Highway to Rajasthan (VI) : Jaisalmer

Thar desert
Thar desert

The ride from Bikaner to Jaisalmer was the ne plus ultra of the exhilarating 2000 kms road trip. After spending the morning driving around Bikaner city and visiting Junargarh fort for the second time, we embarked for Jaisalmer post lunch at 1330 hrs and took to NH 15. Soon after leaving Bikaner, the landscape changed to the arid and desert topography with scanty vegetation consisting of stunted scrubs which dotted the terrain. The roads stretched wide open across the barren landscape with very little traffic and the tarmac was smooth as butter. By Indian standards, it was easily one of the best roads and even at 165 kms/hr it seemed like we were merely cruising at 80 kms/hr. It was the best ride of my life.

NH 15 - Bikaner - Jaisalmer road
NH 15 – Bikaner – Jaisalmer road

THE RIDE TO JAISALMER

We started off at an easy pace from Bikaner which took us a little more than 2 hours to hit Phalodi (165 kms from Bikaner) after which we made good time and reached Pokhran (230 kms) at 1630 hrs (3 hrs). After loitering around Pokhran for about 30 minutes, we got onto NH 15 again and cruised to Jaisalmer. I had timed the ride just right to catch the setting sun as we hit Jaisalmer. It was an awesome sight to behold as the sun dipped on the tip of the road far out in the horizon, setting the sky ablaze with fiery colours as I drove straight into the arms of the setting sun. It was phenomenal ! We entered Jaisalmer at 1830 hrs as the light faded.

 

Road to Jaisalmer
Road to Jaisalmer
SONAR QILA - THE GOLDEN FORT OF JAISALMER
SONAR QILA – THE GOLDEN FORT OF JAISALMER

JAISALMER is a small city, more like a border town, populated around the old fort which is nicknamed ‘Sonar Qilla’ – the Golden Fort because of the golden hue of the fort’s sandstones against the setting sun. Back in the early days it was strategically located in the camel caravan trade routes which came from  the ports of Gujarat in the Arabian sea coasts that connects it to Persia, Arabia and Egypt in Central Asia. The city was established in the 12th century (year 1156 AD) and gets its name from its founder Maha Rawal Jaisal who founded it. According to the local legend, Rawal Jaisal, the eldest son of the Rawal of Deoraj, was passed over for the throne of Ludharva (15 kms from Jaisalmer) by his younger half-brother after which he went on a search for a safe location to establish his capital. He came across the massive rock that rose almost 250 feet from the surrounding desert sands and here he met a sage who recounted to him of a hindu mythological prophecy of lord Krishna who prophesied that a descendant of his Yaduvanshi clan would one day establish a kingdom and thus created a spring there. The Rawals belonging to the Bhati Rajput clan lay claims to the decency from the Yaduvanshi clan of the Hindu deity Lord Krishna. The encounter and the prophecy encouraged Jaisal to build a mud fort around the rock and named it Jaisalmer after himself.

Like all frontier regions where war and conflict is a way of life, the story of Jaisalmer is replete with legends of blood and glory. According to popular folklore, the Sage whom Jaisal met had also predicted that the place would be sacked two and a half times. True to the legend, the fort was run over almost three times. First by Alauddin Khilji of Delhi who, prompted by a raid on his caravan carrying his treasury, ravaged the fort in 1294 after the Bhatis defended it for nearly 8 years. Facing eminent defeat after its stockpile of food and ammunitions finally ran out, the Bhatis performed ‘Jauhar’ where 24,000 women folk committed ‘Sati’ by jumping into the funeral pyre while 3,800 surviving men threw open the gates and fought to their death.

The second raid came in the late 14th century by Sultan Ferozshah after a prince of Jaisalmer raided his camp at Anasagar Lake near Ajmer and carried away his prized steed. Here again 16,000 women and 1,700 warriors committed Jauhar. The third raid was in the 15th century from an Afghan chieftain named Amir Ali who, through deceit, hid armed warriors in a retinue of palanquins which were supposed to be carrying the Chieftain’s wives visiting the Queen of Jaisalmer. Taken by surprise and facing imminent defeat, Rawal Lunakaran slaughtered his womenfolks with his own hands in the absence of a pyre. But in a turn of events Amir Ali was defeated and killed after reinforcement arrived just in time thus saving the men from Jauhar. Thus came true the prophecy of two and half Jauhar, so it is told.

Jaisalmer 2

Jaisalmer 3

Jaisalmer 9

The city of Jaisalmer is spread in and around the old fort. An interesting fact is that the old fort itself is settled by civilian population just like any normal city. It is perhaps the only fort in the world to sustain a bursting, thriving civilian population inside its ramparts. As such it is called a ‘Living fort’ which the guides and local populace are quick to point out.  The houses are built in the same architectural style that merges with the old structure of the fort. Even the houses outside the fort are built mostly with sandstones with the same distinctive Rajasthani architecture that transports you to an altogether different period of time. It is almost surreal except for the want of better maintenance and sanitation.

Jaisalmer 4

Jaisalmer 5

Jaisalmer 6

Jaisalmer 7

Jaisalmer 8

After a day of exploring the fort, City Palace and the havellis just outside the fort and rummaging the market outside the fort’s entrance the whole evening, the following day we road down to Sam (pronounced as Sum) which is about 45 kms westward from Jaisalmer. Part of the Thar desert, the Sam sand dunes are a popular tourist destination for camel safaris. A ride on handsome Salman Khan and Shahrukh Khan (names of our camel steeds 🙂 ) across the dunes, watching the sun go down in the desert and enjoying a typical Rajasthani dinner with Rajasthani folk dances and songs around a bonfire prove to be an exhilarating experience for the kids. A more adventurous fun, however, would have been  a night or two deep into the Thar desert with no tents and only a fire to keep you warm. Of course that would have to be sans kids. So we satisfied ourself with the sand dunes at Sam which is not too big as the desert is interspersed by scrubby vegetation at intervals.

Sam sand dunes of the Thar desert in Rajasthan
Sam sand dunes of the Thar desert in Rajasthan
A gypsy girl of the desert
A gypsy girl of the desert
The kalbelia tribe of Rajasthan
The kalbelia tribe of Rajasthan
The Matka - bhawai folk dance of Rajasthan
The Matka – bhawai folk dance of Rajasthan

 

Watching the sun go down in the Thar desert
Watching the sun go down in the Thar desert

 

Thus was a time well spent in Jaisalmer.

Highway to Rajasthan (V) – Bikaner

 

Bikaner 1

Rajasthan ‘The land of the Rajas’ has always held my fascination since childhood with history lessons in school abound with legends of Rajput bravery and courage, their most stubborn and heroic resistance against the Mughal conquest. Tales of Prithviraj Chauhan, Maharana Pratap, Rana Sanga and many others like them left a lasting imprint and fascination on me. Decades later  I took my first road trip to Rajputana – the land of the Rajputs (as it was earlier known) in 2005 but had to return back from Jaipur due to exigencies. It was many years later that I was finally able to plan a trip again in 2012. The 6 day sojourn was localised mainly around the east and South-Central part of Rajasthan stretching from Delhi to Amer and Jaipur in the Dhundar region and further south to Chittorgarh and Udaipur in the Mewar region of the Rajputs. Having to turn back from the Aravali ranges that separates Mewar from the Marwar and the northern Thar regions, we had to return without a glimpse of the famous stretches of sand that is so often the image that one conjures of Rajasthan.

With the dawn of  a new year (Jan 2015), we set off on a 2000 kms (from Delhi and back) 10 days ride specially delineated around the Thar desert area. The trip stretched through the Sekhawatti region in the Northeast, Bikaner in the north , Jaisalmer in the North-West, Barmer, Jodhpur and Mandore in the Marwar region in Central Rajasthan and then pushing eastwards to Ajmer, Pushkar, Jaipur in Mewar and then back to Delhi. It was one of the most mesmerizing and enjoyable ride through a varied topography and landscape that ranged from a slightly mountainous terrain of the Aravalis to the desert landscape of the great Thar. Most part of the road was the best I have ridden so far.

THE ROAD TRIP
Day 1: Delhi to Bikaner – 500 Kms  estimated time 7 1/2 hours.

We flagged off from Delhi at 0600 hrs wishing to beat the onset of traffic.  The NH 8 took us through Gurgaon, Daruhera (64 Kms), Behror (130 Kms) and Kotputli (150 Kms) from where we took a right turn (underneath the flyover) onto SH 37B. Being a State Highway the road was narrow but free of traffic and was in good condition (it has been newly constructed). We passed through Neem Ka Thana (200 Kms) taking the bypass and reached Sikar (280 Kms) at around 1300 hrs. A freaky fog with almost zero visibility lengthened out travel time from the estimated 4 hours to 7 hours, almost the time we had expected to reach Bikaner which was still a good 220 kms away. The fog also prevented us from enjoying the landscape of the Shekhawatti region which is suppose to have the most arable land as compared to the rest of the area in Rajasthan. A brief stopover of 30 minutes, lunch in a Havelli of a friend and exploring the villages of Sikar, we headed towards Fatehpur (330 kms) via Udaipurwati which took us about an hour owing to the small roads and repair on some patches. From Fatehpur onwards the road stretched out the entire 170 kms in a smooth and beautiful semi-arid landscape that took us less than 2 hours to hit Bikaner (500 kms from Delhi). We spent the entire evening and the following morning exploring Bikaner.

Sikar 1
SIKAR

 

Sikar 2
Nilgai, an antelope that resembles a bull, commonly found in the farmlands in Rajasthan.

BIKANER :

Bikaner is said to have been founded on a barren desert area called Jungaldesh by a Rajput Prince Rao Bika Ji, son of Rao Jodha Ji who founded Jodhpur. Provoked by his father, Prince Bika Ji went on a campaign with a small military contingent of 500 soldiers and 100 cavalry men to establish his own Kingdom. After subduing the Chieftains of Rajputs clans and Jats in the vicinity, Bikaji established his kingdom in the middle of the Thar desert which came to be known as Bikaner. It evolved into a beautiful city and an independent kingdom which was subsequently merged with the Indian Union after India got its independence. The present state of the city, as is the case with most old cities, is crowded and dirty, although the old world charm is still evident in the Royal Palaces and fort below. While here, enjoy the bhujiya and Jungli maas (an exotic spicy Rajasthani cuisine of tender succulent mutton/lamb).

 

 

LALGARH PALACE, BIKANER
LALGARH PALACE, BIKANER
Bikaner 3
LALGARH PALACE BIKANER
JUNAGRAH FORT, BIKANER
JUNAGRAH FORT, BIKANER

Bikaner 4

Bikaner 5

Bikaner 6
ANUP MAHAL, BIKANER

 

Bikaner 7

Bikaner 10

…..TO FOLLOW – DAY 2: BIKANER TO JAISALMER

Highway to Rajasthan (Part IV) – Jag Mandir

Our next stop was Chittorgarh, the erstwhile capital of the Mewar Kingdom prior to Udaipur ,the last capital of Mewar. But before we depart Udaipur, here is a look at one of the places worth a visit – Jag Mandir.

The courtyard of Jag Mandir

The history of the place goes back to early seventeenth century when Maharana Karan Singh, the then ruler of Mewar, gave refuge to Prince Khurram who rebelled against his father, the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. To shelter Prince Khurram along with his wife Mumtaz Mahal and sons Prince Dara and Prince Aurangazeb in the year 1623-24, Karan Singh built a palace in an island in the midst of Pichola lake. The palace was called the Gul Mahal. When Jahangir died in 1627, Prince Khurram ascended the throne of the Mughal empire and assumed the title Shah Jahan (who built the famed Taj Mahal). As an act of gratitude, Shah Jahan restored six districts annexed by the Mughals to the Mewar Kingdom and also helped it regain its past glory. Meanwhile Jagat Singh succeeded Karan Singh in 1628 and expanded the Gul Mahal which came to be known as the Jag Mandir, so named after a temple was installed in the island palace.

Jag mandir, the temple in Jag island at Pichola Lake

More than a century later, in the middle of Eighteenth century, many European families most of whom were women and children, were again given refuge in the same palace by Maharana Swaroop Singh, the then ruler of Mewar, during a revolt by the Indian soldiers of the British Army in 1857 which came to be popularly known as the Sepoy Mutiny, considered the first Indian War of independence against the British Raj.

Once, or rather often, a sanctuary for those running for their dear lives, the place is now a hot spot for the tourist scooting around for beautiful places to see. It not only houses a temple (which is why it is called Jag Mandir) it also has a restaurant to satiate the hungry travelers or those wanting to spend a few sublime moments by the water sipping on a Lime soda or a hot cuppa coffee by the water.

A place to sit and satiate the hunger @ Jag Mandir, Pichola lake, Udaipur
A blissful moment by the water…with a view of the lake.
Rajasthani Hookah…for those wanting a little smoke by the water, Maharaja style.
A view of the Pichola lake from Jag Mandir

Definitely worth spending an evening here in Jag mandir.

Highway to Rajasthan (Part III) – City of Udaipur

A night’s rest in Jaipur and a visit to the erstwhile city of Amber got me all enthusiastic to see the legendary Chittorgarh and Udaipur, the capitals of the famed Mewar Kingdom, stories of which captivated me so much back in my school days, like the chivalry and bravery of Rana Pratap and his stead Chetak, the famed beauty of Rani Padmini of Chittor that doomed the Kingdom and endless tales of intrigue, valour and tragedy. So with much enthusiasm we hit the road again the next day leaving Jaipur around 1030 hrs (again after making concessions for the kids and their breakfast) taking the National Highway 8. The NH 8 is a straight road to Udaipur via Ajmer, Beawar, Bhim and Nathdwara with a distance about 400 Kilometers. We however decided to go via Chittrogarh and so we turned off NH 8 into NH 79 from Kishangarh after travelling about 95 kilometres from Jaipur. Till Kishangarh, it was a dream ride. The roads were wide, smooth and free (six lane highway, three on each side). We were, however, cautioned that the highway gets pretty congested after Ajmer. Hence our decision to take the less travelled NH 79 which took us through Nasirabad, Bhilwara and Chittorgarh. The road was only four lane (two on each side) but in a very good condition except for a few patches. With fewer number of trucks plying on this route, it was a better alternative.

National Highway 79

When we reached Chittorgarh, we were running a little behind schedule and we still had 117 kilometers to cover for Udaipur which we wanted to reach before sundown. So we changed our plans and decided to visit Chittor on our way back which was good because I did not want to rush it.

At Chittorgarh headed for Udaipur
On Chittorgarh – Udaipur highway

Udaipur was the last capital of the Mewar Kingdom. It was founded in 1559 by Maharana Udai Singh II (father of Rajput hero Rana Pratap) who built a palace on the banks of the Pichola lake and after the erstwhile capital Chittor was captured by Mughal emperor Akbar in 1568, Udai Singh shifted his capital to the palace by the lake which became Udaipur city, so named after him.

Pichola lake

The Palace by the lake still stands today, a part of which houses the abode of the present Raja (descendent of the King who built the City) and the rest has been converted into a heritage hotel and Museum where the tales of Rana Pratap and his belongings are on display.

City Palace of Udaipur

For the uninitiated, Rana Pratap is a cult hero of the Rajputs that had ruled the Rajputana region (what is now Rajasthan and some areas of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh). Heir to Uday Singh II, he was one of the few Rajput rulers who fought valiantly till his dying days against the mighty Mughal empire which ruled most of India at that point of time. Rana Pratap considered the Mughals as invaders and led the Rajput confederacy consisting of handful of other Rajput nobles and rulers against the Mughal empire under Akbar, as opposed to most of the Rajput Rulers like Jai Singh of Amber who forged an alliance with the Mughals and prospered or at least assured of their existence as vassals after accepting the Mughal suzerainty. It was in the famous battle of Haldighati in 1576 that Rana Pratap faced off the mighty Mughal army led by Jai Singh himself as the Commander-in-chief. The superiority of the Mughal army and its artillery wrecked havoc on Rana Pratap’s army and yet folk songs are still sung on how Rana Pratap on his faithful and agile stead Chetak tried to pin down Jai Singh, who was riding an elephant, with his spear. Rana Pratap was eventually forced to flee by his generals and it was his faithful stead Chetak yet again who, wounded as it was, flew the king out of the battlefield and died jumping a river while escaping. Rana Pratap stood staunchly by his valour and honour and despite losing his kingdom he remained undefeated at heart. He is said to have spent his life roaming the jungles of the Aravalis trying to recapture Mewar again. The story had left a vivid memory on my mind since my school days that I just couldn’t resist telling it here.

Coming back Udaipur , a boat ride took us on a tour of Lake Pichola with breathtaking views of palaces that were subsequently built by the later rulers (which now have been turned into heritage hotels).

Boat ride at Pichola lake

          

Udaipur City by the edge of Pichola Lake
Udaipur by the lake
A view of city life by the lake
The Taj Lake Palace of Udaipur
The honeymoon suite of The Taj Lake Palace of Udaipur
The Oberoi Udaivilas
The Leela Palace Udaipur
Jag Mandir

Udaipur, owing to its location, remained safe from the Mughal reach and remained the capital of the Mewar Kingdom untill it became a princely state under the British India in 1818. Meanwhile with the decline of the Mughal empire, the Rajput rulers reclaimed much of the territory of Mewar back, however, Chittor the erstwhile capital of Mewar still remained illusive to the rulers of Mewar.

Next stop…..Chittorgarh. 

Highway to Rajasthan – City of Jaipur

The rains had come and gone, the monsoons was over, September was nearing its end and I was getting a year older on the 21st . The weather was good, the rains had brought down the temperature in Delhi quite considerably and I was just itching to get on the road. So to celebrate my birthday and also my eldest daughter’s who was  turning 10 on the 26th, we decided to head for Rajasthan……by road. (The best time to visit Rajasthan is during October to March when the weather is quite pleasant.)

A Rajasthani turbanator

Rajasthan, the land of the Rajputs, is known for its forts, palaces, camels and sand. The Thar desert is one of the biggest around these parts of the world and covers about 70% of the state of Rajasthan, so I am told. Often the images that one conjures up are that of colorfully turbaned Rajasthanis astride the camels striding along scorching wind-blown desert sands. Well that is pretty much the picture of Rajasthan we see everywhere, in travel booklets, books and internet. But as my trip to Udaipur unfolded, it was a journey on good metalled road all along green landscapes. Deserts were nowhere to be seen (Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Barmer and Bikaner are the places to head for the deserts), camels were far and few to be seen and the Rajasthanis I saw were on trucks and motorbikes instead.

Rajasthani folks travelling on the highway
On the way to Rajasthan….National Highway 8.

I wasn’t new to the Delhi – Jaipur road, I had travelled the route way back in 2004 on my Maruti Zen and it was one of the best rides I have ever had, covering the distance of about 250 kilometres in just about 3 and a half hours on a very comfortable drive. This time I planned to stretch it all the way up to Udaipur which is about 690 kilometres figuring about 10 to 12 hours drive with ample stops in between. Sadly, Delhi-Jaipur road wasn’t what it used to be with a number of flyovers being constructed in every major junctions and the number of trucks on the road having increased exponentially. Truthfully, I have never seen so many trucks plying on the roads in my life. Rajasthan was not the land of camels …..it was the land of trucks !

Entry to Haryana, please note the timings…..not the spelling

Leaving Delhi around 0715 hours (with the children along it just wasn’t possible to leave earlier) we took the National Highway No 8, crossing into Haryana and hitting Manesar in no time and passed through Rewari (51 Kms) around quarter past eight. We entered Rajasthan around nine O’Clock having travelled about 91 kms. We made it to Behror (117 kms) around half past nine, Kotputli (140 kms) at 0950 hrs and finally made it to Jaipur around half past one….almost double the time I had actually planned. We stopped over at Jaipur and had a view of the City, the beautiful Jal Mahal and spent a wonderful evening at Amer Fort. The stop was definitely worth it.

Jaipur is the capital city of Rajasthan and once the pride of the Kachwahas kings. Sawai Jai Singh II who rule over the city of Amer (about 11 kilometres from Jaipur) established the city of Jaipur in 1727 in order to keep up with the flourishing trade in the prospering Kingdom. Considered one of India’s first planned city, all the buildings were constructed of pink sandstones and all structures are painted in pink. This uniqueness is still retained in the old city which gives Jaipur the name ‘The Pink City’. Witnessing the blend of heritage, art and perhaps the first of modern city planning in those times, one can imagine the opulence and vibrancy the city must have seen once upon a time. Now it is more or less remnants of a golden past.

Jaipur, the Pink City.
Painted in pink…..well not exactly pink.
Hawa mahal…the ‘Palace of the winds’. Constructed by Sawai Pratap Singh, grandson of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh who built Jaipur.
The Hawa Mahal has 953 windows for the womenfolks of the Royal family who never appear in public to view the processions and everyday proceedings from the safety and shelter of these windows.
Jal Mahal, the Palace on water….. a holiday resort for the kings. They sure knew how to live life.
Amer Fort, the seat of power of the Kachwahas Kings that ruled the region.
Jaigarh Fort which held the armoury and the treasury of the Kachwaha Kings ruling Amer. Located on the top of the Aravalis, it was also an important Canon foundry for the Mughal and still hold the biggest cannon on wheel ..the ‘Jaivan’.
“Jaivan”…world’s biggest mounted cannon on wheels
The city shops of Jaipur at night
The Jal Mahal in the vicinity of the city of Jaipur
Jaipur as seen from the foothills of Aravalis

That night we rested our weary bones on the comforting embrace of the soft clean bed of Arya Niwas, reminiscing the memories, picturing the history, of battles fought and most of all, expectations of tomorrow.

Coming up…….the next part of the journey.