Newsletter for November 2009 - Indian Panorama
Although we touched on Rajasthan in a recent newsletter, a recent trip there by members of our team unearthed some new destinations of such high quality and interest that we couldn't wait to share them with you.
So in this month's newsletter we'll focus on three places in depth which we feel represent some of the very best 'hidden treasures' of India's most colourful and vibrant state.
We've also added some new pages to our Rajasthan photo gallery depicting our recent travels: The Hidden Rajasthan
Another addition is gallery of photos from several visits we've made to India's most iconic monument, the Taj Mahal. This stunning structure is an almost obligatory stop during any tour to the north of India and is included in all of our Rajasthan itineraries on this site. Although these photos can give only a hint of the true grandeur of the Taj, we hope they will provide some sense of the majesty of what is perhaps the most beautiful manmade structure in the world: The Taj Mahal.
We felt truly privileged to spend time at the wonderful Hacra Dhani, home of Gemar Singh and his family, in the western desert of Rajasthan and about 25km from the town of Osiyan. Gemar has established a project which is genuinely low-impact, both in terms of its environmental footprint and its interaction with the local village communities of the area. There are no swimming pools, air-conditioning or room service here; rather there is a sense of belonging, of being a part of the local community and of being at one with the landscape and the people who make their home in this remarkable desert region.
It should be emphasised that Hacra Dhani is a low-key and very simple place to stay - there aren't even any bedrooms as such and the vast majority of guests sleep under the stars - a truly magical experience. Even getting here is an adventure - the closest thing which could be described as a road ends a kilometre or more away and the final approach to Gemar's home (Dhani roughly translates as 'hamlet' in Rajasthani) is across sand-dunes. From the small cluster of huts which constitute Hacra Dhani, it is a short and easy walk to the neighbouring village, a Rajput community with whom Gemar has a very good and close relationship. We were incredibly privileged to sit at the communal village centre with two venerable elders who were very interested in us and in telling us about their lifestyle. It was humbling and fascinating to hear that they lived almost their entire lives within a few kilometres of their homes, with trips to the nearest town made only when necessary, and the long-distance journey (25km) to Osiyan being a major event.
It was probably equally difficult for them to understand that one of our group lives in a place where annual rainfall is measured in metres - trying to explain this to people whose desert home might see just a few centimetres of precipitation a year was highly amusing.
Another striking element of this part of the Rajasthan landscape is the amount of wildlife one can see while simply driving around - the most common animals were chinkara (Indian gazelle) and nilgai (a large antelope also known as the blue bull). We also saw jackals, vultures, peacocks and countless camels.
Many of Karnataka's finest temples are in remote parts of the state which take hours of driving, spread of several day, to reach. The major exception is Somnathpur, which is less than 2 hours from downtown Mysore. This small but incredibly intricately decorated temple is one of the finest examples of Hoysala architecture, and indeed is arguably one of the most beautiful temples in India, rivalling even those of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh for complexity and sheer artistic beauty.
The main activity around Gemar Singh's home is camel trekking and camel safaris. These can be anything from a few hours to several days. While some 'camel camps' offer luxuriously appointed tents and hotel-like facilities, Gemar's treks are more in keeping with the local way of travel - a few hours riding a day while avoiding the heat of the day. We would strongly recommend time with Gemar if you are interested in learning about the 'real life' of the people of Rajasthan while you are visiting the state.
The former princely state of Jojawar is another gem of a destination located in the fringes of the Aravali ranges in south-west Rajasthan. The small town of Jojawar seems to appear on no known map of Rajasthan and we were only finally convinced of its exact location when the maharaja himself, the inestimable Rao Singh, pinpointed it for us on the map we were carrying- this must surely qualify it be described as a hidden treasure! The ancestral family home of the Singh dynasty, the Rawla (local dialect for fort) is a grand building with large, attractive public areas and very comfortable rooms.
The real attractions of the district though lie in the easily accessible hiking trails, the numerous Mewar, Bishnoi and Rajput villages and the unique train journey which passes through the hills close to the town. One thing which many people ask us is how sensible it is to visit small villages where the people may have little understanding of why tourists comes to visit them and where little explanation may be given to visitors about the lifestyle and culture of the people who they are seeing. This is not an issue at Jojawar where the symbiosis of the relationship between the maharaja, his family and staff and the local people is clear to see. The village visits are conducted in a low-key manner and the genuine love and respect of the local people for their (former) rulers is plain to see.
Train travel in Rajasthan often doesn't fit with travelling schedules and the main highways these days are so good that often little if any time is saved by taking a train as opposed to driving. So to discover the hill railway (to call it a mountain railway would be stretching the point) running from Kambli Ghat to Goram Ghat through lushly forested hills, past hill temples and with far more monkeys than people visible from the train, was a real treat. This is genuine local train travel- we were the only visitors on board on the day we visited- and tourists and locals sit together in the unreserved carriages. If you have a romantic vision of train travel in India, a long haul route between cities is unlikely to fulfil it- this journey though (while not as spectacularly scenic as the mountain railways around Ooty or Darjeeling) is something truly special and well worth the stop at Jojawar to enjoy.
Jojawar can easily be included as part of any visit to southern Rajasthan and its location roughly equidistant from Jodhpur and Udaipur makes it an ideal way to experience a small town while staying in great comfort and style. Nearby are other places of interest including Kumbhalgarh Fort, the temple town of Narlai and the Jain temples at Ranakpur.
After nearly 3 weeks on the road in Rajasthan, we really felt that we were unlikely to discover any more stunning destinations on our last day before heading for home - happily we were very pleasantly surprised by the town of Karauli in the east of Rajasthan. One often reads or hears of places which are 'special', little visited by tourists and largely untouched by the modern world but to discover such a place less than 3 hours drive from the bustle of Jaipur was something none of us had expected.
The old town of Karauli is as close to a 'perfect' place to explore on foot as any we've seen in Rajasthan - it is both large enough to still support local craftspeople but small enough to be largely traffic-free. The exception to this is on Monday of each week when the old city area becomes almost impassable to cars as it is turned into a market with villagers coming from all over the surrounding region to sell their crops and produce.
The accommodation here is another ancestral home- Bhanwar Niwas- which was built in the early 20th century and is located outside the old city in expansive grounds. A gracious building which is still home to the descendents of its founders, Bhanwar Vilas has excellent public areas including a stylish billiards room and a bar plus lots of covered terraces for sitting. The family are real animal lovers- one of the previous generations kept tiger cubs as pets - and animals are encouraged into the grounds. While we were there we saw 2 semi-tame mongooses running around the courtyard! Among the unique elements here is a working dairy farm in the grounds, and a sizeable collection of vintage motor vehicles.
But the real reason for visiting Karauli is the City Palace. While areas of this majestic building bear the scars of the passage of time, it is in many ways the equal of the far better known City Palace in Udaipur. Truly one of the hidden treasures of Rajasthan, it is still owned by the family and so is run and maintained privately. As very few people visit Karauli, it is almost like touring a private monument. We spent over an hour walking around and still saw only half of the rooms. Some restoration work is ongoing and there is a real awareness of the need to conserve the Palace among all generations of the family. The town itself also has step-wells and over 150 temples several of which are still major places of local pilgrimage.
Another attraction near Karauli is Kalai Devi Wildlife Sanctuary which is a part of the same forest system as Ranthambore. This is a low-key park but is home to all the same animals as Ranthambore, except tigers. You can travel here easily from Karauli and can walk, cycle or take a jeep ride into the Sanctuary.
This new itinerary includes time in both Jojawar and Karauli as well as all the more commonly visited cities & regions of Rajasthan.