There was a time when I used to travel a lot (by my standards, which meant taking into account things like the fact that writers like me make money enough to do about one Delhi-Agra round trip a year—if that). Now, thanks to the fact that my husband and I have a toddler to cater to, the nature of our trips has changed somewhat. We would love to visit museums, we would love to spend days walking through Europe.
What do we do instead? Go to places where there’ll be lots of birds and animals. And plenty of flowers (which, of course, the toddler—henceforth, referred to as the LO, the Little One—has to be dissuaded from plucking, by being told that flowers are a plant’s babies, and babies don’t like being away from their parents, do they?)
But, without further digression, an account of our latest trip, which combined some of what we wanted to see (which was everything on this trip) and some that the LO was especially interested in. I’ve been wanting, for several years, to visit the iconic Chand Baori at Abhaneri, and the Deeg Palace. Plus, since the LO is now old enough to be able to enjoy slighter longer and more outdoorsy travelling, the Keoladeo Ghana National Park at Bharatpur (which my husband and I have both visited before). We made this a three-day trip, going from Delhi to Abhaneri, then on to Bharatpur, where we spent two nights, and finally back to Delhi via Deeg.
Getting there and back: The Delhi-Abhaneri route is fairly straightforward: you get out of Delhi, past Gurgaon, and from there, head towards Alwar. Abhaneri is well signposted, and the road which branches off from the national highway towards it is a good one, passing through fields of bright yellow flowering mustard, DDLJ style. Do note that once you’re off the national highway, there are no golden arches or Café Coffee Days available for breaks; you’ll have to make do with dhabas or colas and Kurkure bought at roadside stalls. This stretch took us close to six hours, but then, that included an hour spent going from the eastern edge of Delhi to Gurgaon.
Abhaneri-Bharatpur is about two hours’ drive, and again, good road, except towards the fag end (around Bharatpur, road repairs were in progress, so the roads were all dug up, dusty and pebbly).
Bharatpur-Deeg is a short stretch, only about an hour’s drive, on a good road. We had taken the precaution of asking a few people at our Bharatpur hotel for advice on how to proceed from Deeg to Delhi (we were interested in taking, from near Mathura, the Yamuna Expressway). The advice we got was that we should go to Deeg, then return (a distance of about 38 km) to a fork in the road, and then take the other road from there to Mathura. At Deeg, others—including a truck driver, who traverses this distance everyday—said that it was perfectly fine to travel from Deeg to Vrindavan via Govardhan and Radhakund: why go back all the way?
So we took his advice, and ended up spending a harrowing hour trying to get out of Govardhan. Govardhan, in case you don’t know it, is a huge pilgrimage centre, and is crowded with devotees who walk slowly along in groups, clapping and singing and completely oblivious of any traffic. It also has horrifyingly narrow roads, all of which our GPS happily sent us along. Unwittingly, we ended up doing the parikrama of Govardhan, so perhaps that at least got us some brownie points somewhere. But by the time we got out of this blessed town, we were cursing ourselves for not having gone all the way back from Deeg, as we’d been originally advised.
On the plus side, the Yamuna Expressway (when we finally got to it) proved to be excellent, allowing us to get to Delhi in just about two hours. And with a convenient stop for a meal, coffee, and a loo break at a combined food court/motel/toilets/petrol pump island along the highway.
Staying there: That is, at Bharatpur, where we stayed at The Bagh, once owned by the royal family of Bharatpur.
This spreads out over some 11-12 acres of lightly wooded area, across which are scattered palaces, each housing either a few rooms, or the restaurant, the spa, and so on. While the rooms and the public spaces were really pretty (and the courtyards made for relaxing places to lounge around while having our coffee and reading)…
… What really got the LO (and to some extent, my husband and I too) excited were the birds. There are loads of these around, from noisy flocks of babblers cackling loudly in the fruit-laden amla tree beside our window, to pigeons cooing sleepily under the overhanging dripstone jutting out over the verandah, to a flock of peafowl that the LO insisted on chasing, disapproving parents notwithstanding. The peahens and peacock always managed to give the LO the slip by rushing away into the undergrowth.
Chand Baori, Abhaneri: This was the first stop along the way on our trip, and it was every bit as spectacular as I had expected it to be. ‘Baori’ (बावड़ी) is the Rajasthani and Haryanvi pronunciation of what is known in Delhi as a baoli: a stepwell, with rows of steps leading down to a square or rectangular pool. As the water level falls due to consumption or evaporation, you have to traverse more steps to get down to it. The entire border-of-the-Thar area is dotted with stepwells (Delhi itself has some impressive ones), but the Chand Baori, built by Raja Chand in the 8th century, is a class apart. The steps here are arranged in diagonal rows, crisscrossing to form an intricate pattern of diamonds. The effect, as you can see, is pretty spectacular (no wonder, then, that this baori features in several films, including The Fall and The Dark Knight Rises).
The steps of the baori are cordoned off with a railing, and you aren’t even allowed to enter the chambers near the entrance, but the arched colonnade ringing the top of the baori has a display of some fine pieces of carving: friezes, statues, ornate pillars and the like.
We (my husband and I) were very impressed with the baori and the sculptures on display; the LO loved a little herd of pale pink piglets snuffling about on the lawn outside. Loved them so much, in fact, that she ran after them, squealing merrily, “Piggies! Piggies!”, hoping they’d let her hug them. The piggies ran off, squealing in fright, and my husband ran after the entire lot, trying to stop the Scourge of the Piggies from causing any harm—to herself or her beloved piggies.
Harshat Mata Temple: This, an ancient temple to Parvati, stands right opposite Chand Baori and was built at about the same time. Parvati here is supposed to bestow light (‘abha’), which is why the town was named ‘Abhanagari’—‘the town of Abha’, a name that’s been corrupted, over the centuries, to Abhaneri. My husband and I weren’t especially keen on visiting the temple—it looks rather unprepossessing from ground level, what with blocks of stone scattered haphazardly all around it. But the LO, having noticed a temple (and surmised that here was a prospective place for some fun), insisted that she wanted to get a teeka.
So we gave in—and were glad of it. Because the concentric platforms on which the Harshat Mata Temple stands are not littered with any old blocks of stone: these blocks are beautifully carved. And the walls, too, are carved. Worked into the stone are deities; people playing music and making love; birds pecking at grain; flowers, kalashes, animals, geometric shapes, and more. If you’ve seen the temples at Khajuraho, this is quite similar to those, though on a far less lavish scale.
Keoladeo Ghana National Park: This was, at least for the LO, the highlight of the trip. Just outside Bharatput and spreading across nearly 30 square kilometres of dry land and marshes is Keoladeo Ghana (Keola Dev is a local deity, whose temple lies within the park; ‘ghana’ refers to the denseness of the scrub). One of Asia’s most important birding sites, this has a vast population of local birds and also attracts many migratory species during the winter months.
Private vehicles aren’t allowed inside the National Park, but you have several options for getting around: walk, hire a bicycle, hire a cycle rickshaw (the rickshaw wallahs also double as guides), hire a tonga, or hire a golf cart-like electric cart. Since we had the LO with us, a rickshaw seemed the best bet, so that’s what we hired. Our rickshaw wallah, a man named Birender, was extremely knowledgeable and observant: he could see birds and animals where we could often, despite intense peering, see nothing but a smudge.
Thanks to him, we saw dozens of birds: bluethroat, white-cheeked bulbul, golden-backed woodpecker, purple heron, teal, coot, moorhen, northern shoveler, white ibis, painted stork, scops owl… and other creatures, including a blue bull, spotted deer, a monitor lizard, and jackals.
The LO endeared herself to Birender by insisting on driving the rickshaw, an endeavour in which both Birender and her indulgent father assisted her. Birender, on a brief detour to see if he could spot a python (Keoladeo Ghana has a lot of these), brought back a peacock feather for the LO, and further won her over by showing her a huge hairy caterpillar.
For my husband and I, a walk down a nature trail to spot the lovely crimson-headed sarus cranes (of which there are some five or six pairs at the park) was the highlight. We managed to spot—even though at a distance, and half-hidden by the tall grass—the sarus, so that was very satisfying.
For the LO, a white cow standing on a path and shitting was the highlight. Toddlers. I tell you.
Deeg Palaces: The very last of the tourist attractions on our list was the palace complex at Deeg. These palaces are also known as Jal Mahal, because they are partly surrounded by lakes, and once housed water channels, pools, and fountains. Built in the mid- and late-18th century by the Jat ruler Surajmal and his successor Jawahar Singh, the Deeg Palaces consist of eight palaces that surround central gardens. Three of the palaces—Gopal Bhawan, Kishan Bhawan and Nand Bhawan—are under the charge of docents who allow you in and take you around.
The Gopal Bhawan and Kishan Bhawan used to house, respectively, the private apartments of the royals, and the halls of private and public audience. Although these are supposedly fancy, with Persian carpets (scruffy and moth-eaten), 150-year old furniture (repolished and reupholstered with some pretty shabby fabric) and seashell floors, we weren’t terribly impressed, because everything looked rather run-down, dusty and neglected. For us, the highlight of Gopal Bhawan was a delightful artefact near its front door: a large bed-shaped piece of furniture made of black granite. This was brought from the Red Fort at Delhi after Maharaja Surajmal attacked and ransacked it; he assumed this was a throne, and installed it here—unaware that far from being a throne, this was a gusal chowki, used to ritually bathe and prepare a corpse for a Muslim funeral. Ouch.
For me, the loveliest of the palaces was another which owes its existence to the Mughals. The Suraj Mahal, made of white marble and replete with carving and pretty inlay work, was originally in the Red Fort. Surajmal, not to be deterred, had it dismantled, its components numbered and packed up and brought back to Deeg, where it was reassembled. This one is beautiful, its carving fine and its inlay, even if not exceptionally intricate, very pleasant indeed.
The rest of the palaces are so-so. The baradari (twelve-arched pavilion) known as Keshav Bhawan is supposed to have been used to simulate monsoon showers, with overhead pipes sprinkling water and lithic balls filled with water rumbling to imitate thunder… we saw neither of these. And the beauty of the pavilion itself is marred by two prominent and ugly brick walls built along the centre of the pavilion to shore up a possibly dangerous roof.
These brick buttresses also appear in another palace, Nand Bhawan, which was the wrestling arena. The seating space for the audience—the maharaja and maharani, their guests and so on—was probably once pretty with its carving and painted plaster, but is now so dingy, dusty and smelling of bat shit that we couldn’t really appreciate it. More impressive were the four massive pillars, painted with animal and human figures, which originally were the only means of holding up the roof of the palace.
That, then, was our trip. Short, busy, packed—but, as the LO remarked with tears in her eyes when we were nearing Delhi, “I don’t want to go home!”