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Jaisalmer fort, Rajasthan

Rajasthan in 10 days – an experiment in tick-box tourism!

Day 1 - Jaipur to Jodhpur via Pushkar and Ajmer
Basically this is being opportunistic. The drive from Jaipur to Jodhpur is a good opportunity to visit these two famous towns – Pushkar and Ajmer – famous primarily for their presiding Hindu and Muslim deities, respectively. The small town of Pushkar is made famous by a big lake with the same name, and the world’s only Brahma temple on the bank of the Pushkar lake. Where as the city of Ajmer is popular for the durgah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti.

Pushkar
While the Pushkar lake is beautiful (especially after negotiating the cow-dung strewn streets that lead to the lake!) after the copious monsoons that the state of Rajasthan experienced this year, bathing is only allowed / recommended in the ghats – large concrete bathing pools made for bathing – that bank the lake. Besides, the ghats are also used by the devotees to make offerings and hence are often cluttered with flowers, rice, etc.

In Pushkar, you will find sadhus of all ilk and you need to be careful of the pandas/pandits who are quite pushy in getting you to do a pooja/tarpan (a hindu procedure to be done after death of a family  member) that would, at the very  least, require you to buy a lot of pooja saamagri and then a dakshina (service charges!) to the pandit for helping with the pooja. Unless you are in Pushkar for a specific pooja, give a pass to all the pandits who offer to do a pooja for you.

Besides, Pushkar is quite popular among the locals and tourists alike for the easy availability of afeem, and it is not quite unusual to find nooks and corners of the town with stoned people.

The Brahma temple, somehow sidelined by the large Pushkar lake, is not so much of an attraction and its only distinction is of being the only Brahma temple in the world. The temple closes from 1330 to 1500 IST, and during this time you can visit the many authentic Rajasthani dhabas that serve delicious meals especially dal baati choorma, gatte ki sabzi, and bajre ki roti. If you are feeling too adventurous you can order a serving of lahsun ki chatni, which is a separate dish in itself (and not treated like a side dish like pickle)!


Pushkar photos

Ajmer
In Ajmer, you should visit the Ajmer Sharif – the durgah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti. The durgah is very popular among the people of all sects and is believed to fulfill the desires of all those who visit its pious premises. The only problem is the steep walk that you need to make to reach the durgah  itself, and this walk is full of cows, cripples and crooks – all making a leaving off the durgah. Right outside the durgah there are shops selling all kinds of offerings for the durgah, including chaader and various sized arrangements of rose flowers.

The durgah itself is a different story altogether. The durgah is built with full white marble, with lots of place to sit and pray if you wish. The sanctorum containing the grave itself is normally very crowded and full of people out to take advantage of the  crowds (pickpocketers). But outside, the smell of roses abounds,  there is spirituality in air and lots of clean marble floor to sit on and pray, or people-watch.

Ajmer onwards the landscape is amazingly rocky until you reach Beawar. Don't take the bypass and take the city road instead and buy yourself some tilpapadi and gajjak near the Beawar bus-stand. These sweet treats are popular in Beawar and are normally very delicious…and good and non-perishable stuff to take back home.

At the small village of Barr, you can stop over for tea and the famous Mirchi Wada at the Jodhpur sweets and namkeen shop, which is right on the turn you need to take at Bar.

In Jodhpur, the superb hotel Shree Ram International was to be our abode for two nights. Having reached only around 8 pm, we did not venture out, and decided to stay put in the hotel only. The reception gentleman was kind enough to oblige us by taking us to the terrace of the hotel and give us a night view of the illuminated Umaid Bhavan palace. It was a surprise to be able to see the Umaid Bhavan palace from such a distance considering that the hotel itself is a low-rise Victorian style building, but hey, you ain’t in Mumbai anymore
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The buffet on offer at the hotel was an absolute treat of Rajasthani specialities. There was the unique “Gulab Jamun ki sabzi, Gatte ki sabzi, Ker-Saangri, etc. on offer. At Rs 270 a pop, it was a steal.


Day 2: Jodhpur local sightseeing and absorbing the culture

We visited the Mehrangarh fort, took the guided tour (you can get the guide right at the ticket counter, and get an official receipt for the guide payment you make). Other option is to get a personal audio guide (a recorded sound player and headphones). Considering the guide charges of Rs 150 (for upto 4 persons, and we were only 2.5!) and the audio guide charges of Rs 150 per person, the guide is economical (and may be better for the community – the guide gets employment!).

 The Mehrangarh fort is spectacular, with lots of history within its precincts. Besides, from the top, it offers panoramic views of the blue Jodhpur city…and also Umaid Bhavan palace in the distance.

 On the way back from Mehrangarh fort, we visited the Jaswant Thada – the full marble mausoleum of the Jodhpur royal family. The place is well maintained, and is beautiful. You can spend some time relaxing in these beautiful premises.

 Upon returning to Jodhpur, we decided to dine at a local restaurant called Parihar restaurant and stuck to the specialties of the region - mirchi wada, pyaaz ki kachori, makhania lassi and mawa kachori (the kachori was actually crumpled and dipped in a gulab-jamun like chaashni .

After a quick lunch, we headed to the Umaid Bhawan palace. Again, it is better to hire a guide who will show you around and give you glimpses into the history of the palace. The palace is HUGE…and was built by the several preceding generations of the ancestors of the current king. However, in the post-independence era,  the kings have lost the kingdoms and most have managed to retain their palatial residences. The upkeep of such a humongous palace isn’t cheap. From what the guide told us, the current

Umaid Bhawan Palace is 5 % residence of the current royalty, 5% museum (this is the only part to which you will have access after paying the entry tickets) and 90% hotel operated by the Taj hotels group.

Besides the sprawling manicured lawns and the enormous palace, there is a large glass-door garage where the prized  possession of the maharaja are displayed - a collection of antique cars.


The royal collection of antique cars at Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur

In the evening, we decided to stoll in the old city market, around the clock tower (ghanta ghar),  tripolia bazaar, and naee sadak. These places, though a delight to an avid shopper, are very crowded and could be overwhelming to a less adventurous soul. If  so, you can hire a horse-drawn tonga to show you around.

The place is full of antique shops, handicraft shops (a good place to start is the National Handlooms shops (yes, there are quite a few in this area). And while you are here, you might want to drop into the Janta sweets and namkeens shop to try their delicious mirchi wada, and then wash  it down with the makhaniya lassi from Mishrilal shop near ghanta ghar.

One of the best places to have dinner in this part of town is the Nirvana restaurant and cafe. Upon entering the Tripolia bazaar , negotiate the narrow lanes for about a 100 metres to find a temple on the right side of the road. This is the Teej mata ka mandir, and the restaurant is right inside the temple on a terrace. The terrace offers beautiful view of the lit Mehrangarh fort, the Jaswant Thada, and the clock tower. From this height, enjoying your delicious dinner and cool evening breeze, and overlooking the  fort, you will  forget you are in the most crowded part of the town.


Evening Views of Jodhpur from the Nirvana Cafe and Restaurant, Jodhpur


 Day 3 - by road to Jaisalmer
This is where the real desert fun starts - the roads are smooth and 4 or 6 lanes almost all the way, there is no traffic to worry about and the landscape is a delight. The golden brown (of desert sand) and dark green (of a tree locally called jhaanti) shades are only interrupted by the occasional highway eatery, herds of animals out for grazing (mostly camels and cattle) or by the yellow milestones by the road-side. And playing the folk music in the car (an album by the name “Ghoomar part – 1” is strongly recommended!) and AC running full throttle, it is a traveler’s dream come true!

 And if you are lucky, you will encounter a herd of hundreds of camels crossing the road!


Hundreds to camels grazing near road to Jaisalmer

 Depending on the season, you may see various grains baking in the sun on either side of the road. And irrespective of the season, you can expect the army trucks – of various sizes – dotting the road side. Jaisalmer being a border town is an important military base.

About 25 kms outside of Jodhpur, is the Guda Bishnoi village – a lush green oasis in the middle of the arid landscape, with a lake to be proud of. The Bishnoi community in Rajasthan are staunch worshippers of nature in all its forms. They worship green trees, animals, and even pray them! They are vegetarians, and are characterized by their worship of the Hindu deity Vishnu (this is how they derive their name I guess). In Rajasthan, when touring on road, if you notice a green village, it is quite likely a Bishnoi village. The deer roam freely in this village, and the lake is a good spot spotting birds, antelopes, and other wildlife.

On way from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer, after the Pokhran village, we took a detour to pay a visit to the important shrine of Baba Ramdev (and his horse) in Ramdevra.


Photos of Ramdevra - showing off the character of the place

We reached Jaisalmer around dusk time, we had a quick visit to the Gadisar lake (skipped the boating activity (highly recommended though, since the lake is fringed by many pretty temples – it is quite rare to find a lake in the middle of a desert town), but fed the voracious cat fish anyways!).

And then we drove on the Sam road (the road that takes you to the famous Sam dunes – but more about that in a while) and checked into our gorgeous hotel the Gorbandh Palace which we later learnt is owned by the 'Eternal Mewar' group, run by the current generation of Maharana Pratap! It is run by a group called HRH group of hotels, which owns fabulous hotels in the whole of  Rajasthan and is headquartered in Udaipur (which is the karmabhoomi of Maharana Pratap and which is where his current generation stays – in a part of City Palace).

The hotel itself is very fine, almost castle-like, and in all golden hues. The rooms are super quiet, and the quite can be quite unnerving if you put out the AC and fridge!

Having no time left for any site-seeing, we decided to sign-off for the day by visiting Trio, the Restaurant for dinner. This place, highly recommended in all travel guides, is a wonder! The food is awesome, and the terrace part overlooks the well-lit Mandir Palace – the current residence of the Jaisalmer royal family, and partly a Welcome Group hotel! In the distance you can see the lights – though not many and quite distant – of the Jaisalmer fort as well…it is quite surreal!


Views of and from the Trio restaurant in Jaisalmer - the best there is!

 


Day 4 – Jaisalmer Fort and check in the desert camp
After a long Bubble bath, we checked out of the Gorbandh Palace and visited the Jaisalmer fort. It is a treat to visit a living fort – meaning people, actually a whole township, live inside the fort itself and there are great places to stay, eat and shop inside. We were told that this is only the second of the two living forts in Rajasthan, the other being Chittaurgarh near Udaipur. Originally the whole town of Jaisalmer was restricted to the fort walls, except the very rich merchant families like the Patwa family and Nathmalji’s families, which both had their own big and ornate havelis. The inhabitants of the fort have not found a good livelihood in offering their unoccupied rooms to the willing-to-pay tourists and is a bargain for the tourists since they get a peek into the traditional living methods inside a fort.


Sights of Jaisalmer fort - the Golden Fort!

The main attractions inside the fort are the ancient Jain temples. The temples remain open until 1230 IST or so, hence you need to plan accordingly.


Day 4 – Desert camping experience
Though we had booked our desert camp accommodation at the “Rajasthan Desert Safari” but, after seeing the dilapidated and deserted condition of the resort/tents/ambience/staff we decided to let go of the booking amount (100% advance) and stayed at Chokhi Dhani Tents instead. If you have been to any of the Chokhi Dhani’s across India, you would know what to except here. Built on the same lines, there is lots of local entertainment, dancing and music on offer, and great Rajasthani food in a traditional setting.


Chokhi Dhani Tents at Sam Dunes, Jaisalmer

The stay at the Chokhi Dhani Tents was ok, since they do not have air conditioned tents on offer. A pedestal fan is normally sufficient in the peak tourist season. But in early October, the heat didn’t let us sleep until well past midnight.

Another option to enjoy all that the desert has on offer is to stay at Jaisalmer, and arrange to enjoy the desert camel safari to Sam Dunes, dinner, entertainment, etc. with one of the many desert camps (like Chokhi Dhani). Tent accommodation may not always be the best option, especially if you are traveling with kids and/or are adventure-averse!

We had the greatest desert experience at the Sam dunes. About 45 kms from the Jaisalmer city, this seemingly end-less expanse of golden silken sand, with waves made by constant wind action, and an intricate play of golden light and shadows at sun set time is mesmerizing. The experience is so out-of-worldly that you would wish to lie down and spend the night on the soft sand looking at the twinkling sky.

The sun-set was surreal; there were lots of camel photo-ops available, and lots of local musicians/dancers offering entertainment at a nominal tip.

Our hearts, however, ached remembering that most Rajasthan villages – including Lachhamangarh and Ramgarh Shekhawati where we were brought up – had these sand dunes right outside the village boundaries. We, as children, visited them for playing, morning walks, and to answer natures calls! Over the last three decades these dunes have almost disappeared, and the ones like Sam and Khuri around Jaisalmer need to be protected – from human encroachment and unauthorized agricultural activities – by heavy policing.

We only hope that our next generation would be able to see and appreciate this beauty.


Day 5 - drive back to Jodhpur
We checked out of the Chokhi Dhani tents, and after a quick breakfast of puri, moong daal and poha, drove straight to Jodhpur. Not that we had any unfinished business in Jodhpur, but the drive to Mt Abu – our next destination – from Jaisalmer would have been too long. 

Upon reaching Jodhpur, we stayed at Rajputana Palace – an average hotel on the airport road.


Day 6 – Drive to Mt Abu, via Ranakpur

We started early and drove towards Mt Abu. Upon crossing the village of Pali, we paid our homage to the local, and curious deity – Banna, aka Bullet Banna – and continued our journey ahead. Curious because the temple has a Bullet bike, which too is worshipped along with Banna. Legend has it that, when Banna died due to an accident on his Bullet, the bike drove itself to the local police station to fetch policemen, and the spirit of Banna still visits the site and the Bullet’s engine often starts and thunders in the night!

The Banna (Bullet Baba) temple

On our way to Mt Abu, we paid visit to Rankapur – the site of a cluster of very ancient Jain temples. The carvings of these temples are jaw-dropping. Legend has it that the artisans working on the temples were paid in gold and silver equal to the weight of dust they collected from carving the marble slabs. This prompted them to outperform each other in putting more and more details in their carvings.

 Like many curious rules, the temple authorities do not allow you inside if you are not wearing full length garments covering your legs. You can rent a payjama at the ticket counter, though.

The Jain temple complex is all there is to see in Ranakpur. It is a sprawling complex complete with tourist amenities and good gardens. You can have subsidized, but good sit-down Jain thali at the only restaurant there before heading further to join the 4-6 lane highway at Jaswantgadh, that goes all the way to Abu Road.

The route to Mt Abu takes you through the beautiful uphill drive.

Upon reaching Mt Abu, we checked into the hotel – hotel Hill Tone – and left straightaway for the Sun set point. It might be advisable to check the sun-set time with the hotel staff and reach at least 30 minutes earlier to find a good place to observe the sun-set. The place gets quite crowded, and you need to trek uphill  for about 15 mins before reaching the sun-set point. To be honest, I found the sun-set quite over-hyped. The kind of gathering you would see at the sun-set point would have you believe as if it is the last sun-set on earth!


Sun set as seen from the Sun set point in Mt Abu

The baba gaadi – a hand pushed metal cart, with hardly 6 inches of ground clearance – is an interesting mode of transport to the sun-set point. The other option, if you don’t feel like walking, is a horse ride.

Post the sun-set view, we visited the Nakki lake. Though quite late in the evening, and pretty dark, there were throngs of tourists queuing up for the  boat ride. We too waited our while for the boat ride, and enjoyed thoroughly when our turn came. The 30 minutes in the darkness of the moon-less night, with only the sounds of water made by the oars was surreal. Post the boar ride, we spent our time in the market surrounding Nakki lake – and there are lots of curios on offer here.

We ended the day with a dinner of the Gujarati thali at “Kanak dining hall” near the bus stand, and pretty close to our hotel. The good was good, reasonably priced, and the place, though not air-conditioned, is very family friendly.


 Day 7 – Local Mt Abu sight-seeing and travel to Udaipur

We visited the Peace park (managed by the Brahmakumaris) on our way to Guru Shikhar – the highest point in Rajasthan – and visited the ancient Dilwara Jain temples (opens at 1200 noon!) on our way back.

A visit to Peace park will ‘require’ you to undergo a 10 minute gyan session by one of the Brahmakumari fellow on the philosophy. Post this gyan session you may visit the beautiful garden in silence.

The peak of Guru Shikhar has a temple of Lord Dattatrey, and an various small temples of  Guru Dattatrey’s mother and swami Ramnath. There is also an incessant dhuni (a smoldering fire, used for worship) in progress, inside a smoky cave, which has been ongoing since time immemorial.

 After having lunch at another popular eatery – Arbuda – we proceeded our drive to Udaipur along the same route back (that is, via Jaswantgadh highway -  a beautiful highway that passed close to Haldighati where the battle between Maharana Pratap and Akbar took place).

We reached Udaipur around dusk time, and the sun was just setting across the Fatehsagar lake. Our hotel – Inder Prakash – right on the bank of Fatehsagar lake was going to be the best we stayed in during our Rajasthan trip.

Upon checking into the family-run Hotel Inder Prakash, we realized why it is so highly rated in the travellers’ reviews. The rooms are large, so are the baths, well decorated with period furnishings, paintings, royal curtains, beautifully decorated walls and ceilings, and royal 4-poster beds. We got the best room of the lot – 202 – facing the lake and with a view to behold. The room has two sit out areas, with one facing the lake, and is amazing place to spend some quality evening time over chaai.


Sights of and from the Hotel Inder Prakash - an amazing character hotel!

We decided to dine at the hotel itself and the food did not disappoint us. Though not fabulous, it was good, and well presented. The food is served in the terrace restaurant which has a beautiful running fountain and a view of the expansive Fatehsagar lake.


Day 8 – Udaipur
A late morning start still amazed us with the beauty of the rooms of this hotel. The sun rise view across the Fatehsagar lake was a view to behold, filled the room with the morning sunshine.

In Udaipur, we indulged in the activity which we have been resisting so far – shopping of the local Rajasthani artifacts! The road between Delhi gate and Suraj pol is called Bapu Bazaar and has lots of options to shop clothing, and the road between Delhi gate and Hathi pol  is Ashwini Bazaar. The Hathi Pol area is a great place for shopping Mojaris, traditional Rajasthani print sarees – especially Leheriya and Bandhej – and lots of traditional Rajasthani lac  (pronounced laakh) jewellery.

After you are done with you shopping, you can eat your heart out at the Bawarchi restaurant, at Delhi gate, which serves good thali meals on the first floor. If you would rather prefer a la carte, the ground floor of Bawarchi is for you. And if you wish to do some namkeen shopping, the Parthaji Namkeen shop is right there with an amazing array of Rajasthani namkeens.
 


Day 9 – Local Udaipur sights - Shilp gram, Saheliyon ki bari, Hathi pol (again!) and City palace
On this day, having done our bit for the local economy, we did the touristy things in Udaipur. We visited the Shilp Gram village – an art and crafts village showcasing the various art forms (including dance and music) from various northern states – which is not far from Hotel Inder Prakash.

From there, we visited Saheliyon ki Bari, a beautiful garden full of water fountains and jets. There are 3 small ponds inside the garden, with a large lotus pond with marble elephants – which sprinkle water from their trunks. The gardens are well-maintained and the beauty of the place gives you an idea of the life of the maidens of the court in the yesteryears. The fountains, all of them, operate out of gravity since this place is below the level of Fatehsagar lake, and the ducts that feed water to Saheliyon ki Bari always maintain positive pressure due to the height difference. No electricity or pumps are used to operate the sprinklers. There is also a science museum at this place.

After this, we headed straight to Hathi Pol (again!) to do some more shopping of the traditional Rajasthani sarees and dress materials (mostly Lehariya and Bandhej).


Lehariya and Bandhej sarees on offer in Udaipur

Having finalized our shopping we proceeded to the City Palace – the residence of the erstwhile Maharajas of Udaipur (then called Mewar). A part of the City Palace is currently occupied by the current generation of Maharana Pratap – the most popular of  Rajasthan’s warrior kings. A guided tour of the City Palace is the best way to explore this gigantic fort and to understand the various nuances of royal life then and now.

It is here that we learnt that the current generation of Udaipur royalty – the successors of Maharana Pratap – run a chain of hotels by the name of HRH Group of Hotels, and that we had the pleasure to stay in one of the group’s hotels while in Jaisalmer – the gorgeous Gorbandh Palace! The parent business concern is called Eternal Mewar.

After visiting the City Palace we proceeded to the latest attraction in town – a ropeway ride to the Karni mata temple atop the hill.


Day 10 - Nathdwara visit and Ekingji visit

On our final day in Rajasthan, we decided to pay a visit to Nathdwara – the home of the world famous temple of Shrinathji.

On way to Nathdwara, we paid visit to the ancient Shiv temple of Eklingji – which is a family deity of the royal family of Udaipur – the successors of Maharana Pratap. This ancient temple is well maintained and well guarded by the staff bearing the Eternal Mewar logo. No mobile phone or camera use is allowed inside the temple, and there are lockers available for visitors to deposit these items.


Eklingji temple - the ruling deity of Mewar state. Only the exterior views - the inside of the temple is beyond cameras reach

The Shrinathji temple, in true Vaishnav and haveli tradition, does not stay open whole day and rather opens at multiple times during the day for 45-60 minutes at a time. We were there right on time to do the Rajbhog darshan – which start at 1130 IST. This is the time the lord is offered his lunch, and if you wish to buy the same lunch that was offered to the lord, you can buy it as well from one of the pandas in the temple premises.

The temple has a unique business model. The offerings to the lord are almost always accepted in cash, and no garlands/flowers/coconut/fruits/prasadam is welcome. The temple spends lakhs daily in preparing the prasadam, and selling it to the devotees. There are counters within the temple premises, where you can buy the branded prasad from the temple – from the popular and long lasting THOR, to the  large boondi laddu, to the expensive sweet slab of SAGAR.

 From what the guide told us, the temple has more than 2000 employees, and none of them is paid salary in cash, but are compensated by providing prasadam which they are allowed to sell – either within the temple premises or temple board shops outside the temple.

 Like any place of religious importance, the city of Nathdwara too is full of shops selling religious artifacts, and lots of dharmshalas (rest houses). While you are here, it might be a good idea to buy some desiccated vegetables like okra and bitter gourd. Besides, the Nathdwara market is a good place to buy some authentic kesar(saffron) – you would need to look for the right shop though!


Sights of Nathdwara - inside of the temple are beyond the cameras reach!

 After having spent some time in Nathdwara, we proceeded by car to Udaipur, to take a train out of Rajasthan.

The memories of the varied experiences, the brush with royalty and regality, the amazing food, and the humble hospitality of people will keep our hearts warm for many years to come!

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