14 August 2008

Alwar: The Nearest Pavilions

A piece published in Outlook Traveller magazine in February 2002.

Don't miss it. Take the Delhi-Jaipur highway: it's the first kingdom on your left.

City Palace, Alwar
"Vahan milk cake accha milta hai," mused a friend, "Baki kya hai Alwar mein?" "Alwar, haan?" said another, "Jao, jao, you must go. Alwar needs some tourism." I left for Alwar, somewhat unsure about the possibilities offered by this description. The remark turned out to be a premonition of sorts.

According to my hurried Google search of the night before, Alwar was, around 1500 BC, one of Rajasthan's oldest cities, part of the ancient territory of Matsya Desh. The Pandavas are believed to have spent 13 years of exile in the area, referred to in the Mahabharata as Viratnagar (modern Bairat).

In today's Alwar, though, tourism is in the air. Every hotel offers "cultural programmes" (a mix of ghoomar, bhavai and kachhi ghodi folk dances). I emerged to find a picturebook "Rajasthani scene": a white-haired old man in a bandhej turban, squatting on the terrace, smoking a hookah. Zahoor Khan Mewati turned out to be the head of a family of musicians who are the sole players of the bhapang: an instrument that makes a cheerful rhythmic sound, somewhere between a twang and a splash. They are now all Radio, TV and Filmi Artists, and Zahoor Khan listed the places he's performed at since New Year's Eve: Samode Palace, Lake Palace, Pragati Maidan.

Later, I was struck by his name, as I read about how the city passed from the founding Kachhwahas of Amber to the Nikkumbh Rajputs and the Bada Gurjars, before falling into the hands of the Khanzadas under Bahadur Nahar Mewati, who converted to Islam. The conversion seems to have been shrewd realpolitik: the Mewatis curried favour with the Tughlaqs in Delhi, while continuing to ally themselves with other Rajputs. Mr B from the Rajasthan government tells me that Alwar's Kayamkhani Muslims used "Hindu" marriage rituals till recently. "Yeh sab problem nahi thi na tab," he says wistfully.

The fort, known as Bala Quila, 1,000 feet above the town, is a grand edifice, but crisscrossed with wires and poles. It has functioned for years as a Police Control Room, and the policeman on duty glowered at us as we barged into his bedroom-cum-transmitter station uninvited, to point at the fading frescos on his ceiling. (Officially, you still need the SP's permission to enter.) Used by the Mughals as a base to attack Ranthambhor, it was a stopover for emperors. Babur and Akbar stayed overnight, and Jahangir lived out his exile in the now-ruined Salim Mahal. Not until 1775 did the Lalawat Naruka thakurs, led by Pratap Singh, capture the fort. It was this dynasty that the British invested with the title of Maharaja in 1803.

The relationship soured quickly though, and Maharaja legends are a dime a dozen. The Maharajah of Alwar just before Independence was notorious as a sadist, believed to have poured kerosene over his polo pony and set the poor animal on fire. The next is renowned for being always surrounded by pet tigers who ate out of his hands. Post independence, the family jumped into party politics: the present prince, Jitendra Singh, whose mother was a Congress MP, is now MLA.

Post-Independence governance has also taken over the architectural glories of the 18th century City Palace, which now houses the offices of the District Collectorate. Walk in through a narrow paan-stained balcony, and marvel at the architecture that doesn't let on at all about the sheer scale of the courtyard'until you're in it. The tapping of typewriters, a slow whirring of the wheels of government, is strangely juxtaposed with the mirrored grandeur of the Sheesh Mahal. The musty inner chamber nearly choked us with a century of cobwebs. But through the clouds of dust, in the dim torchlight, a beautifully etched Ram and Sita came glitteringly alive above our heads.

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Moosi Maharani ki Chhatri
Behind the City Palace is a beautiful stepped tank locally known as Sagar, completed by Maharaja Vinay Singh in 1813 AD. The exquisite sandstone and marble Moosi Maharani ki Chhatri here was built in memory of the devoted mistress of Bakhtawar Singh. Of course, she earned Maharani status only in death, after becoming sati on Bakhtawar's pyre. Along the bank is a row of temples, now part of the houses of the Rajguru families assigned to them. A curious housewife invited me in to see her Gopinath temple, then insisted on showing me round her newly-built pukka rooms. Who was the priest, I asked. She seemed surprised: her sons, of course! And is that what they do for a living? Now she was shocked: "Nahin nahin, ek engineer hai, doosra B.Sc. kar raha hai."

I see more of present-day Alwar the next morning. The shutters are still down in Choori Wali Market but the chaiwallah in Baans Wali Gali offers us tea. At Tripolia ("three ways", though there are four), a crowd of worshippers waits to scoop up the charanaamrit flowing out of the famous but tiny Shiv temple. "Saare Baniye dukaandaar subah yahaan aate hain," says our guide. "Aur haan, Tripolia mein shooting hui thi Neelkamal picture ki." Kidar Sharma's Neelkamal (1947) famously transformed Raj Kapoor from clapper-boy to hero. Just off Tripolia we meet another hero. He is weaving his way dangerously through the gali, on a bicycle laden with milk cans, whistling. Until he sees us and the camera, stops, slicks his hair back and seats himself expectantly on the parapet to be photographed. Ajay Kumar reveals he's only a part-time milkman: in wedding season, he's a photographer himself.

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We spend the day driving through Sariska's deciduous scrub forest, marvelling at the number of medieval ruins that dot the landscape. Clumps of bamboo and date palms grow in the shade. The gentler slopes are covered with purplish dhok trees, while the craggy quartzite Aravalli ridges rise along one side.

The ruins of Bhangarh

We arrive at Bhangarh. Since the ASI provides no information about this Protected Archaeological Park, I return to my website. Built in 1631 by Madho Singh, brother of Amber's Man Singh, this perfectly planned town was abandoned "due to reasons clothed in Mystery". There is certainly an air of enchanted slumber about these stone streets: the gnarled banyans twine possessively round the remains of the walls, crushing them in a fiercely silent embrace. In the magnificently carved Khajuraho-style temple, a deep kund gurgles with water from a natural spring - and in the ruined fort on the hill, the langurs are king.

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The silence echoes at Kankwari too. The neem trees rustle in the courtyard, and the only other sound is of the pigeons fluttering. Dara Shikoh was imprisoned here by his brother Aurangzeb. The fort is magnificent: bastions and courtyards and a double crenellated wall that runs down the steep hillside, all the way to the lake.

We return to the jungle before dusk. Heading up from Bhairon Ghati, forest guard Devi Prasad whips out his walkie talkie, "Call aa rahi hai sir." The harsh sound of the sambhar, followed by the sharper, shorter call of the langur, and then the raucous peacock: the scene is set for the arrival of the king of the jungle. And yet it is not solely his domain. Even as we wait in our jeeps with bated breath, jackets rustling, a Gujar couple walks past nonchalantly, the woman swinging a shiny new milk pail.

The movement has stopped. We drive on, with not much hope now of tiger-spotting. Three jackals run across the road. The driver's sharp eyes spot a rare owl, only its bright eyes visible in the velvety darkness of the tree hollow. After two hours of commentary on the woes of wildlife watching, and suggestions for improvement ("I think we should have a tiger tied to a tree, aur jeep se usko dikha dena chahiye. Yeh to bahut disappointing ho jata hai."), we return to the Sariska Palace, which offers "brave- hearted visitors" not only rides on horseback, but a Tiger Trail on foot, accompanied by mashaal-bearing attendants. I wonder how many brave-hearted tigers will come within a 50-mile radius of men with flaming torches.

I return to Delhi, laden with milk cake. With forts, forests and palaces, I know there's plenty to see in Alwar. But does it really "need some tourism"? I'm still not sure.

Keys to the Kingdom:

Getting there
By rail: The Shatabdi Express from New Delhi to Jaipur/Ajmer (daily except Sunday) leaves New Delhi at 6.15 am, and stops at Alwar Junction for two minutes at 8.32 am. The Intercity Express, Jaipur-Amritsar Express and the Varanasi-Jodhpur Marudhar Express also stop at Alwar. The 150-year-old Fairy Queen does Delhi-Alwar twice a month in season, but is part of a package tour that doesn't allow you to see anything but Sariska.

By bus: Regular buses depart for Alwar from Bikaner House in Delhi. By car: Driving to Alwar from Delhi (170km) takes only two hours on the Delhi-Jaipur Highway.

Where to stay
RTDC Hotel Meenal (Ph: 0144-347352) is a respectable mid-range place, charging from Rs 400 for tidy double rooms. A veg./non veg. thali costs Rs 55/70. Hotel Aravali (Ph: 332316, 339354) is a comfortable "two-star" near the PWD Rest House (Ph: 2886), and just next to the station. Rs 500-1,500 for a double. Apart from the recently built, swimming pool equipped Rithumbhara (Ph: 886279), there are Hotel Mayur (Ph: 337222) and Konark Guest House (Ph: 70564). Also a number of places on Manu Marg, including Hotel Alwar (Ph: 700341), whose proprietor Umakant Rustagi (aka Bubbles) is a character worth encountering. (If you're enthusiastic, he'll supplement the Dawat menu with some fabulous bajre ki roti, dollops of white butter and knobs of jaggery.) Doubles for Rs 500-1,000. You can also find out about the Paying Guest Scheme for tourists (from the Tourist Information Bureau, Nehru Bal Vihar, Opp. Purjan Vihar Garden; Ph: 21868).

What to eat

Prem Pavitra Bhojanalaya (also known as Prem Hotel): Run by the Beniwal brothers, near Alwar's Old Bus Stand, the Bhojanalaya offers great vegetarian food, including a fantastic stuffed parantha breakfast, with achaar, followed by kheer and hot gajar halwa. The dahi vada is to die for. There's also Mahaveer Bhojanalaya (Ph: 20168), as well as a South Indian café opposite Gopal Cinema (Ph: 23217).

In Alwar, you must eat milk cake. There's a whole area near the central Hope Circus called Kalakand Bazaar. Also called Punjabi Mava, the sweet came to Alwar with Partition refugees from Dera Ismail Khan. (Try the deliciously granular reddish-brown bhuna variety.) For a very affordable hot breakfast if you're up early, try the Mathurawale samose and kachori around Hope Circus, where three street vendors do brisk business for a couple of hours in the morning.

Published in Outlook Traveller magazine, Feb 2002 issue

4 comments:

Odeen said...

I'll be posted in Alwar for the next 4 months starting December 8 2008. This is part of project training with the company I work for. Your write-up is very useful. Looking forward to all the food, particularly the milk cake :) Thank you very much.

Trisha Gupta said...

I'm glad. It's definitely an area worth exploring - I particularly enjoyed my trip to Bhangarh. Enjoy your stay! (Do keep in mind, though, that my article is now six years old - so some info may be a little outdated.)

ak said...

believe me nothing has changed! did you see the ashokan inscription (RE)?

Interetsing tit-bit:if you hv seen the film hey ram, the royal hinted at are the Alwar family, also, N Godse, stayed at the PM's house before leaving for delhi.

dimpy roy said...

Good one. Situated amidst the Aravali Range, Alwar (Ulwar) (Ulwar) represents a colorful blend of different cultures integrated in a single entity. Visitors take pride in the rich heritage (dating back to 1500 BC) of Alwar (Ulwar) (Ulwar) by visiting the majestic monuments and historical palaces that found base here. Also, the hilly terrain has plenty of natural beauty and interesting wild life to make it a preferred destination for a relaxed and exciting vacation. Check out Alwar city also.