Monthly Archives: April 2012

Discovering Bundi

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My next destination is Bundi, a small 12th century town in Southern Rajasthan, where Rudyard Kipling once stayed, and was said to have been inspired to begin “Kim”.

The little bus takes us across the desert, through plains and ravines, and through tiny villages with colourful murals painted on whitewashed walls. We stop near a deserted lake to stretch our legs, and as if by magic a man appears with a kettle and a cardboard box, to set up an impromptu chai stand and sweet stall. In the high season Intrepid passes through here once a week, so I’m sure he knew we were coming, but after the drive it is a welcome surprise all the same.

In Bundi, our hotel was a British guest house during the Raj, with such luminaries as Lord Mountbatten on the guest list. These days it’s a humbler crowd, but the hotel retains a quaint charm, with high ceilings, impossibly high wooden beds and an assortment of curios in the dining room that ranges from a stuffed tiger’s head to an 1880s panorama of London to a pair of dolls with a terrifying stare, which look as though they could come alive at any moment.

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The roof has been colonised by a family of langurs, who allow us to share their space until the ratio of human to monkey is exceeded and, threatened, they bare their teeth and chase us back to the stairs.

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The hotel is just on the edge of town, a 15 minute amble to the old town where Bundi’s few tourists usually stay. Joghi, our host, takes us on a walking tour of his town. The main street into town is lined with market stalls selling fruit, vegetables, sugarcane juice and other standard items, but closer to town there is a more unusual trade.

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The street dentists have their wares laid out, false teeth and filthy instruments (with a sideline in cheap sunglasses, for reasons known only to themselves). At one, an elderly man is having a tooth extracted. Small brown bottles of liquid opium sit ready to numb the pain.

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It’s all a bit much for our own resident dentist, who is utterly horrified, and refuses point blank to touch the instruments, which bear clear signs of their previous subjects. Can’t say I was keen, either.

Moving away from the gory marketplace, we make our way towards one of the sites for which Bundi is best known, a large stepwell called the Raniji Ki Baori, built by the then-queen in 1699. There were once around fifty step wells (“baori”) in Bundi, though many are now disused or covered over. The Rani ji ki baori is supposed to be the most beautiful. It is decorated with elaborate carving combining Hindu and Jain features. There is a barrier part way down the steps to the well, so it’s no longer possible to descend to the water, which is visible far below from a small bridge. In its day this would have been a hive of activity as local royalty came to sit near the cool water and escape the summer heat.

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From the stepwell we turn back towards the old town and wind our way through the marketplace, past locksmiths and spicesellers, through the main gate and up the steep hill towards the fort.

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The gate of the fort is high enough to accommodate elephants. The building, once so magnificent that Kipling described it as “such a palace as men have built for themselves in uneasy dreams… the work of goblins rather than of men”, has been allowed to decline and disintegrate. Care is needed on the steps (look out for the giant wild beesnest over the gate). In some alcoves there are remnants of wall paintings, along with local graffiti. Up another narrow flight of stairs, we come to a room richly decorated with murals depicting women and men at play during Holi, and even an Indian angel or two.

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From the courtyard of the former womens’ quarters there are sweeping views over the city, and the lake below.

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Across the courtyard is a hidden room, which is unlocked as long as we promise not to take photos (and a couple of attendants watch closely to ensure we comply). Inside, every inch is covered in the most exquisite miniature paintings, save for a few gaps where gold leaf and decoration has been ripped from the wall by thieves. It’s the most amazing and unexpected sight amid the ruin of the building.

Outside I stop to take a few photos of the houses along the street, which are all painted blue – Jodhpur is known as the Blue City, but parts of Bundi are just as picturesque – well, except for the inescapable tangles of electrical cables….

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Walking back through the town I notice that there are barely any touts – one street with guesthouses aimed at tourists, a few touristy shops, but the parts of Bundi that I have seen on this whistle-stop tour seem remarkably untouched.

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Ranthambhore

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From Jaipur to Ranthambhore (my next stop) there is a long uncomfortable drive which takes all morning, with one stop at a forgettable touristy rest-stop cafe selling overpriced souvenirs.

Ranthambhore National Park was one of the first parks set up under the Project Tiger scheme in the 1970s. It has an area of around 390 square kilometres, and (depending on which count you believe) maybe 30 tigers. So there is, in theory, a possibility that we might catch a glimpse of one. Unfortunately that possibility becomes increasingly slim and then vanishes altogether as we are loaded onto a large open-topped cantor truck, which then spends the next hour stopping at other resorts (including one which is a good twenty minutes past the park entrance) to pick up more customers. Chances of this lot staying quiet? Nil.

Still, the drive into the heart of the park is very Indiana Jones, all crumbling stone paths and overhanging vines, leading to a fort which we can apparently return to explore at dawn. So. No tigers, then. But we do see crocodiles lazing on an island in the middle of a lake, and plenty of deer.

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As we pass under a low branch, there is a thump and we unexpectedly pick up another passenger – a large langur, who inspects us lazily then decides the best seat is at the back, and climbs from seat to seat to perch behind us. After the squawks of surprise have receded and it becomes clear that we are not going to feed him, he allows the driver to chase him off the truck.

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The park is beautiful, in a dusty kind of way. We see sleepy owlets perched in hollow branches, a snake-necked cormorant stretching itself into knots, more crocodiles (and drinking deer ignoring them), and a pair of mongeese streaking low across the ground.

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We stop by another lake, and attract the attention of some curious treepies – just like magpies, but yellow and black instead of black and white – and one drops down to perch on the cantor and take a closer look.

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The safari lasts about two hours, by which time the sun has set and it is getting seriously cold. By the end of the long reverse journey to drop everyone on the cantor back to their hotels, we are frozen, and nobody is interested in sitting outside to listen to the musicians the hotel has put on for us – instead we huddle in the restaurant for dinner and a couple of token drinks, then head straight to bed.

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The Jantar Mantar and other Jaipur treats

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Other than the Amber Fort, there are three or four main “sights” to see in Jaipur. The exterior of the Hawa Mahal is one, and makes as good a landmark as any for the rickshaw to aim for.

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The adjacent shops are waking up, and an irritation of touts is out in force. After brushing off persistent entreaties to take the stairs to a terrace (“best views of Hawa Mahal! No need to buy!”), I eventually cave and join the others up several narrow flights of stairs. The view IS good, though not significantly better, but we have been standing there only a few minutes when we hear drums down the street, and groups of men come into view, dancing and marching along with – yes, it’s an elephant!

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Riding the elephant is a guru (who our Indian companions identify as Ram Dev) dressed all in yellow, and horse-drawn carts of lesser VIPs follow behind. There are hundreds of white-clad men, then – behind a cordon of men holding hands to maintain formation – thousands of women in colourful village dress, bearing clay pots on their heads.

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The parade goes on for ages, long enough for us to bid farewell and descend from the terrace to take a closer look. The women are friendly, and happy to be photographed (in fact some of them demand it!).

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We cross and walk the length of the procession towards the source, a Krishna temple near the City Palace. The parade of women eventually give way to men bearing huge indigo banners, and a line of tractors – one of which is carrying a huge poster of someone who looks a lot like Bob Marley – they are waving banners and cheering, until the tractor abruptly breaks down and has to be pushed ignominiously to one side.

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When we reach the old city gate, the last of the procession is coming through – a few incongruous white guys, also dolled up in white garments, riding horses (or donkeys), bring up the rear. Meanwhile the traffic has been building on either side of the gate, and we just manage to race through before every single vehicle tries to cross under the arch at once.

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The sun is high in the sky, so we escape into the Jantar Mantar, across from the City Palace, and hire a guide (300 rupees split five ways), which proves extremely worthwhile. We are surrounded by odd-shaped sculptures, all curves and ramps, in varying sizes, painted terracotta and lemony yellow. It’s a work of genius, a complete outdoor astronomical and astrological observatory, including the world’s largest sundial, created by trial and error and careful calculation (this is the fifth, and the only complete working version), in the 18th century by Maharajah Jai Singh II.

There are sundials in different sizes for telling the time down to the nearest 20 seconds, a rotating star map with a hole for inserting a telescope, an inverted globe which shows the position of the constellations depending on the time of year (essential for determining a newborn child’s astrological charts at the exact moment of birth) – and all in perfect working order, as demonstrated by our guide (with the help of the sun overhead – don’t even bother visiting when it’s cloudy). There are even 12 separate instruments for the 12 star signs. It’s easy to imagine some kind of brotherhood of wizards in long gowns taking measurements and muttering over their findings – not entirely far from the truth….

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Across the road we enter the City Palace, but it’s a bit of a let-down after the other palaces I’ve seen (save for the throne room, which has some fascinating pictures, which I wasn’t allowed to photograph – no postcards in the gift shop either, in an very rare instance of the locals missing a revenue-building trick).

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By this time we’re starving, so we negotiate with a rickshaw driver to take us to Natraj, a restaurant that has been recommended. Thinking we are getting a good deal we agree to a price if he will also take us to the local branch of the Himalaya herbal cosmetics chain. He agrees with such alacrity that I’m pretty sure we’ve been played – and the grin on his face is infectious when we pull up outside Natraj and he gestures to Himalaya – which is right across the street. Worth the extra 30 rupees for sheer comic value.

Natraj has a hushed, formal atmosphere, and the food is fine (though not amazing). We try our luck with a rickshaw again, back to the Anokhi building on Prithviraj road, which also just happens to house a large branch of Crossword, the English-language bookshop, where I could happily spend an hour browsing through titles that just aren’t available in London (or, if they are, sell for twice the price). It is with some difficulty that I limit myself to three books, on the basis that I can send them home with a few other items when I get back to Delhi.

Upstairs, the cafe at Anokhi proves to be every bit as fabulous as hoped, serving strong plunger coffee and exquisite rose and coconut cake (I really want the recipe!). It’s an easy place to while away the afternoon before we have to meet the rest of the group, at the great Raj Mandir cinema: we’ve seen the filming, now it’s time to experience a Bollywood movie in all its glory.

The Raj Mandir is a confection of a building, painted in candy pinks and greens and looking like it escaped from the twenties, though it’s only about thirty years old. We have paid 150 rupees for the top-price seats in the front row of the balcony, which gives us a perfect view of the rest of the crowd: going to the movies in India is an interactive experience. When the movie starts and the hero appears there are wild cheers, which turn to loud booing when the villain (dressed in black, of course) walks on. The movie is Agneepath (path of fire) starring the improbably good looking Hrithik Roshan, and it has all the elements of over-the-top, gripping action drama, with a hint of tragic romance thrown in for good measure (in Shakespearean terms, let’s just say it’s a tragedy). There are no subtitles but (with a little assistance from the plot summary on Wikipedia at half time) it’s not hard to follow the story.

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Back at the hotel after another wild rickshaw adventure, we are having supper in the restaurant and I’m idly watching the movie playing above the bar – some kind of childish comedy with a thin, preppy lead actor singing and dancing with a bunch of kids and a small alien – when I realise that the blue-green eyes look familiar. My suspicions are confirmed by the waiter – this is also Hrithik Roshan, five years earlier in a forgettable film (so forgettable I can’t remember its name), and he’s clearly spent a LOT of time in the gym since then. The Bollywood miracle?

The magnificent Amber Fort

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I know that the car is approaching Jaipur when we begin to climb a narrow road with ancient stone buildings closing in on the sides. The traffic continues to follow the main tenet of Indian driving (at all costs, get in front), so it’s a slow journey. Coming over the pass and down into a valley we see a lake, and beyond on the hilltop a vast fort, with a high wall on either side, spanning the ridge line of the hills around us.

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This is Amber Fort (confusingly, the ‘b’ seems to be silent), the present version of which was apparently built in about 1592 for a Rajput Maharaja. We drive most of the way though narrow medieval streets and up a steep cobbled road towards the vehicle entrance – it’s possible to climb the hill by elephant, but not a lot of fun for the elephant.

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Walking the rest of the way, we emerge in the main public courtyard, which is far more colourful than usual: market stalls have been erected, music is playing and orange, pink and blue banners are waving in the breeze. It takes a moment to realise that this is just a Bollywood set.

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In front of us a choreographer is taking the star, Abhishek Bachchan (son of the “godfather” of Bollywood, Amitabh), through his slightly wooden paces, while extra hang about and occasionally run to join in. In the two hours that we are at the fort, we must hear the same few lines of the same song a hundred times – apparently they have been at this song for three days, while the choreographer develops his/her “vision” for the piece.

We are greeted by our tall, dashing guide, Mr Singh, who looks himself as if he has just stepped out of a Bollywood movie, with his raybans and cravat (I’ve never actually seen someone wear a cravat in real life!). He later admits (with some pride) to playing a general in a recent movie, Mission Istanbul.

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He leads us through the four courtyards of the palace, to the hall of mirrors and the hidden dancefloor from where the in-crowd could not be seen, but could still observe the public goings-on below. There are gardens, water features, elaborate zenana apartments (with a private entrance so the maharaja could visit his favoured wife in secret), stained glass and painted ceilings. There are rooms for winter use, mirrored to make the most of the sunlight, and summer rooms with water features and hooks for hanging fans. When one maharaja’s mother lost the use of her legs (our guide: “she no longer wished to walk”), ramps were built throughout her quarters and parts of the palace so that she could be wheeled from level to level in a rare early nod to accessibility.

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When we emerge from the palaces to the main courtyard of the fort, the Bollywood crew are still going strong. Leaving them to it we drive the 11km into Jaipur, and seem to just about drive right out the other side. Our hotel, where we are greeted with garlands of marigolds, is quite lovely – the nicest yet – in heritage style, with large rooms and corridors lined with sepia prints of maharajahs past and some rather disturbing hunting parties from bye-gone days. It is, however, a good twenty minutes or more by bumpy rickshaw from the centre of town, and the rickshaw drivers in Jaipur are the craziest yet.

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After lunch, we take rickshaws back to the old walled city, which was meticulously planned by Maharajah Jai Singh and built in the early 1700s – right down to the grid pattern of the streets and the numbering system for each of the shops.

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Our trip leader takes us for a walk through the old city, from the City Palace to the terracotta-coloured Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the wind, then through the bazaar towards the newer part of town – Jaipur is famous for its silver and gems, and some of the group have serious shopping to do, so we are headed for some of the more reputable shops. I’m not in the market for silver or gems, so after admiring the jewels for a few minutes I head to Anokhi: the original branch of the small fair trade clothing chain that we discovered at Khan Market is here in Jaipur – and they are having a sale! They are also having an invasion of pushy Chinese tourists, and a severe staff shortage, and it turns out I’m not feeling as patient as I could be, so after a quick look it’s time to head back to the hotel. On the way out I notice a cafe attached, which promises safe salads, homemade breads and cakes, and best of all plunger coffee! I plan to return and try it out before I leave Jaipur.