A Maharaja’s journey through Rajasthan: part two

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A welcome dance to greet us

A welcome dance to greet us

As happened the previous day in Ajanta, and as it will happen every day for the rest of our journey, when we got off the Maharajas Express in Udaipur, we were welcomed. Inside the railway station were local musicians and dancers wearing beautiful traditional costumes, and providing a colourful welcome that was also greatly appreciated by all the local people waiting for their trains.

Udaipur, the ‘White City’

For those who have never travelled in Rajasthan, getting off the coach on the bank of the Pichola Lake right at the foot of the huge City Palace is a great moment. Looking up to the top of the massive walls we discovered a series of beautiful windows under scalloped arches and fretted balconies which provided beautiful panoramic views of the lake and its islands. But what makes the City Palace unique is the long, amazing line of elegant cupolas and fine domes that tower the ramparts giving a fairy-tale impression. We soon discovered that, in Rajasthan, the Maharajas had been great soldiers as well as great art lovers who created havens of peace and beauty hidden behind the strong massive walls of their fortresses.

the city palace of Udaipur

the city palace of Udaipur

Firstly, we went down to the lakeshore to board a little motorboat that, slowly gliding over the water, passed along the ‘Lake Palace’, a former royal summer palace whose white marble buildings and courtyards entirely covered the tiny Jag Niwas island. It had been turned into an exclusive top-end 5 star hotel managed by the Taj Hotels Group. Our boat headed for Jag Mandir, also called Lake Palace Garden, another small island a short distance away. Jag Mandir possesses a small royal summer palace and is known for its pleasant garden courtyard. The island was used for royal parties but on at least two occasions it served as a refuge during troubled periods. The island jetty entry is flanked on either side by four, life-size carved statues of elephants. On top of the white wall stands an open-air kiosk offering a wonderful view over the lake and Udaipur itself. Soon all of us were taking advantage of the beautiful morning light to be photographed under the little white dome.

Pichola Lake

Pichola Lake

It’s a pity that on the way back that we were not able to stop by the Lake Palace, but the City Palace was awaited us. In fact the City Palace is an incredibly huge complex with so many buildings and palaces, including that luxury hotel I mentioned earlier that it would be impossible to do it justice in just one quick visit. We walked through beautiful halls including Durbar Hall, with its collection of portraits depicting Udaipur maharanas, and the surprising Crystal Gallery, before going to the Satkar Banquet Hall in the Fateh Prakash Palace where we experienced- in a sumptuous décor – the delights of Indian gastronomy with more than twenty recipes to taste. Later in the afternoon, after this long gastronomic break, on the way back to the Maharajas Express, we stopped by a centre (with a shop!) that specialised in miniature painting and its techniques, the renowned art form of Udaipur that every visitor must see.

Jodhpur, the ‘Blue City

the Jodhpur market and fort at Mehrangarth

the Jodhpur market and fort at Mehrangarth

The train began a long night journey leaving the mountainous relief of Udaipur’s surroundings to enter the stark and dry landscape of the Thar Desert. Next day in the late morning we arrived in Jodhpur to disembark onto another red carpet welcome. We headed off for a walking tour of the Old Clock Tower Market which gave us an opportunity to discover a little bit of the real daily life of the local residents. We strolled between the colourful stalls displaying fruits, vegetables and a wide choice of evocative smelling herbs and spices mostly unknown to any of us. Following our guide we entered into a maze of streets lined by old houses called halevis with first floor shops, mainly handicrafts ones. Halevis are individual mansions with ostentatious carved windows and balconies. Behind its beautiful main door, a halevi is built around one or two safe courtyards. These streets are the place to find quality, locally produced handicrafts. We saw some fabulous large cashmere shawls of a very high quality which, although at reasonable prices, were not cheap.

To get back to the train for an on-board lunch, delicious as usual, we used local rickshaws and, luckily, avoided a traffic jam created by a sacred cow resting in the middle of the street.

inside the firt at Mehrangarth

inside the firt at Mehrangarth

Soon after lunch the coaches carried us of again, his time for an afternoon visit to the Mehrangarth Fort, a giant fortress enclosed by thick walls. The fort is located at the centre of the city and offers beautiful views of the city. It’s easy to understand why Jodhpur is called the ‘Blue City‘. All the houses down below the fort are painted in a vivid blue colour. The Mehrangarth Fort, one of the largest forts in India, is protected by seven strong gates and massive sandstone walls which are 70 ft wide and up to 120 ft high. These conceal and protect palaces, courtyards, a museum, galleries and a temple which is very popular among Jodhpur’s inhabitants. It’s a huge maze of passages, stairs and courtyards and it is easy to get lost. Everywhere, the walls of the palaces are brilliantly carved and decorated, while interior rooms show visitors the splendour and luxury of the Maharajas’ life.

Leaving the Mehrangarth Fort we were drove to the Hanwant Mahal, a restaurant built in the desert just outside the city which, from its roof-top terrace, gave us a beautiful view of the city and of the Umaid Bhawan Palace, another wonder of Jodhpur. The Umaid Bhawan Palace is said to be one of the world largest private residence.

the fort at Mehrangarth throuugh one of the archways

the fort at Mehrangarth throuugh one of the archways

It’s the home of the former Maharajas of Jodhpur and the family chose to transform a part of the palace into a luxury hotel, a second part into a museum and then keeping a large part for private use. The view of the palace standing alone in the golden light of a sunset was amazing. The cityscape and the Mehrangarth Fort, like shadow-plays far in the distance, completed a show that we enjoyed whilst enjoying a glass of Indian wine. At this exclusive cocktail evening under the stars, a vast spread of the local, Marwar cuisine completed a perfect day.

Deshnok, the Rats’ Temple

During the night, the Maharajas Express made its way up north into the Thar Desert for a morning arrival in Bikaner, the stronghold of the cross-desert caravan trade.

Deshnok's Rats Temple

Deshnok’s Rats Temple

As soon we arrived in Bikaner we both went for an additional excursion to visit a very special temple in the small town of Deshnok, one hour away from Bikaner.. The temple of is dedicated to Karni Mata, an official deity of the Bikaner royal family and is famous worldwide for its thousands of black rats which are considered and treated as sacred. We were a bit afraid of our own reactions as we knew that we would have to walk barefoot among these rodents! In fact the difficult part for both of us was just the first, few steps. In this marble temple rats were everywhere running along the walls, in the courtyards and in any room. But they seemed to get on with their own life, padding around our feet as if we were not present at all. Numerous pilgrims were in the temple, carrying milk and grains as gifts to feed the rats, and praying to obtain blessing and protection. After a few minutes we felt safe enough to wander in the temple rooms and courtyards, looking at hundreds of rats lapping up milk in large plates. Leaving the temple we used half a box of antiseptic wipes to carefully clean our feet before putting back our shoes. Better safe than sorry! This visit was an interesting experience for us but best avoided by anyone who feels ill at ease with scampering feet running every which way.

feeding time for the rats

feeding time for the rats

The way back to Bikaner railways station was long enough to dispel our remaining visions of rats running everywhere, and when we boarded the train toward noon, we were quite happy to join the other guests to enjoy the delicious lunch prepared by the chef. There were many questions about our morning visit, but among our fellow travellers no one regretted avoiding the visit to the Deshnok temple. In hindsight, personally I am very happy to have done it. That gave me the opportunity to understand the profound links between Indian people and their numerous deities which can be incarnated in so many forms.

Tea and coffee was served before another walk on the red carpet. Bikaner was waiting for us and we were ready for new amazing discoveries.

For more about the Maharjahs Express, click here.

 

Text and photos ©Frederic de Poligny

 

 

 

 

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