‘The Best or Nothing’ says it all. The statement resonates so fiercely with our passion for creating experiential motoring images, that we push ourselves to the absolute limit every time. The moment we got the message from Germany, our planning began.
We were to deliver images that were clearly rooted in India. Routine as that may sound, fitting a car/vehicle into that bracket was always going to be a challenge. The list of possible destinations was endless. Right from the backwaters of Kerala to the mountain passes of Ladakh and even the seven sisters of the North east, we considered everything. After all, this was a unique opportunity. Through our photography, the world would lay its eyes on India.
Something still eluded us. It was the peak of the Indian Monsoon. Everywhere, the skies were grey and the earth a wet green. Then it struck us, we would have to outrun the Indian monsoon! We would head to Rajasthan!
The Desert State of India is home to the Thar Desert. A place we are very familiar with and if you know our work, it is a place we love to shoot at. The sound of the wind in the Desert carries with it stories of times past and as the sun beats down relentlessly each day, the sheer tenacity of the desert people comes to the fore. The odds were stacked against us though. The Desert was 1200 kilometers away, the rain was heavy and we had just enough time to make it all happen. Along the way, we were also to shoot at Vadodara for a separate brief.
Then came the question of the car itself. We were to shoot the new CLS and also the GL 63 AMG both and we had just about a week to make it all happen. Even though the weather was an obvious risk, The Nirvana Team was ready and we slotted ourselves into gear. We flew out to Vadodara where we were to collaborate with a local artist for 2 days. For Mercedes Benz, of course. This shoot was part of the ‘Homestory’ and artist profile for the St Moritz Art Masters, Switzerland.
Making a presence in Vadodara!
The Laxmi Vilas Palace at Baroda is an eternal icon of the city. In every mention of the City, the Palace features at the top. The question was – How do we get in?
We exercised all our contacts and then some more to at least get a word through to the palace authorities. The people at the palace were superbly kind to us and let us shoot on the grounds solely on our merit. The palace gates opened and we drove the mighty GL 63 AMG onto its August grounds! Rani ji, the reigning Queen of Vadodara also graced our shoot and met with us. We were truly honoured! On this day, even the Sun came out for a short while and we got a few shots worthy of the Mercedes Benz Badge.
Laxmi Vilas Palace, Vadodara.
As soon as the adrenaline of shooting at the Palace wore off, the realization of the start of the road trip set in. Experiential road trips are our forte but even then, each road trip shoot brings with it unique challenges. The Indian monsoon was still unrelenting. We were very low on sleep too, an average of just three hours a day. Then again, if the car you’re driving is more luxurious than a 5 Star hotel, who needs sleep? This is where the GL 63 AMG really came on song.
“Enough power to move the earth, while keeping one cocooned in luxury.” were lead photographer Nipun Srivastava’s actual words just after they hit the highways leading into Rajasthan.
GL 63 AMG – Grunt Central!
Whoa!! That’s the first thought one’s brain will have when you ram the pedal into the GL. You will be punched into your seat and then your world will change. As you hurtle forward, your ears will tingle to sounds of the V8 sitting under the hood. As the needle hits red, one pull of the paddle will usher in another delivery of power as if it was something the gods arranged for you to have. Crisp steering response and a not so heavy steering wheel make controlling the GL 63 AMG a pleasure.
By now, you’re in a trance. Eyes on the road, pedal to the metal and going hell for leather – that is the AMG experience. The handcrafted engine will follow your every command, in the GL 63 AMG, you are the Maharaja of the Indian road. When you’re coming, they will hear you and when you’re going they WILL look. That’s the reaction one gets on the roads.
The Indian Road:
Indian highways are notorious. Bad roads were the least of our concerns.
The Blue Hulk, as we had begun to call the mighty GL, was powered by a V8 Petrol Bi-Turbo engine. A high performance engine like that needs to be fed appropriately. Only a high octane diet would adequately satiate The Hulk’s appetite. Sadly though, out near the Desert, just finding a fuel station which sold petrol was a luxury. The fuel economy of just over 4 kilometers to a litre of fuel (when Nipun aka lead foot was at the wheel) was not helping things. On the secluded desert roads, we fueled up every opportunity we got!
Leaving the weather behind!
We covered the distance of 650 Kilometers from Baroda to Jaisalmer in record time. Stopping over at Barmer and at a few other places along the road as well. Driving across the landscape was such a rush that we forgot lunch! Improvisation was the answer – Bananas! We reached Jaisalmer as the moon rose over a now clear sky. Team Nirvana had finally outrun the Indian Monsoon. We love it when a plan comes together!
The Desert, The City: Jaisalmer.
This city and Nirvana go back a long way. One of our pet projects; Rooh – e – Rajasthan meaning ‘Spirit of the Desert’ has featured this superlative city. To us, Jaisalmer is like home.
To twist things a little, this time, we were not staying at the city per say. Team Nirvana and the mighty GL 63 AMG would be put up at a special place a little outside Jaisalmer. Super car – super hotel, you know. The luxurious surrounds of Hotel Suryagarh out in the Desert was to be our new playground and also our home base for the remainder of the shoot. As soon as we were in the city, we tanked up the Hulk and then our tummies as well. Shooting photographs on an empty stomach is a recipe for disaster ;).
With full stomachs, we marched onto the Desert, knowing exactly where and how we were to shoot. This shoot started at 11pm and we shot in the dunes for a couple of hours. Not a soul around for miles, the only lighting we had for this mini shoot was the Moon and the GL 63 AMG itself.
Shooting in the moonlight!
After our initial fill of playing around in the sand under moonlight, we drove back to our (not so) humble abode.
A word about the hotel we stayed at: Suryagarh is a hotel which has little in common with the other places we’ve stayed at. In the middle of the arid desert life is difficult to say the least but if you’re at this hotel, everything is literally taken care of. We had spoken to them about our “plans” beforehand and they were most happy to oblige. Even before we reached, they knew what we needed and had it ready for us, customized to our liking. Amazing. It helps to have things sorted when on a photo shoot such as this. Kudos to Suryagarh!
The Suryagarh Courtyard
Nothing ever goes to plan. We were up early for the sunrise but the eastern skies over Jaisalmer were overcast with mist and remnants of the monsoon. It felt as if the skies themselves were telling us to take a break. For the first time in 6 days, the Nirvana team sat down for a proper breakfast. Breakfast is a luxury few can afford in the bets we make to shoot in the golden hours. One look at our work and the sun and its shades will tell you how much we love using just natural sunlight.
As the Sun rose, the skies cleared. We began our final recce and chalked out a rough plan of action. Over the next two days, we shot in the desert, at our hotel and of course the city of Jaisalmer itself.
For us, the two most important things are motoring and travel. These words continue to define our style of photography. Jaisalmer and its surroundings gives photographers like us the perfect play ground to make our mistakes, learn and then deliver – every time.
Not to forget, another word which defines our work is adventure. We love taking a risk or two with everything we do. Whether it is shooting without camera straps altogether or dangling out of an open top jeep to get that perfect rolling shot, we’re always pushing limits.
We wanted to explore the roads that turn off of the main highways here in the extreme western parts of India. These small and almost inconsequential roads are sometimes gateways into photo opportunities which one would never imagine out on the highways. Going ‘off the beaten track’ as they harp every time ;).
As we drove further into the desert on one of these inner roads we saw the real temperament of the elements here. The landscape in this part of Rajasthan is unpredictable, from hills to sand dunes to sand dunes the size of hills – one never knows what will pop out of the horizon. In the Thar Desert, sand has the unquestionable right of way.
Hell for leather – always!
Another side to Rajasthan’s beauty is the music here. This desert region is known for its folk and regional music and musicians. No evening is complete without a song or two from the repertoire of these tenured musicians. The tunes are mesmerizing and take one into bygone times when kings and queens reigned over this part of the world. It was a simple shot that popped up into our heads. Musicians + car + local architecture, simple.
Music & Motoring
As it happened, on that particular evening, the Super Moon had come out in all its glory. The moonlight and the clouds added just the right amount of drama into the frame, we think. This was also the last night of our week long shoot. Before the Sun rose again, we would be on our way back to Pune.
The journey is eternal.
The shoot had ended but the journey was a long way from being over. Not only did we have to drive our way back but like most journeys this was an experience which would continue in our minds for quite a while. The GL 63 AMG was the first super car we had ever shot, here in India and the way we do things, that was a big deal. We can hardly take credit for this shoot though. Yes, we shot the images but without the special support of our friends, acquaintances and team members none of this was possible. It was the people that we met who made it possible, we just made it happen :).
Germany: (Client) Mercedes Benz for their awesomeness.
Pune: Mercedes Benz India for the vehicle.
Vadodara: Benchmark Cars – local Mercedes Benz Dealer. Miss Vishwamohini Priyalak Bhatt, Miss Malvika Singh and her highness The Queen of Vadodara.
Jaisalmer: The Suryagarh Boys: Siddharth, Sunny, Rajesh, Asif and Kunal for taking every effort to make sure our shoot and stay goes smoothly!
Team Nirvana: Niranjan Tarphe for his support on shoot.
Photography & luck, the eternal duo.
We’ve all been lucky. We’ve all landed up with pictures that we love out of sheer luck haven’t we? One just has to admire the presence of luck in photography. It carries us through some of our most challenging photographic moments.
There are a few per-requisites to getting these sometimes surprising images.
First and foremost:
Well, there’s your camera. You don’t need a so called ‘high-end’ camera, really. What you will need however is a camera which is ready for a shot at all times. Fully charged and ready to roll.
All DSLRs these days have a stand-by mode. Like in my Nikon, the stand-by mode keeps the camera sleeping. The moment I need to take a picture, one press of any button will get it out of its slumber and ready to fire.
What’s even more important is that your camera be configured in such a way that it’s ready for all scenarios. You don’t want to be fidgeting with the settings to get the ISO down and the aperture up in case you need to point the lens at the Sun.
The solution to that problem is to keep the camera set to ‘auto’ or ‘P/Program’, when you’re not shooting something in particular, obviously. Let the camera do the work, it’s faster than your fingers in situations where you may have all but one second to point, compose and shoot.
As this black and white image demonstrates, being unprepared is not always a bad thing. (not that I condone it)
Two faced tide, Zanzibar, Africa.
This photograph, taken from the Forhodani Park in Stone Town, Zanzibar, showcases the simple life of the fishing community here. Every morning they head out with their sails open while the sun is still yawning into its rise. They return with the days catch in the evening, fresh and ready to go onto any of the stalls which line the lanes of the Forhodani park.
This is a much adored photograph from my portfolio but the harsh truth about this photograph is that this was a highly over-exposed frame. Shot in RAW, when this image came up in the scroll, there was little my mind could think about doing. The highlights were too bright, the blacks looked as if they came straight out of a can of oil paint.
The first thing that I did was to instantly rid it of all saturation (you know, cut my losses and use what I have). The next step came as a surprise even to me, I bumped up the exposure even more till the ocean looked almost like a sketch. You can even spot the horizon if you’ve got a good pair of eyes. As a result came out this picture postcard image of a Dhow.
Having the camera set to manual and not prepared for this type of photograph actually helped me capture this rather representative image. I was lucky. The unorthodox processing of this image saved the day.
Timing is everything, true.
There’s no getting away from it. Your shutter release has got to be absolutely on the money at that second when it’s all supposed to happen. Miss it and all you’ll have is a photograph which could.
Get it right though and you’ll be jumping with joy after you finish processing the picture. There again is that element which we all love to hate – luck.
Spirit of the desert. Rajasthan, India.
Easily one of the top 5 favourites from my recent trip to Rajasthan, India. I pride myself on the exquisite timing of this photograph.
I’m feeling lucky:
There have been a few times that I have ended up depending on luck. Some frown upon that but who gives a damn? They say that the photographers who rely on luck are not true photographers, they’re just trigger happy shooters. I think whoever says this is right, only to an extent though.
You see, I started shooting with a manual camera and its bathed in wasted film (and money!) disappointments. Back then it was only those ‘lucky’ shots that kept egging me on to shoot more.
Even the urge to try and better understand the nuances of making a well thought out and calibrated photograph was fueled by those few perfect photos. All thanks to luck.
A bad photograph gone good. Kumbhalgarh Fort, Rajasthan, India.
I didn’t even know I had taken this shot. I was busy watching the sound and light show at the fort (hence the lighting). The camera was set up on a tripod right next to my seat. With a wired remote-release in my hand I kept clicking, only occasionally changing the tilt to adjust my frame. The reason I love this photograph is that everything in the frame is perfectly out of focus. Yes! Look closely and you’ll see. Yet somehow, this image works. You can even see the milky way!
Light and Luck:
When shooting outdoors, these two factors can mean the world to a photographer. Also, no one has complete control over either. That’s what’s amazing if you actually do end up with a good photograph. Sometimes even the worst hours of light can yield a good photograph. Don’t be apprehensive about shooting at noon or under thick cloud cover. Go for it, regardless.
Living on an island. Zanzibar, Africa.
Shot at the top of noon, this photograph came as a surprise. Background: It was hot, I was sweating it with all my camera gear on my back and I was on a beach with no shade. On a motorcycle ride across the island, I had little control over the time I reached a particular destination. Look at this picture, see the shadows and you’ll know it was shot at 12PM on the dot. This photograph was a stepping stone for me towards realising the possibilities of shooting with harsh light.
Sometimes though, one just has to forget everything and swing for the fence. Like in this photo here, shot at Hampi in Karnataka, India.
Jewel in the crown. Virupaksha Temple, Hampi, India.
Almost 2 kilometers away from my subject and on top of a hill. The place where I was standing had absolutely no space to move around and get the Sun perfectly resting in the Temple’s crown. To get this particular shot, I had to literally hang off the hill and try to shoot with one hand stretched out as far as possible. The Sun too would stay in the correct position for a very short while only, I had very little time to execute. Adding to my problems was the 300mm lens that I was using! It took about 10 shots till I got this photograph. Which could have been taken in a better way, if I had a helicopter or something. (wink!). After I got the photograph and a few other shots, I spent the night ogling at my camera screen!
So there you have it. Go ahead and be lucky!
Part 8 of Rooh – E – Rajasthan.
To read part 7 – Click here.
To read part 6 – Click here.
To read part 5 – Click here.
To read part 4 – Click here.
To read part 3 – Click here.
To read part 2 – Click here.
To read part 1 – Click here.
Lets go home.
Twenty eight wonderful days had been spent on the roads and in the cities of Rajasthan. On this special motorcycle journey I had led a much disciplined and regulated life. You know, going to sleep early to get up in time for the sunrise more often than not. Also to leave early to reach the next destination on time.
My last morning here was different. I didn’t wake up on time. Three lines of alarms failed to get me out of my snooze on this day. I woke up with a jolt at nine AM when my mum called to check whether I’d left Udaipur.
I mean wow, I felt like even Rajasthan didn’t want me to leave. Letting me be as I revelled in deep slumber.
After I was awake however, it was a mad rush to get on the road. It took me an hour to get to the bike and load up. Hurriedly, I said my thank you to the hotel staff, tipped my favorite waiter and rolled on towards the highway.
Sooner than you’d think, with my bikes’ engine warmed up and us riding smoothly on the highway into Gujarat, I was again thinking back to the time I’d had in Udaipur and Rajasthan as a whole.
What can one say? When a place known for its harsh climate and shifting sands embraces you with a large heart, one can only feel humbled.
My motorcycle ride around Rajasthan had grounded me like no other escapade of mine. Only a long string of adjectives could probably describe what I felt or maybe even that would fall short of truly expressing how liberated I felt.
A complete and absolute assault on the senses. A place tailor-made for the wanderer and ponderer alike.
The sands of Sam
Positively one of the best behaved and most polite in India. Most cultures boast of being hospitable and caring but the folk of Rajasthan truly personify hospitality. They embrace their roots. One has to admire the people who respect and hold in such high regard their own culture, music and place of belonging.
The music of Abu
To be brutally honest, across the length of my trip, the food I had was mediocre. There were some stars though. Like the LAAL MAANS atop Nahargarh Fort in Jaipur or the super spicy Aloo ka parantha at Dudu! Even the Chaat at the Gol Piyau in Ajmer is worth a special mention.
Food and thought
It was just a thought two years ago, today Rooh – E – Rajasthan is one of my favorite pieces of work!
A ride to remember!
Rajasthan was a challenge at first. A personal feat I have to say. Like one gets used to the temperature of water after diving in, I got used to Rajasthan’s ever-changing vibe. From the serene desert sands of Jaisalmer and Sam to the chaotic city life of Jodhpur and the commercial holiness of Pushkar, the feeling of finding myself in a different situation was ever present.
I rode on smooth straight roads, through suffocating sands over vanishing roads, atop camels, walked barefoot on warm evening sand, became a part of the music, made friends from different cultures and countries even, spent a month amongst strangers who I now call my own.
I felt more Indian than I’d ever felt before. I felt more human and alive than I’d ever felt before.
Chancing upon two musicians in Jaisalmer who became friends and delighted me with their art. Etienne ‘Suryaneel’ Lauth and Hariram Bhopa. They were as absorbed in their art as a glass of cold water would be in hot sand, they taught me to forget about the world and do what the heart asks. Let me not comment on the brilliance of their music as it was just beyond word.
Etienne (Suryaneel) and Hariram
Most remembered photographic moment:
Shooting atop desert dunes.
As the sun went down over the horizon made up of curvy dues stretching out till the eyes could see, shooting here was a refreshing experience. I walked atop the dunes barefoot, letting the coarse grains of sand caress my sole. It ended up touching my soul. I felt peace.
The camel and its jockey
Shot of the trip:
Camels around my motorcycle on the highway. On my way from Ajmer to Jaipur. The image sums up my journey in a nutshell. The ride, the road and Rajasthan.
A different trip.
Three most loved Photographs of the trip:
My top three most adored photographs from Rajasthan, each of these photos represent a facet of my journey. Not just when it comes to storytelling but also technically. Each of these photographs have hours of effort behind them and also more technique has been used compared to any average image.
Aamer. Sam and sand. Kumbhalgarh.
Best biker moment:
Looking at the road end and sand begin.
Final Haul home!
After about seven hours of riding through the morning and afternoon I had crossed into Gujarat and was soon closing on my night halt for the day – Ankleshwar. The town of Ankleshwar is built around industry and also happened to be my rest stop at the beginning of this ride. As I approached the town on my motorcycle I got stuck in a traffic jam! On the six lane highway, it was a situation I’d never been in. After about half an hour and probably moving only about ten meters forward, I decided to turn around on the same road and get off the highway. Yes it was dangerous but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. I rode on the wrong side of the road for a kilometer or so and reached an exit. Then I managed to find my way through another town which lay adjacent to Ankleshwar.
They say that everything happens for a reason and it’s true. As I rode through this unknown town towards Ankleshwar, I found myself at the start of a long and narrow bridge which stood over a wide river which I had to cross. The evening traffic was so much that I was literally wiggling my way through. As I rolled on to the bridge, a perfect and round golden yellow almost orange Sun greeted me to my right. Its reflection off the river was relaxing to say the least. I wanted to stop right there and click some pictures but there was absolutely no space and the traffic behind me was menacing. I had no choice but to store the memory in my head and move on. Just that bit of beauty was enough to take away the pain of my now eight hour long motorcycle ride out of Udaipur.
I was on my way home now. I stayed the night in a hotel and then pushed my bikes’ performance to the limit for the home run. She was close to seizing up, my motorcycle, I could feel it. An 8AM cold start is the last thing I wanted for her straining engine but we now had to crank it up and get home. On the highway again and racing towards the outskirts of Mumbai and Thane, we hardly took any stops. My mind was alight with questions about whether we’ll reach home on our own steam. I kept the throttle jammed open, the motorcycle responded like she knew what were trying to do, get home.
My motorcycle knew the fact that the trip was over and this was the most important part. Getting home often is. She probably knew that the only place she’d get the attention she deserved would be at the workshop in Pune and so we cracked on through the mid day sun. Soon we crossed into Maharashtra and then by noon reached the turnoff to Pune.
I stopped for lunch and also to give my motorcycle one final cooling rest before we hauled it to Pune. After lunch, getting back on the bike, I told her not to give up on me on this absolute last leg of 200 kilometers. It’d be a pity if we couldn’t get home now. These roads were known to the both of us, the team of man and motorcycle soldiered on till we reached the outskirts of Pune. One final water stop marked the end of my ride to Rajasthan. I was home.
At that overwhelming moment, what it felt like cannot be put in words. It was my longest ever solo motorcycle ride. An overall distance of about 5000 kilometers of motorcycling, tourism, photography and an experience of a lifetime had been achieved.
Just like Rana Pratap’s horse, Chetak, my motorcycle got me home and then proceeded to get herself to the workshop. Only then did she let her condition take the better of her. She’d gone through a lot, the desert heat, the grains of sand and my constant whims. It had been an epic challenge for her too. What a machine! What a personality and how amazing that she understood her rider just the way he was. The Marauder!
The places I missed:
Yes, believe it or not, there are a lot of places I didn’t visit on this trip. Rajasthan is huge and trust me when I say it is worth spending a sizable part of one’s life here. Each corner has it’s own story, it’s own people and it’s own shade of sand. When you go, keep in mind these places that I didn’t get a chance to go to.
Why didn’t I go?
Time was a major reason for skipping places like Bikaner and Alwar. Sometimes it so happened that I found out about a place only after I’d passed it, like Bundi and Gagaria. Rajasthan is like a big bundle of surprises, each place you go to can hide amazing sights which someone in a hurry may never uncover. The step wells in Jodhpur make up one such site. I only found out about them just before leaving. Thanks to my friend Oindrila Mukherjee – an avid traveller, I can share a few pictures which will demonstrate what a beautiful place I missed not to mention a fantastic photo-opportunity.
Photographs by Oindrila Mukherjee.
The thing is, it’s sometimes okay not to have seen a place in its entirety. For me personally I try to explore for myself as much as I can but then again – I’m the imperfect traveller. These places I’ve missed just make sure that one day I will head back. Because I’ve fallen in love with the land.
Rajasthan limit ends.
For more pictures: Click here.
In this article:
Number of nights: Ankleshwar = 1.
Distance travelled: Udaipur – Akleshwar – Pune = 860 kms.
Motorcycle condition: She survived! We did it. Crank assembly changed, block-piston kit changed, complete engine and mechanical overhaul done.
People I thank:
The Firelords, Pune – A motorcycle owners’ club of sorts.
Nathu ji – Musician.
Mr Madhav Singh Rajpurohit, Staff at Hotel Madhav Paradise.
Mr Hariram Bhopa, Mr Kadam Singh – RTDC, Mr Etienne ‘Suryaneel’ Lauth, Mr Bismillah Khan and troupe, Sultan Bhai – Camel herder, staff at RTDC Moomal.
Mr Pankaj Srivastava – Punjab National Bank, Mr Kishor Kumar – RTDC, staff at RTDC Ghoomar, Bansiraam – folk musician, Mrs Laali Mukherjee.
Mrs Geetam Saxena. Staff at RTDC Sarover – Pushkar.
Mr Ajay Saxena – RTDC. Staff at RTDC Teej.
Manager – RTDC Panna, RTDC staff at the Chittaurgarh fort.
Mr Narayan. Staff at RTDC Kajri.
Some travel for pleasure, some for adventure. Some go for others, I go for me.
Part 7 of Rooh – E – Rajasthan.
To read part 6 – Click here.
To read part 5 – Click here.
To read part 4 – Click here.
To read part 3 – Click here.
To read part 2 – Click here.
To read part 1 – Click here.
Water. Wealth. Wonderful.
An easy and fulfilling ride along the smooth National Highway 76 brought me to the lake City of Rajasthan. Udaipur is a city with an open heart and welcomes everyone inbound with arms wide open. As you roll in, everything is where it needs to be. Even the people are helpful. Udaipur was to be my last stop. On this personal milestone of a trip, Rooh – E – Rajasthan, Udaipur was the last bastion of tourism I was to experience before turning that wheel towards home. It was symbolic of many things, this city of Udaipur.
As far as my motorcycle was concerned, she had gone into what seemed like a trance. She had made peace with her flailing condition and was bashing on regardless. She was surviving the length of the trip after all!
Getting back to the ride, the highway led me straight into the city and almost suddenly I found myself in local city traffic. You know, the kind where the breeze of the highway leaves your side and is replaced by the warmer city air, with that slight tinge of diesel. People on two wheelers are riding to and from work and the three-wheeled tempos are out to take over the world.
This time, my RTDC (Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation) home was a really good one. Well, compared to the rest I’d stayed at. In Udaipur, nothing is cheap. Thanks to RTDC I had awesome accommodation at a manageable price. Otherwise, the good hotels of Udaipur are known to be monumentally expensive.
I settled in, sorted myself for a four night stay and sat down for lunch. This was a busy place, the restaurant was abuzz with travellers, much a contrast from my previous destination Chittaurgarh. Food was laid out on one side with almost every table in the room full to its capacity. This told me something about Udaipur. Either the city is really something, that makes everyone want to be here or it has a pseudo charm like Mount Abu. I was counting on the former, bear in mind, I had seen nothing of Udaipur yet.
After lunch I put in some time and reorganized all my luggage and data. I recharged and cleaned my camera gear for the upcoming five day exposure to Udaipur’s charms.
Come evening, I was hungry to have a look around Udaipur. Kick starting the bike I dove deep into the city. Within 10 minutes, I found myself bang in the middle of the city markets. I took a lot of wrong turns and it took me a while to break into the city’s narrow streets and crowded ethos. I rode towards the famous Lake Pichola, home of the Taj Lake Palace Hotel. The hotel is a white palatial building in the middle of the Lake. Known for its overly luxurious stays and cuisine, any luxury travel mag doing a feature on Rajasthan will have the Taj’s lavish rooms in it.
The Jag Mandir palace.
As I made my way, the city was revealed to me. Udaipur sits amidst the hills and is blessed with lakes between its pockets of population. At the banks of the Lake Pichola, a guide told me some facts about the lake and the hotel. Also, the Jag Mandir palace stood in the middle of the lake. It is essentially a pleasure palace. The kings would treat it as their summer resort or use it for throwing parties. Sadly, on this day, the lake was closed to common folk. Because madam Shakira was to perform for a businessman’s birthday bash which was being held on the Jag Mandir island complex. Preparations were on full swing with rigging crews all over the lake putting up fireworks.
This was my first clue about the reality of Udaipur.
Not being able to get onto the water and photograph the evening Sun was a huge turn off for my excitement. No matter, my guide took me to a place from where he thought I would get a good shot of the lake. It was a garden up on a small hill but the problem was it’s foliage. The trees restricted me from getting a clear shot. Here’s where my second clue about Udaipur came to light. When you’re here, don’t take a guide. The information you are given is sketchy to say the least. Although they mean well, the guides seldom realize themselves that they are wasting a tourist’s time and money actually. I made my way back to my hotel through the various city streets yet again. I wasn’t all that happy to be honest. Hope was that Udaipur would be the cherry on the icing for my trip.
Edge of understanding.
Though there was still a lot to see around Udaipur. Slowly I was realizing that Udaipur was a city of money, for money and probably even run because of money. The class difference was apparent in the tourism of the town itself. Up until now Rajasthan and its destinations had offered to me a lot of substance. Not just history but a lot more to take home in my head. Udaipur, though it has the history if you’re interested, will first give you the golden handshake. This place does not embrace its past, it uses its past.
I managed to reach my hotel just before dusk, called for my tea and started talking to the people at the hotel about the avenues for exploration around here. As I spoke to the hotel staff about the city, everyone from the waiter to the manager agreed with me when I mentioned my first impression. Realizing that I wasn’t all too interested in staring at the city’s facade, everyone gave me suggestions as to what I may like. My waiter gave me the best advice, he told me to head out of Udaipur itself. Soon, I had a plan, an ambiguous one but a direction to head into nonetheless.
The plan went into action that very evening. I head out into the city again, reached one of its star restaurants and found myself a table. This restaurant was touted as one of the best owing to its panoramic view of the Lake Pichola. Just for fun, I won’t tell you the name of the restaurant. Rest assured, some digging on your part when you’re in Udaipur will land you at this waters edge bistro. The prices here are high and the food is ordinary. It’s the view they charge you for.
The Udaipur City Palace and The Taj Lake Palace.
The view was good indeed, one could see the Taj Lake Palace Hotel and the Udaipur City Palace in all their glory and on this night, the lighting for the upcoming concert was being tested – that added major drama to some of my photographs. What an evening it turned out to be! So many people came up to me in this outdoor setting and asked me about most things under the sun. Right from my photography to my travels, even the motorcycle caught their attention. After about an hour of shooting and talking with strangers, I sat down at my table for dinner. Here too, the waiter serving me had his own questions about my journey. He kept me company and made sure there was never a dull moment during dinner. Those of you who actually do manage to find this restaurant, you’ll like the vibe it offers.
I got lost in the city a couple of times while on my way back to the RTDC hotel. It was late and I too took my own sweet time finding my way. There was something about Udaipur which I hadn’t felt in any other city. Being in Udaipur felt like walking on a heavily trodden grassy path which gives way to mud because of the sheer use of its presence. That’s what Udaipur truly felt like to me – an overused city. What caused it to be overused and how, that was still a vague question and I had some time to figure it out.
Night was peaceful and the next morning came with me waking up early and chalking out the days tourism. Udaipur woke me up with a calm caress. Chirping birds and whistling winds made my morning real pleasant. I walked out into my balcony and tried shooting some birds and squirrels, all while sipping on tea.
Good morning Udaipur!
Tea, was now one of the most important things in my life. For that matter, almost every biker/traveller will tell you that tea is what makes the journey that much more awesome. Each cup tastes different, the aroma of the hot golden potion is different in every land. And that my friends is the only second reason a biker stops on the side of the road to take a break. Tea is also sometimes the sole reason for a trip, it’s that important to us motorcycle boys.
Day one: Saas – Bahu Temples.
This day, I booked myself a cab. I wanted to give my motorcycle a little r and r before we made our way back home, a journey of over 800 kilometers. A car arrived and for the first time on this entire trip, I had the luxury of keeping my camera gear off my shoulders. I was paying through my nose for the exclusive cab but I knew, in the long run, it’d be worth it. My first destination were some temples a little distance away from the city of Udaipur. A small village called Nagda was our first stop. The temples, known as Saas – Bahu (or mother-in-law – daughter-in-law) temples, were a rather inspiring place to start off my photography.
Interior of one of the temples.
This temple complex, although small, has the power to get your creative juices flowing. Dedicated to the Lord Vishnu, these medieval buildings inspire intrigue with their mind numbing architecture. The carvings and sculptures here are so very detailed that it’s easy to get lost standing in one spot. Everywhere you look, inside or outside, the place and its intricacies are mesmerizing. It is a peaceful place to spend some time, if you have it.
The temples and the lawns.
The light here is another brilliant companion to any photo maker. Take my word for it, the illumination on the heavily carved stone is almost intoxicating. This was the first place I’d visited and already I wished I’d brought my motorcycle. What pictures I could have made!
You could get lost standing in one spot.
The town of Nagda is also home to a much revered Temple of Eklingji. A place where they don’t let even cellphone cameras inside. A place like that has no room for someone like me I think, so I did not go in. Those with a religious bent might not want to do the same. If you don’t mind heading in without your camera, do go and check it out. To some, this temple complex is an architectural marvel. To me unfortunately, like the Dilwara Temple at Mount Abu, this too had to become a missed destination.
The Eklingji Temple entrance.
From Nagda, my driver and I made our way to the famous Haldighati, a historical battleground. Haldighati is named so because the color of the mud here resembles the color of turmeric, for which the Hindi word is Haldi. This mountain pass was made famous by the battle of Haldighati between Rana Pratap and the Mughal Army of Emperor Akbar. Many a story hail from that very battle but one of the most compelling is the story of Chetak – the king’s horse.
The road to Haldighati.
Chetak was the beloved horse of Rana Pratap. It is this horse which carried an injured Pratap out of the battlefield despite it’s own injured leg. It is said that Chetak displayed unparalleled loyalty to his master and carried him a great distance on his three legs, only after he found that the Maharana was safe did he breath his last. Today, there stands a tomb dedicated to the royal horse, still lending glory to its supreme sacrifice. Known as the Chetak Chabutra or the Chetak Smark, it stands close to a local museum, which is dedicated to the story of Maharana Pratap of Mewar.
The Chetak Chabutra.
This museum, though highly informative, is a very crude rendition of the story of Pratap. If you know the story, I’d suggest you skip the trip here. Go only if you have kids, they might enjoy it.
The Rana Pratap museum.
That was day one. I came back to Udaipur quite tired from all the sight seeing and story studying. In the night I head out into the city to see if there was a place from where I could capture some sort of nightscape. I spent about an hour on the road inside the city but couldn’t find any good spot to set up. To be honest I did get some mediocre shots of the promenade but the city failed to please my senses on this night.
I found myself a posh looking restaurant and settled for dinner. Payed a bomb for some mediocre food and left. Sleept like a log.
Day two: Out of the city again.
This day was to see me heading out of Udaipur again. This is true about Udaipur, there is more to see outside and around the city that inside its limits. Sure you have the Udaipur City Palace and the sound and light show there. There is also a temple up high on a hill near Lake Pichola but that’s about it. You have to head out to really enjoy what Udaipur has to offer. Since I also could not afford the luxuries of a five star and a ‘royal experience’ at one of the poshest hotels in the country, I head out. Again, I had booked myself a cab.
On this day, Mr Narayan – the owner of the cab company volunteered to drive me. He told me that he heard my story from his driver the previous day and wanted to meet me. He said ‘mai har uss aadmi se minla chahata hoon jisse mai kuch seekh sakta hoon’ or ‘I want to meet all the people from whom I can learn something’. I was flattered by this statement of his. Believe you me, our drive towards Kumbhalgarh fort was anything but mundane. Thanks to both our talkative personas, we kept jabbering our way through the afternoon drive.
The drive from Udaipur to Kumbhalgarh Fort revealed to me the green Rajasthan. 70 odd kilometers of country roads show you the agricultural side of Rajasthan. Lined with fields all through the roads to this old fort are a treat, not all that smooth but when you’re in India a road with potholes is just fine. This particular stretch of road is known to wind through some tribal dominated territory. They say one shouldn’t venture out alone all the way to Kumbhalgarh. It is a common practice that groups of vehicles travel in a cavalcade along this route.
Rajasthan and agriculture.
One crosses some hills and forests on the way and the tribals have been known to pelt stones on passing vehicles, amongst other things. Well, Mr Narayan and I were so busy talking that we didn’t even realize that time had flown by and we we staring at the Kumbhalgarh fort in the distance.
It’s stunning. From a distance of about 5 kilometers, you can see the length of the fort wall across the frame of your vision. Amidst green hills and atop one of its own, stands Kumbhalgarh – The sentinel of Mewar.
We reached the fort a little before sunset. This light was perfect for taking pictures. We were also in time for the sound and light show which was held here everyday after sundown. I bought our tickets and we proceeded inside the fort walls.
Slowly our climb began. Mr Narayan and I hired a guide who told us about the fort while we climbed up. I knew nothing about Kumbhalgarh before this day. The only reason I found myself here was that I was advised by my hotel staff to check this place out. Like most forts in Rajasthan, the Kumbhalgarh too was perched atop a hill. They say the walls of this fort stretch for a whole 36 kilometers around the structure! Huge! At vantage points, one can see the Aravalli hills stretch for miles and miles around this fort. Catching your breath is a pleasurable affair atop Kumbhalgarh.
Climbing to the top.
Kumbhalgarh is important. It was built by Rana Kumbha of Mewar, hence the name. Also, this fort was the birthplace of Maharana Pratap, the warrior king of Haldighati fame. Another fact about the Kumbhalgarh fort is that it sits on this hill dividing the kingdoms or Marwar (Jodhpur) and Mewar (Chittaurgarh). The Fort also plays an important role in the formative history of Rajasthan. Kumbhalgarh provided refuge to prince Udai who was smuggled here by Panna Dhai when Chittaurgarh was under siege. Later, Udai took the throne post which he founded the city of Udaipur.
Marwar and Mewar.
Thanks to the long drive from Udaipur, by the time we reached the top of the fort, the sun was just setting. We stayed put for a while and watched the sun go down. It is here that the fort of Kumbhalgarh played an interesting part in my personal journey.
Sunset at Kumbhalgarh.
As I stood atop the highest pavilion and shot the sunset with my camera, a happy group of Israeli tourists joined me. We got talking about my camera and travel, made friends and the rest is history. The sun set and all of us made our way down to the foot of the fort. It was during our little downward trek that my friends and I really connected. It was time now for the sound and light show, I told my new found friends about the show and some of them joined us as we watched.
Sound and light magic.
The sound and light show here starts right after sunset and takes one through Rana Kumbha’s life and trials. As you sit facing the fifteen feet thick fort wall, the fort lights up all the way to the top and keeps one gripped as a voice narrates its history. The stories connects across the sands right from Udaipur to Chittaurgarh and Jaisalmer.
The Kumbhalgarh Fort and the Milky Way galaxy.
After the show, my friends and I decided to meet for dinner back at Udaipur. That sounded like a plan! Though something still needed doing before I left Kumbhalgarh.
Before we left Kumbhalgarh, I still had a couple of shots to get. Mr Narayan knew a spot a little distance from the fort from where he thought I would get my perfect shots. I was taken there and yes! I set up and 30 minutes later, I had my shots. Check them out below.
Kumbhalgarh and its unique stance.
A unique photograph I have to say. The area around the fort is completely unpopulated, hence, there is no stray light here. The dark you see around the fort has not been processed into it. It actually was that dark! The Kumbhalgarh Fort stands out at night like a golden crown atop the Aravalli hills. Beautiful.
The second shot is what I call a mini star trail. Owing to the lack of time, I could not go all out and shoot a longer exposure. Thanks to the threat of leopards and foxes in the dark, we had to get a move on.
The mini star trail, Milky Way lighting up the sky.
Yet again, the drive back saw Mr Narayan and I conversing about the day’s experiences. Everything from my photographic aims to our newly made friends were part of our banter. A pleasant drive reached us back to Udaipur at around 10 pm. I was in the groove this evening, it had been a stellar day. I backed up the shots I had taken and got my gear ready for the next day’s shooting. Soon, I got a call from Amit, my Israeli friend. Our dinner plan was a go. At about 10:30pm I roared out into the Udaipur night.
Finally, all of us had the time to sit back and talk. They were a big group of about 6 to 8 travellers, we got talking. I, for one, was fascinated by Israel and its people – I always had been. I kept throwing question after question at them and they kindly tried replying to each one. I even learnt a little Hebrew! (swear words!) Next morning too, we met up for breakfast and the banter continued. I tried out an Israeli breakfast dish too. Called ‘shakshuka’, it’s made of tomato and a host of other veggies. Thanks to my new friends, I was now considering Israel as my next big travel destination. They have good motorcycles there, a brilliant coastline and I’ll bring my camera. Sounded like the perfect winter destination. Here’s hoping!
Here & now though, plans were being made for the day’s travel at Udaipur. There is so much you can do when you’re in a group I tell you!
Day three: Lake Jaisamand.
We decided we would all head to Jaisamand Lake, a suggestion made by Mr Narayan the previous day. An hour’s drive away from Udaipur city, Jaisamand is by far the most beautiful lake around. It is a huge water body, apparently unpolluted too. It is also Asia’s largest artificial lake, built by Rana Jai Singh of Udaipur.
Our drive to the lake was fun as all of us, including our chauffeur Mr Narayan (again!), were cracking jokes and talking about our travels all along. All the bumps along the road were levelled out by our spirited banter. We reached the banks of the lake a little before sunset, perfect timing if you ask me. Also, all of us were game for a nice, long boat ride across the lake. I too was eager to shoot some portraits of my friends. We negotiated the price for a boat ride with the boatmen and then set off. On the boat, we had along with us a few school children, interestingly, they lived on an island village in the middle of the lake! We wanted to check out the village too and the boatmen obliged us.
Afloat on an artificial lake.
A thirty minute boat ride saw us chug across the pristine waters of the Jaisamand Lake. Everywhere I looked, it was a picture perfect scene. The sun was going down behind the hills as we reached the village.
This was an interesting village, water locked but apparently self sufficient. They had agriculture, dairy, accommodation and satellite TV! What was more interesting though was the fascination with village life visible amongst my fellow travellers. They were loving it.
The light was now slightly lesser and so I started bumping up the ISO in all of my photographs. Grains came and made a nest in my camera’s sensor. The pleasure of being here was so intense though, that I didn’t mind. I was also mindful that we were nearing the end, my Tour-de-Sand was about to finish.
Jaisamand lake is a good place to take pictures all through the day. Even after the sun goes down!
This day was my last day in Udaipur. It was also my last day in Rajasthan because come morning, I would don my helmet and ride out. Ride out of Rajasthan.
Calm waters of the Jaisamand Lake.
We set off again in our red boat, heading back to the shore. It was time for some portraits! The girls were obviously my first choice but the guys were awesome too!
In this photo: Marsim Cassar.
The drive back to Udaipur was calm. The wind was cool, night was dark and our spirits were high. Somewhere inside though, I felt sad. I had already begun saying my goodbyes to this beautiful land in my mind. Every second that I was here, in my head, I was reliving the moments I’d spent in Rajasthan. The dark drive served me well and in the haze of oncoming headlights I was able to zone out and recap the events of the past months escapades. I felt sad about leaving but I felt wonderful about being here. It was only natural, I had spent a month away from home and on the roads of Rajasthan.
In this photo: Friends (L to R) – Amit Maoz, Tsion Abu, Amit Feldman, Lia Hibner, Marsim Cassar.
Back at Udaipur, we dropped everyone and then I was dropped too. I bid goodbye to our trusty Mr Narayan and then head upstairs to pack. The evening wasn’t over though, my friends and I still had to take that one photograph of all of us together and dinner of course! My last night in Udaipur, I head out again. All of us met up and shared dinner and then it was time to leave.
At this point I must mention, Udaipur had been the most unique destination of all the places I’d been to in Rajasthan. The first couple of days were a real turn off for me personally. It felt like it was all about the money in Udaipur and it was. With the countless luxury hotels and everything here revolving around them, I was quite grumpy till I set out for Kumbhalgarh.
Travellers of a feather.
Much like history itself, the Fort of Kumbhalgarh played a vital part in my endeavor too. It was in Kumbhalgarh that I met my new friends, it was there that the turn around took place. Udaipur had gone from being a budget travellers’ disappointment to a motorcycle traveller’s delight. All because of people like Mr Narayan and others who made me feel at home. Once again I realized, not every place is made by its sights. A place is good because of the good people you meet there. I considered myself monumentally lucky as in this lake city, time and money, both have to be on your side. I had some time and not much money but thanks to the people I met, coming here was well worth it.
Near the end here, Udaipur finally did make its way to the top as the perfect end to my time in Rajasthan. I left with a smile.
It’s not over yet!
Read on! – My journey home!
For more pictures from Udaipur: Click here.
In this article:
Number of nights: Udaipur – 4.
Distance travelled: Chittaurgarh – Udaipur – Kumbhalgarh – Udaipur – Jaisamand Lake – Udaipur. = 375 kms.
Motorcycle condition: The real question is, can she survive the ride home?
Next destination: My journey home! (Click here to read)
Part 6 of Rooh – E – Rajasthan.
To read part 5 – Click here.
To read part 4 – Click here.
To read part 3 – Click here.
To read part 2 – Click here.
To read part 1 – Click here.
History, is me.
By the time I reached the outskirts of this underexposed historical town, it was mid afternoon. The sun was right on top and bearing down with all its heat. Turning off the National Highway towards Chittaur was like exiting a party. The moment I was off, the rush of vehicles at high speed vanished. So did the smooth road actually. My first obstacle was a railway crossing. I had been standing there for quite a while waiting for the train to cross. Which it hadn’t, so I dismounted and stretched my legs. The train was nowhere to be seen.
The locals and I got talking. I broke the ice by asking them the way to the RTDC (Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation) Chittaur hotel. They gave me a general direction and then came back with questions of their own. Was my bike a bullet? Where was I coming from? What was I up to? And the most common of them all in India, what mileage did my motorcycle give me?
The train arrived in the midst of our banter as two or three strangers looked my bike over. I was resting against the bonnet of a truck as the cargo train passed the railway barricading ever so slowly. In a minute, I saddled up and got ready for my last little haul into Chitttaurgarh. A full thirteen kilometers of searching, stopping and asking for directions finally brought me to the unassuming gate of the RTDC Panna hotel here. This RTDC hotel looked as barren as the city. It was a Sunday and so all the shops were closed too. A vibe similar to Barmer prevailed over the entire city.
I got myself in to the hotel and settled in. 300 kilometers of highway riding hadn’t exhausted me enough I thought and decided that I might as well take an afternoon round around the city. I was only going to be here three nights so I felt the need to make the most of it. The hotel manager too, had started identifying with my adventurous streak. In his typical small town way, he told me that he was impressed. All over again I was humbled by this strangers’ praise. I realized how many people actually wanted to go out and do something like this but thanks to the rut of life, they didn’t.
My afternoon ride took me through random empty streets of Chittaur. I didn’t really see much. The heat was so oppressive that soon I decided that I’d rather take a nap, recharge myself and then hit the streets with the right verve. I over slept.
The next morning started early, with me heading out early enough to check out the Chittaurgarh Fort. Really the only true reason for me to visit this town. The Chittaurgarh Fort is not only a historical madhouse of information for seekers but also has a lot more to its credit. In terms of sheer size, it is probably the largest single fortified structure in India. As you close in, crossing the river Berach, the scale of this extraordinary building reveals itself. I stopped dead in my tracks, pulled out the camera and tried, in vain, to capture the fort’s length. This was the first time on this trip that I felt out of my depth, photographically. The size of the fort was just too big for my camera and skill. The time of day wasn’t helping either, there was a faint haze blocking the clear view of the fort. I had no choice but to move on into the fort and start exploring.
I rode on up into the fort walls and through the gates, something which I had now gotten used to. Each Rajasthani fort had it’s characteristic entrance gates. In Chittaur however, a paved road led through these gates into the fort premises, I rode my bike all the way into the center of the fort. This fort is at an elevation of about 500 feet from sea level and one can feel the temperature change slightly. At first, I couldn’t figure out what I was to do next. Yes I wanted to see the sights here but I didn’t know where they were. I took a full round of the fort on my motorcycle after which I found a ticket counter which had a map of the fort on it. That’s when I got my bearing. Honestly, I was still overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the structure.
I spoke to the people at the ticket counter for a while. Looking at their expressions I could instantly make out their assumptions about the kind of tourist I was. Three people were really interested in telling me about where the most interesting bits of the fort are and so I listened to them.
The Chittaurgarh Fort:
Apart from its size, this fort has an abundance of stories within its mammoth walls. The fort is believed to be named after the Mauryan ruler Chitrangada Mori. For 800 years, Chittaur was the capital of Mewar and all through that period and beyond, the Rajput warriors of Chittaur painted an unsettling and moving picture. Death before defeat was their resolve. More than a few times this fort has seen defeat in its history. Yet, the lore of the men, women and children who hailed from this land never once fails to inspire awe.
As I spent time in the fort, three stories came up in front of me again and again. The tales of Mirabai, Queen Padmini and Panna Dhai. These were stories which, in a short while, made me realise the importance of Chittaur in Rajasthan’s history.
Mirabai’s time at Chittaur was as the wife of Rana Kumbha. She was a devout follower of Lord Krishna and considered herself to be the wife of Krishna, hence she wasn’t too happy with her marriage. After Rana Kumbha’s death, she completely gave into her devotion to Krishna. She is believed to have spent her last years as a pilgrim at Dwarka but none really know where she disappeared.
The Mirabai temple:
This is a beautiful temple dedicated to the saint-poet. Standing close to the Kirti Stambh, it is one of the most beautiful temples in Chittaur. In the early morning light, the intricate architecture gleams with unparalleled brilliance. Inside the temple, a representation of Meera, praying to her Lord Krishna, has been established.
The Kirti Stambh:
The Mira Temple and Kirti Stambh, in the morning (left) and just before sunset (right).
The Kirti Stambh is a 12th century monument, built by a Jain merchant. It stands close to the Mira Temple and is a beautiful piece of architecture, just like the Mira Temple itself. Both these monuments stand together in perfect accompaniment.
The Rajput men chose to charge out of the walls of this fort into the enemy. Fighting to the last breath, preferring to die fighting than to accept defeat and live a life after surrender. This deeply ingrained Rajput trait leads on to another sorrowfully amazing tale of the women and children of Chittaur. Jauhar.
An ancient Indian practice of divine self immolation, performed by women and children of a particular Rajput clan, in the face of defeat of the defending army. It is often a common assumption that the act of Jauhar involved only the women and children of the kingdom but the truth is that Jauhar involved the Rajput warriors of the army as well. When it was eminent that defeat was inevitable, the women inside the fort performed Jauhar, after which the men charged out into the enemy committing Saka. Preferring to die fighting over enduring defeat.
Dusk over the fort.
At Chittaur, Jauhar was performed a total of three times over it’s history. First by Rani Padmini and then the second by Rani Karnavati and finally the third when Chittaurgarh Fort was besieged by Emperor Akbar.
Rani Padmini and the Padmini Palace:
Queen Padmini was considered the epitome of beauty in her time. Wife of the then commander of the Chittaurgarh Fort, Rana Rawal Ratan Singh, the stories of her beauty had transcended kingdoms. It was inevitable that the lure of her beauty caught the Mughal ruler Allauddin Khilji’s attention. Driven by his lust, he marched towards Chittaur to secure her as his queen.
Here is where an interesting tale begins, Khilji saw the brilliantly guarded Chittaurgarh fort and decided that he would try and acquire Rani Padmini without conflict. Khilji’s army was deterrent enough. He sent a message to the Rana that he considered Padmini his sister and wanted to see her. Looking at the Mughal army, the unsuspecting Rana Rawal Ratan Singh gave in to Khilji’s demand of getting a look at his wife, Queen Padmini. In those times, this was a rather shameful occurrence and hence Khilji was only allowed to see the queen in a mirror. Smitten by her beauty, he decided that he would not leave Chittaur without her as his queen.
Later, when the Rana went upto the outer limits of the fort to see off Khilji, he was arrested by Khilji’s soldiers and held in captivity. Queen Padmini soon got the message that she was now required to leave with Allauddin Khilji as his wife and that her husband was under captivity.
Enraged, she decided she would have none of it. In a brilliant countermeasure to Khilji’s deceit, Rani Padmini and the Rana’s men came up with an ingenious plan. In over a hundred palanquins, hid Rajput warriors, masquerading as the queen’s maids. They made their way to the Mughal army camp and attacked the camp, freed Rana Rawal Ratan Singh and brought him back to the security of the Chittaurgarh fort.
In the ensuing aftermath, Allauddin Khilji’s army laid siege to the fort but could not beat the fort’s defenses. Khilji kept up his unrelenting battle with the Rajput army until the fort’s supplies perished and there was no chance of a victory for the Rajputs of Chittaur. At this juncture, it was decided that the Rajput warriors would commit Saka, they would charge into the enemy and fight until death. Hearing this Queen Padmini and the Rajput women decided to commit Jauhar.
After the battle was over, all that Khilji’s lust driven army found upon entering the Chittaurgarh fort were burnt and charred remains of the women and children of Chittaur.
The Padmini Palace is a white building which still stands today. There are gardens to welcome you as one approaches the main complex. The room with the mirrors, where Allauddin Khilji saw queen Padmini, is open to the public and one can even see those very mirrors, they still hang from the ceiling today.
By far one of the most poignant stories from the land of Chittaur. Panna Dhai’s tale of sacrifice still manages to bring a tear to the eyes of many a mother today.
A 16th century Rajput woman, Panna was the nursemaid to Udai Singh (later, the founder of Udaipur, son of Sangram Singh). The word ‘Dhai’ in her name stands for wet nurse, she had been given charge of Udai Singh from his early childhood.
Chittaur. A historical panorama.
The story begins when Banbir, an exiled cousin of Udai Singh was appointed as regent of the kingdom keeping in light the arrest of Vikramaditya II. Banbir, who considered himself to be the rightful heir to the throne knew the time was right to act. He assassinated Vikramaditya II and was on his way to assassinate the already asleep 14 year old Udai Singh (the Maharana-elect), whose existence was the only barrier between Banbir and the throne of Mewar.
A servant hurriedly informed Panna of Banbir’s doings, Panna understood what Banbir was planning and told the servant to smuggle Udai Singh, the Maharana-elect, out of the Chittaurgarh fort. She instructed the servant to wait for her at a rendezvous point near the river. As the young Udai Singh was taken away from the fort, Panna placed her own son in Udai Singh’s bed and covered him. In time Banbir burst into the room and inquired about Udai Singh, she pointed at the bed where her son lay asleep, only to watch her own son being killed at the hands of Banbir.
Panna left the fort after her son’s hurried cremation and retook charge of Udai Singh from the servant, out by the river. Here began an epic trek for the duo who were only given proper refuge at the fort of Kumbhalgarh. Years later, Maharana Udai Singh went back to Chittaurgarh and assumed the throne.
A heroic feat of sacrifice and loyalty to the throne was showcased by Panna. But for her, the city of Udaipur (later founded by Maharana Udai Singh) would never have existed.
The Vijay Stambh or the Tower of Victory:
This unique structure stands in the midst of some temples at the top of the fort. Built to celebrate victory over the ruler Mahmud Khilji by Rana kumbha, it is intriguing to say the least. The carvings on the inside and out are so very intricate that one can spend minutes just staring at a single part of this nine story tower.
For a fee of INR 5, one is allowed to venture inside the tower. Fair warning, this venture is not suited for people who suffer from claustrophobia. There is no room for two way pedestrian traffic inside. At some points the climb is pretty precarious, especially for me as I was carrying my hefty camera bag on my back. Getting shots was tough and so my trusty ultra wide angle lens came to the fore. Inside the tower, it is dark, dingy and well, stinky. There is constant movement of people and hence the 157 step climb from bottom to top is not all that easy. At the top though a big and windy room awaits you, I can’t say the view is panoramic because it’s blocked by the carvings on the windows but I’d still say it was worth it.
View from the top.
After my descent, I spent the entire evening in the Vijay Stambh complex. The complex is also home to a few other Jain temples apart from the Stambh itself. The complex is also home to the Gaumukh (Hindi for: cow’s mouth) reservoir, this water body is fed by a natural spring, which flows through a carved cow’s mouth in the rocks, hence the name. During the various sieges the Chittaurgarh Fort endured, this water body was the primary source of fresh water for the population.
The GauMukh reservoir and the Vijay Stambh complex.
This complex is also home to numerous Langoor monkeys. If you’re ever bored, just sit down and observe these ultra happy and inquisitive creatures jump around. Keep a close watch on your belongings though!
Sundown with the Langoor monkeys.
Also, this is a brilliant place to watch the sun go down, especially after a hard day’s tourism.
My second day in Chittaurgarh was reserved for riding about inside the fort in the day and the sound and light show in the evening. Early morning went by as I sipped my tea and felt the fresh morning air of this town. Two nights that I had spent here hadn’t revealed much about the town itself.
To me, it felt like all the sacrifice and bloodshed over those olden ages still had some sort of bearing on this place. Chittaurgarh, seemed to me like a stoic town, not reacting to my arrival in any noticeable way. I was here, studying the history as deeply as I could but there was no telling if I was actually learning anything about the place in reality.
This was also a time when I became increasingly introspective. At this point, I had spent more than three weeks on the road. A lot had had happened in my head, with it going through these myriad experiences, thumping across this sandy state. There was no homesickness, there was no longing to get back home. Even though my bike wasn’t in all that great a nick, I felt like I could survive like this for as long as I wanted. I had completely become used to being alone. Meeting and interacting only with strangers.
The making of a true traveller.
It is at times like these that I realize I’m on the right path. I know I’m made for the road, a traveller through and through. Also, someone who would be incomplete without his camera and motorcycle. So many realizations, so little time.
The mango tree above me moved with the breeze, letting a ray of early sunshine dart into my half open eyes. As if to shake me out of my trance of thoughts, the sun’s rays did well to wake me up. This was my second and last day in Chittaurgarh, most had to be made of it. So I geared up and made my way towards the fort. I entered using the same winding road which passes through the gates and reached the top quick.
A view of the city from the fort’s walls.
I still hadn’t been able to properly capture the entire length of the fort from afar. Slowly I was giving up on the idea altogether. For some reason I felt I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the real majesty of this monument. I carried on, the 13 square kilometers that the Chittaurgarh Fort is spread out over, offer a lot of space for someone who just wants to experience peace. Birds will chirp, the sun will rise, the temperature will go up and the occasional cow will moo, that’s about it. There is also an abundance of greenery up here and all over the fort, a nice contrast to the image of Rajasthan I should say.
Oh, it’s green.
The people of Chittaurgarh too had been nice to me. I was welcomed well by my RTDC caretakers and even in the town while asking directions and sipping on roadside chai, people had been polite. It had become a characteristic of the people of Rajasthan, there had not been one incident as yet on this entire trip where I’d felt I was being taken for a ride, so to speak. The cities and roads of Rajasthan had become my home and I was happy.
Chai on a Chittaur street.
Even on this day as I rode my motorcycle nonchalantly around the fort premises, I felt like I was a part of this place. An unnoticeable speck in the span of the history of this fort. Still, this place grounded me like no other I’ve ever been to. I could relate to the tales of valour, heroism and sacrifice here. The vast plains that stretched out behind the fort looked to me like chalk slates, where each ruler came and wrote his own piece over the previous one’s.
Chalk slate of Chittaur.
It was strangely beautiful, the way even the air here felt like it had a touch of the past.
Coming back to being the tourist, I had bought my ticket for the sound and light show this evening. I already knew most of what there is to know about Chittaurgarh but I felt the sound and light compilation would be a good opportunity to learn more as well as a relaxing way to spend my last evening.
Here, at Chittaurgarh, the sound and light show is managed and run by RTDC itself. Don’t be surprised if you find the goings on a little laid back. They will wait till there are at least 25 people in the stands to start the show. I find this small town bending of the rules pretty amusing, really.
Light, sound and action!
The hour long show was just perfect. All the history I had learnt about Chittaur in the past two days got woven into a fine thread. The timelines became clearer in my head. And once again, the heroism of this quaint land touched me. It’s strange that sometimes I feel I should have been born in those years to experience the history first hand. Who knows, maybe I was. I’d miss my motorcycle though!
By far the most compelling part of my time in Chittaur was when I asked the sound and light show operator a simple question. My question to him was ‘You watch this show everyday of your life, do you still like it?’ A Rajput himself, he came back with a simple reply. He said ‘Sir, I’m a Rajput. Each day while I watch this show from behind, a tear escapes my eyes and my chest fills with pride. Every time, everyday.’
And you know what, I felt what he said to me word for word. Somehow I could relate to him.
The show got over and soon the same would happen to my time in Chittaurgarh. I promised myself I would come back. For now though, Udaipur was my next port of call. A very short 115 kilometer ride was ahead of me.
Early next morning, as usual, I geared up and said my goodbyes to the RTDC friends I had made here and left. These short two days had been good. The true embrace of Rajasthan had started to take hold over me. After spending more than three weeks on the road in this state, I had found my comfort zone. I was excited thinking about what Udaipur held in store for me.
The motorcycle was straining to go beyond 100 km/h on the 100 kilometer long National Highway 76 to Udaipur but I was determined to push her. I kept the throttle jammed open all through, stopping only twice, once for a quick breakfast and the second to take a leak on the side of the road like a traditional Indian traveller. The bike was hanging in there, for the first time since Jodhpur, I felt she could pull through for the remainder of the trip. I was still keeping my fingers crossed though. I had started respecting my motorcycle’s resolve too, she deserved it.
Gaining on Udaipur!
This short 3 hour ride was filled mostly with me thinking about what Udaipur was going to be like. Udaipur is known for its luxury and well, I had been saving up all along. I couldn’t wait to get there!
For more pictures from Chittaur, Click here.
In this article:
Number of nights: Chittaurgarh – 3.
Distance travelled: Jaipur – Chittaurgarh = 320 kms.
Motorcycle condition: Misfires, slight over heating, engine noise (crank issues). She’s got guts carrying on like this! Salute!
Next destination: Udaipur, Rajasthan. (Click here to read)
Part 4 of Rooh – E – Rajasthan.
To read part 3 – Click here.
To read part 2 – Click here.
To read part 1 – Click here.
Too many thoughts spoil the broth.
My arrival at Ajmer was a little unsettling. The approach road towards Ajmer once one turns off the highway was really not a road. It was a proper sand trail where cars and trucks crawling at a snail’s pace were kicking up walls of dust. And I thought I had left the sand behind! Controlling the motorcycle on this track, where the sand was half a foot deep and with everyone on the trail looking at me was not easy. I had no choice but to ride behind these vehicles and breathe occasionally. If I said it was hot that morning, I’d be lying, it was scorching!
Ridin’ to the Aravallis!
I had more than a few preconceived notions about Ajmer. I had heard a lot about this city. Everyone told me not to miss the Dargah Sharif and the Annasagar Lake. Also, the holy town of Pushkar was just a breath away. Even the Pushkar fair was well under way as I reached Ajmer. Ajmer was also my mother’s birthplace. I was hoping this city would stimulate and motivate me after my time in Jodhpur.
In Ajmer, I was staying with relatives. People who I knew, people who I liked. People, who liked me. These were people who appreciated what I was doing and even commended me on my resolve to go it alone. Reassuring to say the least, this praise coming from the people who I know and now thank.
The city of Ajmer lies off the National Highway 8, some 140 kilometers before Jaipur, one of the longest and smoothest stretches of road India and Rajasthan have to offer. I reached Ajmer fairly early; the desert heat here was more intense compared to any other city or town I had been to yet. At 11 in the morning, to my central Indian soul, it felt like it was afternoon in peak summer. All my water was over as I entered the city. I reached the city center and restocked when my uncle came to pick me up, he showed me the way to their home which would be my base for the next few days.
After my dismount from the bike, a refreshing bath and a nap later, I head out onto the streets of this of this city, which is really a town if you know what I mean. The roads here are a mix of broad and narrow, Ajmer was designed to fit the description of a ‘sleepy’ town. Near the railway station, it’s a snail’s rally at any time of the day. Head to the lake though and it’s mostly a breeze driving or riding on the road alongside the famous Annasagar lake.
When it comes to food, there is really only one place you need to head to. Forget about non-vegetarian grub, just head to the ‘Gol Piyau’ and treat yourself to some amazing north Indian chaat. ‘Chaat’ is the Indian answer to all your non meal time cravings. One plate of aaloo tikki (a kind of potato cutlet) is enough to keep you going for a while. Even the samosa chaat which they serve with a mixture of spices and a curry called ‘kadhi’ is divine. Mind you, all this only if you can battle the crowd and get to the counter!
Grub and grubbers at the Gol Piyau, Ajmer.
Here in Ajmer, I could not stop myself from trying out the ‘pani puri’ on a road side pushcart. It is a quintessentially Indian personality trait!
These little pockets of punch are really what the doctor ordered, if you’re the kind who likes to take a little risk with your tummy. Spicy, tangy and wholesome pockets of fried pastry, stuffed with savoury potato mash and spiced water. If the spice is too much for your palate, ask for the sweet version, close your eyes and chomp. It is brilliant, take my word for it.
I spent my evening chit-chatting with relatives, basically relaxing and getting in early. I was still confused, how I should go about exploring the two cities of Ajmer and Pushkar was a blur even now.
Day two in Ajmer.
The holy town of Pushkar was just 12 kilometres away from down town Ajmer. The Pushkar fair had started just a couple of days before my arrival and there was no way I was going to miss it.
On this day, I woke up to the clicks of my cameras taking a time-lapse of the sunrise over the Aravalli ranges. Early mornings in Ajmer are chilly to say the least, quiet and peaceful too. During the night, amidst falling in and out of sleep, I had decided that I will head to Pushkar and take a look around. Everyone raves about this place for abundant reasons and hence my curiosity coupled with excitement got the better of me.
The motorcycle ride from Ajmer to Pushkar was an interesting one. It was only 12 kilometers but even in that less a distance one gets the feeling of change. The feeling of being in a city changes to make you feel like you’re in a holy town. And you are! I reached Pushkar late in the morning and spent the entire day just gauging the fair or ‘mela’ as it is known in Hindi. Getting a feel for Pushkar turned out to be easier than expected. The holy town of Pushkar wasn’t all religion religion religion, thankfully. Here and now, during the Pushkar Mela there was a lot more going on.
Let’s go see Pushkar!
In the 8 hours I spent in Pushkar on this day, I could understand two things. The odours here were the real story tellers and that this place was less a cattle fair, more a lens-men (and women) extravaganza. Let’s start with the former.
Not your ordinary fare.
Day 1, Pushkar:
No matter where you hail from, you will find your palate struggling to keep up with the taste of the air here. From temple smells to the mid day warm air at the stadium, you’re in for an experience of sorts. A background of cow/camel/horse dung, a spattering of diesel fumes, some fruits and chai and a garnish of sand makes up the air here. Don’t be surprised if you can smell someone smoking weed here. Well, if you’re surprised, you won’t know its weed. Pushkar is not for the faint hearted traveller.
The stadium is where the action is, mostly. Apart from the perpetual cattle fair, loitering camels, pushcarts, chaiwallahs and the occasional hot air balloon, this place is also a playground for women and men with big lenses. Especially inside the stadium, one can feel the photography. Hundreds of people can be seen attacking subjects in aggressive stances as if they were actually holding them to ransom. Or maybe it’s the other way round, the moment you click a holy man’s photo, don’t be surprised if he asks you for some money. Though the businessman in me did think, if someone started a camera equipment store here in Pushkar, they’d mint money!
Mine is bigger!
If you’re hungry in Pushkar, there are many options, sort of. Let me explain. There are umpteen stalls selling freshly fried samosas and kachauris all through the day. There are also a number of juice stalls and food huts et al. So, where’s the problem? Hygiene – In this holy town, that’s your problem. When I first arrived and finished my recce, I deduced, even my hardened stomach may not be able to take the sheer dust content in that food. The best thing to do when in doubt about food is to eat fruit. Bananas are a saviour in most situations and so I picked up a sixpack and gorged away from hungerville.
To food or not to?
Coming to Pushkar and going back to Ajmer every night wasn’t going to make sense. So, I booked my RTDC hotel room here for the next night and head back to Ajmer. That evening I was in the mood to indulge myself and thought of that as the right opportunity to check out the night life of the city. Well guess what, there isn’t one! After 10 pm, Ajmer seems like it’s a town under curfew. In fact, I was lucky I even got food at that hour! Phew!
Day 2 Pushkar:
On this morning, I woke up before dawn and packed up my stuff. No matter how many times you have done it, getting out of bed that early is always a fight against the urge to go back to sleep. All loaded up, I left from Ajmer at 5am and reached Pushkar at 5:15. Yet again, the same 12 kilometer ride had a profound effect. The chilled morning wind worked well to refresh my head and my spirit. The temperature was really low at that time of the morning which brought home another realisation. The motorcycle. The cold start meant she was sounding even more roughed out than what she actually was. As we climbed down the hill on the way to Pushkar though, her beat became smooth. The calm and quiet of this early morning was only dotted with the sweet sound of my Enfield’s exhaust note.
It was apparent that people here were early risers….or really late sleepers. The roadside stalls had already started making the first of many rounds of tea for the day. Even the cows were being milked by the side of the road and the holy men were making their way to the lake for their morning dip. Dawn had cast itself over Pushkar. The faint blue of the early morning sky melted into the dark of Pushkar streets, the small light bulbs of stalls and shops did their best to punctuate the serenity with their colours, like a small company of soldiers trying to fight the dark till reinforcements arrived in the form of the sun’s light.
Good Morning Pushkar.
The ‘aarti’ or prayer of the morning had begun echoing all over. The kirtan at the Gurudwara could also be heard now. Even the mosque had begun its first reading for the day. I reached the RTDC hotel here and dumped my stuff, took my camera gear and head out. Now, the real reason for me to come this early to Pushkar was the hot air balloon show. Yes. Big balloons filled with hot air would be flying all over this town and it’s surrounding hills and I was not going to miss it, not for the world! I am still a child when it comes to such things.
View from the bedroom!
At around 6am the hot air balloons lined the sand at the stadium and slowly got ready for take-off. This was the first time I observed the goings on behind each balloon launch. Quite interesting for a techno – motorhead like me. The sounds of huge fans and the intermittent blows of hot flames into the balloons were hard to miss. Plus the conversations with balloon pilots made my being here even more interesting. Sadly, I could not afford to fly aboard one of these friendly beasts but still, I spent close to two hours just recording and photographing the goings on behind ballooning.
These balloons are mostly operated by German and British companies who are specially invited to perform here. A joyride on one of these will set you back about 10 grand Indian. One by one the colourful balloons stood up and took to the sky as others took their place on the stadium sands. It is a sight to behold I must confess. The sun came up and the balloons flew away, the excitement of the morning was still in me. I sat down under some shade and checked out my shots whilst sipping on some chai.
As the day moved on, hour after hour of games and processions took center stage. The wrestling and the Kabbaddi competitions are by far some of the most interesting games played here as teams are formed with locals and foreign nationals pitching themselves against each other. What really caught my attention here was the moustache competition. Oh yes, this is where Rajasthani men come into their own. If there is one thing you ask any Indian to visualize about Rajasthan, it will be their moustaches.
Kabbaddi, action packed!
This time there were five participants in all but only two were true contenders. Both had a personality which was unmatchable! The contestants lined up as a huge crowd gathered to watch this unique competition. The gentleman who won had a moustache 10feet long from one end to the other! Whoa!
A long moustache and a personality to match!
There was also a game called ‘Ghota Dhari’ being played here. Looked much like hockey being played in sand actually. Furthermore, another whacky and witty sport was the turban tying competition. Basically for foreigners who wanted to showcase their turban tying prowess.
Ghota Dhari and tying the turban!
There is also a very popular temple here in Pushkar. Dedicated to Lord Bhrama, it is hailed to be the only one in the world. One can’t be too sure about that but this one is definitely the most popular Bhrama Temple in the world. There is an interesting story behind there being only one Bhrama temple in the world. Folklore says that Lord Bhrama’s wife saw Gayatri (a woman Bhrama married to complete a religious practice known as Yagna) sitting next to him in her place and cursed him. The curse entailed that no worship would be offered to him anywhere else in the world and hence the exclusivity of this Bhrama temple. Well that’s as far as the story goes in my opinion. The temple is said to be about two thousand years old and is run by Gurjar Sanyasis.
The Maha Aarti.
The streets of Pushkar during the fair are narrow. Lined by pushcarts or stalls selling a variety of things, during the day and the evening there is rarely any place to walk. It is advisable to find a safe parking spot for your vehicle and head out on foot. At any RTDC (Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation) tourist information kiosk here, you can ask for a pamphlet with the fair schedule. Once you have that, you will know when and where the interesting events are going to take place. I spent the time in between competitions and games strolling around the markets and checking out the animals here on sale. Because that’s what the Pushkar fair is really about. Cattle.
Street market, Pushkar.
A cattle auction – That is what the Pushkar fair originally started out as. This year, a horse was sold for 12 million INR. The scene is, various stud farms and camel breeders put up their tents and showcase their best specimens which are mostly for sale. Buyers horde the town during the first two days of the fair and pick up whatever animal they like. The animals, be it horses, camel or even goat and sheep then get taken for meat or for production of wool etc. Some horses even make it into races and camels of course, get down to doing what camels do in Rajasthan, ferry tourists around.
The evenings here, if spent around the Pushkar lake are serene and calm. They say the Pushkar lake is a special one. Replenished only by rain water it is considered to be holy. It is a man made lake. It is also not very hygienic as it is not drained by any river, yet it is said that no one has ever fallen sick by taking a dip or using its water here. One doesn’t know how much truth there is to that lore though. Thanks to my RTDC abode, I had a panoramic view of the lake which served as a beautiful vantage point for the evening’s photography.
Panoramic night view of the Pushkar Lake.
I set up one camera for a time-lapse and with the other I stood on the two story high ledge over the lake taking pot shots at every subject I could find. As the sun went down, for the first time on this trip, I got some alone time to sit back and think about the past few days of travel. From my home in Maharashtra I had ridden my bike all across the western desert towns and crossed over to the eastern side of Rajasthan.
Pot shot 1.
Ajmer as a city hadn’t offered much but Pushkar I think had made up for it. I had only spent one proper day here but I guess to my mind, that was enough. My Pushkar tenure ended here. After this point, the more developed towns were on my checklist, Jaipur, Udaipur and Chittaurgarh. This was the half way mark. I gave myself a pat on the back.
Pot shot 2. The Gurudwara at Pushkar.
My mind was still racing about whether or not to give Ajmer one more day of my time.
The next morning I was back at Ajmer and wondering what to do. There were a couple of tourist interests here which were pending but for some reason, I wasn’t too interested or motivated if you will. I decided that I would head to Jaipur the same day, since it was just a 3 hour ride away. I freshened up, loaded up and said my goodbyes.
I started riding towards Jaipur at 3pm that very day, I couldn’t wait to see what was in store for me at the capital of Rajasthan!
Just an hour had passed since I left Ajmer and suddenly I knew why I had left so early. There are things that happen which make one realise how all that happens is interrelated. Speeding down the smooth highway, I saw a huge herd of camels walking on the side of the road. Right there was a photo opportunity which sparked my next move. Twisting the throttle further I gained more speed and then stopped a little ahead of the camel herd.
I whipped out the camera and excited as a puppy, got ready to try and shoot the photograph I had in mind. The camels came and walked past my motorcycle, I clicked each second that they were in the vicinity. As they walked away, I wondered whether my timing was good enough. Beads of sweat dripped down my face as I frantically got back to my bike under the warm afternoon sun. I stuffed the camera inside and started the bike again.
Look what I got!
I was to have lunch on my way. That was the perfect idea! One thing us Indians love about our country is the highway ‘Dhabas’ or rustic eateries. The highway to Jaipur is a six lane road and is trouble free for the most part. Half way to Jaipur came a place called Dudu, a small town on the side of the highway. It was about 4:30 in the evening and the sun had turned golden, it was time to stop for lunch. Also, I could not wait to sit down calmly and check out my recent photographic endeavor. I ordered my grub and slowly went about checking the shots I had taken.
Sure enough, I had got my shot! That perfect shot with the camels surrounding my motorcycle was now mine. This photograph characterised my ride through Rajasthan the best. The road, the ride and Rajasthan, all in one photograph. Perfect. I would never have got this shot if I had stayed back at Ajmer.
The final shot.
Back to the food, two of the most spicy aaloo ka paranthas was what I ordered. So spicy were they that by the end of eating them I was sweating profusely. To my surprise, the spice not only cleared my palate of any culinary response but also flushed my head of the thoughts that had bundled up during my time in Ajmer. Sometimes I think my head is like a motorcycle’s air filter, one has to keep ‘servicing’ it for the performance to be good.
Jaipur it is!
The ride to Jaipur was smooth barring the knock knock games my bike and I were playing along the way. The soft evening sunlight was the perfect riding companion. Even my motorcycle took its state in its stride and soldiered on. It wasn’t like I was being soft on her either, on empty straights I’d often max out the throttle and she would respond well enough. This stretch was quick to end, I reached Jaipur with another hour of riding under my belt.
For more pictures from Pushkar, Click here.
In this article:
Number of nights: Ajmer – 2, Pushkar – 1. Total = 3.
Distance travelled: Jodhpur – Ajmer = 200 kms. Ajmer – Pushkar = 12 kms. Total = 212 kms.
Motorcycle condition: Occasional misfires, breakdown imminent (crank issues) though she’s still hanging in there.
Next destination: Jaipur, Rajasthan. (Click here to read)
Part 3 of Rooh – E – Rajasthan.
To read part 2 – Click here.
To read part 1 – Click here.
I turned off National Highway 114 and entered Jodhpur at what felt like the peak hour of traffic here. It was now noon. My dash from Jaisalmer had turned into an easy riding session most of the way. Jodhpur looked like a greeting card of commotion which was unfolding just as the bike and I rolled in. I learnt early that in this town, dust had the right of way and so did the oddly shaped black and yellow rickshaws. In a way this was a rude reminder of my dispatch from the calm caress of Jaisalmer. I caught myself thinking “I got a bad feelin’ ’bout this” (the way Will Smith would say it). The mid day heat was harsh, coupled with the dwindling dare of my motorcycle’s smooth run, I was crossing my fingers about Jodhpur.
I had to shake off all apprehensions as I rode towards my new RTDC (Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation) home. The wheels of the bike crawled through the traffic as I finally broke free onto one of Jodhpur’s broad roads which led to the High court. Just as the city breeze started playing with the beads of sweat forming on my forehead, I reached my hotel for this city. RTDC’s Hotel Ghoomar was now my home for the next few days.
This RTDC Hotel was brilliantly located, right in the middle of Jodhpur. The receptionist, a Mister Kishore Kumar, had one heck of a sense of humor. I was welcomed with an open heart I have to say. Mr Kumar had quite an interest in photography too and that’s where we hit it off. After settling myself, Kishore ji and I spent quite a while discussing where in Jodhpur may one find good photo opportunities. The hotel itself, was decent enough. Thankfully, the RTDC has quite a few tariff categories, suited to almost any pocket.
Hotel Ghoomar and the rickshaws of Jodhpur.
Jodhpur was to be a long stopover, I knew people here. One of my Army friend’s family was stationed here. An uncle of mine was also in Jodhpur. Plus, most important, the Marauder was to get its all-important servicing done. She had come a long way since we first left on that chilled early morning from Pune. Dinner was to be had with uncle and the evening was spent looking at pictures I had clicked on my journey so far. This of course, was my first whiff of home food after Barmer. For some strange reason though, I felt, Jodhpur had an unsettling vibe to it. Unlike Barmer, Jaisalmer and even Mount Abu with their oozing positivity, Jodhpur was more a place where life as we know existed. It was a normal city, in a desperate rush to get ahead of its own self, trying to conquer time.
The bustle of the city woke me up the next morning. I sat in bed sipping on tea, looking at the curtain on the window play games with the sun’s light. Unlike other mornings, today there was no riding or photography to be done. The day would be dedicated to spending quality time with my motorcycle. This was a rest day. First, I made numerous phone calls trying to scout for an authorised mechanic here and found one. Then came the task of actually reaching the workshop in this new city. Now this is the part I love, deliberately getting lost in a city I know nothing about. Lanes, by lanes, small roads and big roads. Stopping every kilometer to ask people directions for the place I want to go to and then from being hopelessly lost to reaching my destination. This was my way of breaking the ice with Jodhpur. The hungry me stopped at one of the sweet shops and hogged on some local samosa/kachauri variants. In Jodhpur, it’s easier to find a ‘halwai’ or sweetmaker than trying to find a restaurant to eat food.
Breaking the ice.
Ismail bhai, an authorised Royal Enfield mechanic on Chowpasni road, gave my motorcycle a once over. According to him nothing was wrong with the engine but I knew better. There was a piston slap which was more than audible. Having said that, I didn’t want him poking his spanner in places he didn’t seem to know much about. So the bike just got some routine maintenance done. The breaks got cleaned and adjusted, the air filter was cleaned and the chain was oiled and adjusted. At such garages, which are dedicated to the Enfield, more often than not, one finds other motorcycle owners with a passion for the ride. Conversations with other bullet owners here were about our bikes and where I was coming from and where I was planning to go. Suggestions, route directions and warnings were all part of our banter. When I told people about what I was doing, most people would respond with a puzzled gaze. The ‘What is this guy up to?’ kind of a look. I find that amusing and it always brings a smile to my face.
To know that some people out there actually think something like this can’t even be done and for me to be doing it, that’s a gift I cherish dearly.
About three hours later, I scouted for a place to have lunch. Strangely, the crowded streets around Chowpasni road weren’t home to any interesting eat outs, apart from your odd ‘halwaai’ of course. So I went back to my hotel and had a very simple Dal and Chawal.
The afternoons in Jodhpur are hot, even in November. The tourist inside me was aching to go out and check out the sights but I wanted to take it slow. When on such trips, it is often easy for someone to try and get ahead of one’s self in the excitement. Which in turn leaves you tired and unmotivated when it matters the most, a bit like a marathon. You have to pace yourself all the time. Self motivation is key to surviving the length of such a trip. More than half the trip stood in front of my motorcycle and me, I kept telling myself to persevere.
Tea time again, sitting in the garden, I looked up at the sky. A strange haze of cloudy fume had cast itself over the evening, like a message written in cloud, telling me to stay in and not tire myself out. It was time for a reality check. I was worried about my motorcycle, as she hadn’t got the service I felt she needed. She talks to me, this motorcycle. Each other is all we have on such endeavours. I would spend at least ten minutes every day making sure everything was in order with her. I like to believe that she understands me. Because boy, when she talks, I have to listen. Just by the beat of the engine I understand what her mood is like. How the engine sounds tells me whether or not she is feeling up to it. At this point, I knew she was not in great nick. Right from Barmer, there was a faint change in the way the engine sounded. The metallic clang had increased ever so slightly as we covered more distances over the desert state. I did not know if she could stand by me throughout the trip.
Haze over Jodhpur.
All that thought didn’t mean a change in plan was in order, no.
Day three in Jodhpur and it was time to see what this city had in store for its tourist. The Mehrangarh Fort was one of the most imposing forts I had seen till date. It is difficult to spot from within the city as the buildings crowd the view but once you are on the hill road heading to the fort, the view is awe inducing. It almost catches you off guard, the Mehrangarh is that huge.
The Mehrangarh Fort, overlooking the city.
Thanks to my uncle, the fort authorities had been informed about my arrival. The moment I reached the entrance I was ushered through the crowd and given a complimentary pass to the interiors of this mega matrix of pathways, history and well, blatant robbery of a tourist’s time. Not for a moment will I say that the fort does not match up to what it promises. No, the place is brilliant and the history is more than intriguing but it is the way such places are managed and run in India these days. It felt like a dirty quest for money was the driving force behind allowing the common man access inside these walls. There was even a Rupee 20 charge to use the elevator. The security personnel at this fort, behaved as if they were doing a favour to the guest/tourist who dared to venture inside after paying for her/his ticket.
A strange rule prevented me from putting up a tripod anywhere inside the fort’s premises. This anti-tripod rule will chase you through many monuments in India. When questioned, the authorities told me that it is to prevent professional photography and videography but then again, you can tot a camera or a handy-cam all you want. They say one needs special permission to be able to put up a tripod and shoot, also, money needs to be paid to the fort management if you wish to shoot with a tripod. Wow! What a lovely explanation for such a nonsensical rule. Apart from the outright fleecing going on these days at such so called tourism savvy monuments, these regulations are made by people who have no real idea of the on ground situation or even knowledge of photography. Most professionals can shoot as well or better without a tripod or ‘stand’ as these people call it.
View from the courtyard.
This fort was mighty beautiful, from inside and out. As one reaches the main courtyard, one can see the blue city stretching out in front of the fort. When touring the insides, I noticed that sunlight had a special relationship with this monument’s architecture. At almost every arched entrance that you walk through, fresh rays of sunlight will rain down on you. Some of the Darbans or doormen may even pose for your camera if you ask them.
Romancing the Sun.
Inside, the brilliance in gold work will leave one gasping as you come to terms with the sheer scale of art and craft which is a part of every single royal expanse here. From regular rooms to August darbars, inside the palaces, stories keep one engaged all through. More than just a visual delight, the Mehrangarh with its history and tourism centric ethos gives the thinking traveller a run for his or her money. Quite literally.
Another interest inducing sight are the cannons which are kept on top of the broad fort walls. The importance of which is undermined by the tourist himself as you will see people climbing on top of the cannons or sitting on them.
A Mehrangarh cannon.
The most intriguing story here goes back to the time the construction of the Mehrangarh fort began. The hill on which it was built was known as the hill of birds. A hermit known as the lord of the birds used to stay on this hill and when he was forced to move because of the construction of the fort, he cursed the kingdom. His curse prevented the kingdom from ever having adequate water. To this day they say that the areas in and around Jodhpur suffer from drought once every four to five years. The stories also say that Jodha the ruler tried to appease the hermits’ curse by burying a man alive in the foundations of the fort. (The man) Rajiya’s family was looked after by the kingdom of Rathores.
Built on the hill of birds.
I must also mention that most of the fort is actually cordoned off for general public, entry is prohibited. Why? I have no idea. So much contrast between the past and the present allied to the less than ordinary experience of the fort interiors had left a sad impression of this place on my mind. Even though I was given free entry and treated with residual decency, what was actually happening here was for everyone to see. Money rules the roost here, take my word for it. After eating a kathi roll at the Mehrangarh café (the fort run restaurant) and paying 170 INR for it, I left.
Kathi roll and the Cafe’ Mehran.
Next on my monuments list was the Jaswant Thada. A building situated very close to the Mehrangarh fort and one of much aesthetic and historical importance. A mausoleum, the Jaswant Thada is a beautiful sight. The word mausoleum usually brings up visions of negativity and of life ending circumstances but this building induced quite the opposite sensation. Take off your shoes and walk on the grass here. Clutch the fence and look at the city of Jodhpur stretching out in front of your eyes right up till the horizon. Turn around to see the pale marble monument standing in the middle of the gardens with a spirit as crisp as the kings of yore.
The Jaswant Thada.
If that’s not enough, lend your ears to Bansiram. An old fellow of tradition. Let him welcome you with his voice, singing to you what he likes and what your ears would like to hear. Mark my words, this man has a voice which can challenge even the most honed vocals. Sitting in the courtyard of the mausoleum, Bansiram makes a living off of tips and adulation from passing tourists.
The Jaswant Thada was built by a certain Sardar Singh in the memory of Raja Jaswant Singh the second. One climbs the only flight of stairs and the aura of the building takes hold. The marble used to build this monument exudes a warm caress as the sun’s light falls on it. Those contortions which formed in my brain after the visit to the fort had now been levelled by the peace here at the Jaswant Thada.
Peace at the Jaswant Thada.
One last time, I skimmed the surface of the greens with my palm and moved on to the next palace of call.
Umaid Bhavan Palace. It is the residence of the royal family of Jodhpur and also a hotel managed by the Taj Hotels group. If you’re staying at the palace hotel, well, congratulations. If not, then you may not like this place very much. More than a sight to see, this place or palace is a cordoned off monument for the public. From 9am to 5pm every day, regulars can enter through one of the side entrances and walk to the museum. On your walk, you will get a side view of the palace.
The palace side view.
The museum showcases the history of the palace and its various owners. Photographs of the kings and princes in their prime are put up on all the walls. Plus, you can see all what you can’t see. What I mean is, you can see pictures and sketches of the layout of the palace, places where a tourist can’t go. Sad.
They have some lovely old world cars on display though. Which, let’s be honest, adds little to the experience of Rajasthan.
What the peaceful mausoleum had given, the palace took away. I was not liking Jodhpur, really. Day one to day three, not one moment here had inspired me. Not one instant had passed where I said to myself ‘this is it’. It was almost evening as I came out of the palace premises and started heading back to the area where my hotel was, uninterested in everything. I was trying to think of a way to turn the situation around. I wanted to try and put a finger on the pulse of Jodhpur, for what it really is. Instead of turning towards the hotel, I was taken to the clock tower or ghanta ghar. At this time, early in the evening, the place was choc a block with people, auto rickshaws and vehicles. It was the older part of Jodhpur.
Ghanta Ghar (Clock tower)
I walked around a bit and ventured into narrow lanes behind the main market. I saw what I call the band district. Shop after shop of local brass bands that play at not so big fat Indian weddings and during baraats lined one side of the lane. The other side was a brick wall punctuated with the bands’ colourful carriages. This was a little refreshing. Honest.
From here, I went back out into the city and gave the Mandore Gardens a span of my attention. These gardens are home to beautiful old temples which stand amidst filthy and unclean environs. The stench here is close to chronic. These gardens lie in neglect, sure, but the ancient temples overpower that repulsive feeling one gets in the gut at such a place. It’s almost as if the charm of the architecture and the history is more influential here than at the Mehrangarh fort. I spent quite a while taking pictures here. I didn’t know much about the temples or even the importance of Mandore as a place but as I now read up, it is obvious that Mandore is as important as Jodhpur itself. The ancient city of Mandore has been the capital of many kingdoms in its hay day. The stories here rekindle intrigue.
Gardens in neglect, Mandore.
For me though, it was time to call it a day or so I thought. On the way back, this time my driver and I spotted a jeep full of goats being taken somewhere. We decided to follow them, just out of curiosity. Guess where we landed up? To an auction of goats! As this was the eve of Bakr id, there was a goat auction being conducted somewhere deep inside the maze of old city lanes. There were 100s of goats being put up for auction. The trading of livestock was part of an ongoing tradition here. As I inquired, the most expensive goat had sold for a hundred and fifty thousand rupees (Whoa!).
An auction with a difference!
However tumultuous, this rather interesting day had finally come to an end.
I was to spend the next day socializing and preparing for the upcoming ride to Ajmer and Pushkar. But before I started packing there was a photograph to be taken. Starting with tea at 5am in the morning, I shot out of my room a little before 6 to try and shoot the sun rising over the Palace. I had a particular shot in my head and I wanted to get it as today was my last day in Jodhpur. I rode swiftly through the cold morning wind towards the fort; this route was now imprinted in my head. I reached the fort with dawn cracking over the blue mosaic of Jodhpur. I was in the Mehrangarh fort parking lot, since this point had a magnificent view of the city. I was hoping against hope to find the sun rising just behind the Umaid Bhavan Palace in the distance. I got ready with my gear with the sun still a while away from rising over the horizon.
Perched up top above this puzzling city I looked at how each morning in Jodhpur must be. The sounds of the morning were the same as anywhere else. Squeaking doors, occasional grunts of a diesel engine in the distance, a train blowing its trumpet as it left the railway station and of course the tens of birds which call the fort walls their home. This seemed like the peaceful side of the Jodhpur coin. Well, relatively.
Good morning Jodhpur!
The build up to the sunrise was happening. There were more people out on the streets in their walking shoes now, the sky had turned an orange-ish yellow shade and the horizon was lit up for the suns arrival. The sun came and rose like it does every day but sadly not from behind the palace, an arm’s length to the left of the palace actually. I was disappointed but also amused at myself. It was naive of me to think that the sun will rise from wherever I want it to rise. I should have put more thought into this photograph, oh well.
Sunrise over Jodhpur.
After shooting the morning colours for a short while, I went back to my hotel stopping briefly to have a cup of chai on a roadside cart. My final day in Jodhpur was upon me. Can’t say I was sad about it but there was one more thing left to do. Or should I say pilgrimage. You ask any passionate Enfield rider in India about a certain ‘Bullet Baba’ and I bet you a tenner he or she will narrate a short story about a not-so-ordinary temple close to Jodhpur. The Shrine of the ‘Bullet Baba’.
The Bullet Baba Temple.
Google it and you will find many a story about this particular temple of an Enfield a few kilometers before Pali on your way from Jodhpur. The temple is based on legend. Folklore in India is something that people swear by and if you’re ever here you will understand what I mean. It is said that in the summer of 1991 Mr Om, known locally as Om Banna (son of the local Thakur) was riding his 350cc Enfield bullet to Jodhpur. He was high on alcohol and hence lost control of his motorcycle, he ended up hitting a tree and breathed his last on the spot. Subsequently, his body was cremated and his motorcycle was taken to the local police station. The next day however, the motorcycle was seen at the accident spot.
The motorcycle and the fateful tree.
The police thought it was a prank of some sort and once again took the motorcycle back to the police station but sure enough the next day, it was back at the accident spot. As the local villagers got to know about these mysterious incidents, the legend of the ‘Bullet Baba’ was born. The locals enshrined the motorcycle on a plinth near the accident spot and now it is run as a full fledged temple of sorts. This motorcycle temple even has a priest who presides over the ceremonies. Drivers and villagers alike offer prayers and also hooch at this temple every single day.
It is also said that when any motorist has a breakdown on this stretch of the highway, Mr Om Banna comes to their rescue. Further they say, during the holy week of Navratri before the Hindu festival of Diwali, the motorcycle starts up on its own. Well, as they say, truth is definitely stranger than fiction. I don’t really believe in such stories if I’m honest but the sheer popularity of the Bullet Baba temple got to me. India and its stories are really amusing sometimes. With that I rode back to Jodhpur on my own 500 cc Bullet.
I spent the rest of the day tying loose ends, packing and just preparing. At the back of my mind though, I was concerned about the ill health of the motorcycle. Ajmer wasn’t all that close, it was 200 kilometers away. In the evening, I went to meet my Army friends. A refreshing evening it was with us all reminiscing about old times and talking about how far life has come. Good times.
Ajmer was the next biker destination! It was a city I knew little about. There was a little confusion in my mind because the Pushkar Fair was on and Pushkar was just 12 kilometers away from Ajmer. I wanted to see the Pushkar fair, yet I knew that I would have to choose between Ajmer and Pushkar. Deciding that I would leave the decision making for later, early next morning, I saddled up and left Jodhpur. Leaving Jodhpur was easy for me. The City had given me a cold shoulder, essentially. As I rode out, I wondered if I would ever come back.
Off to Ajmer!
Two hundred kilometers from Jodhpur lies Ajmer. I rode on the National Highway 112. I was now riding east, towards eastern Rajasthan. The sand was still present but the landscape had given way to proper shrubbery. I felt sad leaving the real desert behind. Now, the Marauder and I were heading towards the cities of Rajasthan. As I reached Ajmer, I had now completed the crossover from western Rajasthan to the eastern part. The afternoon heat was positively oppressive in Ajmer. The motorcycle was in a bad way, I could hear the piston slap loud and clear. I was worried that she would have to be transported back to Pune while I was in the middle of the trip. Having said that, I had made up my mind about one thing, I will not give up until she gives up on me.
If it so happened that I was riding from one place to another and she broke down, so be it. I would figure out a way to get us both to the nearest town and then put her on a truck. There was no way I would let my fear of a breakdown get in the way of our trip.
For more pictures from Jodhpur, Click here.
In this article:
Number of nights: Jodhpur – 5
Distance travelled: Jaisalmer – Jodhpur = 250 kms, Jodhpur – Bullet Baba Temple – Jodhpur = 130 kms. Total = 380 kms.
Motorcycle condition: Piston slap growing louder, engine showing signs of breaking down, occasional misfires.
Next destination: Ajmer and Pushkar, Rajasthan. (Click here to read)
Part 2 of Rooh – E – Rajasthan.
To read part 1 – Click here.
Western Rajasthan, not a soul in sight.
A true desert town and on this day Barmer also seemed like a deserted town as I thumped in at around 12 pm. The sidewalks were empty and all the markets were shut. As I made my way through the empty streets, the noise from the bike’s exhaust echoed off the shops’ shutters. Later I was told that it was the day after Diwali and hence everything was closed. With the sun right over my head and the temperature rising, I was beginning to feel the sting of being out in the open. Riding the bike with all my gear strapped to me like a non air conditioned space suit I was feeling very warm. Even the breeze was hot. There was a stark difference at this point in my head. I had begun my journey from Mount Abu in the morning, a chilly hill station and now, I was quite literally in the middle of the desert with the sun bearing down. Such is the truth of travel, never before had I dealt with such contrasting vistas and weather, all in a span of 6 hours.
To be this far away from home and to realise that no one here knows you, it’s a strange feeling. I would talk to my motorcycle when we were on the road. My motorcycle and I, we communicate better than most humans do. I tell her where to go and she takes me there, anywhere. She also throws her tantrums and I deal with them. It’s one relationship I’m great at maintaining. Lunchtime was closing, for the both of us. At the fuel station, I was given a direction where I was told one could find a decent hotel.
Beautiful too, are the people of Rajasthan as I was about to find out. I put up at this hotel which had opened just 10 days prior to my arrival. They gave me a huge discount as they were new and my god what a place that hotel was! Key-card entry, sliding doors and flat screen TVs the works. In the western most part of the desert region of India, who would have thought? Their kitchen wasn’t yet operational, so I made my way to the only restaurant in Barmer which was open on the day and treated myself to some of the most amazing mutton I’d had in a long time. Back at the hotel, I was the only guest but as the evening came, came droves of people from Gujarat, travelling on pilgrimage to Tanot – a highly frequented Temple near the Pakistan border. The staff at Madhav Paradise – my hotel was limited but very courteous and they made sure I was comfortable, right from the start.
3 star comfort at Barmer!
Madhav Singh Rajpurohit, the owner of this almost 3 star hotel in Barmer, became my friend in the first instant of us starting our conversation. He was a fellow Bullet (motorcycle) man or ‘Bult’ as it is referred to in this part of the country. In the evening, we rode together to a place little away from the town centre where there were sand dunes! As we rode together, we spoke to each other about our lives, he seemed very intrigued by my escapade. He constantly asked me why I was doing this and each time I found myself wondering the same but tactfully answered with ‘Photography’. It’s not just photos for which I travel, no. There was something else which was pushing me, something which I couldn’t put a finger on just yet. Here was a man with big dreams for his town. Mr Madhav told me how he planned to change the face of Barmer by making it a healthy touring town. I could see in his eyes the fervor he harboured to make things happen in Barmer.
This was the first time I had ever seen dunes of sand and my friend was at his amusing best as he showed me how to make a miniature avalanche from sand. As the sand flowed over small sections of the dune, it formed pillar like structures of compacted sand. This was interesting! I never knew that could happen! The sun slipped behind the crest of these static dunes and the light was fading. Crickets had the right of way now. To be honest, I wanted to see and possibly shoot a scorpion. I had an image in my head for a picture that I wanted to click, a scorpion on the fuel tank and the setting sun in the background. I wondered if I’d be gifted with a chance to do this. Riding back to my hotel, through the village, the rear wheel occasionally skid on the sand covered road and each time it brought a smile to my face. Multiple realisations of being in the desert. I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.
Here, in Barmer, I witnessed the true Rajasthani spirit of hospitality. As soon as the sun went down, I was asked my preference of food for dinner. I responded by asking Mr Madhav what he would be eating. I told him that I had never really tasted true Rajasthani food. He smiled and told me that he would take care of my dinner. I was served traditional staples of an Indian desert home, from Mr Madhav’s home! Crushed ‘bajre ki roti’ with buttermilk, a very spicy dish of fried okra and some kheer – an Indian desert. Can’t say I was bowled over by the food but it was the gesture and the friendship which had been extended to me by a stranger which touched me.
Yet again, the motorcycle was the icebreaker. Especially the Enfield and its charms have formed many a friendships over the years I’m sure. Here and now, in Barmer too, she was the reason two complete strangers spent an interesting evening together and ended up being friends.
I was riding along the National Highway 15, the next stop was Jaisalmer. Jaisalmer is the flagship city of Rajasthan. Smack dab in the middle of the Thaar desert, it is a real oasis of sorts. I readied myself for the ride and hit the sack.
The next morning, I rode a hundred and fifty kilometres north to the golden city of Jaisalmer. Golden it really is. This is the stretch of road when I really came to terms with my reality. I was singing songs which reminded me of my days as a child, hearing stories of the sand. Dad and his Army regiments had been posted here for years. I couldn’t help but feel patriotic as the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war was fought on these very sands. At every few kilometers, there were rural roads leading off the main highway heading into the yellow sands towards the border. I almost gave in to my temptations for a ride along the border but that needed permissions I didn’t have.
Arriving at Jaisalmer.
Within three hours of high speed riding on the NH 15, the Marauder and I were closing in on Jaisalmer. One could now clearly see the windmill farms which supply the border with electricity. I rode on further and the road now cut through the landscape with towering wind farms on both sides. A rest stop here and again the silence of the desert breeze hit me. Punctured only by the distinct ‘tink tink’ sound of the motorcycle’s engine cooling. India is a huge country, at no point is it possible to sum up its vastness and variety in a single breath.
It’s just gold.
They say the friendships that start with a fight are the ones that are the strongest. Jaisalmer and I, had a rough start. I was greeted with a bee sting on my neck as I entered the city, after which I found out that there was no hotel willing to accommodate me for 5 straight nights. So I made a few calls. The beauty of the city kept distracting me from my predicament. Sweating in the sun, making phone call after phone call and simultaneously trying to tend to the bee’s doings, I kept looking around as if to try and take Jaisalmer in, all at once. Suddenly it dawned on me that there was no point in fretting over accommodation. Even if I didn’t get a bed at a hotel, the Indian Army was everywhere and being an army kid I would at least get a safe place to park my motorcycle and at the end of the day that is all a biker needs. Just like that I felt relieved. Sat down on a sidewalk as the wind threw fine grains of sand into my face I looked over at my motorcycle, honestly, she wasn’t doing too well. The mighty Marauder wasn’t all that mighty anymore, there was a faint slap in the engines tone. Yet again I wondered if she could do this trip in its entirety and take me home.
As the pain in my neck became more bearable with each passing minute, things started falling in place, almost magically. Joy of joys, I was now put up at an RTDC (Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation) tourist bungalow. They were kind enough to let me stay at my own mud hut (which is a theme of accommodation) for 5 straight nights. The RTDC setup at Jaisalmer was a very comfortable setting for me. Being a typical government guest house, I had complete peace of mind when it came to leaving equipment in my room or even parking my motorcycle. My mud hut had the basic needs taken care of, a usable bathroom, a fast enough fan and a nice big lock to put on the door.
Cuisine is important to me. Everywhere I go, food or should I say good food is a major priority every time. I was curious to find out what Jaisalmer had on offer for my taste buds. It was lunchtime by the time I settled myself and got ready to head into the city. Just about ready to leave, I was informed that my room tariff included one meal. Suddenly Jaisalmer’s ethos, it seemed to me, was trying to make up for its earlier misalliance with my arrival. I decided it was worth giving the guesthouse food a shot as I was going to be staying here for a while. I was greeted warmly at the dining room, which was like a fruit punch of sorts. The buffet spread had in front of it at least a hundred hungry travellers from all over the country, waiting on their turn to serve themselves. I joined the jamboree and soon found myself sitting at a table and chomping. The food was decent oily but edible. This was the first time I felt slightly lonely, looking at the other travellers and their self serving families.
After lunch I rode out onto the streets of a town I had already begun to get used to. Without all the riding gear, the afternoon temperature comforted me. I had begun to like Jaisalmer, a place that I was uncomfortable at only three hours ago. From my RTDC standpoint, I could see the Jaisalmer fort a small distance away. Just 10 minutes of riding in the same direction brought me to the foot of the fort. Only when standing close to the fort does one realise the scale of this structure. The road led to a monumentally congested makeshift parking lot and after a while of asking for directions and witnessing some quirky marketing I managed to break free and reach the actual Fort entrance.
Quirky marketing and the Fort entrance
Let me now try and explain what Jaisalmer really stands for. About a thousand years ago, the Jailasmer Fort was built and even today it stands tall with all its might. The fortress is visible from miles away and one wonders how in that age did they manage to build it. A king called Rawal Jaisal was behind its construction. The interiors are highly intriguing as this is the first ever fort I visited where I rode my motorcycle all the way to the top. All through the afternoon it looked brown in colour but as the sun’s light becomes softer one can make out the change in the fort’s mood. The Trikut ka teela or the Trikut Hill plays host to its massive three walled defenses. As I read up on the history of the fort, I begin to get an idea of Jaisalmer’s importance. In the medieval period it saw the rise and fall of many a ruler and was also a major bastion of trade in the Indian sub-continent. Even in the present day, Jaisalmer and its sands hold a strategically important place in India’s Geo-political existence. This part of the country has witnessed two wars between India and Pakistan.
At any point of time, there is heavy Indian Army presence in these parts of the desert all the way up to the border with Pakistan. Having said so, in and around Jaisalmer, one has to make an effort to spot a soldier on duty. You know they’re there but not always in sight, something which I believe helps the traveller feel more comfortable. I was certainly at ease. There were no restrictions on movement and one could walk the streets without nervousness. The streets of Jaisalmer are paradise for photographers and people watchers alike. In the morning as fresh yellow rains down from the skies, the golden streets light up and present a very pleasant ethos.
The Jaisalmer fort interiors were no different. The once royal pathways had now given way to cobbled roads which bear the weight of hordes of tourists, two wheelers and auto rickshaws. During the day, if you do take your vehicle inside, you will witness a very amusing game of incessant honking being played out. It can get so loud while you and your vehicle are waiting for some space that it could actually bring a smile to your face. I was amused all the way!
More than five thousand people actually live in this fort. Also, most of the fort has been converted, over time, into a one of a kind tourist’s shopping centre. Handicrafts, clothing, memorabilia and international cuisine roof-top restaurants are just some of the money spending options you will find here. Everywhere you look, from the walls to the smallest corners, one can see some item which is on sale. Not to mention the tens of ‘guides’ who will offer their services to you on your way up. At this point I caught myself thinking, this is not what I’m here for. A sudden second of realisation told me that the history here had been overshadowed by the rampant overuse of tourism for daily bread. Like a snail touched by a twig, suddenly I went back into my shell. In the middle of touring the fort, I stopped and turned back. My mind was a fistfight of thoughts. On one side stood the ‘image’ I had of this place and the other was defended by what I had just seen, reality. Was this Jaisalmer?
I spent the entire evening, having probably the slowest cups of tea I must have ever sipped on. Ogling at the fort from a distance, I sat on a flimsy ‘chaiwallah’s’ stool and watched the structure as it changed it shade with every falling photon of evening light. All through I kept thinking about whether it was a mistake coming here and changing that image of the desert in my mind. The conclusion came in the most uncommon of ways.
The fort over evening tea.
As morning came the next day, sipping on an early morning cuppa’, I stood at the outer courtyard of the guesthouse, an empty street in front of me and the breakfast buzz coming from the dining room inside. I was trying to formulate a plan of action as I had pretty much spent my entire first evening in Jaisalmer taking time-lapse footage of the fort. This morning I decided I should tour the fort like a tourist and not have preconceived notions about anything, it is what it is. On this day I chose to walk to the top and spent my time clicking pictures of the city architecture all day. The Patwa Haveli and Salim Singh ki Haveli that I toured, offer a small insight into the daily life and times of Rajasthani upper class. How they lived, how they cooked and how they got together in their homes.
The Patwa Haveli interiors.
Come afternoon, still pretty grumpy, I sat down to have lunch under the sun at one of the many roof top restaurants atop the fort. Coming back to cuisine, the food at these restos is more or less decent. The fact is, the economy of Jaisalmer thrives on tourism and hence competition is fierce, which in turn results in reasonable prices and decent quality. At least by my standards.
Roof top refreshment.
I was now wondering what to do for the rest of the day when suddenly I got my answer. Three Jaguars roared a thousand feet above my head and in formation they barrelled towards the open desert. With a morsel of laal maans (red meat – a Rajasthani specialty) in my hand, I looked on as the aircrafts disappeared behind the yellow buildings. My mind now was blank, the sound of those jet engines still echoing in my head. I made up my mind. I would head to the desert and by five the same evening, I had touched the sand.
I asked the guesthouse staff to arrange some transport for me and at three pm I was off towards the open desert but before the sand dunes there were a couple of other places to be seen. I wanted to give the bike a little rest and although everyone told me the road conditions were good all the way to the dunes at Sam I didn’t want to take a chance. A short drive out of the town had brought me to a place called Badabagh. Badabagh or ‘big garden’ is where one can see Chhatris or Cenotaphs belonging to long gone Bhatti rulers. It is a site which seems, for the most part, neglected by the development authorities, nonetheless it offers an interesting look at the past. If you take a guide, he will probably charge you 50 rupees and give you a small background about Badabagh. The carvings and the arches here bear reference to the number of wives each king had, amongst other things. A short tour of these cenotaphs might leave you thirsty for more but in your haste, don’t forget to look back as you drive out towards the main road. The open expanse is punctuated by the arches of the Chhatris at Badabagh and is a sight no photograph can do justice to. Try and be here around four in the evening.
Next comes Amar Sagar. A collection of temples sits off the banks of this almost dry lake. It is not the place a typical tourist will dedicate much time to though the architecture here, just like all over Jaisalmer is worth commending. Lodhruva and Kuldhara are two more sites in the area which are of historical importance and have interesting stories behind their existence. But the time for the sun to set was just a couple of hours away, so I instructed my driver to take me directly to Sam. I had waited too long to shoot in the dunes here. After spending a while at Amar Sagar, we made a dash for the sand.
Amar Sagar and its architecture.
Silhouettes. Sand. Serenity.
(Pronounced: ‘sum’) The first grains of free sand dunes hit here, about 5 kilometres before the desert village of Sam. On the way one passes the village of Kanoi, a village which is home to many a musical prodigy. A narrow and almost snaking road heads out from Jaisalmer and after driving for about 40 kilometres you will see tourists lining up to take camel rides up to the sand dunes. Even here, the chaos can get to you, if you let it. The most common camel ride is a 200 rupee, kilometer long trip to the sand dunes and back after the sunset. The photographer in me wanted more, a lot more!
I put my haggling skills to work and and got myself two camels. Sultan, the camel jockey, told me that he would be taking our team out into the expanse. For about half an hour we kept riding and swaying in the sweet desert breeze. For those of you who think ‘oh I can ride a horse, how hard can this be?’ think again. Hold on tight is my suggestion to all things camel riding. We made our way through the chaos of people and camels. It takes a little getting used to, riding on the camel, but once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy. As we left the ruckus behind, I looked around. The sun had now become a constant companion on my trip. Early mornings, late evenings and even hot afternoons, the sun made sure the bike and I had company. Six days into the trip and already I had gone through so many emotions in my head. Those ‘feelings’ that shrinks talk about.
The wind picked up slightly and I could barely hear the hordes of people we had left behind. It was a pleasant feeling, although I had my hands full. In one hand I was holding my still camera and in the other was an improvised video camera, simultaneously trying to shoot every second of this seemingly short journey.
Sultan asked me, ‘uunth chalaoge’? (Do you want to ride the camel?) I gestured to him and as soon as my gear was safe inside the bag, he threw the reigns of my camel to me and the camel took off. Riding a camel is not all that different from riding a horse as I learnt. Sultan and I were soon trotting alongside each other over the crests of dunes. Now THAT was fun. As I rode directionless, Sultan let me lead and feed my ego just a bit before asking me where I wanted to stop. I chose myself a virgin sand dune and we dismounted. An intelligent man he was and equally enterprising as I found out. He volunteered to parade the camels as I prepared the lenses I wanted to use this evening. Felt a little like a sand box dream, I ditched the footwear and let the sand tickle my toes to happiness.
Sultan, doing what he does best.
Within seconds of putting my feet on the sand, desert beetles crawled up out of the sand and started racing around the crest of the dune. These quirky creatures of the desert were something I never knew existed, all I could think about was scorpions and sidewinders. The beetles are amazing fun to watch and are really fast movers on the sand. It’s was pretty tough to get a good shot of them strutting their stuff. I did however manage to get a decent photograph of a beetle as the camels sat in the background.
Struttin’ its stuff!
In the next two hours, the sun went down and I kept clicking. Taking a break to watch the sun slip under the horizon, I could still see tourists in the distance, oh what a view! The sand in the air and the suns’ dwindling light made a beautiful soup of red. As numerous camels took their tourists back to campsites, I sat there on the sand with two puffing camels behind me. Lalu and Kaalu, the two camels had been good to me, like old veterans they looked over my shoulder unto the crimson horizon. To think of how far I had come, on a motorcycle, felt great. From my home in Pune to the middle of the Thaar Desert in six days flat. This wasn’t the end though, this was the start. I had ridden more than a thousand kilometers up until now but there were a lot more milestones to be seen. A long line up of destinations was ahead of me but before that, I still had one more day here.
Laalu and Kaalu. – Tourists heading back.
How serene this place has been. What with the numerous battles and wars having been fought on these very sands, like a sponge these grains absorbed what human life threw at them. Then it was the marauding enemy and today, the marauding tourist. Stoic. With that thought we saddled up. There was a cultural programme which had been organised by the RTDC at their campsite, where dinner would be served. Sultan, my driver and I rode on camel back all the way to the parking lot where Sultan said to me, ‘agli baar aur door jayenge’ (We’ll go much farther next time). I shook his hand and thanked him as I left for Dangri, the RTDC desert campsite. All these interactions this far away from home had made me understand how goodness, is present everywhere in this world. People here were the kindest and what about me, I was barely a stranger on a motorcycle. I can’t help but mention how beautiful Rajasthan is, not just for its sights but also from its people. My over speeding thoughts were cut short by our arrival at the campsite. I was greeted with a glass of water, which by now I had understood, in the desert is the best welcome drink anyone can gift you with.
The evening was off to a great start! Folk music, dance and some really interesting fire spitting was the order of the night. The open sky stretched across like a dotted blanket over the proceedings. It got much colder as everyone finished dinner and the customary final cup of tea. I met with the musicians and dancers after dinner, I wanted them to sing to me some of their folk songs. I wished to record them and then use the music for a short film I planned to cut later. They obliged me with open hearts and sang to me while I sat in front of them bewildered by their prowess. Bismillah Khan and his troupe were very amused and intrigued by who I was. Yet again, here in Rajasthan, the simplicity of these beautiful people touched me. It was time for me to head back, to Jaisalmer. In all honesty, I did want to spend the night at the campsite but my pocket just would not permit.
Fire spitting at the campsite.
The night drive back to Jaisalmer was nice too, cool wind and not a light in sight for miles.
Sleeping that night, I kept having visions of myself riding the motorcycle in the desert, next to the sand dunes. When I woke up, I just had to take the bike to the dunes and come afternoon, I did! Oh! The dunes seemed even more beautiful as I rode on past them and further towards the border. With grassland on both sides I kept riding for a long while, till my adrenalin settled. A water stop in the middle of nowhere bought back that silence of the desert wind. The Sun, yet again, our only companion.
Where the roads end.
One can’t miss the music here. Omnipresent notes will somehow catch the wind and reach your ears. The quintessential description of these desert towns and villages has to carry the words sand and sound. Life here revolves around the two. I made two very inspiring friends here. Mr Hariram Bhopa, a khandani musician from Jaisalmer itself and Mr Etienne Lauth, a French flutist who stays at Tiruvanamalai in Tamil Nadu but comes here for a few days every year, just to play with Hariram ji.
The Jaisalmer trio!
To them, my story of a lone man, riding across the desert in search of a muse was intriguing but above all, we all shared an unparalleled love for music. That is probably the only reason we became friends. From that moment on, music is what we did, they jammed together and I shot them playing their instruments. This was a captivating experience as initially we shot at Bhopa ji’s home at the artists’ colony in Jaisalmer where I met his entire family and then at the serene Gadisar lake. This was a golden opportunity presented to me and I made the most of it. Their music was beautiful and so was their soul. Just like the golden city.
The musicians at Hariram’s house and at Lake Gadisar.
I bid my dear friends farewell as the time for me to leave the city was nearing.
Jaisalmer had grown on me, from the bees’ sting on the first day to the dunes on the third and from the music to these fantastic people on the fifth. I had fallen in love with Jaisalmer and that love wouldn’t let me leave. I wanted to spend more time here but the rest of the trip was still in front of me. I had to trick myself into leaving Jaisalmer before the city woke up or else I would end up staying here another day. At first light the next morning, I kick started the motorcycle and she rumbled into her smooth beat. I said my goodbyes to the good people at the RTDC guesthouse and left. I rode across the city towards the road that leads to Jodhpur. The wind was the coldest of all the days I had been here, as if trying to freeze me within the city. I felt as if I was leaving a loved one for good. Even Jaisalmer, I think, had fallen in love with me.
Till we meet again.
Steadily, we reached the outer limit of the city. The sun had just hopped over the horizon on my right. It was only apt that I stopped here to say my final goodbyes.
That moment on, it was a dash to reach Jodhpur. A different city, it was a new place to explore. I was excited. The convoy after convoy of Army field guns on the road to Jodhpur made the ride that much more interesting. All the while I was trying to figure out what guns they were and whether I had ridden in the trucks towing them. I missed my army brat days dearly but this time I was on my own mission. Rooh – e – Rajasthan still had a long way to go before I could sit and look back.
The roads of Rajasthan were smooth as usual and the wind kept me cool as the sun climbed up on top of my head. A medium paced ride took me along the National highway 15 and NH 114 all the way to Jodhpur.
For more pictures from Jaisalmer and Sam, click here.
In this article:
Number of nights: 6 (Barmer: 1, Jaisalmer: 5)
Distance travelled: Mount Abu – Barmer = 250 kms, Barmer – Jaisalmer = 150 kms, Jaisalmer – Sam = 40. (Total = ~ 450)
Motorcycle condition: Piston slap audible, vague mushing sound from the engine.