The Suryagarh experience

It has been a long, but relaxing, drive from Jodhpur and we have just crossed Jaisalmer city. Suryagarh, my destination, is still a few kilometres away when the cab I am travelling in stops suddenly.

As I look around for the reason for the sudden halt, Partap Singh, the cab driver, announces grandly, “And here, madam, is your escort service,” indicating two turbaned men approaching our vehicle.

“My what?” I ask with some trepidation.

“Your escorts from Suryagarh. They will be leading the way to the hotel in an advance vehicle.”

The men approach my window and bow low with folded hands and say a warm Khamma Ghani, the traditional greeting in Rajasthan. I roll down the window and squeak out a Ghani Khamma in return with a answering smile and hope that my embarrassment at their unexpected “escort service” does not show too much.

Suryagarh, Rajasthan, Luxury Hotel, Boutique Hotel, Monsoon Magic

Suryagarh, Rajasthan, Luxury Hotel, Boutique Hotel, Monsoon Magic

The men, with their flaming saffron turbans, get into an open jeep and lead the way and within minutes the fort-like Suryagarh is visible in the distance. Rising imposingly from the flat desert landscape, it looks like the very desert has sprouted the hotel.

I almost expect my escorts to toot a horn or a blow a trumpet announcing my arrival, but thankfully they do nothing of that sort ! At Suryagarh, I am welcomed with more warm smiles, musicians singing Padharo mharo desh, a shower of rose petals, chandan ka tikka, watermelon juice… and am shown to my room in a matter of minutes.

The Suryagarh experience has begun… 🙂

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Jaisalmer… once more

“You are going to Jaisalmer for a weekend? To experience monsoons there?” asks my brother, his bemusement loud and clear over phone.

“Yes,” I reply.

“Last I knew, Jaisalmer was a desert and it doesn’t rain there,” he says. “Has climate change brought about rains there?”

“Very funny,” I retort.

“But seriously, people come to Mumbai, your city, to experience the rains, and you want to experience monsoons elsewhere ?

“It will be nice to experience the rains elsewhere for a change.”

“It has to rain in the first place ! Besides, weren’t you in Jaisalmer just 5 months back? Why do you want to go back so soon?” my brother persists.

I had asked myself these questions when I received an invitation from Suryagarh in Jaisalmer to host me and experience the magic of monsoons in the desert. A luxury boutique hotel, Suryagarh wished to showcase “a representation of a unique way of life, carefully preserving the traditions of…[the] past [and] framing them in a modern idiom”. The invitation also invited me to “celebrate the exuberance of Monsoons with us… [where] Jaisalmer transforms its barren beauty into inimitable patches of green pastures, lush oasis brimming with water and newness in all forms of life”.

I was tempted. Very tempted to say yes immediately, particularly as this was an invitation for a visit over a weekend which meant that this wouldn’t interfere with my office work. But I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go back to Jaisalmer, a place I had visited earlier in February this year and had come back with mixed feelings. While I had loved the old world charm of the Jaisalmer Fort, its havelis, wall art and Jain temples, I found it hard to ignore the unimaginable filth all over the city and or the overwhelming sadness and grief that I felt when I visited the royal cenotaphs. But then, another part of me (the one that wanted me to accept the invitation) said that this was the chance to see the many places that I had missed out on seeing and of course experience the rains in a different setting and context.

I rarely say no to an opportunity to travel, but this was a difficult choice to make. So, I decided to take the help of good old Google and get some information on Suryagarh which would (hopefuuly) help me decide on whether this invitation was worth it or not.

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The unique wall art of Jaisalmer

All guidebooks and people who have visited Jaisalmer rave about its beautiful golden fort, the grand havelis, camel rides, sunset among the dunes, its Jain temples, cenotaphs, etc. But none (at least I haven’t come across any) talk about the unique wall art of Jaisalmer. When I saw the first one (see photo below), my reaction was one of horror: how could something like this be painted on the walls of an old haveli?

1-P1030192 Then I saw more of these and then some more. In fact, almost every house in Jaisalmer has such announcements painted near the entrance. The announcements are of weddings, upanayan ceremonies, housewarming ceremonies… And realised that this is a custom, a tradition in Jaisalmer and one that is unique to this city, as its residents kept telling me. Almost all these “announcements” have auspicious symbols accompanying it like the kalash, the swastika, and Ganpati.

A small selection of Jaisalmer’s wall art in Jaisalmer is presented below:

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The creepy & beautiful cenotaphs of Rajasthan

It is an hour to sunset when I arrive at Devi Kund Sagar in Bikaner that February evening. I have just arrived from Mumbai earlier that day and this is one of the first sites I am visiting in Bikaner. Never having seen cenotaphs for Hindus before, I am very curious and intrigued about this visit and am not sure what to expect when I walk into the complex. (I didn’t know then that Devi Kund Sagar is only the first of the many Hindu cenotaphs I will be seeing during the course of my Rajasthan trip).

Located about 8 km from Bikaner, Devi Kund Sagar has been the cremation ground for the royal family of Bikaner and generations of kings, queens, princes and princesses of Bikaner have a memorial to their names here. According to the information board at the entrance to the complex, the oldest cenotaph at the Devi Kund Sagar is that of Rao Kalyanmal Ji (1539-1571 AD).

Rows upon rows of pillared and open-sided domed cenotaphs are spread out before me when I enter the L-shaped enclosure after removing my footwear. The place is empty, save for the caretaker and a couple of children playing hide and seek between the various structures. The base of each of these domed and pillared structure is mostly square, and sometimes hexagonal or rectangular. Locally, the cenotaphs are called chhatris due to the domes, which look like umbrellas (chhatris).

Cenotaphs, chattris, Rajasthan, Hindu
Cenotaphs at Devi Kund Sagar, Bikaner

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The abandoned, cursed and haunted village of Kuldhara

For reasons that I cannot really explain, ruins fascinate me. Their history, the people who lived there, their beliefs, their art, culture, their life and their ultimate downfall never fails to interest me. While in Jaisalmer, I heard about the ruins of Kuldhara, and knew that I could not come away without a visit. Yes, ruins have that effect on me; they draw me in like a magnet.

Kuldhara, Jaisalmer, Travel, Rajasthan

So that is how I came to be on the road to Kuldhara, about 20 km from Jaisalmer, one February afternoon listening to Sushil, my car driver-cum-guide, narrate the fairytale-like story of how Kuldhara came to be abandoned, cursed and haunted; forgotten, and then discovered after almost 2 centuries. It was a story that was fascinating in every aspect !

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Museum Treasure: The bearded Rama

It is quite fascinating how popular culture, iconography and art shape, influence and reiterate perception, both consciously and unconsciously. Anything that is different from the familiar is either missed or dismissed as a gimmick. In rare cases, it opens up a whole new world and triggers off a new understanding. Something like this happened in February when I visited the Jaisalmer Fort Palace Museum at the Jaisalmer Fort, where I was forced to acknowledge that I was not immune to internalising popular perception.

I was at the sculpture gallery at the Museum and idly registering apsaras or dancing girls, a Saraswati, a carved panel, and a bearded figure with a bow. Though the pose of the figure appeared relaxed, it’s expression said otherwise—fierce eyes, and a grim and stern countenance seemed to radiate tension. While, the arrow in the figure’s hands and the bow slung on it’s back suggested a brave warrior, the elaborate crown and extended ear lobes from heavy earrings suggested a that this was, perhaps, the figure of a king.

Bearded Rama, Sculpture, Jaisalmer Fort Palace Museum, Travel, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan

So who was it, I asked myself. When I saw the information board for this sculpture, I almost dropped my camera !

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