The town of Fatehpur is part of the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan and is often used as a base to explore the area. As we had chosen the smaller town of Mandawa in which to base ourselves for our two days of exploration, we stopped in Fatehpur on our way through to Bikaner. We had a small amount of time to wander the streets, looking at the produce for sale and exploring the famous spectacular and crumbling painted havelis.
One haveli in particular that drew our attention had a much larger frontage than others we had seen, with a wrought iron verandah railing to add to its grandeur. Walking down the market street was a slightly different experience to that of other towns further south – there was not as much ‘hassling’ with the ‘hard sell’ which made it a more relaxing experience. The dressing of a wedding car was in process when we set out, and was completed by the time we returned. We stopped to take a picture and the groom, with his huge grin, was eager to pose with the car for his photograph – so proud and happy on this important day.
Our journey continued through a vast, arid landscape, mostly on pot-holed roads that clearly were being ‘worked on’, but no labourers in sight! The further away from the big towns we went on this trip, the number of cows increased. They were everywhere! All safe and confident that nothing would happen to them on the road (being the holy, protected beasts that they are). In one village, we even saw a tractor pulling a cow out of a deep ditch on the side of the road because it couldn’t manage it alone.
On the outskirts of Bikaner, Anand took us to the ultra modern Vaishno Devi Temple, which bore more than a striking resemblance to a theme park. It consisted of a lengthy one way trek through a lion’s mouth and past cartoonish statues of Hindu gods before climbing a plastered wall of rock to a priest at a shrine who was eager to put a red dot on our forehead, so we give him 10 Rps. We continued the climb to the top of the fake mountain for a view, before schlepping down the other side to the exit. Very kid-geared – get them in young.
Junagarh Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Hill Forts of Rajasthan. Our 9am collection by our driver was relatively late, as the fort didn’t open until 10am, but we still arrived early. No matter, we went for a bit of a walk to work off our large breakfast that followed on from the large dinner from the previous night. Eating far too much on this trip, but the food is so good! The bread is my downfall!
We chose to hire an audio guide at this venue, and were so glad we did. Found out so much about Ganga Singh – the super hero maharaja of Bikaner from 1888-1943 (born 1880, succeeding his brother at the age of 8). This guy was extraordinary; not only was he a modern reformist visionary, he was the only “non-white” member of the British Imperial War Cabinet during WWI (look him up, he’s fascinating!). The fort itself was built in the late 16th century, but various palace additions have been made since then by different maharajas. Ganga Singh had the first elevator in India installed in the palace, and had electricity in the city well before it appeared in the rest of the country. You can see why he is the enduring hero of Bikaner.
There were some unusual items on display in the fort. The ivory ‘shoes’ of one maharaja were exhibited, and they were not exactly shoes, but rather a weird flat-heeled piece of ivory with just a toe ‘jam’ to keep the foot and shoe in contact. No idea how he walked in them!
Devikund Sagar (the Royal Cenotaphs), as with others in previously visited cities, was a spectacular display of architecture, maybe even more gorgeous than the other buildings in the city. It is not as popular on the tourist list as other sites, but it is a beautiful place to simply ‘be’.
Karni Mata Temple (Rat Temple)
There are many who cannot stomach the thought of visiting the Rat Temple in Deshnok, Rajasthan. As neither of us have a problem with rodents (we love most animals), we decided to brave it. We were surprised when Anand said he would wait in the car, but it wasn’t his dislike of the large mice that prompted this decision, it was more the shady types who were hanging around in the area where we parked, and he wanted to stay with the car and our luggage. Excellent work, Anand!
We were expecting swarms of rats with the difficult task ahead of not stepping on them. It was not at all like that…although there was a definite smell (all that rat pee and poop!). The rats are a bit cute, actually, and neither of us had any issue with being near them. One had a sniff of my foot, but wasn’t interested in running over it, which is apparently good luck. John had three run over his feet – SOOO lucky! It was mesmerising watching them climb over each other to get to the gigantic bowl of milk put out for them by the monks – a seething mass of fur, tails and twitching noses.
Old Town Bikaner
Anand drove us to the Old Town and arranged a tuk tuk ride through the old city. He has friends all over the place that he can call on to help make the tour memorable for his clients, which is no surprise, he is a nice guy who would easily make friends. The tuk tuk driver was an older man, which seems to be a developing pattern – while Anand is in his early twenties, he is very discerning of his choice of tuk tuk drivers for us, and a lot of the young ones are ‘hoons’ (we taught Anand this new word, but he totally understood the meaning!). His choice of driver was very impressive in his handling of the road and the twit-drivers on it.
We stopped a couple of times to get out and explore, with Anand walking with us through the crazy busy and narrow streets. We were lucky that he was with us – he saved both of us at separate times from serious mishap. With me, I was standing on the edge of the road (out of the way) taking a picture, and a tuk tuk driver started to reverse his tuk tuk (no motor on, just pushing it backwards) and didn’t see me standing there as he was on the other side. Anand, grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the way, while at the same time banging on the side of the tuk tuk. Then John was engrossed with getting a shot and started to cross the lane way without looking. Anand called out and he side stepped a motorbike. This guy deserves a tip!
Potential mishaps aside, the old city itself was beguiling. It was full of sights, sounds and smells that in some ways have become very familiar from our visits to other parts of Asia, but at the same time are distinctly India. Our temporary guide took us into the Jain Temple (Bhandasar Temple) in the centre of the old city, which was filled with brightly coloured restored paintings and intricately carved figures above a tri-colour mosaic marble floor.
Our exploration of the old city ended in a photo op with a local man and his insanely long moustaches; so long that he twirls them up into tightly wound curls and clips them into place. But he was more than happy to unravel them for the tourists, stretching them the full length of his wide arm span. India is full of surprises!
Our Indian journey continues with Jaisalmer…
Accommodation: Laxmi Niwas Palace
Tour Company: Intense India Tours