It was the best of towns, it was the worst of towns
Because I am an inattentive planner, prone to agree without really looking into things, every day of this trip is somewhat a surprise. ‘Oh, we’re going where?’ is a common refrain of mine. Bundi (seemingly pronounced more like Boondi but I don’t feel especially confident ether way) is one such surprise.
It is a little gem of a town, full of Brahmin-blue houses nestled against a sloping hill and overseen by the massive Garh Palace. A sandstone testament to gently crumbling opulence, the Palace was probably my pick of all the ‘sites’ we saw. A dispute about the will of the former royal owner (and thus who is the rightful current owner) has seen the part of the Palace that is privately owned (the bottom half) slide into disrepair while the Government owned Queen’s quarters (which sit further up in the hill in an adjoining complex) are better maintained, but less charming.
There is an undeniable and slightly childlike pleasure in undirected exploration of such a marvellous trove of treasure – stumbling up set a set of rickety, twisting stairs, discovering only at the climax whether your reward is a marble courtyard fenced with bejewelled screens and decorated with mural relief and inlaid mirror-work or a pile of rubble with pointed wire forbidding further egress. It was a magical patchwork of place and we thoroughly enjoyed our time wandering the hidden alcoves, feeling like we were the first people to trail across the tiled floors since the royal court itself.
The town below is just as charming. Full of crooked streets and colourful frontages, it is a warren of delight which we spend a glorious morning exploring before stopping for masala chai at ‘Krishna’s Chai.’ It is the best chai in town – so at least we are assured by the extremely handsome and helpful hotel concierge (who has promptly fallen in love with my mother). And the chai proprietor himself clearly supports this pronouncement, having his own sizeable proclamation to that effect at his tiny shopfront.
A modest 2m wide, the shop - over three separate levels - measures about 4m deep. In prime street-front position sits the chai-wallah, barefoot and cross-legged, with everything needed to brew within arms reach. Each spice is lovingly crushed on the worn and weathered flagstone carefully chosen from amongst its fellows for this purpose, before being tipped into the little copper pot that bubbles on the propane gas cooker. Every implement, and indeed the entire shop, is painted an alarming shade of orange but somehow the overall effect is calming. Perhaps it is the effect of the chai which, smoky and spicy in all the right ways, is the most brilliant example tasted to date.
An excellent start to the day, the cardamom and ginger lingers on the tongue as we commence our drive to Pushkar. Pushkar is another one of those surprise towns I didn’t really anticipate. A prominent Hindu pilgrimage town, it is described in Lonely Planet as “a muddle of religious and tourist scenes…despite the commercialism and the banana pancakes, the town remains enchantingly small and authentically mystic.” While I would nod to the rampant commercialism (never seen so many stalls all selling the same elephant-printed fisherman’s pants), the authentic perhaps wasn’t so readily apparent. I felt like we’d stumbled into a depressing tourist trap; an impression that was not dispelled by our (ill-advised) decision to do the most-touristy activity to date and watch the sunrise from camel back.
And so our day in Pushkar commenced in the dark pre-dawn, frozen atop these majestic but unwieldy (and kind of malnourished seeming? Not that I know anything about camel nutrition but I felt bad to be putting myself atop its bony crest) beasts, straining to see the sun rise above the mountain ridge but painfully aware in the dawn light of the softly-lit slums in the sand dunes around us. It was awkward and uncomfortable and I spent most of the time looking at the nose ring through which my beast was controlled and trying to ascertain whether it was crueller than a horse’s bridle bit. (Answer: probably).
The day did not improve when, on dismounting from our camels, we were immediately mobbed by white-clothed men who pressed flowers into our hands and then tried to make us go to the waters edge (Pushkar is a lakeside town) to conduct some sort of blessing. I managed to extract myself and my sister but my mother had been captured and we had to awkwardly wait for her to be ‘blessed’ and make a ‘donation’ before she could escape.
I have to confess at this point that I do not do well when I am hungry / thwarted in my attempts to obtain food and I may have told the men they had ambushed us at which they got very offended as they were, apparently, holy men. Cultural respect can sit this one out because they were obviously complete charlatans who targeted us because we were three women travelling alone (can you tell the whole experience still makes my blood boil?).
The day was rescued however by the image of Jaipur that greeted us on arrival; hundreds of kites fluttering from the rooftops, bathed in golden glow by the setting sun.
We stayed at Dev Niwas in Bundi and would absolutely recommend it both for the ambiance and location. In sad contrast we stayed at Hotel Pushkar Palace in Pushkar and would never recommend it even to a foe.