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After our whirlwind visit to Sawai Madhopur—and our last-minute afternoon tiger safari—we set off on the road to Bundi (pronounced ‘boondhee’). Our original route plan was to take the road to Lakheri and get to Bundi via Pholai and Akher. Our hosts at Tiger Haveli told us the route wasn’t as good as the road via Kota, but that it was much shorter, so we’d get there quicker since we were on a bike. So we stuck to the plan. And learned a lesson.
The road to Bundi
The road was great up to Lakheri, from where we turned off the highway. We drove through town and, after a quick tank-up, continued in direction Pholai. The road wasn’t so great, but it was manageable, and with the Vindhya hills keeping us company, the landscape made up for the bumps and vibrations.
The road to Bundi wasn’t so great, but the Vindhya hills made up for it.
Soon, though, the road started becoming worse. Mainly rough asphalt and the occasional pothole reversed order, and we encountered mainly potholes, with the occasional bit of rough road. By midday, the heat became intense, too. And the road was so shattered that every passing vehicle kicked up clouds of dust. It also annoyed us intensely to see lighter bikes rattle over the road at speed, showing their shock absorbers no mercy. This is probably what our hosts at Tiger Haveli meant when they said we would be OK on a bike!
By the time we got to Bundi and started winding our way through the narrow streets of the old city, we were exhausted. A journey that should have taken us three hours had taken five instead!
Bundi Inn: Our hidden homestay
We were looking forward to a bit of rest when we finally got to the end of the journey. To our dismay, when our GPS told us we had arrived, all we could see was shop fronts on either side of the road! It was hot, we were tired, and I really didn’t feel like wrestling my bike through any more crowded streets. So we called our host at the Bundi Inn homestay and asked for help. Luckily, we found out that our homestay was right above the shop we were in front of.
Someone came down came to help us with our luggage, and we made our way up. A narrow stair led up past the shop, and onto an untidy platform above. I started getting jittery. But I felt much better once we entered the actual residence and were greeted by our host Kamal Singh. The place was cosy, neat and cool, and built on four levels. Our room was up a narrow flight of stairs, just off a central living room. The room was tiny but cosy, with all the atmosphere one would expect of a heritage homestay.
A room with a view. Of the living room.
I had booked this room because it wasn’t facing the road, figuring that it would be cooler and quieter that way. But I hadn’t factored in the windows. Surprisingly, it had only one set of windows, and those opened onto the living room! We were a bit taken aback by that, and by the fact that the bathroom had no ventilation at all. The whole thing was a bit claustrophobia-inducing, but the coolness of the room helped. When we told our hosts about it, they agreed it wasn’t ideal, but since it was a heritage building, they sadly couldn’t make any structural changes. I guess we just got unlucky.
Heading up for a late lunch, we got our first clear view of the massive Garh Palace.
We left our luggage in the little room and headed to the rooftop restaurant for a late lunch and a cold beer. And that’s when we got our first unobstructed view of the massive Garh Palace, hugging the hillside just down the road. Solid and imposing, it looked as impressive as anything we had seen until then, and we looked forward to exploring it the next day. We could even see the Moti Mahal palace across the road, but that turned out to be closed because the owner was away!
An evening in town
A leisurely lunch and our customary afternoon nap recharged our batteries a little, so we thought we’d see a bit of the town that evening. Our homestay was on Sadar Bazar road—one of the main streets that leads from the palace down through the old city. We decided we’d see where it took us.
A little down the road was a temple, past which the main road continued. But another road branched off to the right, into an interesting-looking hamlet. We decided to follow this one. It wound through dark streets and alleyways, between small homes and past little temples, giving us a glimpse into what life was like in Bundi. Eventually, we ended up at what looked like an old fort wall, with a big hole in it! A path led from the road through the hole and past some bushes. It looked a bit dicey, but we finally ended up at the little Nawal Sagar lake (which we had seen from the roof of our homestay too). The Garh Palace was impressive on the opposite side.
The path wound between small homes and past little temples, giving us a glimpse of life in Bundi.
Soaking up the atmosphere
We continued on around the lake, taking in the atmosphere. As we walked back along the narrow road on the other side of the lake, we saw lots of signboards announcing little homestays, hotels and restaurants. I suppose this was where everyone wanted to stay, with the lake on one side and the palace on the other. Some small homestays looked like they hadn’t changed much in centuries, with their low doors and tiny courtyards. We also spied a signboard that said ‘Garden Restaurant’, and we remembered that our host had recommended it, so we thought we’d grab a quick dinner there after our stroll.
In search of fresh jalebis
It was still early by the time we’d finished walking around the lake, so we thought we’d keep going. We walked back to the fork in the road we’d taken earlier, but turned left this time, into the market. At the fork, we had met an enthusiastic young jeweller who told us tales of fresh jalebis, hot and crisp, to be had just down the road. Off we went, spurred on by visions of sticky sweet spirals. No such luck, though. The recommended sweet shop had run out, so they referred us to another one further on.
Try as we might, though, we couldn’t find it, and everyone we asked gave us directions that took us further and further into the market. Finally, after about half an hour of searching, we ended up on the main road running through town. There, we found a shop that, we were told “would most definitely have jalebis”, but they had run out too! Bitterly disappointed at not having had our sugar fix, we made our way back to the lakeside for dinner.
Atmosphere and dinner at the lake
When we got to the Garden Restaurant, the couple who ran this modest open-air eatery told us they were short-staffed because of Diwali, and would we mind waiting a bit for our food? We didn’t mind, so we sat at a rickety table by the lake and drank some beer while the couple’s two little sons played the part of servers. Our food eventually arrived, and though it wasn’t anything special, the overall experience was quite nice. Having had our fill of food, beer and atmosphere (but not of jalebis), we headed back to our homestay and turned in.
Bundi’s Garh Palace: Fading but still magnificent
The next morning, full of anticipation, we headed up to gate of the Garh Palace. We bought tickets and camera permits (Rs. 100 and Rs. 50 respectively) at the huge wooden gate, and in we went.
It immediately became clear that there wasn’t much maintenance being done, if any. We walked up the steep, slippery stone path past unkempt grounds and cracked walls. The path was so slippery, in fact, that we had to really concentrate to keep from falling. The remains of a railing, of which only vertical rods were left, were of no use. We finally did get to the impressive entrance, though. And stopped a while there to admire the two plaster elephants at the top (and to catch our breath), before walking through.
Exploring the palace
The inner courtyard was another picture of neglect. We had been told that the palace was privately owned, and that the owner wasn’t interested in spending on maintenance, despite charging for entry. This was evidently true. We spent a few hours exploring the magnificent palace, and everywhere we looked, we saw what must have once been grand halls, splendid pavilions and exquisite murals.
Many rooms still had some spectacular painting and mirrorwork surviving.
They were all either slowly disintegrating, or had been half-heartedly restored. Many rooms still had some spectacular painting and mirrorwork surviving. But we were shocked to see that much of this exquisite art had been deliberately defaced, and the rest left to rot!
At the Chitrashala
Luckily, the government-run Chitrashala (‘house of pictures’) just outside the main palace building was in a much better state. The talkative old watchman told us that this pillared hall, and the garden outside, was where the king and queen would come to be entertained. The murals and mirrorwork on the walls and ceilings were definitely impressive, and maintained quite well. But we still left a little depressed at how much more of the palace’s incredible art had been lost forever, through sheer apathy.
The murals and mirrorwork on the walls and ceilings of the Chitrashala were very impressive, and were maintained quite well.
On the way out, we thought we’d see what the fort that covered the hill was like. And though the stone path that led up to the palace continued up into the fort, the watchman told us we’d have to go back down and buy a separate ticket! We were quite annoyed, and demanded to know why we hadn’t been told at the entrance. The strange old man reasoned that it must be deliberate, because the fort was overgrown and full of monkeys, and they would get bad press if just anyone were allowed in. Only the most determined would want to see it once they realized what was involved, he explained. This made sense, at the time.
A quick traditional lunch
The jeweller the previous evening had, among other things, recommended that we eat at one of the bhojanalays—literally ‘food houses’, eateries that served basic local vegetarian meals—outside the old city’s Mira Gate. Eating local is always an experience we want to have, so we decided to try this one out after our visit to the palace.
It was some distance from the palace to Mira Gate, so we hopped onto the bike again, and made our way down the crowded Sadar Bazar road as best we could. Once we got to the gate, we made some quick enquiries, and ended up at a bhojanalay called Bholenath something-or-other. Just as we’d been told, it was basic, with a few chairs and tables under a shed by the roadside. But we’d eaten at lots of basic places during our travels, so we didn’t mind at all. We ignored the curious stares from the other patrons (this wasn’t the kind of place tourists visited, obviously) and sat down.
A basic meal of unlimited proportions
We were immediately presented with a cafeteria-style compartmentalized metal thali plate, with dal, two vegetable curries, some rice, and the inevitable slices of raw onion. In South India, we were used to having a few rotis served first and unlimited amounts of rice later. It seemed to be the other way around here, because the rotis kept coming, hot off the griddle, and with ghee if we wanted.
The food at the bhojanalay was simple, wholesome and tasty.
The food wasn’t spectacular, but it was simple, wholesome and tasty. And what it lacked in finesse, it made up for in quantity. Every time something on the thali seemed in danger of running out, we would get a refill. After a while, we told our disappointed server we couldn’t eat any more. We wanted to make it to our next stop without falling asleep, after all.
The queen’s magical little step-well
Our plan was to take a look at the Raniji ki Baodi step-well before heading back for our post-lunch nap. After some asking and some more threading through traffic, we finally got there. It wasn’t what we were expecting.
The magical, surreal atmosphere made me feel like I was in a Prince of Persia video game!
We’d seen step-wells before, and they were usually large, open tanks with rows of stairs on all sides leading down into the water. This one was small, covered with a translucent roof, and was intricately decorated. We later found out that this was the private bath of one of Bundi’s queens. The rich decoration, the intimate construction, and the soft light glowing through the roof all gave it a magical, surreal feel. I felt like I was in one of the Prince of Persia video games I used to love playing. Even better, we were completely alone! That is, unless you count a few pigeons and the two terrapins that live in the well.
After a very pleasant half an hour soaking up the step-well’s dreamy atmosphere, we were ready for our nap. But then we spied something just outside the entrance gate: a little cart selling fresh jalebis! Finally, we could indulge our sweet tooth (teeth?). At first, we just watched the shopkeeper make them. He would squeeze the batter into the hot oil in spirals to fry, then lift them out and dunk them in the red syrup, and finally lift them out, ready to be served.
The shopkeeper didn’t take any money, because the two of us together had eaten only half a single serving!
A steady stream of customers kept him busy all the while. And when we had finally finished eating ours off a square of newspaper, he refused to accept payment. It seemed the two of us together had only managed to eat half of a single serving! Humbling.
Setting up a date with Kukki for the next day
That evening, we met up with Om Prakash ‘Kukki’ Sharma, a self-professed archaeologist, explorer and all-round Bundi thesaurus. We’d been told about him by Dharmendra Khandal, our conservationist friend in Ranthambhore, so we decided we would see what Kukki (pronounced like ‘cookie’ but with an extended ‘k’) could show us.
Kukki turned out to be an eccentric, middle-aged man with boundless energy and a very high opinion of himself. He promised to show us around Bundi and its surroundings the next day, including some wonders that very few others knew about. We agreed with some trepidation. Would we be able to stand spending half a day in this strange man’s company? We’d find out the next day.
A home-cooked meal for dinner
For dinner, we decided to try the restaurant at the charming-looking Haveli Katkoun. We had noticed it during our walks near the lake, and wanted to see what it was like. It turned out to be a heritage homestay, run by a very nice young couple and their family. The restaurant was on the top floor, so while we walked up, our hostess showed us few of the rooms. Most were very spacious and nicely decorated. We might just stay there on our next visit.
When our hostess asked us what we’d like to eat, we asked her to just make a little extra of what the family was having.
On the way up, our hostess had asked us what we’d like to eat. We told her that we wanted an authentic local meal, and to please just make a little extra of whatever was being prepared for the family. When she asked us how spicy we like our food, we told her to not make any concessions.
Our host makes an admission
At the semi-open-air restaurant at the top (it had a solid roof, but was open to the sides), we met our host. He kept us entertained while his wife went back down to see to dinner. He told us a bit about the place, and showed us the various views one had from the restaurant, especially that of the palace that was a stone’s throw away behind. When we told him how disappointed we were in the maintenance (or lack of it) of the palace, he completely agreed. In fact, he said, entry to the palace started being restricted only recently. He confessed with some embarrassment that, when he was a child, even he and his friends took part in the vandalism. “No one ever told us that it was wrong, and we didn’t know any better,” he said. How very sad.
Dinner: Surprisingly spicy but incredibly tasty
After a while, our food was sent up through an ingenious dumb-waiter system. It was a simple, homely meal of chhole, kadhi and a preparation of baby spinach, accompanied by rice and the thick local chapatis. Exactly what we wanted. We weren’t prepared for how spicy it was, though! We’d always thought North Indian food was far milder than that in the south, but that’s obviously not true. Because, though we consider ourselves battle-hardened veterans, this food was almost too much for us.
We’ve always thought North Indian food was far milder than South Indian. That’s not true.
It was tasty as heck, though, so despite puffing and blowing and wiping the sweat off our faces, we finished everything. The spinach was particularly nice, and it seemed it was a seasonal local speciality. An evening well spent, with great food and great conversation!
Into Kukki’s universe
The next morning, we met Kukki as agreed. He and his driver started by showing us around the various sights of Bundi that we hadn’t had the chance to see so far. All the while, he kept up a steady flow of conversation about each place, about all the things he had done, and about having achieved more as an amateur archaeologist than the professionals. We soon realized that he was very uncomfortable with silence, because whenever conversation ran out, he would start singing! It got on our nerves a bit initially, but we got used to it after a while. It was a bit like listening to an eccentric uncle who meant well, but didn’t have much of a filter between brain and mouth.
Kukki was most famous for having discovered lots of stone-age cave paintings around Bundi.
After seeing some sights in Bundi, we headed out of town. This is what we were looking forward to, because Kukki was most famous for having discovered lots of stone-age cave painting sites around Bundi.
Up close with Bhimlat falls
After about an hour and half of driving on the (again horrible) road to Chittorgarh, we turned off onto a little country road. After some twists and turns, it suddenly arrowed straight off to the horizon. We followed it, and ended up at some spectacular waterfalls. This was the Bhimlat river, and—judging by the railings along the edge—the falls were a popular picnic spot.
After admiring the falls for a while, we took a steep staircase down to the bottom. On the way down, we passed a temple, and groups of monkeys that came a little too close for comfort. It was cool and humid at the bottom, a relief from the heat at the top. We spent some time under the trees, watching the cascading water and feeling the fine spray on our faces.
Traces from before the dawn of civilization
But soon, it was time to get back to the task at hand. We went up the stairs again (and past the monkeys), and started following the gorge that the river had cut into the hill. It was hot and sunny, and Kukki had stopped talking, concentrating instead on leading the way through the dry brush. The view over the gorge was lovely, with the red, stony hills contrasting with the green and the rushing river below. Finally, he stopped at what looked like just another pile of rocks, and dragged a thorny branch out of the way. Hidden underneath was a tiny path that led down through the rocks, to an overhang right on the edge of the gorge. And there, under the overhang, were the cave paintings.
Simple figures drawn on stone more than 10,000 years ago had been rediscovered by an eccentric old man.
Those simple figures on the living stone, drawn by unknown hands more than 10,000 years ago, had survived the ravages of time, only to be rediscovered by an eccentric old man. And discovering and restoring more of these ancient markings had become his obsession, his “junoon”. With great pride, Kukki began explaining the significance of each figure to us. He even went so far as to making us join him in enacting the scenes depicted drawn on the wall!
The passing of a mind-boggling amount of time
It was impossible to accurately date the paintings, he said, because the haematite stone-based pigment couldn’t be carbon dated. But the styles of drawing could be compared to those discovered in other parts of the world. And based on that, he said, there were at least three sets of paintings that were made at different times between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. In comparison, the entire history of civilization spans only about 5,000 years!
It’s difficult to imagine that families were using these walls as a blackboard 5,000 years before the pyramids of Egypt!
It’s difficult to imagine that, more than 5,000 years before the pyramids of Egypt or the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro were built, families of humans were taking shelter under an overhang at the Bhimlat river. And using the walls like a blackboard to teach their children! According to Kukki, even today, the overhang is one of many sacred sites for the local tribes, and they still occasionally use it for their ceremonies.
Back to Bundi
After we had spent some time in the company of those ancient paintings, it was time to head back. But Kukki wanted to keep showing us interesting things. After we got back into the car, we took a small detour to see the ruins of an ancient temple and its damaged (but suspiciously clean) Shiva idol. By then we had had enough, and insisted that we needed a bit of lunch—which Kukki seemed to have completely forgotten about. There was absolutely nothing to be had in the vicinity, so we made our way back to the shattered highway and drove on for about ten minutes until we got to a village. There, we propitiated our growling stomachs with hot tea, samosas and bananas from a little shop before heading back to town.
By the end of it, we had become quite fond of Kukki, despite his eccentricities.
By then end of it, we were surprised to realize that we had become quite fond of Kukki, despite his eccentricities. His childlike enthusiasm and zest for life more than made up for everything else.
That night, we were too exhausted to do anything else but pack, have a quick dinner and hit the hay. We loaded up the bike the next morning, and set off towards Chittorgarh, our next stop.
IQ’s top tips for Bundi
- If you’re heading to Bundi by road from Ranthambhore, take the route via Kota. It might be a little longer and the one via Pholai, but the road is far better.
- If jalebis are on your mind, set out to find them before lunch. They’re usually sold out afterwards. Try the doodh jalebi, i.e. jalebi served in a glass of milk.
- The Bundi Inn is a nice enough homestay, but some rooms are small and the food is average.
- The road between the lake and the palace is lined with little restaurants and homestays. The Haveli Katkoun seems like a nice place to stay.
- The heritage in Bundi is magnificent, but crumbling from lack of maintenance. That doesn’t stop the owners from charging for entry, though.
- The intricately painted Badal Mahal room with its Chinese-style ceiling is up a tiny staircase in the far corner past the audience hall. It’s easy to miss.
- If you want to see both the Garh Palace and the fort, remember to buy the extra ticket right at the entry, because no one will tell you to. Be warned, though: the fort is overgrown and full of monkeys.
- A day out with Om Prakash ‘Kukki’ Sharma will definitely give you something to remember. Depending on what you want to see, it’ll cost you upwards of Rs. 3,000. He also has access to some locked rooms in the Garh Palace, so you might want to take him on as a guide. Call him on +91 98284 04527 a few days in advance. His English isn’t great, though.
- If you’re visiting Bhimlat Falls, take a swimsuit or a change of clothes along. The water is extremely tempting.
- Try the local preparation of seasonal baby spinach. Spicy, but extremely tasty.
- The bhojanalays outside Mira Gate serve simple, wholesome local food.
I took most of these photographs with my trusty Canon EOS 200D DSLR camera, using my new Tamron 18-400mm zoom lens (read my review). One or two were taken with my brilliant old Samsung Galaxy S5 phone. I took the footage for the video (and some photographs) with my GoPro Hero5 action camera. I used my Moza AirCross camera stabilizer (read my review) to keep it steady when I wasn’t on the bike.
|Tamron 18-400mm lens for Canon cameras||Tamron 18-400mm lens for Nikon cameras|
In case you’re wondering how I took the videos while on the road… First, I tried strapping my GoPro Hero5 onto my helmet’s face guard with a few of these useful extra-long Velcro-type straps, but that threw my helmet’s balance off. So I alternated between strapping it onto my chest with an elastic chest harness, and mounting it on my bike’s crash guard with a handlebar mount. I used a protective case too, and strapped it in place, just in case. It doesn’t last too long on a single charge, so I had to take along an extra battery and an external charger. I used these high-performance microSDXC memory cards for the hours of footage (Tip: You can use them for your phone too, and they come with an adapter to fit DSLRs and card readers).
This is all the riding gear I was using during our motorcycle tour.
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