Rajasthan – Land of Kings. Part 1.

Delhi. Friday 13th January 2013
There’s no story to tell about my time in Thailand except that I arrived there from Delhi with a very upset stomach. Yes, I got Delhi Belly in Delhi. Caused by a meal I ate, it was an experience I don’t wish to ever repeat. I was just about OK to eat a nice meal on Christmas day with my friends. Once fully recovered I drank beer, played pool and generally chilled out. Once back in Delhi I made plans for touring Rajasthan, the Land of Kings.

Rajasthan is India’s largest state and possibly its driest. Most of it is desert, although some areas in the south do get good rainfall. There is a mountain range, the Aravalli range, which provides a green belt running down through the state. But there’s no doubt that Rajasthan means deserts and salt flats. The Wiki link is here if you want to read all about it. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rajasthan
My first visit was to Jaipur, the state capital. Heavy city traffic to deal with as I left Delhi, exacerbated by the idiot holding the handlebars who missed a turning. But eventually I came to NH48, which got me there in fine style. Jaipur is known as The Pink City so I made some plans to find out why.
The city itself is part of the “Golden Triangle” of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. So called because they’re very popular with tourists and they’re quite close to each other. A bit of a misnomer in my opinion because Agra includes the Red Fort, Jaipur is the Pink City and Delhi is just —- murky.
Jaipur is one of India’s earliest planned cities. The local Rajput ruler, Jai Singh II wanted to move his capital because of lack of water and he engaged an architect to plan the city. It was completed in 1727. In 1876 the buildings were painted pink to welcome a visit by the Prince of Wales, hence earning its moniker. Unesco adopted the name when they included Jaipur in their World Heritage Sites, naming it The Pink City of India.

Not at all Pink, but intrigueing. A scooter and bicycle combination. The engine’s under the bag.

So what was there to see? The Old City was first on the list. I allowed an Auto driver to talk me into using his services and he dropped me by the entrance. When I went through the gate I could see there was still a fair old walk to get to where I needed to be. But I also realised that all the Autos inside the city were electric, and mine wasn’t. I walked along the road, which had small shops on either side, built into the walls. Part way along a young man chatted to me and pointed out a Krishna temple, suggesting I should visit it.
There was no entry fee and the guy who met me at the top of the steps to the courtyard showed me around. He unbolted the door to the upper area, kept closed, he said, to prevent the monkeys coming down and raiding the fridge. Very sensble. There wasn’t really mush to see up above but the shop he showed me around, with no pressure to buy, had some nice artefacts in it.
Once I got to the palace area I bought a composite ticket, which gave me entry to seven different sites and was valid for two days. It cost £10 but was far better value than having to pay an inflated ‘foreigner fee’ at each one. There were loads of Autos inside the palace, with the drivers offering to take me on a tour of it, but I declined.

Some of the exibhits in Janta Mantar. I didn’t pretend to understand what they all did.

The first visit was to the Janta Mantar, a very large site full of astrological instruments. India has always been a very scientific nation and rulers would always sponsor scientific projects, probably for the kudos more than anything else. But the ruler here was genuinely interested in the topic, and it showed. Jai Singh II was very well versed in mathematics, architecture and astronomy. In fact he built five Jantar Mantars, this being by far the largest.
It was built at the same time as the city. It houses nineteen different instruments but the most important and amazing of them is the Equinoctal Sundial, designed to track the two annual equinoxes. It’s the largest sundial in the world. There’s a triangular wall that acts as the gnomon (the part that casts the shadow), with a quadrant of a circle on either side, set parallel to the plane of the equator. The wall casts its shadow on one quadrant or the other. It’s reckoned that a trained observer can tell the time to within an accuracy of twenty seconds. I was looking at the fuzzy edge of the shadow, at around midday, and thinking that would be impossible. But in an age and place of no clocks, how could anyone tell?

Possibly the worlds largest sundial. They don’t have to be round, do they.

I defy anyone to convince me that the fuzzy edge of that shadow was accurate to two seconds.

It was good to walk around and try to work out what the instruments did and how they worked. Too much for my poor old brain, really, but at least the info boards gave me a bit of a clue. I was pleased to see lots of families there, with maybe some of those kids having the science bug engendered within them.
Next visit was to the actual palace. Another entry fee but again, valid for two days with access to everything inside the palace walls. It was a complex of museums, covering different aspects of the Raja’s life and times. Artefacts, paintings, statues, weapons and so on. Interesting enough but not, to be honest, massively gripping.

One of the palace buildings. All of them were spectacular.

A far more interesting place was the Hawa Mahal, a little way away from the old palace. This is another palace, with a rather unique design. It was built from red and pink sandstone, so its pinkness pre-dates the royal visit. Its five storey front elevation contains nine hundred and fifty three niche style windows, which allow air to flow through the building. They give a honeycomb appearance to the exterior. There is lattice work on the inside and the original purpose of this design was to allow the palace ladies to be able to see ordinary life and the festivals taking place on the streets below without themselves being seen. A sort of a royal peep show.

Many, many windows. Fortunately for the window cleaner, all without glass.

The building is wide but not deep.

Although the façade is very long, it isn’t all that deep, nor is it especially well decorated. There’s courtyards inside, with fountains, whose water combine with the breeze from the windows to provide an efficient cooling effect. The whole assemblage looks quite stunning.

Today’s view is somewhat different to what the Royal Ladies would have enjoyed.

I walked from there along the same road to visit the Albert Hall Museum. Except the Google Maps gave the wrong location and had slightly misnamed it. With some help from a local shopkeeper, and a closer examination of the map, I managed to find it.
It’s named after the Prince of Wales, rather than Queen Victoria’s husband, who laid the foundation stone during his visit there, and was opened in 1887. It grew out of an exhibition of industrial crafts, put together for the 1883 Jaipur Exhibition. It was the brainchild of the Surgeon General, Colonel Tomas Hendley, in partnership with the local ruler, Maharaja Ram Singh. Hendley was determined to preserve and promote ancient Indian building skills, even to the extent of setting up schools to develop these skills. The building itself is part of that work. He avoided using Western methods in any way. The museum has an excellent collection of all kinds of artwork, from elsewhere in the world as well as from India. Much of it is quite old, including an Egyptian Mummy. I very much enjoyed it.

Albert Hall Museum. The building itself is part of the display and was used to train craftsmen.

Having spent a day walking around the old city I used the bike next day as the sites were rather spread out. The first one was Isargat Sargasooli, also know as Victory Tower. It was erected by the second son of a Shah who fought his brother off the throne and built the tower to celebrate. It wasn’t much really, just a steep climb and a nice view over the old city from the top.

Victory Tower. Just the thing to build when you’ve killed your brother.

Then I went to Nahargarh Fort, up on the ridge of a hill overlooking the city. It was very spread out and included some palace buildings to wander through. It was built in 1734 and is one of three forts that provide defence to the city. The palaces were added over the next one hundred years or so, and was a place of retreat for the rulers. It fulfilled its role during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, when Europeans in the area were taken there for their safety.

Nahargargh Fort from above.

I had noticed that about two thirds of Jaipur was surrounded by hills, making defence much easier. The eighteenth century rulers had built a wall across the hills, which linked the three forts together. Much of it has fallen into ruin now, through official neglect. But the sections visible to tourists are in good condition.

Amer Fort Wall. What remains is about eleven kilometres long.

Still up on the ridge, but further along the wall, was Jaigarh Fort. Not as big, but much more interesting. It’s directly linked to Amer Fort, the ancient capital, by road and by underground tunnels. It is four hundred metres above the Amer complex and is designed to defend it from attack.
It’s biggest, in every sense, claim to fame is the Jaivana Cannon, claimed to be the largest wheeled cannon in the world. It weighs fifty tonnes and has a bore that looked to be about 300mm. It was only ever fired once, as a demonstration. It was loaded with 100kgs of gunpowder which propelled the 50kg iron cannon ball a distance of 35 kilometres. Fortunately the local rulers had good relations with the others around them.

Jaivana Cannon. Big!

Perhaps this demonstration was to promote the cannon foundry contained within the fort. There was a ready supply of iron ore locally and the furnace could reach temperatures of 1320 degrees Celsius, thanks to a wind tunnel that could move huge amounts of air from the mountain tops into it. Most of the cannons forged there were big, around five metres long. Quite advanced technology for the time. The armoury was very impressive too, with some interesting rifles to look at.

Cannon making tools, for boring out the iron barrel.

When I started to walk around the palace area an older guy in uniform started describing things to me and before I knew it I had a guide I hadn’t asked for. To be fair he did give me some interesting information but he wasn’t too impressed when I only gave him Rs200. “Most English people give me Rs4 or 500” he complained. “Sorry mate, I don’t have much money” I said.
The third fort was the Amer fort, including the palace complex. It was the original capital of Rajasthan until it was moved to Jaipur in 1727. The two places are about ten kilometres apart. It is sometimes known as the Amber Fort and its sandstone walls are, indeed, very amber in colour. It sits on a hill above the main road and looks massive and very imposing. There’s a man made lake in front of it and when I arrived I pulled into a car park where there were lots of jeeps parked. Looking at the approach to the fort I could see a private track going up to it and I assumed I had to either walk or use one of the jeeps.

It looks mighty impressive, up on the hill.

Well, I got taken for a ride alright. I got talked into using a jeep and I expected my driver to turn up the track I could see, maybe through an official barrier or something, and go up to the fort. But no. He turned back out onto the main road, took a side turning and made his way up around the back of the hill, all on public roads which I could have used. There was even a public car park there. My driver parked in the jeep car park and said he’d wait an hour for me. My thought was, “You’ll wait as long as it takes my friend, because I haven’t paid you yet!”

One of the entry gates. The Moon Gate, I think.

Entry into the fort was free but I voluntarily paid for a guide this time. He showed me the Sun Gate, for the Shah, and the Moon Gate, for the commoners (the one I’d come it at, unsurprisingly). He explained to me that the Shah had twelve wives and he’d built separate rooms for each of them He used secret passageways to visit them, the idea being that none of them knew which wife he was with if he wasn’t with them. Sneaky! He explained to me about some of the decorative features, especially an area where the walls and ceiling were covered with tiny mirrors. They would catch and reflect the light, giving an effect as if they were covered in jewels. Needless to say at the end of the tour he took me to the souvenir shops. Needless to say, I didn’t go in to them. In fact I went back to have a closer look at some parts of the palace.

Beautifully decorated, with the mirror tiles on the ceiling.

I was back with my driver within the hour and on the way back down he stopped at the Panna Meena Ka Kund. This is what’s know as a Step Well. It’s a bathing tank which has a cleverly arranged series of steps leading down to it. They seem to criss cross each other as they go down, reminding me of the moving stairs in the Harry Potter films. The photo explains it better than my words can.

This is quite something, isn’t it? Inspiration for the Harry Potter moving staircases, I reckon.

I still had some places to visit, all covered by the composite ticket I’d bought the day before. The first was the Monkey Temple, properly called the Galta Ji temple. At the bottom of the approach road a young guy said to me, “You have to park here, motorcycles aren’t allowed up there,” I couldn’t see a barrier or any signs, so I thought, “Just watch me, Sonny”, and carried on. The road went up a long way, farther than I would have walked, but at the top I took a wrong turn and ended up at a small Sun temple. There, I got blessed and given one of those cotton wristbands (for a small donation), before coming back down again. I gave up on the Monkey temple in the end.

A temple in the lake, en route to the summer palaces.

The last two places were Vidyadhar Bagh and Sisodia Ranika Bagh. I couldn’t access the small palace buildings but they both had very nice gardens, where the Shah would come to escape the heat and the hurly burley of the main palace and relax. When I left these places the road I was on joined a main road where there was a constant stream of traffic coming past me from my right. I was waiting for a gap when a couple of bikes and a car came along side me and just pulled out into the traffic. I followed them out, feeling like a real wimp. But I know that however long I’m in India I’m never going to be quite that audacious.

A cooling summer garden for the king and his lady.

I wasn’t quite sure where to go next but after some research I had several places marked on the map. My friend Jay had nominated some for me too. I chose to go north to visit Mandawa, a town of architectural interest, with the other places then being to the south. The roads there were good and on the country roads I saw several carts drawn by camels. They looked very odd, with the shafts at a steep angle upwards to attach to the camel’s high back.

These became a common sight on the roads of Rajasthan.

Mandawa is famous for its Haveli Houses. These are common in Rajasthan, having been popular in South Asia with the Mughal rulers in this area. They have Persian influences and often utilise Italian design features and materials. Mandawa has an abundance of them. Their key architectural features are that the (usually) two story building is built around a central courtyard, which is the family area. It is open to the sky and attracts cooling breezes through the house, with the other rooms being off the central area. The outside of the upper floor overhangs the ground floor and the underside of the overhang is decorated with drawings of local life. The walls surrounding the courtyard are similarly decorated.
As I came into the town from the main road I saw a hotel that looked very attractive. It was dearer than my usual budget but the price included breakfast and the building was beautiful. It was Haveli styled, built 125 years ago and used to be a family home. My room had columns and arches, cubby holes in the walls, and two bathrooms. How could I resist! I was told to bring my bike inside and it was easily the the most salubrious stabling my steed has had so far.

Far too good for my dusty old bike. But the decorations in this former residence are fabulous.

I went for a walk around the town and was collared by a guy named Raj, who told me he’d worked in the UK, in Hackney, Margate and Falmouth, with a female film director making a film about sex workers. “So after all that, what are you doing here, Dude?” , were my thoughts. He was due to meet up with her again soon, was the answer he gave me when I asked him. I told him I didn’t need a guide and wouldn’t be paying him, but he insisted on showing me some of the houses anyway. At the end I gave him some money, as I’m sure he knew I would.

Lovingly refurbished by local owners.

Badly neglected by city based investors.

He showed me several different houses, some obviously freshly refurbished, other in a very poor condition. One of them was just crumbling away. The bad ones were owned by people in the cities, just as an investment, who didn’t really care much about them The good ones were owned locally and had been nicely restored. He pointed out where the interesting drawings could be found, including a Kama Sutra sex scene on one of the under hangs. So I suppose he was worth the money I gave him in the end and he was an interesting character too.

A painting from the Kama Sutra. But you have to squint a bit.

I was walking along a road, camera in hand. This lady immediately went into her ‘Tourist Pose’, so I could take a picture (and pay her some money)

As I rode to my next destination, Deshnoke, I couldn’t help noticing a whole variety of vehicles with massive bags on the back of them. If you imagine looking at a bike which has a top box and two side panniers on it, that was the shape of the load, regardless of whether the vehicle was a Tuk Tuk, a tractor and trailer or a truck. They were clearly carrying some kind of agricultural produce but I had no idea what. The terrain I’d been riding through was mostly sandy scrub land, so that gave me no clue either. But the very odd looking camel carts, some quite heavily loaded, were easier to work out.

I have no idea what kind of agricultural produce was inside these big bags.

I arrived at Shree Kani Mataji Temple, also known as The Temple of rats. Apparently 20,000 of them live there, roaming around freely. They’re not the horrible looking sewer rats that our imaginations tend to conjure up. They are brown and smaller. They’re considered to be holy and are therefore taken care of by the temple staff. It seems to be a big thing to to be inside the temple and watch the rats eat out of a big bowl of potatoes. They seem to be well fed so I wasn’t in fear of my toes.

I wasn’t quite convinced that this was a good idea, however ‘lucky’ it might be.

On observing them closely their behaviour seemed to be very odd. They would kiss each other, then sniff each others bums, then stand on their hind legs and box each other. Then they’d scurry around and repeat that behaviour with another rat. I felt very amused by it all. The rats have a special place in one of the Hindu legends, that being the reason for their privileged existence.

Loving or fighting? I’m not sure which.

Now I was deep into Rajasthan I found the terrain to be very sparse of vegetation or crops. The roads weren’t busy but it was still a bit chilly, even though the temperatures were close to thirty degrees. But night times were definitely much warmer than they had been further north. One of the benefits of riding south.
Before I left next morning I checked the tyre pressures, then pumped them up. I had a little audience of guys watching what I was doing. I enjoyed a laugh with them making it a happy start to the day.
Most of the roads I travelled were single carriageway, rural roads. They passed through mostly scrub land but I noticed a lot of trees that were clearly cultivated. They’d been heavily pollarded although I have no idea what fruit they supply.

Mehrangarh Fort and Museum. Looking impressive on top of its rock outcrop.

I headed straight to Mehrangarh Fort and Museum, in Johdpur. It’s a big place, on top of a rocky outcrop which is on top of a hill. It dates from the 15th C and is very decorative. It’s of a Hindu and Moghul style. There was a lift up to the main building and I happily paid the extra to use it. Otherwise it would have been a steep walk up there.
The museum contained plenty of interesting things to see – armour, clothes, paintings etc. A good selection of artefacts from across the ages. The main building was very decorative and included a mirror ceiling, similar to the one I’d seen at Amber Fort.

The guards seem to be chosen for their facial hair displays.

I noticed, as I walked round, that some of the guards had small cups of chai so when I spotted a guy with a flask giving some to a couple of them I said, “Oh, I see the Chai Wallah has arrived then!” “Yes,” said one of the guards. “Would you like some?” “Yes please,” said I. “Walking around these places is hard work.”
I told him I was travelling by bike and he told me about his Royal Enfield diesel powered Bullet. This was one that the factory produced for about three years, from 1995 to 1997. He gets 85 kms per litre, almost three times what I get. I’d read about them when they first came out. A very rare beast. As I walked away from there I passed a group of teenagers and a couple of youngsters. Suddenly one of them called out to me, “You’re beautiful!” I fell about laughing, as did the teens. I can’t begin to imagine what elicited that comment.

Impressive fort buildings.

I went down into the town, looking for a hotel. The first place I tried was too dear and at the second place, when I asked the price of a room, the guy on reception asked me to suggest a price. So I said Rs800 (£8), expecting to be laughed at. But he said “Yes, OK.” I wished I’d offered less. The room wasn’t great but it had hot water and that was the main thing I needed.
The next destination was Jaisalmer, another town with a fort. But before I could leave I needed to tackle an electrical problem on the bike. Neither my spotlights nor my heated grips were working. Both of them obtained their earth connection via a metal frame, at the front of the bike, that housed the headlight and instrument panel. Some quick work with the test light determined there was no earth, which meant that metal section no longer had an electrical connection with the main frame of the bike. Very odd, but easily fixed with a separate wire through to the main frame.
The journey to Jaisalmer was smooth and easy, across the type of terrain that typified Rajasthan. I was heading for a hotel near the fort when I spotted the entrance. Lots of vehicles were driving into it so I stopped to check the map for possible hotels. A passer-by said there’s about forty of them inside. I picked one out and headed to it through the narrow streets, some of which were not much wider than my bike plus its load of luggage. But it was too dear. A guy invited me to come and look at his guest house but that was also more than I wanted to pay. The another guy approached me and invited me to look at his homestay. I was left with the distinct impression that the owners of these places walk the streets looking for custom.

Rooftop cafe at Marigold Homestay.

But it worked for this guy. It was a nice place, with good rooms at a very reasonable Rs400 (£4). Yes please! He had a rooftop restaurant there too, which overlooked the city and, as it turned out, served very good food. I could see the King’s and Queen’s places from there too. It felt quite special to be able to stay in the heart of the old city, surrounded by amber sandstone buildings, and it was unique compared to all the other forts. The bike was parked safely outside, covered up for security.
I met a German guy in the restaurant area, enjoying a beer. So I ordered one as well, along with some local style food. He’s travelling by plane on a twelve month business visa but hopes to get a five year one. He’s a keen biker so he’ll buy a bike when he gets settled in. S couple of elderly French women arrived as well so we had an international social evening talking about travelling. Fortunately all in English, the common language for travellers, luckily for me. But it was a rather chilly evening and the warmth of companionship didn’t quite remove the need for a jacket.

A very nicely decorated interior to the temple I popped in to.

It was still chilly in the morning, with a sharp breeze blowing, so once I’d eaten breakfast I stayed in my room. Then about midday I went for a walk around the town. There’s a viewpoint nearby, where I took some photos, then found a nice temple to look in, out of the wind. I got talking to a woman who had admired my Himichalli hat. Her women’s group was organising a campaign to be allowed employment as cooks and cleaners. Somewhat opposite to the desires of Western women, I thought, but I had noticed that it was men that did all the cooking in eateries. I don’t know whether that fight related just to the fort, the town, the state or the whole of India. But it was interesting to learn about these things.

Temples in, and adjacent to, the lake.

On the outer edge of the town is a man made lake, probably an ancient reservoir. I took a walk down there to admire the temple style buildings there and then walked up to a viewpoint that overlooked the fort. I found a stall that sold proper coffee and while I was drinking it a young guy tried to convince me that one of my sandals was falling apart. He wanted to sell me his repair service, which consisted of a tube of glue he was holding. I declined but admired his enterprise.
I walked along to the Government Museum and wished I hadn’t bothered. I was the first visitor that day, according to the book the guard asked me to fill in. He had to unlock it for me and then stood there as I looked at the very sparse range of exhibits. But the paintings were nice and the walk out there warmed me up nicely.

I watched this kid and his friends playing marbles. He wasn’t too impressed with my answer when he asked me for money.

The owner of the home stay had a friend who organised trips out into the desert, by jeep and then on a camel. I met our guide down in the town, along with a pleasant French guy named Chris. We were taken by jeep out to a desert village where we transferred to the beast. I quickly reached the conclusion that camels are extremely uncomfortable to ride, especially for the hour or so I was perched on its back. It was necessary to grip it with my thighs to avoid being thrown about and they soon began to ache. I decided I was glad not to have been born a Bedouin!

This plant is a Giant Milkweed, which does have some medicinal uses.

Some of the plants I saw appeared to be cultivated. I asked our guide about them and he told me what they were, but I didn’t quite catch the name. Some of the cacti looked extremely vicious. One of them had leaves that took the shape of thin tubes with very sharp thorns on them. (See the caption.) I gripped a bit tighter as we rode past them.

Not a Cacti, as I’d thought. But very much a desert plant. Euphorbia Caducifolia, in case you wondered.

We’d been joined by another couple, a Russian woman and her Indian friend. Open air food and sleeping. Chai, food, beer and a thin mattress on the sand. Freezing temperatures too,but with thick quilts. But the compensation was the magnificent sky, with bright stars wheeling overhead. I didn’t fully understand what that phrase meant until I experienced the extent to which everything had moved across the sky each time I got up for a pee. It really was something special. All aided by the bright, early moon. It was a bit of a shorter ride back to the village next morning. I was happy with that.

Our guides ‘singing’ us to sleep.

A little bit of the night sky.

Back at the homestay I met a young Aussie couple, who were quite well travelled. So we swapped stories for a while even though I was supposed to be getting on with some writing. Various people drifted in to eat so they got chatted to as well. But eventually I got some work done.
The next day I had the same problem. A young Dutch couple, AJ and Miriam came to stay. More stories swapped.

My Dutch friends, Ajay and Miriam.

Then a young Israeli, Dennis, got involved too. Later on an Indian couple from Srinagar, Ovee and Abrar arrived. Yet more chatting. Ovee is a Doctor in Geological and Environmental History, subjects which I’m very interested in. He’s a teacher but was mostly a mentor these days. He’d been interested in going into politics in Srinagar but decided things were too fractious there, so didn’t bother. A wise move, in my opinion.

My Kashmiri friends, Ovee and Arbar.

Later that evening we all walked down to the lake to watch a light show that told the history of the town. It looked very nice but, of couse, I couldn’t understand a word. There were some interesting stalls to admire as we walked back. It’s sometimes tempting to buy trinkets but I simply don’t have the carrying space for them, so my hands stay firmly in my pockets. I completed the night with some great conversation with Ovee and Abrar. It was good to be able to have some serious conversation with them about Indian affairs and politics. Next day I settled my massive bill (not really) and headed out into the desert.
More of Rajasthan soon. But before I finish, what do goats like to do to pass the time?

Eat paint off the wall.