Traveling is one of the best ways to expand your horizons and learn about different cultures. It has been such a long time since I’ve taken a long holiday with no obligations attached that I had almost forgotten what a wondrous experience it is!
We were to travel to Jodhpur and Jaisalmer during Christmas and New Year, and the excitement was building up since almost a month. I spent quite a bit of time after work looking for places to stay and researching the two cities and all that we could do, that I was dreaming of all the places we would visit and what they would be like weeks before we even left!
Our first stop was Jodhpur. We were staying a bit out of the city, at Madore, which was the original capital of the Marwar region. It had to be shifted, though, as it was difficult to defend, and once the fort was built at Jodhpur (in the 15th century), it became the capital of the region.
Mandore is famous for the Mandore Gardens, a beautiful, sprawling garden that houses the chhatries (cenotaphs) of the Rathode rulers. One of the most imposing is the Cenotaph of King Ajit Singh, which sports carved elephants, amalake (disk-shaped flourishes with fluted edges), and a pillared fore chamber with fine sculpture. The 17th century centograph of King Jaswant Singh is a huge octagonal pavilion with a vast dome and huge pillars. A lot of the centographs are dome-shaped structures supported on about 7 pillars.
The main attraction at Jodhpur is the imposing Mehrangarh fort, which has now been converted into a museum, with only a few of the palaces open to the public. The fort museum is one of the best, making most other museums we visited later pale in comparison. The fort appears to rise from bluff-colored sandstone hill itself, so well built into the base that it is difficult to tell where the hill ends and the walls begin. It is approached by a series of seven gateways, past which is the fort-palace.
You are steeped in history the moment you walk into the fort. One of the walls still bears the marks on canon fire, on another, there are a number of handprints, which are carvings of the hand of all the queens who committed sati, and there are some huge copper pots – so huge a man could fit into them – that were used for cooking.
A short, steep walk brings you to the main fort area that is open to visitors. Most of the fort has been converted into a sprawling museum, and there are some amazing sights to see! There are a lot of elephant seats made of wood with gold and silver carvings, plakis to carry queens and princesses, including the queen’s wedding palki, which is carved in gold. One entire room is filled with cradles of princes, and what amazing cradles they are! Huge wooden cradles with lovely statues and birds forming arches around it, painted with vegetable dyes and gold, and some of them were even made of silver!
There were huge displays of swords, cutting knives, battle axes, spears, and rifles, as well as tapestries, jharokas (windows), the vedas, and the queen’s cosmetic box and exercise poles. The most stunning, though, was a palki made of pure silver, intricately and finely wrought, with such workmanship as cannot be surpassed today. It was part of the spoils of war that the rulers won from the Mughals.
The palaces that were open to the public are breathtakingly beautiful. The pierced screen windows of Moti Mahal overlook the coronation seat where Rathore rulers have been traditionally been anointed to rule; Jhanki Mahal is the apartment from where the women would watch ceremonial events; and the royal throne room with its octagonal throne and seating for ministers. The Moti Mahal has lovely Belgian glass stained windows, and the afternoon light filtering in gave it a look of mystery. All four walls have niches carved from floor to ceiling, which were filled with oil lamps and lit in the evenings, throwing the whole room in a glow of color reflected from the windows.
From the top of the fort you can see the entire city spread below you, and the famous blue houses, that give Jodhpur the name of The Blue City. Originally the color blue denoted higher caste houses, but now, most people color their houses blue to give the illusion of coolness, as Jodhpur gets searingly hot in summers, with temperatures reaching between 48 and 50 degrees.
The other big attraction of Jodhpur is the Unmaid Bhavan Palace. Constructed of marble and pink sandstone, this is the world’s largest residential palace. Begun in 1929, it was designed by the president of the British Royal Institute of Architects for King Umaid Singh, and took 15 years to complete. Ironically, Umaid Singh died in 1947/8, four years after the palace was completed; the current King Gaj Singh II still lives in part of the building, the rest has been converted into a hotel – an extremely expensive hotel!
Although the palace museum pales in comparison to Mehrangarh fort, it does have a lovely collection of antique clocks and china. As it was designed by a British designer, it doesn’t have the intricacy that I have come to love in Rajasthani architecture, though it does cut an elegant and imposing figure. The part I enjoyed there most was the walk up to the palace, and eating a scoop of ice cream at the garden café, under an umbrella with the sun beating down on us and a cool wind blowing through my hair.
An interesting experience at Jodhpur is to go for a Village Safari. It’s a trip to a Bishnoi community village that was arranged by our hotel. The owners do a lot of community work there, as was evident by the way in which the owner’s son, who accompanied us, was stopped along the way as the villagers told him of their complaints and gave them a list of medicines they wanted! Most of the villagers were very friendly, and loved getting their photographs clicked, especially the children, who got really demanding and pestered me until I took all of their snaps, individually and in groups! We also got to see a lot of blackbucks there, which the Bishnois protect, and we saw the place where Salman Khan was caught hunting blackbuck, that led to the court case that he is currently embroiled in.
The Safari apparently is very popular, judging by the fact that they had kept intact a 70-year old traditional hut made of cowdung with a thatched roof and an enclosure for cattle to show to tourists. Most of the villagers now live in brick houses. We also met a weaver there, who is the only man left in the village who still weaves with actual sheep thread. Some of the shawls and blankets he had made were very pretty – simple and rough, but pretty. The other highlight there is the sunset point, which overlooks the watering hole. As dusk approached, a lot of animals, including blackbucks, camels, and a number of birds, came there to slake their thirst. Though it was quite cloudy, the sunset was beautiful, as the orange rays of the setting sun hit the water, turning it into a pool of liquid silver.
We also stumbled upon the sleepy, almost forgotten Maha Mandir temple. I had read about it during my research on the Internet, and was very keen to visit it. The temple is an architectural splendor, supported by 84 pillars and ornamented with detailed designs and figures depicting various Yoga postures. The temple was built by one of the Marwar kings for his priest, who was a disciple of Shivji and a yoga guru.
A man who lives opposite the temple told us the history of the temple. Apparently, the king who built it had lost the kingdom when a Mughal army invaded Jodhpur. He consulted his priest and asked him how he could win back his kingdom. Following the advice given by the priest, the king won, and built Maha Mandir (a palace), within which he built the temple. The temple was a kingdom in itself – once the king was inside the temple, anything he said was law, and could not be refuted, no matter what happened outside the temple walls. Finding the temple was a task in itself, as hardly anyone ever comes here, and we had to walk quite a distance to find it. Although the temple complex has been converted into a government school, the temple is still open to the few visitors who do trickle in.
And of course, we couldn’t leave Jodhpur without having lassi at Ghanta Garh! It was the most deliciously thick lassi I have ever had. So thick that you couldn’t drink it, you had to eat it with a spoon, and so filling and refreshing that that was all we had for lunch! Ghanta Garh is a nice, crowded market. Tiny shops line both sides of the narrow lanes, and you can find handicrafts, aromatic spices, vegetables, and lovely bedcovers in these shops.
Our next stop – Jaisalmer!