Out of the Desert, Into the Hills
... to the gaudy little town of Mount Abu
Mount Abu was described by someone in the 1930s as "a sort of Shimla of Rajputana", a small colonial hill station set, surprisingly, in the deserts of Rajasthan.
It has a history that goes back, layer by layer, into the deepest antiquity. Once the tranquil hilltop retreat of meditating rishis, it was considered to be a holy spot, inhabited by no less than 330 million different gods and goddesses. Then in the early 1800s it was developed into a hill station where British officials from the hot, dusty plains of Rajasthan could seek refuge during the summer months, among the eucalyptus forests and oleanders.
Charming English country cottages were built around the Nakki Lake, and as time passed it became a British enclave - the official summer capital, where the Chief Commissioner for Rajputana would move with his entourage for two months each year, from his administrative capital in Ajmer. As a result, most of the Rajput maharajas followed suit, building palaces for themselves here, and each summer Mount Abu saw a giddy social whirl, with cricket, golf and dancing at the Rajputana Club -- and much political intrigue at the British Residency. This was where the maharajas did all their secret wheeling and dealing with the Chief Commissioner - as it was much more discreet here than to visit him publicly at his administrative capital in Ajmer.
Today, while the surrounding hills, with their waterfalls and bamboo and eucalyptus groves are still extremely charming, Mount Abu itself has become an overcrowded and gaudy little town. If you can imagine an Indian version of Las Vegas and Disney World rolled into one, this would probably be it. Its bazaars perhaps are fascinating as a kind of "living museum of contemporary Indian kitsch".
The temples of Dilwara, of course, simply have to be seen, but, in addition, some of the old palaces at Mount Abu make interesting viewing, like the Bikaner Palace - where the redoubtable Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner used to come each year, with a retinue of 400 people. And the Gothic towered palace of the bizarre and eccentric Maharaja Jai Singh of Alwar. On one occasion, the story goes, when a fellow maharaja was hosting a dinner to which he had pointedly not been invited, Jai Singh bought up all the food supplies for miles around, forcing the dinner to be cancelled. He then added insult to injury by inviting everybody here to his palace instead !