Forts, Deserts, Camels and 6 Trains : A tale of Rajasthan Trip – Part 1

     “Why always the Himalayas? Why can’t you go somewhere else?” asked my friends every time I came back from the trips. Well, I don’t know how to answer that question. There is something magical about that place, maybe that’s why many of our ancient epic stories about gods and demigods were staged there.  But I thought of a change this time….. (well the real reason is that it would be suicidal to go to the Himalayas in the winter season and most roads are closed due to the snowfall). There was a long gap after my solo trip to Spiti valley aka the middle land in the Himalayas last year, but I don’t know how or when Rajasthan got into my mind… It all started after I bought a DSLR camera, it had been my dream for a long time and once I had it, obviously the next thing to do would be to pack the bag and scoot somewhere. The whole itinerary was finalized at the very last moment and for that I once again thank my usual resources and ….without them it would have been very difficult.

For those who looking for the itinerary I’m listing it below.

Day 1    Bangalore to Udaipur

Day 3    Reach Udaipur by evening

Day 4    Udaipur sightseeing (City palace, Jadish temple, Cable car, Bagore Ki Haveli,                              Gangaur Ghat). Leave for Jaipur at night (Khajuraho express /19666).

Day 5    Reach Jaipur early morning. Jaipur sightseeing (Amber fort, Janigarh fort, Jal                            Mahal,  City palace, Jantar Mandir, Hawa Mahal, Albert hall Museum). Leave for                       Jaisalmer at night (Malani express /14659).

Day 6    Reach Jaisalmer at noon. Go to Khuri (50 kms far) by bus. Desert camping                                  arranged by Badal House.

Day 7    Go back to Jaisalmer and roam around (Golden fort, streets). Catch the midnight                     train to Jodhpur (Ranikhet Express/15013)

Day 8     Jodhpur sightseeing (Umaid bhavan palace, Mehrangarh, streets).

Day 9     Leave for Bangalore (Bhagat Ki Kothi – KSR Bengaluru Express/16507)

The land of desert -Rajasthan…. Thar desert

     Like always I asked my friends if they were interested and many of them raised their hands at first, but by the end they all skipped it citing various reasons – as usual. Finally there was Manu (my higher secondary classmate) from Kochi and Aishwarya, my cousin who lives in Mumbai. Since Aishu was coming with us I did something which I had never done for my previous travels – check for hotels in advance. I usually just go out there and find the most reasonably priced room. Honestly I was a bit skeptical about talking her for the trip because of two things, I have never been to Rajasthan before, so didn’t have any idea about the security aspect. If it were the Himalayas I wouldn’t hesitate at all because I know how safe that place is for women travelers. And the next thing, I wasn’t sure whether she could cop with the hectic traveling schedule which had become a habit for me (we were to catch 6 trains in 7 days). But by the end of the trip I was proved wrong in all ways. I had underestimated her and unnecessarily worried about the security in Rajasthan, so I guess I owe an apology to Aishu and all the nice people of Rajasthan. More about it later.

       So finally all packed up and ready, Manu and myself were about to start from Bangalore on January 22nd Friday. Since we didn’t get the direct train to Udaipur, our plan was to go to Mumbai first and then take another train to Udaipur. But fate was against Manu; he had some medical issues once he reached Bangalore and had to cancel the trip at the very last moment. Poor guy, had come all the way to Bangalore from Kochi and had to go back. So once the office time was over, I boarded my first train of the trip – Udyan express (11302) around 8.40pm. Not a good start, I thought, as I sat alone in the crowded Udyan express when it departed from the Garden City.

     On reaching Kalyan (near Mumbai) on 23rd Saturday night, I took the suburban rail to reach Thane and went to Aishu’s home. After freshening up we had dinner and Geeta aunty and Ramesh uncle (Aishu’s parents) dropped us at the Bandra terminal station to catch the Udaipur express (12995) at 11.45 pm. ……..second one for me and first one for her.

     The dry deserted land on either side of the track was all I could see when I opened my eyes on Sunday morning; Rajasthan had arrived.. The view of Chittorgarh fort which is one of the largest in the world,  as we passed Chittorgarh station was a bonus, but it was just a beginning of what  we were going to see in the next few days.. Finally the train reached Udaipur around 4pm. Even though I hadn’t pre booked the rooms, I had planned where to stay there. So I called the caretaker of the guest house immediately and asked for the directions as we were boarding an auto. Udai Haveli Guest House, our hotel, is very near to the famous lake of Udaipur, Lake Pichola which is 3 kms away from the railway station. After bargaining, we managed to get a room for Rs 600.

     We decided to go for an evening walk not too far, just on the banks of the lake, and left the room. My suggestion was to take a room near the lake sides where the availability is high and it would be helpful to travel to the main tourist attractions in the city. We crossed a small bridge which separated Lake Pichola and Swaroop Sagar to walk till Hanuman Ghat. The sun was about to set for the day and I saw the famous city place and the adjacent havelis standing majestically on the opposite bank shining like a polished pearl in the golden light, where the Merwar Kingdom once showed its pride. There are four islands in Lake Pichola, the earlier rulers had built beautiful palaces on it- Lake Palace and Jag Mandir stood out among them, both now converted into luxury hotels.

Once upon a time even the great Emperor Shajahan must have stood here watching this mesmerizing Lake Pichola in the dusky light.

      The white marble walls of the Lake Palace were turning golden color in the dusky light of Udaipur. This floating beauty was built between 1743 and 1746 by Maharana Jagat Singh II, the Merwar ruler. Jag Mandir, the elder sister by 100 years, which has a story to tell about its construction lasting a century (from mid 16th century to 17th century) wasn’t lacking a bit. Hard to tell which is more beautiful ….I called it a tie. It was here, in the Jag Mandir that the Mughal Prince Khurram (who was later known as Emperor Shajahan, yeah the guy who built the Taj Mahal… I wonder if he got the idea of the whole white marble thing from here!) stayed as a refugee after he had revolted against his father Jahangir.

       Very sad that people who cannot afford the luxurious dinner in these hotels cannot visit these majestic historic floating places which are quite unique in the world. After admiring those beauty queens from Hanuman Ghat, we decided to go to Gangaur Ghat on the opposite side and as we walked back our attention was caught by a beautifully located restaurant on the shores of the lake called Little Prince (the dinner plan was set). Its walls were covered with some Korean scripts, it could be Korean menu, I joked.

My favorite spot in Udaipur – Ganguar Ghat

         As the sun went down, the city lights came to life. We sat on the steps of Gangaur Ghat which led to the Lake Pichola. There were a few guys jamming near us, mixing up some Bollywood film songs and Aishu began to croon with them. Luckily for her, I didn’t know the lyrics of those Hindi songs, otherwise I would have ruined that beautiful moment by singing along with her! ……… it was a night that anyone would love to sing a song on those mesmerizing shores of the Lake Pichola. The cold night started to grip the entire Udaipur slowly while Jag Mandir and Lake Palace were glazing with lights like a group of fireflies.

       The cold but pleasant wind blowing over the lake, the Ghats with shining lights all over, all these made me think for a second that I was in Rishikesh. After all those Himalayan trips I had some doubts in my mind whether I could enjoy this trip as much as them and even though it was not as adventurous as the previous ones, I knew I was wrong at that very moment. I’m going to have a really good time here in the land of forts, havelis, deserts, palaces….. did I say forts? Well, add a few more!

      May be an hour had passed before we finally headed for dinner to Little Prince. The menu was filled with Korean and Italian cuisine, Haa..I wasn’t wrong about the Korean menu on the wall after all! The dinner was delicious, you could get beer also even though they don’t have license. I recommend strongly this restaurant for people who visit Udaipur. We decided to finish our drink on the roof of our guest house. From the roof you could see a portion of the lake but not a very good view though. All havelis or mansions with a single main gate look smaller from outside but in fact they have a number of rooms.  One realizes how big it is only when you enter it, said Aishu, and I couldn’t agree more. We called it a day and went back to our room once we finished our drinks.

Venice of the East – Day 1

         Well, officially this is the first day of our trip. Once our morning chores were finished, we started from the haveli to the first location – Jagadish temple, very close to our hotel, in fact. The temple was built in Indo-Aryan architectural style by Maharana Jagat Singh in mid 17th century AD. Once you enter through the large elephant statues guarding the entrance, you could see beautifully carved pillars and the decorated ceilings inside this pyramid shaped iconic temple which is dedicated to the Lord Vishnu. Inside the compound, some travellers were meditating in the serene atmosphere. Aishu went inside the temple and prayed for some time, once it opened after cleaning the idols; as a stubborn atheist, I waited outside admiring the architectural brilliance of Mewari people and taking pictures of squirrels and doves.

        The astonishingly beautiful sculpture work on the temple walls, filled with elephants, horses and warriors will easily divert your mind from the fact that the temple is not that big especially when you compare it with the temples in South India. When she came out, Aishu informed that Vishnu, Devi and Krishna are the idols inside the temple ……. quite a strange combination that is.

The delicacy carved on stones – Jagdish Temple

     The City Palace was our next destination which is a few minutes’ walk from there. As it was the tourist season, there were plenty of tourists there, both foreign and Indian. Like l had said earlier, many of the forts and palaces in Rajasthan have been converted into luxurious hotels. The same goes for the buildings near the City Palace Museum. The story of Udaipur City Palace’s construction, the largest one in Rajasthan, will put the Jag Mandir to shame.  It had lasted for more than four centuries, starting from the middle of 16th century by Maharana Udai Singh II.

The architectural beauty of Udaipur – City Palace

     We entered the palace after buying the tickets. The entire palace is built on marble and granite and the interiors are decorated with marvelously beautiful sculptures, miniature paintings and glass works which are all very well maintained by the tourism department. The kings and queens added the rooms and halls as per their taste over the centuries; each one has its own story to tell. No wonder it took such a long time to finish. In the end they must have run out of space, I think!! Anyway never had I been to a palace like this before for sure. The pavilions, terraces, corridors, rooms and hanging gardens all built with perfectly blended Rajasthani and Mughal architectural styles, gave the City Palace a well-earned place in the world of tourism.

    The view of Jag Mandir and Lake Palace through the artfully decorated windows inside the palace is definitely a sight to remember forever. Interesting trivia…… Shajahan isn’t the only refugee who camped here; our Beloved James Bond once paid a visit to this Udaipur’s pride in the movie Octopussy. The fame in association with the movie gave the city of Udaipur a nick name in the western world – ‘The Venice of the East’ (but I was taught it was Alleppey!).The open gardens on the top floors are a reflection of the luxury and the architectural brilliance of the Rajput days.

A view from inside the palace

    The whole palace reminds me of the castle in the Prince of Persia Warrior Within video game. It took around 2 hours to explore the palace, imagine the King ordering for a coffee back in those days. There must be some kind of ancient GPS existing at that time!! Otherwise how was the poor servant going to know which room the King was in?

The floating wonder – Lake Palace

     We were starving by the time the exploration was over.  For lunch we walked all the way back to Hanuman Ghat and went to a restaurant called ‘Mellets of Merwar’ – another one that I would like to recommend. We left the place after enjoying the delicious traditional Rajasthani thali and veg fried rice and then took an auto to reach the next spot- the cable car which is around 2-3 kms from the Ghat. The cable car charge is Rs 81 per person. The car takes you to the top most spot within the Udaipur city. It was Aishu’s first time in rope way and as the car rose further up, we saw the city palace, havelis and the floating palaces in one picture. As we reached the top point, we walked a little further up to have a better view of the city. Udaipur was much bigger than I thought. All the cosmopolitan areas are on the right side and the palaces, havelis, lakes on the other end, like one doesn’t disrupt the other.

An aerial view of Udaipur city

     The clear sky and sun tried to warm up Udaipur as much as possible but thanks to the winter season, the temperature was very much under control. This is in fact is a good time to visit Rajasthan as the summer season will start in a month when the mercury could easily rise up above 40 °C. The boats were floating around the lake slowly. Talking about the Lake Pichola, do you know it is an artificial lake created back in 1362 AD? Think about the mammoth effort the workers had to put to satisfy a king’s dreams under the scorching sun in Rajasthan. All these forts and palaces that we enjoy today have an untold story of the blood and sweat of the workers who gave everything for the king and the country, which is sadly never written anywhere.

     The long day had made us tired already, so we decided to go back to the room and take some rest before proceeding to Bagore Ki Haveli to see the cultural show in the evening. There was a huge crowd for the show in front of Bagore Ki Haveli – the 3 century old mansion- as we reached at 6.30.Thereare two shows -at 7pm and 8pm. We were so lucky to get the last pair of the tickets for the first show; in fact I had to beg a guy for it. So make sure you reach there early if you want to get the tickets for the first show. Anyway being the last persons to enter the arena had its perks, we got the front row. After a brief introduction the show started.

What does Mughal Emperor Shajahan and James Bond in common?! No not the number of girlfriends!!!….. Its the Lake Pichola

     Organized by the West Zone Cultural Centre of India, the show known as Dharohar will take you to another world…… of the rich folklore culture of Rajasthan. It started with some traditional dance from the southern part of Rajasthan by a group of women wearing their traditional colorful dresses. The crowd including us gazed at the performers as they started dancing slowly with the rhythmic music only to end it on a super note by spinning like a top. Loud claps echoed as an appreciation inside the Haveli which also has a museum in it. Too bad we missed the museum. Those performances themselves speak about the rich culture this land of desert has got. Each performance is different, based upon the different regions of this state and they were performed after a very detailed description in both Hindi and English by a very pleasant anchor. One dance they performed was in the sitting position which is unique in India.  Adding more variety to the show was a very interesting puppet show also. Dharohar concluded with a fabulous dance performance by an old lady with pots on her head, she even danced on top of broken glass with it! One should never miss this show if in Udaipur. With that fabulous show our wonderful time in Udaipur pulled its curtain down.

     We sat around in Gangaur Ghat (in apparent absence of music), for some time before leaving. At night we checkout out from the room and went to the railway station to board the Udaipur Khajuraho express (19666) to go to our next  stop – Jaipur. I had booked the tickets in sleeper class even though I knew it would be very uncomfortable in this winter season. To make it worse we got the seats near the doors so whenever somebody opened it I just froze. The train left at 10.20pm. I was covering my hold body with a thick blanket that I had but it wasn’t quite sufficient, but still I managed to get some sleep.

Pink City (or shall I call it Red city?) – Day 2

                We arrived in Jaipur in the morning around 5.30. As we got down from the train I asked Aishu if she managed to sleep well. “No, I thought they would provide thick blankets like in AC class, so I didn’t bring the blankets” she said. Wow..Great… Aishu!!Either she is never going to travel by sleeper class or she will never forget to take blankets with her again. But I have no idea why she said yes when I asked her on the first day whether she had got the blankets. The taxiwalas mobbed us as we went out from the station. We took a cab and the driver guided us to a hotel nearby.

Streets of Jaipur

     After a nap we went outside to explore Jaipur- the Pink City and capital of Rajasthan. But I prefer calling it red city because that’s all I could see as we reached near the Badi Chaupar (large square). The wide straight roads in all directions will immediately tell you that Jaipur city is a city with its own architecture just like Old Delhi. The entire street which reminded me of Chandini Chowk of Delhi is filled with shops that have all the things in the world except for a restaurant! We had to walk a bit to find one palace near the Hawa Mahal. On top of a building some band performance was going on which was followed by flag hoisting which reminded me which day in the year it was. It was January 26th…… our 67th Republic Day. Salutes to Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, a true visionary whose efforts made India a republic country.

A fine example of royal architecture of Jaipur – Amber Fort

        Wasting no time we caught the city bus to Amer to visit the Amber Fort after food. Most of the local people would recommend you to hire an auto or cab to go to Amber which is 11 km away from Jaipur but bus service to that place is quite frequent. On the way you could see the famous Jal Mahal of Jaipur. It took hardly half an hour to reach Amber. As we got down from the bus we gazed at the gigantic fort in front of us for a second. Built by Raja Man Singh I during the time of Emperor Akbar this fort is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The combined view of Amber fort glistening with the red sandstone and Janigarh fort built later on just above Amber on the hills known as Cheel ka Teela (Hill of Eagles), from the down side is a feast to the eyes. The long ramparts on the beautiful Aravalli ranges like the Great Wall of China, surrounding the whole Amer town help to enhance that view. Wondered if any army ever came close to defeating the Rajput kings of Amer crossing those giant walls.

Victory fort of Rajasthan – Jaigarh Fort

      There is a unique way of entering the Amber Fort……..that is, by using elephants…. but to discourage animal abuse we walked through the other end. There are no rip of called as the camera tickets here in Jaipur. Thus we entered the gigantic fort housed by many Rajput clans, with a large number of halls and rooms, each one having a story of its own to tell.

      The interiors weren’t detailed as the Udaipur city palace but it was enormous. The one place which needs special mention is the Sheesh Mahal (mirror palace), where the entire ceiling and the walls are decorated with beautiful paintings made of small glass pieces. There aren’t any sign boards inside the fort to help the tourist to navigate, so at certain points we were going around in the same place. In fact we may have missed many places inside the fort itself but we didn’t care. The subterranean passage to the Janigarh fort from Amber was used in the old days to escape to a higher safe place whenever a war happened. Even today you can reach Janigarh through a walkway but it might take an hour to reach. But the relatively hot weather in Amer discouraged us from that exploit. Moreover I was afraid whether we could cover all the other places in Jaipur in the afternoon if we go to Janigarh, so sadly we decided to go back to Jaipur.

Inside the City Place of Jaipur

       I wasn’t very excited to see Jal Mahal as we got down on the way back from Amer. It was much smaller than I had imagined. May be the night view would be better. Wasting no time, we went back to Jaipur from where we started in the morning and went straight to the City Palace of Jaipur. All our hopes to find a place to have lunch on the way were in vain. The beautiful palace built in the heart of the city was the place from where once the king of Jaipur ruled his kingdom. The richly decorated rooms and halls (Chandra Mahal, Mubarak Mahal, etc) show you the perfect example of Hindu – Mughal fusion architecture. Being close to the Mughal Empire of India that was in Delhi and Agra, all these old buildings in Rajasthan were heavily influenced by the Mughal architecture. After spending some time there, we moved to Jantar Mantar- just opposite to the palace.

      Jantar Mantar will really tell you the knowledge that our ancestors possessed in science, astronomy especially. This three- centuries-old complex consists of many architectural astronomical instruments including the world’s biggest sundial, built by the Rajput king Sawai Jai Singh. Those instruments were used for measuring time, predicting eclipses, tracking the location of major stars, as the earth orbits around the sun, and so on. Back in those days, the information gathered from here must have helped in agriculture a lot.

The Palace of Wind! Hawa Mahal

      Hawa Mahal, our next destination was visible from the Jantar Mantar itself. If I had known all that these places are very close to each other, we would have certainly gone to Janigarh fort. Most of us Indians have a picture of Hawa Mahal in our mind whenever we hear about Jaipur. The beautiful view from the front is quite popular among the people but even the rear end view wasn’t lacking in any way. There are five storeys to this building, each floor having different names according to the characteristics it has. The top floor is the actual Hawa Mahal or the Palace of Wind, the name by which the whole building came to be known later on.

A rear view of Hawa Mahal

       Pangs of hunger kicked us out to the market, to look for a restaurant. Needless to say it was like finding a needle in the haystack. I wonder where all these Jaipurians go to eat? Somehow we managed to find a tiny place inside the market and had a very late lunch.

Namasthe.. Now get out of my way!

        After having a black tea with milk (well, that’s how the chaiwala made it!) from the tea stall just opposite, we went for a walk to a garden which I had located from my mobile phone map. We walked all the way through the narrow roads of the market to reach that place only to find out that there was no garden, it was just a playground and a parking lot. But we saw the sign board of Albert Hall Museum and I immediately recollected  that this place was, in fact, in our itinerary, oh… how could I forget? Again we walked all the way there to find that the Museum was closed due to some function on that day. Well, we had seen plenty of old things for a day, I comforted myself. After sitting there on a bench for some time, we decided to go back to the room calling it a day. Learning a lesson from last night, Aishu bought a blanket from the market on the way.

Yummy! From the streets of Jaipur

       We had a well-earned rest at the hotel before going out for dinner. After coming back from the restaurant we were in a hurry to pack our bags and proceed from Jaipur to Jaisalmer. Since our hotel was very near to the railway station, we walked all the way there at night. The rolling sound of Aishu’s trolley bags (please do bring a back pack next time!) on the gravel path must have woken up everyone on the way.

    The famous Malani express(14659) from Old Delhi arrived on time at 11.30 to take us to Jaisalmer. Honestly when I planned the whole itinerary I just picked up the most popular places in Rajasthan without thinking about the distances between them.  Rajasthan, being the largest state in India, one has to travel an awful lot of distance between these places. Jaipur to Jaisalmer itself is around 600kms and requires 12hrs of train journey. Once again we got the seats near the door and needless to say it was damn cold. But with the blankets on, both of us managed to sleep well this time. Tomorrow afternoon we are going to be just 45kms far away from Pakistan……. I thought as I closed my eyes.

The journey continues….


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