The Splendour of Rajasthan

The Blue City

Jodhpur

The Blue City, the Pink City, the Lake City … these dream-like descriptions of well-known Rajasthan cities have been an allure to me for many years and now I am finally here! We landed in New Delhi’s swanky new airport and that was such a welcome surprise. Gone was the shabbiness, chaos and mess of before, the place was positively sparkling not only with its ultra modern new building but with its efficiency. We cleared immigration swiftly and by the time we walked through the Green Channel and got to baggage collection, our bags were already making their rounds on the conveyor belt. This is on par with the Changi experience. A first in India for me! And the lady in the women’s toilet didn’t even ask for US dollars.
We had a 5 hour wait for our flight to Jodhpur. We found a welcoming eponymous South Indian restaurant called “Vaango”  and tucked into dhosas and Indian filter coffee straight away. We completely missed the local agent who was sent to meet us and this poor young man walked the length and breadth of this vast airport looking for a group of 2 Indians and 2 Chinese, finding us finally in “Vaango” having breakfast.  He seemed glad and relieved to be able to hand us our vouchers etc for our stay. The service was so excellent that we were given a complimentary mobile phone with a reasonable amount of value in it for our use during our stay. How very considerate and civilised.

Our flight to Jodhpur was on one of those small propeller jets and we landed at Jodhpur’s “defence airport” – the pilot and the flight attendant announced several times that “as Jodhpur is a defence airport strictly no photography is permitted”.

We were staying at the lovely Raas Hotel (at this point we didn’t know how lovely!) located within the walled city. The mini van that picked us up was only able to take us as far as the outer gate of the old city. From that point to the hotel, we had to take auto rickshaws. Anyone who has been to India knows what a vertebra-realigning experience that can be. We forgot to warn our two friends. It was their first time in India and the auto ride was like nothing they could have imagined! They got off their autos just a tad dazed.

The Raas is a beautiful hotel. Every room has a grand view of the magnificent Mehrangarh Fort. What a breathtaking view. We stood at our balconies just standing and staring at this vast imposing  fort towering above the hotel.

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View of the Mehrangarh Fort from our room

A little about the Blue City. Jodhpur is called the Blue City because a large portion of the old city is quite literally blue. You’ll see all the possible shades of blue. There are many stories as to why they are painted blue – one is that during the ancient wars, the brahmins to identify themselves as such to the enemies would paint their houses blue and the enemies would spare the home of a priest (!). The other popular reason is apparently blue keeps away mosquitoes.

For those of you equestrians out there, this is where your riding breeches originated. Jodhpurs were designed by the Maharaja of Jodhpur’s son and worn by his polo team when visiting the Queen Victoria in 1897. The design caught on.

After a rather sumptuous lunch (lamb) and a short rest, we ventured out to the markets. Like all markets anywhere, it was teeming with the hustle and bustle of tradesmen plying their wares, except here like everywhere else in India, they and you compete with cows, dogs, cyclist, auto-rickshaws … it was an assault of sights, sounds and smell.

The one thing that really stands out here is the vibrant colours that the locals wear. The women in bright and gaudy sarees and scarves and the men in bright red turbans. There’s so much colour everywhere. And I always thought they staged it for the postcards!

 


Inside the Blue City

Jodhpur

We were met this morning by our local guide, Sham Singh, a good looking, jodhpurs-wearing, full time DJ, part-time guide who was evidently very proud of his home city.

We made our way out in reverse – auto rickshaws out of the hotel to where our minivan was parked near the outer gate. Breakfast (masala omelette and pao keema) was well and truly churned after that ride.

Our first stop was the Jaswant Thada, a mausoleum built in 1899 in memory of the former Maharaja of Jodhpur, Jaswant Singh. It is a beautiful marble building located by a small lake. The Jaswant Thada also serves as a traditional cremation ground of the Jodhpur rulers. There are exquisitely carved gazebos and a multi-tiered garden. In death as in life, the Maharajas of India surrounded themselves in such grandeur.

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Jaswant Thada

We were about to see next just how much grandeur. The unmissable landmark of Jodhpur is the Merangarh Fort. This amazing building was more than a fort. Within its walls was also a palace of such opulence and beauty. This majestic structure rises 400 feet above the city.

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Merangarh Fort

The story goes that the Maharaja had had a hermit living in the cave removed from the site where the fort was to be built, thus incurring the curse of the hermit. To deflect the effect of the curse and ensure the site is propitious, the Maharaja had a man buried alive in the foundations of the fort.  The man was Rajiya Bambi (Meghwal) and he was promised that in return his family would forever more be looked after by the Rathore Kings. It was a promise that has been honored and Rajiya’s descendants continue to enjoy a special relationship with the Maharaja. I was simply stupefied at the story.

                                                                                                                                                                   We started our walk from the 18th century end and finished at the 15th century end. We walked through the dazzling Sheesh Mahal (Hall of Mirrors), the Phool Mahal (House of Flowers), Moti Mahal (Pearl Palace), Khabka Mahal (Sleeping Palace) but the most amazing of all was the magnificent museum of fine miniature paintings. Simply exquisite. This walk through the palace fort took the whole morning. Such a vast, extensive place.

(Trivia: part of Dark Knight Rises was filmed at the fort).

 

The interiors were exquisite

Lunch was at a lovely little haveli and lamb was on our list again. Food was delicious. From the vantage point of the rooftop of this haveli, we got a lovely view of the Blue City.

We were then passed on to Kuldeep Singh, our next guide who took us on our walking tour of the Blue City. While it may be called the ‘blue city’, blue is by no means the only colour one sees especially in the attire of the local folks. The colours they favour are bright and gaudy – reds, oranges, greens and the women use a light translucent scarves called ‘odini’ to cover their heads adding to the vibrancy. The men wear sizeable turbans, red seeming to be their favoured colour.

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The Blue City – a view from the fort

The old quarter (which is the blue part of the city) consists of narrow lanes complete with cows, scooters, bikes, children, dogs … one has to carefully pick their way through making sure to avoid freshly laid cow dung. Mostly only single-file walking is possible.

We faced some obstacles in our way

Everyone lives in such close quarters and everyone was friendly; most did not object to their photos being taken. A common sight was of groups of men sitting around under trees, or at their front yards, just having a chin wag – this is called “atai”. Apparently, they sometimes just sit together in companionable silence for hours.

Friendly giggly children

It was dark when we finally weaved our way out of the old quarter and back to our earlier guide, Sham, who took us next to a jewellery and textile shop, the latter being a exclusive export-only shop which has Richard Gere, Sting, Hermes, LV, Moschino all supposedly buying from them. We joined this la-di-da group and bought a few pieces ourselves. (Converting to the Sing dollar helped.)

By the time we got back to the oasis which was our hotel, we were starving and had yet another superb meal (another lamb preparation) before calling it an early night.


A Hidden Gem and an Unforgettable Evening

Narlai

After breakfast we checked out of the lovely Raas Hotel and bid farewell to its excellent staff.  We had a 3 hour drive this morning to see one of the finest temples ever – the Jain temple at Ranakpur. It is a spectacular building. Built in the 14th century, it has 1444 marble pillars, carved in exquisite detail. No two pillars are the same, and the architectural ingenuity is that these thousands of pillars are arranged so that none of them obstructs the view of the main altar.

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The Ranakpur Jain temple

KF had worn shorts and so had to hire a pair of trousers to use over her shorts. It had evidently been well used, so the poor girl put it on rather gingerly. And I had inadvertently committed sacrilege as I forgot I was carrying with me a leather wallet and wearing a leather belt. (Jains are strict about these things and leather of any sort is not permitted into the temple). I only realised it after the fact and said a quick apology to the Universe.

Inside the Ranakpur temple

It was past 3 pm by the time we were done at the temple and we were starving. Once again lamb in all its variety is on every menu in every restaurant and the place we went to for lunch had the best mutton curry.

Happily mutton-fed we then drove another 1 1/2 hours to the village of Narlai. As we drove through the village, we thought the driver might be lost and couldn’t imagine that there would be a hotel in that village. How pleasantly surprised we were. Our hotel, Rawla Narlai, was a 17th century hunting lodge of the Maharaja of Jodhpur.

As we walked in through the main gate we were greeted with marigold garlands, welcome drinks etc. The setting was so unexpected after the drive through the village that there was a collective ‘wow’ from all of us. Slightly out of place was a young Etonian  amongst the staff also garlanding and greeting us. He was from London and there as an intern for a few months.

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Rawla Narlai

As we were being shown our rooms, this rather distinguished gentleman with a dignified bearing greeted us and introduced himself as Rana, a representative of the Royal family. He gave us a quick history of the place and informed us that people visit Narlai for two reasons – its ancient 5th century stepwell and the Shiva temple up on the mountain. We did not know this as it was just an overnight stop for us between Jodhpur and Udaipur. How glad we were that our travel agent, Sheena, had suggested it!

In the late evening as we were sitting in the courtyard sipping our complimentary glass of Indian Grover wine, we were pleasantly surprised when the staff came out bearing gifts of a Rajasthani turban for Brian and ‘odinis’ for us ladies!!

Our next experience was almost magical! Dinner was going to be by the ancient stepwell and were driven there in bullock carts through the village under a moonlit and star-filled sky. A man with a lantern walked alongside to light up the way. Somewhere by the roadside was a sadhu who sang a most haunting song and his husky voice just reveberated through the crisp air. It was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had.

Bullock cart ride under a moonlit night

 

Then as we got to the stepwell, there was another collective gasp! Hundreds of lanterns and oil lamps were lit making the ambience surreal. We were treated like royalty … as we sat beside the beautiful stepwell, a man came along and gave us a head, shoulder and hand massage. We couldn’t help laughing at this heights of decadence!

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5th century stepwell

And this whole experience cost us about S$100 – the cost of a ordinary restaurant dinner in Singapore. The surprise didn’t end there! The sadhu we had seen on our way came with his instruments and sang for us these beautiful haunting folk songs. His voice had a gravelly quality to it and the songs he sang had a meditative effect – it truly completed the experience. He also smoked a rather large spliff (the aroma of which added to our headiness) that probably enhanced the quality of his singing 🙂

The whole experience was simply magical.


Om Namah Shivaya

Narlai

We were up by 6am and set off on our walk up the ‘mountain’ with Bagdaram, our guide. As we made our way up, the sun rose and we stopped to admire the vista. It was a picture postcard scene. The way up was steep but it was an easier walk than Mt Phousi (Laos)  and Tiger’s Nest (Bhutan) and only a fraction of the distance.

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The Shiva temple is a simple but a powerful one, according to Rana Sahib. He told us that Narlai is a spiritual place. For a small village, it has an unprecedented number of places of worship – Jain temples, Hindu temples, churches and mosques. This did surprise us as it really is a tiny village. When we got to the Shiva temple,  Bagdaram lit a lamp and rang the temple bell. There was no priest.

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Shiva temple

Further up from the Shiva temple is a statue of a huge white elephant. It was built for the Maharani in memory of her pet elephant that had lived to the age of 75. It was a beautiful breezy morning and we had tea and biscuits as we took it all in. It was so peaceful up there.

Bagdaram saying a thanksgiving prayer

We took a slow walk down and back to the hotel for a leisurely breakfast. At the hotel is a small temple or altar I should say and sitting around outside it was a group of men. We thought it must be a some special male-only temple affair and held back going in. We didn’t want to offend anyone or upset their male commune with the presence of female company in their midst. Our sole motivation was photography of course so we asked anyway but were told we had to take photos from outside. Boo to that.

There was another photographer (male) who was in the temple and in their midst, he must have made some great shots. He very helpfully informed us that the men of the village do this every Monday morning – just gather around and have a huddle and drink opium-laced coffee! He thought we should know what’s in the coffee lest we were offered it.

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Male-only Monday morning chin-wag

Later, we went on a walk – we wanted to see what village life was like and Bagdaram once again escorted us. We did draw some curious looks, but most people were friendly and didn’t mind us poking around taking photos.

A walk through the village

We made the acquantaince of some village women and they were aghast that we were on a trip so far from home without our husbands or male companions in tow.

The place seems to have been caught in a time warp and we really wished we had more time here. We managed to squeeze in a relaxing spa before checking out and heading out again. What an incredible find this place was.

 


The City of Lakes

Udaipur

We arrived in Udaipur last evening and were met at the banks of Lake Pichola by the Leela Palace boat. Lake Pichola is the largest of the lakes in Udaipur and the hotel we were staying at (The Leela Palace) is on this beautiful lake.

After yet another fabulous dinner last night and a restful evening, we threw open the doors of our room this morning to the description of the Leela Palace on their website – “With a majestic location on the Lake Pichola and spectacular view of the Aravalli Mountains, The Leela Palace evokes grandeur and opulence … Beautifully designed to reflect the surrounding style and influences, the intricate craftsmanship … makes it an ultimate palace experience and regal indulgence.”

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Lake Pichola

I assure you, we were made to feel quite regal. We had the doorman holding quite a grand-looking umbrella over our heads as we walked to the boat, doors magically opened as we approached them, attentive waiters would appear out of no where to help with our plates. The footmen were so regally attired we felt we ought to be holding the umbrellas for them!

We set out this morning to explore this beautiful ‘City of Lakes’, also known as the ‘Venice of the East’ – both apt descriptions. The city has 5 beautiful lakes, each with its own charm. Our guide today was a smart young man called Rajendra Singh Solanki – ‘Ricky’ for his clients who find it hard to remember or pronounce. It seemed that we didn’t pick the right day as it was Muharram, and many areas of the city was crowded or closed off to traffic. There was heavy police presence. We stayed within the main tourist routes and later decided against the walking tour that we had originally planned.

The amazing City Palace was our first stop – part of the palace is still the private residence of the current Maharaja of Udaipur and the rest has been converted to a museum and open to the public. The sprawling grounds has a hotel within it too. (Trivia: Parts of the Bond movie ‘Octopussy’ was filmed here).

Ricky was very informative and told us the significance of many of the features and structures of the palace which we would have otherwise missed. At one wing of the palace was a museum called the ‘Crystal Palace’ – filled with well, you guessed it, crystal pieces. These were quite extraordinary and elaborate crystal pieces – in addition to plates, glasses and lamps there were four poster beds, tables, chairs – all variety of household furniture all in crystal! These were specially ordered from England in 1877 by the then Maharaja. He died before the cystals arrived and these exquisite pieces were in storage for quite a few years.

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City Palace

A boat ride on the lake was arranged and we took a leisurely ride around the island, getting off at the Jag Mandir or ‘Pleasure Palace’. The royal family used the palace as a summer resort and palace for holding parties. This was also where Shah Jahan took refuge after feuding with his father. It is said that he got the idea for the Taj Mahal from the architecture here.

We stopped for lunch at another one of the lakes called Fateh Sagar – guess what we had for lunch again?

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Rajasthan Art School. So captivated were we by the simply exquisite Indian miniature art.

Brian had spotted a Vintage and Classic Car Museum on our drive out and we decided to make an impromptu stop. What a beautiful collection. The 22 cars on display belong to the Maharaja. We had quite a fun time there with the museum guide overflowing with enthusiasm as he explained various features/stories about each of the cars and getting an obliging KF to pose in front of a few and pulling Brian in for a couple of shots well.

We had quite a relaxing evening, having dinner at a restaurant near the hotel and by the lake, all arranged courtesy our guide Ricky.  It was once again a fantastic meal!


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