A Royal Retreat

The magnificence of the forts, the dazzle of the glittering ‘sheesh mahals’ and flamboyant palace-hotels, the rustic beauty of the villages, the inner calmness even in the thick crowds at Ajmer Shareef, the staggering queues of the devout at Pushkar, the clambering of hawkers in the old city and the mouth-watering mithai and food. My recent escapade to Jaipur was visual, soulful and a gourmet treat.

I am in love with Rajasthan. My winter visit of Udaipur (Palaces, Lakes and Memories) this year made me a fan of this State. Udaipur was laid-back and Jaipur is comparatively fast-paced. The action, for tourists especially, is in the old city-also known as the Pink city where all the buildings are painted in pink (a welcoming colour). Needless to say, we spent all our waking hours discovering this part of the city on foot and cycle rickshaws. The famed Hawa Mahal is located here. We jostled past the crowds to go all the way up for some ‘hawa’ (air), but alas! On this particularly sweltering day, there was none. However, the unique architecture of the building and the views of the surrounding monuments from here, made up for the lack of breeze.

Forts and Palaces

Amer Fort and Nahargargh Fort were our ‘must-sees’. Both located about 11 kms from the city on top of a hill are visual marvels. Amer Fort is huge, covering the surrounding hills to protect the town of Amer. Moats, ponds, gardens and a long curving pebbled walkway led us to the palace atop this fort.  The Rajput maharajas and their families lived in this opulent palace with its large open courtyards and the ‘sheesh mahal’ (section made entirely of glass). The Nahargarh Fort located at the edge of the Aravalli hills offered beautiful vistas of Jaipur city from its very interestingly made roof-top. It is said to have been a retreat palace for the Maharajas. The fresco paintings and their many baaris (windows) made for picture-postcard pictures.

We drove up to the Samode village (about 40 kms) which has a magnificent palace converted into a hotel-Samode Palace (What-e-‘Numa). The drive up to this palace traverses through the quaint village where artisans were busy at work in their shops. Blacksmiths were hammering hot iron on their anvils, while families of bangle (lac) makers were busy moulding pieces of designer bangles. They made us some new bangles as well. The palace is beautiful, with guards standing sentry.

Spiritual

Our ziyarat (Bonding- Spiritual, Social, Cultural) to Ajmer Shareef (135 kms) was a spiritual experience. Even in the midst of the multitudes of people, this resting place of the benevolent saint Moinuddin Chisti (Gharib Nawaz-Benefactor of the poor) had an eerily calming effect on us. We offered a customary chaadar (embroidered sheet) and flowers to the saint’s tomb and the custodian of the Dargah (Dr. Syed Irfan) offered prayers for us. The lyrical sound of the qawwali (Sufi devotional music) outside was divine.

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In the dargah

We took a trip to Pushkar town (Mysticism and the Kumbh) from Ajmer (16 kms) where the only Brahma temple in the world exists. While crowds of people lined to enter the temple, many others, like us, walked to the ghats (series of steps leading to the holy water) where priests performed pujas and did aartis to the chants of shlokas.

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At the ghat

Food

After our spiritual interlude, we were back to discover the rest of Jaipur. We took a food walk by YoTours in the old city and it was a gastronomical adventure of local snack food of kachoris, masala chai, malai kulfis, ghewar,sutarfini and our favourite-different kinds of paan. The Rajasthani food looks simple, but is deviously rich and laden with ghee. The famed vegetarian thaali with daal baati churma and a variety of curries and rotis we could only attempt to eat once. The non-vegetarian delicacy, laal maas, is not to be missed. We had it at ITC’s Rajputana and it was very worth it. We also had Continental and Chinese food at Niros and at Taruveda in the new part of the city.

Shopping

The hawkers and shop owners strike a hard bargain. The city is famous for its blankets, durries and bed sheets. Bandhini prints, bangles, fashion jewellery, footwear, different types of mukhwas (digestive mouth-fresheners) and bhujias (snacks), the roads were teeming with people selling all these and much more. Needless to say, just like my trip to Udaipur,(Palaces, Lakes and Memories) we came away with extra baggage!

Jaipur is a royal city. The people are courteous, helpful and surprisingly, humourous. Everyone is a guide here and has their own story to share about the forts and palaces. This city’s unique mix of the old and the new made it a memorable and delightful journey for us.

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At Samode Palace…Until next time…

Location:

Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and is well-connected by air from metros. It has a good road network and a train station. Ajmer is well-connected to Jaipur by road and train. Pushkar is accessed by road.

Climate:

Average temperature in August is 35 C.

-Tamanna S. Mehdi

 

 

 

 

 

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Palaces, Lakes and Memories

It isn’t always about how much sight-seeing we do on a holiday, but rather how much we enjoy in the company of people we travel with. My recent holiday to Udaipur, was just that- time spent in the dear company of friends I have grown up with.

Whether we were waiting for our cabs or spending anxious moments stuck in autos in the narrow gullies of the old city or while we trudged along the castles and forts or even when we were haggling for a good bargain- all we did was enjoy and laugh. It was the most stress free, laidback and carefree holiday I’ve had.

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Happyness!! 🙂

Our good times also had a lot to do with the city we chose to visit. Udaipur is a laid back city where nothing is more than a 10 minute cab/auto ride away. The soothing water of the lakes around which the city is situated adds to the calmness of this place. The city is steeped in history and has an old-world charm to it. Its narrow curving lanes with family run shops with residences having jharokas (overhanging enclosed balconies) is reminiscent of an earlier era that we hardly get to experience in our modern architecture. It is also very clean- the roads were garbage free, very unlike what we are used to in India.

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Silver market… Notice the windows…they are residences

Lakes

Udaipur is built around the two main lakes-Pichola and Fateh Sagar and the many bridges across its back waters connect the different localities. We stayed at Hotel Lakend built right on the banks of the Fateh Sagar Lake and it turned out to be a good decision. The area around here is less crowded and more easily accessible.

But suffice to say that Lake Pichola was where all the action was- an array of hotels and lake front restaurants offered the perfect places to chill and relax. Swarms of ducks swam past us as our motor boat revved around the lake on a cold January morning. We stopped at the Jag Mandir, an island on the lake and sailed past the Taj lake palace hotel built on another island in the centre of the lake. (What-e-‘Numa) The City Palace and the very many other hotels and ghats on the banks formed an idyllic setting.

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On the Lake Pichola

Palaces

The whole city is full of palaces and forts. We chose to visit the City Palace, the Monsoon Palace at Sajjangarh and rode the ropeway at Dudh Talai to the top of a fort.

The City Palace is a huge complex and has many palaces built in it. It is grandiose with both Rajasthani and Mughal architecture. The views of Lake Pichola from the many sit-outs and jharokas here were stunning.

The Monsoon Palace is a little away from the city and we hired a taxi to go up the Aravalli mountain range where the palace is located at 3100 ft above sea level. Offering panoramic views of lakes, palaces and surrounding farm lands, this palace is located in a forest reserve and was built by Maharana Sajjan Singh of the Mewar Dynasty in 1884.

The cable car ride was a very touristy thing to do but the ride up was worth it- for the beautiful views. Every spot offered breath-taking vistas of the lakes, the very many castles and the quaint old city.

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View of Dudh Talai, Fateh Sagar lake and the city from atop the cable car

There is a lot more sight-seeing to do especially for history buffs, and if you have the time, I recommend it.

Shopping

Silver jewellery, handicrafts, hand painted cards, clothes, shoes, bags, durries from Jaipur… you name it, and you get it here at excellent rates. The curving interconnected gullies of Hathipole and Chandpole markets are where we spent a good part of our afternoons and evenings. Covering the many shops by foot, peeking in the stores and striking friendly bargains, we all came back with excess baggage 🙂 (A Royal Retreat)

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(Needs no caption) 😉

Food

We felt that most of the food at the restaurants catered to foreign tourists and lacked an authentic local taste. We tried the ‘must eat at places’ from all the blogs we read up on, but weren’t very thrilled with the food. We heard a lot about Savage Garden and Ambrai, but apart from their very stunning locations, we did not find the food very appetizing. Upre also has a lovely setting, but the food was strictly okay.

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View of the Ambrai restaurant

The only place that lived up to its reputation was Hotel Natraj on the station road. A vegetarian place serving Rajasthani and Gujarati thaali, it was our most authentic experience at local food on this trip. The Daal baati churma was an excellent addition to our already wonderful meal. We washed it all down with namkeen chaas and meetha paan at the end.

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Rajasthani Thaali, Natraj Hotel

The malai khajla, a very famous Bohra sweet found its way back home as well. It is a puff pastry filled with fresh cream. Before it is eaten, it is warmed and hot sugar syrup is poured over it…hmm…yumm…

So, pack a bag, take a break and make your own memories!

Location: Udaipur is in Rajasthan and is accessible from all major metros and cities by air, rail and road.

Weather: The average night time temperature is about 7 C this month (January).

Tip: Book a hotel preferably close to the lakes.

Tamanna S. Mehdi

 

 

What-e-‘Numa

This was my second visit to this Grand Palace cum converted luxury hotel (A Royal Retreat). I felt no less like royalty this time as well. The first time I came here was for an Italian dinner at Celeste and now for their high-tea.

Since it is converted into a luxury hotel, the Celeste to me was a value addition to the hotel. This time, however, to be booked in for ‘high-tea’ in this city of Nizams, reiterated to me how ‘colonial’ a time it was when the British ruled India and how that culture seeped into the Royal way of living at that time. What was more interesting was when I was asked by the reservations desk, “if we would like the Nizami or the English high-tea”. It must have been a very multi-cultural time then, as is now.

I had read a few reviews about the food, and I wasn’t disappointed by what they served us. But then, we weren’t just coming here for the food (of course we skipped lunch so we could do justice here), but for the experience- from the feeling of how perhaps a royal Begum would have felt when she traveled on the beautiful curving drive up to her magnificent palace perched on top of a hill (at 2000 ft above sea level) overlooking her city and its beautiful people to how she dined and lived in style.

The roads leading to the palace are crowded with constant traffic and small by-lanes, but as we took the turn towards the hotel, the entire atmosphere changed. In stark contrast to the constant honking and melee of people, cars and buses, this serene private drive-way was almost eerily quiet. The tar roads gave way to un-laid kacha roads. It was like going back in time, right from the word go.

At the first check-point, as our names were checked off the list by the polite guards with a subdued ‘Adaab’, it was that instant feeling of being transformed into another time- a far cry from the present day Hyderabad, though we were just a few kilometers away from the main city. I admit I pinched myself a couple of times ;).

We went up the lovely drive way past stables and a parked buggy on one side, and the massive city on the other up to the second gate (yes, there are quite a few gates before we reach the palace itself). After parking our car and taking the opportunity to take a few of our pictures at the edifice, the security checked us in. Again, really politely without making it awkward (like in other public places). Politeness in talk and manners was an integral part of theNizamiculture and the staff at the hotel encompass this beautifully, right from the guards to the waiting staff to the many other people we met at the hotel.

After another short golf-cart ride past manicured gardens, we reached the main entrance to the palace-hotel itself. After another tehzeebi greeting, the guard ushered us to the main stairway leading up to the hotel. Built over 32 acres, the property is built over many levels. Our dining room was further down and though we were hungry by now (it was almost 4 pm), we strolled slowly admiring the intricate ceilings, the elaborate library with its rare Britannica editions and books in various languages to another huge garden with water fountains and gardeners silently tending to the lawns on this beautiful July afternoon.

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The tea spread was impressive with different types of Indian and British teas to choose from and the fresh scones with cream and jam just melted in our mouths. From the lukmi to the delicately made sandwiches and small crisp pies, it was difficult to choose a favorite dish. The dessert table had the yummiest Khubani ka meetha apart from delectable pastries and tea cakes.

After our tea, we went for a guided palace tour of the main building. The palace is built in the shape of a Scorpion (as that was the sun-sign of Nawab Vikar-ul-Umra). It was interesting to see the lovely oil paintings and pictures, the Venetian chandeliers, the children’s study and bedrooms, and the living area with a large billiards table. We also went to the main private dining table (which we were told is the largest in the world and can seat 101 guests at a time) and the royal begum’s bedroom. They did live in style.

Since all this history and walking around had whet our appetite, we came back for round of freshly brewed tea and coffee and could not stop gushing about the opulence of the aristocrats and their lifestyle.

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It was about 5:15 pm when we heard strains of Qawwali music in our dining area. We quickly followed the sound and came upon a private performance ofQawwali singers dressed suitably in dervish caps rendering the beautiful “Allah Hu” Sufi song. They even asked us for requests and sang them for us. The setting of this musical performance- the Gol Bunglow which was in open air with the old Hyderabad city and distant hills in the background in the early evening light- gave it an almost magical charm. The golden glow of the setting sun coupled with the lights slowly coming on in the city- it was a fairy tale setting.

As we left the palace at about 7pm, it was a clear sky brilliantly lit by stars. The slight chill in the air caught us off-guard. We realized it wasn’t just the temperature dip; it was the kick back to reality. 🙂

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Falak-numa in Urdu means ‘like the sky’. I did feel like a royal bird soaring high up into the clouds. Visit here to experience the old-world royalty, to feel like a Nizam.

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History of the Palace

The palace was opened in 1893 as a private residence and then converted into a heritage luxury hotel in 2010 by the Taj group. It was built and owned by Nawab Sir Vikar-ul-Umra, Prime Minister of Hyderabad (1884 to 1897) and later by The 6th Nizam of Hyderabad. Designed by an English architect, the palace has a blend of Italian and Tudor architecture.

Location

Falaknuma Palace is in Hyderabad city. The city is well connected by rail, road and air from all metros and main cities in India. The drive to the palace goes through the bustling old city past the world-famous Charminar (it is about 5 kms from here) chock-a-block with traffic. We took an alternate route via the PV Narasimha Rao Expressway.

-Tamanna S. Mehdi