The highest point

LAST BUT NOT LEAST on our visit to Mount Abu was a visit to Guru Shikhar, the highest peak of the Mount Abu district. Being a Sunday, the winding road leading to it had heavy traffic. Many of the private cars had Gujarati registration plates, and judging by the general lack of driving skill and courtesy I guessed that many of the drivers had little if any experience of negotiating mountain roads. There is an observatory perched on the very top of the mountain. It is part of the Indian Space Research Organisation. The views from the summit were spectacular especially because the air was uncharacteristically free of mists and heat haze. We were surrounded by lower peaks and in one direction there was a good view of the plain far below us. Mount Abu is the highest point in Rajasthan and neighbouring Gujarat. We left this peak to visit other sights dotted around on the far from flat Mount Abu plateau.

A short visit to Shankar Math will suffice all but the most devout of Hindus. A modern structure surmonted by an enormous lingam houses a much older and slightly older lingam carved in white stone with bluish grey striations.

Achal Garh has several attractions. There is a large attractive Jain Temple, which looked quite old. It was surrounded by newly carved sculptural fragments which were being used to replace worn out stone elements of the temple. Old parts were being exchanged for newly made replicas.

Close to the Jain temple at Achal Ghar, there is a market place catering mostly to tourists. Beyond the market a well made road winds upwards to Kapoor Tank, a peaceful water body where we saw women washing laundry in its calm water. Little children, including a tiny three year old girl, offered to guide us around the area.

The road continues to ascend above Kapoor Tank until it reaches the gates of an old fortress. It was built in 1452 by a local Rajput ruler, Maharana Khumbar of Mewar, on the site of an older fort. Not much remains to be seen. The area within the fort contains various Jain temples, which I hope to look at on a future visit.

The Jain temples at Adhar Devi, high up on a mountain slope, can only be reached by climbing more than 350 stone steps. I did not feel like doing that, so there is little I can tell you about them except that one of them is called Arbuda Devi Temple, Arbuda being the pre-British name of Abu, as in Mount Abu.

The highlight of our excursion was not the highest peak but an incredibly beautiful lake surrounded by rocks in the middle of a wildlife nature reserve. A badly surfaced road leads from the main road between Mount Abu and Guru Shikhar to Trevor’s Tank. This water body was created in 1897 by Colonel GH Trevor to breed crocodiles. A fading notice on of the huge rocks surrounding the pool advises visitors not to enter the water because of the very real risk of meeting these creatures. Some German hikers, whom we met, pointed at some crocs resting on a rock across the Tank, but I could not see them. The land for the wildlife sanctuary had been gifted to Trevor by the Maharaja of Sirohi, in whose kingdom Mount Abu is located.

The Tank has to be seen to believed. Its smooth water reflects the finest details of the rocks and vegetation surrounding it. Our new friend Dr Sharma told us that one of the joys of Trevor’s Tank is listening to the sounds of nature. During our visit, these had to compete with the sounds made by the excited groups of mainly young trippers. If there is limited time available when you visit Mount Abu, then Trevor’s Tank and the Dilwara Jain Temples should be seen before anything else. But, it would be foolish not to allot at least several days to savour Mount Abu.

We ate lunch in the restaurant of the Jaipur House hotel, the highest of the former Rajputana palaces in Mount Abu . Its windows provide superb views over the Nakki Lake, the Polo Ground and the rest of Mount Abu town. The former palace, now a hotel, is elegant without being flamboyant.

We strolled down from the palace through the town to our hotel feeling sad that on the following morning we would be leaving Mount Abu, which has captured our hearts.

Temples and a palace

THE DELWARA JAIN TEMPLE COMPLEX close to Mount Abu opens to tourists at noon. We arrived at about 11 am and our driver, Zakir, suggested we visit the local museum, which turned out to be a handicraft shop.

We were directed upstairs to the fabric department and invited to sit down whilst a salesman told us about the products, which had been made locally, thereby providing employment to about 4500 locals. No obligation to buy, of course! However, we wanted a razzai, a bed quilt like an eiderdown, and after having been shown numerous examples we settled on one. Its price was greater than we were prepared to pay. We were told that the prices were not negotiable. Both the salesman and his manager told us that they could offer us cups of tea or coffee but not reductions in price. We pointed out that as kind as that was, it would only save us about 20 to 40 Rupees.

We had been in the shop, I mean ‘museum’, for almost an hour and I was becoming restless. I think that when the manager noticed this, he felt that there was a real risk that he would lose a sale. He sold us the razzai, having reduced the price by a third.

The Delwara Jain temple complex contains several temples, two of which are well over 600 years old: one dates back to the 11th century AD. Sadly photography is not permitted within the temples. Words cannot do justice to the beautiful intricate stone carvings that adorn these places of worship. Even photographs, if they had been allowed, would only hint at the perfection of the carving and their fine artistry. The precision and sharp definition of this ancient carving done by hand rivals what can be done with the most hi-tech computerised cutting devices. I have never visited the Taj Mahal, but I believe that these temples are even more breathtakingly beautiful than the famous monument at Agra. You will have to see it yourself, and then you will know what I mean.

Mount Abu was the summer resort for the rulers of the princely states of Rajputana, now Rajasthan. Many of them built lavish summer palaces, some of which are now used as ‘heritage’ hotels. Zakir drove us to the Kishangarh House hotel. Kishangarh was a tiny state near Ajmer in Rajasthan. Its population was 91000 in 1901. Its Maharaja built his palace at Mount Abu on sloping ground, which was transformed into terracing and surrounded by terraced gardens. We ate snacks there and were shown the rooms available for hire. Of all the former royal palaces I have seen in India, this looks to be the most comfortable. Even the lowest priced rooms are huge and extremely well appointed.

Zakir dropped us back in town in the town bazaar, as opposed to the touristic market area. There are numerous shops in picturesque winding streets.

Before returning to our hotel for a much needed rest, we bought some socks from a wayside stall. As is expected of customers, we bargained a little. When we agreed on a slightly lower price than the salesman asked initially, he said (in Hindi), maybe hoping to shame us into paying a little more:
“Will you feel better if you buy the socks at the lower price?”
We replied: “much better.”

A royal palace

IT IS COSTLY PAYING A VISIT to the Faluknuma Palace in Hyderabad, but is it worth the expense?

The Faluknuma Palace, which is located on a hill, is high above the rest of Hyderabad. It was built in a neo Palladian style to the designs of an Italian architect between 1884 and 1890 as a residence for Sir Viqar al Umra, a Prime Minister of Hyderabad. To settle a debt, in 1897 Viqar handed his palace to his creditor, the 6th Nizam of Hyderabad.

The palace is now used as a luxury hotel. One night at this place will set you back by at least £440 excluding taxes. The most economical way to see the palace is by booking afternoon tea, which is not at all cheap. However, such a booking includes a guided tour around the palace. After much difficulty and numerous telephone calls to the hotel, we managed to book a couple of places for the afternoon tea experience.

The guided tour was fairly uninformative but gave us a chance to see several rooms that were used by the former Nizams and their guests.
Unfortunately, the guide was uninspired and his English was poor. It would have been better if the guide had been better informed as well as more interested in history and culture.

One thing the guide told us impressed me. He said that the palace was wired up for telephony and was supplied with electricity in the 1890s whilst the Nizam’s subjects lived without electricity until the late 1930s.

Each of the rooms and hallways of the palace look spectacular at first sight. However, after closer examination they are not so impressive. The rooms which were designed to amaze are actually rather dowdy and unrefined. The interior has a Victorian heaviness. In contrast, the Marble Palace in Calcutta, also built to mimic European tastes, is spectacular both macroscopically and in minute detail. Unlike the Faluknuma, the Marble Palace is an example of exquisite taste.

I find it sad that Indians such as the builders of the Faluknuma (and the Marble Palace) found it necessary to mimic, not always successfully, the styles favoured by their imperialist rulers rather than building in styles that have evolved from the rich legacy of pre-colonial architecture. One palace that I have visited, that at Bhavnagar, The Neelambagh, was designed by a European architect who paid tribute to India’s rich cultural heritage by successfully incorporating elements of India’s historical architectural styles. The so-called Indo-Saracenic style sometimes melds European and Indian elements successfully.

The afternoon tea was elegantly presented. The serving staff outnumbered the guests. There was a great deal of bustling about, but our requests were eventually fulfilled. Every member of staff we encountered at the palace was kind and caring. I felt that everyone wanted us to enjoy our visit, which we did.

Was our visit worth what we paid? I would say ‘yes’ cautiously, but I would have preferred to have been charged a little less. It would have been really good value at two thirds of the price. Is the palace worth seeing? I would recommend it not because it is either an aesthetic gem or an architectural marvel, but it is a great example of how the wealthy and powerful spent their money to impress their subjects and the British Colonial Officials, who guaranteed the continuing existence of their vassals, the rulers of the Princely States, of which Hyderabad was the largest, richest, and most powerful.

While we were sitting waiting for our taxi to take us away from the palace, we watched horse drawn cartiages passing by. They carry guests up the long winding drive to the hotel. We also saw staff feeding some of the more than one hundred peacocks which live in the extensive grounds of the palace, which provide a peaceful refuge from the city that sprawls all around the Faluknuma.

A tingle down my spine

 

I enjoy exploring historical places. Well, I know that everywhere has a history, but what I mean is places which contain tangible remnants of their history like the Regency buildings designed by John Nash, built at the beginning of the 19th century around Regents Park in London. They were built when the future George IV was Regent.

Well, there is nothing surprising about these beautiful buildings. That is what I thought until my wife spotted the street lamp posts next to some of the buildings. Each of their bases has a symbol for King George IV. Seeing such mundane objects that must have been in daily use since so long ago sent a tingle down my spine.

The same thing happened to me once when I was driving along a ring road around Munich and I passed a direction sign pointing to Dachau.