After taking what would be considered an embarrassment by a sumo wrestler circumnavigating the globe on top of an anemic dolphin, Pune-Jaipur “Express” deposited us in the heart of Jaipur. After depositing Pranav in the safe hands of my parents in a Jaipur hotel, Aparna and I headed to check out the twin towns of Ajmer and Pushkar. Our first stop was the relatively unknown Nasiyan Jain temple. Hosting a huge multi-storey, tennis stadium sized, entirely gold plated diorama depicting Jain version of a heaven, it is deeply mysterious why this place should be so shunned by tourists. After the spookily desolate Nasiyan, we headed to the desperately crowded Dargah – the tomb of the 12th century Sufi saint Khwaja Moin-ud-din Chisti and onwards to Pushkar – home to the only Brahma temple in the world. Apparently, solution to any problem, big or small, is to come to either (preferably both) place and wish strong enough for the problem to go away. I tried it and it worked. Somewhere between getting squeezed by a sea of humanity at the Dargah and dodging cows and Brahmin touts selling everything from Ayurveda to Aswamedha at Pushkar, I made a desperate plea to get out of the whole thing alive. I don’t think without divine intervention it would have been possible.
On the day two of our trip, all of us headed towards Nawalgarh, gateway to Shekhawati and home to its famous painted Havelis. With the arrival of the Brits in mid 18th century, the region received a semblance of rule of law and an eager Chinese market for Afghan opium. Marwari merchants took full advantage of the situation and amassed vast wealth. Most of these merchants were Jains who tie a piece a cloth around their face because it is unethical to kill unconscious small insects by inadvertently breathing them in. However, advertantly killing fully conscious humans by the thousands via the opium trade was perfectly ethical thing to do. For all the opium in the region, Shekhawati is no Vegas – there aren’t very many avenues to spend your time or money. To get around this conundrum, merchants built themselves lavish Havelis, hired expensive European paint and local artists and painted every inch of every wall and watched the paint dry. Result is quite stunning – the largest open air art gallery in the world. We spent three days in the region gaping at the masterpieces. Most gape-worthy being the Poddar Haveli in Nawalgarh, Goenka Haveli in Dundlod, Sone ki Dukan Haveli in Mahansar and the painstakingly restored Nadine Haveli in Fatehpur.
After regaining our breath which Shekhawati managed to take away for a few days, we headed to Marwar’s beaten path – the triangle of Bikaner, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. All of these princely city-states were pro-establishment to a large extant which explains why they remain largely undisturbed by the Mughals and the Brits. Each of the cities has a grand fort, a sumptuous modern palace-cum luxury hotel, ancient Jain temples, stunning Havelis and breathtaking royal cenotaphs. We started off at Bikaner as it is the closest one to Shekhawati. The fort in Bikaner, our first stop in the city, is probably the most lavish monument in the country. The never ending array of stunning rooms – Phool Mahal with its floral motifs, Badal Mahal with its cloud motifs, the gold plated Anup Mahal, to name but a few – culminates in the gigantic Diwan-e-Khas (hall of private audience) with its walls covered in relief carvings. After the fort, we headed to the Lalgarh Palace, where the vagaries of democracy has reduced the current king, the lord of the stunning Bikaner fort, to a private citizen forced to let out most of his current residence to the rich tourists. Poor tourists like us were reduced to even pitier state of having to pay a couple of dollars (a fortune by Indian standards) to get an opportunity to photograph the palace-hotel from a far off vantage point. Things only got worse at the bright red Havelis of the old city which, thanks to a family disagreement as who should collect the entrance fee, also remained closed to the visitors. Unlike the palace, there are no vantage points to enjoy the highly ornate exterior. Being the old city centre, the buildings were at a hand-shaking distance from each other and in order to get any decent picture, one has to gape upwards standing in the middle of a busy street frequented by kamikaze bike riders riding at break-neck speeds. To restore some sanity to our lives, we headed to the Jain temples which, as expected, were completely desolate and we could enjoy the wonderfully painted interiors in complete tranquility.
The following afternoon, we visited one of the famous tourist spots in Bikaner – the world’s only Camel Research Centre, the only point of the visit seems to be to get an opportunity to buy some camel bone trinkets and get to taste camel milk products. Already softened by a week of outside food, the unpasteurised camel milk became the last straw on Pranav's back and made him throw up his afternoon food. We just did what any responsible parent would have done in this situation – give the child a strong doze of medicine and headed onto Jodhpur as planned without even cutting the pre-planned detour to visit the Osiyan Jain temple.
Sitting atop a 500ft massif, the Mehrangarh, Jodhpur’s fort, is a sight to behold. We were beheld all evening by its view from our hotel’s roof-top restaurant. The beholding continued the following morning during our fort visit. Fort’s highly carved exterior, its shiny Sheesh Mahal (mirror hall), elaborately painted Phool Mahal (flower hall), Royal Bedroom and Belgian glass covered Diwan-e-Khas and the unparalleled view of the old Blue City helped in the beholding process. Jodhpur’s cenotaphs are its next biggest attraction and it comes in two parts. The first is the often visited, more recently built, dominated by the Taj like milky white marble cenotaph of Jaswant Singh II. The second is the less visited, more breath taking, older Khajuraho style sandstone cenotaphs in the Mandore Gardens. The final attraction in Jodhpur is the recently built Umaid Bhavan Palace, which the current royal descendant has turned it to one of the premier luxury hotels in the country. If you cannot afford the rooms starting at Rs. 40,000 a night (and going as high as Rs. 500,000 for the suite), then you have to shell out a hundred to get a chance to see one part of the building up close.
After spending two days in Jodhpur, we needed the extra day so that we can leave Pranav at the hotel to recover from whatever he caught while rest of us took turns to sight-see, we headed to the final destination, Jaisalmer. Known as the golden city, Jaisalmer is dominated by a large impressive fort built of the golden yellow sandstone that is abundantly available around the city. Our first stop however, was the Havelis. Being closer to the opium source in Afghanisthan, the merchants in the town ended up far richer than the king and hence, the Havelis here were far grander than the actual fort palace. The Patwa ki Haveli, a series of five Havelis, the only ones open to visitors, is the epitome of stone carving in India. The outer façade is exploding with intricately carved honeycomb like jalis (windows) and breathtaking jharokas (balconies). The interior has its share of painted rooms rivaling any self respecting palace around the nation. The fort palace, where the king lived, is truly pedestrian by comparison, boasting a couple of rooms covered with European tiles. The only reason why anyone would visit the fort palace is to enjoy the best view in town, thanks to its location on the highest point on the hill. Despite the disappointing fort palace, the fort is still a must-see for its exquisitely carved Jain temples. Funded by the Jain merchants, Jain temples inside the fort had no shortage of money and the result is a series of stunning monuments exploding with sculptures rivaling those at Ranakpur and Mt. Abu.
The chic thing to do in Jaisalmer is to take a camel safari at the local Sam Sand Dunes. Although it is no Sahara – you don’t get to see an ocean of sand – the sunset at the dunes will certainly make it an unforgettable outing. As an added bonus, enroute, you get a chance to visit the recently rebuilt Lodruva Jain temple (the original site of Jain worship before it moved into the fort) and the Bada Bagh, the Jaisalmer Royal cenotaphs. Built on a slope of a hill, the series of Hindu and Islamic style cenotaphs in Bada Bagh offer a pretty dramatic sight. Since the last encounter between Pranav and camels did not end up well, he was left at the hotel room with my parents while Aparna and I completed the desert circuit.
The fortnight has now ended and we were as far as west as one could go without a passport. Since the last encounter between Pranav and an aeroplane also ended in a disaster, it had to be the Indian Railways that would take us home. In about the time that takes a man to the moon and back, a couple of 24hr overnighters brought us to Pune from Jaisalmer. I now need to go meet a shrink. My body is thinking it is living in a permanent earth quake zone.
Click here for more photos from Ajmer and Pushkar.
Click here for more photos from Shekhawati.
Click here for more photos from Bikaner.
Click here for more photos from Jodhpur.
Click here for more photos from Jaisalmer.