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Published: November 26th 2018
We decide to pass on Achalgarh fort; apparently there is nothing left of the fort and it is more of local rubbish tip. Instead we elect to first visit the Ambaji temple. Mr Singh commends our choice. He tells he and his wife and 4 year old son visit the temple each year. They queue for five hours to see the deity. We'll be passing on that queue.
The road snakes down through the Aravalli hills, Mount Abu town being at about 4000ft above sea level. The views and the hairpin bends are impressive. The roads here are being improved and progress can be slow. We arrive in Ambaji, which appears to be in the middle of pilgrimage season. There are groups of pilgrims, mainly young men, dressed in red shirts with matching bandanas and flags. Outside the temple precinct they are making their way along the designated queuing lanes that are delineated by steel barriers, a bit like the queue in a theme park. They are waving their flags and hammering away on their drums as they move along. We park in a seemingly chaotic car park that nevertheless seems to have a space for us. “Bag cutters here”
announces Mr Singh, who insists on walking us to the entrance to the temple through the throngs of vendors and beggars who are outside. We get pawed a lot. It is hot, the noise makes your head throb and it smells like India at its most intense. He leaves us at the entrance to the temple where he says he will guard our flipflops against the roaming thieves.
The approach to the temple is about 100 yards long, with shops on both sides selling both temple offerings and tat. We are stared at, but also greeted by lots of very happy people. This is not a tourist destination. There are no selfie requests as phones are not allowed past the security guards. The only exception is a security guard himself, who grasps David's hand and tells him he loves the British Army. Then he produces his phone, and several selfies are taken of us with security guards.
Meanwhile the special queue for the inner sanctum began at the entrance to the temple. The people are penned in what is now an all enveloping steel cage structure. They look hot and bothered because they are. Only another 5 hours
to queue then.....
We have no idea what the inside of the temple looks like, all we can do is peer over the head of the throng as the steel cage expends all around the open face of the temple itself. On the other side of the steel, the devotees seem pretty whipped up as they are now approaching the inner sanctum. There is a lot of chanting and praying going on.
The most impressive feature of the temple though is the gold covering the roof of the temple, rather reminiscent of the gold covered pagodas of Burma. This is unusual for Hindu temples, so it must hold huge significance for the faithful.
On the approach to the temple in the precinct, numerous groups of pilgrims are waiting to move forward. The furthest forward group, are dancing in a circular motion in an almost trance like state, while the drummers thrash their drums making a deafening noise. They have almost worked themselves into an ecstatic religious frenzy. They have a huge pennant they are holding open and aloft and other worshippers kiss and touch it as they pass.
Out of the temple, and we drive to
the Kumbhariya Jain temples. This is only a few miles away, but almost completely deserted. There are three small, ancient temples, and one large apparently more recent temple. It’s not easy to find and confusingly, when we do locate it, seems to be surrounded by new buildings and security guards. Later, we discover that wealthy Jains have funded the construction of accommodation and facilities for pilgrims. As we approach the first, smallest temple – the only one we can see at this point – a Jain monk in yellow robes with a mask over his mouth to protect against accidentally swallowing and killing a fly, tells us we need to buy a permit. He shows us to a small office where we buy a camera permit and fill out some paperwork that will doubtless be stored for no obvious purpose. The temples are simple compared to Dilwara, but still very beautiful and intricately carved. The final, main temple has two huge marble statues of elephants outside the entrance. It looks a lot newer and not as intricate as the older ones. It is also policed by a bad tempered guard who does not like us and follows us around carrying
Another hour’s driving gets us to our home for the next 3 nights, Darbargadh Poshina, a beautiful heritage palace which is still the home of our host, Harendrapal Singh. The gatekeeper is an elderly man with a fine handlebar moustache, a turban topped with a large sprig of fake flowers, baggy military style jacket over a long white dhoti, cradling a very elderly Lee Enfield rifle, who greets us and beats his drum to welcome us in. Our host then takes us to make our selection from a choice of spacious rooms. We pick one on the first floor with its own little courtyard. As we walk back to have some lunch, we are assailed by large numbers of the biggest bees we’ve ever seen, who seem to be nesting in one of the gateways. They bounce off us from time to time, but mercifully do not sting. We enjoy a tasty lunch and then settle back on a sofa on the terrace of the main wing of the palace to catch up on emails and have a rest.
We take a short drive to a nearly lake at 5pm, in an ancient jeep with a
steering wheel held together with stout twine and its electrics all hanging loose under the dashboard. On the way out, Sara sits in the back and David takes the passenger seat. Sara is jolted back and forth with just a small handle to hold onto, and thinks that if the jeep goes off the road, that will be it, whereas David will have some protection from his seatbelt. Meantime David’s knees are being bashed to pieces in the front. We swap for the return journey, at which point Sara realises the seat belt offers little if any protection being several feet long and loose, and considers the risks of driving in the front with no door. But all is well.
We’re back in Gujarat, albeit only a few kilometres from the Rajasthan border, so are delighted when Hanu tells us he has a liquor licence and suggests we enjoy the gin and tonic we’ve been craving all holiday. It slips down a treat.
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