DAY 2 (2/4): MEDIEVAL STEPWELLS, Mahila Bagh Ka Jhalra, Gulab Sagar, & Toorji Ka Jhalra, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India, 2018.11.25
While Jodhpur is famous for its magnificent architecture and folk music, the second largest city of the desert state is also well known for its historical water management network of reservoirs, stepwells and wells. Medieval Jodhpur inhabitants made well use of the catchment area of the Pachetia Hill where Mehrangarh Fort stood, and collected rainwater at various depressions and water bodies within the walled city. Every community in Jodhpur had its their own baori or stepwell. In fact, one of the main reasons for Rao Jodha selecting the summit of Pachetia Hill to build his capital city in the 15th century was Jodhpur’s potentials to collect rainwater.
Saving two months’ monsoon rainwater for the rest of the year, the stepwells represented the wisdom and engineering marvel of the Medieval Rajasthani inhabitants. Many stepwells survive to present day, despite being superseded by modern water systems. Although representing a unique cultural heritage of Rajasthan, many stepwells have become nothing more than a garbage dump or outlet of sewage effluent. Caron Rawnsley, an Irish environmentalist and traveler, has been staying in Jodhpur for several years. Passionate in conserving India’s historical water management network, Rawnsley has been cleaning a number of water bodies in and around Jodhpur, including stepwell Mahila Bagh Ka Jhalra and reservoir Gulab Sagar.
The first water body we visited in Jodhpur was Mahila Bagh Ka Jhalra. Some said the stepwell was named for Mayla, a wealthy concubine who commissioned the construction.
A few years ago, Mahila Bagh Ka Jhalra was filled with trash and dirt. In 2015 Irish traveler Caron Rawnsley took up the challenge of cleaning the well almost single-handedly. His effort inspired other locals to join him in maintaining the stepwells and other water bodies around Jodhpur.
Constructed with local pink sandstones, the Mahila Bagh Ka Jhalra is a beautiful community stepwell just a stone throw away from the Ghanta Ghar Market.
At Mahila Bagh Ka Jhalra, we met a local cleaning staff who opened the gate and let us into the stepwell.
Across the street from Mahila Bagh Ka Jhalra, Gulab Sagar is a manmade reservoir measured 150m x 90m. It took 8 years to construct the reservoir, in which water from Balsamand Lake was transported to the reservoir via canals. For tourists, Gulab Sagar is one of the best places to photograph the reflection of the Mehrangarh Fort.
In modern times, domestic and industrial effluents have been dumped into Gulab Sagar, raising the risk of water pollution.
From the north side of Gulab Sagar, we found our way through lanes of blue houses towards our next stepwell Toorji Ka Jhalra.
Blue paint on red sandstone houses gives Jodhpur its unique visual identity.
We also passed by beautiful haveli mansions erected in the bygone era.
Out of the 100+ stepwells in Jodhpur, Toorji Ka Jhalra is probably the most well known and frequently visited for tourists.
Built by Rani Toor Ji in the 1740s by a queen of Maharaja Abhay Singh, Toorji Ka Jhalra is another prominent historical stepwell near Gulab Sagar.
A few years ago, local hotels organized efforts to restore and clean up Toorji Ka Jhalra.
Today, Toorji Ka Jhalra is widely seen as a success story of restoring a historical stepwell and maintaining acceptable water quality.
Water level at Toorji Ka Jhalra varies from season to season. The stepwell is over 200 feet deep.
After restoration and cleaning, Toorji Ka Jhalra has become a magnet for locals and tourists. Many locals would take a dip into the water during the hottest hours of the day.
The immediate area around Toorji Ka Jhalra is gradually revitalized with shops, cafes, restaurants, and hotels taking over restored heritage buildings.
“JDH is an urban regeneration project that aims to restore the walled city of Jodhpur to its former glory, breathing new life into its invaluable landmarks and livelihoods.”
After checking out the water bodies, we returned to Pal Haveli to have a quick bite at the rooftop restaurant.
From the hotel rooftop, Gulab Sagar appeared to be calm and beautiful. Our hired car arrived at 13:00 for our ongoing journey over to Jaisalmer.
After settling ourselves from a terrifying incident with a stray dog near our hotel in early morning, we were ready to venture out again in Jodhpur for a few more hours before our hired car came pick us up to move on to Jaisalmer. Similar to our visit of Mehrangarh Fort the day before, our tuk tuk took us into the winding lanes north of Pal Haveli and climbed uphill until reaching a bronze equestrian statue of Rao Jodha, the founder of Jodhpur in the 15th century. We soon reached our first destination of the day, the magnificent marble monument of Jaswant Thada. Built in 1899 by Maharaja Sardar Singh, the Jaswant Thada is a cenotaph for Maharaja Jaswant Singh II and the cremation ground for the Marwar royal family.
Standing adjacent to the Deity Pond in Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, Jaswant Thada is surrounded by the arid landscape of Jodhpur.
From the parking lot, we entered into a garden right by Deity Pond. A short flight of steps led us to the main garden terrace.
At the main garden terrace, the first thing we encountered was a beautiful gazebo.
As a delightful example of 19th century Rajasthani temple architecture, the Jaswant Thada is beautiful in many ways, from the finest ornaments to the overall architectural proportion. The row of chhatri (folly domes) on the roof signifies the wealth and status of the royal family.
The mausoleum presents the splendid marble carving, especially the jali work (lattice) of the Indian craftsmen.
Before entering the building, we took our time to examine the beautiful craftsmanship of the stonework and jali (lattice).
Visitors can enter the cenotaph through a side door.
No shoes are allowed in the cenotaph.
We were greatly attracted by the layers of marble carving.
The interior featured photos and illustrations of the Marwar rulers, and memorial altar for Maharaja Jaswant Singh II.
We loved the fine jali work (stone lattice), which looked like paper art made by laser cutting.
Natural light entered the building through the beautiful jali, providing a soft lighting effect for the interior.
Sunlight penetrated through the thin pieces of marble, creating an illumination effect on certain parts of the wall.
A vivid green is applied to the wooden doors and windows, creating a beautiful contrast to the colour palette of the architecture.
On our way back to the parking lot, we passed by a traditional musician once again.
We stopped for a few minutes to admire the Rajasthani folk music before heading back to the parking lot.
From the parking lot of Jaswant Thada, we had a final overview of the majestic Mehrangarh Fort.
It was dark by the time we left Mehrangarh Fort. We turned our gaze from the fort to the cityscape below us. We saw countless festive lights flickering in different parts of the old city, as if a citywide party awaited for our return. At the centre of Old Jodhpur, the Ghanta Ghar Clock Tower was bathed in colourful lighting like a rainbow popsicle. We followed a winding footpath going downhill, hoping to get back to the old town in time for dinner at the rooftop restaurant at Pal Haveli. Before supper, we still had one more destination to go which was the vibrant Sadar Market at the Ghanta Ghar Clock Tower.
It was getting dark when we began to walk down from Mehrangarh Fort. From afar, the clock tower in colourful lights was highly visible and served as a destination landmark to guide us for the walk.
Mehrangarh Fort looked majestic under the evening flood lights.
The path soon led us into small streets at the foothills below the fort.
It was dinner time and most shops were about to close.
We walked by many homes with their doors kept opened. From time to time, we could hear laughter of families from inside their homes.
In Jodhpur, there was a common way in which the street vendors decorate their store with bags of chips and snacks in different colourful packaging hanging vertically around the front edge of the roof. It was very eye-catching.
We kept on walking downhill and hoped that we would soon reach the Sadar Market and Ghanta Ghar Clock Tower. Behind us, the massive Mehrangarh Fort provided a mysterious background.
Soon we reached the bottom of the hill in the streets of Gulab Sagar,
It was dinner time for many families, and even bedtime for this puppy on a motorbike.
Near Sadar Market or Clock Tower Market, we passed by a small Hindu shrine along the main commercial street.
A beautiful gateway welcomed us into the vibrant Sadar Market. The market was named after Maharaja Sardar Singh, who built the market and the clock tower during his reign from 1880 to 1911.
Built by Maharaja Sardar Singh in the late 19th century, the Ghanta Ghar Clock Tower is one the most iconic monuments of old Jodhpur.
Sadar Market is one of the busiest place in Jodhpur where locals and tourists come to shop for handicrafts, souvenirs, spices, fresh produce, textiles, jewellery and clothing.
At Sadar Market, our target was to check out MV Spices Shop.
Established by Mohan Lal Verhomal years ago, MV Spices is a renowned spices shop recommended by many guidebooks and foreign media. Today, the spices shop is managed by the friendly daughters of Mohan Lal Verhomal. After a cup of chai tea and a good chat with one of the daughters, we bought a pack of Maharaja curry, and also spices to make chai tea and chicken tikka masala.
After a quick visit of Sadar Market, we returned to our hotel Pal Haveli.
We climbed up to the hotel’s rooftop restaurant Indique for dinner.
Indique is a popular rooftop restaurant in Old Jodhpur, serving decent Indian food with magnificent views of the old city.
We enjoyed the distant view of Mehrangarh Fort at one side of the rooftop. During dinner, it was a surprise to see a small firework in front of the fort. It came in a split second. We couldn’t react quick enough to capture the moment with our camera. The scene could only live in our memory.
At the other side of the rooftop restaurant, we could look down to the vibrant Sadar Market and the colourful Ghanta Ghar Clock Tower.
After touring the museum and palaces of Mehrangarh, we followed the local visitors and walked over to the outer fortress. Time was perfect to view the sunset over the blue city of Jodhpur. Over at the far side of the fort we headed towards the 15th century Chamunda Mataji Temple, a small white structure frequented by locals. The fortress rampart led us toward the temple. From the wall, the views down to the famous blue city were breathtaking. Some said the blue paint on the walls was meant to keep the house interior cool and mosquito free. Through an arrowslit, we watched the sun descending slowly over the Thar Desert beyond Jodhpur.
Groups after groups of local visitors headed for the Chamunda Mataji Temple at the southern tip of the fort. The white temple stood peacefully under the sun’s orange glow. With such a beautiful scene, it was hard to imagine that a horrific stampede had happened right at this location back in 2008, with over 200 killed and hundreds injured. We didn’t find out about this tragic incident until we returned home. At that moment on the rampart of Mehrangarh Fort, we were totally absorbed in the splendid beauty of the blue city and the sinking sun.
On our way to the fort rampart, a beautiful tree welcomed all visitors outside of the palace courtyard.
A row of antique iron cannons stood silently on the fort rampart.
At the middle of the south rampart, abandoned houses and the top of the naturally hilltop.
The winding rampart led us all the way to Chamunda Mataji Temple.
Looking down to the city, many areas in Old Jodhpur were dominated by blue houses.
The blue colour of the houses expressed a sense of relaxation and calmness.
Soon we discovered the beautiful clock tower Ghanta Ghar at the market.
Beyond the blue city, the grand Umaid Bhawan Palace stood against the horizon. Today, the building houses the residence of the Maharaja’s family, a museum and a world famous five-star hotel.
Occasional Hindu temples stood out from the sea of blue houses.
The sun slowly descended toward the horizon.
The sunset at Mehrangarh was one of the most beautiful sunset we had witnessed.
The orange lights of the palace raised the beauty of Mehrangarh up to another level.
After sunset, we strolled around the complex a little more, and found our way to the main entrance of the fort.
We didn’t participate in the night tour, but stayed long enough to admire the palaces before darkness fell upon.
We slowly found ourselves out of the fort.
It took us quite a while to return to the main gate of the fort.
Such a romantic scene of Mehrangarh that comes straight out from the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights.
Standing on a rock hill 120m above the old city of Jodhpur, many consider Mehrangarh Fort the most impressive fortress in India. Director Christopher Nolan must have the same feeling when he chose to shoot a scene of The Dark Knight Rises here back in 2011. Built in the 15th century by Rao Jodha, the king of Mandore who found the city of Jodhpur, Mehrangarh has impressed spectators for centuries with its massive defense walls and exquisite palaces. Since 1971, maharajas and princes in India were deprived of their privileges and remuneration. Maharaja Gaj Singhji of Jodhpur has since then became a politician in the parliament. In 1972, he found the Mehrangarh Museum Trust to restore and maintain his famous fort. Throughout the years, they have done a decent job in restoring the fort and establishing a museum to showcase the artifacts of former royal family. The Mehrangarh was the first place to visit during our stay in Rajasthan. We spent the rest of the day at the fort. We took our time to wander around the fort and listen to the informative audio guide, which was included in the admission of foreign visitors.
Built in the 19th century by Maharaja Man Singh, a chattri (umbrella dome on pillars) was a memorial of feudal lord Thakur Shyam Singh Chauhan welcome most visitors in front of the massive fort.
The impressive Mehrangarh is one of the largest forts in India.
After entering the first gate Jai Pol, we soon arrived at the gates of Dodh Kangra Pol (left) and Imritia Pol (middle) on our way up to the fort.
Through the Imritia Pol, we followed other visitors and walked up to the next gate Loha Pol.
At the Loha Pol Gate, music performers rested in a niche along with their traditional drums and instruments.
At Loha Pol Gate, we walked by a series of small hand prints on the wall. Those small hand prints or the sati marks were left by the wives and concubines before their sati ritual. In the sati custom, these women would dressed in wedding finery and joined their husband in death on his funeral pyre.
Beyond Loha Pol Gate, we entered a long courtyard where we had our first glimpse of the beautiful facades of Jhanki Mahal (Palace of Glimpses) and Phool Mahal (Palace of Flowers).
Through the Suraj Pol or Sun Gate beyond a set of steps, we entered the Shringar Chowk Courtyard, the first part of the admission zone.
The Shringar Chowk Courtyard was the site of coronation for the maharajas.
At Shringar Chowk Courtyard, a staff was performing the act of opium smoking.
From Shringar Chowk, we entered the second courtyard known as Daulat Khana Chowk (Treasury Square). Constructed by Maharaja Ajit Singh in 1718, the second courtyard was the perfect spot to admire the splendid palaces of Mehrangarh: Daulat Khana Mahal (centre), Phool Mahal (right) and Jhanki Mahal (left).
The Daulat Khana Mahal (Treasury) showcases some fascinating artifacts of the royal family, including a collection of elephant’s howdahs, the wooden seat covered with gold and silver sheets fastened on the elephant backs for riding.
The display at the museum was full of wonderful display of paintings, artifacts and furniture of the royal family.
The Phul Mahal or Palace of Flowers was a private reception hall constructed in the 18th century. It was used for private receptions or cozy music performances.
From Phul Mahal, we walked over to the roof of Daulat Khana Mahal, where we could look back down to the Daulat Khana Chowk (Treasury Square).
Takhat Vilas was the private chamber of Takhat Singh in the 19th century. All surfaces were painted or decorated with colours. The Christmas balls were interesting additions to the interiors, at a time when Western influences came as trendy articulations in lives of the wealthy.
At Jhanki Mahal, a hallway was converted into the Cradle Gallery to display the facy cradles of the royal family, many of which were used for ceremonies during festivals.
From the upper floors in the palaces, we occasionally encountered great spots to look down to the blue city of old Jodhpur.
The Holi chowk courtyard was where the Maharaja and his wives and concubines celebrated important festivals.
With more than 250 stone latticework designs, the impressive building facades at Zenana Deorhi Chowk (Women’s Square) provided the perfect finale for the fortress visit.