Not on the map – A road trip from Delhi to Jaipur, India

delhihighwayLast spring, I was in Delhi on a business trip. I grew up in Delhi but that was eons ago. I have been living and working in San Francisco Bay Area for more than a decade now and nearly two since I left India. So, it was with a touch of anxiety and excitement that I decided to go on a Delhi-Jaipur road trip with couple of my friends who still live and work in Delhi. After poring over several guidebooks, we decided to travel via Sariska, a tigerless tiger sanctuary, Bhangarh, a ghost town, and village of Abhaneri, site of a 8th century stepwell.

Step one in the process was finding a map. If you have ever traveled in India, you know that there are no Google maps yet. Paper maps are hard to find, even in Delhi. When we finally found a map, we couldn’t locate either Bhangarh or Abhaneri on it. But in a country of a billion people, you can’t let lack of directions deter you – there is always someone at an intersection. Besides, the distance between Delhi and Jaipur is only 250 kms, so even if we got lost, we would only be half a day away from home!

It was almost noon when we were done packing aloo parathas, potato stuffed flaky flatbreads, our cameras and an overnight bag. I had never been on the Delhi-Jaipur highway before, at least not beyond Gurgaon (aka Bangalore of North). Highways in India are still evolving. We are still trying to figure out how to use our highways given the variety of transportations in use – trucks, cars, buses, three wheelers, motor bikes, scooters, cycles, bullock carts, and elephants. I saw a camel cart even before we reached the outer edges of Gurgaon. It was like catching the first glimpse of Rajasthan, we would see many more of these camel carts on this journey.

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We didn’t stay on the highway for long. A little after Manesar, we got off. It was still a paved road but the landscape became semi-rural – cultivated land mixed in with clusters of brick houses. Whenever the road forked, we asked for directions. I am not sure we took the optimum route. It was evening by the time we reached Sariska. We were only 60 miles away from Delhi and it was exhilarating to be on a trip to places that were not on a map.

I had spent my childhood in a town called Alwar, a small town then, not very far from Sariska. My memory of Aravali range are these undulating hills that sparkled in the noon sun due to trace amounts of mica. That evening, the Aravali hills surrounding Sariska had looked a dull grayish-brown in the setting sun. Although the tigers at this tiger sanctuary are now all dead or departed, many wild animal species such as leopards, hyenas, jackals, spotted deer (cheetal), wild boars, sambars and four-horned deer are still there. A casual visitor these days is likely to see only monkeys.

We saw an awfully expensive looking fancy resort on our way into the forest. The resort looked daunting but they were mentioned in our guidebook, so we called. If memory serves me right, they quoted $140 for the night. Right opposite the resort, was a circuit house, a colonial era guest house. They were not in the guidebook but they were budget priced and welcoming. The rooms were large, although somewhat ill kept – dimly lit, moldy bedsheets, and dusty yellowing pictures. We had to ask for toilet paper, but the bathrooms had running water and the toilet flush worked. The fenced corridor, that ran along the whole length of the circuit house, had a strong smell of monkey pee. The dining room was decorated at least a hundred years ago, same as the rooms. But the food was excellent, we had lentils, chappati, saag-paneer and assorted pickles. Night was uneventful – we watched some old movie clips on the laptop before retiring.

When I stepped out of my room the next morning, I saw a green lawn through the fenced corridor. There was a big tree in the middle of the lawn, Sariska forest beyond the lawn, Aravali hills at the distance, a playful peacock couple running about the lawn, and dozens of monkeys swaying on the tree. It smelled of monkey pee still but I was anticipating an exciting day ahead. Also mixed in my thoughts were old memories of my childhood. I had stayed in many circuit houses when I was a young girl of six or seven. I may even have stayed in this one. My father, a medical man, was posted at Alwar and sometimes we would tag along with him on his tours. I have memories of these long jeep drives. There were many peacocks then. Sometimes we would stop the jeep and watch them dance in the middle of the road for what felt like hours.

When we came down for breakfast, we met the staff lounging in the common room. TV was on. It looked like a relaxed happy family atmosphere in there. Breakfast was excellent – sweet tea and parathas. We picked up more parathas for the journey – one can never have too many parathas. Our hotel manager had never even heard of Bhangarh. He asked his staff members and a few of them gave us directions – distinctly different ones! Thankfully, there aren’t too many roads out of Sariska, so after a hearty breakfast, we headed out.

Our road was narrow and unpaved. A landscape of spring time fields full of fresh green shoots, village women in their bright chunris, wrinkly old men herding goats, buffaloes and children bathing at the same water hole, blue sky above, and georgette like veil of clouds. Dotting this landscape were ruins of old forts and chattaris, cenotaphs and occasionally, ads for mobile phones. We asked villagers we met on the road. Often we got conflicting directions. We didn’t know when we would reach Bhangarh – it could be in an hour or it could be the next day. We shared the road with goat herds, camel carts and tractors. I doubt we made more than 20 kms every hour. At times a close encounter with a camel would nudge us off the road. I have seen camel races on TV so I know they can run. But if you see a camel up close, it is hard to imagine these long legged bored and lugubrious looking animal running. On a narrow road, when their drooling mouths and big teeth approach close to your face, it can get a bit creepy.

We actually reached Bhangarh within a couple of hours of leaving Sariska. Established in mid 1600s and abandoned in early 1700s, Bhangarh is now a ghost town. Guidebooks will have you believe that it is considered a haunted place by the local folks. Although not old, it is supposedly a charming ruin – a fort, some temples and what once was a village with 10,000 people. A fairytale legend surrounding Bhangarh’s abandonment has the usual masala – tantrik lusts after the beautiful queen, queen resists, tantrik curses city. I have only read cut and paste versions of this same story on the web, so who knows what the real reason is.

On entering the premises, the very first thing you notice are the ruins of the village. This area is quite remarkable, cobbled streets, planned layout – it looks in parts like a miniature version of Machu-Picchu. After exploring these, we wandered around the temples. Two were more prominent – they stood a little secluded from the village, each one on a small hillock. A goat herder resting on the steps of one of the temples told us that while no one stayed in the premises after sun down, the temples were in fact still in use. The temples are indeed partially restored, although in a haphazard fashion. From anywhere in the village, one could see the fort and the lookout high up on the hill. I am sure that the fort would have provided a good vantage point for Bhangarh, but it was too lazy a day to walk all the way up.

We did some people watching instead. A water reservoir was close to the base of the fort. Surrounding the reservoir was a well maintained lawn, courtesy Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). You can blame them for being poor caretakers of history but you can never blame them for an ill maintained lawn. There were several groups of villagers, some enjoying picnic lunches, some bathing. Kids were running around or diving. Several dozen monkeys had gathered close – where there are people, there are monkeys! Something to do with Darwinism maybe. It was clearly a weekend tourist spot for the villagers. It was indeed charming – just what the guidebook had promised. Although, a village woman was shouting expletives loudly on her mobile, sort of stuff that made my city toes curl. And, there were way too many people for a haunted spot. That is India for you, way too many people everywhere – it is a gift and a curse like Monk would say.  In any case, it was time for us to find our way to our final stopover – Abhaneri, site of an 8th century stepwell.

We repeated our ritual for route finding – asking villagers we met on the road. When we finally arrived at Abhaneri, it was already late afternoon. In the last mile, we were immersed in a sea of goats – they were on their way to Abhaneri as well. Unlike Bhangarh, a small town surrounds the stepwell and the temple. I sensed more tourists at Abhaneri – little children were begging, something I hadn’t noticed during the rest of this trip.

Chand Baori, the 8th century stepwell, is exceptionally well preserved. Not well restored, just well preserved. It is a square shaped well, fairly deep possibly the deepest stepwell in Indo-Pakistan region, with thousands of steep steps on three sides and a deep green pool at the bottom. People in the those days must have had youthful knees, mine hurt going up and down these foot high steps. A recent Bollywood movie, Paheli based on love affair between a ghost and a village lass, has made this baori romantic but I liked the adjacent temple better. While as old as the baori, it was unfortunately in a bad shape. It was clear that the temple is regularly used, we saw only a couple of goats foraging about. I have since read that the sculptures at this temple are precursor to Khajuraho – precursor by 200 years!

It was the end of the day. When we finally hit the highway to Jaipur, we were only 80 kms or so away. It would take us only a few hours to get to Jaipur. More on my Jaipur adventures at another time.

On our way to Abhaneri, we had seen a small town called Bandikui where we had noticed several relics from the British Raj – an old railway station, railway quarters, market place, church etc. Like the other two places, it wasn’t on the map and it wasn’t mentioned in the guidebooks either. We didn’t stop because we had wanted to reach Chand baori before evening. If I were to redo this trip again, I will most definitely allocate a couple of hours for this town.

Now, several months later and several thousands of miles away, it seems that I enjoyed my road to these historical sites far more than the sites themselves. But this road is a village road. Even in the new India, I expect this road to be a bumpy one for many years to come. If you are visiting, I would suggest renting a jeep – it will likely move faster on unpaved roads. I say likely, not surely because you will no doubt be sharing the road with camel carts, bullock carts, pedestrians, tractors, and goat herds. Make sure you carry plenty of water on this route. A bottle of pepsi that we had picked up at Bandikui had tasted of soap. And one more thing. Bhangarh is in Alwar district and the road to Bhangarh goes through the town of Alwar. Stop by in Alwar to buy its India famous milkcakes – milk cooked and thickened into a cake form with added nuts and sugar.

For more photos from this trip, click here.

photo by seaview99 on Flickr

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