Believe it or not, pounding the tourist trail can be hard work, especially somewhere as intense as India. When it all gets too overwhelming, it’s time to take a few deep breaths (another thing India often seems to make challenging!) and reassess. What are we traveling for? What do we hope to accomplish? For us it’s never been about checking must-sees off a list, but it’s easy to get swept along the easy, touristed route listening to those who ask, “You didn’t make it to the Lake Palace?” or “No time for the Red Fort?” Although Bundi may sometime in the not-so-distant future be part of this trail, for now it’s the most laid-back of all of the towns we’ve visited. The slope leading up toward the palace and fort on the hill above is the only spot with budding tourist life, in the form of travel desks, a hookah lounge and a couple of restaurants with English menus. Beyond, leading into the old section of town there’s one main street, with a dizzying maze of alleyways leading off in every direction, a great place to wander and watch contemporary Indian life reveal itself. Most of the buildings are painted a dusky blue, and some are hundreds of years old. These ornately decorated homes are called haveli. The 450 year old home we stayed in was called Hadee Rani, after the story of an ancient queen said to have once lived here.
Chintu and his family are wonderful hosts, full of local knowledge, helpful tips and genuine kindness. His mother is a wonderful cook, and we enjoyed trying something new from the menu nightly. His toddler daughter is a charmer, and likes to interact with international guests, dancing and looking at pictures on any screen she can find. A new baby brother is usually behind the scenes with his mom, though she was kind enough to spend some time visiting with me one night while applying a much-needed henna treatment to my road-weary locks. We felt very much at home at Hadee Rani, a wonderful base from which to explore the area’s sites.
The main site is the hillside palace, visible from anywhere in the city. Above it, at the very top of the hill, is Taragarh Fort (built 1354). It’s easy to spend an entire day wandering first through the palace; filled with murals, niche paintings, marble floors, glass work, latticed windows and a garden; and then the fort complex, with deep baori (step wells), ramparts and battlements overlooking the town.
The main sections of the palace were built in the early 1600s: Ratan Daulat is a royal court designed to house nine horses and elephants. The Chhatra Mahal contains miniature murals in gold, blue, turquoise and red. The gated doorways around the small pool nearby are decorated with lovely glass and ivory work. The ceilings of Phool Mahal are especially well preserved. Every surface is painted with detailed scenes.
Chitrasala was built a bit later, and can be found further up the hill. It’s murals depict scenes from the Radha-Krishna love story , and there is a small but lovely garden with a striking, tall tree and a smaller tree bursting with hot pink flowers. This was an extremely popular spot for family photos.
The fort is a ways above, entered through several huge wooden gates and doors. This area is much less restored, and seems to be watched over by bands of monkeys. They generally mind their own business, but definitely keep a close eye on visitors to their territory. The ramparts offer great views out over the city and the lake below. This artificial lake, Nawal Sagar reflects the fort and palace above in its waters at sunset.
Bundi was also a great stop for a bike ride. With a new friend, Kristian, we pedaled out of town into the countryside, stopping at a lakeside complex, Sukh Mahal, where Rudyard Kipling once stayed and wrote. Further on was a collection of cenotaphs with the ashes of ancient Bundi kings and queens. Almost all had a Shiva linga on top of a central marble platform, and a domed top with ornately carved ceiling.
After passing fields of vibrant green with ladies in bright saris carrying bundles on their heads, we finally came to a small village. Some young men were testing the music from the speakers of their miniature float-vehicle equipped with synthesizer and horns. These are often used at weddings, and it’s definitely the season. They wanted their photo taken, and got a kick out of seeing the result. This happened numerous times along our ride.
Leaving the guys at the musical cart we head down the road in the direction pointed by a seemingly knowledgeable older gentleman in a multi-colored turban and white tunic. After a village center of tea shops and vegetable carts, we passed groups of young teenagers just getting out if school. Once again we snapped some requested photos, but this time we were given directions in return. Just a few more kilometers down the road was a great temple.
We found the turn-off and kept peddling toward the sounds of chanting and music, passing women carrying loads of wood on their heads, followed by barefoot, dirty-faced kids. There were periodic clusters of goats and of course wandering cows. The wizened holy men at Rameshwar received us with nods and greetings. The initial open-sided worship area had a small fire burning within, and a group of robed men sitting on the floor. Speakers broadcast chanting at full volume.
A walk straight back, and up a few flights of stairs took us to a big, stone building. On its second floor, the back wall was natural stone with some niches and prayer spots intertwined with tree roots. At the back was a dark cave with a temple inside. After inviting us to look inside, the boy sent us on our way with a handful of blessed sweets. We ate them quickly, since the monkeys were rambunctious, and clearly knew we had something they wanted. The boy, Nateem, from the cave temple then walked us down to a small waterfall with another holy spot and some young guys cooling off and listening to Hindi music from their cellphone. Of course, we took photos with them.
On the way out, stepping over monkey tails draped over the stairs, we came upon a path to one more cave temple, where the robed old man who seemed to live inside had us come in, ring a bell, pay our respects and leave a small offering.
The day was getting late and we realized that we had found Rameshwar (until then we hadn’t placed ourselves on the map). This meant a 16 mile bike ride back to town! We left the temple complex with thought of the few hills that lay ahead, knowing we would sleep well that night.
Photos of Bundi HERE.