Travel to Jodhpur with Amritara.
The first glance at Amritara’s newly acquired gem in Jodhpur- Pratap Niwas, was transporting in the most startling way. The stunning structure is spread out over extensive open spaces that looked ideal for the presence of the horses that we spotted immediately upon entering the gates.
The Haveli’s first impression is that of grandeur and tasteful wonder. A staggering piece of architecture of great height and indescribable intricate detailing, Pratap Niwas stole my heart within five minutes of our arrival – and I hadn’t even entered the Courtyard yet – which of course is a marvel in itself. A large rectangular area, so neat and tidy, so wonderfully well kept. Every time I happened to cross it, I couldn’t help myself from gaping in awe at its beauty and maintenance – for truly, as far as courtyards go, the two go necessarily hand in hand.
Entering our room was another surprise altogether – a twin room, possibly the most beautiful one in the entire Haveli – with the most exquisite Jharoka that soon became my favourite spot, where I could just sit, read, write and sometimes nap. Our room had beautiful curtains at the entrance and they made it seem like it belonged to royalty in a Palace! We needed immediate rest after the overnight train journey to Jodhpur from Delhi, so we took some time to unwind before we set out to discover the city.
The first thing on our agenda was the Desert Safari to the Bishnoi Village. There are a few reasons why Bishnoi Village is as famous as it is – to begin with, the Bishnoi people believe in living life as Naturalists by devoting themselves to the cause of plant and animal protection. They live a disciplined life as vegetarians and abstain from alcohol consumption, and have a strict set of 29 rules. The Bishnoi Men wear white while the married women wear the colour red. The Safari took us through three parts – the village, the house and the pond.
The Bishnoi House is a ‘kacha’ house built with a roof made of sticks and twigs. Visually, it is beautiful, straight out of the pages of a history book. We met the family living in the Bishnoi House, the eldest female member of the family was a vision in blood red, clad in elaborate ornaments – but her true beauty was in every crease and wrinkle on her face and body- in contrast to the agility and ease with which she showed us around the compound, effortlessly managing tough tasks like wheeling the ‘chakki’ and igniting the outdoor ‘chulha.’
The eldest male member of the household showed us to a ‘charpoy’ and started an elaborate demonstration of making Opium. It is a half filtration process – half religious ‘pooja’ – at the end of which, the liquid is given as an offering to first God Shankar, the Destroyer and God of Intoxication, after which it was offered to us. We were told that opium was a necessity for the men as they spent all day at hard manual labour in the fields and required the accelerated strength that opium provided them with. This product is brought in from Chittore and is a comfortable part of daily consumption, a nonchalant addiction being festered and passed along from the men of one generation to the next. Women do not partake in opium consumption.
The Bishnoi people plant various crops, like sesame seeds or ‘til’ – which is used rampantly to make ‘til ke laddoo,’ pearl millet or ‘bajra’ – which is planted to both eat and feed birds with, they also make the Rajasthani delicacy called Panchkutta, for which they require five vegetables, namely: ‘ker’ (dried unripe fruit), ‘sangri’ (dried wild beans), ‘kumatia’ (dried flat pods), whole red chillies and raw mango powder, and poda – opium or afeem. They eat a lot of ‘bajre ki roti’ and feed it to the birds. Gur is eaten with ‘sarso ka tel’ (mustard oil) because it provides them with energy, especially in the Winters.
Another reason why the Bishnoi Village is famous is its Khejri trees and the history attached to them. The famous Chipko Movement came up in Khejarli village, when 363 Bishnois sacrificed their lives in 1730 AD while protecting green Khejri that are considered sacred by the community. This was the starting point of the Chipko Movement. Gradually, a rising awareness of the ecological crisis, which came from an immediate loss of livelihood caused by it, resulted in the growth of political activism in the region. The Bishnoi Village does not have a governing body or police to maintain law. They are a tribal community that functions peacefully with the guidance from a Village committee.
The final reason why Bishnoi Village is famous is a rather surprising one – Actor Salman Khan is accused of hunting down a Blackbuck Chinkara – an endangered species – in this region. An offence that he is still making rounds of the courts for till today.
Our visit to the Guda Bishnoi Lake was the highlight of the Desert Safari for me. A breathtakingly beautiful scene; numerous migratory birds like domicile Siberian Cranes etc, blackbucks and chinkaras huddled around this serene water body. This pond is a drinking point for antelopes, black bucks of the surrounding area. Bishnoi village in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India is a kind of desert oasis. This stunning place is caught in a sort of time warp- where life is slower and every moment feels like it could mean more than it seems to.
We then drove on through the Desert, to the Potter House to witness possibly the most skilled, overconfident man sitting at the potter’s wheel, creating masterpiece after masterpiece effortlessly. He explained that the skill was simple and had more to do with practice than anything else. My friend tried to create some kind of a vase and although it looked terribly vandalised, it stood up straight and we applauded. The potter informed us that the weight of the wheel alone was a hundred kilos of cement or concrete and that it was balanced on a tiny wooden cone placed on a rock. He also explained to us that as long as the clay remained on the wheel in motion, it could keep transforming – a statement I probably thought into a little more deeply than he intended us to, and decided that that was exactly the truth about everything – as long as you keep trying, you can grow into anything you choose to be – or not, if that’s what you prefer.
We left the Potter House with two little vases, a piggy bank and a magic lamp that could last 6 to 8 hours. Our next stop was the Carpet Maker’s. Magic lamps and Carpets – seems like something straight out of a fairy tale, doesn’t it? We were shown how carpets are made – the thread by thread process of it. The designs being executed were the ones that had been passed down since seven generations and were referred to as family designs. There were carpets made of cotton and carpets made of Camel hair. Camel hair carpets were obviously fascinating to us and upon questioning, we learnt that camel hair is waterproof, dust proof and fireproof. We were also given a demonstration where a lit match was dropped onto a Camel hair carpet and then dusted off like nothing happened, and really – nothing happened! We purchased a beautiful little rug is the brightest hues of blue and grey and head out again.
Returning to the hotel was rejuvenating, especially since we had planned to have dinner at Hanwant Mahal. We quickly freshened up and head out to the somewhat uphill drive to Hanwant Mahal. Not only was it exquisite to sit on the terrace and have the whole city lit up around us in the night sky, but the food was simply flawless. We had our favourite Butter Chicken and Naan along with Dal Makhni and Mutton Biryani and it all tasted like something out of a dream! After a few hours of good food and conversation, we made our way back to the hotel and I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
Our next day was to be spent going around the city of Jodhpur. Rajasthan and its cities have always been close to my heart, it’s probably the rich Rajasthani history and culture or possibly its continuity in the contemporary world that keeps my intrigue ignited. Jodhpur is called the Blue City just as Jaipur is the Pink City. Both cities were given the names based on the colours of the buildings all around, while Udaipur is referred to as either the Lake City because of the Parvat Sagla or the White City – again because of the buildings, and Jaisalmer is the Gold City because of the presently functional Fort – which is of a shade of yellow. The buildings in Jodhpur are tinged with the colour blue because they mix ‘choona’ with ‘neel’ so as to keep the walls of houses cool in the Desert heat during the Summers. It also represents the Brahmin families – of which there are many in Jodhpur.
Our first stop of the day was a glorious one – possibly the most beautiful piece of architecture in the country, after the Taj Mahal. Built similarly, it comes as no surprise that the Jaswant Thada is often referred to as the second Taj Mahal. It is named after and built in the memory of Maharaja Jaswant Singh – by his two wives after his demise, entirely out of the pocket money they were given by the Maharaja himself. Memorials were not a concept then, a simple white umbrella was supposed to signify a king’s passing. Maharaja Hanwant Singh, Maharaja Umaid Singh, Maharaja Sumer Singh and Maharaja Sardar Singh all have Umbrellas in their memory, while Maharaja Jaswant Singh has this beautiful edifice built along the lines of a mixture of Hindu and Islamic architecture in his memory. I guess that’s what is called the power of love and the devotion and loyalty of a woman towards her man. For this loyalty, the wives of Maharaja Jaswant each have a fountain built in the front lawns – in their memory. The only deity inside the Temple of the Jaswant Thada is the Maharaja himself.
Filled with awe and wonder from the romanticism we witnessed in the story behind the Jaswant Thada, we reached our next stop – Mehrangarh Fort. Constructed in May 1459, it is a whopping 400 feet tall structure, covering an area of 6-7 kilometers – it is clearly visible from miles away. The Fort has four gates, the last of which – the Jayapol (meaning victory) – was built in 1808 by Maharaja Man Singh, after the war with the Bikaner and Jaipur armies. The fort has a lift that was installed in the year 1995 and goes upto the height of 120 feet.
As we made our way through the sheer majesty of the Mehrangarh Fort, we noted again that the architecture was influenced by a mixture of Hindu and Muslim architectural techniques. A noticeable divide is evident where the Fort is divided in two colours – White for the Maharaja and Red for the Rani. There are three courtyards within the Fort – the Singaar Chowk, the Daulat Khaana and the Holi Chowk.
The Singaar Chowk is the King’s Courtyard where we found the ‘Mardani Dodi’ – the initiation of Kings. Elephants were closely connected to the lives of Kings as they were part of everything from wars to sports like polo and even weddings in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Lots of Elephant seats, all elaborate and richly made, are up for display here. Also located here is the Palki Khaana. Palkis are palanquins that were used by women to commute and also by Kings while hunting. Palkis of every type are up for display in the Palki Khaana – silver, wooden, even peacock is a type of palki! This is also the place where we saw a Rajasthani man demonstrating the tying of a ‘pagri’ on his head in a matter of seconds! It was so fascinating to watch, we captured it in an amusing video.
The second Courtyard is the Daulat Khaana – which, as the name suggests, kept all the money and jewelry for safe keeping. The immensely valuable Palki Mandola, made of wood, golden polish and crystal and requiring 12 people to hoist it – is also placed in this area. Other items of value like heavy curtains and ‘shagun’ are also kept here. More rooms in this Courtyard are the Painting Room; which has miniature painting of mind-boggling detailing, of Maharajas from the 17th-18th centuries, the Sheesh Mahal; which is used for the art of meditation, the Phool Mahal; which was the entertainment area and would generally have dancing girls performing, the Armory section; a collection of guns and swords from the era of the Maharajas, the Takhat Vilas; which was a place for the 30 Ranis to relax, and finally the Palana room; which was the nursery where childbirth would take place.
The last Courtyard – the Holi Chowk was evidently and exclusively built for the purpose of playing holi every year. The Red building too has a Queen’s Courtyard called the Janani Dodi and they story is that every new bride had to be elaborately decorated before entering this Courtyard. The abundance of detail that we took from the Mehrangarh Fort was too heavy and all consuming. Once we left, we stopped at a beautiful little haven called On the Rocks for a drink and some unwinding. Luckily, the restaurant was a beautiful outdoor area with white pebbles for flooring and a green canopy of gorgeous trees overhead and all around. We lingered in this oasis for a while before heading back to the hotel where we had a succulent meal of traditional Rajasthani ‘dal, baati, churma’ – after which, exhausted as we were, we went to bed for a good night’s sleep.
Our third day in Jodhpur was no less of an adventure. We started our day with a fulfilling breakfast, I had a cheese omelette that they cooked to perfection, after which we decided to spend time inside the beauty and luxury of the gorgeous Haveli. We went for a walk in the endless lawns, visited the horses in the stables and spent some time in and around the pool. The thing about a heritage hotel is that it halts the passing of time, making every worry in the world disappear and suddenly, the only thing of relevance is that very moment in that very place. This feeling is incomparable to anything else in the world and it’s probably the reason why I can’t seem to detach myself from the effortless appeal of Rajasthani heritage and culture – which is exactly what Pratap Niwas promises to be.
The last stop on our agenda, before catching our train back home, was the Umaid Bhawan. The Palace is over a hundred years old and is one of the world’s largest private residences, a part of which is managed by Taj Hotels. Named after Maharaja Umaid Singh, grandfather of the present owners of the palace, this staggering monument has 347 rooms and is spread out over 26 acres of garden while the building occupies 11 acres. It is the last and largest construction in the City and it was constructed from 1929 to 1944 under the guidance of the famous Stefan Norblin. It was called Chittar Palace during its construction, due to the use of stones commonly known as Chittar. The Palace was built to provide employment to thousands of people during the time of famine. There are three divisions within this marvel – the first serves as the principal residence of the erstwhile Jodhpur royal family, the Hotel and the Museum. Here’s a fun fact – the tariff for the Maharani suite is 4 lacs!
The Museum at Umaid Bhawan houses everything from Polo trophies, dining tables, crockery and cutlery to little trinkets and even stunning paintings depicting scenes from the Ramayana, including one of Ravana kidnapping Sita – made by Romans. There are various rooms with glass frames for tourists to wander through the everyday life of the Royalty from as early as 1944. Outside, theres a collection of antique cars which attracts maximum attention. We stopped everywhere to absorb the details and take all the pictures we could. I was so mesmerized by it all, I lost my jacket somewhere inside the palace! My favourite part of the museum was the Clock Room that has an endless array of the most stunning clocks, pocket watches and watches one can imagine.
Since we still had some time before our train, we went back to On the Rocks. You need to visit that place to really understand the power of its appeal. It just sucked us in, without even trying and we were powerless. We repeated our shenanigans from our previous visit, and not for a second did we feel bored or disinterested. Having had our dose of beauty, some good food and drinks, we left for the railway station and boarded the train back to Delhi. It had been the perfect weekend getaway – exactly what everyone needs once in a while, to steer clear off the mundanity of everyday life.