Alwar – Heritage in Shackles

Road Trip
Stop 5 – Alwar

Alwar a former princely state of Rajasthan isn’t exactly considered a tourist destination. Though you may find it on every travel portal there isn’t much on offer except Sariska. Initially, I wasn’t keen on visiting Alwar but it was on our road trip route and after scouring the internet we thought of giving it a shot.

The northern region of Rajasthan is quite green and has no resemblance to the preconceived notions of desert land. The road from Neemrana to Alwar is very good and flanked by mustard fields on either side it makes for a very scenic drive. If you are lucky you may even spot a few sunflower fields. The area is also developing very fast as it is a part of NCR. But amidst all this development, the heritage is being forgotten.

The Vijay Mandir Palace

Maharaja Jai Singh was one of the famous rulers of the Alwar state. During his reign, he built magnificent palaces the most beautiful of all being the Vijay Mandir palace which was his residence. This spectacular royal residence set on the banks of a lake (Vijay Sagar) was designed to look like an anchored ship. The palace is said to have about 105 exquisitely furnished rooms, lush gardens, and even a swimming pool. The sheer opulence of the architecture will remind you of the grandeur of the rulers. The palace complex also houses a very famous Sita Ram temple. Unfortunately, the palace is locked up because of dispute. However, you can take the lakeside road and enjoy the picturesque sight. This neglected beauty has immense potential to be converted into a grand museum or a luxurious heritage hotel.

Palace locked down

Siliserh Lake and Palace

This serene lake is half an hours drive away from the city. The Siliserh Lake Palace was built by Maharaja Vinay Singh in 1845. It was apparently a gift from the king to his village bride Sheela whose home was on the other side of the lake. The lake is about 11 km long and is said to be 25 feet deep. The palace also served as the hunting lodge of the erstwhile rulers.

The Siliserh Palace

The palace is now being maintained, or not, by the RTDC. The entry fee is Rs. 100 per person which is too much considering there is nothing to see except the serene lake nestled in the foothills of Aravalis. Yeah, you get a complimentary coffee but where is the money going? There is a restaurant but there isn’t much to choose from the menu. The lake also attracts many birds and if developed it could become a birdwatchers’ delight. Currently, some water sports are being organised in the lake. If you are lucky you may even spot crocodiles in the lake.

 

While we were at the Siliserh lake we talked to a local family for suggestions. Initially, they were surprised that we were on a road trip and that too in Alwar and above all that we had no plans of visiting Sariska. It seemed as though people only bypass Alwar to visit Sariska. They told us that this lake is the best of what the city has to offer. We prodded them more and they said we could try the city museum but other than that there is nothing to see as everything else is either in ruins or locked down. But we decided to continue with our original plan to see the “tourist attractions”.

Vinay Vilas Mahal ~ City Palace

The city palace was built by Raja Bakhtawar Singh. Many people say it was built by Maharaja Vinay Singh and hence the name. However, the palace complex wasn’t built by just one Maharaja. Every Maharaja contributed to this beautiful blend of Mughal and Rajput architecture. The rear section of the palace complex also has an artificial lake and a beautiful cenotaph.

Sadly, the palace is now occupied by the administration and various government department offices are running in the complex. Instead of feeling the grandeur, you will experience crowd, chaos and smelly passages. We took some time to figure out exactly where was the entrance to the complex because everyone we asked said that “this is the palace but this is also government office” and still we ended up in an office. The people in the office were kind enough to direct us to the exact passage which led upstairs to the museum.

Keeping up with changing times. ‘The palace turned administrative office’

Government Museum

The top floor of the city palace has been converted into a museum. Considering the state of the palace, I wasn’t expecting much from the museum. However, the museum is marvellous. It houses a collection of ancient and rare manuscripts, paintings, musical instruments, textiles, artistic work on sandalwood and ivory and excellent collection of arms including historical swords. It is considered as one of the finest collections in Rajasthan. This museum is a must-visit for anyone with an interest in art and history.

Museum Hours –  9:45 am to 5:15 pm (Closed on Mondays)
The entry fee is Rs. 20 (Indian) and Rs.100 (Foreign national)
Visitors can take pictures only from their mobile phone camera. No DSLRs. I still can’t wrap my head around this weird rule.

The Cenotaph 

In 1815 Maharaja Vinay Singh commissioned this cenotaph in the memory of his father Maharaja Bakhtawar Singh. It is popularly known as Moosi Rani Ki Chhatri ( मूसी रानी की छतरी ) as the legends say that the second wife of Maharaja, Rani Moosi, committed sati on her husband’s pyre. One can spot a few devotees who come here to offer flowers. There is an artificial lake next to the cenotaph which is also the part of the palace complex. And beyond it are the Aravalis on the top of which the Bala Quila stands guard.

The only preserved architecture in Alwar

The cenotaph is a beautiful example of 19th-century Rajput architecture. It is a double-storeyed building resting on a platform. The lower storey is made of Karauli sandstone and the upper storey and the 9 chhatris (cenotaph) are constructed in white marble. The stones have intricate carvings depicting mythological scenes. And although the premises seemed cleaned the lower section smelled like a sewer.

Capturing the apathy

Bala Quila

It is ironic that the oldest structure in the city is named Bala Quila ( Young Fort). The fort is perched atop a steep hill and has six gates (pol) leading to the derelict structure.

The ramparts of the fort extend to a few kilometres. It has 15 large and 51 small towers and 446 loopholes for musketry. The baradari of the fort is said to have some beautiful murals but sadly one cannot go inside the fort. The police department has set up a wireless station here so the fort is not open for tourists. You can only walk into a courtyard-like open space which has nothing but a small temple. You feel cheated for driving up the broken bumpy road and having paid an entry fee. People may tell you that the fort offers a beautiful view of the city. Yes, all the aerial shots of the city are taken from here. What they don’t tell you is that you will have to trek to the ramparts which will take you to that viewpoint. If you are on a short trip, avoid this place.

Been ‘young’ for a really long time!

A few locals suggested that if you take a guide or a safari at the entry point he will “persuade the guards” to let you in some parts of the forts. Please avoid such people. Also, many tourists have written articles and reviews stating that they have visited some parts of the fort. But how? I will leave that to your imagination.

There is more

One can also take the jeep safari at the base of Bala Quila. The area is a part of the Sariska Tiger Reserve buffer zone. The chances of spotting a leopard are less (almost nil) but if you like wildlife you may give it a try. Also, you can visit the Dadhikar fort which is now converted into a heritage hotel. Although there is no proper road to the fort the bumpy drive will be worth the view. Do not forget to make a reservation. The other tourist spots to visit in Alwar are the Fatehjung Tomb and Purjan Vihar (Company Bagh/ Garden) which is also known as the Shimla of Alwar.

The water maze sans the water

Food

The most recommended restaurant by the locals was the Pavitra Bhojnalaya that serves simple Rajasthani food. There are few restaurants at Ghanta Ghar (Baba Hotel) that are famous for paranthas and vegetarian thali. Another popular place that you must try is Foji Raj Dhaba. We also went to Dadhikar Fort for lunch where they serve a traditional thali.

Alwar is famous for Alwar Pak or Kalakand or milk cake. The original shop which introduced this sweet dish is Baba Thakur Das and Sons. They have four branches in Alwar. Do not forget to take some sweets for your friends and family back home. You can also visit their shop in the morning to have yummy kachoris and khaman dhokla for breakfast. The staff is also very helpful and courteous.

Stay

Alwar has a range of hotels for every budget. Neemrana Hill Fort Kesroli, Hotel Burja Haveli, The Dadhikar Fort Hotel, Lemon Tree Hotel being the prominent ones. We were told that RTDC hotel Meenal is also a decent option. We stayed at Neemrana Palace, Pavna Palace and Neemrana Hill Fort Kesroli.

A part of the City Palace

Alwar is endowed with a magnificent heritage especially the beautiful palaces and it is sad to see it being overlooked. A few days back I was reading an article about the erstwhile rulers of Alwar and I came across this elegy recited at the funeral ceremony of Maharaja Jai Singh. The lines somewhat stand true for the state of Alwar today as the heritage is slowly being reduced to dust.

फ़लक रहम कर, शोरगुल ना मचा तू
कि अलवर पति नींदन में सो रहे हैं
मिटाया था मिट के जिन दुश्मनों ने
वो मिट्टी तेरी देख कर रो रहें हैं

Heavens, be kind, restrain your thunder,
Alwar’s beloved master is fast asleep,
Even his enemies who did all they could to reduce him to ashes
Are wailing today at the sight of his ashes.

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