In 1916 or maybe 1917, the ruler of Jhalawar State of Rajasthan, Maharaj Rana Bhawani Singh visited the temple town of Nathdwara. There was nothing unusual about his visit; the rulers of Jhalawar followed the Pushtimarg tradition, and Nathdwara was the most important religious site for followers of that tradition.
After the Maharaj Rana had his darshan of Shrinathji, the main deity at Nathdwara, he met with the Tilakayit or the head of the Nathdwara Temple and the foremost Pushtimarg leader. Once the usual pleasantries were over, Bhawani Singh asked the Tilakayit for the loan of some artists from Nathdwara to paint the Garh Mahal or Palace, the royal residence in Jhalawar. Bhawani Singh also wanted one artist in particular, Ghasiram Hardev Sharma, the mukhiya or head of Nathdwara’s painting department.
While a royal request for artists to decorate palaces was not unusual, asking for a specific artist definitely was, especially when he happened to be Ghasiram (more about him later on in this post!). The Tilakayit was not keen on sending Ghasiram and Bhawani Singh was not ready to take no for an answer. Eventually, Bhawani Singh managed to lure Ghasiram away from Nathdwara by offering him a monthly salary Rs.150/-, which was double of what he was earning at Nathdwara.
Ghasiram moved to Jhalawar as the Court Painter and therein began an association that lasted about 10-12 years and produced some extraordinary mural paintings, portraits and entire painted rooms at the Garh Mahal. Something I was not aware of when I arrived in Jhalawar in November 2016.
It was Mahijit ji, my host in Jhalawar, who told me about the painted rooms at the Garh Mahal and also that they were not open to the public. That bit of information was disappointing, but my friend and I decided to try our luck when we visited the Garh Mahal
When I started planning for the Hadoti Trip last year, I wasn’t aware of Jhalawar’s existence at all. I feel rather sheepish admitting this, but its the truth. Located about 80 km from Kota, Jhalawar cropped up as a suggestion for a pit stop to explore Gagron Fort, Jhalarapatan and the Kolvi Caves.
The information available on Jhalawar, which was sketchy to say the least with the same information being circulated on various sites — it was a former princely state, it had a palace, a theatre, a Fort (Gagron), had the highest amount of rainfall in the state, etc. But then I read about bad road conditions between the Kota and Jhalawar, I decided to shift my base from the former city to the latter since these sites were closer to Jhalawar than Kota.
Once that was decided, all I had to do was to find a hotel to stay and wait for the trip to get underway. Here, Jayanti of One Life To Travel connected me with Mahijit ji of Virendra Bhawan, and that too got finalised, and the trip countdown began. 🙂
When I got off the train at Bhawani MandiStation on that cold November morning in 2016, I had no idea that this was the beginning of an epic trip. I had no idea that I was going to fall in love with Jhalawar, so much so that it was going to be the highlight of my Hadoti Trip.
When One Life to Travel (OLTT) announced a trip to Bundi sometime in August/September last year, I signed up for it immediately and crossed my fingers, toes and eyes for luck. This was because my plans for visiting Bundi hadn’t worked out in the past — not once, but twice — and I didn’t want to take any chances this time around.
As it happened, I got third time lucky with the Bundi trip. Not only that, in the period between signing up and actually leaving, the trip had evolved into something bigger. It was no longer a 3-day trip; it had become an 8-day trip instead. Part of the trip was to be done with OLTT, and part of it with a friend. And most importantly, it was no longer only a Bundi trip; it had expanded to become a Hadoti trip that would take me to Jhalawar, Jhalarapatan, Ramgarh, Kolvi, Bijoliya, Baroli, Kota and Bundi.
When I got off the train at Bhawani Mandi railway station on that nippy November morning, it was with a heightened sense of anticipation. While I wasn’t sure what exactly you had in store for me, I was sure that you wouldn’t disappoint. That last bit turned out to be quite an understatement for not only did you manage to surprise, delight and wow me, you also brought up the unexpected, even in the expected, regularly. 🙂
It was around 6 in the evening when I arrived at the Khanapara Veterinary Grounds in Guwahati for the Rongali Festival. Considered to be the biggest such festival in the Northeast, Rongali 2017 was the third edition.
As I made my way towards the entrance, I heard garbled announcements, music, and excited chatter all around me and my steps quickened in anticipation. As is my habit, I kept my camera bag and purse in readiness for checking by the security personnel. But there was no security check and I entered freely. Just like that. I actually looked around to see if there was some mistake. But no, there was no security check.
It was with a sense of disbelief over the lack of a security check that I began my experience of Rongali. A disbelief that extended to other things as well over the three days, or rather evenings, I spent at the Festival venue, observing, interacting and sometimes participating in the events. It was a disbelief that led me to confront my perceptions and pre-conceived notions and also one that led me to a greater understanding.
More about that towards the end of the post. Let me first take you through the various events at Rongali the way I saw and experienced them. 🙂
My experience of and participation in the annual Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (KGAF) this year, which was held from 3rd to 12th February, was limited, for I was travelling. This was the first time that I missed the opening day of KGAF, missed seeing the stalls open, missed seeing the installations on the first day, missed bumping into people I always meet at the KGAF, missed attending other events…
It felt strange and kind of weird to miss out on what has become an annual tradition for me. So I did the next best thing: the day after I returned to Mumbai, I headed to Rampart Row in the Kala Ghoda area, where the visual art installations are displayed. Like in previous years, I went in the morning, before the place officially opened and before the place got crowded. Since I wasn’t following the #htKGAF hashtag on social media, I had no idea what the installations were like. So it was almost like seeing them on the first day. Almost.
As always I began with the Kala Ghoda installation — the black horse that is the centrepiece of the KGAF.
The drive to Sibsagar (also known as Sivasagar) from Jorhat in Assam takes about an hour. Except for one small stretch, the road, which is the National Highway 37, is smooth and and makes for a beautiful drive. The entire stretch is lined with banana and coconut trees and cottages with cane around them making for a pretty sight. It is almost impossible to take one’s eyes off the beauty all around.
But there is one place along the drive, about 15 km before Sibsagar and at a place called Gaurisagar, when you have focus on something else, even get off the vehicle you are travelling in. It is a bridge across the river Namdang, a tributary of the river Dikhou. The bridge is a small, not a particularly impressive looking, one and is about 60 m in length and 7 m in width.
But don’t go by its looks, for this bridge is only one of 10 such bridges ever built in Assam that still survives today. It is a Sila Saku or a stone bridge that was built in 1703 by the Ahom King under whom the dynasty reached its zenith, Swargdeo Rudra Singha.