The milkman, a person easily recognisable by his vibrant red turban and traditional clothing, cycled along the road with four large brass urns attached to his bike—he was impossibly well balanced as if his load was nothing more than himself. Palm trees and chattries lined his path—it was like a scene that one would imagine Rajasthan to have been around a century ago. No sooner had I clicked his photo that the exceptionally impressive Taragarh Fort loomed into view. This had to be one of the most imposing yet striking forts I had seen in all of Rajasthan, towering as it does majestically over the old fortified city of Bundi. The water tank of the town, in front of the fort, was full due to the exceptional rains which had graced the region.
This was one of the most stunning views I had ever seen in fifteen years of travelling around India and how this place has remained a secret is anyone’s guess. As far as I could see, and this was only from the first impression, it should be the first name dripping from everyone’s lips when you ask about where to visit in Rajasthan. Yet the fact that it isn’t and remains relatively undiscovered, I was soon to learn, undoubtedly adds to its charm.
Bundi isn’t a city used to wealthy tourists, most that I could see were backpackers and as a white face, it was a revelation not to be hassled and harassed by touts begging me to buy anything from postcards to carpets. I sauntered around the narrow, winding streets of the old city, sadly too narrow for the few cars and motorbikes which were determined to barge through, at leisure, admiring the views without any hassle at all. School children with square backpacks twice their own width chattered in the street and at a prompting from their mother, put their hands together and said a grave Namaste with beaming smiles which belied their serious tone. One look at their mother to check that the duty has been done and they giggled and ran away.
This is a steep destination. The climb up to my hotel was up a small lane which twisted its way up to an impressive three-storey archway, the entrance of Bundi Vilas, a converted old haveli. Then there were four flights of stairs to climb. The effort was worth it. My accommodation was clinging to the ramparts of the fort itself, which was then lit up at night, illuminating the town. It was stunning.
The following morning, I climbed the hill and found my way through the elephant gate and into the fort. This was no ordinary deserted fort. One immediately got a sense of the grandeur of the bygone era—elephant platforms, stables, marble thrones and one of the best preserved sets of miniature paintings left in the country adorning its walls. The king’s bedroom even has paintings in gold, as in gold leaf, not just the colour. The view down over the town is rather ‘Jodhpuresque’, given the blue-painted buildings of the Brahmins which dominate the town, and prompted a visit. The old town itself has approximately fifty five step wells or baoris, the most impressive of which is the Raniji ki Baori, still remarkably well preserved and worth the photo opportunity at least.
Once that has been visited, further exploration of this gem of an old Rajasthan town reveals treat after treat. A whole street with ladies making lac bangles in a traditional way with a coal stove, wax and wooden moulds; fruit and vegetable markets with impeccably stacked produce; and always a smile whilst serving. I then came across a dentist—I wasn’t too sure about the quality of the work of the local dentist and would personally rather have had knowledge of his qualifications than the ones his victim seemed surprisingly happy with. They sat there patiently waiting for the dentist to complete a small puja and who then, that seemingly being the only anaesthetic he was going to administer, dived in with a pair of pliers, to remove a painful tooth.
I moved on, quickly. I came across the place where the milkmen delivered their loads, huge vats at the side of the road where it converted into paneer or other milk based products. Dogs appeared to me lazing around, but they had settled as close as they dare to be, the eagerness in their eyes apparent belying their chilled out state, as they kept a hopeful look out for spillage. Further exploration brought me to the most famous miniature painter of the town, a Mr Soni Gopal, a nail painting specialist, who over the next thirteen minutes painted a phenomenally detailed elephant on my thumb nail. It was extraordinary.
Of course, I can’t leave any destination without sampling the street food and the sure winner in Bundi is the chilli pakora wala situated at the gate of the Raniji ki Baori. He has been cooking up and serving these delights on this exact spot for over twenty five years and suffice to say, he has perfected his art as much as Mr Gopal has perfected his. One just wasn’t enough, thank goodness for the steep walks that are an inevitable part of any visit to this place. Yes, Bundi is an absolute gem of a destination, I was tempted not to write this piece as its charm may well get ruined as more and more people discover it, but then again, some things just have to be shared, and as this is India after all and I know that I will be repaid for my generosity in karma.
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