Navneet Sahni takes us through a driving holiday in North West Rajasthan
This is for the benefit of driving enthusiasts looking for a nice holiday to Rajasthan without Jaipur. I am sure that there are many like me who have been to Jaipur so many times that they are looking to visit Rajasthan without going back to Jaipur again. We did two trips to Rajasthan, literally back to back last winter and want to share it with you all. Given that hiring a self-drive is very easy now a days, out-of-towners can take this holiday. Given these tough Covid times, a self-drive holiday is just what the doctor ordered.
We left Delhi on a misty early morning for Mandawa. Now there are two routes which you can take – via Bahadurgarh, Jhajjar, Loharu and Chirawa – which is unconventional but shorter and faster by about 50 km (takes about six hours), than the Jaipur highway till Rewari and branch off to Mohindergarh route which is about 290 km and takes about 7 hours. However, most people take the Jaipur highway for some reason. The Delhi-Bahadurgarh-Jhajjar road is quite okay and it is only after Jhajjar that the road becomes narrow. But it’s still very good. It is just that the Haryana State Road transport buses feel that they own the roads and bully all other transport plying on them. After Loharu, you start seeing camel carts and you know you have arrived in Rajasthan.
Mandawa is an important town of the Shekhavati region of Rajasthan and is often known as the open air art gallery of the state. In the early 19th century, the well-to-do Marwari merchants of the region migrated and made it big in the metros (Calcutta and Bombay) and built these superb havelis. These beautifully painted frescoes are mainly of Hindu mythology. Apart from Mandawa, the small towns of Mukundgarh, Fatehpur, Dundlod, Nawalgarh, Baggar and Alsisar have many such beautiful mansions – unfortunately some in ruins. Old havelis and cozy lanes are the focus of a trail that leads visitors through beautiful tales of ancient times. The main havelis are very ornately done and it is a treat to see huge chandeliers, exquisite paintings and carvings, stain glass windows and very beautiful furniture – mostly European. The best way to visit the bylanes of these quaint towns is on camel carts whose driver/ owners act as guides. Some of these “thikanas” have large stables too and offer riding trails in the countryside.
Mandawa Castle, as the name suggests, is built in the shape of a castle with high walls but has beautiful gardens inside. What is important to note that as these places (castles, palaces, havelis) which have now been converted into heritage hotels were not built as hotels, and so generally no two rooms are alike. In most such places, introduction of modern plumbing has brought about unique problems. Some of the other very nice properties in this area are Piramal Haveli and Alsisar Mahal,
After a hearty breakfast, we left for Bikaner via Fatehpur and Ratangarh, about 190 km and 3.5 hours away. The road is very good and at times you can see small dunes on the way. The highlight of this day was when we took a detour to visit the famous Karni Mata “Deshnoke” Temple. This temple is also known as the Rat Temple as there are thousands of brown rats scurrying around on the floors. Devotees bring milk, grains, sweets and other food for the rats who run around fearlessly.
Bikaner is one of Rajasthan’s prominent cities and is still very traditional. It is known for its beautiful and massive Junagarh fort, as well as the camel breeding station. The city also has two very large stately palace hotels, the Lalgarh Palace (red sandstone in Rajputana, Islamic and European architechure) and the Laxmi Niwas Palace (also in red sandstone but in Indo-saracenic style). However it is the stately havelis in the old city which are very attractive and a must-visit. The best known of the lot is the Rampuria Haveli. Built in red sandstone – every aspect of the havelis – jharokhas, entrances, lattice work windows, divan khanas – is simply a masterpiece. Leaves and flowers decorate every jharokha, lending it a pleasant touch. These massive havelis are decorated with golden work of the highest quality. The wood carvings at the havelis are also top-grade. The Ganga museum is the other place which is a must-visit for the art enthusiast as statues from the Harappan era are displayed there.
The place we stayed at was an old haveli, called Bhanwar Niwas. It very close to the Rampuria Haveli, where even driving a small car is a problem due to narrow and congested roads. This heritage hotel dates back to 1927 – but it is the artifacts, furniture and the intricate paintings here which are truly priceless.
Just 30 km outside the city, on the main road to Jaisalmer is one of the most beautiful hunting lodges of Rajasthan – the Gajner Palace. The palace is built on the banks of a lake and is one of the oldest heritage hotels. Besides its panoramic landscape and architectural beauty, the palace complex also has the remnants of a historic railway station. This hunting resort was connected to main Bikaner Palace by rail in 1922.
The road to Jaisalmer (330 km – 4-5 hours) is absolutely gorgeous (really good driving conditions, but more so because of the desert scenery). At some places, you can see sand dunes and we were warned that at times you can see sand blowing onto the road – though frankly we did not see anything like that. Phalodi was the first town you will get to after which you come to Pokharan – the town made famous for the atomic test site. Apart from the test site, the fort here is also well known and apart from Jaisalmer, is the largest in the region.
Jaisalmer, very close to the Indo–Pak border, is famous for its absolutely fantastic setting. The ‘Sonar Qila’ rises in the distance and can be seen from afar. Being on the path of the ancient trading routes connecting the far away Arabian Sea, the fort was considered to be impregnable but was ravaged at least three times in its long history. The city itself looks like a mirage in the mighty Thar desert. The dominating fort in the skyline is not the only attraction in the city, the havelis which dot the old city are the actual stars. The three famous havelis are Patwon Ji Ki Haveli, Salim Ji Ki Haveli and Nathmal Ji Ki Haveli. The architecture of each of these three havelis is totally different, but what is common to them is the latticework found on them.
Carvings found on the sandstone havelis are simply marvelous. The chattris at the Bada bagh lay testimony to many battles fought here. These cenotaphs are made in stone in Mughal and Rajputana architecture and symbolise Rajput heritage. Late in the evening, we visited the Gadsisar lake and the first thing which strikes you is the very presence of such a large lake in the middle of the desert. It is an artificial lake but looks quite natural, specially with artistically carved chhatris, temples and ghats making it very pleasing.
One of the integral visits of Jaisalmer has to be the Sam dunes. About 40 km out of town, the dunes are a popular site for sunsets. Short camel rides on the dunes itself are quite exhilarating. There are quite a few nice camps here where you can stay the night with typical local dances and food. Many people though return to Jaisalmer for the night.
Jaisalmer has hotels in all categories though a few well-known ones are the Mandir Palace, Rawalkot, Fort Rajwada and the uber-luxurious Suryagarh.
From Jaisalmer, the road for Jodhpur is all eastwards. There are two ways to drive and we chose to go via the Osian Jain temples. At one point in history, this small town had more than a hundred Jain temples. Dating back to the 9th century, you can visit the Sun temple as well as the Kali temple here. The Mahavir temple is a fine example of Jain architecture. The temple carvings are really well-preserved and many tourists who visit this marvel are awestruck.
Finally driving into Jodhpur in itself a treat as the massive Mehrangarh fort is visible from afar as a beacon. A beautiful old city is also the second largest city in Rajasthan and has a very rich heritage. Jodhpur’s old part is known as the Blue City and with vivid colours against the backdrop of the fort are very photogenic. The massive fort is also one of the tallest and largest forts in India, and frankly would be better as a fort museum. The various galleries here adorn treasures of the Rajputana stronghold. The Sheesh Mahal, amongst the many rooms here, is a masterpiece of mirror work. Do not forget to visit the Mehrangarh museum as it houses some extraordinary artefact. The Mehrangarh trust has started an annual Sufi festival which attracts music lovers from across the world and is fast becoming a great event.
Another masterpiece, the Jaswant Thada, is mostly overlooked by many but the cenotaph is magnificent. This is an example of architectural brilliance in India. It is a white marble memorial, built out of intricately carved sheets of marble. The carving shows the genius of the sculptors. These stones are extremely thin and polished. As a result, the outside surface of the monument emits a warm glow when the sunrays fall on its surface. There is also beautiful marble ‘jali’ work on the cenotaph. The views of Jodhpur city from the terrace are simple marvelous.
The Umaid Bhawan, most of it is a Taj Group-run hotel, is yet another mindboggling structure and is one of the largest residential palace building in the world. It was built in the early 20th century to give employment to the people of the city in times of famine and drought. The museum houses many old artefact belonging to the dynasty of Maharajas of Jodhpur.
Apart from the incredible Umaid Bhawan Palace Hotel, you have many other old-charm hotels in Jodhpur. The Ajit Bhawan Palace Hotel , Ranbanka and Devi Bhawan are fine examples of palaces converted in hotels. If you have enough time on your hands you should also consider The Balsamand Palace on the lake side and Khimsar Fort which is also a beautiful old palace.
From Jodhpur, we travelled North and drive to the medieval town of Nagaur. The ancient fort of Ahichhatragarh Fort is the center of this town which was part of the erstwhile trading route. With many different rulers, the fort added portions which had different influences – with the most prominent being the Muslim rulers and so you will find many mosques, and tombs. The presence of celebrated Sufi sheikhs made Nagaur also a centre of learning and of pilgrimage. The garden palace has recently been restored and is the venue for the annual Sufi festival held along with the one in Jodhpur.
Nagaur is also very famous for the cattle fair where approximately 70,000 bullocks, camels and horses are traded. The animals are lavishly decorated and even their owners dress up wearing colorful turbans and long moustaches in true Rajput traditions. At the Nagaur Fair, you can do trades of sheep to Marwari horses to spices. A big attraction is the Mirchi Bazaar (largest red chilly market of India), wooden items, iron crafts and camel leather accessories.
From Nagaur we drove to Pushkar and Ajmer, another beautiful drive through the arid landscape – barren but very charming. We arrived around mid-afternoon at Pushkar – an important pilgrimage town of Rajasthan. Famous for the lake and the camel and cattle fair which takes place in November every year ( Kartik Purnima day). Unfortunately we missed that by about three weeks. After arriving in Ajmer, we went straight to the 14th century Bhrama temple, which fortunately was not too crowded Located on the banks of the lake, this seems to be the only temple in India dedicated to the creator. Pushkar also has a very large Gurdwara and after seeking blessings we went to unwind for the night at the Pushkar palace. And what a sight it was. Both hotels, The Pushkar Palace and Jagat Palace, belong to one owner and are very well-run. From the rooftop restaurant you could see the entire Pushkar town and the lake. A really enjoyable evening, inspite of it being a totally vegetarian and alcohol-free evening. Yes, that is right, being a holy town the town is vegetarian and spiritless.
After an early morning rooftop visit for breakfast, we left for Sariska (near Alwar). The Ajmer–Jaipur highway is one of the finest in the country and can be called a super-highway. I was dreading the drive through Jaipur (had done it many years ago) but now there is a bypass and so reached Shapura in no time. The road from this point turns right to go to Sariska and Alwar. The road is not really the best, but thankfully has very limited traffic. Sariska is a beautiful nature park. I really would not call it a tiger sanctuary as there are just a couple of the big cats left. The place has deer and is full of various species of monkeys. Some say that there are bears and leopards but we did not see any. Entry into the park is restricted to park vehicles (jeeps) only. The Sariska Palace, originally built as a hunting lodge by the Maharaja, is really a elegant building with sprawling lawns and huge rooms. The evening spent here was very enjoyable and peaceful as it was the last night out on the trip.
A local entrepreneur from Alwar town bought a derelict and abandoned old castle, restored it and now runs a very successful heritage hotel at Dadhikar Fort. It is done up very nicely and caters for all modern amenities in a heritage setting.
After a jeep safari inside the park (of course saw only monkeys and more monkeys) we left for Delhi but not before going to the famous Neemrana Palace for lunch. I am sure people who have been to this fantastic place before are now regulars to this relaxing place, so close to Delhi. It is highly recommended for people who wish to get out for a relaxing weekend getaway. The original owners have done such a fantastic job of restoration that it started a trend in heritage hotels. These derelict castles, forts and palaces all over have been restored to their original glory and have added a new dimension to Indian tourism. The rustic charm, yet sophistication are a magnet for history buffs and regular travelers who abhor going to standardised hotels across the world. One of the few places in North India to have introduced zip lining to adventure junkies, Neemrana is a well-known name in heritage hotels. If you are not staying the night at the castle, you have to pre-book your meal. The entry charge to the castle is more of a cover charge. Later hitting Gurugram traffic at the end of the day (due to office hours) was absolutely killing and so it is best to return in the mid-afternoon time and beat the worst of the city traffic.