Rajasthan has always intrigued me. Its monumental Mughal forts, the grandeur of the Maharaja palaces, the colourful sarees of womenfolk against the dull background of brown grasslands. This incredible state is known for its extreme climate – the summer can be blazing hot as high as fifty degrees Celsius while the winter temperatures hover around twenty-five degrees with minimum of eleven degrees at night. I felt that the month of December seemed a pleasant time to travel to Rajasthan; however, it was bitterly cold in Delhi, India’s capital city. Delhi was my first port of landing after a five-hour flight from Malaysia.
It was only four degrees at dawn and there I was waiting for the Delhi-Ajmer train which was due to arrive momentarily. I have always liked trains because you could observe the hubbub of activities, and there is never a shortage of that with Indian Railways. Porters walking assuredly to the right platform while carrying heavy luggages on their heads. Men pushing carts filled with boxes of vegetables and fruits. Local passengers wrapped scarves around their heads and themselves with thick pashmina shawls. Other passengers (yours truly included) simply hugging themselves to keep warm in this very cold morning. Another thing which I could not help but noticed was the number of homeless people sleeping on the floor at the entrance of the railway station. It was sad to see this – the homeless wrapped themselves with blankets or whatever little clothes they have to shield off the cold – the railway station entrance looked very much like rows of mummies laid on the hard floor.
My train arrived – the Ajmer Shatabdi train – an air-conditioned carriage departed Delhi punctually at six o’clock. My journey commenced with a six-hour train ride to Ajmer, a popular Muslim pilgrim city and also a base for visiting Pushkar, an ancient Hindu pilgrim town. The carriage was comfortable, breakfast was served, a bottle of mineral water and English newspaper dailies were distributed too.
Dude, what’s the rush?
Ajmer railway station is located right smack in the town centre. Like I said about hubbub of activities at Indian railway stations, I was feeling disoriented when I alighted on the platform, looking for a placard with my name written on it. Confusion was sorted out quickly and I met my tour guide and driver.
Ajmer is a well-known Muslim pilgrim town in Hindu-dominated Rajasthan. Most pilgrims come to Ajmer to visit the Dargah Khwaja Sahib. Dargah Khwaja Sahib is home of Muslim India’s most revered saint and his tomb, Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti. The dargah is made up structures financed by and were under the imperial patronage of Muslim rulers – some of whom were the great Mughals like Shah Jahan, Jahangir and Akhbar – that this shrine became the most important Muslim shrine in India. It continues to be popular with thousands of pilgrims passing through the gates every day. In fact, pilgrim numbers triple in size especially during Muharram (Muslim New Year), Eid and the saint’s anniversary day or Urs Mela. But for Hindu pilgrims and travellers like me, Ajmer is a transit place for en route journey to Pushkar.
* (I did not bring my camera to Dargah Khwaja Sahib due to the sheer size of the crowd. However, to help you have a pictorial insight, the following pictures were sourced from the internet).
Because of the sheer size of the crowd, my driver was not too keen to drop us off close to the dargah gates. So my guide and I took a seven-minute rickshaw ride, going through narrow lanes of bazaars and residential quarters around the dargah. The rickshaw wallah (who was probably fourteen or fifteen years old) drove like a F1 driver – I was holding on to my dear life and clenching my teeth each time I thought he was going to hit a cow or a child on those chaotic tiny lanes. The lanes were probably eight to ten feet wide, enough to allow only one vehicle (or a cow) to pass through at any given time. Even though my heart was in my mouth as the rickshaw wallah accelerated and hit the brakes when he was inches away from whatever obstacle coming from the opposite direction, I could see the on-goings of daily life in those quarters. There were cobblers, tailors, sweet shops, butchers, etc.
After seven minutes of hair-raising ride, my F1 driver made a final stop at the market. The atmosphere in the market was pandemonium. I could see nothing but a sea of people milling around; shops selling rose petals, prayer mats, prayer beads, and chadars; hawkers yelling out to customers, the odd one or two motorcycles honking its way through the markets, and beggars. Now this is India and because of the high poverty level, you would expect to see homeless people and beggars on the streets. But this one is different. I saw a beggar who was maimed, begging for money but instead of sitting on his buttocks asking for alms, he rolled on his back as if he was performing a circus act. And then I saw another crippled beggar performing the same act. The market has a medieval character to it, as if I was thrown back to 15th century England markets of noise, excitement, trade and alms-begging. Except that this is Ajmer in India and in the twenty-first century.
Rising above the pandemonium is Nizam Gate, the main entrance to the dargah. Visitors are not allowed to take photos inside the dargah, so most people congregated outside the entrance to take photos…and it was crazy. I have never been to a pilgrim site where devotees go crazy just by taking photos outside the main entrance. My guide, fearing for my safety, decided that we go inside by the side entrance. Shoes have to be removed (there are cloakrooms available for you to deposit your shoes for a small fee) and women have to be modestly dressed and cover their heads.
Immediately behind the Nizam Gate is the Shajahani Gate and through the courtyard is the Akhbari Masjid donated by Emperor Akhbar. Akhbar had come to the dargah to pray for a son and when his prayer was granted (his son later became Emperor Jahangir); Akhbar had this mosque built in gratitude.
Most devotees come inside the dargah especially the inner courtyard where the tomb of the Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti lies inside a domed mausoleum, the marble Mazar Sharif. Devotees from all faiths are allowed to enter the tomb inside and required to carry head baskets of chadars and rose petals as offerings. The queue was very long but one can always opt for an ‘express queue’ for a small fee. Although I did not enter the mausoleum, I was standing at the courtyard enjoying qawwali singing. Small groups of pilgrims recited qawwali – it is a Sufi form of devotional music where it begins gently, accompanied by harmonium and drums, which then builds up to a very high energy level in order to induce hypnotic state amongst the musicians and the audience. And that is the central belief of Sufism to enter into personal communion with God. Apparently the dargah has nightly recitations of qawwali but this was a spontaneous gathering of pilgrims singing devotional music.
My visit to Dargah Khwaja Sahib was too short – I didn’t really get to understand Sufism and to truly absorb the sights and sounds of this pilgrim site. The thing I noted was the frenzy of local pilgrims in the dargah – I felt an atmosphere of being in a constant rush – pilgrims pushed through their way in to wherever they wanted to go and I wanted to say ‘Hey dude, what’s the rush? Chill out, man!’ Besides that, I felt as if my guide was rushing me through the tour. Later he told me that he had to rush off to welcome a big group of tourists from Italy, therefore another guide would take me to Pushkar. That’s okay, dude, I couldn’t understand you anyway…you speak Indian English with an Italian accent.
Pushkar is essentially a holy town in Rajasthan and is famous for its Pushkar Lake, ghats and temples spread all around the lake, and the annual Pushkar Fair, the largest camel market in the world. After switching tour guides in the middle of my Ajmer-Pushkar tour (I gave feedback to the travel agent about this), I was brought to the Brahma Temple, one of the holy trinity of Hinduism and Pushkar’s most important shrine. According to legend, Pushkar was created when Lord Brahma, the Creator, dropped a lotus flower (pushpa) to earth from his hand (kar). The Brahma Temple in Pushkar is one of the few temples in India consecrated to him.
After a quick walkabout in the Brahma Temple, my guide walked with me to Pushkar Lake, one of the most revered sites in India. Although the lake was empty at the time when I was there, this site draws pilgrims from over the country during the full moon phase of October / November when its waters are believed to cleanse the soul of all impurities. According to my guide (speaks good English but with an Italian accent! What the…?), during the full moon phase and together with the camel fair, Pushkar becomes alive with folk music and dances, camel races and other forms of entertainment. With the beautiful scenery and vibrant religious atmosphere, Pushkar attracts foreign tourists and ashrams are also set up where foreigners can learn yoga and gain enlightenment. Yeah, similar to Rishikesh. Although alcohol and non-vegetarian meals are not allowed in Pushkar, it is also known for its bhang-laced ‘special lassis’, a liquid form of cannabis added to this traditional yogurt-based drink. Hmm…now that’s a different kind of enlightenment.
As I contemplated what it would be like at Pushkar Lake during the full moon phase of October / November, I was actually looking forward to check into my hotel. I booked a double room at the Pushkar Bagh, a heritage resort consisting of luxury cottages and tents. It is located about ten to fifteen minutes’ drive from the town centre, and it was a wonderful place to unwind after an early start from Delhi, the six-hour train ride, the frenzy of Dargah Khwaja Sahib…and I just wanted to have a clean room and hot shower. The previous night in a Delhi hotel was dismal, thus walking in to my clean and spacious cottage was a huge relief.
My cottage was nicely decorated with Rajasthani furniture. The bathroom was very spacious (you could fit another bed in there), drink tea on the porch while watching the sun set and later watch an entertainment of Rajasthani folk dance at the resort’s main courtyard. Dinner served in Pushkar Bagh was nothing to shout about but I loved the breakfast buffet because it was freezing cold in the middle of the night, and it was lovely to eat hot puri and drink masala chai for breakfast to keep you warm.
I checked out of Pushkar Bagh, feeling really excited. I was about to go on a five hour journey to Udaipur, my next destination. The mode of transport this time would be a car and my dedicated driver for the next few days would be Mr Udai Singh. I liked Udai – he doesn’t speak very good English but he always smiles, is punctual and a safe driver. Well, except when he was stopped by the police for talking on the phone while driving – it’s stupid actually – okay, I don’t condone talking on the phone while driving but this is India for crying out loud. Mobile phones are everywhere – a rickshaw wallah probably has two mobile phones even though he is half illiterate.
The journey to Udaipur wasn’t boring – I enjoyed the beautiful scenery of Rajasthan, observing every single activity and soaking in every experience. I liked seeing the intermittent colours against the brown grasslands scenery – Rajasthani women wearing bright colourful sarees and heavy silver anklets, and carrying buckets or baskets on their heads. Or Rajasthani men with their swaggering moustaches, wearing bulky turbans and sitting on their carts pulled by a camel. The colours were bright red, yellow and orange. It’s like the Masai people in Africa – boring grassland colour but the Masai people costumes are red – a splash of colour to brighten up the day.
In Udaipur city, I stayed at the Amantra Hotel, a three-star business hotel. It was recently established, only ten months old and located opposite a park called Saheliyon Ki Bari (Garden of Maids). I like the leafy surrounding areas, not frantic, and only twenty minutes from the main sights of Udaipur. Across the road from the hotel is a handicraft shop called Om Arts & Crafts where one can buy Indian clothes, jewellery and beddings of local designs at fixed prices. I bought some ear-rings and bangles for friends, and a bed cover which was suitable for Malaysian hot weather. Apparently they have this ‘magic blanket’ which keeps you warm during winter and cool during summer, and the guy at this shop kept calling it the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’!
I couldn’t wait to head down to the city especially where one can dine at a restaurant by Lake Pichola overlooking the City Palace. The hotel recommended Ambrai Restaurant at Amet Haveli heritage hotel. When I arrived at the restaurant entrance, the views were absolutely breath-taking. It was alfresco style with panoramic views of the City Palace awash in lights with its reflection against the water. There was a long queue because it was Christmas Eve and I prayed, hoping to get a table since I did not make any reservations. Most people were turned off by the ‘entrance fee’ (I can’t remember how much) for a Christmas Eve dinner but I didn’t care. Hey, how often would I spend Christmas Eve in Udaipur, let alone in India? I suspected the maitre d’ was surprised too when I agreed to paying that fee. This experience is highly recommended – magnificent views of the City Palace brightly lit at night, the still waters of Lake Pichola reflecting the luminous lights of the Palace, the delicious food of Ambrai, outdoor dining and soft sitar music in the background. I was happy.
Now that I have seen the Lake and the Palace at night, I couldn’t wait to see it during the day. Yes, I’m pretty sure you would have heard about the boat ride on the Lake. Some may say it’s too commercialised but it’s a good introduction to The City of Lakes. The boat ride on the picturesque Lake Pichola provides beautiful views of the City Palace, havelis and ghats. There are two island palaces on the Lake – Lake Palace Hotel (the hotel was a central feature in the James Bond film Octopussy) and Jag Mandir Palace.
Once the boat ride was over, I decided to explore the Palace complex, before going into the City Palace Museum. Located just north of the Palace is Udaipur’s largest temple – Jagdish Temple. The temple was built in the 17th century with Indo-Aryan architecture, dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Its outer walls are carved with figures of Vishnu, scenes from the life of Krishna and dancing apsaras (nymphs). The main shrine houses the four-armed image of Lord Vishnu and is shown to devotees around noon each day during puja. I was fortunate to be present around puja, and just after noon, the image of Vishnu carved from a black stone, was presented to the devotees. Devotees threw flower petals and singing devotional songs. An old lady was so kind to distribute flower petals to people who did not have any, including yours truly, so that we could all join in to praise and worship.
The City Palace is the largest royal complex in Rajasthan, the building comprises eleven different mahals (palaces) constructed by successive rulers over a period of three hundred years. Part of the palace is now a museum and is a maze of narrow low-roofed passages connecting the different mahals and courtyards. Thus it is highly recommended to get an audio guide for Rs250 so that visitors can be directed around the museum. One of the mahals which I really liked was Amar Vilas (Garden of Palace), a raised garden and provides entry to the Badi Mahal built in Mughal style. The garden was like a pleasure pavilion, designed with exquisitely carved pillars and a marble pool dotted with trees. There is also the Madan Vilas which offers views of Udaipur city and the Lake, and the lakeside walls decorated with inlaid mirrors and semi-precious stones. Another beautiful and ornate mahal is the Manek Mahal (Ruby Palace) with its walls in rich reds and greens.
One way to conclude a very good day of exploring the Palace with its rich architecture and regal history is to view Lake Pichola at sunset. So I went back to Ambrai Restaurant, ordered a bottle of beer and some snacks, and enjoyed the gorgeous views – the dusk light of orange shone on the ghats and the Palace, and with the boat rides still on-going, the scene looked as if it was somewhere in Europe.
Moving on from Udaipur
The last leg of my journey in Rajasthan was heading to Jodhpur. En route I stopped at Ranakpur, renowned for its marble Jain temple and is said to be the most spectacular. Light coloured marble had been used to construct this grand temple and over 1,444 marble pillars support the temple which occupies an area of 60 x 62 metres. The pillars are all elaborately and differently carved and no two pillars are the same and evidently it is also impossible to count the pillars. I read in the guide book that this marvellous work of stonemasonry also has a special effect of shadow, light and colours. As the light shifts through the temple over the day, the pillar’s colours change from white over bluish to gold.
Comforts of a home
In Jodhpur, this time I stayed at a guesthouse – it’s called Jagat Vilas and is a quaint two-storey house with a garden and courtyard filled with bougainvillas. A swing in the courtyard and rattan furniture – almost feels like home. My room was upstairs – the door has an enormous bolt and padlock, and it made a loud clanging noise each time I locked and unlocked my door from the outside. It was actually colder inside the room than outside – the room has marble tiles to help cool the place especially during the summer when temperatures could reach up to fifty degrees Celsius. But it was winter when I was there, so you can imagine how uncomfortably cold it was and there was no heater, just wool blankets to keep you warm. Outside of my room is the roof terrace – I could see Umaid Bhawan Palace in the distance, and the other houses in the neighbourhood. Rattan tables and chairs are also placed on the roof terrace – perfect place to sit, read enjoy a drink and some winter sun.
I requested for dinner in the house because I was tired from a six-hour journey from Udaipur. The owner’s wife can cook for you either lunch or dinner, provided you give a couple of hours’ notice and it costs Rs350. It was a little expensive but I wanted to experience eating in a home-stay environment and get to know the family – after all, it’s definitely home-cooked meal.
It was very quiet at night with the occasional sounds of dogs barking and train horns. The railway station is about five kilometres away and one can hear the train horns until ten o’clock at night and later at the crack of dawn.
Citadel of the Sun
I was really excited to spend time in Jodhpur city that day, and first stop was Mehrangarh Fort. My host arranged a rickshaw wallah for me and the rickshaw ride was at my disposal for the entire day for Rs450. A fifteen minutes ride from the house to the Fort through chaotic traffic in the city – it was noisy and exciting – honking from every vehicle and the loud engine sound from my three-wheeler. I had to wrap my head with my scarf because the cold wind (and the combination factor of the winter chill and high speed of the rickshaw) was beginning to give me a head freeze.
Mehrangarh Fort was once the centre of Marwar, the largest princely state in Rajputana. The mighty Fort is huge, imposing and dominates the city. Rao Jodha became the fifteenth Rathore ruler and laid the foundation of what was destined to become one of the indomitable forts of all time. Mehrangarh also known as the Citadel of the Sun – today, the beautiful palaces and resplendent Rooms of the Fort have been converted into a museum that houses an impressive collection of palanquins, elephant howdahs, miniature paintings, weapons, turbans – one of the well-stocked museums in Rajasthan. It is highly recommended to pay for an audio guide because the narration gives excellent commentaries, providing a taste of the war, honour and extravagance that symbolized the golden age of Rajputana.
Most notable of the dazzling Period Rooms in the Fort are Phool Mahal (Flower Palace) also known as the Hall of Private Audience with golden sheen, ornate ceiling and stained glass windows and screens; Thakat Vilas, the bed chamber of Maharaja Thakat Singh decorated from ceiling to floor with paintings of Hindu gods, goddesses and European ladies (even the floor was painted like a carpet); Moti Mahal (Pearl Palace), one of the oldest surviving room in the fort and served as a Hall of Public Audience whereby the walls are polished with ‘chunam’ (a type of plaster used in India made of lime and sand) and decorated with niches in which lamps were once flickered.
The Blue City
Jodhpur is dubbed ‘The Blue City’ after the colour wash of its old houses overlooked by the imposing Mehrangarh fort. The 1910 Sardar Market marks the centre of the town with its distinctive tall clock tower is a really good place for shopping. The bazaars of the old city with different areas assigned to different traders, hence there are various products ranging from food, shoes, fabric, jewelleries, tailors, second hand books, arts and crafts, you name it. I spent most of my time just browsing around the shops, taking photos of the daily going-ons of the traders and customers, and bought a few second hand books. The delightful thing about Sardar Market is that women travellers will not be harassed here – hawkers will try to get your attention to buy their goods but it is safe.
Fancy a game of Polo?
After staying at Jagat Vilas for two nights, admittedly I was getting very comfortable and totally relaxed. My host’s son invited a Portuguese couple and I to join him and his friends to watch a polo match in the afternoon – it was the Golden Jubilee Cup. Immediately I took up the offer, after all, where would I get a chance to watch a polo game? Besides, the Maharaja of Jodhpur would be at the game too. It was a very different set – the moment I sat down to watch the game, I smelt perfumes and cologne fragrances; I saw spectators dressed in smart jackets and donned sunglasses – majority of them were members of the erstwhile royal family and aristocrat class.
Apparently polo is sometimes called ‘The Sport of Kings’, originated in Persia and in India, the modern game of polo was formalized and popularized by the British. The game lasts about two hours and is divided into periods of continuous playing of 7 ½ minutes called ‘chukka’.
Last one standing
After the polo match was over, we were invited for tea. Well, typical English tea settings with some Indian snacks served in between – so I guess it would be apt to call it an Anglo-Indian high tea. We didn’t stay too long but headed back to Jagat Vilas together with my host’s son and his friends. We started talking about alcohol and we were asked if we have tried the local rum. We have not, and so he stopped by at the liquor shop to buy a bottle for us to try.
There were eight of us drinking rum on the roof terrace. The rum contains forty-two per cent of alcohol and it was surprisingly smooth. Suffice to say that we all kept talking throughout the night and I was the last one standing – steady too – at one o’clock in the morning, still sober, after polishing off two bottles of rum. Oh yes, thought I also mention that it was my birthday, and the family of Jagat Vilas gave me a birthday cake and a small glass figurine of Lord Ganesh 🙂