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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Iraqis

Ancient Iraq (Mesopotamia) and the surrounding areas are known as the Cradle of Civilization. My 2-week enlightening experience of present day Iraq proves what an amazing civilization it would have been and how resilient her people are even now.

People and Atmosphere

I had pre-conceived notions of what Iraq would be like- a war ravaged country with bomb blasts almost every week in their cities. I thought I would see burnt car tyres and road blocks, gun-toting Army men, armoured vehicles on their highways and old cars on their roads. I expected to see bumpy and broken down roads and run-down houses. (All images fuelled by those seen on TV and in newspapers).

But boy! Was I wrong. The places we visited were nothing like I imagined them to be. Right from our air-conditioned Mercedes buses to the many luxury SUVs I noticed on the roads…to the well-maintained buildings we passed by and the hotels we stayed at, everything was near perfect. Their highways were 4-laned, clean and in good condition. Even the narrow lanes, by-lanes and roads in the cities were clean-in fact even their garbage pick-ups were mechanized (very unlike in India).

Our hotels had well-appointed rooms and bathrooms with latest fixtures and fittings. Even our towels were freshly laundered and sealed in individual wrappings when we checked-into our hotel rooms (I have not seen this even in 5-star hotels). The hotel staff was attentive and most understood Hindi or English.

I imagined there would be many destitute on the streets especially close to the shrines- but there were hardly any and the rare ones we saw, sat quietly by the side of the road not pestering anyone. (Bonding- Spiritual, Social, Cultural) I also thought the locals would be wary of foreigners, but this was furthest from the truth. They were welcoming, polite, friendly and loved India, Indians and of course Hindi movies 🙂

There were numerous foods stalls and restaurants-small and big, and they were super hygienic. The aromatic smell of freshly baked breads (multiple types of these), kebabs and shawarmas filled the streets we walked on every day. Iraqis love their tea and numerous vendors sold flavourful Iraqi chai (they would clean each glass with hot water before serving). The buffet at our hotels was unbelievable, especially considering that we were in a country with poor economy. Table full of baklavas and puddings, cheese, salads and mains were served for every meal.

The one other thing that impressed me was the excellent internet bandwidths. The Wi-Fi never failed and there was never a drop in the download speeds. Their economy might be down, but their bandwidths are certainly not.

Masjids

Thousands of people daily visit the shrines of Moulana Ali’s at Najaf and Moulana Hussain’s and Moulana Abbas Alamdar’s at Karbala, and even then they were well- maintained with constant vacuuming, cleaning and renovations. The very many other masjids and historical places that we visited during our trip were also clean with constant maintenance- this despite the fact that this region has been affected with violence and destruction. (Bonding- Spiritual, Social, Cultural)

Bazaars

The most colourful and full-of-life souks I have even seen. From knick-knacks to prayer items to yards of material, household items, to gold and silver, and meat, food and bread-everything was sold in narrow,scrupulously clean but interconnected by-lanes. A truly Arabian atmosphere was seen here. Hundreds of people would walk these lanes picking up bargains and in the evenings, supper for their homes.

Almost everyone in my travelling group picked up finger-rings and pendants with semi-precious stones (akik, topaz, sapphire, opals, etc.), colourful head scarves, tasbih (prayer beads), masallahs (prayer mats) and many other souvenirs. The shop-keepers would cheerfully strike bargains, offer free samples of dry-fruits and try to please all customers.

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A vendor selling jewellery

It was lovely walking down their curving streets (even though they were chock-a-block with people), watching the many artefacts on display and taking in the different aromas of food, trays of their local sweets, spices and the crackle of the falafels frying in hot oil.

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An Iraqi man selling bread rolls

Safety

I was never really concerned for my safety though my friends back home were worried. There was frisking at regular intervals and though a tad inconvenient, it kept us all safe. Even we women would walk in the streets throughout the night and no one would bother us. It was in fact ultra safe even for women.

Iraq has natural beauty and a lot of history and I would love to come back to explore. Iraqis are proud of their culture and history. The people of this Cradle of Civilization are welcoming and full of hope despite their many problems. I pray that this land of the Euphrates River eventually attains their lost peace and prosperity.

Travel:

We flew into Najaf, about 100 km from the capital Baghdad. The shrine of Moulana Ali is located here and this city is considered one of the holiest cities in Shia Islam.

We travelled by bus from Najaf to Karbala-a distance of 80 km. Karbala is another very important centre for Islam.

-Tamanna S. Mehdi

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