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Travel & Holiday

Fort hopping in Rajasthan

This state in north-west India has many forts and two different ones, Jaisalmer and Bundi, are worth visiting
The Straits Times - March 13, 2012
By: Marc Nair
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Fort hopping in Rajasthan Riding a camel is not comfortable but is one way to see the desert. -- PHOTO: MARC NAIR

The history of India's Rajasthan is one replete with heroes and great battles, and the landscape is peppered with forts of varying size and design. Today, excellent road and rail connections make it easy to plan a trip that encompasses most, if not all of them. Two essential places that should make the list would be Jaisalmer and Bundi, both for very different reasons.

JAISALMER

This is about 300 km north of Jodhpur by rail and is the jumping-off point for camel safaris. The town is compact and clustered around winding streets that rise upwards to the fort.

The 76m-tall fort itself is the second oldest in Rajasthan. It is reinforced by an imposing crenellated sandstone wall. Wells found inside still provide a regular source of water for as much as a quarter of the old city's population, who dwell within the fort. Tourists are free to enter.

There are a number of well-preserved Jain temples inside the fort, but the best way is just to walk and let yourself be lost (and surprised) inside the warren of narrow alleys that wind throughout the fort.

When you are done exploring the fort, check with any nearby travel agent or the front desk of your hotel for a camel safari. Rates will always vary but the one constant is that bargaining is a must.

Safaris to the desert come in a variety of configurations. You can take a short camel trek for an evening under the dunes to witness a desert sunset before heading back to the comfort of your hotel room or be adventurous and spend up to a week traipsing around. In most cases, one camel is provided for one person.

I opted for a two-day, one-night camel safari that cost 2,000 rupees (S$50), inclusive of transport, tents, food, water, blankets and two guides for another tourist and myself. We were driven about 30km out of Jaisalmer, stopping at a couple of villages along the way to observe how the people there eked out a living from the dry scrubland. Then we loaded up on knobbly camels and proceeded to trot for another two hours before we had a break.

Camels, as I soon learnt, are nowhere as comfortable to ride as horses, and their uneven gait makes for a constant rocking that wears on the inner thighs. And this discomfort became positively painful when they occasionally broke into a quick trot.

Thankfully though, our guides were aware of our condition and soon stopped to prepare lunch. All our meals in the desert were the same; first came chai, with goat's milk (yanked rather fiercely from a surprised animal), vegetable curry and finally, rough and ready chapatti (flatbread), a desert staple. Simple though it was, the food warmed us, especially in the fast chilling evening when we made camp in the lee of a dune.

After dinner, I kept looking around to find my tent, but eventually figured that all we had were blankets. The desert was incredibly cold at night, but I survived and was greeted in the pre-dawn light by the peaceful sight of a camel gazing serenely into the distance while a full moon hung overhead.

Generally, Jaisalmer is worth a three-day, two-night stay, inclusive of the camel safari. The town itself is clustered around the fort so it is easy to get around. It is quite a touristy town and there is a visible police presence, so tourists will feel pretty safe.

Do not miss Kothari's Patwa Havel, built between 1800 and 1860 and now turned into a museum (100 rupees), which is worth visiting for its wealth of information on the lives of the jewellery merchants who owned the building.

As for places to stay, consider a haveli (or merchant house) to get a taste of what it is like literally to live in history.

In Jaisalmer, there is Hotel Krishna Haveli, a rather simple but sprawling haveli; Nachana Haveli and Mandir Palace.

The latter is the most expensive but also the most extravagant, while Nachana Haveli gets my vote in terms of being steeped in history yet retaining a very personal touch in service and decor.

It was built in the 18th century by Maharaj Kesri Singh ji of Nachana and five generations of his descendants have lived there. There are 12 deluxe rooms and two suites. Rates start from 3,500 rupees.

From Jaisalmer, I took a train to Jodhpur. All trains come under the auspices of the Indian Railways and my experience on trains was generally positive.

Bunks are clean, pillows and sheets are provided (for third class AC and up) and trains are mostly on time although if you do not book a seat, you may spend an uncomfortable night in the general (unreserved) section, which has the mercy of being extremely cheap.

From Jodhpur, I headed to Bundi on a tiring 11-hour bus ride (260 rupees), full of stops at every small town and frequent detours on half-constructed highways.

Bundi in ruins is endearing

BUNDI

This is not always mentioned in the must-see places of Rajasthan, but it is a less touristy stopover and endearing in a different way.

It is a small town, easily navigated on foot and has historical monuments such as Raniji Ki-Baori, an impressive step well, and Taragarh Fort, which towers above the town.

It is very much in ruins, and like the palace below, there has not been much effort at conservation, but ironically, that contributes to an innate sense of adventure that one gets when climbing up to the sprawling complexes on the hill top, free of touts and pushy guides.

Go there when it is close to sunset but allow enough time to come down safely and you will be able to get a wonderful view of the city, with Nawal Sagar, a lake with a half-sunk temple dedicated to Varuna, twinkling its reflection of the setting sun far below.

In the day, head out to the Sukh Mahal, a summer palace on the banks of Sukh Sagar. Once a cool spot for the princesses to look at the calm lake, it is now where women do their washing, with sarees drying on the brick pavements.

Other places around the lake include Shikar Burj, the former royal hunting lodge, and Kshar Bagh, an ancient garden with beautiful chhatris (pavilions) of Bundi rulers and their queens.

Bear in mind that Bundi has not been subject to the same kind of restoration as other parts of Rajasthan, so everything needs to be approached with a sense of history and imagination. On the flip side, there are not the usual hordes of tourists wandering around, so some of my most peaceful moments were found in Bundi.

At Sardar Bazaar, there are a myriad of shops, from the usual fruit and vegetable sellers to tyre merchants, jewellery merchants and the ubiquitous kite shops. Ask a few questions of any shopkeeper and they will invariably invite you in for a drink of chai, testament to the fact that not many foreigners come to Bundi.

I found the best masala chai in Bundi (and possibly in Rajasthan) along Tilak Chowk (20 rupees). The owner, Krishna, even has a guestbook full of compliments from chai connoisseurs, to which I gladly added my name. He said the secret to his flavourful and yet not overbearing recipe was to bring the chai to boil five times before he served it.

When it comes to places to stay, the Kasera Heritage Haveli in Bundi (1,200 rupees a night) is an affordable experience in a 150-year-old building that sits right below the imposing bulk of the palace. Centrally located, it is tastefully, if simply restored.

The owner disdains television, claiming that nights are better spent in conversation or with a good book. I agree.

The writer is a poet and photographer.

GETTING THERE

The easiest way to get to Rajasthan is via Delhi. Indigo flies there daily for about S$560 return. From Delhi, most people opt to do the Golden Triangle: Delhi, Agra and Jaipur.

If you have time though, deviate from the tourist track and catch a train from Jaipur to Jaisalmer (overnight, about 13 hours, 987 rupees or S$25 for 2AC, 452 rupees for sleeper) and start your journey from there to other parts of Rajasthan.

In between Jaisalmer and Bundi, there is Jodhpur as well as Pushkar and Ajmer. The larger industrial town of Kota is not far off from Bundi and most of these towns are no more than five or six hours apart by bus.

You can book tickets reliably at www.cleartrip.com and buses are easily available at local bus interchanges. Any travel agent will be able to do all of the above for a fee, but trains have wickedly long waiting lists, so if you are on a tight itinerary, book well in advance.

WHEN TO GO

November through February is the best time to visit. It is winter and also the high season, but this is when temperatures are cool and comfortable in the day although it does get cold at night.

Summers can hit 50 deg C, when lakebeds dry up and nobody wants to move a muscle during the day. Obviously, riding a camel out in the desert will not be the wisest thing to do.

 

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