Beating like a drum in Bundi

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January 30th 2015
Published: April 27th 2015
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We were leaving Ranthambhore and travelling south west to Bundi. We woke early at 5am, turned the small fan heater on and tried to avoid the cold marble floor as much as possible. The music was still going at the massive wedding celebration next door, but it was far more subdued than the previous night. The shower head fell apart when I turned the water on, so I had to kneel on the marble floor and scoop water over myself from a bucket. Thankfully the water was warm.

We checked out of Raj Palace Resort at 8am, jumped into a minibus and set out on a three and a half hour trip to Bundi. It didn’t take long to get to the outskirts of Ranthambhore – the roads narrowed, the traffic thinned and the houses slowly gave way to arid countryside. We drove for most of the journey under the imposing Aravalli Ranges. We drove through tiny communities that comprised three or four basic houses, and we also passed through a few large villages. However, most of the time we had the arid soil of the Aravalli Ranges on our right and wheat and mustard crops on our left.

We stopped at a local house for masala chai (spiced sweet milky tea) around 10am, and we watched a guy make it on an outside fire. It was very refreshing. There were no toilets in sight, so the thorny bushes on the side of the road were my only option.

As we drove I was listening to the driver’s selection of contemporary Hindi music, and some of it was fantastic. I started composing the first song I’ve written for ages as the minibus jolted along the semi-dirt, semi-bitumen road. I hope I can remember it when we get back home. We were very much off the beaten track, and I welcomed the opportunity to experience this side of rural India.

We arrived at the Ishwari Niwas Heritage Resort at 11.30am. We checked in, ordered lunch, dropped our packs in our room, accessed the free wifi in the lobby and headed to the dining room for lunch at 12.30pm. The room was freezing and the mounted heads of leopards, bears and tigers hanging from the walls added to the slightly surreal nature of the place. I ordered a vegetable thali (with Rajasthani spice in the dahl) and Ren ordered an egg curry with aloo paratha (layered flat bread stuffed with spiced potato). The food was great and the beer was really, really cold – almost as cold as the dining room itself.

We finished lunch and settled into the resort, seeking out sunny spots in the internal courtyard. It was 2pm and the sun was hot, but as soon as you walked into the shade you could feel the cold cut through your body. We walked to the old city centre of Bundi at 2.30pm. We wandered through the vegetable, bangle and locksmith markets before making our way through the narrow cobblestone streets to the City (Garh) Palace at 4pm. This incredible monument towers majestically over Bundi, and the city views it provided were incredible. It was fascinating to get an insight into royal Indian life in the 19th century. We finished our tour of the palace at 5pm and then wandered back through the old market streets. We tried gajar halwa (hot pudding of grated carrots, spices and nuts) from a street stall, and it was amazing.

We picked up some sesame snacks for our train trip the following day, watched a makeshift cricket match on a dirt square as the sun disappeared behind Bundi’s dusty horizon, and eventually arrived back at the hotel at 6pm. We ordered dinner at reception, caught up on our travel notes and headed to the dining room at 7.30pm. I had the non-veg thali meal (which included a fantastic mutton curry) while Ren had the special veg thali meal. It was a fantastic meal. I’d asked for the mutton curry (which is goat curry in India) to be served ‘Rajasthani’ hot, and it had a great spiciness without too much heat. It was perfect, and the goat was cooked on the bone.

I really enjoyed our short time in Bundi. One of the main reasons that I bonded with Bundi was the distinct lack of tourists in the old city markets. This had been a fantastic opportunity to experience India away from the bustling madness of trinket shopping. It was a great travel experience. We had an early (7am) start and long day of train and jeep travel ahead, so we opted for an early night. We were in bed by 9.30pm.

We woke after a night huddled under three thick blankets at the Raj Palace Resort hotel in Ranthambhore. I was feeling a little crappy and desperately wanted to stay in bed, but had to brave the cold and get moving, as we were heading to Bundi. Andrew very kindly woke up first and ran the hot water taps so I wouldn’t have to stand on cold marble floors in the bathroom. This was the first time I was actually thankful for a wet bathroom! And yes, I’m very spoilt. 😊

We skipped breakfast and went in search of a chai (tea) stall or chai thadi as they call them here. The only thadi we found was questionable looking, so we detoured to the pharmacy to stock up on more Strepsils and Tiger Balm, but they had neither. However, they had homeopathic Stodal ginger lozenges, which tasted horrible but seemed to do the job. The only balm they had was Allen Balm (I have no idea who Allen is, but this was also a homeopathic remedy). The young guy who served us cheerfully told me that it was 'more better than all other things', which amused me no end. The jury is still out on whether it is, in fact, more better than all other things.

We left for Bundi in a minibus, but I couldn’t tell you much about the trip as I was drugged up and asleep just about as soon as we pulled out of our hotel’s driveway. I woke up two hours later when I heard our group leader Mohsin say we would be stopping for a break. We'd stopped on the very outer edge of a little village, seemingly in the middle of nowhere...but this was India and there was a lean-to chai stall perched on the side of a hut on the roadside. An old man meticulously brewed our masala chai (spiced sweet milky tea) by grinding the spices and adding it to the pot of milk on the little open fire he'd just lit. Then he added two heaped spoons of almost-powder tea leaf and sugar. He brought it to the boil three times and strained it into little glasses for us. It was one of the most atmospheric tea stops I’ve ever experienced. We then headed to Bundi, a small 12th century town in Southern Rajasthan.

The few bits I saw of the three and a half hour drive took us across desert-like brownness punctuated with palm trees, through plains covered in thorn trees, past farms of mustard, sesame and soya, and through many tiny villages with colourful murals painted on whitewashed walls. We passed women and men walking along the hot and dusty road carrying firewood and other goods on their heads, and lots of happy smiling children waving as we passed by. And all the while, the coffee-brown Aravalli Mountain Range that spans across Rajasthan stood guard over us.

Then finally we were in Bundi, and we turned into a quietly elegant tree lined street. The Ishwari Niwas Heritage Hotel is a quaint converted traditional haveli set around a courtyard. The courtyard was a lovely gathering place, especially when the sun came out and we played cards on the lawns while we waited for lunch. The haveli had high ceilings, a mishmash of Bundi paintings, a riot of coloured Rajasthani fabrics, a variety of heavy wooden furniture, high wooden beds and an assortment of very disturbing hunting memorabilia in the dining room. There was a stuffed tiger’s head mounted on a trophy, a full sized stuffed leopard with a snarling face, a bear's head with a very depressed expression, as well as three Rajasthani marionette dolls with terrifying stares (that looked like they could come alive at any moment).

The stuffed animals and sepia photographs of hunting parties of maharajas on elephants all added to the disturbing ghosts-of-the-past atmosphere. It bordered on creepy. Apparently, it was a British guest house during the Raj, with the guest list including the likes of Lord Mountbatten.

We had lunch in the freezing dining room on the second floor. I had an egg curry with aloo paratha (layered flat bread stuffed with spiced potato) and plain naan (leavened bread cooked in a wood fired oven). It was delicious. Andrew had a thali meal which looked lovely, but even though Andrew asked for spicy food, the staff just didn't seem to believe him and the curries definitely weren’t 'Indian spicy'.

I loved Bundi for its walkability, something I’d missed in other northern Indian cities. Our host Joghi took us on a long walk around his town, which he was very passionate about. The hotel was just on the edge of town, and only a 10 minute walk to the old town where Bundi’s few long term hippies seemed to prefer to stay. The main street into town was lined with small stalls selling the usual fruit, vegetables, sugarcane juice and other household items; but closer to town there was a more unusual trade. The street dentists (with an anomalous side trade in cheap sunglasses) had laid out their false teeth and rusty dental instruments in readiness for business. At one dentist stall, an elderly woman was having a tooth extracted. There was no aesthetic at hand, and the only pain management was with over-the-counter pain killers. Yikes! Traditionally, liquid opium was used to numb the pain (and even though there was a row of small brown bottles on the table, I couldn’t get an answer to what the liquid was).

We turned towards the old town and wound our way through the market. We started in the lusciously fresh looking fruit and vegetable area, and then walked around the area that sold pottery and locks. It was fascinating that there was such a demand for locks of so many shapes and sizes in a small town like Bundi. This led uphill into the bangle market, where we passed a shop where women were polishing small beads and making necklaces, and another small shop where a whole family was at work melting and shaping resin to make colourful bangles, with small hands painstakingly sticking diamantes into the soft edges. They were quite amused that I was so mesmerised by their work. There was a street full of pots, pans and household metal implements, and another of gold and silver salesmen looking very seriously at their old-school weighted scales.

We continued through a city gate and up the steep hill towards the 14th century Tara Garh (Star Fort) and Bundi Palace. The fort and palace complex were hulkingly enormous from afar and strikingly detailed and ornate up close.

The Palace is adjacent to the fort and was built during the 16th and 17th centuries, and is a classic example of Rajasthani architecture. The last Maharajah had died leaving no children, and it seems the family is locked in a dispute over ownership of the royal properties. As the legal battle draws on, all those royal buildings have been slipping into disrepair.

This was another tourist site where we had to pay a camera fee (as we did at the Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi), and so we decided to only use one camera. I find the whole camera fee thing a bit odd and can’t understand why they don’t incorporate the fee into the ticket price...all that double handling of money and tickets causes delays in queues and is a waste of paper. In all my travels in the recent past I’ve only ever come across two people who didn’t travel with a camera of some sort.

The car park at the outer entrance gate of the palace detracted somewhat from the beautifully carved heavy wooden doors. There were spikes embedded into the wood to deter charging war elephants from knocking down the doors. The steep cobblestone walkway and steps to the inner gate looked quite neglected we had to be very careful when navigating them. The palace had also been allowed to decline and is in various states of disintegration. However despite the crumbling plaster, the grandeur of the inner hathi pol (elephant gate) could not be missed. Both gates of the palace had been built high enough for elephants to pass through, and the first courtyard had elephant stables.

Elephants seemed to be a very big theme of the decor in the palace. Starting with the two very large elephant sculptures decorating the hathi pol, smaller elephants sculptures had been beautifully incorporated into the designs of doorways and columns in various rooms. The black elephants in a colonnaded room on the first floor were my favourites. In later years they had been illustrated extensively in all the murals on the upper floors.

The first area we explored was the Hall of public audience with a beautiful white marble throne. Up a narrow flight of stairs we came to a room that had once had its walls and ceilings decorated with mirror mosaics and bright murals. We could just make out some of the faded murals (along with local graffiti). Over time, troupes of grey langur monkeys have moved into the palace, as have masses of bats. Between the wildlife and the elements, the mirrored and muralled rooms have stood no chance. We were warned not to make eye contact with the often aggressive monkeys.

From the beautiful rooftop garden courtyard on the second floor, there were gorgeous sweeping views over the blue-tinged city (even though Jodhpur is technically India’s Blue City, parts of Bundi are also painted blue) and the lake below. Across the garden was a gallery room (called Chitrasala) which had monkey-proof caging and where flash photography was forbidden – a couple of attendants with sticks (!) watched closely to ensure we complied. Inside, every centimetre of the walls was covered in the most exquisite paintings in rich burgundies, greens and blues. They depicted religious stories, love affairs, court life, and hunting and war scenes with elephants and tigers. There were a few gaps in the murals where the gold leaf and precious stone decorations had been ripped from the wall by plunderers. It was an amazing and unexpectedly rich sight in the middle of the ruins of the palace.

I loved the rambling palace, and while it was a shame that we couldn't explore more of the rooms because they were unsafe, the few sections that were maintained with manicured lawns stood out in stark contrast to the sections that were disintegrating. It gave the space an otherworldly ‘Edward Scissorhands’ feel. It will take an army of restorers to wrestle this palace back to even a semblance of its former glory, but our guide seemed optimistic that it could be done (if the right royal won the court case).

While walking (very carefully) back down the steep cobblestone walkway away from the palace, I had time to reflect on the fact that medieval India must have had very advanced building and construction practices to build this sprawling complex in such a precarious hillside location.

Bundi is a picturesque and peaceful looking eggshell blue city from afar, but a very bustley, dusty and noisy town at street level. Apart from one street in the old town that is lined with guesthouses, a few touristy shops and the obligatory touts who go with that – the rest of Bundi is refreshingly and remarkably untouched by tourism. As we walked along the narrow streets we couldn’t help but be drawn into Bundi life – proud grandparents happily showing off smiling infants, kids playing in shopfronts, street cows stopping (abruptly) at specific shops for treats, women with silver pots walking down the very narrow blue-hued side alleys to the street-side water pumps, and commerce being conducted in the old fashioned way over a cup of tea and a handshake.

On the way back to the hotel, Mohsin stopped at a small shop where he recommended the gajar halwa (creamy pudding of carrots, spices and nuts) – it was absolutely superb! Andrew doesn’t normally have a sweet tooth, but he scoffed this down in record time. I had tried warm gajar halwa for the first time a few months earlier in Hobart, and I was now a fully-fledged fan. It seemed to consist mainly of well-cooked grated carrots, milk, sugar, nuts and cardamom – the rest remains a delicious mystery at this point. I will have to do more research.

We bought snacks and water for our train ride the next day and walked back to our hotel to relax before dinner. We met for dinner in the dining room of our haveli at 7:30pm. I ordered a very generously portioned vegetarian thali meal of steamed rice with peas, chapathis (unleavened flat round wholemeal bread), dahl tadka (yellow lentils cooked with garlic, ginger and green chilli and flavoured with roasted cumin), saag curry (spinach curry) and mixed vegetable dry curry. My appetite was still flagging, and I felt bad that I couldn't get through even half of it. Andrew had ordered the non-veg thali which was a big meal, so he couldn’t help me with my leftovers either. Andrew ordered this dish mainly for the spicy mutton curry (which is goat curry in India), and he absolutely loved it! We had more delicious gajar halwa for dessert (bought from the same stall we visited that afternoon).

A few of us had taken to routinely drinking hot tea with ginger, lemon and honey with all our meals, as we all had colds and/or coughs. We had also got into the habit of doing pharmacy stops at each place we visited. Misery loves company. 😊

We sat in the lobby area for a while after dinner to access the hotel’s wifi, but I didn’t last long. Smoke-free legislation isn’t big in India, but we hadn’t had many issues with smoking until we got to Bundi – where suddenly a lot of people seemed to be smoking. I’ve forgotten the last time I was somewhere where people smoked inside – or just inside – the door. More than the locals, it was the tourists (Australians who wouldn’t dream of smoking in enclosed spaces at home!) who really got to me. The combination of the cigarette smoke and the cold air set my stupid coughey lungs off, and it was enough to send me trudging off to our room in a bad mood...muttering under my breath about people trying to kill me with their shitty secondary smoke.

On the plus side, our room was super comfortable and I warmed up with a hot shower and melted into bed. I had decided that I really liked Bundi, and I know that I will be dreaming of that gajar halwa for months to come.

Next we head south west to Bassi (a different Bassi to the one we visited last week) to do some luxury camping (or ‘glamping’ as Mohsin calls it).


28th April 2015

I´d love to be there
Glad you were not near Nepal, this time of the year. I liked your account of your trip, Bundi´s pictured as very cosy, just what I´d need right now. Thanks for sharing.
28th April 2015

Re: I'd love to be there
Thanks Frank! I can't get my head around what's happened in Nepal, so sad. Bundi was essentially a small town, but the population size makes even small towns in India appear much larger. We really enjoyed our time there.
28th April 2015
bundi palace

One fine day!
So lovely that you spent time in rural India. Somehow, I'd always pictured India as wall-to-wall humanity--great to hear of these wide-open spaces, even if most are planted with crops. Best wishes to Andrew to remember his Hindi-inspired composition. The roadside chai stop sounded magical as the spices were ground fresh for you. How fortunate to visit the sad/beautiful Bundi palace and authentic village street life that were off the tourist trail. Hope Ren's cold is better soon.
28th April 2015
bundi palace

Re: One fine day!
Thanks Tara! Andrew is in the process of recording that piece of music, and has called it 'Aravalli' (after the mountain range). I think Bundi be would the sort of place you would really love - very walkable and very interesting. My cough was a tenacious beast that haunted me for weeks - but it was eventually squashed with tons of drugs :)
28th April 2015
streets of bundi

Indian cows!
We love the cows in India, the way they just plonk themselves in the middle of the road to sun themselves and nosing into restaurants to beg for food with those big, sad eyes! The cow in this picture looks particularly content.
28th April 2015
streets of bundi

Re: Indian cows!
This cow caught my attention as we walked up the hill because the guy in the brown sweater vest scratched its head when he walked past, like it was a pet dog! I love those big brown Indian cow eyes...strangely the cows over here don’t have the same liquidy eyes, they have beady suspicious eyes that warn me to keep away from them :)
2nd May 2015
streets of bundi

This one is perfect
2nd May 2015
streets of bundi

Re: India
Thanks MJ. I was glad I was able to take this picture without disturbing the scene... :)
2nd May 2015

Wonderful word pictures
The two of you really do have the creative writing down and your word transport us right along side of you. Those cold marble floors and the dribble of water from the shower missing shower head would not be ideal on a cold morning when trying to warm up but that is the way is goes on the road...sometimes. Hope to hear the song Andrew was composing. I can picture you moving along the dusty roads in your drugged state. Maybe we can market the Allen Balm in the U.S. and make good money since it is more better than all things. Being nurses we love going to foreign pharmacies to look around. It is always amazing what you can buy. Sweet dreams of gajar halwa.
3rd May 2015

Re: Wonderful word pictures
Thanks Merry Jo! You must have loved the Indian pharmacies...they sold everything. I especially loved the way they blended western and eastern medicine to easily. Andrew will be recording that piece of music soon, I'll have to find a way you send you the file. I shouldn't have scoffed at Allen Balm, it’s proved to be very good for headaches! :)
2nd May 2015

One of my favourite places we visited!
So glad you got to see the old palace. We just loved it here - made me re-read my account too!
3rd May 2015

Re: One of my favourite places we visited!
Meryl I've just read your blog on Bundi and I loved it! And of course, before I knew it I was reading the rest of your blogs on your northern India trip too. I hope your plans for southern India are coming together! xx
23rd July 2015
streets of bundi

What a beautiful picture, capturing the essence of the place and the amazing architecture.
24th July 2015
streets of bundi

Re: Amazing
Thanks! It was very interesting walking through the old town of Bundi.
23rd July 2015

Atmospheric Bundi
I love the fact that while many may complain of a Bumby ride Andrew was taking it all in composing a song. Hope it worked out. With both your pictures and words you both make Bundi sound like a really atmospheric place. Another area worth adding to our list. Thumbs up to you both for braving it in the cold, cold marbel floors, bucket showers.. We don't mind basics but both hate the cold. But with you experiences I'm sure this is what you remember least.
24th July 2015

Re: Atmospheric Bundi
Bundi was a really good smaller town to visit. I have to admit that I struggled with the cold unheated buildings, but that was the yearly reality of winter in India for many - so I told myself to suck it up :)
25th November 2015

Gazar Halwa is awesome
I love Gazar Halwa too. You blog is so descriptive, took me ages to read it. As I read I imagined myself back in Bundi. So it took time. Great work! Hope to read more from you!!!
26th November 2015

Re: Gazar Halwa is awesome
Thanks for your lovely comment. If we go back to Bundi, we'll have to search for that fabulous little roadside stall we got the halwa from!

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