Story and Photos By Libor Pospisil.
Feature image: The lakeshore in Udaipur at Gangaur Ghat (described in Part Two).
Rajashan’s beauty comes from the seamless melding of culture and nature. It is sprinkled with old and colorful cities, royal palaces, fortresses, temples, mountains, lakes, deserts, and national parks.
Calling Rajasthan “colorful” is such a cliché, but since I traveled there right after Holi, the festival of colors, I think it right to use “colorful”. Unfortunately, I missed the Holi festival, and, on top of that, I only managed to set aside five days to sweep through this vast state at the far northwestern edge of India. Perhaps that made the Rajasthan experience even stronger.
Rajasthan surely ranks among top five scenic states of India. I could not complain, therefore, when, at three in the morning, I rolled my heavy luggage toward the Hazrat Nizamuddin station in Delhi. I did not want to miss the Nanda Devi Express, the sleeper train to my first stop in Rajasthan. The soothing vibration of the train made me fall asleep on the bunk bed, but in a short while, the sunrise woke me up. I looked out the window and saw how the landscape had changed. The lush plain of the Yamuna River, where Delhi lies, was behind us, and we had roamed through highlands covered with yellow grasses and large boulders. The only crops and trees outside were the ones that could withstand the dryness of Rajasthan.
The train was headed for Kota, but I got off one stop before that at Sawai Madhopur. In a nearby lodge, my first question was whether a seat on a jeep might be available for a tour into the park that afternoon.
Royals in the forest: Sawai Madhopur is the base to explore the Ranthambore National Park, a natural wilderness populated by Royal Bengali tigers. Sitting in an open jeep next to a gentleman of my age, he cordially introduced himself as Sudeep. He related that had taken his parents from Delhi to Rajasthan for the weekend. “How many safaris are you doing?” he asked. “Just this one,” I said, unsure what the correct answer was. “Well, this is our third one and we have not seen a tiger yet.”
As entered the park, the jeep began racing on a gravel road through the forest. While meadows were dry, the park had many sharp valleys, which retain water. Here, the forest becomes dense, and animals congregate. As it happened, we spotted not one but two tigers in one such valley after only a few moments of travel. The regal creatures were resting, yawning, walking among the trees of the valley, a few hundred yards from us. A sight we did not want to leave for some time.
“You don’t know how lucky you are,” I heard when we resumed. The guide talked to us about how to recognize the hundred tigers in the park by their stripes, especially on their faces. In the meantime, Sudeep told me he had just moved back to Delhi from a decade in San Francisco. We observed a flock of peacocks, a monkey, and then a jackal, while we spoke about the tech industries’ ups and downs in California. We paused the conversation only when the guide pointed to the famous Banyan “walking” tree and to a white-throated kingfisher. I asked if the bird is related to the eponymous Indian beer. “No, the Kingfisher bottles have a common kingfisher on them, which looks very different.”
I basked in my status as a lucky talisman of the group when we spotted yet another tiger. This one was emerging from a long bath in a pond and it left marching across a meadow. Not far from there, we passed by a family of pedestrians. “They are not afraid of the tigers??” “ The guide responded. “Those are local villagers walking to a temple. They learn from an early age how to avoid tigers.”
The trip was going too well, so I was not surprised when we ended up having a flat tire. We were still in the park, and the forest was getting dark. The guide refused our offer to jump out of the car and help him. Instead, he walked, with a stick in his hand and a sweat drop on his forehead, looking for a stone to hold up the car as he would change the tire. As a pro, he fixed the car swiftly. When we made it to the gate, and it was already locked up for the night, he did not show emotions either. We just waited for the ranger to come and liberate us.
Jaipur, the pink city: Next morning happened to be early as well, since I had a three-hour drive arranged to Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan. I tried to stay awake in the passenger seat to watch the landscape. Our route passed through fields and villages dominated by stony, tapering towers of Hindu temples. The roadside was busy with camels and carts carrying goods. Schoolchildren in uniform walked their daily route. We overtook buses with passengers sitting on the roof, and trucks with colorful tassels hanging from the sides, for good luck.
Soon, we passed by rows of gigantic concrete columns surrounded by a construction site. That was a poster example of India’s modernization drive—the new eight-lane superhighway that will cut through Rajasthan, on its way from Delhi to Mumbai.
Jaipur is a busy metropolis founded only in the 18th century. Its life revolves around straight, wide avenues lined with pink buildings designed in a consistently ornamental style. This gives the city a pleasing and distinct look, most epitomized in the façade of Hawa Mahal. The site is an annex to the city palace, built for the royal wives, who. discretely unseen, could watch ceremonial processions. Hawa Mahal is famous, however, for its beautiful street wall, made of bays, apses, and turrets, with lattice windows on all sides. The elaborate design had the prosaic purpose of ensuring rapid air circulation inside. The design also explains the name of the structure—it translates as the Palace of the Winds.
Here, boulevards overflowed with noisy traffic. The sidewalks were crowd with people, some of whom were still adorned from the Holi celebrations with hard-to-wash colors on their hands and faces. They kept browsing the never-ending rows of stores and stalls, where all kinds of goods were on offer, including traditional Rajasthani saris and jewels. I eventually felt ready to depart for a calmer destination and so resisted the newest incarnation of Jaipur’s shopping spirit, the sprawling World Trade Park. It is conveniently located on the way to the airport and has become one of the most popular shopping malls in India. Even without stepping inside, the modern building is architecturally interesting, made of blue glass in 2012.
LINKS (in order of appearance in the post): Holi, the festival of colors, Jodhpur, Ranakpur Jain Temple at Ranakpur, Hazrat Nizamuddin station in Delhi , Yamuna River, Kota, Sawai Madhopu, Ranthambore National Park, Jaipur, and Hawa Mahal.
IF YOU GO
- A website with easy booking of Indian train tickets for foreigners: https://12go.asia/en/operator/indian-railways
- In Sawai Madhopur, I stayed in Ranthambore Regency lodge, https://ranthamboreregency.com/, which offers tiger-watching safari rides.
- In Udaipur, I stayed in Kankarwa Haveli on the lakeshore: https://www.kankarwahaveli.com/.
- Rajasthani dances in Udaipur: https://www.lokdharohar.com/
- In Jodhpur, I stayed at Kings Retreat in the center: https://www.booking.com/hotel/in/kings-retreat-jodhpur.html