the complete travel guide to the hidden gems of jhalawar

24 blog posts. 5 weeks of travel. A road trip of a lifetime.

What better way to end my Rajasthan series than with a travel guide on Jhalawar. Off the tourist radar, choc-o-bloc with hidden rarely-visited gems, and a laid-back vibe. It is screaming out to be explored. But since there is so little known or publicized about it, it ends up, unfortunately, getting sidelined, and fortunately [for the traveller] offers an opportunity to explore Rajasthan in a time-warped state. The way it used to be.

Here’s Jhalawar’s story and sights, written with valuable inputs from Mahijit Singh, the direct descendant of its Rajput rulers, who still lives in Jhalawar, in Virendra Bhawan. And guess what, his home is a homestay! But more of that later in the post.

Here’s wishing you happy travels in Jhalawar. 🙂

– – –

Tucked away in south-east Rajasthan, in a region called Hadoti, is one of Rajputana’s newest kingdoms: Jhalawar or the ‘Land of the Jhalas’. A kingdom that is not even 200 years old. Yet, within its folds is a colourful valiant history and some magnificent unexplored treasures.

Whilst the rest of the State indulges in mass marketing, Jhalawar, which somehow fell through the cracks, lives on as an enigma. And in a time warp.

The kingdom started off as an offshoot of Kota. It’s Diwan, Zalim Singh, a Jhala Rajput from Gujarat had overtaken Kota’s ruler in both, capabilities and achievements, causing inevitable friction between the two. The only solution was to give the Diwan his own kingdom, and that’s what the British East India Company did.

In 1838, Zalim Singh’s grandson, Maharajrana Madan Singh became the first king of Jhalawar. A grand fort palace was built, along with a holiday home in nearby Jhalrapatan. The family deity was brought along and installed in a temple.

Fifty years later, the British were to shape Jhalawar’s destiny one more time. After a lack of leadership in the kingdom in the 1880s, and its temporary return to Kota, they appointed Bhawani Singh as the new ruler in 1889. Maharajrana Bhawani Singh ruled for 20 years during which he gifted Jhalawar visionary reforms and the arts, turning it further into a veritable gem.

But a visit to Jhalawar is not just about the remnants of this kingdom, impressive though they are. The surrounds are dotted with ancient rock-cut Buddhist caves, a medieval hill-cum-water fort, a historic temple town, and an 11th Century stone temple complex, making a visit to Jhalawar unlike any other.

I mentioned earlier that Jhalawar was a bit of an enigma. So, here’s a complete guide to help you unmask its sights and enjoy it the way it deserves to be enjoyed.

This guide is divided into two parts. Part 1 looks at Jhalawar’s attractions. Part 2 describes 3 half day and 1 full day excursions, using Jhalawar as a base.

Table of Contents
[This is a long blog post. If you would like to go straight to any particular section, please click on the links below.]

  1. Part 1: Exploring Jhalawar
  2. Garh Palace, Once the home of the Royals and now a Museum
  3. Bhawani Natyashala, A Theatre for Parsi and Shakespeare Plays
  4. Virendra Bhawan aka Chhoti Kothi
  5. Part 2: Excursions from Jhalawar
  6. Jhalrapatan, Jhalawar Rulers’ Patan
  7. Gagron Fort, One of India’s very few Water Forts
  8. Kolvi Buddhist Caves, An 8th Century Buddhist Site
  9. Bijolia Temple Complex, Three 1,000-year-old Temples around a Sacred Pond
  10. Travel tips for exploring Jhalawar
  11. Rest of Rajasthan

PART 1: EXPLORING JHALAWAR

1. GARH PALACE, ONCE THE HOME OF THE ROYALS AND NOW A MUSEUM


Home of Jhalawar’s rulers, the palace was built in 1838.


Paintings on Krishna themes in the Mural Courtyard.


Sheesh Mahals of two kinds. The left is in the main palace, whilst the right image is from the Zenana Mahal.


Garh Palace’s most beautiful rooms are the handiwork of Ghasiram, the court painter from Nathdwara.

Garh Palace, or the Jhalawar Fort Palace, is Jhalawar’s centrepiece. And for a reason. Its freshly plastered and painted façade, charming as it is, gives no clue to the wonders it holds inside. Home of Jhalawar’s royal family right till India’s independence, it was built by Maharajrana Madan Singh in 1838. Over the years, his successors decorated the palace with stunning paintings and mirror-work.

Unfortunately, the palace was used as government offices for the longest period of time, post-1947. It is only recently that it has reclaimed its treasures, and opened its doors to the public in all its vibrant glory.

Not to miss is the Mural Courtyard lined with delightful paintings on royal themes and the Hindu god Krishna set in niches around a courtyard, and the dazzling multi-coloured Sheesh Mahal. They are both, however, surpassed by the beauty of a series of halls next to them painted by Ghasiram, the court painter. These are decorated from floor to ceiling in glass, gilding, delicate landscapes, and royal portraits in a heady blend of photography and painting.

Try and speak to the reception desk to get access to the Zenana Mahal, one of the very few rooms still out of bounds, more because of its dilapidated condition than anything else. Covered in mirror panels, it overlooks poignant overgrown palace courtyards.

Government Museum, one of Rajasthan’s oldest museums [1915] filled with exquisite rare manuscripts, paintings, and sculptures rounds off the Garh Palace experience to perfection.

2. BHAWANI NATYASHALA, A THEATRE FOR PARSI AND SHAKESPEARE PLAYS


Bhawani Natyashala, a king’s ambitious plan to gift his kingdom the finest cultural performances.


The stage, though now bare, was at one time the site for spectacular shows from across the globe.

Standing three floors high, the Bhawani Natyashala is a grand eclectic medley of Rajput chhatris, Shahjahani arches, graceful minarets, Roman arched windows, and European swirls. Its purpose was equally eclectic. It was built as a venue for plays, cultural events and lectures, especially Parsi theatre, here in a rather remote corner of Rajasthan, for its gentry!

Encompassed within the palace premises, the theatre was commissioned by Maharajrana Bhawani Singh and designed and constructed by Thakur Umrao Singh. Bhawani Singh was an ardent patron of the arts, determined to give his kingdom a taste of a European Opera House with box seats, underground ramps and passages, and a stage large enough to host elephants, horses, and performers.

The first play staged before His Highness was held on the 16th of July, 1921. It was Shakuntala, written by the Classical poet Kalidas.

Travel tip: You may need to ask the Reception at Garh Palace to give you access to the theatre, in case the latter is locked.

3. VIRENDRA BHAWAN AKA CHHOTI KOTHI


Virendra Bhawan, Jhalawar’s manor house, is a lovely Indo-European edifice built in 1860. It was originally called Abbott House.


Its living room, like all its other rooms, are a journey down memory lane with oil paintings of Jhalawar’s royal family, sepia-toned photos of more recent members, and lovingly refurbished colonial furniture.


Some of those who called Virendra Bhawan their home over the years: Left: Colonel Abbott’s children and pet dog; Right: Maharajrana Rajendra Singh and Maharani Hira Kuverba of Jhalawar, the current owner Mahijit Singh’s grandparents. The photo was taken in 1926 on her return from Oxford.

Virendra Bhawan, the Jhalawar royal family’s chhoti kothi [small bungalow], is a graceful Indo-Colonial mansion, tracing itself back to 1860. It was built as The Residency for The British Political Agent Colonel H.E. Abbott, a keen cricketer credited with introducing the game to the Hadoti region, and was called Abbott House back then.

Not many know of this, but in the early-20th Century, Virendra Bhawan was also the home of legendary classical dancer Uday Shankar and his younger brother, the musician maestro Ravi Shankar. Their father was the Diwan to Maharajrana Bhawani Singh, ruler of Jhalawar. It was whilst in Jhalawar, that Uday Shankar saw the court dancer Kukibai perform on elephants, which inspired him to learn Indian dancing. He later took this art form to London and Paris with his troupe, to dance with Anna Pavlova and create his inimitable fusion style.

The lovely manor house eventually became the Dower House for the Maharani of Jhalawar who lived here till 2001. Her descendants continue to live in it, surrounded by farmlands and a way of life reminiscent of a time gone by.

Travel tip: It is possible to stay in Virendra Bhawan as a house guest through Airbnb or by directly contacting the family [Mahijit Singh] at +91 98 1017 2135.

PART 2: EXCURSIONS FROM JHALAWAR

1. JHALRAPATAN, JHALAWAR RULERS’ PATAN


Chandrabhaga Temples, just outside Jhalrapatan’s city walls, date back to 689 CE.


Maharajrana Zalim Singh built Dwarkadheesh Temple in 1796 when he was still the Diwan at Kota. Navneetpriyaji, the Jhalawar royal family’s deity was later installed in it.



Jhalrapatan is a medley of sights and sounds, where nothing is ordinary. Clockwise from top left: One of the city gates; the 11th Century Surya Temple in the heart of the town; homes of its once uber-wealthy opium and spice traders; Ravan at Ravan Durbar.


The unusual 11th Century Shantinath Temple with rearing elephants, and a pagoda-styled roof topped with a bangla-roofed pavilion.

Patan, a medieval temple town on the banks of the Gomti river, became Jhalrapatan in the early-1800s. The name change was courtesy Jhalawar’s Jhala Rajput rulers who used it as their base whilst their new capital was being built. Jhalrapatan literally means Jhalas’ Patan.

It’s a quaint town, steeped in ringing temple bells and riches made from opium and spice trade. Within the city walls, 108 temples, some grand and extravagant, some mere humble shrines, fill lanes lined with both mansions and simple abodes.

In the main square is Padam Nath Mandir or simply Surya Mandir, the focal point for Jhalrapatan’s community life for more than a thousand years. It is a handsomely carved 9th Century red sandstone temple, 97 feet tall, towering over wandering cows and small business stalls topped with colourful awnings.

Shantinath Temple, on the other hand, takes the visitor completely by surprise. One minute you are at a nondescript entrance and the next you are facing a massive pagoda-styled edifice with rearing elephants. Multiple bedecked shrines lead out of the colonnaded veranda, including an 11th Century one with a spire. From every sanctum, a calm tirthankara gazes out at the world, inviting the devotee to find equal calm.

Even older than the above two are the Chandrabhaga Temples outside the city walls which date back to 689 CE and were built by Chandrasen, a king of Malwa. The story goes that he suffered from leprosy, but when he dipped into the Chandrabhaga River he was instantly cured. In gratitude, he built three exquisite temples on its river bank.

No visit to Jhalrapatan is, however, complete without darshan at the Dwarkadheesh Temple. It is the handiwork of Maharajrana Zalim Singh, when he was still the Diwan of Kota. When the royal family moved here later to create their own kingdom, they brought with them their family deity and installed it in this temple.

If perchance you are templed out by now, Ravan Durbar, a quirky collection of 150-year-old, 30-feet-tall comical effigies used as part of the annual Dussehra festival, makes for a refreshing change. Oh, and whilst in town see if you can have a dekko at Madan Vilas, the holiday home of Jhalawar’s rulers. Now used as a government office, it still retains traces of its past glory.

2. GAGRON FORT, ONE OF INDIA’S VERY FEW WATER FORTS


The road leading to Gagron Fort sweeps across the river.


Gagron Fort sets itself apart by being a hill-cum-water fort; it is built on a rocky outcrop and is surrounded on three sides by river waters.


Wooden doors pierced with iron nails guard the Gagron Fort entrance.

Part of the UNESCO-listed ensemble of Hill Forts of Rajasthan, Gagron Fort is completely unlike the others in the set. In fact, it is unlike most forts in Rajasthan. Gagron Fort is a Hill Fort-cum-Jal Durg or Water Fort, surrounded on three sides by water, or the Ahu and Kali Sindh rivers in this case, and a moat on its fourth side.

The fort’s foundations were laid in the 7th Century, with construction carrying on till the 14th Century. Majestic, impregnable and austere, its 1,300 years of history have seen countless sieges, battles, 2 jauhars, and a string of rulers including Maharana Kumbha, Sher Shah Sur, and Akbar. The one constant being its towering stone ramparts.

Travel tips: 1) Both, the circular bastion jutting into the waters and the expanse of splintered rocks across the river offer the best views of the fort. 2) Within the ramparts is the mausoleum of the Sufi saint Mithe Shah. During the month of Muharram, a fete and music festival are held here for 3 nights.

3. KOLVI BUDDHIST CAVES, AN 8TH CENTURY BUDDHIST SITE


Kolvi Buddhist Caves lie around 100 kilometres south-west of Jhalawar.



The site dates back to the 7th to 9th Centuries and are carved around a laterite hill. It is a steep-ish climb, so the steps and railings come in handy.

The last thing you would expect to see when exploring Rajasthan is ancient Buddhist caves dating back to the 7th to 9th Centuries. Especially when they pop up about 95 kilometres south-west of Jhalawar in the middle of a stretch of scrub desert, carved into a laterite hill. And it’s not just a small group of caves, but some 50 of them in various styles spread over an area of 90,000 sq. metres.

There are single and double-storeyed caves, caves with pillared verandas, stupas, and chaityas with figures of Buddha in them. A handful of large relief carvings of chaityas and Buddhas decorate the rock surface. The absence of any Bodhisattva figures points towards the caves belonging to the Hinayana sect.

Do poke into the unadorned caves arranged tightly around the top of the hill in a ring. They are all open. Time and weather have taken their toll on the structures, eroding the surfaces and detailing, but their evocative timelessness is still fully intact.

Travel tips: 1) Try and plan your visit for the morning. Rajasthan’s afternoon sun can be unforgiving. 2) The site is unticketed. 3) The nearest landmark is the water tank.

4. BIJOLIA TEMPLE COMPLEX, THREE 1,000-YEAR-OLD TEMPLES AROUND A SACRED POND


Undeshvar Temple with the Mandakini Kund in the foreground. The Shiva lingam in the temple lies 2.4 metres below the mandapa level.


A local resident worships at the Mahakal Temple, the oldest among the three, keeping a thousand-year-old ritual alive amidst the stone walls.



The divine, secular and erotic, all have a place in the Hazareshvar Temple.

The Bijolia Temple Complex, located at a distance of 140 kilometres from Jhalawar, is best visited on a full day excursion or whilst going to or leaving Jhalawar.

It is a hauntingly beautiful group of 1,000-year-old temples gathered around a sacred pond. Now and then a local resident drops by to offer a prayer and flowers, keeping an ancient ritual alive. For the rest of the time, it stands in pin-drop silence with the only sound that of birdsong.

There are three temples in the complex. Mahakal Temple is the oldest of the lot and was built in the 11th Century. Hazareshvar Temple is the smallest and identified with a lingam carved with 1,000 [or hazar] miniature lingams. Undeshvar Temple is the newest [1175] with airy canopies and a 2.4-metre-deep sanctum. All three are profusely decorated with intricate carvings of deities and celestial beings, in the company of graceful dancers and an erotic couple or two.

Travel tip: Don’t miss the Nataraja carved high up on Hazareshvar Temple’s spire, and a peek into the dark depths of the sanctum in Undeshvar Temple.

– – –

With this, Dear Reader, I come to the end of my Rajasthan series. I hope you enjoyed the above travel guide on Jhalawar. If you feel it will be useful to someone you know who’s travelling to Jhalawar, may I request you please share this post’s link with them. Perhaps it will help enrich their travels. Many thanks in advance. ❤

TRAVEL TIPS FOR EXPLORING JHALAWAR

  • Staying there: I stayed at the elegant and very atmospheric Virendra Bhawan [aka Chhoti Kothi] via Airbnb.
  • Getting around in Jhalawar: I used a mix of tuk-tuk, local bus, my host’s car, and walking.
  • Getting to Jhalawar: I used Rajputana Cabs for an intercity drop from Chittorgarh.
  • How many days?: I stayed for 3 full days, 2 nights.

REST OF RAJASTHAN

As mentioned earlier, it was a 35-day solo and independent road trip through Rajasthan.

I took the journey in October – November 2021 to help me cope with the loss of my mother. She’d passed away on 19 July, 2021. I am not sure if it lessened my sense of loss, but it definitely enriched me with countless incredibly beautiful experiences. I would, thus, like to dedicate this series to my mother.

In case you have missed any of my earlier Rajasthan posts, here they all are, including the links to Bundi which I did as a separate trip. Just click on the links below to access the blog posts. Much love.

Alwar

Bikaner

Bundi

Chittorgarh

Jaipur

Jaisalmer

Jhalawar

Jodhpur

Pushkar and Ajmer

Ranthambore

Shekhawati

Udaipur and Surrounding Towns

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