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Dagri - Nagaur - Deshnok - Bikaner

Now it's time for a "proper holiday".

semi-overcast 39 °C
View A Big Fat Indian Wedding - India 2014 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I woke up with the rising sun and spotted a small herd of goats eyeing the sleeping westerners curiously. I thought it would make a very humorous photo with the caption: “The kids are watching us again”, so I very carefully got out of the bed so as not to scare the animals, and crept into the tent to grab my camera. I was just poised to push the button when I heard a “Shoo” from the other cot and the goats scurried in all directions. Thanks David.

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In order to justify the cost of the flight to India - after all, it's a lot of money and a long way to travel “just” to go to a wedding - we wanted to add some “us” time too, a “proper holiday” after the wedding. I had a look at maps and websites, and came up with some ideas for sightseeing – and a touch of luxury – after the adventures in rural Rajasthan, so we headed towards Bikaner for a couple of nights. Jo decided to join us, so after saying our goodbyes we left fairly early in the morning.

It was a reasonably good road, dotted with the usual goats and camels; Jo got quite excited at seeing her first Nilgai on the outskirts of one of the villages.

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Nagaur
First stop, Nagaur. Actually, that's not strictly true; first stop was the next village to buy some Mango Slice. Naturally.

Nagaur City dates back to the 4th century AD when it was at the centre of Muslim invasions from Central Asia. It was a bigger city than I imagined.

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As we entered town Bhanwar tried finding a store that sold Mango Slice (I shall look like a mango by the time we get home) and some snacks.

Although he had driven through Nagaur several times, Bhanwar had never actually been inside the fort itself, and we ended up driving around for a bit, and even asking a couple of people, before we found the entrance. I was very surprised that we were actually able to drive inside the Middle Gate, to a “car park” in the shade of a tree. As part of the entrance tickets, we were assigned a guide, who explained everything we saw. My stomach was not good this morning, but I really wanted to see the fort as I doubt we'd ever come this way again.

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Nagaur Fort

Known locally as Ahhichatragarh (The Fort of the Hooded Cobra), the fort was one of the first Muslim strongholds in northern India built in the early 1100s over the mound of of a fourth century mud fort. It was repeatedly altered over subsequent centuries - most of the surviving structures in the central complex date from the 17th and 18th centuries. The fort underwent major award-winning renovations starting in 2007 and is now looking really quite spick and span. It is enormous – I would have loved to have seen it from the air, such as this photograph here shows. It is more than just fortifications, , it is a large complex housing palaces, pleasure pavilions, gardens, courtyards, temples, a mosque and an elaborate water system.

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Shah Jahan Mosque
The five-domed mosque was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for his wife) during the time when Nagaur was under Mughal control. In a decrepit state; the mosque is no Taj Mahal but an important historical monument nonetheless. It represents the time when the Mughals enjoyed uninterrupted power in Nagaur.

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Hadi Rani Mahal
The palace is named after a well known local queen and was the dwelling place of the wives of the rulers of Nagaur.

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Notice the lattice screens on the windows of the upper floors – installed so that the women could see out without being seen.

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I loved the wooden elephants at the entrance – I can only imagine how magnificent this would have been in its heyday, gaudily painted and with water spraying out of its spout. It was used to carry the young princes and princesses during parades.

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The paintings on the second floor are rather curious in that they are all of women, except one lone man!

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We wandered in and out of various different palaces within the grounds - I was particularly taken with the Central Courtyard - in the wet season the swimming pools are full of water and they hold festivals where there are lights dotted around the edge of the pool and in niches along the walls.

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Some of the palaces are very nicely restored, while other still have work to be done on them. In 2002, The fort was given an Award of Excellence by UNESCO for their restoration work.

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We saw a couple of workers painting one of the walls (In yellow, the symbol of royalty), but other than that we saw no other people al the time we were there, worker or other tourists. Despite the tourism department apparently vigorously promoting the Nagaur as a centre for the crafts, hoping that will lead to the re-generation of the economy and a greater awareness of the cultural heritage of this region, I have to say it was really quite difficult to find information about the fort while I was researching the trip on line before coming here.

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Abha Mahal
The palace was built to commemorate the recapture of Nagaur by the Mughals in the mid-16th century. Here you can see the Maharaja's throne:

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The Maharaja has 16 wives and he built each a separate balcony overlooking his throne room.

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There were certainly some amazing paintings and frescoes in this palace, although I am not sure the comparison with the Cistine Chapel in Rome is quite fair to Michaelangelo....

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One of the many fascinating aspects of the palace was the water cooling channels, featuring cascading water down the walls, gravity fed from huge tanks on the roof, and underfloor cooling passages. This place must have been really impressive in its heyday.

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Rings in the ceiling would have suspended swing beds over the cooling fountains.

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An oasis such as this in the middle of a dry desert, would have been the height of luxury in those days. An elaborate hammam (like the more famous Turkish baths) was included in this set up too of course.

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Not only water was used to help keep the inside of the palace cool during the hot summer month, the Mughals also used the Persian style wind tower system. The wind tower is essentially a tall, capped “chimney” with one face open at the top. This open side faces the prevailing wind, thus "catching" it, and brings it down the tower into the heart of the building to maintain air flow, thus cooling the building interior. It does not necessarily cool the air itself, but rather relies on the rate of airflow to provide a cooling effect. Ancient AC!

Here you can see the wind tower on the roof and the chimney outlet inside the building.

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The outside walls were beautifully adorned with paintings too, although not yet restored to their former glory like the inside.

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By this stage I am feeling yet again extremely dehydrated – it seems to be the theme of this trip. I also have bad stomach cramps, but the dehydration means I do not have any desire, nor need, to visit the toilet. Bhanwar goes off to buy Mango Slice for us again. He really is such a sweetie. Always polite, always caring, always very sweet, and I love the way he says “My pleasure” when you thank him for something he's done.

Deepak Mahal
This palace contains Persian-style floral designs and several niches in the inner walls to hold lamps. I can imagine that must look magical at night – all those oil lamps glowing and flickering.

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The lighting of a lamp is a significant ritual in Indian traditions connected with all important ceremonies as well as in all daily rituals, including prayers, the beginning of a day, and signalling the onset of dusk. Architecture has responded in a wide array of expressions starting with a small niche in a wall adjacent to a door, to elaborate embellishments of multiple niches, exquisitely articulated.

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Sheesh Mahal
Restoration work was being carried out on this palace, meaning we were not allowed to go inside. I would love to have seen it inside with all the mirrors on the walls glistening and reflecting the light.

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Also known as Akbari Mahal, this was emperor Ahbar's residence. One of the earliest buildings of the central area, it's a small palace following the tradition of an ornate king's chamber, resplendent with mirror work murals reflecting thousands of images of the king and the oil lamps.

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By now I'd had enough. I was hot, I was tired, I was dehydrated, I was in pain. Words were exchanged between the guide and Bhanwar, who rushed off. The next thing we knew was that the guide had gone off to get the keys for the back gate, and Bhanwar had driven right up into the palace to pick us up. Talk about service!

In the UK we read from time to time about people crossing the railway line even after the barriers are down. Here in India it happens all the time. And I mean ALL THE TIME. In the first picture you can see pedestrians dodging under the barrier, and in the second a motorbike crossing. Admittedly the trains don't run as fast in India as they do back home, and the barriers are closed a very long time before the train comes; but this is just an accident waiting to happen.

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Deshnok
The main reason for choosing to travel this way after the wedding was Deshnok. Or, more to the point, the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnok. This unique place has been on my wish list for some considerable time, but as it is a bit out of the way from most other tourist attractions in Rajasthan, I hadn't yet got here. So now seemed like a great opportunity.

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We had arranged for a guide to meet us here from Bikaner – a friend of Jo's – and together we made our way from the car park to the temple. You have to take your shoes off before you even enter the temple compound, and you may have covers for your feet if you would like.

There are coir mat walkways right from the place where you deposit your shoes, trailing all across the square, into the temple and even around the temple complex. I sussed out why when I stepped on the red hot marble outside it!

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Karni Mata Temple
Karni Mata or Karniji, was a female Hindu sage who is said to have lived from 1387-1538 (she is believed to have been 151 years old when she died). She was revered during her lifetime and is worshipped as the incarnation of the goddess Durga, the goddess of power and victory , by her followers. The deity, who is an official deity of Bikaner and Jodhpur, had the famous temple in Deshnok created in her honour following her mysterious disappearance from her home.

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The Mughal style temple was completed in its current form in the early 20th century and further enhanced by a jeweller from Hyderabad in 1999. The silver gates to the temple and the marble carvings were also donated by him.

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However, it is not the intricate carvings, the historical importance, nor the temple's religious significance that drew us here, it's the rats. Yes, rats!

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This is not the place to be if you suffer from musophobia – the fear of mice or rats – as the temple is famous for its 20,000 black rats, which are treated as sacred and given protection in the temple.

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These holy rats are called kabbas, and many people travel great distances to pay their respects. The temple draws visitors from across the country for blessings, as well as curious tourists (like us) from around the world, hoping to have rats run across their bare feet for good luck.

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Everywhere you look there are rats. They are eating, sleeping scurrying or just well, being rats. Under foot there is rat poo and rat food, and you have to be careful not to step on the rats.

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If one of the rats is killed, it must be replaced with one made of solid gold. Eating food that has been nibbled on by the rats is considered to be a supreme blessing. I decided against trying it, for obvious reasons although it is said that during the century of this temple's existence, there has never been an outbreak of plague or other rat-borne illness among the humans who have visited—which may be a miracle in itself.

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Suddenly there was a flurry of excitement, someone had seen a white rat way down below the water tanks. Amongst the 20,000 odd black rats in the temple, there are a few rare white rats, which are considered to be especially holy. They are believed to be the manifestations of Karni Mata herself and her four sons. Spotting one of the white rats is considered a special blessing and some devotees put in extensive efforts to bring them out, offering 'prasad', a kind of sweet holy food. We were all crouching down to the floor to try and get a glimpse of the white rat – looks like our luck is in now then....

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Despite the vast number of rats in this temple, it is said that babies have never been seen - any given day, they all are of same size, shape, weight and height.

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Non-Hindu are not permitted to enter the inner sanctum – they even got quite upset about Jo standing on the door step to take photos.

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So instead we walked around the outside of the actual shrine – clockwise of course – and one old man got very friendly and wanted to give me a hug. He was practising his two English words (and a few other words that may or may not have been an attempt at English) and I was very flattered by his sincere friendliness towards foreign visitors until I felt a firm grip around my boob. Thanks for nothing mate! Give me the small furry rats any time over this human variety.

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Once we'd had our fill of rats (I could have stayed forever photographing the little furry things; I thought they were seriously cute!), we made our way to Bikaner for our overnight stop. A luxury hotel with a comfortable bed, a proper bathroom, AC and the use of a swimming pool beckoned. And what a hotel it was!

Laxmi Niwas Palace
The Laxmi Niwas was the residential palace of the king of the former Bikaner state, Mahārāja Ganga Singh and was built between 1898 and 1902.

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The drive leading up to the palace from the main road was around one kilometre long, and the first glimpse of the palace was breathtaking. Once inside the building, the focus point is a centre courtyard, reputed to be y the world’s most elaborate porterre-cocherre. Carved from forty-six tonnes of sandstone, this ornate entranceway rises through to four levels.

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The bedroom (we had been upgraded to a large suite) was enormous, with a four poster bed, dressing room, bathroom and a separate (huge) toilet.

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The bed, however, didn't seem very safe to me. It was comfortable enough, but once you sat on it, away from the edge, it bowed dangerously under my weight. Checking under the mattress, I noticed it was only supported by thin 5mm hardboard stretched across the frame. Feeling very apprehensive about the strength of this, I knew I would have problems sleeping as I would be too concerned about moving any distance in from the edge. Checking around the room, we discovered a couple of little pouffes that were just the right height to fit underneath and support the bed. I expect the staff wondered where the stools had got to once we checked out of the room.

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We were all very excited about the prospect of ordering food from a menu this evening, and eating with a knife and fork for the first time for a week (even longer for Jo). After a very nice dinner we retired to our wonderfully air conditioned room for a beautiful sleep.

Posted by Grete Howard 12:10 Archived in India

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