Birds, baoris and more

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?)

At The Bagh, a white orangetip butterfly.

At The Bagh, a white orangetip butterfly.

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)…

The Bagh: a courtyard. Don't miss the peafowl atop the parapet.

The Bagh: a courtyard. Don’t miss the peafowl atop the parapet.

… 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.

At The Bagh, a peacock crosses a stone path, hurrying from one patch of trees to another.

At The Bagh, a peacock crosses a stone path, hurrying from one patch of trees to another.

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 magnificent Chand Baori at Abhaneri, built in the 8th century.

The magnificent Chand Baori at Abhaneri, built in the 8th century.

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.

The colonnade at Chand Baori, with an array of sculptures on display.

The colonnade at Chand Baori, with an array of sculptures on display.

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.

The Harshat Mata Temple at Abhaneri,: note the stylized birds pecking at the ground in the carving!

The Harshat Mata Temple at Abhaneri,: note the stylized birds pecking at the ground in the carving!

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.

Carved figures at the Harshat Mata Temple.

Carved figures at the Harshat Mata Temple.

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.

A nature trail in Keoladeo Ghana. This one leads to an area where sarus cranes can be often spotted.

A nature trail in Keoladeo Ghana. This one leads to an area where sarus cranes can be often spotted.

Keoladeo Ghana, painted storks: a parent watches over its young.

Keoladeo Ghana, painted storks: a parent watches over its young.

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.

Keoladeo Ghana: a spotted deer stag steps out for a quick nibble.

Keoladeo Ghana: a spotted deer stag steps out for a quick nibble.

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.

Deeg Palaces: Suraj Bhawan. Originally part of the Red Fort, this was dismantled and brought away to be reassembled after Surajmal ransacked the Red Fort.

Deeg Palaces: Suraj Bhawan. Originally part of the Red Fort, this was dismantled and brought away to be reassembled after Surajmal ransacked the Red Fort.

Pietra dura inlay work at Suraj Bhawan, Deeg Palaces.

Pietra dura inlay work at Suraj Bhawan, Deeg Palaces.

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.

Deeg Palaces: Nand Bhawan, the akhara. This is where the maharaja and his guests sat to watch wrestling bouts.

Deeg Palaces: Nand Bhawan, the akhara. This is where the maharaja and his guests sat to watch wrestling bouts.

Deeg Palaces, Nand Bhawan: A painted pillar.

Deeg Palaces, Nand Bhawan: A painted pillar.

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!”

25 thoughts on “Birds, baoris and more

  1. Can I say I love the ‘scourge of the piggies’? :) What a lovely visit you must have had! Observe me turning green with envy.

    I loved the step well. Can you imagine the ‘architects’ of yore actually working out how deep and how wide the wells should be, and the workers who built them? Lovely!

    Thank you for this, Madhu. You’ve more than made up for your absence by posting two posts in so short a time.

    • Yes, Anu, we had a lovely time. Too short, of course, but I suppose that’s best, with the LO being this age. Long holidays wear her out – and us, since she seems to have an inexhaustible supply of energy! :-D

      The step well is brilliant; I have been fascinated by it ever since a former colleague posted photographed of a trip there. And it certainly met all expectations – truly spectacular. Most stepwells I’ve seen tend to be fairly straightforward, with one wide flight of stairs leading down to the water. This one, with its crisscross flights, is just so amazing. If I’m not mistaken, it also appears in Paheli.

      Glad you liked the post. Thank you!

  2. Hello Madhu,
    What a delightful visit: thanks! It rings so many tinkling bells of Rajasthani visits! But first I want to say hi to your LO, who reminded me so much of some LOs I used to have some time ago now, and which I love so much. I actually referred to some of my kids in this way too, see. BTW, I still have the children, but they’re no longer LOs, and they themselves haven’t got got LOs of their own… yet! (waiting…)
    Now Rajasthan is such an amazing place isn’t it. This baori for instance and the places around it… I wonder, did you see many tourists there? I’d be surprised if you did, because it seems that the tourist agencies only have a set pattern of what they show foreigners, and of course they’re sponsored by those shops in big cities, so they have to bring you to those places whether you want it or not, don’t they. One day I’ll go back to Rajasthan and just drift in these little places. Oh, and I liked the national park there too, with its curteous and friendly Birender. I bow my head to him.
    Best wishes for the holiday season, and the Christmas period!

    • And the LO says hello to you, Yves! She’s getting all ready for the Christmas party at play school (tomorrow), and there’s much excitement at home – she supervised my putting up of the Christmas tree, and calmly picked all the raisins out of the cake because she doesn’t like the rest of the fruit – only the raisins. :-)

      The baori and the Deeg Palaces are very short on tourists. There were several others at the Deeg Palaces, but all were Indians; Abhaneri was even devoid of any Indian tourists – we were the only ones around. Keoladeo Ghana, by contrast, had lots of visitors, of very differing types. Plenty of Indians, and quite a few foreigners as well, mostly of the diehard birder type – the people who will rise before the crack of dawn to go on a bird walk, and who carry scopes and are willing to sit in one cramped position for hours just to catch a glimpse of a bird. There were quite a few of those around. But none of the ‘typical’ foreign tourist in India: no busloads with a guide leading them.

      Merry Christmas, Yves, and a very happy New Year! May this year bring much joy and peace to you and your family, including those no-longer-LOs.

    • Glad you liked it. Thank you!

      Yes, there are plenty of stepwells in Rajasthan and Delhi. I don’t recall having visited any in Haryana, though I’ve heard they’re there as well. Among the other good ones in Rajasthan is the Raniji ki Baori in Bundi, and Delhi’s top baolis include Ugrasen ki Baoli, Rajon ki Baoli, Gandhak ki Baoli and the baoli in Nizamuddin, next to the dargah.

  3. Your lovely post has convinced me (not that I needed much persuasion) that our next trip to India must include some time in Rajasthan. But here comes the but – we are planning a trip in May/June/July, which I don’t believe is the right time. Doesn’t it get too hot then? The ideal time is probably December, so maybe we will do a second visit in December 2017.
    I would love to see the baori. I have seen pictures, and I wondered how those people did the calculations to do such structures with the geometric precision they need. Amazing!
    Most of all, I loved your description of your LO running after the piglets, with your poor husband chasing her and the piggies, and the piggies running for dear life. I was giggling away, reading about it!
    Your pictures are great, especially the one of the deer. What is the haze in the background – fog or dust?
    Last question – is it possible to rent taxis for trips like these, and how did you make the reservations for the stay? I know, that’s two questions!
    Your posts are giving me lots of ideas for our travel plans in India. Thanks again, and keep giving me ideas!

    • Yes, Lalitha – summer (beginning in April, sometimes even earlier) is too hot a time to visit Rajasthan. I have been on a trip to Shekhavati long back in late May, and though it wasn’t awful, I think we’d have done better to have gone a couple of months earlier. Once the monsoon sets in, though, it gets really nice.

      Thank you for your appreciation – I’m so glad you enjoyed this post! (by the way, my husband did get a photo of the LO and the piggies, from the back. LO with both her feet of the ground as she runs after the piggies, and most of the piggies too in mid-air as they flee this terror)! :-D

      “Your pictures are great, especially the one of the deer. What is the haze in the background – fog or dust?

      A combination of both.

      As for your other questions: yes, you should be able to book taxis for a trip like this. Lots of people book taxis for trips to Agra and Jaipur, so this will be along similar lines, just shorter than a Delhi-Agra-Jaipur trip.

      My husband made the reservation for our stay: he did some research on Tripadvisor to check for top-rated hotels, then phoned this hotel directly to ask for their rates and availability. Bharatpur is a fairly prominent place, receiving a lot of visitors, so has plenty of hotels, including big ones. Most of the better ones should have websites where you can probably book a room online.

  4. SIGH!
    I’m so overwhelmed, I don’t think, I’m capable of writing more than, I wish I was there with you. Thanks for the enjoyable account of your travels and the funny anecdotes, piggies and gusal chowki.

    • Thank you! :-) I wish you’d been along with us, Harvey – I’m sure you’d have enjoyed all of this. It was loads of fun, and such a relief to get out of Delhi and to someplace quiet and green and unpolluted. Delhi right now is like a gas chamber, so suffocating.

  5. Being a sucker for the stepwells, I could not get enough of the “Chand Baori” from your pictures. Truly mind boggling! I believe these are perhaps the best preserved baoris in India. I can imagine capturing the spectacular baori in the mind for a lifetime memory. I have seen a few but none have been this breathtaking. Look at the intricate carvings and geometric perfection on those steps. This is fascinating stuff knowing that this was done in the 8th century! Some time back I read an article on CNN from Victoria Lauthman who has visited about 120 baoris in India and Chand Baori is surely one of the most prominent ones. Here’s the link to that article.

    If you have more pictures from Chand Baori, that you are able to share, I would love it..

    I had no idea about Suraj Bhawan. That seems to be a hidden gem as well. Awesome description and pictures of course (I do not think you get enough credit for your photography skills). Thank you Madhu for taking us with you. This certainly appears to be a dream vacation!

    • Thank you, Ashish! Yes, even I have seen several baoris (including the one at Bundi, which is also exceptionally good) – but none come close to the Chand Baori. The intricacy of those steps, the way they’ve been worked into that perfectly symmetrical crisscross: that is mind-blowingly spectacular. I do have some more photos, but since they’re all basically from the same one or two perspectives (considering one isn’t allowed to go down even one step) they’re all pretty identical to the one I’ve posted. Do have a look at the film clips I’ve linked to – that’ll give you a more dynamic and close-up view of the steps. :-)

      Thank you for the link to the CNN article. That’s pretty amazing, not just the stepwells themselves, but her quest to find them. Fascinating – and something that’s going to make my bucket list a whole lot longer!

      I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. Thank you for the appreciation!

      • You are right. The movie scenes, especially “The Fall” shows so many nice angles that bring the beauty out of this equisite stepwell in a spectacular way. Thank you!

        • Yes, The Fall really brings out the beauty of the stepwell. It also has some spectacular views of Jodhpur and Mehrangarh, and Fatehpur Sikri. Plus, an interesting film, even otherwise – poignant, fascinating, and adventurous. It’s one of my favourite ‘new’ movies.

          • I will check out the movie. btw, every time they jump on the steps, or do acrobatics or fire shots, my heart jumps out for the fear of damage to the baori. Though I am sure they are careful and protective of the heritage..


            • That’s true. But I do wonder if they didn’t build a separate set for some of those shots, rather than using the actual baori itself. I’m saying this because at another point in the movie – set in Fatehpur Sikri – the very beautiful Birbal ka Mahal is shown being blown to smithereens. It doesn’t look CGI, so I suppose they went through all the effort of making an exact replica and blowing that up.

  6. oh,
    what a description
    really nice
    and the photos are too good!
    i love photography an amateur of course!
    but the carvings and sculptures r beyond description!
    i have visited delhi, agra, konark, hampi, halebid, bellur, bhubaneshwar and ajanta ellora of course!
    i wish i visit the place some day.

    • Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed this post. :-) There are several places on your list of places you’ve been that I am yet to visit, but which I do want to visit, very much.

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