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My assignment covering heritage in Gujarat came unannounced. I had the choice of either a car with a driver and guide (and lesser pay) or exploring in my own style (and higher pay!). Of course, I chose the latter. I arrived at Ahmedabad airport with a slight delay and immediately decided to head to Baroda (Vadodara) first and explore Ahmedabad later. I’d called a Punjabi family (who lived in Vadodara); we had met on the Kashmir Great Lakes Trek and they immediately invited me home to stay for as long as I liked.

Chilling in my happy space : I spent more than 3 hours at Laxmi Vilas Palace and totally loved it!

The National Expressway from Ahmedabad to Vadodara was immaculate and even in a Gujarat State Transport Bus, it took only 2 hours to cover the 110 km distance to reach Vadodara. I quickly said hellos to the family, put my bags and set out to explore Vadodara. I must also say thanks to Jitin (from Pushkar, 2014) and Dhaval for showing me around Vadodara. I hope this blog post does a good job of becoming A Guide to Places to Visit in Vadodara (the erstwhile princely state of Baroda).

A door in the exterior of Laxmi Vilas Palace. Introduction to Vadodara

Vadodara is situated on the banks of the Vishwamitri River (Still has around 200 crocodiles) and was originally known as Baroda. It is widely regarded as a cultural town and a industrial hub as well. The city has an interesting folklore and factual anecdote as to why it was named Vadodara : Vad in the local language means the Banyan tree and Vadodara was full of Banyan trees. The British apparently changed the name to Baroda to make it easier for pronunciation. It was renamed to Vadodara in 1974.

Stunning architecture at Laxmi Vilas Palace.

Baroda had an underground drainage line by 1895, and was among one of the first few well planned cities of India. Maharaja Sayajirao III was the first Indian ruler to introduce compulsory and free primary education in 1906. Maharaja Pratap Singh Gaekwad of Baroda State was once considered the 8th richest man in the world.

Among other things, the biggest surprise came for me was when I was informed that the 1871 built Nazarbaug Palace had been torn down and was replaced by a shopping mall. It was a grand structure that also served as Gaekwad’s home (the ruling family of Baroda.)

Kathiawadi Thali and Gujarati Thali at Maharastra Thali House in the old city area of Vadodara. History of Vadodara

Vadodara was the royal residence of the Gaekwads from 1721 to 1947 : The Gaekwad rule of Vadodara began in 1721 when the Marathas overthrew Mughal control over the city. Peshwa Bajirao I granted the territory as a fief to the Gaekwads. The Peshwas were the ruling leaders of the Maratha Empire.

Astonishingly pretty Vadodara : Gorgeous greens and perfect weather as well.

The Maratha Empire declined by the beginning of the 19th Century and Baroda State was formed. The British recognised the Gaekwad rulers’ independence from the Maratha Empire in exchange of accepting British suzerainty.

A Travel Guide to Must Visit Attractions of Vadodara Laxmi Vilas Palace (Also Lakshmi Vilas Palace and Lukshmi Vilas Palace)

Laxmi Vilas Palace is an opulent home of the Rulers of Baroda which is built in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture design. It is set inside a sprawling green ground, and is replete with a golf course with colourful birds strutting around. It was commissioned by Maharaja Sayaji Rao III in 1878 as his residence, and took 12 years to build and was completed in 1890. The architect in charge of designing it was Major Charles Mant.

A perfect backdrop for photographs : Laxmi Vilas Palace is surely one of the most opulent ‘homes’ I’ve seen!

Entry fee is a steep 225 Rupees and DSLR photography is not allowed at all.

Some interesting features of Laxmi Vilas Palace :

  • Lukshmi Villas Palace is four times the size of Buckingham Palace.
  • Maharaja Sayaji Rao III named it after his third wife, Rani Laxmibai from Tanjore
  • It was built with elevators 130 years ago, a big feat at that time.
  • Built at a cost of 180,000 GBP (Pounds).
  • It has 170 rooms but was originally built for only 2 people : Laxmi Vilas Palace served as the private residence of the royal couple; Sayajirao Gaekwad III and his wife.
  • Amalgamation of designs of different religions : Mughal style Islamic domes, Church-like tower, Hindu and Jain motifs, and Gothic architectural elements are present in different parts of the exterior in Laxmi Vilas Palace (As explained by the staff in the Laxmi Vilas Palace Museum office.)
  •  A miniature railway line was constructed by the Maharaja to commute his children between the palace and the school, which was housed in the Fatehsingh Museum.
The mindbogglingly beautiful golf course adjoining Laxmi Vilas Palace. Inside Laxmi Vilas Palace

Only a few sections of Laxmi Vilas Palace are open for visitors. Namely, 11 exhibits can be seen and with the audio guide make for an interesting tour (Audio guide is included in the 225 Rupee charge). Among the highlights to be noticed in the interiors is the enormous Durbar Hall with Venetian mosaic floor and stained Belgian glass windows. It was decorated when I visited, in celebrations for Ganesh Chaturthi. In the exhibits, do not miss the an armoury collection including Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s sword, and six stunning masterpiece paintings by Raja Ravi Varma.

Back in time : Sepia effect to the photograph of Laxmi Vilas Palace.

Outdoor photography with phone is allowed; i.e. you can click pictures of the exterior of Laxmi Vilas Palace with your phones but can’t click with dslr cameras. According to the staff, the present Raja has started this rule and began charging INR 15000 for 1 hour of dslr photography of the exterior. I really liked the small shop at the Laxmi Vilas Palace; the office lady there told me that the designs on the cloth, shawls, stoles and bags are personally chosen by the present queen. The prices of the same were quite exorbitant though and I couldn’t bother to buy anything. The lady also informed me that the entire staff is maratha and that the king prefers it that way.

There is also a small café in the Palace premises and I’d highly recommend some chai and snacks here for the regal feel. The office staff handing out audio guides has served in the Palace for over 20 years and a chat with them will tell you a few secrets of Laxmi Vilas Palace! My favourite time at Laxmi Vilas Palace was simply sitting in the gardens overlooking the golf course (a game was in progress) and gazing at the extremely beautiful Palace. The staff also mentioned that the present ruler wants to convert Laxmi Vilas Palace into a heritage hotel and that talks are currently ongoing for the same.

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The rapturous crowd had just been silenced. The warrior looked fierce and scary in the red mask ringed by five human skulls; he twisted and twirled as he danced. My hair stood on end in anticipation; there was pin drop silence even amid the chaos around. I instantly knew I was witnessing something special while attending the Pang Lhabsol Festival in Gangok, Sikkim.

Welcome to Pang Lhabsol festival!! Click to view slideshow.

When we had entered the Royal Palace Compound (Also called Royal Chapel Monastery), a festive air prevailed in the surroundings. Men, women, children and the royalty had all converged on the Tsuklakhang where the masked warrior dances of Pang Lhabsol festival were to be performed. It was a hot and balmy day in Gangtok, after all the rain on the previous days and I wondered how the dancers were managing with the sweat!

Also read : A Winter in Ladakh : Masked dances at Spituk Monastery

Everyone is glued to the masked dance performance.

Two days ago, at the homestay in Gangtok, our host had informed us that he is one of the dancers at Pang Lhabsol and excused himself by making us meet an alternate host for the time being. Someone amongst us spotted him while he was engrossed in the dance. There were around 15 men dancing in a huge circle in traditional costumes and had practised the slow movements of the dance for the past 2 months.

The stage is set for the masked dancers to come and bless the visitors who come with khatas (white ceremonial cloth) as offerings.

Young lamas watched from the windows from the second storey of the Tsuklakhang; a gaggle of photographers went clickety-clack, well dressed locals sat in the shaded portion and enjoyed the dances; children cried and laughed, the jesters were doing their duty well. The dignitaries and eminent personalities sat in a separate enclosure; people watched from the rooftop of the monks’s residences – umbrella in hand to save from the uncharacteristic sweltering heat.

Vintage feel to the proceedings.

And when the fifteen-odd men were done with their dance; the theatrics began. The funny looking jesters with their even more funnier masks were doing what they did best; joking around and making the crowd laugh. When the fierce masked dance began, it was almost an anticlimax : We had oscillated too quickly from funny to serious! The masked dance was a sight to behold though; slow, measured movements with precise foot placement while the dance was being performed.

Check : First impressions of Sikkim

A well dressed family heads to the Pang Lhabsol festival.

In a dramatic entry, Mahakala – the protector of dharma enters the Palace grounds and instructs Kanchendzonga to ensure that Sikkim remains prosperous and peaceful! The crowd makes a queue to present the deity with khata (white cloth offering) and the photographers go clickety-clack again!

Click to view slideshow. Tsuklakhang or Royal Chapel Monastery in Gangtok, Sikkim :

Within the Royal Palace’s compound is the Tsuklakhang or the Royal Chapel where the Chogyals (Kings of Sikkim) were coronated; signifying it as a seat of power. Royal wedding ceremonies were also performed here.

A little lama peeks outside the Royal Chapel monastery. About Pang Lhabsol Festival : 

Pang Lhabsol is a three day festival of Sikkim that was popularised by the 3rd Chogyal, Chagdor Namgyal (Chakdor Namgyal). It is an important annual festival that celebrates Mt. Kanchendzonga (Kanchenjunga) and is indigenous to the state. Pang Lhabsol is dedicated to Mt. Kanchendzonga, the presiding guardian deity of Sikkim. The festival pays homage to all of SIkkim’s Guardian Deities like Dzonga, Gonpo and Dragpo Deshi.

I loved these cool looking hats!

Pang means witness and the festival also commemorates the Treaty of Brotherhood between the Lepchas and the Bhutias which was witnessed by the local deities in the 13th Century.

Click to view slideshow.

Pang Lhabsol is celebrated with the masked warrior dance and Mt. Kanchendzonga is represented by the red mask ringed by five human skulls.

Historical Background to Pang Lhabsol Festival : 

Guru Rinpoche established Buddhism in Tibet in the 8th Century AD and then travelled South to Sikkim and declared it as a blessed land and the most sacred of his seven hidden lands (bey-ney). He professed the discovery of Sikkim by the Tibetan Yogi and the establishment of Buddhism in Sikkim by Naljor Chezhi. The prophecy indeed came true.

Naljor Chezhi literally translates to ‘the four great accomplished brothers’. They had entered Sikkim from four cardinal directions and met at Yuksom in West Sikkim. Their names were Lhatsun Namkha Jigme, Ngadag Sempa Phungtsog Rinzing, Karthog Kuntu Zangpo and Phuntsog Namgyal.

A dazzling display of colours : Honestly, the weather was such a kill joy that day. Otherwise I would have loved to spend more time in the monastery.

Among these, Phuntsog Namgyal had been conferred the title of Chogyal (King) after an auspicious ceremony at Norbugang, near Yuksom. The four stones throne on which the Naljor Chezhi sat still exists at Norbugang as a testimony to the historical event.

A closer look at the costume worn during the masked dance at Pang Lhabsol.

When Guru Rinpoche blessed Sikkim, he also subdued the land-spirits of Sikkim and bound them under oath as sworn Guardian deities of the dharma and to preserve Sikkim’s hidden treasures. In their duties as guardians of Sikkim and its people, Guru Rinpoche instructed them to grace the land with bountiful harvests, with abundant rainfall but also protect it from natural calamities and wars. In return, it was agreed that these guardian deities would be prayed on an annual basis by the people of Sikkim.

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It was as unplanned as something could be. Arvind Bhai of (Jaipurthrumylens) had an invite for Dal Baati Choorma at a function in Samode and since we had discussed visiting Samode Village numerous times, I instantly said yes when he asked if I was interested in going! Not that Dal Baati Choorma wasn’t reason enough to go, especially when its the monsoon in Rajasthan. For the outsiders, Jaipur locals celebrate monsoon by organising community gatherings and serving Dal Baati Choorma and other traditional dishes. These gatherings are typically held in the outskirts of the city and this time the invite had come from Samode village.

Street scene in Samode.

Also read : Bundi – Charmed by the Magic of this Fairytale Town in Rajasthan.

Street art in a typical Rajasthani village! Quite surprised to see this painted on the village water tank.

We left from Jaipur at around 11 in the morning. Samode Village is located around 40 kilometres away from Jaipur and is on the road to Shekhawati. A large part of the road to Samode is the National Highway (To Bikaner); there is a diversion just before reaching Samode village. The weather was gorgeous and dark clouds filled the sky. The landscape and the low lying hills were in a generous shade of green and the typical barren colours of Rajasthan were nowhere to be seen. What a welcome change it turned out to be…

In hindsight, it was good that we had started off with our explorations before our super heavy feast of Dal Baati Choorma! I had been to Samode village only once before this; and that was just for a morning hike. We had climbed close to the entrance of the Samode Fort and had hiked back from a forest path which was leopard territory – as per the locals. It was then that I had really been intrigued by this lovely little hamlet.

Entry to a Haveli in Samode village.

As we reached Samode village, a local tour guide approached us. He also owned a small travel firm and was happy to show us around. I spotted some crumbling, gorgeous doors as we moved ahead on the single street main road of Samode. Like Shekhawati; Samode’s houses were brightly painted from the exterior. Frescoes had been painted outside almost every home and the architectural pattern felt quite similar to Shekhawati. Few of the houses resembled havelis, giving Samode a very regal flavour.

What a frame! To relive forgotten times, we have to visit these historical homes in small towns.

The entrance to Samode Village was through a huge gateway that gave the impression that Samode must have been a Kingdom or a thikana earlier. Our first impression hadn’t been all that great since we had to wade through ankle-deep water to get to Samode, courtesy of the overnight rains. We joked that with the cobblestone paths, we could have been in medieval Europe.

Unforgettable frame in Samode village!!

Samode is set in a bowl shaped valley ringed with low-lying hills. The monsoon had been inconsistent but had still painted the surroundings with shrubs of light green colour juxtaposed against the orange rocks. We entered one Haveli, courtesy of the local guide. The outside had been painted with welcoming elephants and the inside was as artistic too. The light inside seemed almost surreal; pretty doors with earthen pots kept for cooling water.

As we walked past the timeless lanes, children played forgotten games giving Samode an even more small hamlet feel. A few shops were open; a tailor went about his work nonchalantly and welcomed us for chai as we walked past his shop. There was a guy who was meticulously engrossed in making customised leather chappals; the products looked really nice and I wondered if I could come back someday and get some footwear made. After 10 odd minutes, we stood in front of an even more opulent doorway – It led to Samode Palace. Samode Palace was the erstwhile home of the royalty and is now run as a heritage hotel.

Read : A Quick Travel Guide to ‘Pink City’ in Jaipur

Daily life in Samode village.

The hike that went past Samode Fort was something that people normally associating Rajasthan as a desert state should surely have a look at. And the fact that we went there during sunrise made it even more beautiful. The sun painted spectacular orange hues behind the mountains. The jungle was thick and we were happy to be safely back when we met a local (forest guard) who said that the entire region was leopard country!

Outside the biggest Haveli in Samode Village : Sad to see the frescoes in a bad shape. I’m really hoping that the family saves the glorious art on the streets of Samode.

We roamed around Samode village some more and as the sun made the weather humid, it was also time to go to the Dal Baati Choorma feast!

Wonderful human being. It will be super fun to show him this photograph when I go next to Samode.

When the weather gods intervened after a hearty lunch and a cool breeze blew across the Jain temple close to Samode village, we turned our car in that direction and went for another round. This time we spotted some cool-looking graffiti on the streets. A few homestays had opened in Samode for tourists looking to explore a traditional Rajasthani village close to Jaipur.

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A boy who travels by Shubhammansingka - 2M ago

I’ve spent only around a week in Manipur but its safe to say Manipur is one of my favourite states in the Northeast. On a usual trip, I may not click many pictures of the locals because sometimes they are not outright friendly – but it wasn’t so in Manipur. Even in the capital Imphal, everyone I met was super interested in chatting up and I never had a ‘no’ in response whenever I asked for permission for clicking a portrait.

Presenting some memorable Portraits from Manipur As soon as I got out of my hostel in Imphal, this little kid stole my heart at the breakfast dhaba. I was dropped outside the Govindajee Temple in an auto : My joy knew no bounds when I saw a lady in traditional Manipuri dress inside the temple compound. Glad that she agreed to let me click a picture. Thanks. As I walked out of the temple, this superstar stood demanding to be clicked! It was a State Holiday in Manipur that day, and while I was wandering on the pavement to reach Kangla Fort – this prettily dressed lady agreed to pose! I hope she sees it on this blog. Seeing the lady pose, this Policeman also wanted a share of the spoils. Can’t exactly remember but he also tried to get the photograph on whatsapp. There were clouds scattered throughout the day but as I walked towards Kangla Fort, the day became brighter as the sun came out. Hope this lady too sees the photograph here; she was curious as to how she can get this photograph. A memorable photograph of a young couple inside Kangla Fort Complex. They were truly in love inspite of being people with special abilities. More love and power to you guys. Near the Ima Keithel (The famous all women’s market in Imphal); these ladies sort of semi-posed for this wonderful photograph! A boatman in action on Loktak Lake in Manipur : He had just caught a nice fish and was quite happy about it. This rockstar peered out of the hut located on the floating phumdi on Loktak Lake. Our boatman posing with Mr. Maipakchao of the homestay in the background! What a fun life on the Loktak Lake. Last but not the least, a picture of myself : Happiness galore wearing the local bamboo hat in Manipur.

Check some more photo stories :

Brokpas of Ladakh – Culture & Portraits

Portraits that speak, from Turtuk

Lamas at Phuktal (Phugtal) Monastery

Kashmir Great Lakes Trek, in Pictures

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It was a cold January morning and I was on an assignment to unearth the seen and not so seen attractions around Sariska and Alwar. By the end of the trip, I couldn’t help but wonder how come this region retains its offbeat charm despite being so close to Delhi?! And I couldn’t help but smile in happiness, content with knowing that I had witnessed something special.

Would you ever associate this shade of green with Rajasthan? Memorable Historical Delights in and around Alwar – Sariska

Neelkanth Mahadev Temple Complex

A short drive from Sariska, is a temple complex with incredible carvings that is supposed to date back to the sixth century. It is said to have survived Aurangzeb only because bees chased him away from the location.

Magical carvings at the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple Complex.

The crumbling Neelkanth Mahadev Temple Complex sits on a small plateau circled by low hills and the defensive walls of the Rajorgarh Fort. A winding road leads to this complex and provides some dramatic views on the way, making the journey every bit as intriguing as the destination.

The more than 200 odd temples in this complex are said to have been built between the 6th and 9th century.  The main shrine is that of Neelkanth or Shiva. This complex is yet another example of the depth and width of Indian art and intellect . The pillars in these temples have intricately carved mythological figures. The temple spire is still undamaged and can leave the viewer spellbound. A little distance away is a Jain temple built from orange-red sandstone, with a gigantic statue of the 23rd Tirthankar (Jain saint).

Jain Temple in Neelkanth Mahadev Complex. 

Anecdotal history suggests that the temples survived Aurangzeb because he was chased away by bees when he tried to attack the buildings. Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) maintains these temples. Many historians feel that the complex is worthy of being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Neelkanth Mahadev is located at a distance of around 30 kms from Sariska.

Bakhtawar Ki Chhatri – Moosi Maharani ki Chhatri. 

Bakhtawar ki Chhatri – Moosi Maharani ki Chhatri is both an incredible piece of architecture and a memorial to Moosi’s undying love for Bakhtawar. It is a must visit for those who revel in the beauty of Rajput architecture and tales of love. Chhatris (cenotaphs) were an important element of traditional Indian architecture especially that of Rajputs, Marathas and Jats. The term literally translates into umbrella and therefore typifies structures with domed, canopy-like roofs.

Moosi Maharani ki Chhatri from outside.

The term chhatri is used to refer to two kinds of structures, the first being the purely decorative cupolas that usually mark the corners of the main roof. However it is the second type of structure that constitutes more common usage – ornate, stone pavilions built at the funerary site of important people. Such pavilions usually consist of intricately carved pillars that support the chhatri. Since chattris denote pride and honour, they were usually built at the cremation site of kings.

The colourful roof inside the chhatri.

Bakhtawar Ki Chhatri, also known as the Moosi Maharani ki Chhatri, is a double storied edifice built in 1815 by Maharaja Vinay Singh in memory of his father Maharaja Bakhtawar Singh. It is an incredibly elegant structure that is shaped like a flower. The first storey is in sandstone colour while the upper storey and the roof are constructed in white marble.  The domed arches have exquisite floral designs that glisten in the sunlight. The ceiling is embellished with fading gold leaf paintings depicting mythological characters and scenes.

Footsteps of Moosi and Maharaja Bakhtawar. 

There is a certain poignancy about this chhatri made more so by the story behind it. Moosi was Bakhtawar’s mistress who was never given the status of a wife in her lifetime. When Bakhtawar died she jumped into the pyre along with him and committed sati as a wife would have done. She thus came to be regarded as his wife. Death gave her the husband that life held back. Footsteps of Maharaja and Moosi Rani are carved in marble inside the pavilion, and locals pay homage to them. It is located adjacent to the Alwar City Palace Complex.

Pandupol and Hanuman Temple

While in exile, the Pandavas are believed to have stayed for a while in the forest of Sariska in an area called Pandupol. There is a Hanuman temple in the region that is believed to be more than 5000 years old and was probably built by the Pandavas themselves.

Pandupol : As the literal translation goes – gateway by the Pandavas.

In Sanskrit, Pandupol translates into the Gateway of the Pandavas. It is essentially a rock formation that resembles a gateway. Legend has it that while in exile, the Pandava Princes were passing by this area. A boulder in their path proved to be particularly obstinate and invited the wrath of Bheem. He whacked it with his mace and managed to make a big opening in the rockface for the Pandavs to walk through. Smashing the rock is also believed to have released a hidden stream; which still flows in the vicinity.

A glimpse of the European looking Sariska Palace.

Pandupol is idyllic and looks straight out of an Amar Chitra Katha comic book. The ancient Hanuman temple in the proximity is much revered by the locals. Practically every ruin in India has a documented history as well as a popular one, the Hanuman temple is no different. Myth has it that one day Bheem was going to fetch water from the stream when he saw a frail monkey lying by the roadside, his tail sprawled across the rough track.

Bheem arrogantly asked the monkey to move his tail. The monkey claimed has was too ill to do so and requested the mighty Pandav to move it instead. Despite several efforts, Bheem could not. He then realised that the monkey was actually the Monkey God Hanuman and sought the latter’s forgiveness.

Nature’s bounty in Alwar – Sariska.

To commemorate this divine encounter, the Pandavas are said to have set up a small idol of Hanuman here, which probably became a temple later. Visitors driving down are allowed into the temples on Tuesdays and Saturdays by paying a small fee of two hundred and fifty rupees. Pandupol and Hanuman Temple are at a distance of 15-20 kms from Sariska, and lie inside the Tiger Sanctuary. 

Boating at Siliserh  

Siliserh Lake is a man-made lake that lies between Alwar and Sariska. A Lake Palace stands on its banks. One can enjoy boating at this lake and watch the sun go down. Siliserh Lake is an enchanting lake that runs along the edge of the Sariska Tiger Reserve. It lies serene in a valley surrounded by low, forest-clad hills, with little to mar its tranquility.

Misty boating scenes at Siliserh Lake.

This beautiful water body is spread over 10 square kms, and offers dreamy views of the mountains in the winter fog. Apart from being a sight for sore eyes, the lake is also an important source of water for Alwar. Maharaja Vinay Singh had it built for his subjects. He also constructed the palace that stands on the banks of this water body as a token of love.

Trails leading from the lake to the foothills are said to have many interesting chattris; marking the funerary sites of many an important Rajput. The roads and tracks in the area are also popular biking routes.

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