarh, a tiny fiefdom in Rajasthan with a fairy-tale castle, rugged forts, village jaunts and ancient cave shrines.

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In another era, we would have ambled up the slope on an elephant’s back, swaying past bazaars before entering the regal gates of Deogarh Mahal. But given the century we found ourselves in, we resigned ourselves to the modest backseat of a taxi, secretly ruing that it wasn’t a vintage classic. The first thing that strikes you when you enter these precincts is its overwhelming grandness and antique appeal. Tons of stone and lime had been procured to create this massive ochre and white palace that served as the residence of Rawat Sangaji, great grandson of the legendary Chunda Sisodia, one of the 16 Umraos (feudal lords) of Mewar.

The history of Deogarh is inextricably linked to pride and honour. Story goes, when the powerful Rathors of Marwar consolidated their position by capturing the forts of Ajmer and Nagaur, they made Mandore their capital and decided to forge ties with the Sisodias of Mewar. Ranmal, fierce heir apparent to the Marwar throne came to Chittor with a wedding proposal. He hoped that the eligible heir to Mewar’s throne Chunda Sisodia, would agree to marry Rathor princess Hansabai. But destiny has its twists.

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Since Chunda Sisodia was away, his father, Rana Lakha joked that the proposal could not have been for an old man like himself. When Chundaji heard this, his bristling Rajput pride forbade him from accepting a bride ‘spurned’ by his father. To avert a revenge drama between the two clans, old Rana Lakha agreed to marry the young Hansabai, but on the condition that Chundaji abdicates the right to the throne. In true Bhisma style, Chunda Sisodia renounced his birthright, left Chittor and shaped a new dominion for himself in the lawless lands north.

We sailed past the old katcheri (court) and stepped through an impressive entrance decorated with wall murals of horses into the inner courtyard. Niches, windows and doors were beautified by scalloped arches while walls studded with decorative mirrors twinkled in silvery collages of floral and peacock themes… We threw our bags and were off to explore the palace.

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Stairways led up to bastions, balconies and pumpkin-shaped turrets in the terrace offering alluring views of the Aravallis. In an otherwise rugged corner of Rajasthan, Deogarh’s altitude (2100 ft) and location amidst lakes and forests made it comparatively cooler and a natural choice for a regal residence. A little gasp escaped our lips as we entered each room. True to its name Sheesh Mahal was a royal chamber adorned with mirrors and stained glass windows. Sunlight streamed in to impart a sparkling jewel-like radiance to the room. Named Ranjit Prakash, the room was dedicated to Ranjit Singhji (1847-1867) who oversaw the renovation of this section. His regal portrait adorned the bedroom wall.

The Maharana and Royal Suites opened in a profusion of low divans, cushions and carpets accentuated by stunning carved furniture, coloured glass and intricate mirror inlays with nature motifs and plush bathrooms; all of which added characteristic grandeur and enviable opulence. A maze of corridors led past rooms with themes from Lord Krishna’s life and the Mahabharata. A piazza displayed the royal marble throne while the Chitrashala or Artist’s wing showcased the distinct miniature painting style of Deogarh. A rear lattice screen looked like an uncanny prototype of the famous Hawa Mahal. Legend has it that Pratap Singh, younger son of Maharaja Madho Singh I of Jaipur and Princess Kundan Kunwar of Deogarh sought sanctuary here as a child, when his life was threatened by Jaipur’s scheming aristocracy. He built the Hawa Mahal in 1799 as a nostalgic reminder of his happy days in Deogarh.

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We learnt that the bathroom in Room 201 was once an open arched gallery for Bijay Singh ji (1900-1943), who loved to bathe thrice a day, pouring a hundred pitchers of water each time. It is said that when he went to attend his son Sangram Singh’s wedding in Bihar, the journey stretched to seven days because the train had to keep halting for his daily triple ablutions! Being the first Rawat who went to Europe, Bijay Singh was so enamoured by their trains that he installed railway-style sash windows and a matching washbasin in his bathroom!

The Chundawats have inherited some eccentricities that continue to infuse Deogarh with quirky irreverence. We noticed the tongue-in-cheek “Duck or Grouse” warning on low doors and the crazy signboards that we passed earlier, “London Raining, New York Snowing, Deogarh Fine Weather, Only 3 km”. With a treasure of around 30 cars, we were taken around the garage and introduced to the sturdy army trucks named Thapero, Dhamero and Bhachero (a pun on Pajero). A fancy Austin had been renovated into Car-o-Bar (a bar on wheels).

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It wasn’t long before we were summoned for an open-air supper on the terrace with wine and an arresting spread of Rajasthani fare. The kebab and tikka starters kept on coming until we realized our folly – we had forgotten to give the signal! Only after we removed the little flag carried by a tiny elephant curio on the table and put it horizontally in its trunk did we graduate to the main course!

The next day we set out on a rural ramble, preferring a jeep ride through the village instead of the horse carriage! We rolled past the busy bazaar and huts where women in colourful skirts and veils balanced columns of water pots on their heads with graceful ease, groups of old men in colourful turbans enjoyed their smoke and royal cenotaphs stood in quietude. We halted to watch a blindfolded ox merry-go-around a strange contraption; it was the traditional method of oil extraction from oilseeds. The blindfolds were to ensure the ox didn’t get dizzy!

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We headed towards Seengh Sagar, the erstwhile royal hunting lodge overlooking a lake, another family property 5km away. Gazing at an old map and the album that documented its renovation, we could only marvel at how the ruins of this lake fort had been transformed into a swish villa with a central courtyard entwined in creepers, a pool, open-air dining and three lavish bedrooms (named after musical ragas) with enticing bathrooms. Warm décor, silk furnishings, and attentive staff to take care of every need, Seengh Sagar blends luxury and solitude in the midst of nature. Another experience in the wilderness was the tented camp at Deogarh Khayyam. The woods are a haven for several species of birds and post-monsoon, the moats and lakes brim with water.

A trip to Deogarh wouldn’t be complete without visiting the desolate ruins of Anjana Fort and the Anjaneshwar Mahadev cave temple. According to Shatrunjai Singh, “Anjana in Rajasthan means a rock with a water hole, though most wrongly deduce that Lord Hanuman’s mother Anjana performed penance here.” Strangely, a huge rock near the entrance bore a bizarre resemblance to a monkey’s face! Shatrunjai ji explained “Sixteen maharajas have taken Samadhi in the fort… All of them lived as austere bramacharyas and were given the status of kings and permitted to keep elephants, a royal perk! Two were live samadhis; which means they could decide when to descend.” That was our cue to leave…

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We drove to the ancient cave shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva. A large step well signaled the 9th century temple tucked in the rocky hillside. We bent down to avoid the low ceiling studded with tiny bats to reach a wide inner chamber where a lone linga was decorated with flowers and statues of nandi nearby. Outside, it was dusk and the air was thick with the continuous twitter of birds flying to their nests. We clambered into the jeep once more to return to our palace for another night of royal pleasures. A buffet feast simmered on a long table as we supped to the tune of haunting folk songs on a moonlit night. After being royally pampered, we slipped under the quilted coverlet preparing ourselves for the heartbreak of returning to the humdrum of city life as commoners.

Getting There 
Located 135 km from Udaipur, Deogarh is strategically located near Kumbalgarh (85 km) and Ranakpur (100 km)

Deogarh Mahal
Deogarh Madaria Devgarh, Rajasthan 313331
Ph 9928834777 http://www.deogarhmahal.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 1 September 2013 in the Sunday supplement of Deccan Herald.

 

Jaipur Lit Fest 2011: Mera Piya Ghar Aya (Live Unplugged).avi

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Susheela Raman and Sam Mills had just finished playing. The Qawwals were backstage. Somebody broke into a hum. Another clattered spoons on a plate. And then, magic happened… Impromptu jam ft. Mahboob Ahmad & Azad Pappo (Mian Meeri Qawwals Pakistan), Rajasthani musicians Nathoo Lal Solanki (spoon saucer) & Kutla Khan, Sam Mills (guitar), William Dalrymple & party (claps, whistles & whoops). Shot by Anurag Mallick.

Jaipur Heritage Walks: Where Secrets Tread

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Between literary sessions at the Jaipur Lit Fest and all-night parties, ANURAG MALLICK finds the stamina to uncover some of the best-kept secrets of the walled city of Jaipur, on foot.

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Pandit Ramkripalu Sharma held the yellowed manuscript with the sure hands of a surgeon, yet at the same time, he held it with such tenderness as if a newborn child had just been handed to the proud father. ‘I have over 1,25,000 such manuscripts in over a dozen languages,’ his voice quavered. ‘Some of them date back to the 14th century.’ To prove his point, Mr. Sharma’s son opened four Godrej almirahs to display endless stacks piled neatly. Above it, glass cabinets were already chock-a-block with more parchment. ‘Where’s the space to display everything? We’ve been planning to move to a bigger location, but let’s see,’ he sighed.

Tucked away in a crowded back lane of Jaipur, this small three-storey tenement housed one man’s life-long obsession with antiquity. ‘Some call it madness,’ Mr. Sharma added softly with a smile. I looked at his private museum of unusual artefacts in awe – brass lamps, wooden dolls, metal statues, paintings displayed wall to wall, medieval games, shoes, textiles, every inch of space had been used judiciously.

In one corner, locks of all sizes and types were on display; some shaped like scorpions and dogs! The scrolls covered everything from spirituality, science, art, architecture and yoga to medieval punishments for committing various crimes. It was fascinating and equally humbling to see the Sanjay Sharma Museum & Research Institute. And it was just the first of my discoveries on a heritage walk of Jaipur.

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Having ‘done’ Hawa Mahal, Jantar Mantar, City Palace and Jaipur’s forts, most visitors consider Rajasthan’s capital city as a mere gateway to the desert state. However, Jaipur’s charm lies not only in its monuments but also in what lies between them. Only a walk within the walled city was the real way to discover its true soul. And what better way to do it than through the eyes of a local resident. Akshat, my well-informed guide represented Virasat Experiences, a travel offshoot of Jaipur Virasat Foundation that specialized in heritage walks and cultural tours.

The Modikhana Walk took us through the historic chowkri (ward) of temples and havelis, named after the Modis, a trading community. The Kalyanji temple displayed beautiful frescos of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu, the Sanghi Juta Ram Jain temple had stunning kundan wall decorations while the Sita Ramji and Tarkeshwar temples predated the city of Jaipur. 

We stopped at Fine Art Palace, a fourth generation antique store cluttered with bric-a-brac. The Afghan family was brought here by the kings to teach the art of tie and dye and the use of bow and arrow to his army. Besides a diagrammatic sketch of their family tree, their visitors’ book was worth a look as some entries dated back to the 18th century!

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In one lane, master craftsmen worked with brass, another alley was dedicated to lac bangle makers while an orchestra of ironsmiths hammered away in Thatheron ki galli. Jaipur’s streets, organized by professions and communities, owed their orderliness to the very foundation of the city in the 18th century.

After a tantrik’s curse reduced the original capital of the Kachwaha Rajputs Bhangarh to a haunted site, they moved to Ramgarh and finally overran the Meenas to found a new citadel at Amber in 1592. By the end of the 17th century, a burgeoning population and scarcity of water led the rulers to seek a new, better-planned capital. It is said that Sawai Jai Singh II’s gaze fell on the chosen site while praying at the Garh Ganesh temple. Consulting a Brahmin scholar from Bengal Vidyadhar Bhattacharya, Jai Singh laid the foundation of a new city in 1727 based on the ancient principles of Shilpa shastra (Vedic architecture).

Built in the form of a Pitha Mandala, the city was divided into nine blocks with wide roads. Every street and market was aligned east to west and north to south. The Eastern gate was called Suraj Pol to mark the rising sun, while the Western gate was called Chand Pol, after the moon. Letters were sent to traders as far as Gujarat, Calcutta and Kabul, inviting them to settle in this new place. And that’s how the various communities and artisans set up shop in streets that still bear their name.

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Nearly 2000 years after Pataliputra, Jaipur lays claim to being India’s first planned city. A good way to appreciate its architecture is the Temples & Havelis tour. Chhoti Chaupad (small square) near Chand Pol, one of the seven original gateways at the walled city’s western end, was the starting point of my second walk. Traditionally a chaupad (crossroad) has temples on all sides – either regular shrines or haveli temples (dome-less shrines within the precincts of a haveli).

As old as the city itself, the twin haveli temples of Sri Chaturbhuj and Roop Chaturbhuj were built by twin merchants. After the first brother, older by 2 minutes, built the first temple, the younger one built an almost identical one to its left within two years! Accessible by raised steps flanked by stone elephants, the temple had a profusion of paintings on the walls, ceilings and pillars. Even in the hot sun, the walls were amazingly smooth and cool to touch. ‘It’s a local technique arish where seven layers of limestone are put on the wall and the last wet layer is rubbed with coconut kernel,’ Akshat explained.

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Walking ahead, we reached Jharlaye walon ki mandir, an unusual 200-year-old Krishna temple with four pradakshinas (circumambulations) on four levels. The owners had been called from Benares to teach wrestling and the art of stick fight. Shri Gopal Sharma said that he still taught wrestling in the afternoon in an akhada behind the house. Taking us to the inner shrine, he pointed out ‘Lord Krishna… with 11 girlfriends!’ Er, do you know their names, I ventured. ‘Lalita, Vishakha, Chapla, Chitralekha, Rangva devi, Gaindva Devi…’ came the reply.

We cut in from the road to reach Atal Bihari or Laal Hathi temple, named after two red sculpted pachyderms guarding the front. The 1839-built Kothari House seemed too florid for comfort, but I was told that elaborate paintings and designs were done on the exterior to indicate the prosperity of the occupants.

Madho Somani, part of a prominent jeweler family in Jaipur, welcomed us into Somani Haveli. By definition, any house with more than one courtyard was a haveli. This one had been neatly restored in the old style and rooms and doorframes bore painted floral borders. A creeper spiraled through the central courtyard as we climbed two floors to the terrace. We looked at the cityscape as the old forts of Nahargarh and Jaigarh looming behind us.

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‘You see that?’, Akshat pointed out below. Before he could even say ‘Tantra Temple!’ I was down in a flash, knocking on what was a very strange door. Two eerie figures carved on the door in Indian garb stood as guards to Rudra Mahadev. One was wearing a strange peak cap. Beyond the courtyard, stood a tiny complex of 11 Shiva lingas. It represented the navagrahas (nine planets) and the sun and moon.

After a quick stopover at Shri Gopinath Ji Krishna Temple and the Ramchandra Temple with beautiful frescos and a gold painting of the City Palace, we reached Bagru Ki Haveli for a well-earned breakfast of aloo, puri, kachori and sweets. It was the royal home of a Rajput family from Bagru, a small village 30 km from Jaipur famous for block printing. They organised workshops for visitors to see the process of printing on tablecloth and saris with wooden blocks.

As I thanked Akshat for being such a wonderful and informative resource, he remarked, ‘But how can you go without doing the ultimate culture and culinary walk?’ I hemmed and hawed about the next day’s flight and my unavailability the following morning when Akshat put an end to the argument. ‘That’s perfect! The Bazaars, Cuisine & Crafts Tour is an evening walk. So I’ll see you at 5 today, Badi Choupar?’ The prospect of missing out on the best street food in Jaipur was too much to bear.

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Thus, having fasted like a lion about to be unleashed into a Roman arena, I was 10 minutes too early for my third conquest of Jaipur. While I waited for Akshat, the words ‘Dal Lassan Pyaj ki Pakodi’ seemed branded into the back of my head and a thousand voices whispered it in my ear like an incantation. I walked up to Santosh Agarwal straining a fresh batch and opened my innings for the evening, when a playful voice piped in ‘Couldn’t wait, eh?’ 

A quick peep into Purohit ji ka katla (a market within a market) and we were soon walking past Swayambhu Hanuman Temple towards Hanuman Ka Rasta. The busy alley bustled with wedding card dealers, bookbinders, paper-sellers, printers and manufacturers of coloured envelopes for the local diamond trade. Gopalji ka rasta was an entire street dedicated to gem stone cutting and polishing.

Legend has it that a few hundred years ago, the area of present-day Jaipur used to be a jungle. While on a hunt from Amer, Sawai Jai Singh II got separated from his party and found sanctuary in the Gopal ji temple, where he was given food and shelter for the night. The king promised that when he built his new city, he would reconstruct the temple and name a street after it.

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For centuries, Jaipur’s royalty and the elite had patronized the city’s talented craftsmen and artisans, who honed their skills over generations. Weaving our way past gold and silversmiths, we visited a fifth generation meenakari craftsman in his workshop. Honoured by a President’s award, he displayed his prize-winning creation – a rainbow coloured bird with an emerald bead hanging from its beak like a pendant. I don’t know whether it was the aromas of evening snacks wafting up from the street or the suggestive image of a bird carrying something in its beak that was the trigger, but we found ourselves magically wafting out of the building and onto Ghee Walon ka Rasta.

We were about to trawl Jaipur’s legendary eateries, their identities closely guarded secrets, virtually unknown to outsiders. Batasa, misri and other forms of crystal and candied sugar were being sold wholesale. Slabs of fresh paneer were stacked on shards of ice like a game of laghori (seven stones). Namkeen Bhandars had shaped their colourful dalmoths, fried peanuts and yellow lentils in geometric designs in glass containers. We started with Dedh sau or Shop No.150. Karodiya Dukan specialized in Hing ki kachori (stuffed asafoetida savoury).

Ramdev Restaurant run by Brijmohan served regular mithais like rajbhog and kesar bati to disco jamun and disco rasgulla. I saw more signs saying ‘Pure Desi Ghee’ than STD/ISD/PCO. We packed a meetha pan (for later) at the 80-year-old Kailash Pan Bhandar before stopping for makhaniya lassis at Johri Bazaar. The thick lassi had the consistency of an unguent! It tasted heavenly but I was so full, it felt like a tumbler of Brylcreem shoved down my throat. We somehow squeezed in some laddus at Nathulal Mahaveer Prashad and rabdi at Ramchandra Kulfi Bhandar.

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Early next morning, I reminded the air hostess twice before take off that I did not want to be disturbed for breakfast. She smiled with saccharine sweetness and asked whether I was unwell and wanted any medicine. I asked her for a pillow instead. Just then the phone rang, rudely interrupting the announcement to switch off all mobile phones. ‘Hello..’, I whispered. ‘Akshat here’, said the voice. ‘Just checking if you caught your flight. In case you missed it, come for the Amer walk. I’ll show you Panna Miah Kund, a step well built by one of Jai Singh’s eunuchs!’ ‘Forget walk, I don’t think I can even fly. Some other time! Along with the Mehrangarh walk,’ I mumbled.

‘Please Sir’, the airhostess said sternly. She had returned with the pillow and held it threateningly, ready to smother me into eternal silence. I put my phone and myself into Flight mode. Just when I was drifting into unconsciousness, a hand tapped my shoulder and a wide lipstick smile in Sugar Plum Shade 086 mouthed ‘Veg or Non-Veg Sir’.

Fact File

Contact
Virasat Experiences
Om Nivas, E–23, Kaushalya Path Durga Marg, Bani Park Jaipur 302001
Ph 0141 5109090-95, 9828220140
Email akshat@jaipurwalks.com 
www.virasatexperiences.com  

The Walks
Price: Rs.1,250
Duration: 2.5 Hours
Group size: Minimum number required 2, Maximum 6
Departs: Daily (subject to local conditions)
Join a walk and receive a copy of ‘Jaipur: Six Walks to Discover the Old City’, published by Jaipur Virasat Foundation

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the April, 2012 issue of Rail Bandhu, the Indian Railways’ in-train magazine. 

Jodhpur: Jewel of Marwar

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit the Rathore capitals of Mandore and Jodhpur in Rajasthan to find out what makes Mehrangarh Fort so invincible and other secrets of the walled city

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No matter where you are in Jodhpur, you cannot escape the looming presence of the citadel of Mehrangarh, which dominates the city’s skyline. Perched at 400 ft on a rocky hill, the intricacy of its jharokhas (windows) and architectural grandeur moved Rudyard Kipling to call it ‘the work of angels and giants’. From Indique, the rooftop restaurant at Pal Haveli, a stunning 18th century heritage hotel, the red sandstone fort gleamed like a ruby in the early morning sun. By night, halogen lights transformed it into a bejeweled tiara resting upon Jodhpur’s proud forehead. But under all its glitter, Mehrangarh hides a grim tale of sacrifice.

When Rao Jodha chose to move the Rathore citadel from nearby Mandore in 1459, he selected the hillock of Bhaurcheeria (Mountain of Birds), the dwelling of an ascetic called Mehran Baba or Cheeria Nathji. The moment the king’s men evicted the sage, the constructed walls collapsed. Though a temple was built at his dhuni (place of penance), the sage cursed that the place would be drought-ridden and to make the fort unassailable, a man had to be buried alive in its foundations!

A humble skinner Rajaram Meghwal (or Rajiya Bhambi) volunteered on the condition that his family would be looked after till perpetuity by the king. True to his wish, even today, his descendants live in Raj Bagh and a stone tablet opposite Rao Jodha ji’s Phalsa (the original fort entrance) commemorates the incident. Every year on Jodhpur’s founding day (May 12), the Maharaja worships the skinner’s tools and felicitates Rajiya’s kin.

A guided tour or an audio guide, available in 7 languages, is the best way to explore the marvelous fort, which spills onto many levels. Legend has it that after a foreign dignitary grumbled about the effort required to see the fort, the Maharaja promptly installed an elevator, making Mehrangarh one of the rare forts in India with a lift! Tourists usually buy a 1-way ticket to reach the seventh floor and then amble down its wide cobbled pathways through a series of pols (gateways).

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Cheeky signs like ‘Lungs at Work, Please Don’t Smoke’ caution visitors while the gold filigree ceiling at Phool Mahal, the wall-to-wall paintings at Takhat Vilas and view of the famed Blue City behind the fort are sure to leave one breathless. Contrary to popular belief, the houses were painted blue not to ward off mosquitoes but given a fresh coat of paint every time a family member returned from a pilgrimage. Since most inhabitants of the old city were Vaishnavites, the colour represented their blue-skinned god.

With well-displayed exhibits showcased by the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, a library of rare manuscripts, an art conservation centre, museum shop and café, it’s easy to understand why Time Magazine chose Mehrangarh as the Best Fortress in Asia in 2007. No trip would be complete without a royal dinner at Chokelao Bagh, a restored 200-year-old garden at the base of the fort. At night, the white chandni flowers and the sweet-smelling kamini infuse the Mehtab Bagh or Moonlight Garden in the lower terrace with heavenly perfumes while the restaurant on the upper terrace comes alive with folk performances. Nearby, the royal cenotaph at Jaswant Thada, built in memory of Maharaja Jaswant Singh II in 1899, is a beautiful structure in white marble where the kings were laid to rest. The distinct silhouette of Ajit Bhavan can also be seen in the distance.

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But there are other ways to experience the fort – take a zipline with Flying Fox or do a heritage Mehrangarh walk with Virasat Journeys, down Jodhpur’s historic galis (streets) dotted with temples and shops. Within the precincts of the walled city in the shadow of the Clock Tower built by Maharaja Sardar Singh are antique stores and legendary shops selling sweets, itar (perfumes), grains and garments. Mishrilal at Ghanta Ghar have been churning out their signature ‘Makhaniya lassi’, special rabdi and doodh-jalebi for over five generations. Under the Sardar Market arch is Vicky’s famous ‘Amalate (omelette) Shop – Recommended by Lonely Planet’! And when you’ve had your fill of Jodhpur, head to Mandore, the old battle-scarred capital of Marwar, which most visitors tend to overlook.

Popularly believed to be the birthplace of Ravana’s wife Mandodari, though no historical evidence supports the theory, Mandore was once the ancient Mandavyapura, an important centre of art and architecture. The old fort that caps the hill was acquired by the Gurjar Pratiharas, captured repeatedly by the sultans of Delhi and eventually received as a gift in marriage by the Rathore ruler Rao Chunda. Fine monuments like the cenotaphs dedicated to the members of the royal family, the Janana Mahal built as a summer palace for the royal ladies during the reign of Maharaja Ajit Singh ji (1707-1724) and the Government Museum are definitely worth a look.

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South of Jodhpur, just off the busy NH-65 lie the Bishnoi villages of Khejarli, Guda Bishnoiya and Rohet where centuries-old tradition still survives. After the customary opium ceremony, the local equivalent of smoking a peace pipe, our host, Jodha Ram Bishnoi elaborated on the Bishnois. In late 15th century Guru Jambhoji laid down 29 (bish-noi) conservation principles as per which all life forms were considered sacred. Bishnois revere the blackbuck and protect it with their life, as a leading Bollywood star found out.

At Tal Chhapar, every Bishnoi family donates a kilo of bajra (pearl millet) each month to a community store. After wandering the plains all day, herds of blackbuck assemble around Bishnoi hamlets, to be lovingly fed at dusk. At Khejarli village a sacred grove of khejri trees is another living reminder of the inextricable link between Bishnois and nature. In 1730, a Bishnoi lady called Amrita Devi clung to a khejri tree, which was being cut to provide fuel for the lime kilns to build the Maharaja’s palace. Following her example, her two daughters, husband and 359 other villagers clung to the trees and gave up their lives.

The very land of Rajasthan was soaked in the blood and toil of its proud, fearless people. After hearing fantastic tales and visiting strange temples (like the Deshnok Temple where locals worship rats as their reincarnated ancestors), we thought we had seen it all, until we discovered a shrine dedicated to the Bullet motorcycle!

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The roadside temple of Motorcycle Baba or Bullet Banna near Rohet is easy to miss. Dedicated to Om Singh Rathore of Chotilla village, who died here in a accident in 1988, the 350 cc Bullet is enshrined alongside Om Banna’s garlanded photo. Local folklore contends that after the cops impounded the bike, it disappeared from the police station and was found parked at the crash site the next morning. Each time the bike was seized, it magically returned to the accident-prone spot.

Recognizing it as divine will, a temple was built at the site where travelers stop to pray for a safe passage. We joined a small group of worshippers lighting incense. There was no prayer on their lips, nor any incredulity in their eyes; just a brief ritual, before they drove off into the dead of the night…

Where to Stay:

Pal Haveli
Gulab Sagar, Near Clock Tower, Jodhpur 342001
Ph 0291-3293328, 2638344, 93504 08034
E-mail info@palhaveli.com http://www.palhaveli.com
Tariff Rs.3,000-8,000

Where to Eat:

Shri Mishrilal Hotel
Clock Tower, Jodhpur
Ph 0291-2540049

Author: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 8 January, 2012 in Deccan Herald (Sunday edition).