A Maharaja’s journey through Rajasthan: part three

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the Junagarh fort in Bikaner

the Junagarh fort in Bikaner

There we were again. Leaving our train and walking down the red carpet but this time we were serenaded by a military band all dressed in sumptuous red, Indian uniforms. It was yet another souvenir memory of a magnificent holiday.

Bikaner, the city of desert

Known as the capital of the Camel Country, Bikaner is still known for having the best riding camels in the world. The animals were everywhere. Camels can be seen in any street of Bikaner carrying people and goods, pulling carts, and working in the fields.

Bikaner is a stronghold standing in the centre of the desert to protect and control the former cross-desert caravan trade. During the centuries, the Maharajas of Bikaner, took advantage of their military and commercial power to build palaces inside their main fortress in Bikaner, the Junagarh Fort. They also constructed many beautiful templesin the city. Then, at the dawn of the nineteenth century, they built larger palaces in open spaces such as the Laxmi Niwas Palace or the Lalgarth Palace. Today, both palaces are luxury hotels but the royal family still retains a part where they still live.

one of the many ornate rooms st the fort

one of the many ornate rooms st the fort

The Junagarh Fort was built in the middle of the city in 1593 by the Raja Rai Singh and is an unassailable fortress with formidable walls encircled by a deep moat. As with many forts in Rajasthan, the real beauty is not only due to the external, impressive military defences, but to the delicacy of the architecture of the palaces that are enclosed within its strong walls.

Inside we discovered a maze of courtyards and palaces with carved walls showing beautiful stone lace called jali. For a couple of hours we wandered through the maze that is the fort fearful f our guide’s advice that if we didn’t follow him we could get lost in this labyrinth.

Among the thirty or so palaces and temples inside the fort, the most famous one is the Anup Mahal with its stunning audience room. Here the walls are covered by beautiful gold and red pieces of lacquer and very small mirrors. We also visited the Phool Mahal (Flowers Palace), the Badal Mohal (Clouds Palace), the Durbar Niwas (Coronation Palace) and a few more. We admired historic furniture including a sandalwood throne and an incredible Maharaja’s swinging-seat as well as a collection of ancient weapons.

the bi-plane parked in a room of its own

the bi-plane parked in a room of its own

A special mention must be made for the DH-9DE Havilland plane, an authentic biplane from WW1, that was given to the Maharaja of Bikaner to thank him for the participation of his troops in the fighting mainly on the Middle East front during the war. This plane had to be taken to pieces and was reassembled on the exact spot where it now stands incongruously in the middle of a huge room surrounded by elegant stone columns.

A Thar Desert’s discovery

Leaving the Fort we moved to Gajner, 30 kilometres north-east of Bikaner for a short break in the former red-sandstone Summer Palace built on the banks of a beautiful lake. Instantly striking to the eyes is the fact that the green environment contrasts with the desert landscape around. The Summer Palace is now a charming hotel, the Gajner Palace hotel where we relaxed a few minutes drinking and snacking under the trees of in the central courtyard.

The Gajner Palace Hotel

The Gajner Palace Hotel

We briefly toured the hotel, looking at the lounges where original furniture from Waring and Gillow is still in use. It all harks back to an earlier age when the Maharaja of Bikaner used to invite friends to go hunting in the desert.

A few kilometres away in the desert we met about fifteen decorated and canopied camel carts waiting to take all of us to the top of a large sand dune. Why It was to see an experience of a lifetime, the sun setting over the sand dunes of the Thar desert. As we watched the last sunbeams of the day, cocktails were served. It was a very romantic moment.

The night falls very quickly in the desert. Soon the waiters lit the torches and we sat down on very comfortable cushions on the sand, around a central campfire whilst being entertained by a group of male musicians from the Kalbeliya tribe.

Kalbeliyan dancing in the Thar Desert

Kalbeliyan dancing in the Thar Desert

Their traditional music and songs began to fill the air as the waiters started to offer us traditional, mouth-watering barbecue delicacies. After a while, the music rhythm got faster and faster and then two Kalbeliya dancers joined the musicians. In Kalbeliya culture, dancers are only women, and their swirling dance replicates the movements of a snake. Everyone was mesmerised by the beauty of costumes and the fluidity of the dance. Then a young girl, maybe 12 years old and hidden behind the musicians, stood up and began dancing. Cheered on by the adult dancers she was good as they were and the pride in her face in achieving this was obvious to all. That was the beginning of a great moment of music and dance under the stars. We were part of a fairy tale.

As we left, we were all sure that this special night would stay as the most impressive one of our full trip with the Maharaja’s Express.

Jaipur, the ‘Pink City

The next morning we awoke to find that our train had brought us to Jaipur – the pink city.

Recently, there has been a change in the itinerary of the journey of the Maharaja’s Express. Now the morning is reserved for a visit to the Amber Fort but we made a short journey to see, exclusively, the activities of elephants that have been especially scheduled for the passengers. Guests will learn to feed elephants and paint themwhich is a traditional habit for any religious even and, finally, to take an elephant ride before a tasty lunch served at the Jai Mahal Palace.

the Jaipur City Palace from the outside

the Jaipur City Palace from the outside

The afternoon is a perfect time to wander in the Jaipur City Palace, the former Palace of the Maharaja of Jaipur. The City Palace right in the heart of the city presents amazing buildings of Râjput and Mughal styles, built around beautiful courtyards. Only the part including the Chandra Mahal and its beautiful gardens is outside our visit because that is still the private property of the Maharaja. Don’t forget to visit the elegant pavilion Rajendra Pol where are displayed the two, giant silver jars which are said to be the largest silver works in the world. And do find enough time to get to the nearby Jantar Mantar, the fabulous outdoor astronomical observatory that was built around 1730.

and the Palace of Winds

and the Palace of Winds

A short stop in front of the iconic facade of the Palace of Winds (the Hawa Mahal) is available. This five-storey pyramidal shaped monument built in 1799 is made of pink-red sandstone but it just a marvellous facade to allow the women of the royal household to observe the city life without being seen.

Rathambore Tiger Reserve

During the night the train moved close to the Rathambore National Park where we had to board open trucks before dawn to look for tigers. Each truck, transporting six guests and one park ranger, took a different trail into the wooded hills. At the end of the night the air was freezing but the thrill of this peaceful hunt soon warmed up everyone. Sadly we didn’t see any big cats, but we met many wild animals like sambars – the great local stag – various other species of deer, monkeys, wild peacocks and many birds unknown to me. We also saw in the distance a group of wild elephants, and our park ranger was lucky enough to discover and show us the fresh footprints of a tiger who had crossed our trail just one or two hours before we arrived.

the Ghost city of fatehpur Sikri

the Ghost city of fatehpur Sikri

The ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri

After a 4 hour journey the train left Rajasthan to enter the adjacent state of Uttar Pradesh, arriving at Fatehpur Sikri, one of the most impressive sites of this Indian journey. Built by the Great Mughal Akbar in 1569, this beautiful complex of courtyards, palaces and ornamental pools stayed as the capital of the Mughal Empire for fourteen years before being suddenly abandoned. This beautiful walled city was the private domain of the Great Mughal and all the buildings of the empire’s administration. These red, sandstone buildings that withstood the vagaries of time and man are a marvellous testimony to Mughal architecture which is a mixture of Islamic and Hindu styles. Some buildings seemed to have fine wooden carved facades and tiled roof, but when we looked closer we discovered that all these were only delicately, carved stone.

and to finish our trip - the Taj Mahal

and to finish our trip – the Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal in Agra

And so came the last day of this journey. But we finished on a high. We stopped in Agra to enjoy, in the very early morning light, the Taj Mahal, the white marble mausoleum built in 1643 to house the tomb of the beloved favourite wife of Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan. A delicate champagne breakfast was then served in a private garden overlooking the world renowned palace.

We went back to the train for a couple of hours, and just after lunch we reached Delhi where we said goodbye to all our travel companions. The whole crew was standing in a long line along the red carpet and so we could thank each one for having been so courteous, so efficient and for providing us with really was a journey of a lifetime.

For more about the Maharajahs Express, click here.

Text and photos ©Frederic de Poligny

 

 

 

 

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