Pushkar: kaleidoscope of emotions

Pushkar hung in my thoughts like a dream. After having seen several of my plans for Pushkar get cancelled, this time I tried some serious nudging on myself; to be there at the sacred moment of Pushkar camel fair. The very idea of camels and traders journeying across the vast deserts of Rajasthan in a time immemorial fashion to meet, socialize, and trade, found an inkling in me. Pushkar is a complete teleportation from the urbane life to a rustic one, from economy that survives on cars to one where camels form an integral part. The romantic image of camels loping across the desert in Rajasthan, enthused me to plan the plan I had waited for so long.

Pushkar has a magnetism of its own – it’s very unlike the way one imagines Rajasthan. Fair or not, it will never cease to sweep you off your feet. The town celebrates the riddles of life, throughout the year. Pushkar made me rejig the concept of time; moments into Pushkar and a feeling that everything has been stalled, got me. The antiquity of the town is inspiring. The everyday world of Pushkar does more than inspire and encourage well-being, it makes the sordid routine seem novel.

Ghat_Pushkar

Pushkar Ghat

I was in Pushkar, at the annual camel fair, indisputably, the best time of the year to be in. Everywhere I turned, I could hear music, see a riot of colours, feel the exuberance of the fair and sense Pushkar’s ability to engage with tourists pouring from world over; and then there was the rustic hue, atmospheric shots of herders and their camels, trekking past the deserts. Calling the Pushkar fair just magnetic, would be an understatement. It is far more than that, it takes you out of your cocoon, into a world unknown and untraversed. One eyeful of Pushkar, and the reason that made it a favorite among foreign tourists, becomes discernible. Pushkar is everything most Indian cities are not; it’s sleepy, calm, inviting and engaging; a tell-tale of a town that has thrown off its provinciality.

Hot baloon_Pushkar mela

Hot air baloon is a new addition in Pushkar Fair

Pushkar Fair

In the autumn, as the moon starts its journey for the brightest night of the year, tribes from all over Rajasthan, stream out of their ethnic lands, arid landscapes, stubbly fields, thickets, scrubs, and deserts; trudging with their beasts, draped in multi-colored turbans, travelling with rivulets of kaleidoscopic caravans. The women of the tribes, come draped in their gypsy bright skirts swaying in autumn winds like daffodils, sporting bright silver and bronze jewelry rivaling the smoldering sun and big, arresting bindi on forehead; engrossed in little chats. And at certain distance are scattered groups of travelers, some from different corners of the country and more from abroad, lost in the little riddles and proses of this town.

Pushkair fair brings them all together.

pushkar-fair_

Scene from Pushkar mela

Shopoholic@Pushkar

Pushkar, the Brahma’s land

Pushkar, is a legendary town, stretched around the three sacred lakes, and legends say Lord Brahma, the Creator of the Hindu Trinity, while flying over this land, had dropped three petals from the lotus he carried. The three petals became the three lakes of Pushkar. Some say the creator landed on this auspicious land and performed a holy ritual. Others take the tale a little further and claim that Lord Brahma married a tribal girl in Pushkar. Ever since, people gather in thousands, at this holy place to bathe and worship on the anniversary of the Creator’s sacrifice.

Regardless of legendary tales, Pushkar has grown, both as a colourful animal fair and an international tourist destination. While traders throng here to trade cattle, sheep, camels and thoroughbred horses; for tourists, it’s an escape from their world with an added flavor of good deal of craft shopping and café hopping.

A colony of backpackers

The moment our car breast the hill, magic unfolded. It was early morning, wind carried the chill of the night and the sun was in a sleepy state. In the distance the three lakes glinted like jewels, and a little further, through dust and haze, campfires twinkled. We maneuvered our way through the narrow alleys, the morning markets, the hubbub of a touristy town, making our way towards the hotel. And as we drove, a part of us mingled with the razzmatazz of the place. It seemed like a shifting kaleidoscope of emotions, trying to find a balance somewhere between the serenity of the place and the ordered chaos of the fair. The central area of the fair was crowded with visitors thronging the shops and eateries, while the herders and traders took the plains, focusing on their business.

The colonization of backpackers have made this a model town: a place created by and for the tourists, with multicuisine eateries, chic cafes, schools of yoga, massage, Indian music and dance, shops selling herbal cosmetics, perfumes and the inexplicable clothing that characterizes the backpacker diaspora. And it’s all there, shops feasting with colourful textiles, silver jewelry and crafts, town lost in backpacker’s thoughtless party reverie, locals engrossed in their daily chores playfully mixed with spiritual detours, houses with open courtyards with murals to keep you on a click frenzy mode, nomads exhibiting their ravishing dreadlocks and loincloths, and a gastronomic culture that has evolved due to mixing of myriad of cultures and aspirations. The rooftops of medieval buildings with exquisite jharokhas have been turned into cafes, offering new vignettes of the lake with its ghats, the sprawl of temples and the town around the sacred lake. Some ancient courtyards have been turned into meditation centers. It’s suggested to keep enough time on hand to pencil in such moments, after all everything in Pushkar moves at its own leisurely pace. From temple to temple, take your time to discover the cultural and spiritual nuances of the place.

I often ditched the fair to be by the lake, often joined by a group of backpackers with their musical instruments. These are not rare moments, this is routine in Pushkar. And be it any moment, there’s always a spirit of gay abandon, hanging in Pushkar.

craft_Pushkar

Pushkar has evolved as an offbeat and ethnic shoppers paradise

The divine in Pushkar

In the evenings, as the sun slips into the valleys, the lake comes alive with the flickering of the lamps during the scenic aarti. The Pushkar fair ends on a full moon night, and thankfully, I was there, to bear witness to his heavenly spectacle. The ambience with lights twinkling in the twilight was ethereal. Drumbeats, clash of symbols and chiming of bells herald the aarti on the final day i.e. on Purnima (full moon). Lamps are lit and placed all-round the Ghat. This was probably the first time, I was coming in terms with the spirituality of Pushkar. I had seen its jamboree, its gay abandon, the way it has engaged with all cultures and left a part of it in them, and the way it has shaped itself to be a hot tourist destination, but this was different. This was Pushkar, the way it has been for all these centuries, when the travellers had not arrived and it still carries that air.

What else to do

Apart from all the spiritual, culinary, musical, and shopping adventure, you can hire a bike and go to Ratnagiri Hill for sublime sunset views over the lake. Do a one-and-a-half-hour hike up to Savitri Devi Temple. Most times of the year, the skies are fabulous canvasses of delight.

Indian Ocean_Pushkar Mela

Indian Ocean band performing in Pushkar Fair

Jodhpur: Drenched in blue

An intensely romantic city, filled with history and memories of a glorious past, Jodhpur rides high on every traveler’s mind. I had first set foot in this blue city more than a decade back as a child. A lot has changed now, yet the intensity of this place has somewhat remained the same. Though, the winds of modernity has taken away some of its delectable taste of a small, historical town; it still entices with its charm. Everything was colourful, a typical trait of the city. There are things which have not changed; the traditional homes pained in pale indigo, locals wearing artistically designed multihued costumes, women dressed in wide gathered skirts and men with colourful turbans on their head. This regal city of Rajasthan still echoes with antiquity in the vacuum of the desert.

Mehrangarh fort_Jodhpur

Though, the winds of modernity has taken away some of its delectable taste of a small, historical town; Jodhpur still entices with its charm.

While climbing the staircase to go out of the railway station, I caught sight of the formidable Mehrangarh fort looking down from its imposing height on the hillock. A 15 minutes drive, and I reached my hotel. ‘Khamma Gani, Ranbanka hotel’ welcomes the comely receptionist with a diaphanous cloth as garland. Khamma gani is a term used to greet the guests whereas Ranbanka attributes to ‘the invincible’ or ‘master of battles’. Continue reading

A slice of Shekhawati in Alsisar

The desolate roads, the pastoral calmness hung in the air, changing colour of the mud-dunes from clayey brown to camel yellow, the nomadic hue of the lifestyle, frequent calls of a peacock and the half-forgotten monuments set against the backdrop of an azure, blue sky, this region seemed to have soaked its beauty in the rustic chill of its lifestyle. It was six in the morning when I reached and was welcomed by the precious silence of the Alsisar village.  A slice of Shekhawati floated in the air; the charm of havelis, cenotaphs, stepwells strewn around me and the mighty Alsisar Palace standing in front me against the backdrop of a struggling sun amidst the monsoon clouds.

The Alsisar Palace stands like a royal guardian of the village.

The Alsisar Palace stands like a royal guardian of the village.

When Raja Shekha established the Shekhawati region in the 18th century, he made it a tax free zone for commerce and trade and invited rich merchants of the erstwhile Marwar belt of Bikaner, Jodhpur, Kota and even Jaipur to settle and establish business in the Shekhawati region. Many of these merchants, the Goenkas, Piramals, Birlas, Poddars, Agrawals and the Khetans settled in this tax free state with a condition that they would be ready to provided financial help when the state asks or requires, thus setting the base of a thriving business and cultural center of Rajasthan. In the 19th century when these merchants moved to and prospered in new commercial centers of Bombay, Gujarat and Calcutta, they sent money back home and build grand havelis to tell their families and villagers of their prosperity. And as more merchants moved out, more havelis and cenotaphs were built. And thus a ‘never to die’ Shekhawati was born.

The story of Alsisar is a bit different. Alsi and Malsi were two sisters. Unable to bear taunts aimed at his sisters who went to draw water from the village well, Thakur nawal Singh decided to dig his own well. He dug through the night until he struck water. Alsi settled at this sar (water source) and the place came to be known as Alsisar and the village where Malsi settled became Malsisar.

The royal durbar which once saw meetings between rich merchants of the area.

The royal durbar which once saw meetings between rich merchants of the area.

Alsisar keeps its soul in its palace which stands in the center of the village as a royal guardian. We entered through a massive arched gateway, protected by a wooden door and were led to a massive courtyard. On one side of the courtyard was the reception room, which once functioned as the main baithak or durbar hall, where all the trade related meetings used to happen. The rich frescos with intricate gold leaf work done on them, the stinted glasses depicting various scenes from Lord Krishna’s life, heavy chandeliers bought from France and heavy work done on the Belgian glasses; all create a fine play of luxury in unison. There was a screened off latticed windows, above the durbar, for women to look at the proceedings of the durbar. The grandiose of the durbar looked like a leaf taken from a lavish Bollywood movie set in historical times.

On the other side of the main courtyard is the men’s palace (Mardana Mahal). We moved inwards towards the suites or as our host said ‘towards the women’s palace (Zanana Mahal). We were basically led from one courtyard to the other and as we were told there are ten courtyards in the palace. The courtyard arrangement, with its thick walls, provided plenty of shade to cool the rooms, a basic necessity in this sun scorched land.

The rich frescoes in the now turned dining hall area a treat to watch.

The rich frescoes in the now turned dining hall area a treat to watch.

And being in palace, isn’t the only thing one can do in Alsisar. Set off for a village tour and you will be amazed by the richness of architecture in the village. Shekhawati stills lives in its past, decades or centuries old temples, cenotaphs, wells are still the main landmarks in the village. There are havelis which have been restored and converted to schools. There are havelis which are now abandoned and looked after by a caretaker, but these weave a story for us, they tell a tale of the era when this region was a strategic trade point. These random havelis are emblematic, existing as symbols of lost pleasure, wealth and easy life. Today they are dwelled by pigeons, grasp for some fresh air to live their rich past in their present, but they still pull you. Alsisar has uniquely positioned itself as less touristy but more restored of Shekhawati villages. Many of these havelis are now been restored by the present Thakur Gaj Singh ji and will be converted into more useable form than just exist as symbols.

The one of many cenotaphs in Alsisar.

The one of many cenotaphs in Alsisar.

And a rugged landscape of Shekhawati belt with its mud-dunes, charming panoply of frittered trees, rocky terrain dotted with acacias and every unutilized piece of land flowered with sunflowers; never fails to mesmerize the travelers. What’s better than to go for a desert safari to acquaint oneself with the hardships of life in this scorched belt as women dressed in their traditional dresses laden with bangles struggle to get potable water from far off or men walking languorously with their camels or camels walking aimlessly down the road, pulling their carts with their frustrated owners behind them wearing an air pessimism. The safari jeep takes you through narrow muddy roads or sometimes through fields (where once roads existed), but every bump looks inviting as you look around you; the inescapable melody of the landscape, calls of gazelles from some hidden corners, hoots of owls, a carpet of wild sunflowers and the optimism in the maize plants planted on the slopes. And then the jeep takes you to a hillock; step down and breathe in the moment, the magnetic beauty of the nothingness of the arid landscape is before you. Your chauffeur will lay down a table for you for you to sip in the most memorable coffee of your life.

It's like rewinding your life to the start @sanddunes in Alsisar

It’s like rewinding your life to the start @sanddunes in Alsisar

It seems that in Alsisar there’s always something more to be offered. Travelling here is a shift in perspective, landscape is tricky and amazing and constantly changing, there’s value in nothingness, centuries old cultural panorama, incredible tales, the colourful tuk-tuks dressed like princess and the long forlorn acacia trees – everything commands an inviting charm in unison and then a palace standing as a royal guard of this historical cultural and natural vista.

Fast facts

To go – You can get down at Churu railway station, Alsisar is 40 kms from there and you can get a taxi from the station at a rate of Rs 1000. If you are coming from Delhi, you can get down at Saddalpur that will save you an hour.

To Stay – Alsisar Mahal is a good option that will fit in your budget too, with rooms starting from around 3500 a night. Apart from being historic, Alsisar Mahal has options unparallel in Shekhawati. Imagine fresh pizzas being served to you in a roof top restaurant, a discotheque with all the elements you can list and an unique lounge based on the concept of World War II.

More to plan – You can plan a trip to Shekhawati belt from Alsisar, it should take 2-3 days to cover the entire belt.

Alsisar Mahal also doubles up as a venue for three days of music, art and food festival in December. Magnetic fields (as it is called) promises to bring the newest Indian sounds and music from worldover with 30 DJs and parties that promises to be none other. It wears a different hue these 3 days, brighter enough to beat the charm of our metros. Bonfires in the wild, camping like vagabonds, a taste of regal life in the palace, workshops from local artists and artisans and a grand display of culture and cuisine, Magnetic fields has set an unmatchable scale.

Photo credits – Mohit Goel

On a time machine

Have you ever been on a time travel? Well, I have….to Bundi, a small sleepy town huddled somewhere in the Hadouti region of North-west Rajasthan. Time has frozen in this town, inextricably caught in the web of history. No proper rail connection, no commercial establishment worth the name, dusty roads, vintage homes and havelis converted into lodgings; nevertheless this petite town remains attractive with the historical antiquity it is bestowed with. A small town spreading across the floor of the valley and straggling up the bare hills, with a lake in the middle and a fort looking down at it as a royal guardian; Bundi seems a miniature painting tucked on the horizon.

citypalace_Bundi

I reached Bundi early in the morning and headed straight to my hotel – Hadouti Palace tucked as a white nymph, in the middle of the town. The hotel is built in a colonial style and the doomed lobby of the hotel makes it spacious with natural light coming in from many windows. My room overlooked the city palace, shimmering like a jewel in the hills. The town looks isolated and independent, perplexing me one moment and exciting the other. The town has a fairytale history; as the legend goes, back in the 12th century, restless young nobles of the warrior Chauhan clan vanquished the Bhil and Meena tribes of these lands. One group chose the neighbouring area of Kota, the other settled in Bundi.

The actual marvel of this town is its architectural history, now stuck in a time wrap. ‘Seeing around places can be done on foot also’ the hotel manager told me. He forgot, I am a traveler not a tourist, I love exploring things. I contacted Kuki ji, an archeologist and guide, to take me to places hidden in Bundi. I was to be in his custody for two days.

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