Wandering through the Neemrana Fort Palace: A Review

Wandering through the Neemrana Fort Palace: A Review

Rajasthan has got to be one of my favourite destinations. Part of it stems from spending two years of my adolescence in Jaisalmer. The other part stems from the fact that it is so gosh darn gorgeous – I can’t even!

Back in college I had always wanted to go to Neemrana after listening to countless accounts of how fun the zip-lining was. But slowly, that enthusiasm faded – Neemrana started to seem like a cliché picnic spot for every bored Dilliwalla.

Neemrana Fort Palace

My first ‘visit’ to the Neemrana Fort Palace in 2015 was with my family and it ended in an abrupt decision to go back home. The entry fee of 1,500 rupees (back then, now of course it costs more) multiplied by four people for just a few hours of wandering around just didn’t seem worth it.

So this time, I decided to get my money’s worth and actually stay there a night – as a young girl in Jaisalmer, I always wondered how it felt like living in the fort there, and I wasn’t going to give up a chance of doing so, with a friend in tow.


We got to Neemrana around 11 after stopping for some GREAT dhaba paranthas (with generous dollops of farm fresh butter!) and the BEST masala chai I have ever had – shoutout to Hotel Highway King (I feel like I just had to mention this here!).

IMG_1557
Fresh farm churned butter. SO DELISH!

The drive up is winding, almost like going up a mountain. And right at the end of the road lies a grand door – the entrance to the fort also called the Surya Pol or the Sun Gate. Notice the spikes on the door (like most forts from this period) which would act as the first barrier against an attack.

If you look up from the Surya Pol, you can just about make out some parts of the fort and it looks kinda small – don’t be fooled!

DSC_0528
Suraj Pol

Upon entering, we were hit by a blast of bougainvillea – sprawling down from every vertical surface. Ah it was BEAUTIFUL. But nothing compared to what we were about to witness.

IMG_1562

We left our bags at the reception, downloaded free audio-guides on our phones and set off to explore the fort – there was no time to waste!

Remember how I spoke of not being fooled by the seemingly small size of the fort from the entrance? Well, yeah that’s what we did and we got lost so many times – of course we didn’t mind. We were eager beavers lost in one gigantic 15th century fort, not unlike a maze. The audio-guide was helpful and we managed to retrace our steps back and forth to most of the important sites listed on it.

 

The Neemrana Fort was built in  1464 and was the third capital of Prithviraj Chauhan III’s descendants. During the Raj, the kingdom suffered and lands were given away to the realms of Alwar, Patiala and Nabha among others who would entertain the sahibs. Still, they managed to hold on to the little they hand.

Just before Independence in 1947, Neemrana’s Raja Rajinder Singh moved out and the crumbling Neemrana Fort Palace was left to the forces of nature, to obscurity.

 

Now this is where it gets interesting – the oldest caretaker there told us that the owners of the Neemrana group came across this crumbling relic and managed to acquire it in the 1980s for a paltry sum of INR 1,00,000 (disclaimer: I can’t confirm the veracity of this).

But there was a LOT to do. The fort was in such disrepair that the duo Aman Nath and Francis Wacziarg had to pump in lots of money to restore it to its former grandeur and convert it to a boutique resort. In 1991, they finally opened the doors with a modest 15 rooms.

 

The fort was expanded overtime and now they have a mix of 72 heritage suites and rooms along with hanging gardens, two swimming pools and a convention center!

There are a total of 8 wings at Neemrana Fort Palace, tiered one on top of another, each of which were made during different centuries starting from the 15th. Here’s a map:

NFPn_level_n_steps_dhlj1w.jpg

We booked into one of the cheaper habitations, the 18th century Baag Mahal in Wing – I (the oldest) which quite frankly provided us enough adventure in itself.

A long room, it seemed like it was passage into a rampart where there is now a romantic octagonal seating. It opens out into a garden (which lends it its name).

IMG_1649

IMG_1792

What is most interesting about this room is its entrance which opens into the bathroom. It was a constant game of Marco Polo when one of us had to go to the bathroom. Also the stairs were REALLY steep, definitely not recommended for the elderly.

IMG_1794.JPG
The stairs lead up to the bathroom and the exit!

Of course there are lot of things to do here (read: zip lining, vintage car rides and camel tours) but we decided to make our way across to the 21st century with a map we really didn’t understand because that’s where the heated pool was waiting for us as were great views of the sunset.

IMG_1698
Pool #1

We climbed higher and higher…

IMG_1704
Sunset views from the fort

DSC_0568.JPG

Ended the evening here, just as the fort lights were switched on:

DSC_0565
The heated pool was so relaxing after a day of stomping around the fort. The stars, the lights, the sounds of the village…ah, heaven.

(BTW, the dhaba just outside the Surya Pol is highly recommended. Didn’t want to spend a lot more money on food inside the fort. And the food here was so much tastier! Breakfast is included in the tariff as is the evening tea.) 

After a swim and a quick dinner at the dhaba downstairs, we wandered around the lit fort and watched a traditional Rajasthani performance.

DSC_0597.JPG

It was so romantic and other-worldly. We sat for a while at the red sandstone amphitheater and the hanging gardens before ‘lights out’ at 10 PM.

DSC_0647
Hanging gardens at the Neemrana Fort
DSC_0621
The amphitheatre

DSC_0671


We woke up early and put on our shoes – can you believe there was still a lot more fort left to wander around? We decided to end our explorations at the dining room for a much deserved breakfast. On the way we came across many photos of the fort from back when it was acquired. And woah, it looks nothing like it does now.

And I only have this to say – kudos to the Neemrana people for preserving what would have been a pile of rubble, plastic packets and rubbish, cattle poo and condom wrappers on the side of the highway right now

 

IMG_1742
The Surya Pol at night

Take my advice: don’t come here for the zip lining, stay here for the history.

DSC_0613
The most beautiful night ever

 

 

Advertisements

A Morning in the City of Dawn – Auroville

A Morning in the City of Dawn – Auroville

My first trip to Pondicherry was with my family when I was a teenager. I don’t remember as well as I probably should but I do remember being in awe with Auroville (lol).

I remember driving past the sacred Matrimandir which was still being built at the time (back in 2007) and that I was proud of being able to take a clear picture of it through the fine mesh covering one of its gates. And I definitely remember making a mental note to come back again because I loved the peace and quiet in the green ‘jungle’ with its red sandy path.

So one morning, 9 years later, I found myself there, alone this time. My aunt was kind enough to ask her driver to drop me there and I was quite shocked because the one thing I seemed to have forgotten was how long it takes to get inside from the main road. Trust me, its not a walk, if that’s what you were planning on doing.

We passed through what looked like a sleepy little Tamilian road with little shops and B&Bs scattered everywhere. But instead of the usual scrawny brown kid being chased by a helpless mother, I noticed an increasing number of hippie goras, some of them proprietors of these roadsidey establishments. It was a little unsettling since I guess I am not used to it.

Well anyway, after what seemed like forever, we reached Auroville. The driver dropped me off with an awkward ‘I’ll see you at 1’ and left me standing in the dirt. I found the very nondescript entrance – in the shape of a small canopy of trees – and headed towards my destination.

IMG_1370

The walk to the visitor’s center from the parking lot is short and seems to transport you to an oasis in the middle of a dusty desert. You seem to come out onto a vast expanse shaded with trees and small crowds of people going about their daily businesses while Indian tourists look around helplessly. It’s quite like walking into a contemporary Arabian bazaar.

edDSC_0951 copy

IMG_1371

Well I had heard that if I wanted to see the Matrimandir, I had to watch this compulsory free video and receive a free pass, so in I went to the small auditorium. I didn’t learn so much from the old scratchy film as I did from the pamphlets and informational boards outside and I can briefly explain a few things about Auroville.

Auroville is an ‘alternative’ township built not so long ago in 1968, on the ideologies of Mirra Alfassa, also known as The Mother, and the yogi/philosopher Sri Aurobindo. The township has been described as ‘an international community of dedicated to the ideal of human unity’ and is ‘an international community, dedicated to peace, sustainability and ‘divine consciousness’, where people from across the globe, ignoring creed, colour and nationality, work together to build a universal, cash-free, non-religious township’.

So there are about 2,500 residents spanning 52 nationalities there! Together they run projects like schools, sustainable farming, handicrafts and more.

Auroville model
A model of the Matrimandir in the visitor’s centre

 

After I finished watching the film, a bored guard outside the door handed me my free pass and told me if I wished to go inside the Matrimandir, I would have to book an appointment and come back the next day (which is kind of a pain really). But anyway, I decided to walk down to the temple for the time being.

 

Much like Auroville’s entrance, the path to the Matrimandir takes one through a beautiful half man-made half natural canopy of greenery with some goats interspersed at regular intervals. Cycles are available too, but I decided a walk would be better (plus my tights pants wouldn’t have let me sit on a bike. I blame the great south Indian food I was having).

edDSC_0960 copy - Copy

DSC_0958

edDSC_0976 copy - Copy
Auroville’s resident chameleon

The morning was too hot for a November day and I was just about to start cursing myself when I came across one of the biggest and widest banyan tree I have ever seen in my life.

IMG_1400.JPG

Aurovilleans believe that this tree has been around for about one hundred years but I beg to differ. It is DEFINITELY way older than that. Its branches have grown far out from the trunk and into the ground like a eerie real-life version of the Hometree from Avataar.

IMG_1377

Back in 1965 when The Mother and French architect Roger Anger (who designed Auroville) decided to build the township, he drove to a barren plateau and noticed the only form of life, this very tree which would later become the geographical center of Auroville.

In 1968, it was under the shade of this grand tree that the founders and a select delegates inaugurated this township.

A few meters from the tree is a path that leads down to the Matrimandir and the iconic golden dome seemed to peek out from amidst the branches as I walked towards it.

IMG_1388

 

The ‘soul of the city’ is surrounded by an expanse of rolling gardens with trees bordering them. The gardens are divided into 12 individual parks each with different flora and have names like Harmony, Perfection, Gratitude and Bliss.

edDSC_0959 copy

edDSC_0001 copy
Trees around the viewpoint

The golden globe (pun intended) seems to rise up from the earth, ‘symbolising the birth of a new consciousness’.

They generally don’t allow you to walk into the gardens I guess and that’s why I had to stand at this viewpoint and take this picture.

IMG_1394

 

 

Those who are lucky (and/or patient) enough to come back another day and go inside know that the mandir has an inner chamber which is divided into two hemispheres, the upper one completely made of white marble. In the centre sits a crystal glass globe which receives light from an Pantheon-like opening in the dome and diffuses it to a small pond below the structure while lighting up the room itself.

I believe the ambience inside the dome is that of complete silence. Dare whisper or, God forbid, cough in there and be ready to squirm attract the ire of those in deep meditation. Definitely not for a clumsy fool like me then.

You don’t really need to spend much time at the viewpoint and so I started heading back to the visitor’s centre to buy me some stuff. The walk back was seemingly refreshing, maybe because I found me some inner peace at the Matrimandir!

edDSC_0996 copy

I made my way to Kalki and the other boutiques to buy some handmade paper diaries (obsessed with stationery which I never use!) and my beloved scented candles and just about made it back to the parking on time after gulping down a necessary filter coffee, burning my tongue in the process.

The driver was waiting for me as if I had taken too long. With a hurried ‘sorry’ I got in the car and we drove off. I just about got a last glimpse of the Alibaba-ish canopy before it disappeared out of sight and I sank into a post-splurging melancholy of how I  was supposed to lug all my Maroma candles on the flight back.


Sitting back at home in Delhi writing this, I think I’d be seeing myself back there soon, (inside the Mandir this time) especially since I am out of Auroville’s scented candles and handmade paper stuff.

And of course, inner peace.

Petite Pondicherry

Petite Pondicherry

Where France merges with South India

Unlike most Indians’ favourite seaside (read: party) destination Goa, Pondicherry rarely features in domestic bucket lists. In fact, with an area under 500 sq. km., it is much smaller than its western rival; quite unknown as a party destination;  not popular for naked beaches; and even less popular for its churches.

In all aspects, Pondicherry’s France rivals Goa’s Portugal.

Although the tide is stronger on this side of the coast and life seems slower, it is hard not to fall hopelessly in love with this beautiful city, even if you’re here just for a day.

edDSC_0912 copy
A typical Pondy building in White Town

If you look at the map of India, you’ll notice that Pondicherry (now Puducherry…*sigh* what is it with changing perfectly good names?) seems to be shaped like a ‘C’, bound by Tamil Nadu. In fact, you’ll notice that it is divided in two regions with a part of Tamil Nadu running in between. Lying about 155 km south of Chennai, this city is a Union Territory, which means it has laws different from other Indian states (and that the liquor is tax-free! In fact you’ll know when you enter Pondicherry when you hit the first liquor shop off the highway!).


A Brief History

The area we now know as Pondicherry was ruled by the south Indian Pallava Kingdom in the 4th century A.D.; much later from the 10th – 13th centuries, it came under Chola rule and subsequently under the grand Vijayanagar Empire in the 14th century.

In 1674, the French East India Company landed on Indian shores and established its HQ right here. The then Pondicherry was divided into the French and Indian Quarters, remnants of which can be seen until this day.

During the Anglo-French wars in the 18th century, the town became subject to change in rule often and in 1763 under the Treaty of Paris, the British ‘returned’ Pondicherry to the French only to take charge of it again during the French Revolution. But in the 1850s, the French were allowed to regain their settlements there.

Pondy was under French rule right up till 1954, long after India regained its Independence, a legacy the city hasn’t been able to shrug off what with the neatly-planned quiet streets, the colonial-style houses with bougainvillea pouring out, the aromatic French-Indian cuisine and designer wear, and the abundance of French speakers.

edIMG_1168edIMG_1159 copyedIMG_1165 copyedIMG_1172 copy
Some popular Pondy signs

Today it is a hot tourist spot for those visiting the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and nearby Auroville, or for those who simply want a weekend getaway.


Having been there thrice – twice in the past six months – I’d say that there are a lot more things to do than going to the beach – or partying – in the city the locals fondly call ‘Pondy’.

1. Sri Aurobindo Handmade Paper Mill: In case you didn’t know, Pondy is known for its handmade paper and if you don’t know how its made, you must step inside this mill (located right at the beginning of White Town) to see the process for free! No pictures allowed here. Don’t forget to pick up some nice paper products from the small shop inside (it’s cheap!). Please note that the mill is closed in the afternoons so I suggest you go there in the morning.

 

Address: Shop No. 50, S.V. Patel Salai & Kasim Salai, Kuruchikuppam, Puducherry, 605001

2. Pondicherry Museum: Pondy’s modest museum may not have much to show to its visitors but go there if you’d like to get a broad sense of how the city has developed overtime. Divided in two floors, the lower one showcases mostly prehistoric relics while the first floor houses artefacts from French-Indian homes during the pre-Independence period.

edIMG_1289 copy

Don’t miss the coaches and other transport in the balcony. I sneaked some pics although you aren’t allowed!

edIMG_1284 copy

Entry: 10 INR

Address: St. Louis Street, Near Raj Vyas, White Town

3. Governor’s House: Also called Raj Nivas, this grand building is located just around the corner from the museum. The present edifice which has influences of both French and Indian styles, has been erected on the foundations of the earlier Hotel de la Compagnie (the French trading company that earlier ruled Pondy from 1674 to 1769) constructed around 1733. The French governor Dupleix also inhabited it till 1761. It was destroyed by the British and rebuilt between 1766 to 1768 and since then has undergone several renovations and re-modifications.

edDSC_0882 copyToday it is home to Pondicherry’s Lieutenant Governor. Earlier visitors couldn’t go in except on certain occasions, but the present Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi has opened it to the public so you can venture inside.

Address: Rangapillai St, Pondicherry, India

4. Bharathi Park: After you are done taking photos at the Raj Nivas, walk over to the Bharati Park right opposite. The park seems to be White Town’s lungs. You will see small children run around the park while lovers talk under the shade of it’s many trees and the odd family spreads out its picnic.

edDSC_0878 copy

The park has four entrances, the one facing Raj Nivas being the most prominent. At the centre lies an imposing Greco-Roman structure called Aayi Mandapam, named after a prostitute by the same name.

Legend has it that during the Vijayanagar Empire, a king was passing by when he saw a grand edifice. Mistaking it for a temple, he knelt down to pay his respect but after he found out it was the house of the prostitute Aayi, he was livid. The king ordered to tear her house down and sentenced her to be hanged. But after she begged him for mercy, he let her go on the promise that she demolish her house, which she did, and also built a large water pond for the town.

edDSC_0872 copy

During a severe water crisis in the French era, this very pond was the only source of drinking water in the town. Later, Napoleon III heard this story and ordered the construct of the monument in the park as a thanks to Aayi, and  it is perhaps India’s only monument dedicated to a prostitute.

Notice the Latin plaques on the base of the monument although if you are like me you won’t understand them!

DSC_0875

Address: Compagnie St, Pondicherry, India

5. Immaculate Conception Cathedral: Pondy’s oldest church was built in 1791. It has an imposing facade of white with gold, much like most fancy-looking south Indian churches. The Jesuits, who came to the French colony in 1689, built a church here with financial aid from Louis XIV. But this church was destroyed by the Dutch a year later.

edDSC_0890 copy

edDSC_0892 copy

After being rebuilt and destroyed over many years, work was finally finished on its present structure in 1791. If you step inside, you will notice its resemblance to many churches in Italy.

edDSC_0893 copy

edDSC_0896

DSC_0898 copy

This church also has the distinction of being visited by Mother Teresa!

Address: Mission Street, Near V.O.C School, Pondicherry

6. Sacred Heart Basilica: This red Gothic church was consecrated in 1907 and in 1908 a parish was built. The church has two towers and above the entrance is a biblical verse in Latin (2 Chronicles 7:16).

edDSC_0916 copy

edDSC_0919edDSC_0934 copy

edDSC_0923 copy

Notice the beautiful stained glass of 28 saints depicted in the devotion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus inside the church.

edDSC_0926 copy

edDSC_0929 copy

The church  received its status as a basilica by the Holy See in 2011. Its first mass was held at the western wing of the present church by Mgr. Gandy on 17, December 1907 and the new parish surrounding this church has been established on 27, January 1908.

Address: M.G. Road, Pondicherry
7. Notre Dame des Agnes: This Greco-Roman church is a pink, stunted version of the Notre Dame and was built under Napoleon III in 1855. In fact, Napoleon even visited this church!
edDSC_0911 copy
It is the only church in Pondy that offers mass in English, Tamil and French. The two bells have bells believed to have been bought from France but since the vibrations damaged the structure, the bells are not in use anymore.
edDSC_0908 copy
The church looks out to the Bay of Bengal but past a statue of Joan of Arc on the opposite side of the road.
P.S. Beware of shoe thieves here!
Address: Dumas St., Pondicherry
 

j) Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple: This temple has been in existence long before the French occupied Pondy. It is the city’s most famous temple because of the sweet elephant Laxmi that blesses pilgrims and tourists that meet her. Interestingly, the temple is dedicated to  the elephant god Ganesh and has beautiful freizes. If you are lucky enough, you might see Laxmi walking down the streets in the evenings. Although I didn’t visit the temple on my last visit, I did manage to sneak a peak at Laxmi through the crowds one evening.

Address: Manakula Vinayagar Koil St., Pondicherry

 

k) Seafront on Goubert Ave: End your tour of White Town on this rocky seafront which comes to life in the evenings.

edDSC_0942 copy

edDSC_0949

You can see the Gandhi statue here, the War Memorial on the opposite side of the road, dedicated to French soldiers in World War I, the yellow French Consulate, the famous Promenade Hotel, Sri Aurobindo Ashram and an 1870 statue of Governor-General Joseph Francois Dupleix.

edFullSizeRender copy
A panorama of the Gandhi statue on the seafront
edIMG_1197 copy
The French War Memorial

edIMG_1201

edIMG_1202 copy
The French Consulate
edDSC_0935 copy
Governor-General Joseph Francois Dupleix

edIMG_1347 copy

 

Enjoy a gelato from the nearby Italian Gelateria Montecatini Terme GMT and take a long walk on the beach.

If you want to have the proper Pondicherry beach experience, I suggest you visit the government-run Ashok Beach Resort that allows visitors to access their private beach. Alternatively, visit the Auroville/Auro Beach situated off the ECR, opposite to the road leading to Auroville or the Serenity Beach about 20 minutes north of Pondy – it’s mostly a fisherman’s beach.

edIMG_0002 copy

edIMG_1232 copy

IMG_1231 copy
Views from the Ashoka Beach Resort

edIMG_1258 copy

P.S. Be careful while venturing out into the sea here since the tide is WAY more stronger than you can imagine and the beaches, except for the Rock Beach, shut by 5.30-6.00 pm.


While you are in Pondicherry, you MUST visit Auroville and nearby Mamallapuram (Mahaballipuram), more of which will be in the next post.