Meet the Maharaja

N and my holiday calendar for a year gets prepared in December of the previous year itself. Yes! We’re that crazy about travel. For us, a holiday is not about rest and rejuvenation alone. At different points in time, it is about adventure, luxury, new experiences, new cultures, new food and discovering each other.

A quick recap of the last year threw forward interesting insights. Dharamsala- where I failed to understand the hype about Mcleodganj and Shiva Café in particular, and where I had the first fracture of my life. Jeolikot-our first experience of a home stay and a realization that old age need not prevent oneself from doing what one likes. Ladakh- where I realized that even after the announcement of descent, the aircraft need not land; where new bonds got formed while travelling on non-existent roads in pitch darkness; and where tea need not be sweet. Dhanachuli- where the story of George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Comyn Irvine came alive; and where a fast and a sari proved to be no barriers to travel. Lastly, Malaysia-where leisure and adventure came together in the form of Rebak Island; and the glitter of PETRONAS blinded us.

Our first halt this year was at Kishangarh. It is a big town divided into an old and a new segment. The new segment houses large marble companies with their factories, offices, and lots of small marble product retailers. This is the not-so-interesting side. The real charm is in the old town of Kishangarh, which houses the Kishangarh fort and the Phool Mahal palace.

Kishangarh is about an hour before Pushkar when travelling from Delhi. Both Ajmer and Pushkar are at easy accessible distances. I came to know about Kishangarh from the 2012 edition of outlook traveler. But when I mentioned it to people, they either did not know about it or dismissed it saying it has nothing. It left me skeptical but not disheartened; skeptical because I was taking my parents along too. My father has pretty high expectations from his places of travel! Nonetheless, I was determined to find out for myself. And, I am glad I did.

We started from Delhi fairly late, at about 9 am. We got all the city traffic possible. The road from Gurgaon to Jaipur was quite bad too. It is supposed to be an expressway, but there was construction still going on. Diversions marked our route, congesting traffic. Once we turned onto the Ajmer-Pushkar road, it was smooth sailing. Phool Mahal palace is available accurately on GPS. Within Kishangarh, we crossed the market to get to the palace. This added to my skepticism as the market was narrow, with a fair degree of hustle and bustle. One of the roads branched to take us to the palace.

Once we reached there, all my skepticism went flying out of the window. Located on one side of the Gond Talav (pond), made of yellow stone, and having the fort as its backdrop, the Phool Mahal is not your typical luxury heritage hotel. It is more of a budget heritage hotel, but with all the old-world charm intact. Kishor, the caretaker, showed us our rooms, which were on the first floor and were lake-facing. My parents’ room was in a theme of blue with large bay windows overlooking the lake. It had a bathroom the size of a flat in most metros. N and my room had a pastel shade was circular and small. But it got its beauty from the paintings done on the wall. These were the Kishangarh style of miniature paintings. We also had a small verandah which opened into the lake.

We settled in and then came the details about the palace. The fort and the palace are retained by the royal family of Kishangarh. The current king is His Highness Maharaja Brajraj Singh. He is the 20th king. Kishangarh was set up when the second son of the Jodhpur Maharaja came here and established his own kingdom. His name was Maharaja Kishen Singh, from which the town takes its name. And true to its name, the town follows Lord Krishna. Royal Kishangarh has two more heritage properties-Roopangarh about 25 kms away from Phool Mahal, and Kishangarh House in Mount Abu. The lounge on the ground floor has a wall full of portraits of the 20 kings to have ruled Kishangarh. The dining hall has the photographs of the current king and his family.

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Pic 1: Phool Mahal grounds

The staff is skeletal but hugely courteous. The Rajasthani hospitality is quite evident. Kishor was not just our go-to person; he was also our guide to the history of the palace and fort. He also accommodated all our requests. Along with him, we had a server dedicated to us.

The palace grounds are quite big with a large parking, the main palace, gardens and smaller standalone structures. When we reached, the Gond Talav was covered with water hyacinths. The story goes-the pond was used for water chestnut farming. Once, along with the seeds of the water chestnut plant, came a few branches and leaves of the water hyacinth plant. These took over the pond as Alexander had taken over the world. Efforts were made to remove these but given their stubbornness and parasitic nature, it has been futile. The hyacinths are killing the pond. The lack of oxygen has made the fish come to the surface. The pond has got a dirty brown-grey color. But, but, but, we got a pleasant surprise when a gentle current made all the hyacinths drift into a corner of the pond. The pond then got a shimmery blue color. That was the sight that kept us company for almost a day and a half. I hope the municipality takes corrective action soon. It is just a matter of will, is it not? And not every pond would have catfish as large as an eagle’s wingspan.

Next in line for us was the visit to the fort. The entry fee is INR 200 per person. The tickets are available at the Phool Mahal reception. A guide escorted us and explained the doors, the spikes, the horse-drawn carriages, the treasury, the weapon storage area etc. He then handed us over to ‘Mukhiya ji’ who is the priest in the temple inside the fort. The temple is dedicated to an avatar of Lord Krishna, Sri Nath ji but it cannot be accessed by the public. Mukhiya ji took us on a tour of the fort interior, which includes many palaces. We just managed to cover the queen’s chambers after which we were exhausted. There is quite of bit of climbing that one needs to do, and it being Rajasthan, the Sun can be pretty strong. So try to go during the evening hours and do carry water with you. It was heartwarming to see an intact fort which gives a glimpse of how the royalty lived many years ago. The fort also houses Studio Kishangarh which is the art initiative by the princess of Kishangarh. The Studio is striving to revive the old Kishangarh painting style. Worth a dekko! Maintaining the fort would not be easy on the wallet, especially without a private/ public funding; a fort without a regular tourist inflow, it must be the pride of the royal family, and their memories that have kept this going. I must say that His Highness is doing a pretty good job. My only two regrets- (1) I could not explore the fort in full due to its size and my paucity of time; and (2) I could not pick up a souvenir from the Studio Kishangarh outlet.

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Pic 2: Kishangarh style of painting adorning the dining hall walls

As we completed the fort visit, we were greeted by the sight of His Highness sitting in the veranda of Phool Mahal. We struck a conversation where he told us about the history, the efforts to clean the pond, the privacy of the Srinathji temple, and his other properties in Roopangarh and Mount Abu. He came across as a learned man; we later came to know he is an author and a lecturer on the Kishangarh art. There is something royal about royalty, isn’t there?

We headed to Pushkar post this. Our lunch had been arranged at the Orchard Resort. The way to get here is tricky but there’re accurate signboards and it is accurately available on GPS too. Once you enter, it is a different world. An orchard of various fruits greets us, along with flowers of different colors. In the midst of all the colors are tents that serve as accommodation. We got a chance to freshen up in a room. It is air-conditioned and has electric blankets for winters. The cottages are quite tastefully done. We had lunch at the restaurant called Gol Ghar. The food was tasty and served efficiently. The resort is open only from October to March. During the Pushkar fair, it is completely sold out. During winter, the orchard is lush green with gooseberries. It is slightly on the outskirts but it is a retreat worth visiting.

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Pic 3: Kishangarh Fort seen from Phool Mahal

Pushkar is known across the world for the Brahma temple, the lake and the fair. Scores of foreigners visit the city annually to experience all the three, and I suspect a fair dose of drugs. I experienced the temple and lake. The Brahma temple is considered to be the only one in the world dedicated to the Creator from the Trinity-Lord Brahma. Why is it so? It is due to the curse given by Brahma’s wife to Him. She cursed Him that He would not be worshipped anywhere in the world, except for Pushkar. Wives are pretty dangerous, are they not? I am fairly certain N will agree.

While it was interesting to hear the legend of the Brahma temple, the lake disappointed me. Oh, a point before that: one of the curses was that no offering would ever be made to Brahma. Shopkeepers outside the temple will try to sell you flowers, incense etc. do remember that if you buy these and offer to the Lord, you are not worshipping Him in the true sense. Back to the lake, it was disappoint because despite the best efforts of the management, it continues to be filthy. The management has made two separate ponds-one for submerging the ashes of the departed, and the other for making flower offerings. There are also posters at various paces guiding on this. In spite of this, people continue to put the ashes and flowers in the main lake. Why is it so difficult for Indians to follow basic civic rules? Adding to this is the prevalence of pigeons, dogs and cows. Their excrements mark the Ghats, making walking there a pain. I saw the cleaning crew removing cow dung with bare hands. We have glorified cows to such an extent that we are unable to realize when they become a nuisance. I, however, do not know if a feasible solution can be implemented for this.

The hurt diminishes once the ‘aarti’ starts. On five of the Ghats, the priests and crowds congregate at sunset, around 6:30 pm, and the chants begin. The aarti is calming and haunting simultaneously. Invoking the gods and reminding ourselves of their glory brings a sense of contentment and humility. For all our arrogance, we are mere mortals-destined to meet our Maker one day. At the same time, when almost a hundred voices join in the ‘aarti’, the echo is surreal.

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Pic 4: One of the many parts of Kishangarh Fort

Did I mention the ‘Prasad’? We got a ghee-soaked ‘kalakand’. It was so heavenly that we knew we had to pack a box for ourselves. So we entered the famous Pushkar ‘bazaar’. The market is full of handicrafts and ethnic Rajasthani merchandise. But we came to know that the merchandise comes from Jaipur; so, if you plan to visit Jaipur too, I suggest you shop there. We found a sweetmeat shop, got what we wanted, along with ‘pua’, a sweet made of cottage cheese. I hear it is quite famous, though, if you are used to the Bihari pua, you will find this lacking.

This brought our trip to an end. The day we left was the day of Holi, the festival of colors. We found the roads and highways devoid of traffic. On our onwards journey, we had taken almost eight hours to reach. While returning, it took us six hours. I take away a few things from the trip: (1) Never write off a place without experiencing it; (2) I must write to the state government about the state of infrastructure and civic services; and (3) Hit the roads on major festival days.

Lastly, for the ease of fellow travelers, I suggest the following itinerary ex-Delhi: Delhi-Kishangarh-Ajmer-Pushkar-Roopangarh-Delhi. Make Kishangarh your base to explore Ajmer and Pushkar. Five days, four nights would be sufficient.

Day 1: Leave from Delhi in the morning. Reach Kishangarh by evening. Spend the night at Phool Mahal palace

Day 2: Start early and explore the fort in the first half. Head to Ajmer after lunch and offer a ‘chaadar’ at the ‘dargah’. Return to Phool Mahal for the night

Day 3: Start late and head to Pushkar. Visit the Brahma temple and others, if you wish. Or shop at the bazaar and eat delicacies at the German bakeries. Head to the lake towards evening and be a part of the ‘aarti’. Back to Phool Mahal for the night

Day 4: Head to Roopangarh. Explore the fort by day and rest there at night

Day 5: Leave for Delhi

Recommended time to visit: October-March

Recommended eats: Laal Maas (a very spicy mutton dish)

Recommended buys: A souvenir from Studio Kishangarh, lac bangles

Soon back with an Uttarakhandi flavor. Ram-ram sa till then!

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