“So, what are your planning to do in Kota?” asked Mahijit ji, my host in Jhalawar, over dinner on the eve of our departure for Kota.
Nothing,” I replied. “We (my friend fellow traveller Niti & I) and reach Kota in the evening and leave for Bundi the next morning.”
“Oh, but you can’t leave Kota without going for a Chambal River Safari. It’s a morning safari, and I know just the person who can take you on it. Surely you can leave for Bundi after that?”
We said that we didn’t even know that there was something like a river safari being conducted from Kota. That’s when we heard about Ravinder Singh Tomar, nature and wildlife photographer, and the man behind the Chambal River Safari. A phone call to him later, we were booked on a 2-hour Chambal River Safari with instructions to meet him at the boating pier of Chambal Gardens in Kota from where the safari commenced.
When we reached the pier, the first thing I saw noticed was not the broad expanse of the river, but this industrial unit belching out smoke — not a very encouraging introduction to the Chambal River Safari! Our motor boat was waiting and after boarding and settling down, which hardly took a few minutes, we set off with our guide, Ravinder Singh Tomar, telling us all about the river, its history and its ecosystem.
Have you been to Kota before, asks Manoj, our driver, as he is dropping us off at our hotel there. It is late in the afternoon and we have just arrived in Kota, the second leg of our Hadoti trip.
Not me, I say. Not me either, says, Niti, my friend and fellow traveller.
Then you wouldn’t be knowing anything about the city, I guess he says. We shake our heads in unison.
Then allow me to take you to a very special place in Kota later in the evening. I’m sure you wouldn’t have seen anything like that before. We happily agree to this suggestion. When we leave, it is past sunset and it is turning dark rapidly. There’s a delicious chill in the air and I’m looking forward to the evening.
A short drive later we are at a vast lake shimmering in the light reflected on the opposite bank. Manoj asks us to look around and tell him if we can guess what is it that we have come to see. I take a good look around and can’t see anything except for an unlit structure that seems to be floating in the lake.
This is the Kishore Sagar Lake and that unlit building is the Jagmandir Palace, says Manoj. But what you are going to see is across the lake. Take a guess.
Initially I can’t make out anything, till my eyes lock in on a pyramidal structure and then a tall tower. I can’t believe my eyes. Is that an Egyptian pyramid and that tall thing the Eiffel Tower?
Manoj beams in answer and says that there are more at the 7 Wonders Park of Kota and that is where we were headed to. 10 minutes later we were inside the 7 Wonders Park and getting our first sight of scaled down replicas of seven modern wonders.
It was supposed to be just a visit to the ruins of the Bhand Devra or Bhand Deora Temple, a 10th century CE temple enroute to Kota from Jhalawar. My friend Shubhra aka Historywali had told me that this was a place I should not miss, especially since I would be in the area. Little did I know it would turn out to be much more than just a visit to a temple ruin.
The day had begun with us (my friend Niti and I) bidding goodbye to Jhalawar and our fabulous host, Mahijit ji, before setting off on a 2.5-hour journey by road to the temple. Though Manoj, our car driver, wasn’t sure of the temple’s exact location, he knew the area and assured us that he would get us to the temple. All we had to do was to sit back and enjoy the drive that initially passed though a hilly and forested section, before the landscape flattened out.
About 2 hours into the journey, we saw a strange, flat-topped elevation rising in the distance. On asking Manoj if he knew anything about it, he just shrugged and said that it was a hill and the Bhand Devra Temple was close to it. I was intrigued for the hill didn’t look like any that I had seen before and I decided to check Google Maps to see if it could tell me what it was.
What came up had me rubbing my eyes in disbelief; Niti’s reaction was no different. We were looking at (see the screenshot I took below) what appeared to be a hollow hill or a a crater. An impact crater.
It is about half past three in the afternoon and my friend Niti and I have been walking through and exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Gagron Fort at Jhalawar, Rajasthan. We have been at the Fort for the last 2 hours or so and leisurely exploration has been all about trying to understand the Fort’s layout, extent and get a feel of its past.
We take paths leading off tantalisingly into various parts of the Fort. We stop regularly to peer into what looks like half-finished structures, but realise that they are attempts to ‘renovate/restore’ them. We peer over the massive fort walls and rear back in alarm at the sheer drop. We also notice the fascinating rock formations around and see the river flowing silently by.
All through this, we have no clue as to what we are seeing for there are no signboards to indicate where we are within the Fort or what we are seeing. Niti and I have fun speculating what each building could have been — armoury, palace, stables, public hall, temple, etc. But the November afternoon sun is harsh and we are beginning to tire.
We almost decide to turn back when we see steps leading to a doorway in the fort wall and decide to explore that and before heading back.
It is a little after 10 am on a November morning in 2016 when we arrive at the base of the hillock that houses the Kolvi Caves, one of the three Buddhist rock-cut cave sites in Rajasthan. A board displaying some rather sketchy information about the caves reassure us that we are in the right place.
It says that the Kolvi Caves was a monastic complex of about 50 rock-cut caves, most of which have collapsed today and details have disappeared due to natural weathering. The presence of a big rock-cut stupa in the shape of a structural stupa, as we know it today, is considered to be an important and notable feature of the Kolvi Caves. It has been suggested that the absence of Bodhisattva figures at the site indicates that this was a site of Buddhist monks of the Hinayana (or Theravada) sect. The board doesn’t mention an important detail — the age of the Caves.
Apart from my friend Niti, our car driver and me, there is no one else around at the site. I take a minute to appreciate the surroundings and the location. The blackish red Kolvi hillock, which is entirely composed of laterite, rises quite suddenly and dramatically from a flat landscape.
A flight of steps, probably built over a pre-existing path, leads to the top of the hill where the Caves are located. A short climb later, Niti and I are opening the gate that leads into the cave complex.
The modern history of Jhalrapatan town in the Hadoti region of Rajasthan is about 200 years old. It began in 1838, when the rulers of the newly formed princely state of Jhalawar chose Jhalrapatan as their base till a new capital city (present day Jhalawar) could be built. Before the arrival of the Jhalawar royals, Jhalrapatan was known as Patan; the word ‘Jhala’ was prefixed to it in recognition and in honour of its new rulers, who belonged to the community of Jhala Rajputs as in “Jhala ra Patan” or the Patan of the Jhalas. But even today, almost two centuries later, locals still refer to the town as Patan; it is the tourists who refer to the town as Jhalrapatan!
Jhalrapatan’s history extends back to centuries before the creation of Jhalawar state, when it was known as a temple town as well as a major trading centre. In its former avatar, the walled town was supposed to have been home to 108 temples. Imagine the sound of the bells of all 108 temples ringing at the same time — one legend says that this is how ‘Jhalrapatan got its name. As a trading centre, Jhalrapatan used was known for its opium and spices.
I spent one evening in Jhalrapatan exploring its various sights beginning with Madan Vilas, the erstwhile holiday home for the royal family, now owned by the Rajasthan state government, and then moved on to the temples of the town.