Jodhpur jaunt

Mighty fortresses and plush palaces guard the multi-coloured Jodhpur, and their interiors bear the city’s proud history, writes Chitra Ramaswamy.

We are in Jodhpur in the wee hours of dawn, by default than by design, having missed our train from Jaipur to Jaisalmer. A bunch of 13 diehard go-getters of all ages, we capitalise on the providential miss. We explore this ‘Blue’ city as best as we can in the 10 hours we have before proceeding to our planned destination — Jaisalmer.

We instantly warm up to this urban sprawl and Rajasthani hospitality that is evident as we alight at its station. Our visit to the place being accidental, we have no hotel bookings. Guided by one of the cabbies at the tourist counter, we make our way to a guesthouse close to the station. The manager of this modest establishment not only greets us with a genial smile, but also arranges a sumptuous breakfast, and chalks out an itinerary for us to see the city in the short duration of time we have before us. 

The fiery planet on a clear blue July sky is mellow as we embark on our explorative sojourn of Rajasthan’s second largest city. The ‘Blue City’ or ‘Sun City’, as it is nicknamed, Jodhpur stands majestically on the foothills of a sandstone hillock, nestled between its monuments of pride, the Mehrangarh Fortress and the Umaid Bhawan Palace, a veritable oasis in the virgin sands of the Thar.

All in a day’s trade The city is alive and agog with activity. Honking vehicles and a plethora of luxury cars zip through its streets, brakes screeching as they slow down and squeeze themselves through the maze of narrow alleyways that dot the city. The roads are colour-splashed as hawkers and pavement vendors arrange their wares, signalling the start of yet another busy day.

 Native women in bright, multi-coloured cottons rub shoulders with traditional craftsmen showing off their lacquer bangle creations and other ethnic wares, including embroidered juthis (footwear typical of their land) and bandhini dupattas. The women flash coy smiles from under their translucent veils, beckoning us to buy from the vast assortment of memorabilia on display.

Jodhpur is a city replete with epic tales of heroism, valour and treachery in equal measure. It was founded in 1459 by Rao Jodha of the Rathore clan of Rajputs, believed to be descendants of Lord Rama. It was then known as Jodhgarh, the capital of the kingdom of Marwar, the Land of Death, so called because of its harsh climate. 

The colour blue

Famed for its innumerable palaces, temples and havelis, Jodhpur still preserves the flavour of bygone eras with its ample age-old traditions. It was once part of the celebrated Silk Route that ran from the harbours of Gujarat to Central Asia. As the story goes, Jodhpur derived the name ‘Blue City’ from the practice of Brahmins in the city painting their houses blue to distinguish themselves from other communities. Gradually the walled city assumed a blue tinge that is best viewed from the top of Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur’s major landmark and impregnable royal structure.

The Fort is our first place of visit. It dominates Jodhpur’s western skyline and rises majestically as if out of the cliff on which it rests, 125 m above the plains surrounding it. It has a high, 10-km long wall running along its circumference. We enter its portals, snaking our inclined approach through one of its four gates. History unfolds itself as we walk through the colossal citadel originally built by Maharaja Man Singh in 1806.Mehrangarh chronicles the architecture and cultural history of the Rathore Rajputs between 1459 and 1952. While a large part of the fort serves as home to several native families today, many of its chambers have been converted into a museum for public viewing. The 14 display rooms speak volumes about the history of Rajasthan, of its brave and valorous people. In Moti Mahal, Phool Mahal, Sheesh Mahal, Daulat Khana and Sileh Khana, we observe all the trappings of royalty in splendour.

The exhibits, a visual treat, feature paintings, wrought iron masterpieces, intricate carvings and murals made from an amalgam of materials, antique costumes, weaponry, clocks, palanquins, howdahs and furniture. Being ardent cricket fans, we do not fail to notice in one of the chambers the portrait of the legendary Maharaja Ranjit Singh in whose honour the Ranji Trophy is established.

Glittery motif

One of the most attractive chambers of the fort is the Sheesh Mahal, built entirely from fragmented inlaid mirror motifs. The sheer play of lights on the mirrors creates a scintillating effect as it explodes into myriads of luminous stars. As we make our way through the maze of attractions within the fort to its ramparts, we are overwhelmed by the picturesque sight of the city, a rhapsody in blue spread below us. 

We next visit Jaswant Thada, the royal cenotaphs, right across the fort. The monument referred to as the ‘Taj Mahal of Marwar’ was built in 1899 in memory of Maharaja Jaswant Singh II. A mystic aura pervades the edifice that has intricate carvings sculpted from sheets of white marble. The walls of its interior are adorned with rare portraits of several Jodhpur rulers. We give our aching legs some respite, stretching ourselves in the beautifully manicured lush lawns of Jaswant Thada. 

Hunger bells create a tumultuous roar in our bellies and before hitting the road to Umaid Bhavan Palace, our penultimate place of visit, we embark on a gastronomic odyssey of ethnic Rajasthani cuisine — a purely vegetarian fare. Our driver leads us to an outlet where the service is amply peppered with true Marwari hospitality.  Much of the region’s cuisine is prepared from gramflour.

We partake of some piping hot gatta ki sabzi and pakodas with a variety of mouthwatering chutneys made from locally available spices. As I spoon the lip-smacking dal-baati-choorma, the state’s most popular and delicious dish, I am reminded of an interesting tale of this  delicacy’s origin, narrated by one of my Rajasthani friends. Warring soldiers, to make their cooking easier, would make a ball of the flour, stick it on to the heads of their spears and heat it in fire to harden it. They would then remove the cooked balls, douse them in the dal and eat them! 

Unmindful of the piling calories, we pamper our sweet tooth and end our gustatory adventure with malpua, gewar and mawa kachori, before heading out to Umaid Bhawan Palace.

Named after Maharaja Umaid Singh, its builder and president of the British Royal Institute of Architects, Umaid Bhawan is a grandiose edifice of more recent origin as compared to Jodhpur’s other forts and palaces. It was built in the early 20th century as a public relief and employment project during a period of drought and famine in the region. Built from chittar, a special variety of sandstone with its characteristic subtle sheen, Umaid Bhavan is a lavish art deco monument to royal living. This poetry in stone took 15 years to be built, involving the efforts of 3,000 artisans and over one million square feet of the finest marble.

In 1977, a part of this royal residence was converted into a heritage hotel and museum. The palace comprises 347 rooms that boast several antique items belonging to the royalty. 

Even as we are undecided on making it to Mandore, the ancient capital of Marwar, 8 km from Jodhpur city, the pendulum swings in its favour, thanks to the bachha party of our group. A historical wealth, Mandore boasts huge, high rocky terrace gardens, the Hall of Heroes dedicated to fabled Rajput heroes, and the shrine holding the images of several million Gods. It is also famed for monkeys and unfortunately for us, these pranksters threaten to decamp with our digital companions.

Fearful of being parted from the testimony to our travels, we stash away our cameras and decide to savour the attractions.

It would take at least a fortnight to visit Jodhpur’s temples, gardens, lakes and mansions. Hard-pressed for time, we skim past several of these sites to make brief shop-hopping halts in its famous Girdikot and Sardar bazaars to bring back traditional Rajasthani puppets, lacquer bangles and vibrantly coloured tie-and-dye fabrics.

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