Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Alwar + Bhangarh, Rajasthan, India

Sagar step well with the fort in the hill behind it, in Alwar.
Sambar deer roaming the old palace grounds.
The ruins of Bhangarh ghost town.
Bhangarh is now home to hundreds of both Langur and Rhesus monkeys.

Langur mom + baby.

Banyan tree outside of Bhangarh.

Sheepherder with a nice turban and mustache.
Wanting to get a bit off the well-worn "golden quadrangle" tourist route, we decided on a side trip to the lesser visited town of Alwar. We arranged for a driver to drive us there, so that we could stop off at Chand Baori (the awesome looking step well from The Fall and The Dark Knight Rises) on the way. We discussed this plan as we were arranging the car and got the usual "yes, very good madam, yes, nice place". We even reconfirmed, and then asked the driver, to Chand Baori, yes? Unfortunately we arrived in Alwar and realized our driver was looking for Chand Baori hotel. I called our hotel to figure out where we went wrong, and after some discussion the man at the hotel asked "Actually, what is Chand Baori madam?" I expressed my displeasure at our misunderstanding, but realize that it was half our fault too. We are the ones who don't speak the language, and we assumed everyone involved knew what we were talking about. Still, it can be frustrating. I know that he didn't lie, but in not wanting to disappoint us or say no, he (and the other "helpful" folks who gave us directions to a non-existent hotel) kind of messed up our plan.

Lao Tsu once said, "a good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on getting there". My mantra.

The stress of getting to Alwar was initially alleviated by stumbling upon a hotel that upgraded us to a suite with a private roof deck (after a little bargaining, "this room is expensive, let's look at another hotel...). Of course then they denied me from entering the bar "madam, there are no ladies allowed in the bar madam". It was not the night to break barriers, and honestly I was tired of being stared at.

The staring can be hard to handle. It is worse in smaller towns that don't get many foreigners. Gorakhpur felt downright antagonistic, but I think that in Alwar there are enough people who speak a little English to ask some questions that they can take a step beyond just watching (to having their photo taken with us!). I do try to remind myself that it is cultural, it's not as rude to stare, and they are just curious, but you can't help feeling mocked, judged or threatened.

The next day we walked through the market area of the small town, and found the fort, palace, and step well. The step well water was overgrown with algae and full of garbage, but with a little imagination you could see how glorious it would have looked in it's prime. What made it better is that we shared the dilapidated compound with a few groups of boys playing cricket, a handful of sambar deer, a troupe of monkeys and a bunch of dogs.

The following day we set out at 5:30am to visit Sariska Tiger Reserve. We didn't really have any hope of actually seeing tigers, so we had little intention of actually doing the "safari" part of the trip. All we wanted to do is see the ghost town of Bhangarh.

Legend has it that a Tantrik (kinda like a wizard) fell in love with the princess of this town, but she didn't love him back. He enchanted the oil for her bath so that she would fall for him, but she knew and poured it on to the ground and it became a rock that rolled over him and killed him. But just before he died he cursed the palace, killing the princess and all of the royal family and cursing them to stay as spirits in the town forever. The townsfolk all abandoned the place. Today, no one is allowed in after dark. There are variations on this legend and completely different ghost stories of the place. But the truth is no one knows exactly why it was abandoned. Most likely reasons are a combination of war and famine over a number of years drove people away. We didn't see any ghosts, but the place is now home to a vibrant community of monkeys.

It was great to be out in the Indian countryside. An Indian man we chatted with at the hotel couldn't understand why we enjoyed this small average town so much. People were friendly, it was easy to navigate and walk around and, other than the rickshaw drivers, no one was trying to sell us something of get something from us.
Incidentally, the man in the hotel was most concerned about what Matt's parents must be doing in our absence, and concluded that brothers or cousins must be looking after them for us. We assured him they were quite capable of taking care of themselves.

- Bree