travel diaries: call of the khuri dunes

Sam or Khuri?

An obligatory part of a visit to Jaisalmer is the excursion to the golden sand dunes which sheath the Thar Desert some 40 to 50 kilometres away from the city.

Sam was touristy. Khuri was remote. What was it going to be for me? This one was a no-brainer in my travel plans. 😊

Khuri had just called out to me, I thought, with a gentle smile hovering on my lips as I looked out at an oasis on my way to the dunes. Continue reading

thar desert: stories told and untold

Thar Desert, or the Great Indian Desert as it is also known, is the large arid region in north-west Rajasthan surrounding the thousand-year-old enigmatic fortress of Jaisalmer on all four sides.

Covered over an expanse of 200,000 square kilometres, it is the world’s 20th largest desert, as well as the world’s most densely populated desert [at 83 people per square kilometre]. Some 40 percent of Rajasthan’s population lives in the Thar, eking out a living on its barren stretch through agriculture and animal husbandry.

Folk art and music offer a much-needed respite in the face of hardship here; just as vibrant-coloured odhnis and turbans give a dash of colour to the otherwise dusty, bare, uninhabited miles. Continue reading

exploring jaisalmer: one of the world’s few surviving living forts

It was nearing midnight. We’d been on the road for close to nine hours, having left Mandawa at three in the afternoon.

The deserted highway, smooth and wide, was sheathed in golden desert sand under a pitch-black sky. Our drive constantly interrupted with herds of prancing wild camel, stoic buffaloes, and abandoned cattle which merged with the darkness of the night. We were on our way to Jaisalmer in the north-west frontiers of Rajasthan.

I will never forget the calm words of my 22-year-old driver, Budharam Bishnoi, the first time an animal sneaked in front of our speeding vehicle: “Jitna aapki suraksha karna mera dharam hai, utna hi inn jeevo ka suraksha karna bhi mera dharam hai. Aap chinta mat karein.” [Just as it is my duty to protect you, it is also my duty to protect these animals. Don’t worry.” Continue reading

the complete travel guide to the wonders of shekhawati

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Welcome to my blog’s very first ‘Travel Guide’. I have chosen to write it on the colourful historical world of Shekhawati in north-east Rajasthan, and tried my level best to keep it relevant from a traveller’s point of view.

It covers four suggested full day routes with Mandawa as a base and what to focus on in each of the towns derived from personal experience. Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region can be pretty overwhelming. It is not uncommon for travellers to be haveli-id out when faced with hundreds of painted havelis [Indian mansions], one after the other. In addition, many are crumbling to dust, being painted over, or turned into ‘heritage’ hotels. This post is a humble attempt to add value to a visit to this open-air art gallery which is a wonder in itself, a region unlike anything else, anywhere else.

Time required: 6 days. These include 1 day to explore Mandawa [the base], and 4 full day itineraries to discover the region at a relaxed, yet in-depth pace. Happy travels! 🙂

Note: This blog post has been written with valued inputs from Om Singh Shekhawat, my guide during my stay in the region.

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. Putting the Shekhawati Region into Context: History, Wealth, and Heritage
  2. Mandawa: Base Camp for Exploring Shekhawati
  3. Southern Route: Mandawa > Lohargal > Nawalgarh > Dundlod > Mukundgarh > Mandawa
  4. South-West Route: Mandawa > Fatehpur > Laxmangarh > Mandawa
  5. Northern Route: Mandawa > Ramgarh > Mahansar > Bissau > Churu > Mandawa
  6. North-East Route: Mandawa > Jhunjhunu > Alsisar > Malsisar > Mandawa

Continue reading

bikaner: the forgotten jewel of the thar desert

Encircled by Rajasthan’s harsh and dusty Thar Desert is the medieval city of Bikaner. Once upon a time Bikaner was one of the most powerful cities on the Great Silk Road, opulent and exotic, its people wealthy beyond compare. Silks, spices, precious metals, and opium were traded here. Culture and ideas from east and west met and merged within its streets. But when trade routes shifted and other centres were created by the vagaries of time—Bikaner was forgotten. But never destroyed.

Wise enough to realise that the gains of peace were more enduring than the booty of war, diplomacy and the desert kept Bikaner safe from battles and conquests. There are no mutilated temples in Bikaner. Nor abandoned crumbling forts and palaces. Neither have modernism and commercialism dived through the desert yet to deafen its individuality. Off the tourist circuit, Bikaner is rarely visited, and when so, only by the intrepid.

Rajasthan’s forgotten jewel in the Thar Desert traces itself back to 1488. Prior to it, the area was a desolate wasteland called Jangladesh. And it may have remained a wasteland were it not for the ambitions of a young Rajput prince. Continue reading

global travel shot: silk road opulence in bikaner

Image

Ever wondered what the homes of the Great Silk Road merchants looked like? Please look at the image above this paragraph. All the monumental edifices lining the pronged road belonged to one such family—the three Rampuria brothers—the wealthiest merchants in Bikaner.

A small princely state deep in the deserts of northern Rajasthan, Bikaner’s strategic location on the Great Silk Road promised, and delivered, immense wealth to its people through the taxes imposed on the wares that passed through it and access to markets for Indian commodities. Silk, spices, precious stones, metals, and opium made the people of Bikaner into billionaires of their era. Continue reading

travel diaries: jaigarh and nahargarh: 2 forts and 1 traveller

The tuk-tuk rattled and heaved as we drove higher up the jungle-clad deserted hill. We were just a few kilometres north of Jaipur, yet there was not a soul around. Or any sound. Except for the chirping of the birds and my noisy mode of transport.

In the distance I could make out the Jaipur State’s flag—the famous panchranga representative of the five Afghan tribes Mirza Raja Man Singh I, the Kachhwaha Rajput ruler, defeated in 1585 on behalf of the Mughals. A gentle reminder that the fort on which it was hoisted, Jaigarh Fort, still belonged to the Jaipur royal family.

Unlike the Amer Fort, Jaigarh Fort built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II in 1720 served as a military fort and a hideout for the royal family in the event of war. It’s a stark and functional piece of military architecture. But with such stories inside its walls! Continue reading

8 hours in eclectic ajmer, rajasthan’s centre for sufism

Rose essence from Hinduism’s holy city of Pushkar fills the air of Sufi Islam’s sacred dargah in Ajmer. The courtyard reverberates with qawwalis in praise of the 13th Century saint from Iran, as the faithful shuffle past his grave in deep reverence, heads bowed, eyes lowered, a prayer or two on their lips.

It is 9ish in the morning and I am at the Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti Dargah deep in the heart of Ajmer’s Muslim quarter. As far back as I can remember, I had wanted to visit the tomb-shrine. Now actually standing here, it feels unreal. Surreal.

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Just 15 kilometres from Pushkar, separated by Nag Pahar an ancient hill in the Aravalli range, is Ajmer—Pushkar’s antithesis. Continue reading

pushkar: where the gods and seekers meet

Pushkar.

No Hindu pilgrimage is believed to be complete without a stop at Pushkar, Rajasthan’s rose garden. A polestar for the seeker within since ancient times, it is apt that the little town’s rose essences have been exported far and wide through the centuries.

Not that Pushkar’s spirituality washes over one like a massive tumultuous wave, creating an instant transformation. Nope. Nothing like that at all. It is instead subtle and gentle, with a consistent, tangible peace hanging around the 52 ghats and 500 or so temples which line its very soul—Pushkar Sarovar, Sarovar meaning ‘Lake’.

Yet, this devout peaceful haven, a mere two-and-a-half-hour drive from Jaipur, is inexorably tied to an eclectic mix of myths and traditions which range from a first wife’s wrath to being the seat of the Hindu god of creation. Continue reading

15 memorable experiences only to be had in the world heritage city of jaipur

18 November, 1727.

Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, the Kachhwaha Rajput ruler at the helm of the Amer Kingdom for the past 28 years, knew he had to make a crucial decision.

Amer Fort, his administrative seat and residence, was becoming too small to meet the needs of his growing kingdom. Water was scarce, and because of it, other resources were being affected.

He needed a new city. A city that reflected his ideas, values, and plans for his kingdom. Continue reading