The painted rooms of the Garh Mahal of Jhalawar

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.

A painted room at the Garh Mahal. This one has life-sized portraits, hunting scenes, floral ceilings and more.

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

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Discovering Jhalawar

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 Mandi Station 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.

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Dear Hadoti

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.

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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. 🙂

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The incredible music of the Thar at Suryagarh

The sight of a canopied seating and fresh juice organised by the Suryagarh team was a welcome relief after a morning spent exploring the Thar. Set up outside an abandoned human settlement, the location and timing of the ‘refreshment pitstop’ was perfect. Much as I love the desert, I was getting dehydrated pretty quickly.

As I made my way to pick a glass of juice for myself, I heard some music being played in the distance. Music that was both familiar and unfamiliar, if not strange. It was familiar because I recognised the instrument, and unfamiliar because I had never heard it played outside of a Carnatic classical music katcheri (concert).

Juice forgotten, I changed directions and headed towards the music and the musician, Sumar Khan, who was playing the morsing or the wind harp, a wind percussion instrument.

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The temples of Kiradu

About 180 km south-west of Jaisalmer, where the Thar Desert meets some isolated outcrops of the Aravalli mountain ranges, lie the ruins of the temples of Kiradu. It is believed that there were around 108 temples on this site, but today only 5 temples remain — 4 of those are dedicated to Shiva and 1 temple is believed to have been dedicated to to Vishnu.

I first heard about the temples at Kiradu when I received an invitation from Suryagarh. The itinerary attached with the mail included a visit to these temples. I was intrigued enough to look up for more information on the internet immediately — even before I accepted the invitation. To my surprise, I found little substantive information online. This only made the temples more intriguing and mysterious for me and I couldn’t wait to see them for myself when I visited Suryagarh in July 2016.

And after lunch on my last day at Suryagarh, we set off to see the Kiradu temples. It was a beautiful, but long, drive through the Thar, through dramatic changes in the landscape from desert to hilly.

It was around 6 pm when we arrived at the Kiradu temples, which meant I had an hour or so before sunset and before the light faded. The next hour saw me racing from temple to temple, pumped with adrenaline, trying to take in as much of the details as I could and photographing whatever I thought was interesting or significant.

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A nritya (?) mandapa with elaborately carved toranas and pillars. One of the pillars has been reconstructed as part of the restoration work undertaken by the ASI at Kiradu

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Sifting through the sands of time in the Thar

The mid-day sun in July is hot and harsh as is the landscape around. I am somewhere in the Thar Desert — about 30-40 km west of Jaisalmer city — and the ground is hard, dry, and stony in most parts with some sandy patches. It is the end of summer in this region and I scan the skies for signs of monsoon clouds, but there are none to be seen.

All around me are limestone and sandstone ridges with the meanders of rivers and streams that once flowed here cutting through the rock layers. In the distance, cenotaphs and memorial stones to the dead can be seen. The occasional pops of green from the desert flora provides visual relief (and shade !) in the otherwise arid and barren landscape (see photograph below).

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Millions of years in this one frame !

It is a sight that leaves me awestruck for this one frame encapsulates millions of years of history of the region — natural as well as human. A history that is as rich as it is varied and one that has changed and evolved through space and time.

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