And in Jaisalmer I went back to a hotel where I had much enjoyed myself seven years earlier. Though it was not quite first light when I disembarked from the overnight train from Jaipur at Jaisalmer, I got an auto which took me up into the fort where I identified almost immediately the hotel in which I had had a delightful time seven years earlier. The auto driver as usual offered me tours, including to the desert which I had thought I would like to venture into again, but sensibly I made no commitment since it seemed better to give my custom to the hotel. My train to Delhi was in the very early hours, nearly three days later, and I needed to keep them happy so that I could be taken to the station at 1 am.

Fortunately the manager was awake so the massive door was opened when I knocked and he and his assistant seemed delighted to welcome someone who had stayed there before, though they obviously could not recognize me. But they were patient as I inspected the rooms and found the one I had stayed in, which had a window in an extension upward of the city wall. The door opened from a corridor which formed a balcony above an open space below, and ended in two sides of a square that provided quarters for the waiters.

But they were all asleep, and it was the assistant manager who brought me my coffee to the upper terrace with its fantastic views, of the battlements of the building as well as the city wall and the area beyond the fort. The sun was rising as I sat there, with across the way an old man also enjoying the morning ambience, though his back was turned to the sunrise.

There was an inner terrace there too, with bodies wrapped in blankets, from which slowly heads emerged. But it took time for the waiters to become functional so I used the internet, much better than it had been the last time for there were no problems on the upper terrace, or in the room, and then one of them brought me breakfast.

I had thought to collapse then, but after a bath, for which they obligingly provided a bucket of hot water, I had what became a favourite, their lemon ginger tea, and then I went exploring. The Jain temples I had much admired the last time were now charging an unconscionable rate for I had said I was from Sri Lanka, so I skipped those and then walked to the entrance gate to the fort – the last of several from the bottom of the path up the hill on which the fort is set.

The pictures are of my first glimpse of that upper terrace of the Paradise Hotel, the sunrise, followed by a view behind, the sleeping waiters on the next terrace and the battlements behind, and finally in the left corner the old gentleman who was my silent companion that day and the next, another aficionado of dawn over Jaisalmer.

From Deeg I went to Bharatpur, a short journey so I was there before the Fort opened. But there was enough to see round about, including a bastion to the right of the Fort entrance where there was an elegant pavilion and from which you could see into the gardens of the Fort, verdant greenery against its massive structures. I went then to have a look at the gates into the town which was on an island, and on the way back I found on the other side of the Fort a grand gateway that opened into a deserted garden which had elegant buildings on two sides. One was an office, part I think of the Fort buildings, and its occupants, though bemused by a visitor, were quite happy for me to look in and wander in the garden.

The Fort housed a museum, the highlight of which was a sculpture gallery on the ground floor on either side. You could also go up to the first floor, which had other stuff which was not particularly interesting, but the rooms and the views from them were worth seeing.  

But then it was a return to Jaipur, to catch my train, which I did with hours to spare, so much had the driver exaggerated the distances we had had to travel on this day. But at the station the chap in the tourist office on the platform was hospitable enough to let me stay in his cool room, but after that I had a long wait on the platform since the train, though said to be on time till the last minute, was late. It left too from a different track than initially announced, but that was on the other side of the platform, which was a relief for, light though my bag was, I did not feel up to lugging it up the stairs.

As with the shorter trip to Jaipur from Delhi, AeA had booked me a most comfortable seat, a corner, and the carriage was not full. So I could enjoy the tray of dinner I bought on the train, and stretch out and sleep quite well, so that I had to be woken when the train reached Jaisalmer 12 hours later.

As before this page will not upload pictures, so I shall have to also put this post up on the literary blog, which does. All very strange.

I was off after my early breakfast in Alwar to Deeg, though the driver had tried to convince me there was nothing there worth seeing. He suggested we go straight to Bharatpur, but the guidebook said Deeg was far more interesting, and Christine too recommended it strongly. She referred me too to a description of the place in a book called Chasing the Monsoon by a journalist called Alexander Frater and, though I had not been able to finish it on the day I was with her, apart from the opening chapters I read the one on Deeg and thought it well worth a visit.

And indeed Deeg, reached on a lovely little road, was glorious, on the lines of other jewels I had seen, Mandu and Orchcha, architectural labours of love of minor princes. Deeg had just the one complex to see, but it was full of wonderful sights, a palace plus several halls, including one for wrestling, and pavilions over lakes. They were set around beautiful and beautifully kept lawns, in one section of which a large group of Indian tourists were picnicking when I got there.

The place was essentially the creation of Maharaja Suraj Mal in the 18th century, but the palace had been lived in until half a century. It now housed a museum, which was not particular interesting, but the decorations and furniture in the rooms were well worth seeing, very different from those of the many buildings in disrepair I had seen in the preceding days.

Since the blog continues to refuse to uphold any pictures, I shall reproduce this post now on my literary blog and add the pictures there.

This somehow appeared on the literary blog but I thought for ease of reference it should be here too. However this site will not allow me today to upload pictures so perhaps that was just as well.

Those havelis, in Nawalgarh were the last I saw, for from there I went to the Dundlod Fort, which is supposed to be a masterpiece of Rajput architecture. But it was closed and there was no one about who knew anything about getting it open. So I set off then for Alwar, a drive of well over three hours. But the scenery was delightful, the Aravalli hills in the distance drawing closer, and a lovely light in the Eastern sky.

I was struck as we entered Alwar by a handsome red building which looked like a palace, but though I can discern the word Raja in my notes I cannot read the rest, so I will never know what it was.

I was in a hurry though when I got to Alwar, so as to see at least one site before darkness fell. This was the cenotaph of Moosi Maharani, a courtesan who immolated herself on the pyre of an early 19th century Maharaja, and was then treated as his wife.

Finding the place was not easy, not least because my driver who did not know the place used google which took him along impossibly narrow streets. But we finally came as dusk was falling to a most magnificent building, with turrets and ornate balconies. It was part of a complex and there were other impressive buildings around, but whether it was the cenotaph I saw or the palace I cannot be sure. I suspect not the latter, which is supposed to have government offices now, for the place was deserted, wonderfully atmospheric in the fading light

The hotel the driver recommended was closed, and I settled for a place called the Lemonade hotel, which gave me a heavily discounted room and provided excellent service. The only drawback was that I had to come into the lobby for internet, a pity since they had given me a room high up which commanded a view of Alwar Fort. They also provided an excellent dinner and an early breakfast.

I had got up horrendously early for the driver told me there would not be much time to see something of Alwar and then Deeg and Bharatpur, before getting to Delhi in time for a train a little before 6 pm. So I was up at 4.30 to have coffee in my room, seeing only an outline of the fort or perhaps just the hill on which it was built in the darkness, before going down to the lobby for connectivity. I had asked the driver to be ready at first light, and he was only a little bit late, so I was able to drive round the fort, entertained by running soldiers for this was supposed to be a military training centre. And there were others exercising on top of the Fort, which I could only drive around, since it seemed special permission was required to enter. But apart from the fact that I had little time, that was enough, to appreciate its grandeur.

I went on in Nawalgarh to the main haveli in town, the Anand Lal Poddar Haveli, which had been turned into a very interesting museum. The courtyards with their decorations were delightful, but I also enjoyed the varied exhibits, ranging from turbans to toy carts. 

I looked then for the Aarth Haveli, which very few people in town seemed to know. When I finally found it, it turned out to be part of a complex, several havelis of which one was being restored. The workmen did not mind my checking out what was happening, but I also found interesting the structure of the whole complex, with the different houses barely separated from each other.

I have here first a host of pictures of the Poddar Haveli and of its delightful museum, four altogether, and then as a contrast one of the decaying Aarth Haveli, followed by a fresco from the Jaipuria. I have cut short this post, because for some reason the blog will take only a few pictures, so both the description of what I went on to, and a host of pictures, will have to wait.

I had when I saw it been delighted at the beautifully decorated room I had been shown at the Radhika haveli in Mandawa, so went back there as I had indicated I almost certainly would, and then the former serviceman who owned the place gave me a suite for the same price. The hotel was deserted, and I gathered that tourism had still not recovered here after coronavirus, but I do not think that was the only reason I was treated so well. There seems to be a fondness amongst many Indians for Sri Lankans, and when I left next morning I was presented with a delightful present, a string of elephants which now hangs in front of my bathroom door.

It was at the front of the building, with a large bedroom to the right and a bathroom on the other side. Beyond the central entrance and hallway was an elevated sitting space where internet worked admirably. I had a beer there as the sun set, and then dinner. That was vegetarian, but I had a mushroom curry which was delicious. And the service was excellent, with a hesitant waiter who managed to understand me and brought someone when he couldn’t, so that coffee came with the dawn as I had wanted.

August 1st I knew would also be a very busy day, so immediately after breakfast I left Mandawa to get to Jhunjhunu which is the Shekhawati district headquarters. I went first to the Modi Haveli in the centre of town, and then the Sri Biharji temple which also had decorative frescoes, juxtaposed with devout ritual. Then I visited the highlight of the town, the 18th century Khetri Mahal, which was a magnificient building, in a state of negect.

Or not quite, because when I finally managed to find the entrance, around the main courtyard were little rooms from which sleepy young men emerged. That had been turned into a student hostel, I suppose the best use possible now of the grand building with its multiple discrete rooms on the ground floor. Above little corridors led from audience halls to what might have been bedrooms, and then to narrow stairways that took one up a couple of floors to an expansive terrace with great views.

From Jhunjhunu I went to Nawalgarh, but found the Kulwal haveli I visited first was closed. But opposite it was a hotel of the same name, a grander house in fact but it seemed of a later date, and the chaps in charge were happy to let me look around. It too had suffered because of coronavirus, but was now trying to revive.

I show first the hall of my hotel in Mandawa and then my decorated suite, followed by the Modi haveli in Jhunjhunu and then religion at the temple and its splendid ceiling. Then there is the glorious Khetri Mahal with the view from its rooftop, and two students in the courtyard down below against the grandeur of the decaying building. The next few pictures are of Nawalgarh, the magnificent Kulwal hotel and its garden and the central hallway, followed by the neglected haveli opposite.

It was to Fatehpur I went after my brief stay in Ajmer. It was a long journey, for this was in an area north of Jaipur known as Shekhavati, famous for its havelis. My old Lonely Planet guide was enthusiastic about these, but they are still still largely unknown to tourists, and I had most places there to myself.

The havelis are houses of merchants of the 19th century who developed a practice of decorating them with colourful murals. These involve traditional subjects, history and myth, but also modern inventions such as trains and planes.

I had thought of staying in Fatehpur, which had a Tourist Corporation hotel, but having got there before four I was able to move on after seeing its principal attraction, the Goenka Haveli. This was locked and looked deserted, but knocking produced a family retainer who showed me round enthusiastically. The place was owned now by nearly fifty family members jointly, none of whom were in Fatehpur, so he looked after the place and let in people who wanted to see it. There was no charge and, though he must have been tipped, he seemed quite content to continue with what he seemed to see as a feudal obligation.

The step well that was supposed to be the other attraction of the town was full of rubbish, as my guidebook of thirty years ago had warned, and we were told it was now past restoration, as the book had warned several decades ago. So we went on then in what was still excellent light to Mandawa, the much smaller town that was supposed to have some of the best havelis in Shekawathi.

So it proved. As we entered the town a boy from whom we asked directions said he was a guide, and offered to show us round for a very moderate fee. Tourism had died during coronavirus he said, and was just coming back so he was as pleased to see me as I was to be guided around. He was a mine of information, and showed me the havelis I wanted to see, including the Bansidhar Newatia with the frescoes on its walls of a boy with a telephone and a glider. He also showed us the Harlalka well which was a particular attractive construction, and another one which the book had noted.

And best of all he took me to the Radhika haveli which was beautiful too, and was also a hotel and remarkably cheap. I had thought of staying in the palace in the town which is now a hotel and went to see it but, though it was a very attractive building with tasteful public rooms, staying there would have cost very much more.

The first seven pictures are of the Goenka Haveli, including its wonderful wooden carvings and a family group of the owners and also an area that has been restored. Then there is the step well in Mandawa, and the frescoes mentioned above after which I have three pictures of the splendour of the buildings, followed by the second step well.

Before I move on to the journey to Rajasthan however I should write a little bit about the field visits on my last day in Delhi. We saw two immensely useful projects Aide et Action South Asia conducts. One was a centre for the children of prostitutes working in one of their principal haunts, an area in north Delhi near the main railway station. The youngsters are taught basics there, but also given self confidence, because  without education and a sense of self worth the children were liable to slip into the same profession, the boys becoming pimps, which was often the case with their fathers, when these were known.

The children were a delightful lot, some full of confidence though a couple, who were prominent in the concert they put on for us, were very shy, suggesting the general diffidence our facilitators had to overcome.

The second was work in a leper colony and, after the children at the first project I show the parents we met at the colony, as well as the lively young teachers we spoke to in the office of the project partners.

The next morning I took a train from Delhi, the railway station of which I show next, for it is a magnificent colonial building. And I was overjoyed again to be travelling on an Indian train. I had much enjoyed these in younger days, but it was now nearly 20 years since I had been on one.

Having got to Jaipur I took the car the AeA office there had arranged for me to the fort city of Ajmer, which I had not seen previously. I had been booked into the state Tourist Development Corporation hotel, for I had found these cheap and serviceable in journeys in many Indian states, and though I got there late the staff were helpful and provided me with beer and dinner. Coffee next morning was prompt, allowing me to work on my computer in the lobby, the only place where internet worked.

I was on my way by nine, driving past the Ana Sagar, a massive lake that was built in the 12th century, and then going on to what I most wanted to see, the Adhai-din-kar-jhonpra. This was a Jain college which was converted into a mosque at the end of the 12th century. But the intricate carvings of the old college are still on view, and the great domed ceilings in the entrance hall.

From there I went to the city’s most famous shrine, the Dargah, the tomb of a 12th century Sufi saint. There are mosques there constructed by Akbar and Shaj Jehan, but they have been done up and the place was so crowded, so you could not see much of the place.

I had a quick glance at the outside of the Fort and the Museum there which was once Akbar’s palace, but the guidebook said they were nothing special and I wanted to get on for my next destination was well over five hours away. The pictures are of the Ana Sagar and the temple turned mosque, the Dargah and the fort.

After presenting on this blog an account of my visit to Georgia, which I had shown before on Facebook I will do the same for my visit last year to India, for the pictures are worth displaying in abundance.

I went towards the end of July, for a meeting in Delhi, though first I spent a night with my old friend Christine whose wonderful hospitality I had not enjoyed for three years, given the restrictions of recent times.

After a night with her and Himmat her husband, who produced a fantastic dinner of barbecued goat, I was dropped off the following afternoon at the Lutyens House which we had been booked into for the days of the meeting.

As its name indicates, it is in the heart of Lutyens Delhi, a private home converted into a beautiful guest house, with a new wing across a beautiful garden from the old house where we would have breakfast.

On my first morning there I walked, after coffee in the verdant garden, to the Lodi Garden nearby. I had last been there when I was staying at the India International Centre, and had much enjoyed going in there to see its beautiful 16th century tomb. And it was delightful to walk in the garden, though I had to share it with hordes of middle aged walkers. On the way back I was vastly amused to see a group of them engaging in calisthenics or yoga, a very different sight from the splendour of the old tomb.

Our meetings that day were at the Habitat Centre, which I cannot recall having been in earlier. It was part of the institutionalization of intellectual gatherings that had been a feature of the early years of independence, the best example of which is the India International Centre.

Next morning, after early coffee, I walked to the other monument in the vicinity, the 18th century Safdarjung Tomb. The place was not yet open but a security guard let me in, and I had that lovely garden practically to myself, except for the workers who stayed in, who were just getting up.  

The first two pictures are of the garden of the Lutyens House, looking from the terrace of the new wing to the old house, and on the swing in the side garden for my coffee. Then there are four of the Lodhi tomb, including its entrance and the remarkable ceiling.

There follow the Safdarjung tomb, first in all its glory, and then details, including of the gatehouse and its glorious ceiling.

It was a joy to be back in the heart of Delhi, where there were monuments all around one, into which you could drop in so casually to feast eyes and heart on the grandeur of its longstanding civilizations.

But at the title of this series indicates, it was new sights too that I craved, and so after another day of meetings in Delhi I set off, on the 30th of July, for Jaipur in Rajasthan.

The high Caucasus and a long evening

After that bi-coloured river we began to climb, up and up, getting after several hairpin bends to Gudauri, famed as a ski resort, with heaps of hotels on the peaks. Alex suggested we look at a Friendship Monument on a cliff, a relic of Soviet days, but we declined the suggestion and went on to Kazbeghi, the last town before the Russian border.

It is now called Stepantsminda but that is generally ignored. High on a hill above it is the Holy Trinity church, but that can only be approached along a rugged road on which Alex could not take his car. He said Datsuns could be hired for the journey at what I heard as 18 lari, which seemed very reasonable, and I persuaded Vasantha too to come after Alex assured us there was no climbing to be done. In fact it was 80 but given the difficulties of the road I could hardly complain when we got back to town and I had to pay, myself since Vasantha rightly said he had wanted none of this.

He had in fact stayed in the car while Alex and I went up to the church, brilliantly situated with glorious views to the mountains all around, and the valleys between them and its own peak. The church itself was interesting but more so was the bell tower, with carvings of what seemed to be dinosaurs, which one of the priests obligingly showed me when I could not discern it.

Alex then recommended an Indian restaurant but we decided not to eat and instead drove swiftly back to Tbilisi. Back at the hotel I had to repack, to include the carpets in my luggage, and then we set off to find something to eat. There was a bit of a wander to find a place that had Georgian food, and as I went on ahead, with Vasantha trundling my suitcase behind me, I heard him call for help and turned to find him surrounded by a host of gypsy children. I shouted, and others at a café got up and they rushed away but he was quite startled, and very thankful that he had had no money on him for it was clear they would have picked his pockets while his hands were held.

He was still unsettled when we finally found a place, where I could have a last glass of wine. We had decided on two dishes, to share them, but the repertoire of the place was limited so we both ordered khachapuri imeruli, the pie with melted cheese which he had thought delicious when we had it in Kutaisi. But that was a mistake for the pies were enormous, and as before I got parcels of the halves of each we could not eat.

I then cashed dollars to give him enough for a taxi next day, and spent what was left on cheese and salami, before taking the metro to the bus station, to get back to the airport the way I had come. It was still early so I did not worry too much about Vasantha having to face gypsies on the short walk to the hotel, for now his hands were unencumbered.

The bus was waiting when I looked for it in the courtyard outside the metro station, and I got to the airport very early for what was a 3 am flight. That allowed me to pack the kachapuri into my suitcase and the stuff I had bought in Vasantha’s bag, both of which I put in the hold so I had only my typewriter to carry. And with check in opening a bit early, I was able to relax in the Qatar lounge, and gorge on aubergines stuffed with walnuts, a delightful snack to conclude my Georgian experiences.

The pictures are of the views from the hill and the Holy Trinity church atop it, including of the strange sculpted dinosaurs.

Rajiva Wijesinha


March 2023
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