Off-the-beaten-track in Rajasthan
19.03.2012 - 25.03.2012 33 °C
Back in my home-away-from-home and spent a few frenetic days, eating, shopping, sourcing and drinking! Including a very respectable new brew pub in Gurgaon called Strykers. Had many many beers (Rock Bock being my fav) in honour of St Paddy. Also a lovely brunch at China Kitchen that included yummy peking duck. So much eating and drinking we were looking forward to a more subdued gastronomic pace on our road trip to Rajasthan and Gujarat. This did not turn out to be the case though!
Kumbhalgarh Fort & Ranakpur's Jain Temples
March 19 saw us depart early for Udaipur, where we were picked up by our friend and escort CV Singh. We immediately struck out on the lovely drive to Kumbhalgarh Fort. The 36-kilometres of fort walls, perched 1100 meters high up on a hill is an imposing sight! The Araveli hills as a back drop for the passing green of Rajasthan, and dotted with the newly emerging brilliant orange of the flame-of-the-forest trees, makes for some of the prettiest countryside in India.
After hiking up to the top of the 16th century Mewar fort and looking over the plains of western Rajasthan, we popped into the exquisite Jain temples in Ranakpur, which was a return visit for me. I think you'd have to visit a lot to not find something new to enjoy at these incredibly detailed and intricate Jain temples, first started in 1438. The entire main temple is covered inside and out with carvings, and no two columns of the 1444 inside pillars are the same. Fantastic!
A stop for lunch, and then a short drive to the tiny village of Chanoud, near Kenpura, where relatives of CV have spent three years carefully restoring their ancestral home and creating a beautiful boutique hotel. (www.facebook.com/hotelhanoudgarh)
The work Jai and his sister Swati have done here is wonderful. The best of the restored heritage hotels I’ve yet stayed in thus far. This is a true labour of love, and they’ve managed to strike a balance between modern luxurious comfort and character-filled authenticity from days gone by. Present of course are the fascinating old pictures of family from when the Raj was in its hey day. I love looking at these moments frozen in time and the stories they tell.
Their home had suffered from generations of neglect so their work was cut out for them. They have painstakingly removed years of plaster off walls and stone, revealing beautiful carvings and uncovering murals. Each room has been created from the space, rather than making a space fit the room. Each room has also been colourfully decorated in a different palate, combining colours as only India seems able to do. The interior design was done by Swati, a former fabric designer from Mumbai, she returned home to help her brother see through his vision.
The rooms will all have separate names, but for now are numbered. Our room was bright and cheerful in turquoise, yellow and pink, with 3 separate alcove seating areas, and a nearby outdoor patio. On the 3rd floor, this room overlooked the central courtyard on one side and the village from the back windows where we were greeted by a peacock, posing on a village roof.
CV stayed below us, in a room converted from the old stable that used to house an eccentric past Maharana’s favourite horses. He liked to have them close, so they were stabled below his sleeping quarters. That room was long and narrow, with padded alcoves cut into the former stall areas, hitching posts and all. We were shown several of the other rooms and none disappoint. Such a wonderful maze of corridors, rooms, alcoves and balconies. Rose-ringed Parakeets, spotted owlets and loads of peacocks living in, on, and aournd the property.
The food was similarily wonderful and complete with birthday cake for me on our first night. A lovely rum basted confection, following drinks on the courtyard balcony, entertained by a village dance and musician show. After dinner, we went up to the roof to watch the stars. Comfy pillows and mattresses were placed out for us to check out the night sky in comfort.
The next morning we were up early to watch the sun rise over the nearby hills, but, a dust storm had arrived. Was really different – looked rather like fog back home. By the time we actually spotted the sun rising above the dust, it was well into its rise. Interesting mood the dust made.
That night, we went out to the salt flats, which were rather like the Little Rann. The dust had not dispersed, which apparently is unusual, so our sunset was very similar to the sunrise. With the sun disappearing well before it vanished from the horizon.
The next morning we were off to another heritage spot, off-the-beaten-track. Shiv Pratap Singh is a school-friend of CV’s and his resort, Ravla Bhenswara, is a mish-mash of rescued heritage building pieces, doors, walls and windows, all cobbled together to form this whimsical hotel, that has grown from the original 240-year-old family home. Lovely courtyards, winding staircases, balconies and passageways make the property extra fun. The passion and love for his home and Marwari heritage is evident in everything Shiv Pratap does. (http://www.hotelravlabhenswara.com/)
It’s a lovely resort on its own, but it was his larger-than-life personality and unbounded hospitality that was the star attraction for us. We were wined and dined till bursting, as he would take no pleas of being full as an excuse not to try the next delicacy. One night we had wonderful slow-cooked stew, which was then spread over roti, with chopped raw onion, toasted cumin and a squeeze of lime. Then you rip up your roti and sop up the lovely flavours. A very local dish, as were most of the dishes served here. Such a uniquely Indian and Marwari experience. Sandra did very well here (Mary, you will be impressed) since we didn’t eat dinner before midnight!
So full we were, that when our host asked us, after dinner, what we’d like for breakfast, I replied, “just a piece of toast.” To which he replied “pizza toast! we make a wonderful pizza toast!” It was really good but, mental note to self, next time just say “toast!”
Just before dusk, we would head out into the beautiful desert and hills of the Eshrana mountain range for a night safari, trying to spot leopards. We didn’t get any good sightings of the elusive but plentiful cat, but it was thought they were spotted. Bright green eye shine watched us from the hills and started walking toward us. We did see loads of birds, leopard cats, possibly a rusty spotted cat and fantastic owls. The monkeys that lived here certainly had had leopard encounters. They were clinging to the sides of boulders in a most-uncomfortable-looking bed for the night, being the only relatively secure spot from the big cat. I think It time for them to think about moving! Not a great life for a monkey here.
Shiv Pratap does these amazing animal calls, attempting to attract nearby predators. We saw a fox on the way out and trying to get him to return he started imitating fighting Indian Hares. Initially I thought we might be heading into the wilds of Rajasthan with a mad man! But, while the fox didn’t return, 2 dogs raced across the fields straight towards us, looking to catch the rabbits unawares. Pretty cool. Did a nifty imitation of a kid goat in distress too, which kept those green eyes attentive to us for quite a while.
In addition to the rolling hills, there are massive boulders, seemingly dropped here, as if from an iceage that make the countryside spectacularily beautiful. Stopping a few hours in, we would have a drink from a handy portable bar and check out the brilliant night stars, far from any glaring lights.
ON our second night we returned about 9:30pm and had a quick wash up. There were guests there that night, including the ‘Afghanistan Girl’s’ National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry. Photography royalty! Didn’t get to talk with him as he was just pointed out to me as he head to his room. A couple of very good musicians were performing in the courtyard that evening. They are part of long-serving generational family musicians to the family. They asked our names and where we were from, then launched into an improve song for us. CV translated as they sang….”Saaanndra, stay here forwever Sandra. Leesaaa, don’t go back to Canada. But if you must, come again soon, and bring lots of friends….” Too funny! Will likely always remember the song. It was really quite very inventive.
March 23rd saw us heading back to Udaipur for a couple of nights. We were staying at the Amet Haveli, which is also the place I had dinner on my 45th birthday with Chris. Fantastic 350-year-old haveli. We stayed in a lovely little suite, which had a lovely little balcony over Lake Pichola with views of the town, palace and Lake Palace Hotel. Also a bathtub large enough to sit in cross-legged! All baths should be so large! (http://www.amethaveliudaipur.com/)
CV was coming down with a brutal cold, so he trundled off home after having lunch with us. We then started a bit of a walking tour of the city. Stretching our legs on the hilly streets. We popped into the Tiger for sunset Kingfishers on the roof top, then back for dinner at Ambrai’s. We were given our old corner table – the best in the house and once again treated royally. The food here is fantastic, especially the Ambrai Special dishes. We had wonderful Ambrai Biryani loaded with cashews; the best mutton Sandra had ever had; and a wonderful medly of veg in a tomato curry. With of course the buttery and flakey naan. Being the New Year of the region, we were also treated to a fireworks show across the lake while we dined.
The next day we walked into the city and up to the Palace for a tour. It’s a wonderful palace, with amazing mirror and mosaic work. Then it was a stroll down to a ‘German Bakery’ for coffee and a quick bite, before heading to take a introductory course in the miniature painting techniques Udaipur is famous for.
Our “2 hour” class was quite a bit more pricey than the majority that are offered everywhere on the streets, but was with a renowned artist – Nirbay Raj Soni and actually lasted 4 hours. He was a fantastic teacher and we were both surprised by our end result. Not bad for beginners, if we say so ourselves. I chose a tiger as my subject… I know you’re all surprised by that! And Sandra chose an elephant. The work is done primarily with squirrel-hair brushes, that take quite a bit of practice to even begin to control. The paints are ground water-colour pigments, finely mixed to a silky smooth consistency and stabilized by sap from the Dhawrli (sp?) tree. Fun Fun Fun!!! Though we were both a bit stiff at the end of the day, being engrossed in our work for so long.
After our artiste explorations, we had a quick lime-soda and then back to the palace for an evening sound and light show on the family of Mewar. Mewar is the longest continually ruling dynasty in the world and has a proud and fascinating history. It is also the only kingdom, let alone Rajput kingdom that never invaded another’s lands. As fierce and formidable any other Rajput kingdom, it fought only in defence of its lands and people.
We didn’t get back to the hotel till 8:30, so picked up some snacks, had kingfisher beers ordered to the room and relaxed in our suite, then took a soak in the humongous tub – excellent day.
Our Rajasthan trip too soon coming to an end, we are off too see the Garden of Maids (Saheliyon Ki Bari), built for a Maharani in the 18th century. It was lovely, with beautiful fountains and cascading flowers. The fountains are all fed by gravity from the nearby Fateh Sagar Lake. Then hopping the bus to Gujarat, where this tale will continue...