Category Archives: Rajasthan

Bharatpur: Birders delight

Bharatpur Bird SanctuaryWe left our annual vacation planning too late last year. As November rolled around with no destination in mind, I knew that it would be next to impossible to put together a proper itinerary and get reservations at decent hotels. So we decided to reduce our vacation dates – since no time to plan means you can’t visit multiple cities – and go back to Rajasthan. This time, we chose to visit Bharatpur. Famous for its bird sanctuary, it’s one of the few cities in Rajasthan that we haven’t been to yet.

Small birds, Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary

Most of the hotels were, as I had feared, booked or way out of our budget, so we settled on the Falcon Guesthouse. It had got some rave reviews on TripAdvisor, and even though there were no pictures of the place online, I hoped that at least some of those reviews were genuine.

Black necked ibis_Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary

The real charm of the guesthouse is the owners. The rooms themselves are very basic and functional. They owners, though, are warm and welcoming. They treated us like house guests rather than tourists. They’re knowledgeable about the bird sanctuary and the surrounding areas. They’re genuinely interested in the people who stay with them. They make interesting and fun conversation. And the food there is absolutely yummy! I would heartily recommend it to anyone visiting Bharatpur.

Most people who visit Bharatpur go there mainly for the bird sanctuary, and we were no different. We didn’t visit any of the other sights in town – the Lohagarh fort or the palace – we had eyes only for the birds.

Darter_Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary

If you’re driving down, you can take your car a little way into the sanctuary and proceed from there on foot, on bicycle or on a cycle rickshaw. The driver of the cycle rickshaw doubles up as the guide. Make sure you take one of the authorized cycle rickshaws – you’ll recognize them by the little yellow sign that tells you they are authorized guides – because those guys sure know their birds. And they will help you get as close to them as you can so you can take some good pictures. And did I mention that they’ve been trained by the World Wildlife Federation? So yes, you want to do at least one trip into the sanctuary with them.

Ducks at Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary

Almost all our visits to the park bar one – when we took a cycle rickshaw – were on foot. You’ll have tons of bird sightings every few steps along the little path that winds through the sanctuary. Even if you’re walking along with no idea about where a bird perched high above you on a tree, one of the cycle guides will happily point it out to you as he rides along with his set of tourists.

Take your time. Take out your binoculars and just watch the birds at play, at rest, hunting or foraging for food. The peace and quiet, broken only by birdsong and the flapping of wings, makes this a serene spot to visit.

Pond Heron_Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary

Each day that you go back will be slightly different. Some days you’ll see new birds or beasts, on another you might be lucky to chance upon a darter as it hunts for fish, on a third you might spot a neelgai or a sambhar grazing in the trees.

The sheer varieties of birds there is mind boggling – grey herons, jungle babblers, painted storks, saras cranes, snake birds (darters), spotted owls, different varieties of ducks, to name just a few – and also some spotted deer, neelgais, jackals and sambhars.

Saras Crane_Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary

We hoped to see pythons, but they proved to be elusive. We did see one particularly lazy snake, though – it had a squirrel dancing all around it, but just gave it the royal ignore and slowly, languorously, crossed the walking path and disappeared into the bushes.

It was good fun to walk around the sanctuary, spotting birds, sitting on a bench watching them groom themselves or catch fish. In fact, being able to walk around the sanctuary made it a completely different experience from zipping through a wildlife park in a jeep with pesky, noisy tourists scaring the animals away. Most people we saw around us were serious bird watchers, pointing out birds, standing and admiring them through their binoculars, and capturing them on camera with lenses that gave my poor little 55-250 mm lens a serious complex!

Spotted Deer_Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary

Our three days at Bharatpur just flew by, and before we knew it or were even ready to leave those beautiful birds and long walks through the sanctuary, it was time to return home.

Coming up:
Around Bharatpur:
Deeg Palace
Fatehpur Sikri
Agra

Nawalgarh — Rajasthan’s open air art gallery

Shekhawati: Rajasthan's open air art gallery

We take our annual holiday in December/January, as we prefer to be out of town during New Year (not ‘cause I like it quiet, just so we don’t end up greeting the new year with a fight!). This year, we did a road trip across Rajasthan — from Delhi to Nawalgarh, Jaipur and Udaipur.

We set off for Nawalgarh at around 10:30 on 24th December — pretty late, but that was hubby darling’s brilliant idea. Ergo, we had to fight our way through numerous traffic jams till we got to Kotputli, from where we mercifully left crazy old NH8 and ventured onto roads that were quieter and free of traffic. Thanks to a few wrong turns and one missed turn, it was around 6:00ish when we reached the hotel.

Being on the road for about 7.5 hours meant that we were pretty tired and cranky by the time we checked in. But the hotel, Apni Dhani, was really nice and welcoming. It has traditional Rajasthani huts arranged in a circle around a courtyard, somewhat similar to Mandore Guest House in Jodhpur in terms of the set-up and greenery.

Main entry gate to the Goyenka Haveli, Dhundold

But where it differs is in sustainability and eco-friendliness — they grow their own wheat, barley, maize, have a vegetable garden and also some fruit trees. So a lot of what you eat is actually grown at their property. Doesn’t get more organic than that!

Meeting area, Poddar Haveli, Nawalgarh

The owner, Ramesh Jangid heads the Intach chapter for the Shekhawati region, so he was the perfect person to guide us around the havelis and to tell us where to go and what to see. Though Shekhawati covers a pretty vast area — Jhujhnu, Mandawa, Dundold (some of the big towns) — he told us to visit the havelis of Nawalgarh and Dundold, which was just about 8 kms away, as they have some of the most well-preserved and finest examples of Shekhawati havelis. All the havelis follow the same basic pattern — there is a huge entrance first, with an outside area where the men could receive guests or people who came for an audience, then the main entrance (beyond which the women didn’t step out), where on the lower floor was the kitchen, water store and another drawing room where more important guests might be invited, and an upper floor that had bedrooms with a terrace on top.

Tea with a view, Goyenka Haveli, Dhundold


Made sense, so on the next day, after we were rested and refreshed, we headed into Dhundold. Our first stop was the Goyenka Haveli, which has been well-restored and is open to visitors. There’s an entry ticket of Rs. 40, and the caretaker shows you around. It had some beautiful carving — the door to the main house was made of bronze, above which was a carved wooden and ivory panel. The walls were brightly painted, with a variety of subjects, ranging from a train, to deities and scenes from everyday life.

There was a small little room where matkas of water used to be kept that had a thin door that was left open to let in air — that’s how you got cold water in the hot summer months! There was a typical Rajasthani kitchen, with a statue of a cook making rotis and serving them, and a lot of old vessels arranged in the room, including an okhli and batta. There were a lot of other statues around the haveli…a woman grinding wheat, another of a bullock cart, a third of a meeting…

Cotton sample booklets, Goyenka Haveli, Dhundold

Exploring the rest of the rooms, we saw some lovely antiques in the house, like a kid’s rocking chair and two gorgeous floor to ceiling Belgian mirrors…another room had a mini-museum, displaying old coins, 10 and 100 rupee notes (which were so much bigger than the notes today!), silver jewelry and silver candle stands. In another room I found some old codes and stamp paper, and a book of cotton samples — the owners had two businesses, selling cotton on commission and manufacturing Dundold tea. In one of the rooms a game of chausar had been laid out on the floor, and the caretaker explained how the game used to be played with shells, what the different throws meant, and how to keep count.

Wall fresco, Krishna and Radha with gopis forming the elephant, Poddar Haveli, Nawalgarh

Almost all the rooms had beautifully painted walls. Some of the paintings had recently been restored using chemical paints, but others still had the more than 100 year old original paints made of crushed stone and water.

That tour over, the caretaker told us to go visit the Goyenka’s centograph, which was typical to the centorgraphs found around the region. In fact, he said that most other centographs in Shekhawati were modeled after this one! From there, we wnet to the fort, which was pretty disappointing, as part of it had been converted to a hotel, and they rushed us in and out of there in 10 minutes flat!

We were back at the hotel for lunch, and then spent the evening lazing around…there was a classical music evening at the hotel, which was interesting (though I would have rather gone and seen at least one haveli in Nawalgarh that evening!).

Inner haveli gate, Poddar haveli, Nawalgarh

The next day was reserved for Nawalgarh. We started with the Poddhar Haveli Museum, which was absolutely mind blowing! Each and every surface of each and every wall was filled with varied frescoes, depicting everything from mythology to the kings, trains, Europeans and daily life. The guide explained it thus: In the olden days, the paintings were like TV — for instance, people couldn’t go to Bombay to see the train, so the traders who had been there described what a train looked like, how it ran, what the station was like, to the artists, who painted them on the walls of their house!

Fresco depicting a train and a kingly procession, Poddar haveli, Nawalgarh

There some really interesting paintings, like one showing a woman feeding a child and doing makeup at the same time, another showed Shiv and Parvati on Nandi from the left, and from the right, Bramha and Saraswati on a bull. There was also a painting of the head of the house that was done in such a way that no matter where you went, it looked like his eyes were following you. Very interesting!

Inner courtyard, Muraka haveli, Nawalgarh

The other interesting thing about the haveli was that it offered a virtual tour of all of Rajasthan. A number of the rooms had been converted into galleries, which displayed everything related to Rajasthani culture, from paintings and carving of all the different regions, to wedding dresses, pagdis, all the main forts and palaces of Rajasthan, jewelry, musical instruments, marble work and miniature paintings.

The haveli just took my breath away! Imagine living in a house that was so gaily painted — I’m sure you could find a picture for any mood if you were living in such a place! At times I imagine it might have gotten a bit overwhelming, too, to live under the eyes of so many millions of paintings, but…it was absolutely fantabulous!

The crumbling Bhagwat Haveli, Nawalgarh

From there we went to the Bhagwat Haveli, which had some 100 odd year old paintings that hadn’t been restored. Though it was much simpler than Poddar Haveli, the paintings had an ethereal quality about them…some of them were fading, others were blackened by time and years of smoke coming out of the kitchen, some were peeling off a bit…but that’s the real charm, eh?

Sheesh Mahal, Nawalgarh Fort

We then went to visit the fort, which doesn’t look like one, and has only one room that is worth seeing — the Sheesh Mahal. The central dome is painted to show Jaipur on one side and Nawalgarh on the other, and the circular room is filled with mirror work and more paintings.

Fresco on an outer wall, Aath Haveli complex, Nawalgarh

I wanted to look around at a few more havelis, they’re all so beautiful, but since hubby dearest said no can do, no could do it was! I did manage to bug him into taking me to the Muraka haveli and the Aath Haveli complex, but that was about it.

The next day was check out time. We were off to Jaipur for an overnight stay, and then onto the next leg of our journey — romantic Udaipur!

Hippy times at Pushkar: Around town (part 2 of 2)

<— Read part 1: Getting to Pushkar

Bramha temple

Pushkar is a temple town. It is home to the only Bramha temple in the world, and has temples dedicated to both of his wives. The lake is surrounded by 52 interconnected ghats, which have about 500-odd temples. Of course, not all are open to tourists, and with such a profusion of temples, figuring out which ones to visit could be confusing. So it is something that is best done with the help of a guide. Our hotel, Inn Seventh Heaven, had tied up with a local priest to offer a tour of the most important temples in the city, and while checking in, I asked the front desk to arrange a meeting with the priest in the afternoon. However, the priest was out of town, and was to return on the day we were leaving, so that plan didn’t work out. We decided to walk down to the lake and figure it out from there.

Prayer at the lake

Our hotel was a couple of minutes walk from the main market, and we found our way to one of the ghats pretty easily (I think it was the Ganga ghat, but I could be wrong). There was a small shop there selling puja samagri, and the shopkeeper was a treasure trove of information. He told us the history of the lake — the mythology behind its creation, the reason why the only Bramha temple is in Pushkar, and why, despite Bramha being one of the most important Hindu gods, there are no other temples dedicated to him. Almost all of the information he gave us matched with what I had read in the Rough Guide to India, but it was interesting to hear it coming straight from a local, who colored that information with local traditions and cultural inputs as well. Contrary to what the guide books said, though, there weren’t too many people around to pressurize us to offer prayers at the lake. Although we initially thought that we would come back the next day to offer our prayers at the lake, since we were there, and as there was a priest around, we decided to do the prayer ceremony on the first day itself.

Prayers done, we headed into the market.

The bustling market

The market is a narrow road lined on both sides by small shops selling everything from music CDs to souvenirs, silver jewelry, psycadelic t-shirts, hippy clothes and Rajasthani fabrics. We also found a couple of guys there selling swords, which was something we were looking for a really long time. The idea being to pick up a samurai sword (or as close as we could get to one) and then carve a handle and scabbard for it and display it in our living room.

There were also a number of shops selling natural essential oils and incense — something not found anywhere else in Rajasthan. The reason — roses. In the desert. Honest! There are huge rose fields near Pushkar, so one thing lead to another, and in addition to rose essential oils, you get a huge variety of essential oils, the most interesting one being solid amber. It’s a slightly spongy piece of amber that has a beautiful, earthy smell, though at Rs. 350/- for a small little box, it is quite pricey. The shopkeeper assured us that the smell would last for 10 years (yes, 10) and that the tiny little box of amber was enough to perfume a medium-sized room! I picked up two boxes of that — one for me and one for mom — along with opium flower, white musk and iceberg essential oils.

Following the trail to Pink Floyd Cafe

Pushkar’s also a foodie heaven (though you get pure vegetarian fare). There are a number of street food joints, a lot of which cater to Israeli tourists, and you’ll also find a chai bar, an organic food kitchen and lots of pizza places. We also followed the trail to Pink Floyd Café.

Outside the Pink Floyd Cafe

It’s pretty cool, and definitely worth a visit, though the food isn’t much to write home about. It would be better to get yourself a cup of java or a cold drink and have a look around. The best food we had there, though, had to be our hotel food. They have a small menu, but orders are made fresh and the food is delicious. The best was their apple crumble with ice-cream — absolutely scrumptious.

Jholas and clothes galore

One walk down the market, and I bet you’d get hooked to the place! There are so many shops to explore and so much really cool stuff you can find. One of the shops that we frequented while we were at Pushkar was a clothes shop, which had tied up with a US-based designer who sent designs and samples in exchange for some free clothes and stoles to take back to the US! And if you think that means pricey stuff or haute couture, think again! There were really cool and different tops, skirts, pants, hippy-style clothes, and all of it really, really cheap.

Taking a break

We overheard a conversation between a couple of foreigners. One group had been in Pushkar for a week the other, for a month! When the newcomers asked the old-timer at Pushkar what the hell he found to do there for a whole month, his answer was: “Once you get through the first week here, you actually find yourself falling in love with the laidback pace of the city.” I’m not sure I could spent an entire month at Pushkar, but I’m pretty sure I could keep myself entertained for a week without any problems!

Dressed up for the tourists

The pace of the city is so laid-back, while still offering so much to do, that you can’t help but get totally de-stressed! We spent our entire trip roaming around the market, talking to shopkeepers and just relaxing. This was one of the most distressing holidays I have had in a really long time.

I want to say that we did visit a lot of the tourist attractions there, but honestly, apart from the lake and the Bramha temple, we didn’t go see anything else! Instead, we spent our time roaming around the market and exploring the shops (and of course shopping).

Biking to the sand dunes

One evening we also hired a bike and decided to go to the desert. However, the bike was pretty rattly, and we ended up not going all the way there after all. I also think we managed to lose our way, but it was a nice fun ride!

All-in-all, we had a wonderful time at Pushkar…and it certainly is on my list of places to visit again — this time, once the lake is full!

Hippy times at Pushkar: Getting there (part 1 of 2)

We’ve had a spate of long weekends recently, and continuing our love affair with Rajasthan, we decided to drive down to Pushkar, notwithstanding all the negatives people had to say about the place, such as it was going to be as hot as a furnace and dirty to boot. After a lot of stops and starts, we finally decided to drive down to Jaipur in the afternoon, stay there overnight and then go on to Pushkar, where we would stay for 3 nights.

Leaving Delhi at around 3:00 on a Friday afternoon, we reached Jaipur at around 8:00, thanks to a pretty nasty jam right at the entry to the city. We headed straight for our favorite hotel — Arya Niwas, where they upgraded us to deluxe room at no extra charge, and we fell in love with the place all over again! Their normal rooms are very comfortable, but quite basic.

The deluxe room at Arya Niwas


Their deluxe rooms, on the other hand, are simply amazing! The best part — a private balcony and an electric kettle!! Just what the doctor ordered! After a quick dinner, I headed out onto the balcony for some cool fresh air and a hot cup of tea. What bliss after that long and tiring drive!

We set out for Pushkar at around about 9:00 am the next day. Most of the drive is on the excellent 8-lane Ajmer highway, though once you take the turn for Pushkar, the state highway isn’t all that very great. We passed through narrow, winding, almost deserted roads…the signages were few and far between, and just as we were wondering if we had lost our way…we heard the unmistakable thump of an Enfield, and a few minutes later were greeted by the sight of two foreigners tearing along the road on the bike. That could mean just one thing — Pushkar couldn’t be too far away!

I have to admit that the first sight of the town doesn’t inspire confidence. On the way to our hotel, we drove down a rather badly pot-holed narrow road…right at the turn to the hotel we were confronted by the sight of a cow lazily ambling along the road, with narrow little open sewers, which I hadn’t seen since my childhood in Shakarpur (Delhi). The hotel, from the outside, wasn’t all that interesting either, and I could feel my heart beginning to sink towards my knees, because I generally pride myself on being able to find us good, comfortable, atmospheric, budget digs! This, though, was a big white house, with one of those huge gates that has a small opening to let pedestrians in, with the name of the hotel — Inn Seventh Heaven — stenciled on in peeling paint.

The central courtyard by night

However, someone wise once said, “Never judge a book by its cover,” and that person was bang on target. Because when you push open the door and bend low to enter the gate, you walk out of a typical small Indian town and into…fairyland!

Sitting area outside our room

The first impression you get is of tranquility, soothing greens, cool whites, and warm reds and browns…and then as your senses adjust you realize that you’re looking at a fountain in the center, a courtyard filled with trees, inviting dark wooden seating with cushions in warm reds and oranges.

Roof top dining area


The hotel has a lovely rooftop terrace, with comfortable seating, again done up in dark wood, red and orange upholstery and lots of green. They play beautiful instrumental music up there, so it’s a lovely dinining experience.

The central courtyard by day


In short, I had done it again! Our room was beautiful, the hotel was magical and the staff friendly and helpful, so strike one for me!

—> Read part 2: Around Pushkar

Fairy tale city – Jaisalmer

I had heard a lot about Jaisalmer and how beautiful it is, but nothing can quite prepare you for the city. The fort in Jaisalmer is the only living fort in the world, and we stayed at a hotel inside the fort itself, which is the best thing to do.

The Living Fort - Jaisalmer

The Living Fort - Jaisalmer


The whole place looks magical, like a scene out of Arabian Nights. It looks like someone has put up a historical set, and opened it up for the public, and that the next time you come, it might disappear! There are lots and lots and lots of shops inside the fort – the city, after all, is a tourist city. Its entire economy depends on tourism. Once you’ve been there, it works such magic on you that you would want to visit it again and again.

I think I spent most of my time walking while looking up, because almost all the houses have beautifully carved jharokas and balconies. I kept poking the husband in the ribs and pointing out almost every second house! The guide was also amused, said this is so normal for them that they don’t even see it! Apparently, the government has passed an order that all houses built in Jaisalmer have to have a sandstone front and have to have some carving on the doors and window, since the carving and the sandstone is all that attracts tourists to the city.

Jain Temple, Dancers on the Roof, Jaisalmer

Architecture in temple - dancers on the roof

There are a lot of Jain temples, built in between and 12th and 15th century, inside the fort, and again, all I can say is that the carving is awesome! The biggest temple has got 11 dancers carved on the roof, with musicians below them, and one figure of Indira. The Jains believe that once the temple is closed, the dancers descend from the roof and dance for the Gods. How quaint! The statue looks like it is made of marble, but is actually made of desert sand! Every year it is polished with diamond dust, milk, sandalwood, and turmeric, which gives it the look of marble!

The entire temple is built on the basis of interlocking columns, since there was no water for limestone joining at that time, and cement was not invented yet. One of the other temples had different form of Ganeshji carved on the roof. Seeing it just takes your breath away! Especially when you think of when they were built and what kind of ability and skill it would have taken then, to make something that is so timeless in its beauty, without the technology that we have access to today.

The museum in the fort had some interesting things on display – line the entire family tree of the rulers, right down to the present king. There was also the king’s bedroom, and one of the king’s nightgown on display. It’s so huge that both the husband and me could fit into it, and still have some space left over!

Patwon ki Haveli

Patwon ki Haveli

One of the most elaborate and magnificent of all the havelis (bungalows) in Jaisalmer is Patwon ki Haveli, which was built between 1800 and 1860 by five Jain brothers who made their fortunes by trading jewelry and fine brocades. The entire façade of the haveli is made of sandstone, which has through-and-through, intricate carving. I went crazy photographing close-ups of different sections of the haveli! And the most amazing thing is that there is a similar house, which was made in 1993! It belongs to someone who is based in Surat, and would have cost him Rs. 1 crore to build! The sandstone is cheap, but the carving is really expensive, about Rs. 500 per square foot!

Tazia Tower

Tazia Tower

Following the trend of converting palaces into hotels and leaving a section open for visitors is Badal Mahal, which is topped by the Tazia Tower. Each story of this five-tiered tower has a beautifully carved balcony. Muslim craftsmen built it in the shape of a Tazia and gifted to the king. Tazias are ornately decorated bamboo, paper, and tinsel replicas of a bier carried in procession during Muharram. Visitors can’t go into the tower, because the king has his residence in that section of the palace.

Surprisingly, this desert city also has a lake! A man-made lake, but a lake nevertheless – the Gadisar lake. At one time it was the town’s main water supply, but is currently a big tourist attraction. Who wouldn’t want to go boating in the desert?

And of course, how can I neglect to mention the desert itself?

Riding Into the Sunset, Jaisalmer

Riding Into the Sunset

We went to Sam Sand Dunes for New Year. It is a one hour drive on a lonely road, there are hardly one or two small villages along the way. Sam is not really just sand dunes, though, there are a lot of shrubs too, which I wasn’t expecting. It just didn’t fit into my mental image of what a desert should look like, but it did give me a sense of serenity and timelessness, despite all the crowds that were there for New Year. We plan to return here again, and spend a couple of days in the desert.

Rajasthani dancers

Rajasthani dancers

New Year celebrations were organized by the hotel, and were held at one of the many desert camps. There was traditional Rajasthani folk music and dances organized at the venue, along with dinner and drinks. While we had originally planned on staying till 12:30 am at least, it was too cold to even think about it. While we were sitting in front of the fire it was fine, but our backs were bearing the brunt of the cold air blowing in, despite all the layers of clothes we were wearing!

The New Year program was an interesting experience, though it wasn’t really what I was expecting. I had a completely different image in my mind, fueled by all the things we had heard from people when we mentioned we were planning to spend New Year at Jaisalmer! It was a little disappointing, but an experience worth remembering nonetheless.

(All images copyright Modern Gypsy)