Chaotic, dazzling and humming with life, the walled city of Jodhpur intoxicates like no other, writes Amrit Dhilon.
IF YOU want to experience India in a concentrated dose - intense and intoxicating - you have to visit a walled city. Here you will find life lived as it always has been in the mansions, courtyards, winding lanes and ancient markets that arose around a city's royal palace.
The best of the walled cities, to my mind, is Jodhpur. It is a microcosm of the miracle that is India, a country where people live together in harmony despite violently conflicting faiths and serried living conditions.
Every inch of the walled city hums with life and activity. In a five-minute stroll around the sprawling bazaar under the clock tower, I see a pile of bulbous clay pots for storing water, of which artist Subodh Gupta would be proud; a bangle maker using hot coals and tools dating back five generations; a beautiful girl carrying home ice in a pail; a deformed "Elephant Man" striding along, challenging anyone to stare at him; women removing petals from roses for garlands; and a man selling antique locks with a side business in dentures (his roadside stall displays two hand-painted smiles).
There are no footpaths. Homes and shops abut the narrow alleyways. I can see children on the rooftops flying kites, while from the mosques comes the haunting sound of the azan, or call to prayer. I also pass the crumbling old havelis (mansions), with their great entrance gates and carved balconies, offering a glimpse of how Jodhpur's nobility once lived in the shadow of Mehrangarh Fort, home to the city's maharajas since the 15th century. The fort itself is quite simply breathtaking. There is plenty to see inside - including gilt palanquins and bejewelled daggers - but it is the view of the city spread out below that is sublime.
Standing on the ramparts, I am dazzled by the Brahmans' blue houses, which are dotted all over the city (Jodhpur is often referred to as the Blue City). One theory suggests these houses were painted with indigo to demarcate the high-caste Brahman quarter and distinguish it from the rest of the city. Another offers the more mundane explanation that indigo deters mosquitoes. Whatever the truth, today they shimmer in the sunshine following a monsoon shower.
On the horizon stands Umaid Bhawan, an art deco palace of red sandstone that can rival the greatest of European cathedrals in its lofty grandeur. This imposing and expensive hotel is a must-see if you are to understand the lifestyle of Rajasthan's maharajas, which used to leave European royalty gasping.
I have always had a soft spot for Jodhpur's walled city but the problem used to be where to stay.
After my shot of Indian essence,
I need a comforting sedative but the only places inside the old quarter used to be guesthouses of varying degrees of undesirability. Fine for backpackers but not my cup of chai.
One of Jodhpur's gilded youths, the polo-playing Nikhilendra Singh, has solved the problem. Like a doctor delicately inserting a stent into an artery, he has tucked Raas, a luxurious hotel with beautifully designed interiors, into a crevice of the walled city.
In 2007, Singh, who arranged Elizabeth Hurley's wedding at Umaid Bhawan Palace, the smartest hotel in Jodphur, bought a 150-year-old haveli lying in ruins at the foot of Mehrangarh Fort, restored it and added rooms, restaurants and a pool using local materials that mesh perfectly with the original structures. It's a striking juxtaposition of international chic with antiquity.
From the entrance you enter a narrow, high-walled passage that opens on to a Mughal garden and there, right in front of you, is the fort, which Rudyard Kipling called "the work of giants", on its rocky escarpment. The balcony of every room has this spectacular view - it's a vista of which you never tire.
The other great appeal of the densely congested walled city is that, after a 10-minute drive, you can be in the open, semi-arid scrubland outside the urban sprawl. There you can visit the Bishnoi tribe who are often referred to as "the world's first environmentalists", owing to their love of wild animals and protection of the environment.
Arjun Ram Bishnoi and his splendidly bejewelled wife, Devi (Bishnoi women wear chunky tribal jewellery even when working in the fields), show me a blackbuck antelope grazing near their hut. As we chat, the laconic Arjun strokes the goat that lives inside his hut and says: "Some animals give you more affection than your own children."
Another 30 minutes' drive from the Bishnoi villages, the desert proper begins. Here you will find the Rohet Garh Wilderness Camp, run by Siddharth Singh, which comprises six tents on a sand dune in the Thar Desert. The sand dune is the highest point in a flat landscape, so it offers spectacular views.
At night, there is nothing but silence, moonlight, infinity, stars and a soft breeze. The word tent, however, is a misnomer. This is how the maharajas lived, in considerable splendour, with the entire court in attendance, when they travelled across the desert. Still, in the midst of such luxury, there is something elemental and primeval about it all.
Singh also owns Rohet Garh itself, the palace where Bruce Chatwin spent six months writing The Songlines in 1985 before the estate was turned into a hotel. Madonna and Guy Ritchie have also visited.
Singh and his wife, Rashmi, have just opened another resort, a fantasy fortress made of mud on a high sand dune at the desert's edge from where, as far as the eye can see, there is no human or animal life, just scrubland and then desert.
Mihirgarh, or "Sun Fortress", boasts all the accoutrements one expects of a luxury establishment but also celebrates the crafts of Jodhpur - virtually every object in the nine palatial suites has been handmade by Jodhpur artisans.
Reclining by the pool on the terrace, I watch the sun set over the wilderness. All is tranquil and still and it's as if I am dreaming. Then an attendant appears to replenish my Darjeeling and I realise I am very much awake. What a relief.
Three (other) things to do
1. Mehrangarh Fort
Standing on a perpendicular cliff 122 metres above the Jodhpur skyline, the fort has a long, rich history. It's probably one of the best-maintained monuments in India. Avoid a guide who will rip you off and take the audio tour instead. The museum not only displays elephant howdahs, weapons, costumes and rare textiles but also features some of the world's finest miniature paintings. Children will love the armouries and dungeons.
2. Jaswant Thada
This lovely white marble memorial to Jaswant Singh II, a former ruler, is on the road that takes you to the fort. Jaswant Thada is the traditional cremation ground of Jodhpur's rulers and the memorial is set amid ornamental gardens and chattris (domed pavilions on columns). Inside the main hall are royal portraits.
3. Mandore gardens
Just a few kilometres outside the city is Mandore gardens, where you can see the cenotaphs of the city's former rulers. The cenotaphs are so grand they are more like Hindu temples, four storeys high with columns and spires, all in the red sandstone that has been quarried in Jodhpur for centuries.
Airlines flying Sydney to Delhi include Qantas, Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific.
Indian Airlines and Jet Airways fly daily Delhi-Jodhpur. There are also flights from Mumbai and the other main cities in Rajasthan, Jaipur and Udaipur. If you are travelling around Rajasthan, Jodhpur can easily be added to your tour.
From other parts of India, there are plenty of direct trains. Alternatively, you can take the overnight train, the Mandor Express (book online at indianrail.gov.in), from Delhi, which gets you into Jodhpur at 8am. Make sure your ticket is for first-class; even that will be shabby.
Travel by foot or auto rickshaw in the walled city; there are plenty of taxis to take you everywhere else. Ask your hotel to arrange taxis or longer tours to the desert.
Rohet Garh is on a lake in the countryside not far from Jodhpur. Doubles from 5000 rupees ($112) a night. +91 291 243 1161, rohetgarh.com.
Raas, in the walled city, is a superb 31-room new hotel converted from a 19th-century sandstone mansion. Doubles from about 12,400 rupees a night. +91 291 263 6455, raasjodhpur.com.
Mihirgarh is a high-end rural retreat 55 kilometres south-west of Jodhpur, with eight suites and one two-bedroom suite. Doubles from 14,500 rupees. +91 293 626 8231; mihirgarh.com.
The super-luxurious Umaid Bhawan Palace is the hotel of choice for those who like a grand, formal ambience. Prices vary so see website for offers. +91 291 251 0101; tajhotels.com.
When to go
September to April is the best time to visit. It is warm even in winter but from November to February, pack a jumper or shawl for the evenings. The polo season begins in December and it's fun seeing Jodhpur's elite socialise.