Have a long weekend coming up?
Alwar comes with the distinction of being one of India’s oldest cities, as well as the capital of one of Rajasthan’s newest Rajput kingdoms. Part of Delhi’s National Capital Region [NCR], it scores high on Delhiites’ weekend destination lists. For those travelling deep and wide in Rajasthan [as in my case], the town perched on Rajasthan’s eastern border offers a welcome, albeit last taste of the wonders the State is famed for.
Back in 1500 BC, Alwar was part of the Kingdom of Matsyadesh. According to the Hindu epic Mahabharata, this is where the Pandavas spent the last year of their 13-year exile incognito. As a Rajput kingdom, it was formed in 1770 by the Kachhwaha Rajput Pratap Singh.
Unlike Rajasthan’s other treasures, Alwar can appear somewhat bland at the outset. But, behind this front is a rich mix of travel experiences just waiting to be enjoyed.
So, I repeat my question. Got a long weekend coming up? Here’s how to make the most of it in Alwar, with one day devoted to its popular sights and unknown secrets, and one day for an excursion back in time. Happy travels. ❤
Day 1 Morning: Stop 1: Moosi Maharani Ki Chhatri and Sagar Kund, Alwar’s most famous sights
Moosi Maharani Ki Chhatri, an ode to a king and his tearful concubine by their nephew, Maharaja Viney Singh in 1815.
Left: Detail, fresco of a hallowed Rajput inside the cenotaph; Right: 12 chhatris line Sagar Kund transforming it into a visual delight.
What better way could there be to kickstart an exploration of Alwar than a visit to its two most iconic sites—Maharaja Bakhtawar Singh’s Chhatri, also known as Moosi Maharani Ki Chhatri, and Sagar Kund. Hot favourites of both photographers and instagrammers alike, the two are pure poetry in stone.
The chhatri is a grand, highly ornamental cenotaph built by Maharaja Viney Singh of Alwar in memory of his uncle Maharaja Bakhtawar Singh in 1815. Moosi, a concubine, had carried out sati at the Maharaja’s funeral pyre; an act which earned her the title Maharani. Made of karauli red sandstone and marble, the double-storeyed edifice rests on a platform and contains stunning frescoes on its ceilings. Carvings of the deceased king and queen’s footsteps inside are a site of local worship. Sagar Kund, right next to the cenotaph, with 12 evocative chhatris projecting into the lake, is a 7th Century water tank renovated by Viney Singh in 1815.
Day 1 Morning: Stop 2: Alwar City Palace and Museum, home of Alwar’s royals
Alwar City Palace is a charming late-18th Century blend of Mughal and Rajput architectural design features.
Armoury gallery at the Government Museum Alwar.
Nestled in the foothills of the Aravalli Hills, in the heart of Alwar, and a short walk from Moosi Maharani Ki Chattri is the city’s centrepiece—Alwar City Palace built by Maharaja Bakhtawar Singh in 1793. Though government offices have taken over its mahals and halls, and bustling lawyers’ desks and courts snuggle against its back walls, it has an uncanny air of being frozen in time. Domed chhatris overlook an expansive courtyard lined with pokerfaced bangla-roofed jharokas.
The upper floors, which is the only part accessible to the public, contains the Government Museum Alwar. Its galleries house a remarkable collection of miniature paintings in the Alwar School indigenous to the region. Together with an armoury section and artifacts used by royalty, it offers an interesting insight into Alwar’s history and heritage.
PS. The Museum opens at 10:00 am.
Day 1 Morning: Stop 3: Fateh Jang Gumbad, Alwar’s Mughal connection
Gumbads or Tombs are an integral part of the Indian architectural landscape and Alwar’s is no different. The Fateh Jang Gumbad, near the railway station, is built over the grave of Fateh Jang, governor of Alwar and a minister in Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s court. He died in 1647.
It is a grand structure: square in plan, five storeys high, each side 60 feet wide, and topped with a dome. On the ceiling inside and arches in the veranda, incised plaster-work etch out Quranic verses, whilst four octagonal minarets hug the edifice’s corners. Tourists are rare at the Gumbad. You will most probably be the only one, along with someone who would have perhaps dropped by to say a prayer for the departed governor. Praying for the dead is believed to bring blessings in Islam.
Day 1 Morning: Stop 4: Siliserh Lake Palace for a bite with serene views
Siliserh Lake makes for a delightful stop enroute to the Sariska Tiger Reserve, the destination for the afternoon. Surrounded by low hills blanketed in thick forest, its shallow waters are edged at one end by the Siliserh Lake Palace.
Maharaja Viney Singh built the palace, which doubled up as a royal hunting lodge, for his Queen Shila in 1845. It has since been converted into a government tourist lodge. Viney Singh was also responsible for getting Siliserh Lake made, a major source of water for Alwar’s residents, by constructing an embankment on the tributary of River Ruparel. Be warned, the Palace restaurant’s menu is pretty basic. The drawcard here is the idyllic setting.
Day 1 Morning: Stop 5: Bhartari Temple where Alwar’s locals pray
Bhartari Temple is dedicated to Alwar’s righteous and compassionate King Bhartari. His followers believe he was a manifestation of God.
A devotee deep in trance during a visitation by folk hero Tejaji’s soul in Bhartari Temple.
One does not really understand a place or its people, until one visits a place of worship frequented only by the locals. Do you feel that way as well? I truly believe such places are so telling of what is going on in the minds of the local populace. Their deep desires and pain points. It is a place where they are, who they really are, with all their unadulterated superstitions and beliefs.
For Alwar, it means a trip to Bhartari Temple dedicated to Raja Bhartari, a king of Alwar who ruled in the distant past. He was a good and pious man, who decided to give up his wealth and become a sadhu [hermit]. It was at this temple’s site that he chose to take samadhi and attained moksha. Associated with Shiva, locals believe he took birth as a human just so he could help his followers.
During your visit, you will most likely also come across a group of men huddled together in a corner, puffing on cannabis, with one of them in a deep trance. They would be practicing an ancient ritual in which Tejaji, a warrior and folk-hero’s soul enters the body of his chosen believer to heal snakebites.
Day 1 Afternoon: Stop 6: Sariska Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan’s loveliest reserve
Sariska holds the world record for the first successful relocation of tigers. They were brought in from Ranthambore National Park.
Though game drives are offered both in the morning [6:30 am] and afternoon [2:30 pm] at Sariska Tiger Reserve, it is more practical to go for the afternoon drive if based in Alwar. The distance of 42 kilometres takes slightly over an hour to cover. Bookings are on a first-come-first-served basis. Sariska holds the record for being the first reserve in the world with successfully relocated tigers.
Don’t, however, expect to be inundated with game sightings during your visit, unless it is the hot dry season. That’s when the animals tend to make their way to the waterholes. It is a huge reserve [881 sq. km] with 20 tigers as of 2020. But its natural beautify more than makes for it. Used as hunting grounds by Alwar’s royal family, its location deep in the Aravalli Hills fills it with verdant forests and rocky outcrops.
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Day 2 Full Day Excursion: Stop 1: Chand Baori, a 1,200-year-old stepwell
Tracing itself back to the 8th and 9th Centuries, Chand Baori in Abaneri is a masterpiece in scale and durability. At 19.5 metres deep, the square stepwell made of dressed stone is lined with flights of steps on three sides. The northern side consists of a multi-storey concoction of corridors and verandas supported on pillars with sculpted images of the Hindu deities Mahishasurmardini and Ganesha on the projections. The plastered structures around the stepwell are later additions.
Chand Baori was a key part of community life 1,200 years ago: a site for prayer, laundry, and catching up with friends. It is the handiwork of King Chanda or Chandra of the Nikhumba dynasty who ruled Abaneri. Abaneri back then went by the name Abhanagari. Check out the tiny human figures standing by the railing. It will give you an indication of the stepwells’ size!
Day 2 Full Day Excursion: Stop 2: Harshad Mata Temple, a 9th Century remnant
The rather plain steps and exteriors of Harshad Mata Temple give no clue to the artistic wonders it holds.
This scene of warm sensual affection was carved 1,200 years ago. There are many more similar ones decorating the temple plinth and columns.
Close to Chand Baori is the Harshad Mata Temple. It was built by the same king who had the stepwell made, King Chand of the Nikhumba dynasty, Abaneri’s ruler in the 8th and 9th Centuries.
Placed atop a platform reached by a series of wide steps, the temple was once crowned with towering spires. All of that is now gone. But what does still remain are the exquisite deep-relief carvings in the niches around the plinth and pillars. Bend down a bit and be prepared to be bowled over by deities’ sensuous poses as they tenderly caress each other in their celestial abodes, guarded by yakshas brandishing fly-whisks.
Day 2 Full Day Excursion: Stop 3: Bhangarh, the haunted township
Bhangarh’s old banyan trees and crumbling ruins welcome the intrepid traveller with stories of curses and gorgeous queens.
Left: Passage inside the royal palace; Right: The ornate Gopinath Temple. To the left of the fort is Bhangarh’s second large temple, Someshwar Temple.
View from the top of Bhangarh Palace.
Often described as one of India’s most haunted sites, the eerily beautiful township of Bhangarh is now populated by Nilgai and peacocks instead of royalty and nobles. Built in the late-16th Century by Raja Bhagwant Das, ruler of Amer, it later became the administrative centre of Madho Singh I, a diwan in Mughal Emperor Akbar’s court.
Three successive fortifications and five gateways enclose the ruins of a 4-storey royal palace [once seven floors high], markets, havelis, temples, and chhatris. There are numerous explanations touted on why the town was abruptly abandoned. From tantalizing stories of curses by a sadhu and a magician enchanted by the striking Queen Ratnavati, to pragmatic reasons such as drought and famine.
Make sure you leave the site by closing time though. You wouldn’t want to spend the night with spirits of the haunting kind, now would you? Plus, this was supposed to be just a weekend trip. 🙂
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Travel tips for Alwar:
- Staying there: I stayed at the Lemon Tree Alwar.
- Getting to Alwar: I used Rajputana Cabs for an intercity drop from Sawai Madhopur/ Ranthambore National Park.
- Getting around in Alwar: I walked or took a tuk tuk in the Old City, and hired a cab for out-of-town excursions.
[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my 35-day solo and independent road trip through Rajasthan from 17 October to 20 November, 2021. To read more posts in my Rajasthan series, click here.]