Tag Archives: Jaisalmer

Salt, Sand & Spice: The Thar therapy

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The desert sand heals those that dare to tread it. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover an oasis of wellness amid the dunes of Rajasthan.

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One look at the harsh unforgiving landscape of the Thar and you wonder what rejuvenation a desert could possibly offer? As we drove in to Jaisalmer, there was no palm-fringed oasis in sight and the barren land with hardy kikar and khejri trees stretched as far as the eye could see. Unlike Kerala or Bali, the Thar didn’t possess the healing touch of green that soothes the soul, the crisp mountain air of British sanatoriums of yore or the relaxing soak of hot water springs in the fabled spa towns of Europe.

The Great Indian Desert yawned endlessly over 200,000 sq km covering 60% of the state of Rajasthan. However, all apprehensions about a wellness holiday in an arid desolate tract prone to extremes of temperatures dissipated, as a flagged convoy waiting on the town’s outskirts led us with much pomp to Suryagarh. From the main gate, two camels ushered us up the slope to the resort’s entrance where floral showers, drummers and a traditional welcome swept us off our feet…

Halwai Breakfast

Founded by Maharawal Jaisal in 12th century, Jaisalmer lay on the southern strand of the Silk Route. Between 16th and 18th century, the city thrived on taxes collected from the caravans from Central Asia passing through the desert en route to Osian and China. Its caravanserais teemed with traders plying exotic goods.

Inspired by this indigenous desert culture and its ancient healing traditions, Suryagarh’s Rait Spa was named after the sea of rait (sand) it was set in. Drawing on the essence of delicate aromas of fine oils, elixirs and spices, its signature thermal therapies were based on sand, salt and stone. But Suryagarh’s legendary hospitality spearheaded by our host Manvendra Singh Shekhawat was not to be taken lightly.

Rait Spa, Suryagarh Jaisalmer_Entrance

The Halwayi breakfast of traditional snacks and sweets was so heavy we could barely make it to our first spa session. Trudging with heavy steps from our opulent Haveli Residence, we secretly hoped that the short walk to the spa was enough digestive exercise.

The illustration of mustachioed wrestlers dominated the Akhara or gym while yellow lights contrasted against the deep blue of Neel, the indoor pool. The flicker of oil lamps and flower petals announced Rait Spa, enveloped in an air of calm. Ambient eastern music played in the background and it was like being in a medieval oasis in the desert.

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We tried the Sand Ritual, an age-old treatment handed down centuries based on the natural healing potential of heat. After a fragrant spice scrub, we surrendered to a massage using heated potlis (bundles) of Jaisalmer rait (sand), which helped relieve the tautness of our muscles. We felt knots of pain slowly melt away into nothingness.

The soft tinkle of a bell announced the end of the session. We couldn’t believe that only an hour had passed; it felt like eternity. After we cooled off in henna and aromatic vetiver (camel grass or khus), the therapist explained how heat aided the body to release toxins naturally and regain natural rhythms, enabling better metabolism.

Rait Spa, Suryagarh Jaisalmer

‘Better metabolism’, just the words we wanted to hear! For the days that followed, we needed every ounce of metabolic willpower to take on the specially curated culinary experiences at diverse venues – breakfast with peacocks in the bush at dawn, specialty cuisine at Legends of Marwar, Jaisalmer kebabs and biryani at the Lake Gardens, Thar dinner at Celebration Gardens, Signature Thali dinner at The Courtyard that came veiled or the magical Dinner on the Dunes under the stars – a recreation of the nomadic hunt menu. Mehboob Khan and the troupe of manganiyars (traditional musicians) formed a continuous musical backdrop.

The days were spent exploring the Thar on bespoke trails through shifting sands and thorny scrub. We scoured dhanis (small settlements), learnt about govardhans or carved pillar markers that pointed out water sources, tasted fresh water at sweet water wells, marveled at Phoenician-like figures of traders on tombstones in the cemeteries of Paliwal Brahmins and went on the spooky midnight Chudail Trail to the abandoned village of Kuldhara.

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Overlooking the ruins of homes and serais, stood the 13th century Khaba Fort. Info panels explained how 60 million years ago, the Arabian Sea stretched beyond Gujarat to present-day Rajasthan and this vast wasteland was once a flourishing tract through which the Saraswati and its tributaries coursed.

Tectonic shifts caused the river to dry up, leaving behind little rivulets and isolated saltwater lakes. One such surviving river is the Luni, known in Sanskrit as Lavanavati, or ‘salt river’, due to its high salinity. Incidentally, the desert too is referred to as Lavana Sagara (Sea of Salt). Even today, the sandy bed throws up whorled fossils of ammonites and petrified trees.

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For centuries, these salt-water lakes and streams in the Thar Desert have been used to manufacture sodium chloride salt. On our return, we noticed the motifs of jalis, stonework and roof patterns of the ruins finding recurrence in Suryagarh’s architecture but we didn’t expect the salt to be used for our spa therapies!

Rait’s unique salt therapy sources salt from the Luni riverbed handpicked by the staff. It is fused with IMRS (Intelligent Magnetic Resonance System), a health care system developed in Germany to balance the body’s magnetic field and subtly adjust bodily cadences. Adhering to the salt theme, Himalayan rock salts were used to light the room to cleanse and align the energies.

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For better efficacy and absorption by the skin, oils were charged with bio disks, technically engineered using over 100 natural minerals bonded in glass using molecular level fusion at high heat. The therapist slowly wrapped us in soft muslin drenched in salt and we lay mummified, experiencing heavenly realms of peace. The salts were rich in potassium, magnesium and other minerals, ideal for deep cellular-level cleansing. An hour later, we emerged like lithe spirits.

Another signature therapy was Stone using the healing properties of tiger-striped seashells from the Philippine islands with volcanic stones. These unique, specially sourced seashells, enclosed with a gel rich in lava powder, emit heat due to a natural chemical reaction. The shells, rich in calcium carbonate and trace elements, help nourish bones and tissues. The coarse texture of the shells made a natural scrub and we yielded to the long strokes and deep-kneading massage that boosted vascular circulation, drained toxins and improved metabolism.

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Back in our room, a secret bedside platter of assorted traditional sweets awaited us. This daily treat was the creation of resident halwayi Chef Gatta Ram who would set them with little scrolls tied with silken strings, explaining each item. Tearing ourselves away from the pleasure palace that’s Suryagarh was near impossible but the task of continuing our Thar wellness tour to their property in Bikaner goaded us on.

Narendra Bhawan, the revamped residence of Narendra Singh ji, the last Maharaja of Bikaner is the most idiosyncratic address in the region. Renouncing the comforts of the palace, he created his own residence where he stayed with his family, 86 dogs and 500 cows (he used to call each by name)! Long before bovine love was fashionable in India, he was given a Gauratna for his service to cows. Legend goes that he never ate a meal till his animals were fed.

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Today, his goshala (cowshed) is an alfresco bar where we downed Negronis and evening snacks on a fiery onyx tabletop. We were led us past the typical Bikaneri façade, for which red sandstone was brought from Dhulmera 80km away. Step inside, and it was anything but Bikaner.

It took architect Ravi Gupta and interior designer Ayush Kasliwal six years to reinterpret Narendra Bhawan as a tribute to the man and his travels. Manvendra explained, “We imagined it as the house of a mad uncle we all love – nothing makes sense initially, but eventually it grows on you. Like a residence, it’s not themed”.

Narendra Bhawan- Residence Room

Bright walls, framed Banarasi textiles, Ming vases, crystals, porcelain figurines from Dresden, Richmond patterned chequered floors, Art Deco lights, framed photos of the Narendra Singh ji’s royal lineage and dogs, old Encyclopedia Britannica and Penguin classics, usta gold painting, a red piano; everything was an ode to the maharaja’s eccentric nature and eclectic tastes.

The rooms transcend his phases in life – flamboyant Prince rooms, leather-panelled Regimental rooms flagging his military lineage, India rooms reflecting Gandhian ethos and Republic rooms showcasing works of Le Corbusier in a post-independent India. “It’s not really a hotel but a landscape of memories – life’s passage through time,” added Manvendra.

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The same vein of creativity ran through the spa. Inspired by the great sanitariums of Europe, Clinic – The Spa was a novel concept based on holistic healing through flowers and plants. Between 1920-30, Dr Edward Bach developed a set of 38 floral remedies catering to a particular emotional state.

Using concepts from the Bach Flower Therapy, Narendra Bhawan’s Flower Essences are specially designed to soothe one’s senses, instill harmony and bring balance. Aided with Bemer technology for Physical Vascular Therapy, it promised improved microcirculation, enabling the body’s self-healing powers to promote inner and outer radiance. The spa’s clean sharp décor bestows a sense of calm.

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The food carried the irreverence forward, fusing disparate themes like the banquets of kings at P&C (Pearls & Chiffon), colonial era bakeries at the Mad Hatter, poolside Muslim feasts served in crescent platters, Jain thalis in a haveli’s rooftop on the Merchant Trail, Reveille at Ratadi Talai that recreated cavalier grills to smart English menus with a Bikaneri touch.

Listening to jazz while eating dahi wale aloo, murgh sabja, kachre ki sabji (variety of wild melon) and angoor ki sabzi was quite an experience. Inventiveness was its peak with arrancini biryani, wild mushroom gujiya and seb ki kheer. At open pastures beyond Bikaner, we enjoyed sundowners and char-grilled kebabs as folk musicians played the ravan hattha (stringed instrument) by the dancing light of lanterns and the setting sun. Life was good in the Thar.

Narendra Bhawan (6)

FACT FILE

Getting there
The nearest airport is Jodhpur, from where Jaisalmer is 300km (5 hrs) and Bikaner 249km (4 hrs). Jaisalmer and Bikaner are 312 km apart.

What to See
Jaisalmer: Fort, Patwon ki Haveli, Museums, Kuldhara & Khaba ruins, Desert National Park, Sam & Khuri Dunes
Bikaner: Junagadh Fort, Laxmi Niwas Palace, Rampuria Havelis, Bhandasar Jain temple, Karni Mata temple at Deshnoke

What to Eat
Mirchi bada, Bhikaji’s Bikaneri bhujiya & namkeen, Mawa Kachori, local dishes like ker-sangri, kachra, gatte ki sabzi with bajre ki roti.

Infinity Swimming Pool

Where to Stay

Suryagarh
Kahala Phata, Sam Road, Jaisalmer
Ph +91-02992-269269 www.suryagarh.com
Rait Spa Therapies: Salt 1hr 45 min Rs.5900/person upwards, Sand 2 hrs. Rs.7000/person, Rs.12,000/couple, Stone 1hr 30 min Rs.4400/person, Rs.7500/couple

Narendra Bhawan
Karni Nagar, Gandhi Colony, Bikaner
Ph +91-0151-2252500, 7827151151
www.narendrabhawan.com

For more info, visit http://rajasthan-tourism.org/

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Travel+Leisure India magazine.

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Oota Chronicles: Travelling for food

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Chefs are stepping out of their kitchens to travel far and wide in search of authentic flavours, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

JW Marriott Bengaluru - Coffee Trail with Chef Anthony (19)

When JW Marriott Bengaluru invited us to a Coorg Coffee Trail with award-winning executive chef Anthony En Yuan Huang, we weren’t sure what to expect. “It’s a coffee-themed food festival in Bangalore, after a field trip to Coorg,” we were told enigmatically. And thus, a motley group of writers, foodies and chefs set off for Kodagu. We pulled over at a side road for a pop-up breakfast of JW Marriott’s signature soft-centre chocolate cookies, croissants, cupcakes and sandwiches.

It was just an appetizer for the lunch at Cuisine Papera in Gonikoppal. In a museum-like setting amid old vessels and traditional implements, we tried vonekk yerchi (smoked pork), pork chudals, bemble (bamboo shoot) and pandi curry with akki otti. It wasn’t ideal prep for a berry picking exercise at Tarun Cariappa’s coffee estate at Valnoor but we sluggishly learnt how coffee is grown, harvested and processed, savouring sweet paputtu, mushroom toasties and traditional Kodava hospitality.

JW Marriott Bengaluru - Coffee Trail with Chef Anthony (3)

By evening, we reached The Bungalow 1934, a heritage property run by rallyist Amrith Thimmaiah. With a backdrop of mist-laden hills, Chef Anthony conducted a Master Class on coffee-inspired dishes like Drunken Chicken, marinated with Coorg coffee, green pepper, parangi malu (bird’s eye chili) and a can of beer, staying true to the region. See the video of JW Marriott’s Coorg Coffee Trail.

Back in Bengaluru, we enjoyed a coffee spa and a coffee-themed buffet at JW Kitchen. Coffee-crusted beef tournedos, tiger prawns marinated in Coorg coffee, espresso desserts and coffee-based cocktails; it was a caffeine fix of a different kind. From food festivals, pop-ups to theme restaurants, ‘eat local’ is the new mantra and chefs are moving out of the comfort of their kitchens. They travel miles to ensure their food is zero-mile and locally sourced.

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Westin Hyderabad Mindspace relies on the cultural roots of its chefs for culinary inspiration. At Seasonal Taste, Chef Mukesh Sharma from Gwalior delved into the traditional tastes of Madhya Pradesh to develop a gharana cuisine of royal flavors from Gwalior, Indore and Bhopal – bhutte ki kees (spiced grated corn) and Bhopali gosht korma.

Westin encourages its chefs to regale patrons with unusual offerings like the maharajas of yore – vada burgers and golgappas with guacamole and sol kadhi! At their Frontier fine dine restaurant Kangan, an artisan from the Old City crafts a lac bangle for guests gratis, a wonderful way of keeping both cultural and culinary traditions alive.

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Total Environment roped us in as travel writers for a food research project to open a pan-Karnataka restaurant in Bangalore. With a video crew and two talented chefs in tow, we cooked at homes, iconic hotels, temple kitchens and smoky village huts. After 18 years at UK’s top restaurants, Chef Suresh Venkatramana returned to his roots to rediscover Karnataka’s traditional cuisine.

Self-taught chef and F&B consultant Manjit Singh of Herbs & Spice fame has launched restaurants from Indiranagar to Aizawl. An avid biker, his driving skills and fluency in Kannada made him an asset on our food journeys. He haggled with fisherwomen, bargained at village markets and made Gowda hunter-style sand-baked fish by the river, earning the nickname Manjit Singh ‘Gowda’ or MSG.

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Planning it by circuits – Coorg, Malnad, Coast, North and South Karnataka – the coast was supposed to be one linear trip with stopovers at Mangalore, Udupi, Bhatkal, Gokarna and Karwar. We could not even cross Mangalore in our first attempt, as we were ensnared in a delicious web of sukkas, seafood, goli baje, sajjige-bajjil and Mangalore buns, always referred to in plural even if you ask for one.

We realized there was no such thing as Mangalorean cuisine but Bunt, GSB (Gaud Saraswat Brahmin), Catholic, Jain and Beary cuisines, each a rich representative of various communities. So what’s the food scene in Mangalore, we asked our foodie friend Arun Pandit. “After Ramzaan, cholesterol, after Christmas, cirrhosis, after Ratholsavam (chariot festival), gas…” he summed up the hazards of feasting season and overdose of meat, liquor and asafoetida.

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We stuffed leitão (pigling) with the Britto sisters and chickens with Luna and Lunita, made tindli-moi (cashew-ivy gourd) at Pereira Hotel and savoured fish meals at Narayana and pork meals at a home-style Catholic eatery Mary Bai ‘mai jowan’ (literally ‘mum’s food’). We tried the ‘Gadbad’ ice cream at Diana Restaurant in Udupi, where it was rustled up in a gadibidi (great hurry).

Near Yellapura, we encountered Siddis, descendants of African slaves brought by the Portuguese, and cooked wild ferns like aame soppu, literally ‘turtle greens.’ From being goaded to eat goat balls at a Sauji eatery (good for virility, winked the owner) to waking up before dawn to harvest a nest of fire ants to make chigli chutney in Malnad, we did it all.

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“Hum pet pe kafan baandh ke nikle hain” (We’ve set out with shrouds on our stomachs), was our popular refrain, as we devoured everything from gurudwara langar at Bidar to cycle khova (sold on bicycles) in Bellary. By the time we were done, we clocked 20,000km over two years, covering 25 communities. Virtual strangers opened their homes and hearths to help us document these rare culinary treasures. See the video of our Oota journeys.

After extensive food trials, Karnataka’s culinary heritage was finally showcased at Oota, a Karnataka-themed restaurant in Whitefield. Our travels inspired mixologist Neil Alexander to concoct indigenous cocktails using local ingredients – Mandya Sour with honeycomb infused whiskey and sugarcane juice and Varthur Overflow, using Gokarna’s pink-hued Saneykatta salt.

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In Chennai, ITC Grand Chola’s Chef Varun Mohan researched India’s imperial kitchens for Royal Vega, a pan-Indian vegetarian restaurant with a season-based menu. Avartana serves South Indian dishes with a contemporary twist. For ITC’s new hotel WelcomHotel Coimbatore, Chef Praveen Anand travelled across the Tamil hinterland to research Kongunadu cuisine, stopping at local eateries, parotta joints and homes to understand culinary nuances and techniques. WelcomeCafe Kovai has a small regional showcase of kadai thengai curry (quail in dry coconut and red chilis) and kalakki (soft scrambled egg masala).

Mrs Meenakshi Meyyappan, octogenarian owner of The Bangala in Karaikudi, has dedicated her life to hospitality, showcasing the cuisine of the Nattukottai Chettiars of Tamil Nadu. After years of serving traditional meals on banana leaf at her heritage hotel, she has co-authored The Chettinad Cookbook and The Bangala Table. Even today, Mrs Meyyappan personally fixes the daily menu at The Bangala a day in advance.

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The assimilation of various flavours to form a unique composite cuisine can be best seen in Kochi. Like a UN potluck, the Portuguese introduced coconut milk, the Jews contributed the appam while the Dutch infused culinary influences from their colonies – Indonesian satay to Sumatran rendang (caramelized curry).

CGH’s Eighth Bastion Hotel offers a tantalizing ‘Dutch Route’ at their restaurant East Indies with Dutch Bruder bread and lamprais (Sri Lankan Dutch Burgher dish). Brunton Boatyard’s History Restaurant showcases 32 cuisines of various communities in Fort Kochi – Syrian Christian duck moilee, Anglo Indian cutlet, Jewish chuttulli meen, Ceylonese string hoppers and Railway Mutton Curry.

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For the longest time, Rajasthan’s culinary repertoire was a stereotype of laal maas, dal-bati and gatte ki sabzi. But heritage hotels have revived recipes carefully documented by various thikanas. At Bikaner’s Laxmi Niwas Palace, at a low-lit long table inside Rajat Mahal the Gold Room, we feasted on boti marinated with kachri (wild melon) and red chilis and wild country fowl with warqi paratha.

At Narendra Bhawan, the avant garde residence of Bikaner’s last Maharaja Narendra Singhji, we relished a Bikaneri nashta of mirchi vadas, bajra poori, kesar lassi and pista chaach. The Marwari Lunch at the Queen’s Table in P&C (Pearls & Chiffon) had carefully curated dishes from Bikaner’s royal kitchens – maans ke sule, khargosh kachra and murgh tamatar Nagori, besides the Maharaja’s eclectic European tastes – goat cheese mousse and arrancini biryani.

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One place that takes culinary exploration to another level is Suryagarh near Jaisalmer. At their specialty restaurant Legends of Marwar, host Manvendra Singh regaled us with stories of Marwar’s lesser-known fare from court kitchens and royal hunts. Suryagarh makes great effort to present its food in dramatic outdoor settings.

Waking up before dawn for Breakfast with Peacocks, the never-ending Halwayi breakfast, sundowners, Dinner on the Dunes with a nomadic hunt menu and Jaisalmer grill and curry dinner at The Lake Garden. The starry Thar sky mirrored the twinkle of lamps, Kalbeliyas danced as the smoky aroma of char grilled bater (quail) and khad khargosh (smoked rabbit) mingled with the ballads of kings…

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FACT FILE

Oota Bangalore, Whitefield
Ph 88802 33322
https://www.facebook.com/OotaBangalore/
http://www.windmillscraftworks.com

JW Marriott Bengaluru
Ph 80671 89999
http://www.marriott.com

Westin Hyderabad Mindspace, Hi-Tech City
Ph 040 67676767
http://www.westinhyderabadmindspace.com/

WelcomHotel Coimbatore
Ph 042 22226555
http://www.itchotels.in

The Bangala Chettinad, Karaikudi
Ph 044 24934851, 94431 83021
http://www.thebangala.com

Eighth Bastion/Brunton Boatyard, Fort Kochi
Ph 0484 4261711
http://www.cghearth.com

Narendra Bhawan, Bikaner
Ph 07827151151, 0151-2252500
http://www.narendrabhawan.com

Suryagarh, Jaisalmer
Ph 02992 269269
http://www.suryagarh.com

JW Marriott Bengaluru - Coffee Trail with Chef Anthony (18)

For more food journeys, follow
@red_scarab, @oota_bangalore, @chefmanjit and @chefanthonyhuang on Instagram
@anuragamuffin, @priyaganapathy and @chefmanjit on Twitter

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the cover story in Indulge, the supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper on 9 March 2018.

 

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. 

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.

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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!

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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.

Looney Dunes: Quirky Rajasthan

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Just when you think you’ve seen it all, Rajasthan has the uncanny ability to surprise you. On a 10 day road trip, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover ‘Suryavanshi’ lampposts, turbaned men with outrageous moustaches and camels named after celebrities… Here’s a list of Top 10 offbeat experiences.

1. Bullet Banna and his 350 cc Temple

Most people know about Deshnok’s Karni Mata Temple where locals worship rats as their ancestors. But the shrine of Motorcycle Baba? Near Rohet, along NH-65 to Jodhpur, is the roadside temple of Bullet Banna, dedicated to Om Singh Rathore of Chotilla village, who died here in a bike crash in 1988. The cops seized the bike, but the next morning it disappeared from the police station. After a frantic search, it was found parked at the crash site. Strangely, every time the bike was impounded, it returned to the accident-prone spot. Recognizing it as divine will, a temple was built in Om Banna’s memory. The 350 cc Bullet (BNJ 7773) is enshrined alongside his garlanded photo, where travelers stop to pray for a safe passage.

Don’t Miss: Bishnoi villages at Rohet and Guda Bishnoi near Jodhpur, Participate in an opium ceremony, Khejarli Memorial where 363 people sacrificed their lives to protect a grove of the sacred khejri tree

2. More Bhang for your Buck: Jaisalmer’s famous Bhang Shop

Move over Dr. Dang, Dr. Bhang is here! He has a YouTube video, a Facebook page and a killer dialogue to hawk his wares – ‘We start from Baby Lassi, special for Japani-Korean because they have small baby eyes, then we have Medium, Strong, Super Duper Sexy Strong and then Full Power, 24 Hour. No toilet, no shower!’ Doctor Bhang or Chander Prakash Vyas aka Babu, represents the savvy third generation of the Govt. Authorized Bhang Shop, located at the base of Jaisalmer fort since the early 1970s. The Banana Lassi (Strong) is strongly recommended. Bhang chocolates (lasts 2-3 days) Bhang cookies (lasts few weeks) and CDs of Anthony Bourdain’s visit to the shop are good take-aways.

Don’t miss: Jaisalmer Fort, India’s only ‘living’ fort with a maze of houses, hotels, eateries, exquisite Jain temples & Mr. Parekh’s gemstone shop ‘Light of the East’, Photograph Dhanna Ram’s 4.5 ft long moustache outside Patwon ki Haveli 

3. The Ghost town of Kuldhara 

The skeletal remains of Kuldhara represent a Golden Age gone to dust. Located 18 km west of Jaisalmer off the highway to Sam, this was one of the 84 villages of Paliwal Brahmins which were abandoned overnight! The large houses, wide streets, excellent drainage and water harvesting to grow wheat in a desolate land speak of an advanced society. Paliwal Brahmins were wealthy agriculturists who traded along the Silk Route to the north, contributing hefty taxes to the kings and often giving them loans! However, when trade routes changed and the river Kak ran dry, the community bore the brunt of unjust taxes imposed by Salim Singh, the ruthless dewan. Continuous harassment and threat to their women resulted in a mass exodus of the Paliwals. They left in the dead of the night, never to be heard of again. Fearing their curse, nobody has ever settled in their villages till date.

Don’t Miss: The 80-year-old caretaker Sumer Ram narrates the legend of Kuldhara and also plays the algoja (Rajasthani double flute) very well… sometimes, with his nose! Similar ruins at Khaba (10 km away)

4. Ranthambhore Ganesh ji: Postcards to God

Atop Ranthambhore’s historic 1000-year-old fort is a unique temple of trinetra (three-eyed) Ganesha. Every day, the Lord receives 10 kg of mail from across the globe. This isn’t fan mail or supplications; as per tradition the first wedding invitation card for any marriage is sent here. Temple priest Ramavtar explained that the first wedding invite sent here was ‘Krishna weds Rukmini’, roughly dating the temple to 6500 years. So um… what happens to all the wedding cards? The envelopes are recycled for giving prasad and the cards are cleared annually! Wednesdays (Lord Ganesha’s Day) tend to be crowded and the annual Ganesh Chaturthi fair attracts thousands.

Don’t Miss: Tiger safaris, hand-feeding wild Rufous Tree-pies with biscuit crumbs, Shopping for traditional textiles and crafts at Dastkar

5. What makes Mehrangarh a formidable fort 

Easily the most spectacular fort in Rajasthan, Mehrangarh hides a grim tale under its magnificent facade. When Rao Jodha decided to move the Rathore citadel from Mandore in 1459, he selected the hillock of Bhaurcheeria (Mountain of Birds), home to an ascetic Cheeria Nathji. Though a temple was built to mark his dhuni (place of penance), the evicted sage cursed the place to be drought-ridden but conceded that the fort would be unassailable if a man was buried alive in its foundations. A skinner Rajaram Meghwal (or Rajiya Bhambi) volunteered, in return for the welfare of his family till perpetuity. To this day his descendants live in Raj Bagh. On Jodhpur’s founding day (May 12), the Maharaja worships the humble skinner’s tools and felicitates Rajiya’s kin. A stone tablet opposite Rao Jodhaji’s Phalsa (the original fort entrance) commemorates his supreme sacrifice.

Don’t Miss: The elevator inside the fort, Royal dinner at Chokelao Bagh, Stay inside the walled city at Pal Haveli, Visit Jaswant Thada (royal cenotaphs) and the old capital of Mandore 

6. Mishrilal’s Makhaniya Lassi, LMB & other culinary delights

If Dal-bati-churma and gatte ki sabzi seem passé, try Nutella pancakes, Marmite toast, Mexican enchiladas or Israeli cuisine in Rajasthan. At Pushkar, it’s not just the menu that’s offbeat. Eat at Pink Floyd Café, Out of the Blue, Funky Monkey, Meter Palace or Rainbow Café. Most rooftop cafes offer ‘panoramic lake views’, making Pushkar a novel experience. For conventional fare, try the Rajasthani Thali at Lakshmi Mishtan Bhandar – Traditional Halwaies since 1727 (0141-2565844) at Johari Bazaar in Jaipur, or feast on Kachoris at Rawat’s. At Jodhpur, Mishrilal (0291-2540049) at Ghanta Ghar has been churning out their signature ‘Makhaniya lassi’ and Special Rabdi over five generations. Nearby, under the Sardar Market arch you’ll find an ‘Amalate (omelette) Shop – Recommended by Lonely Planet’!

Don’t Miss: Bikaneri Bhujiya, assorted gajak from Ajmer and tandoori parathas, dal and ker-sangri at the highway dhabas around Pokharan 

7. Why Michael Jackson will never Die

At the dunes of Sam, you don’t just listen to Michael Jackson, you ride him! And learn how to grab your crotch along the way. After all, a camel ride is often a ‘hump-and-grind’ routine. But there’s a reason why most of Sam’s camels are named after MJ. Our camel guy Bariyam Bhai had flawless logic, ‘If he was called Ramesh, would you have cared? Michael Jackson’s universal appeal makes the name quirky enough to amuse foreign tourists. Besides, climbing and alighting from a camel is like break-dance.’ You might also chance upon other superstars like Sean Connery, Hrithik Roshan, Shah Rukh, Salman and Raja Hindustani but the sudden demise of The King of Pop has resurrected his name. Out in these dunes, MJ still moonwalks on the sands of time.

Don’t Miss: Camel safari in the Desert National Park, Stay at desert camps with Kalbeliya dancers and Rajasthani folk artists performing under a starlit sky

8. Deogarh Mahal: Royal attitude
The story of Deogarh is a tale of pride and honour. Chunda Sisodia, heir apparent to the throne of Mewar, was the most eligible bachelor of his time. When a proposal for Hansabai, the Rathore princess was brought to Chittor, Chundaji was away. His father Rana Lakha joked that the bride could surely not be for an old man like him. When the prince returned, he refused to accept a woman ‘spurned’ by his father. So the princess married the old king. The proud Chundaji renounced his claim to the throne and carved a new bastion for himself in the lawless lands north of Chittor. Deogarh Mahal, a legacy of this Chundawat clan, still bristles with the same centuries-old attitude. Its quirky signboards (London Raining, New York Snowing, Deogarh Fine Weather, Only 3 km), vintage cars like Thapero, Bhachero and Car-o-Bar (a renovated bar on wheels), clever ‘Duck or Grouse’ tags on low doors and the opulent rooms, make Deogarh Mahal a delightful indulgence!

Don’t Miss: Anjaneshwar Mahadev cave temple, Stay at ‘Khayyam’ luxurious tents in the wilderness or Seengh Sagar, the erstwhile royal recreation lodge overlooking a lake

9. Chacha, Lathi, Bap & other quirks on and off the highway

An uncle, a stick, a father, a child’s cry for milk – no, these aren’t clues to a treasure hunt in the desert, these are places you encounter on a road trip across Rajasthan. Chacha, Lathi, Bap, Dudu – milestones whizz by flashing strange names, making you wonder who or what could have inspired them. It’s really… Luni?! The monotony of the arid landscape is broken by distractions like large trailers carrying weird equipment from Kandla Port, pilgrims traveling to Ramdevra on foot and Hotel Shimla in Pokharan. Severe-looking men sport fluorescent turbans, veiled village belles dodge the camera with practiced ease while herds of camel hold up traffic as they nibble on trees by the wayside.

Don’t Miss: Milestones, signboards and photographic opportunities galore

10. The dhurrie that never catches fire

Horrified by the sight of a man trying to set fire to a beautiful rug, we protested wildly. Hansmukh, true to his name, smiled benignly as if nothing was amiss. He explained, ‘Pure wool fibre gathered from camel and goat hair is naturally fire resistant and closely-woven knots make the carpet fireproof’. As if on cue, the extra-long Karborised matchstick died out, bringing the show to a dramatic end. We were at Ranakpur Tribal Dhurrie Udyog (02934-285191), a humble venue with an array of hand-woven dhurries and carpets crafted since generations. Their popularity was apparent in the stack of cartons waiting to be shipped. In the low light, we squinted at the addresses – ‘Nagpur, Ahmedabad, New Delhi? Not bad!’ we mumbled. Hansmukh smiled. ‘No, it’s Norway, Australia, New Zealand.’

Don’t miss: Ranakpur’s 15th century Jain temple of Adinath with 29 halls and 1,444 intricately carved marble pillars; the elaborate Jain lunch served as prasad

Fact File

The route: Jaipur-Ajmer-Pushkar-Deogarh-Ranakpur-Jodhpur-Sam-Jaisalmer-Sawai Madhopur

Getting there: Jet Airways operates direct flights to Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur from Delhi and Mumbai.

When to visit: Winter months are ideal, but the festive season brings out the best in Rajasthan, with something special every month: Desert Festival in Jaisalmer (16-18 Feb), Elephant Festival at Jaipur (19 Mar), Mewar Festival at Udaipur (6-8 Apr) & Summer Festival at Mount Abu (15-17 May)

Where to Stay

Deogarh Mahal, Deogarh
02904-252777, 253333, 9314420016
info@deogarhmahal.com

Nachna Haveli, Jaisalmer
02992-251910, 255565
nachna_haveli@yahoo.com

Pal Haveli, Jodhpur
0291-3093328, 2638344, 9350408034
info@palhaveli.com

Ranthambhore Bagh, Sawai Madhopur
07462-221728, 224251
aditya@ranthambhore.com

Giri Sadan Homestay, Jaipur
0141-2371385, 2364191
girisadan@dataone.in

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the March, 2011 issue of JetWings International magazine.

Golden Miles: Rajasthan by Road

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It’s a long sunny drive to Jaisalmer. ANURAG MALLICK test-drives a brand new Toyota Innova to bring back tales from the desert

When it comes to Rajasthan, Jaipur has always been like foreplay, that preliminary bit of fooling around until you get down to business—Rajasthan itself. With a road trip to Jaisalmer  staring back at me from the odometer, it was my fastest ride to Jaipur ever. Besides, it was late at night, the four-lane highway was excellent and I had the unfair advantage of a brand new Toyota Innova I was asked to test drive. The mid-point Behror and Kotputli whizzed past and we wheeled into Jaipur at the break of dawn. The doodh mandi was stirring to life. Elephants were being readied for their daily ritual of 15-minute rides to the top of Amer fort.

After zipping along the near empty streets of Jaipur, we finally drove into Raj Palace, our first halt. Built in 1727 and owned by the royal family of Chomu, it is believed to be the oldest mansion in Jaipur, even older than the city palace. It is a local joke that every visitor gets lost in the maze of corridors at least once. Thankfully we had stopped by only for a wash and breakfast; our tight schedule didn’t even allow us to explore the twin holy cities of Ajmer and Pushkar. Besides there’s a belief about Ajmer that ‘Ajmer-e-sharif wahi jatey hain, jinhe khud khwaja bulatey hain’. It’s a divine calling and perhaps no one had heard it as loud and clear as Salim Shah.

He was our first major road discovery. On a highway with whizzing traffic here was a man for whom the world moved at 10 km/hr. For over three decades, since the age of eight, Salim had been running his own messenger service. Every year he cycled to holy Muslim shrines preaching the word of Allah, from Rajasthan to Assam and Gulbarga to Kashmir. He slept, ate, prayed and lived his life in his green contraption. As we talked over some good dhaba tea, a thousand questions erupted in my head. Why? How? What next? And almost every query was disarmingly countered with a simple shrug of the shoulders and a motion towards the heavens above. I left my Sufi Forrest Gump with his rag tag band of followers and moved ahead.

We crossed Bhim by nightfall and soon took a 20km diversion from the main highway to Udaipur towards our halt for the night, Deogarh, the citadel of the gods. Bhajans from the nearby temples—Jain mandir, Sri Ram mandir, and the Karni Mata mandir—intermingled clamorously. We stayed at Deogarh Palace, built in 1617 when the Maharaja of Udaipur appointed Sanghaji as the jagirdar of 260 villages. Over the years, the cannon store has given way to a swimming pool and the horse stable to a string of shops. The rest of the town though remains pretty much the same—narrow galis, shops jostling with each other and the great spill of humanity.

From Gomti we turned right towards Charbhuja, and the terrain slowly mutated from flat shrub land to hilly tree-lined roads as we made our way towards Kumbalgarh. Before long we were alongside the second longest wall in the world, after the Great Wall of China. Kumbalgarh is also a wildlife sanctuary and a longer stay would have probably rewarded us with a leopard sighting. However, content with a visit to its magnificent fort we headed for Jodhpur with a brief stopover at the richly carved Jain temple of Ranakpur.

Having crossed Pali, Rohit and Loni we entered Jodhpur, Rajasthan’s second largest city. Winding past the first city gate and the clock tower, we stumbled upon the Pal Haveli—our halt for the night. The inclined driveway and the gate looked almost  perpendicular to each other and it was the toughest access to any hotel I have ever known. Once inside, we could barely hear the chugging engine of the city.

The better part of the next morning was spent joining dots on the map of Rajasthan. This part of the state was once an important link in the Silk Route, and legend has it that local kings used to loot caravan parties carrying gold and other riches. From Lodarwa, Amar Sagar, Osian, Chautan, Tannoth, Kishangarh to Ranjitpura (the middle of the desert and hence a den for opium smugglers), this was one desert highway I didn’t want to venture on, at least not in a car. An armoured tank might have been better.

I got a lesson in history the next morning, as the car wound its way up a hillock. In the 15th century, Rao Jodha was on the lookout for a secure bastion. He came to this hillock and found a holy seer meditating. The king’s men had just about evicted Mehran Baba when the constructed walls collapsed. Mehran Baba refused to stay anymore, but blessed their project and asked that his dhuni (place of penance) be left undisturbed. While leaving he also told the king’s men that the place was cursed and that any structure built there would remain incomplete, unless a human sacrifice was offered. Rajiya Bhambi, a skinner by caste, offered his life and was bricked alive into the fort walls to guard over it as a spirit. There’s a small memorial slab at Rao Jodha’s Phalsa, which marks the exact place. Every year on May 12, the founding day of Jodhpur, the Maharaja worships the humble skinner’s tools and felicitates the kin of Rajiya Bhambi.

After a brief visit to Jaswant Thada and Ajit Bhavan we were off to the Bishnoi villages of Kejarli and Guda Bishnoiya. We stopped at Jodha Ram’s house, and while his son took out the paraphernalia for the opium ceremony, Jodha Ram elaborated on the Bishnoi cult. It was founded in the late 15th century by Guru Jambhoji, who laid down 29 (Bish-noi) conservation principles. According to local folklore, in 1730, a Bishnoi woman named Amrita Devi courted death by clinging to a tree being cut to provide fuel for the cement lime kilns to build the Maharaja’s palace. Following her example, her two daughters, husband and 363 people in total clung to the trees and gave up their lives. This sacrifice was commemorated at Khejarli village, where there is a grove of khejri.

The opium was good. In fact the drug is so potent and caustic in its pure form that it has to be stored in lumps of milk and sugar. “When two warring parties consume opium together, it means they’ve made peace with each other,” Jodha Ram elaborated. “And it is very good for a cough.” That was my cue to cough ostentatiously till some more was hastily procured and packed for the rest of the journey.

The drive from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer was a four-hour daze. I wanted to see the nuclear test site of Pokhran but was told that visiting the actual site involved a 20km detour. I thought I was hallucinating but there were actually milestones with place names like Baap, Chacha and Lathi. I was still laughing as we reached Jaisalmer. It was late evening, so we decided to stop overnight at the Himmatgarh Fort, and visit the sand dunes of Sam early next morning. Sunsets on the dunes are supposed to be spectacular, and I was hoping sunrise would be the same. It was.

Even before the car could come to a stop, camel riders came rushing towards us. After a couple of teas and a lot of persuasion we were ready for a camel ride across the dunes. “Michael. Michael!” a man shouted and shortly Bablu, Raja Hindustani and Michael Jackson trooped in. The oont-wala laughed when we quizzed him on the names, saying that the names were pretty much left to the imagination of whoever bought the camel. We were informed that only male camels are used for rides, since even as sedate an animal as the camel can find the presence of a female distracting. Keeping a camel is no easy task either.

What it saves on water, it makes up with everything else. It needs a diet of jowar ki phali, ghee and gur, involving an expense of about Rs 200-250 every morning and evening. Since we had a little time we decided to explore a section of the Desert National Park and managed to see some chinkaras. To add to the adventure the oont-walas made the camels gallop at breakneck speed. Half an hour of riding and we were ready to get back to the car.

It was going to be a long 1,000km ride back to Delhi but oddly, I wasn’t perturbed. The Innova was proving to be the perfect ship of the desert—smooth in handling, excellent road grip and roomy interiors. As we approached Bikaner, I could see nothing but a bewildering succession of Ramdevs—Ramdev dhaba, Ramdev ji Bhojnalaya, Hotel Ramdev—lining the highway. It was a truck driver who enlightened me about the Ramdev cult. The Tomar king Biram Dev, he told us, had given up hope of producing an heir to the throne, and had decided to kill himself at Dwarka. As he was drowning, Lord Krishna appeared before the king. Not only did he save the king, but also promised Bikram Dev that he (Lord Krishna) would take birth as his son.

Ramdev grew up to be a man of great spiritual powers. He produced bowls for five Muslim fakirs from Mecca out of thin air, and with his lance he created a well in the middle of the desert, which still supplies water from Ramdevra to Pokhran. Till some years back, I was told, people used to jump into the well to heal themselves and an iron grille had to be installed to prevent accidents. Thousands still apparently flock to Ramdevra during the annual mela in August.

We stopped for tea and some Bikaneri bhujiya in Bikaner. By now four days of crazy driving were catching up with us, and as the car rolled down the highway, the surrounding countryside passed in a blur of hazy images. We were soon knocking on the doors of Delhi—the colours of the city coming as a shock after the austere browns of the desert—and shaking the dust from our clothes.

The Route

Delhi – Jaipur (258km) – Deogarh (240km) – Kumbalgarh (200km) –  Jodhpur (90km) – Pokhran (180km) – Jaisalmer (120km) -Sam (45km) – Jaisalmer (45km) – Bikaner (350km) – Jaipur (350km) – Kotputli (118km) – Delhi (140km).

THE DRIVE

Delhi-Jaipur-Deogarh: The four-lane NH-8 to Jaipur is probably the best highway in the country. If you are averse to dhabas, Behror is a good midway stop with restaurant facilities. Thirty kilometres from Jaipur on the route to Ajmer is Mahela, a traditional village known for its blue pottery artisans. Take the Ajmer/Pushkar bypass and continue via Bhim onwards to Deogarh. The roads are excellent but off the main highway, many stretches are single-lane, which can increase driving time considerably.

Deogarh-Kumbalgarh-Jodhpur: From Deogarh, drive 35km to Gomti chauraha, turn right towards Daisuri (20km) and Sadadi, from where it’s a 15-minute drive to Kumbalgarh. To get to Jodhpur you can either return to Sadadi and head via Sayra and Ranakpur or you can backtrack the way you came via Kelwada, Charbhuja, Desuri, Narlai. Both routes will take you via Pali, from where Jodhpur is a little over an hour’s ride.

Jodhpur-Jaisalmer: The road from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer is a ramrod-straight road via Agolai, Baleshwar, Dechu, Pokhran, Lathi, Chaandan and Hayat Hamira. Despite the distance of 300km, the road is perfect and the journey takes just about four hours. Manwar Resort & Camp is a good midway stop. To visit the sand dunes from Jaisalmer, you need to drive 45km to Sam. There’s another set of dunes at Khuri, 45km in the opposite direction from Jaisalmer town crossing.

Jaisalmer-Bikaner-Delhi: You will need to backtrack to Pokhran and then take the left towards Bikaner. Though on the same route Ramdevra, Khichan and Deshnok are all diversions from the highway. On your way back you needn’t go to Jaipur city. Thirty-three kilometres before Jaipur, you turn left from Chomu towards Samode and join the Delhi-Jaipur highway near Chandwaji. It saves you about 70km. Just ask for the Chomu-Chandwaji bypass.

WHERE TO STAY

Jaipur: The Raj Palace (Rs 2,999-10,000; 0141-2634078, www.rajpalace.com) is a good heritage hotel located on the Ajmer road. Some of the cheaper and convenient options in Jaipur are the Alsisar Haveli (Rs 1,850-2,650; 2364685, www.alsisarhotels.com) and Jaipur Inn (Rs 500-700; 2201121).

Deogarh: Deogarh Mahal (Rs 4,200-11,750; 02904-252777, 253333, www.deogarhmahal.com) is an imposing 17th- century palace that offers beautiful views of the surrounding Aravalli ranges.

Kumbalgarh: The Kumbalgarh Fort Hotel (Rs 1,695-5,000; 02954-242057, hilltop@bppl.net.in) can also organise visits to the Kumbalgarh Sanctuary.

Jodhpur: Pal Haveli (Rs 1,300-1,800; 0291-2638344, www.palhaveli.com) is a beautiful haveli, which is still occupied by the family of Thakur Bhawani Singh.

Jaisalmer: The Himmatgarh Fort (Rs 2,900-3,500; 02992-252002) is located just outside the Jaisalmer fort.

WHAT ELSE TO SEE & DO

Kumbalgarh Sanctuary safari: Apart from lingering to explore the magnificent fort, you can stay longer for a visit to the wildlife sanctuary for leopards and sloth bear sightings.

Bishnoi village safari: Kejarli, Guda Bishnoiya, Rohet, Loni are all bastions of the Bishnoi tribe though Kejarli is the closest to Jodhpur. A good person to contact is Jodha Ram Ji Budhiya (0291-2838666) of Guda Bishnoiya village.

Camel safari in Sam: The oont-walas usually quote a low rate of Rs 30-50 up till Sunset Point. However, a more extensive tour of the dunes can take up to an hour and set you back by Rs 300. On busy evenings you may end up paying a lot more.

If you’d rather have some of these activities organized for you in advance contact Exclusive India (9314620141, 0294-2529015). They organize everything from camel safaris to trips to Bishnoi villages.

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the January 2006 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.