Bangalore , 22nd Nov:

“It’s an opportunity for a week-long vacation. Lets go somewhere really interesting”. That was my friend Sunitha during an after movie coffee conversation. She was referring to the time off from Christmas to New Year.

“What about Rajasthan? I really want to go there.” I had been waiting for this opportunity. Though I stayed in Delhi for 8 long years, the trip to Rajasthan never worked out and here was my chance, being brewed in a coffee shop in Bangalore.

Bangalore, 8th December:

The whacky idea gradually took the form of a detailed travel plan with contemplation on whether it would be safe for two girls to travel alone, which cities should we cover, what should be the duration, do we go through a travel agent or book online. This was followed by lots of research on the internet.

Finally we shortlisted 5 cities – Udaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Bikaner and Jaipur. We decided to take a complete package through a travel agent including pick up from Udaipur airport, accommodation, local travel & sightseeing, road travel across these five cities and finally drop to Delhi. It too us 2 weeks to finalize the bookings in between our peak work schedules. I must say, doing self research on the internet is very helpful when stepping into unknown territory. We did not take everything at face value and were able to chalk out a detailed itinerary for ourselves. It helped in looking up the various places to shortlist which ones we really wanted to see compared to the standard itineraries recommended as part of tour packages which end up making people tired and a little bored. We not only wanted to use time optimally but also remain motivated and interested as we covered these 5 cities in a week.

Bangalore, 16th December :

Our biggest advantage during this vacation was the weather. The best time to see Rajasthan is from November to February and we were going there at Christmas time. The flip side was that we couldn’t travel light.Once we shared our plans with friends and family, a lot of advice followed. “It’ll be very cold there”, “Are you sure it is safe?’, “What arrangements have you made?”, “Have you checked with someone who has been there?’ and so on…
I and Sunitha just hoped that all the arrangements we had made would work out fine. We were really looking forward to this vacation.

Udaipur, 23rd December :

Finally the day came. With our bags packed and are hopes high, both of us set out for our adventurous trip. We flew from Bangalore via Mumbai to Udaipur where our road trip across Rajasthan was about to begin.

We were greeted at the Udaipur airport by our tour guide alongwith our cab driver, Raju Bhaiya, who was to be with us throughout our journey across this land of deserts, forts and colors.

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We started with the boat ride across Lake Pichola, the biggest lake in the city. The lake is surrounded by palaces and the ride during sunset is a real feast to the eyes. The boat also stops for 30 minutes at Jagmandir Palace which is surrounded by the lake on all sides. The walk through the princely gardens makes one really feel royal. There are sections of the Jagmandir palace which are still used by the royal family of Udaipur and are not open to public. However the remaining palace and its gardens are a welcome treat and are highly popular as a venue for weddings and parties amidst the rich and the famous.

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After our dreamy boat ride, we went to the “Baghore ki Haveli” which is near Lake Pichola and is known for the cultural programme in the evening. What greeted us was an amazing array of Rajasthani folk music and dances including the popular Bhavai and Ghoomar dances as well as puppet shows. The anchor explained the purpose and history of each dance as the artists brightened up the stage with their lively performances. We were completely rapt as the artists danced over blades, swords and broken glass with the matkas on their head, all in perfection.

Dinner was another affair to remember. The “Vintage Car Collection Museum” offers a sumptuous Rajasthani thaali alongwith a tour of the royal vintage car collection. As the incharge of the collection lit up the garage, his eyes also twinkled with the stories behind each of the cars which he shared with a lot of pride and zeal with us. My favorite story was the one with the Mercedez which had black shaded windows as it was driven by the queen who was the royal bahu and could not be seen doing so by the public. The fact that a work around was thought of instead of curtailing her interest reflected the openness of the royal family even in those days.

Once we were done with seeing the collection, we were taken to the restaurant where the steward affectionately offered the authentic meal to us. What struck us immediately about Udaipur was the hospitality. Each and every person greeted us with a lot of affection. With a great start of our holiday and a satisfied tummy, we retired for the night at our comfortable hotel. Even during the end of December, the weather in Udaipur was very pleasant.

Udaipur and Jodhpur, 24th December :

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The next morning saw us enjoying the sunshine at “Sahelion ki Baari”. According to our guide, this garden was made by a king for his daughter as she wished to experience monsoon in summers. The garden is replete with beautiful fountains which constantly make you experience the sound of rain. The fountains at the entrance are sound sensitive. The water gushing out as I walked through the path clapping my hands made me truly feel like a princess.

After a bright beginning of the day, we moved towards Jodhpur which is 250 kms away from Udaipur. The roads across Rajasthan are very good and you can’t help admire the scenic beauty on the way. A stop at the Ranakpur Jain temple on the way to Jodhpur is a must. It is believed that the Ranakpur temple is one of the 3 completely vaastu compliant temples in India, the other two being the Tirumalai temple in Tirupathi and the Sun Temple in Konark. With 1444 pillars, the temple reflects one of the finest architectures that I have seen. The priest generally takes the visitors on a 45 minute tour of the temple explaining each and every corner with detail. The temple also is a lesson in humility. An example being that one of the pillars has been intentionally made crooked to bring in certain imperfection as the maker believed that only God could be perfect.

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Awestruck, we moved on with our journey. There are very good restaurants on the way for lunch though we did have to depend on Raju Bhaiya’s knowledge and preference for this. We reached Jodhpur in the evening and spent a good part of the evening shopping for Baandhini material before we called it a day. Another fruitful day and we were really looking forward to visiting the Mehrangarh Fort the next morning.

Jodhpur, 25th December :

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The Mehrangarh fort turned out to be a high point of our trip. The sheer size, strength and solitude of the fort makes you fall in love with it as it looms large in view miles before you reach it. We had our tour guide, though the fort offers audio guides as well. The elevator carved through the stone walls is a blessing for people who don’t wish to exert their knees by climbing 3 floors of rocky slope. A fascinating view of the “Blue City” greeted us as we stepped out of the elevator. It is said that the houses were painted blue to demarcate the Brahmin colonies.

 The fort is well maintained with a magnificent collection of haudas, paalkis, paalnas, weaponry and the personal collection of the royal family including intricate wine and cigar holders. The rich history of Jodhpur as presented through the archives of the Mehrangarh fort is remarkable.

Close to Mehrangarh fort is the Jaswant Thada. This is one of rare tombs made by a wife in memory of her husband. As we walked towards the site the soft melody of the famous Rajasthani folk song ‘kesariya baalam aavoji, padharo mare des”, by one of the local artists, melted in my ears.

After a beautiful morning, we set out for the most sought after part of our trip, Jaisalmer. As we approached Jaisalmer, the arid land around us reminded us that were entering into sand territory. What also struck us immediately was that all the buildings in Jaisalmer looked alike be it a shop, hotel, office or a house. The architecture was quite similar and the yellow stone used for construction added to the uniformity. Exhausted by the morning excitement, the night was spent peacefully at the hotel in Jaisalmer.

Jaisalmer, 26th December :

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A complete contrast to the Mehrangarh fort, the Jaisalmer fort has 5000 families residing inside and is a township in itself. The families belong to those who served the royal family and were given a place to stay in the fort in appreciation of their services. The fort has two Jain temples inside which are the only places worth seeing. We enjoyed the visit to the “Patwon ki Haveli” more where we got to experience the richness of the those times again with silver furniture, gold ceilings and beautiful architecture.

The visit to Jaisalmer wouldn’t have been complete without purchasing mirror work stuff and camel leather goods. After a short break at the market, we moved towards Sam Sand Dunes which is about 40 kilometers away from the city and where we were to stay in a camp that night. As we reached the camp, the desert around looked irresistible. A short rest and we were ready for our camel ride into the desert.

The camel ride, I must say, is an experience in itself as one gets thrown backwards and forward when the camel gets up. The bouncy ride across the unpredictable sand dunes left us clinging to our seat for dear life. Our camel “Sheroo Khan” was a little impulsive too which added to our predicament. The camel left us on top of our preferred dune from where we could watch the beautiful sunset. Sitting there, that evening, watching the sun across the vastness of the desert was truly mesmerizing.

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The evening followed with a campfire and folk dances at our camp. Our tents were well equipped with a double bed, table, chairs and most importantly a toilet with hot and cold water. Tea, snacks and dinner were on the house. One needs to be well packed to deal with the freezing cold in the tent at night though. The blankets weren’t much help and we had to cover ourselves from head to toe warm ourselves up. The silence of the open desert and the fact that the tents can’t be locked felt a little weird initially but soon peaceful slumber took over.

Sam and Bikaner, 27th December :

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The morning started earlier at the camp with the crack of dawn. With just a few early risers around, I couldn’t resist the walk towards the desert to enjoy it all by myself. The camels had just started coming in and I was highly tempted to take another ride which made me rush back to the tent and wake up my friend. We took a longer trip this time, nearly up to the border. It felt strange that just a string of barbed wire marked the limits of two countries. Perched on top of the camel, my eyes gaped in awe across the vast Thar desert and the beautiful sand which felt like talcum.

With this image etched in my mind, we moved towards our next destination, Bikaner most famously associated with Bhujia. We reached there in the evening. The first on the itinerary was the Bhandashah Jain temple. The temple is more than 600 years old and was the first Jain temple in the city. The beautiful meenakari paintings on the walls of the temple still look fresh and lively. The temple was very colorful as compared to the Jain temples we had visited at Ranakpur and Jaisalmer.

The rest of the evening was spent at our hotel in Bikaner complimented by a puppet show and folk music.

Bikaner, 28th December :

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The day started for us at the Junagarh fort which is an amazing combination of Indian architecture and imported raw material right from the Italian flooring to the Swiss tiles on the chamber walls, doors made of silver and ceilings made of gold. The Junagarh fort again unfolded the rich history and culture of the state of Bikaner to us. The fort was again well kept and the rooms looked like they are still being used. We also got to know the rationale behind various things, for instance, the beds were just 6 inches higher from the floor so that the enemy couldn’t hide under the bed. The commentary provided by the fort guides mixed with amazing sense of humor made the fort tour very enjoyable. This was the only fort where the guides are government appointed and there is no additional charge for their services.

After a nice cup of masala chai and walk through the Lallgarh Palace (now a famous hotel), we headed towards our final destination, Jaipur. We reached Jaipur late in the evening and spent a couple of hours shopping. Of course it is sinful to be in Jaipur and not shop around. Anything which you missed in the other cities is available here.

Jaipur, 29th December:

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The morning started with a visit to Jantar Mantar. It was inspiring to see the exemplary astronomical observatory, a reflection of the farsightedness and knowledge of our ancestors. A short stop at Hawa Mahal was followed by an extravagant Rajasthani Thaali at the revolving restaurant in Om Towers. The restaurant is situated on the 14th floor and provides a full view of the city from all sides.

The final stop was at the Amber fort. I was more impressed with the exteriors of the fort than its interiors. Though it did not hold the richness of the Mehrangarh or Junagarh forts, the Sheesh Mahal, intricately carved with glass, was impressive. As I looked up to the stone wall across the mountain from Amber fort, this probably marked an apt end to a memorable holiday. The massive wall cutting across the huge rocky mountain epitomized the valor of the Rajput culture.

I closed by eyes and mused over my experiences in the last week. Images began to pour in- the romanticism of Udaipur, the stalwartness of Mehrangarh, the intriguing architecture of Ranakpur, the vastness and peace of the desert in Jaisalmer and the colorful sense of humor of Bikaner. I had learnt so much from this land of contrasts with the Sati imprints on one hand to queens driving their own cars, the lush lakes of Udaipur to the arid and vegetation short territory of Jaisalmer, the guides enthralling stories of valor of the kings to Raju Bhaiya’s latest gossip on filmstars that he had driven across during shootings in Rajasthan. I rolled back my head and savored each image as we headed back to Delhi.

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