The four musketeers, i.e., Sanjay and his better half, Laveena, my better half, Rani & myself, were itching to go on a road trip again. We had started the year right, with a trip to Paonta Sahib and Chandigarh, but almost three months had passed by, and restlessness had begun to set in. Each one of us is a confirmed mad-hatter, and three months without a road trip is way too long for us.
And so, a dinner was organized at my place so that we could sit together and plan the trip. After all, planning a road trip is serious business for us ! My brother-in-law Vijay, and his wife Sheeja happened to join us for this dinner. Over drinks, the debate for selection of a suitable destination was formally declared open. Our plan was to get away on the pre-Holi weekend, and be back in Delhi before Holi.
One thing was clear – we had to be back in Delhi on the evening of 12th March, as next day was Holi, and none of us wanted to take a chance being on the road on that day, as there is a certain element of hooliganism that always surfaces on Holi, no matter which part of North India you are in. Another factor was that we wanted to be back before the results of the various state assembly elections started coming in, because again, we did not wish to get caught in the revelry that follows the declaration of election results. For the same reason, destinations in UP, Uttarakhand and Punjab were ruled out.
Which brought our focus on to Rajasthan. Someone mentioned Alwar. Well, why not ? And so our search for places to visit in Alwar started in the earnest. The discussion got animated. The excitement of an upcoming trip gripped each one of us. Now, I am not sure whether it was the excitement, or the effect of the drinks that we were having, but soon Vijay and Sheeja also found themselves equally involved, and before long, they too had decided to join us on the trip ! My daughter Nandini too declared that she was joining us. Sanjay then called up his son Nikhil, and asked him if he too would like to join us. He would, he said. Welcome to the mad hatters club 😀 What started out as a dinner meet of the four musketeers eventually ended up with eight confirmed mad hatters joining the club.
When one speaks of Alwar, inevitably it gets linked with Sariska National Park. Can a trip to Alwar really be complete without visiting Sariska ? And so, we decided that Sariska had to be covered as well. Since our trip was planned for a long weekend, there were bound to be crowds there, so even before we booked our hotel, we set about booking the safari at Sariska online. That having been done, the next step was to book a hotel. The hotels in Sariska were either full or too expensive. We did not know much about the hotels in Alwar, and could not find much about them on TripAdvisor as well, so we decided to book a hotel in Neemrana.
Here was the rough plan – drive to Alwar, finish the sightseeing there, backtrack to Neemrana for the night, and next day drive back to Sariska for the safari, and post-safari, drive back to Delhi. Yeah, I know, the backtracking would add some 100 odd kilometers to the trip, but then, didn’t I say that we were mad hatters ? The highway is our first love. Destinations and mileage are incidental. And so it was settled. We would leave on 11th March, and return back to Delhi on 12th March by late evening. One week to go before we hit the road.
In the course of the intervening week, we had one more addition to the mad hatters club – Nandini’s friend and travel companion Himadri. When she learnt of the plan, she asked if she too could join us. The more the merrier, we said. And so we booked the safari for her as well, and waited for the Holi weekend to arrive.
On The Road
The morning of 11th March found six of us squeezing into one car, heading towards Sanjay’s place in Gurgaon. Once there, we redistributed the passenger load in two cars, and soon we were on our way. After crossing the toll plaza at Manesar, we managed to make good time. We opted to take the route via Bhiwadi to Alwar.
A brief halt at Haldiram’s on the highway at Bhiwadi for breakfast, and then we were on our way again. The highway wasn’t as wide as the Jaipur highway, but the density of traffic was much less. We made good time, despite the fact that we were not going too fast. We made one more halt for tea at Tijara, and about an hour later, we reached our first destination – the Alwar City Palace.
Tea Halt At Tijara
We were relying on the GPS to get us there, which it did, but we soon realized that the GPS doesn’t care whether the road is worth driving on. Yep, Google can indeed get you into tight spots. The last few kilometers of the approach to the City Palace are through narrow village lanes, which at most places, barely allow one vehicle to pass at a time. We later learnt that there was another approach to the City Palace through the District Court side, an option that Google did not reveal to us. And so it was that we drove these last few kilometers barely daring to breathe but somehow managed to reach the gated compound which houses the palace.
City Palace, Alwar
The word palace brings to mind a monument of regal splendor, but sadly, this place has been allowed to run down. It must have been a beautiful palace once – the structure at least is grand. However, decades of neglect have left their mark and the place is run down, and no one seems to be caring for the place.
Once you enter the compound that houses the main entrance, you are greeted with cattle resting all around the open ground. When we arrived, we were greeted by two bulls fighting right next to the entrance and several other cattle scattered around. Not exactly what you would expect to see in a palace ! But thankfully, they were to be found only in the outer compound. There is an inner courtyard too, the entry to which is through another gate. You can take your vehicle right through the main entrance and park in the inner courtyard. There were very few visitors to be seen and consequently, there is ample parking.
City Palace Alwar
In the center of the courtyard stands a now-dry fountain. Sections of the palace on the ground floor are being used as district headquarters and district courts. The first floor houses the government museum, which again is poorly maintained. More about the museum later.
The architecture of the place is excellent, though, and if you are a history and architecture buff, you will love the place. Facing the fountain and the main entrance to the courtyard are a series of Chhatris designed in the Indo-Mughal style, which make for great picture taking. We took our share of pictures too. Apart from the Chhatris there is not much to see on the ground floor level.
On the first floor of the complex there is a government run museum. It could have been a great attraction, had they kept up with the times in terms of maintenance and lighting improvement.
The entrance ticket costs Rs 20 per head for Indians. In the narrow passage leading to the museum, there is a gentleman manning the ticket desk, where you buy the entry tickets. Unfortunately, they do not have any leaflet or handout whatsoever which contains information on the museum or the exhibits. There are also no guides available. You are just supposed to walk around, take a look at the exhibits, and leave, without being enlightened about the history of the exhibits, which is sad.
The museum itself is divided into three halls. The first hall has some general exhibits, including two beautiful sculptures of a lion and an elephant, a stuffed tiger, a stuffed leopard and some other stuffed animals which belonged to the royal family. Also on display are some other artifacts and musical instruments dating to the historical times. Costumes of the royals are also on display. The lighting, though, is poor and not good for photography. By the way, photography is apparently prohibited, because the moment one of the attendants sees you clicking a picture even on your cellphone, they would yell that it is not allowed. Why they should prohibit photography is something that I fail to understand. I did, however, manage to click a few snaps, but then, due to the poor lighting, and the reflection of tube-lights on the glass covering the exhibits, the pictures are hardly worth writing home about.
Government Museum Alwar
The second hall is dedicated to art and there are some interesting artwork and paintings to be seen there. However, lighting is even worse here. One section of the hall is closed to public, as some restoration work is in progress there.
The third hall is the armoury section, which has on display some interesting weapons from ancient times, including muskets, handguns, swords etc.
Overall, it is nice but there is nothing spectacular. You can give it a miss if you are pressed for time. Finishing with the museum, we decided to move on to the next attraction on our list.
Moosi Maharani Ki Chhatri & Sagar Lake
The Chhatri, or the cenotaph, is a memorial built by Maharaja Vinay Singh in the memory of his parents, Maharaja Bakhtawar Singh and Rani Moosi. It is more popularly known as Moosi Maharani ki Chhatri. It is part of the same complex that houses the City Palace and is located right behind it.
Despite being a beautiful monument, it is very poorly maintained. It is a hidden gem that, for reasons that I cannot comprehend, does not seem to be very popular with tourists. There were hardly any people there, despite it being a long weekend – obviously it is not on the popular tourist circuit.
Strangely enough, it doesn’t seem to be on the priority list of Rajasthan Tourism either, because the place is poorly maintained, although it is a marvelous piece of architecture. The cenotaph is made from marble and red stone, and is a brilliant example of the Indo-Mughal style of architecture.
Moosi Maharani Ki Chhatri, Alwar
However, it lacks cleanliness. There are stray cattle and stray dogs around the place, and one has to be careful not to step into something unpleasant, as animal droppings littler the compound. And yet, despite all this, the place still retains its beauty.
Next to the cenotaph, there is the man-made Sagar Lake, which was built as a holy bathing ghat. However, it is again poorly maintained and it seems that it has not been cleaned in decades, as the colour of water is green with algae growth. Despite all this, the place still manages to convey a sense of calm and tranquility. There are red sandstone chhatris built all along the periphery of the lake, which give it a majestic appearance, despite the unclean waters. One of the chhatris is used as a feeding spot for pigeons and at any time you can find hundreds of them sitting there. Each time there is a loud sound somewhere it sends them scurrying all over the place and it is a beautiful sight watching the flocks fly in formation, returning shortly to settle down to feed as though nothing had happened to disturb them.
Sagar Lake Behind City Palace, Alwar
One cannot help feeling sad, because with a bit of effort, the place could be turned into a major tourist attraction. In fact, had it been better kept, it would deserve a 5-star rating. I will let the pictures speak for themselves.
Bala Quila & Leopard Trail Safari
The next halt on our list was the Bala Quila or fort. While we were at the city palace, we could see the fort perched on top of a hill on the Aravali range, and it seems to be an imposing structure from the ground. We were actually double-minded about visiting this place, as firstly, it seemed to be located quite some distance away at a very high altitude, and secondly, the reviews that we had read were quite mixed. However, having read in the reviews that the place afforded some spectacular views of Alwar city, we decided to give it a go.
Getting the car out of the City Palace was no cakewalk. Now, the locals that you encounter there are a very friendly and helpful lot. No route is too difficult for them, and no place too far, if you take what they say at face value. We asked one such helpful local – the parking attendant at the City Palace – if there was an alternate route available. We did not wish to go through the narrow village lanes through which we had arrived. He said that indeed there was another route which would take us through the court complex to the front side of the palace. What he did not mention was that the exit from that side was barricaded ! We reached the barricade and studied the available space, trying to decide if the cars would get through, when another helpful local arrived on the scene, and told us that there was no problem, and the car would get through. There were two steel girders and the space between them did not seem wide enough to us, but our friendly local insisted that vehicles larger than ours could pass through. So we approached the barricade with caution, folded the door mirrors on both side and carefully inched our way in. Very slowly, keeping the steering absolutely straight, the car went through with about an inch to spare on either side. Phew !
A right turn into the next lane brought us face to face with a tractor trolley approaching from the opposite side. Stalemate ! Thankfully, to our left was an entry to one of the havelis lining the street, and we just about managed to turn the car into the entrance, making enough space for the tractor to pass by, and then reversed back to the lane. Thankfully, we did not encounter any more traffic coming from the opposite side, and soon we were out of the place, into the court complex, and finally out of the main gate on to a proper road.
We followed the GPS directions, and after driving for about 3 to 4 kilometers, we were out of the city into what seemed to be a forested area, and to our surprise, we found Sambar deer walking by the roadside nonchalantly, as though the road was where they belonged ! Soon we found ourselves at a gated road.
The entry to the road leading to Bala Quila is through a gate manned by the Forest department, as the place is a protected Eco Zone, and vehicles, though allowed to go up to the fort, are charged a nominal entry fee. However, the forest department also offers a private safari in open Gypsies that not only covers the fort, but also the leopard trails – areas where private vehicles are not allowed. It costs Rs 1300 per Gypsy, with a maximum seating for six people, apart from the driver and the guide. As we were altogether nine persons, we decided to leave our vehicles at the gate and hired two vehicles to take us on the tour, which lasts for about 2 hours. It turned out to be a wise decision.
The forest area here is the buffer zone between Sariska and Alwar, and is an extension of the Sariska Nature Reserve. Each vehicle come with a nature guide, and the guides who accompanied us certainly knew their jobs. The drive to the fort was excellent, and we also did some off-roading to visit the leopard trail, something that we would have missed, had we driven on our own. The hills were arid in most places, and the vegetation was stark, barring some sporadic stretches with lots of green foliage. The hill air was cool and crisp, and free from pollution. I was actually quite surprised. This is not how I had imagined Rajasthan to be. No, we did not see any leopards, but we saw loads of peacocks and Sambar deer. And we saw some wild boars. Hordes of monkeys and langurs could be seen at several points.
The leopard trails are gated areas, not open to private vehicles. We were taken through these gates on forest tracks that were very steep at some places, and negotiable only on a four-wheeled drive vehicle. But the drivers knew their job and drove effortlessly; the years of experience were easy to see. On the leopard trail there were also some very interesting ruins of another old palace. And in the middle of this trail there was also a makeshift open temple under a banyan tree. It was an eerie feeling to see splashes of orange in this makeshift temple, with a trident proudly standing under the tree. We couldn’t help wondering who would be coming to this deserted forest area and put this question to our guide. The guide just smiled politely and said “nobody” !
Leopard Safari At Bala Quila Alwar
At one point in the trail, we were asked to alight from the vehicles and the guides then led us on foot to a watering point in the ruins, where the leopards and other animals come to drink water. It was an interesting walk through the forest, though I must admit that I did feel uneasy about it initially, as the forest is also supposed to be home to some deadly species of snakes and the thought of encountering one while walking on foot gave me the jitter. But I shrugged off the feeling and told myself “What the heck. Let’s go !” The watering area was a man-made reservoir with steps leading down to it, but was almost completely dry, with just some water accumulated in one small patch. All we could see were some Sambar deer there, and obviously, since they were moving around in a carefree manner, we could be sure that no leopard was about to put in an appearance. We were relieved and disappointed at the same time. It would have been nice to see the elusive big cat.
Bala Quila itself wasn’t so interesting, as the fort is poorly maintained there is nothing much to see there except the dilapidated structure. In the courtyard, there is an old cannon supposedly made of an alloy comprising 8 metals. This was also in a poor state and was supported on its carriage with the help of two large stones. It did have a nice design on it though. There is also a temple in the complex. One of the rooms in the corridors lining the courtyard houses the Hanuman Mandir, right next to where the cannon is placed.
The courtyard has a door leading to the inner complex. Inside this complex there are some rooms that are so dark that you cannot enter without switching on the flashlight on your mobiles, and when you turn the light upwards you see hordes of bats hanging there. Eerie, to say the least ! And the smell of bat droppings is overpowering. You can barely spend about a minute in there, and I couldn’t get out fast enough ! Entry to the upper floors is prohibited. The fort is built high on the highest point on the hilltop and the views of the sprawling city from there are spectacular and breathtaking, even from the road there, and I would have loved to go to the upper floor to click some pictures of the view, but we could not persuade the guard on duty to let us through. And so we decided to move on.
Bala Quila, Alwar
The guide took us down from another route, and this time again we went to another off-road track, but again, we did not see any leopards. Overall, the safari lasted for about two and a half hours. Despite the fact that we did not spot any of the big cats, the drive was interesting, nevertheless, and we were sorry that it was over.
If you ever do visit Alwar, my advice to you would be to visit Bala Quila to enjoy the drive and the views. The fort is incidental to the trip. And if you can, do take the safari instead of your own vehicles. The off-road tracks that you get to see are amazing.
On The Road Again !
Well, the day was coming to an end, and we had miles to go before we reached Neemrana, where we had booked our hotel. We asked for directions, and once again, the friendly locals pointed to the road which appeared to be going into the forest, and which was marked as the road to Sariska, and assured us that after a few kilometers it would join the highway leading to Neemrana. And so we were off again, on an unknown road, relying solely on the directions given by the friendly locals and the intermittent GPS signal. We did have some anxious moments again, as the road kept getting narrower and narrower, and at some places, wide enough only for a single vehicle, with a forest on one side and a village on the other. At some points, the road was quite bad, but still drivable. On the way, we met some more locals and asked them the directions once again, just to be sure. They assured us we were on the right track. On being asked if the road was of the same quality all throughout, the answer was that it was just another two kilometers and then we would reach a proper road again. Actually, we drove a full eight kilometers before we reached a better stretch, and all of a sudden, as we turned a bend, we saw a beautiful palace some distance away. Instantly, we recognized it as Vijay Mandir Palace from the pictures we had seen on the net while researching the area prior to undertaking the trip.
Vijay Mandir is a beautiful palace, with an imposing and regal structure. We stopped for a while to click some pictures. As we got closer, we drove along its boundary wall and reached the main road, hoping that we would be able to go and see the place. However, the gates appeared to be close and it was with a sense of disappointment that we moved on. By now, it was already dark, and we still had some distance to cover, so we pressed on without any further halts. We finally reached our hotel in Neemrana at about 8.30 pm. It had been a long day, and we were all a little tired. But it was a day well spent, nevertheless.
After a brief fiasco at the hotel, where there was some delay in getting our rooms due to some technical glitch at their end, we eventually checked in and met for dinner after a while. It was then that we realized that we had not had lunch, and had survived only on snacks during the day. The dinner was great, though, and we feasted on Laal Maas and other delicacies. Eventually, we called it a day, as next day we had to backtrack to Sariska for the afternoon safari that we had pre-booked.
But that’s another day and another story. (To Be Continued In Part 2).