Rediff Logo Travel Banner Ads
Find/Feedback/Site Index
June 19, 1997


Chasing the Monsoon

... through Rajasthan

Text and photographs: Sanjay Singh Badnor

A Kota farmer celebrates the monsoonIt is the most awaited season in India. As the cool, moisture-laden winds waft across the country, the earth seems to come alive again in a green burst of glory. It's the season of fertility, of hope, of expectation.

I decided to celebrate the monsoon this year -- the season commences in late June or early July and lasts right upto September -- by travelling across the western Indian desert state of Rajasthan. It was, as far as I was concerned, the best way of experiencing the rejuvenation of a land which battles for survival each year against the scorching summer.

My eight-day itinerary encompassed a 1,500 km start-to-finish journey that began at New Delhi. I would first go to Bikaner, situated in northern Rajasthan, then across the north-eastern desert belt to Jaipur, the capital city. And from there onwards to Kota in the south-eastern Rajasthan before finally retracing my steps back to Delhi.

Most travel guide books recommend the winter months of November to March as ideal for visiting Rajasthan. I discovered that the monsoon and the post monsoon months are an equally enchanting time to be in Rajasthan.

The first leg of my trip began with a train journey. The Bikaner Mail departed from the quaint Serai Rohila station in old Delhi, late one evening and reached Bikaner the following morning. At daybreak, we were in the heart of the desert, a few hours away from Bikaner. The surrounding landscape, which otherwise would have been an endless stretch of scrubby bush and sand, was now covered with a velvety coat of short green, grass.

Folk musician performing at the Camel FestivalBikaner is the lesser known of the three towns that make up the desert triangle; the other two being Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. Yet, it has a great deal to offer the discerning traveller -- forts, palaces and temples and the vast desert at its door step. There are the charming bazaars that hawk a variety of arts and crafts. In fact, Bikaner is now being promoted by the Rajasthan Tourism department as one of the major destination of the 90s.

A camel festival is organised every January to boost the tourist influx into Bikaner, as well as to encourage camel breeders to participate in what is dubbed as the state's only 'camel extravaganza'. A camel band, camel polo, an opportunity to sample dairy products made from camel milk and the breath-taking fire-dance typical of the Bikaner region are some of the highlights of this two-day festival, which has now become a major annual attraction.

Bikaner, located on the old caravan route linking central Asia, India and the sea, was for long a major trading centre. It was founded in 1485 AD by prince Bika, son of Rao Jodhaji, the ruler of Marwar-Jodhpur, who wished to form his own separate kingdom. The town is encircled by imposing battlements and is perched at a slight elevation above the surrounding desert . Its roads undulate through colourful bazaars. The reddish-pink local sandstone dominates most of the city's handsome buildings.

Lalgarh PalaceThe sky was heavily overcast as I made my way from Bikaner's railway station to my hotel, the magnificent Lalgarh Palace. It was built by Maharaja Ganga Singh in 1902 in memory of his father Maharaja Lal Singh. An imposing carved, red sandstone edifice of graceful proportions set amidst spacious, lush, green lawns, it was designed by the British architect Sir Swinton Jacob and constructed by local sculptors. Lalgarh Palace represents a successful blending of renaissance style with traditional Rajput architectural form.

Today, it has been partly converted into a luxury hotel by the Welcomgroup chain of hotels. Yet, its oriental facade, profusion of pavilions, intricately carved balconies and balustrades merges with its occidental interiors, profusely embellished with Belgian glass crystal chandeliers.

It's time to move around the city. I begin with Junagarh Fort, which is a must for every tourist visiting Bikaner. It is one of the few forts in the country which has never been conquered by invaders. Built by Raja Rai Singh (1571-1611), who was also one of Akbar's distinguished generals, the fort is a rather impressive stronghold to which additions were made by rulers over the next three centuries.

It houses a series of 37 palaces, of which the Chandra Mahal, the Phool Mahal and the Anup Mahal are definitely worth a visit. Junagarh, when seen from the uppermost terrace, is an amazing amalgamation of courtyards, galleries, balconies and bell towers. The fort, which is open to the public, also houses an excellent museum.

A camel farmAfter lunch I set off for Jorbeer; 10 km from the city. A research centre on camels and as well as a rather interesting camel breeding farm is located at Jorbeer. A visit to this centre is an excellent opportunity to familiarise oneself with the habits, lifestyle and other features of this incredible 'ship of the desert'. The camel plays an important role in this region in defence and civil law and order in the border areas, as well as for postal services in the otherwise inaccessible desert areas!

Next, I make a pilgrimage to Karni Mata, the tutelary deity of the Rathore rulers of Bikaner. Another incarnation of the Goddess Durga, her temple lies 32 km from Bikaner at a place called Deshnoke. The temple's striking feature is the presence of innumerable rats, who freely scamper about the temple and are even present in the inner sanctum. Visitors and pilgrims are forewarned that, if they happen to injure or kill one of these venerated vermin, they would have to buy redemption by donating a rat made out of gold to the temple.

Exhausted after the day's hectic schedule, I retrace my steps to Lalgarh Palace. The evening finds me sitting in the subtly lit courtyard, under an ink-blue, star-strewn sky and listening to the strains of the soothing sitar, while the other musicians play a light Indian classical melody. I am transported into another world. The music echoes through the maze of palace corridors.

The following morning is spent, shopping and browsing through Bikaner's colourful bazaars. Camel hide products, carpets, woollen items, jhootis or Rajasthani footwear and the famous snack of Bikaner -- the bhujia -- are available all over the market.

A puppet show in BikanerBack in my hotel, I witness a delightful puppet show performed with great dedication by a father-daughter duo. Later, I head towards Kolayat, another pilgrim centre located 50 km on the highway to Jaisalmer. The Kolayat temple is dedicated to a saint and stands besides sacred, lotus-covered lake.

Early next morning, I was on my way to Jaipur. It is a 300 km ride by cab. A slight drizzle begins as I halt for a few moments at Devi Kund on the outskirts of Bikaner and pay homage at the marble cenotaphs which commemorate the former rulers of Bikaner.

The drive to Jaipur is mostly through the desert region. But the monsoon has turned the landscape into a lush, green, belt, dotted with the occasional sand dune. At midday, I reach the Shekhavati region of north-eastern Rajasthan. This country has been dubbed Rajasthan's 'open air art gallery' as the area abounds with scores of ornately frescoed havelis or mansions belonging to trading families of the region.

Shekhavati frescoes are 18th and 19th century images that provide insights into the growth and development of the people and the region. In fact, the frescoed mansions, which were really commissioned around the turn of the century, are a curious mix of the traditional and colonial styles of art.

For the past several decades, these havelis were lying in a state of neglect and decay but, today, the booming tourism has seen several of these havelis restored and converted into hotels.

JaipurLate in the afternoon, I reached the Pink City of Jaipur. Presently the capital city of Rajasthan, Jaipur's first foundation stone was laid in 1727 AD; it was India's first planned city.

The original plan visualised a spacious and elegant city, built in a simple grid system. Seven blocks of buildings were divided by wide, tree lined avenues and each building was embellished by a variety of architectural decorations. At its heart lay the city palace, covering two blocks. Jaipur was surrounded by seven formidable gates, which were closed at night to ensure security. Today, Jaipur has expanded rapidly outside the original fortified walls. However, the distinct characteristics that set it apart from other towns of its era have been carefully preserved and incorporated.

I stayed at Welcomgroup's Rajputana Palace hotel situated in the centre of the city. The hotel, though totally modern, offers plenty of facilities of all sorts. And I enjoyed the regal ambience and refined sophistication of the hotel which has been built along the lines of a haveli.