Do you see these rocks? These were formed more than 700 million years ago, when this area had active volcanoes. While many tourists think Rajasthan is just a desert, we have everything from hills to jungles to lakes, as you will see inside.”
It is a chilly November morning and I am standing at the historical 16th century Singhoria Bari gate at the far end of the famed blue city of Jodhpur. Centuries ago, the gate marked the territory of the royal jungle; today it protects a unique ecological park. This is my second trip to the Mewar capital and I am keen to go beyond the beaten path of forts, bazaars and temples. My guide, Lakshmi Bhati, the only woman guide in a city with over 600 registered guides, has promised to help me in this. The park is our first stop.
Located at the foot of Mehrangarh Fort, the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park is a 72-hectare park that showcases the region’s unique flora, fauna and natural rock formations through various walking trails. We are on the Yellow Trail that runs along an aqueduct and opens to a spectacular view of the fort from the west. The walk begins in an interactive courtyard with exhibits of the local flora, fauna, soil and rock samples and leads into a narrow alley.
“This is actually a canal that was manually dug to collect rainwater and channel it into the reservoirs at the end of the jungle. The park is closed during the monsoon because the canal gets up to 7ft water,” says Bhati, as we walk inside what’s locally called haathi nahar, or elephant canal, due to its shape. It is dry but the water has left fascinating patterns on its walls, exposing volcanic rocks like mauve rhyolite and orange welded tuff formed by solidified lava and ashes. Spiky plants jut out of deep crevices and huge cacti peep from the top.
At first glance, the park seems like a naturally thriving ecosystem but I soon learn that the area had to be weeded for over five years to bring back its original vegetation. Today it has over 250 types of indigenous plants, including medicinal herbs like googal, used in incense sticks, adusa, used in cough syrups, vajradanti and meshwak, used in toothpastes and edible capers, berries, and beans like ker and sangri, a staple in the region. In Rajasthan, especially Mewar, dehydrated vegetables are used through the year. “The age-old practice complements the dry spells when nothing grows here for months. With time the access to fresh vegetables from other parts has become possible but locals continue to dehydrate berries and beans for everyday use,” Bhati explains.
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The sun is high up by the time we finish the trail. We have walked the length of the park, spotted some birds, heard stories of queens who performed sati, and entered the historic blue city through a discreet back gate by the royal Ranisar lake.
The blue city of Jodhpur gets its unique identity from the peculiar shade of indigo and limestone that has covered its buildings since the city came up. At one time, it was used as an identifier for the homes of Brahmins who worked in the fort. Today all houses are painted in the same shade. “The chemical properties of limestone and indigo prevent erosion of sandstone, which is why these homes, some as old as the fort, are still standing strong,” Bhati says. We are now at a small square surrounded by blue houses—some are freshly painted, some have typical Marwari murals, like portraits of local kings and queens, on them, some have retained century-old jaalis and chajjas. Jodhpur is a traditional city and many customs are followed strictly even today. This includes a set pattern of street design: The entry to every street has a Ganesha temple, the exit has a Bhairava temple, on the right of every street is a Krishna temple and to the left is a Shiva temple. We spot multiple shrines, a community well that is still in use, and hidden squares that serve as common courtyards.
Our destination is the three-century-old home of a tourist guide. He has passed on but his family hosts guests from Bhati’s organisation, Blue City Walks, for home-style breakfast and evening tea on their terrace. “It is our way of helping the family and giving our guests an authentic old city experience,” says Bhati. The lady of the house, Chandrakalaji, has made hari dhaniya and besan ke parathe, imli ki chutney and tea. Since I only drink coffee, she presents me a cup of milky coffee with a heady dose of cardamom. We carry the breakfast to the third-floor terrace and soak in the views of the imposing Mehrangarh Fort, the pearly white Jaswant Thada and the electric blue city.
It is dusk by the time I reach Daspan House, after a long day spent discovering hidden places like Toorji ka Jhalra and Mandore Garden. Located in a residential area, it’s a 101-year-old mansion and my home on this trip. The property is a blend of traditional Indian and classic European styles: A vintage chandelier acts as the centrepiece in the triple height lobby; a winding marble staircase flows through the drawing room; and vintage mirrors, family portraits and heirloom artefacts adorn corners. “We wanted to create a luxurious yet comfortable space that caters to well-travelled guests, so we designed Daspan House like we would design our own home,” says Siddharth Daspan, whose family owns the property.
Daspan leads the operations along with school friend Varun Jalan, who comes with F&B experience in places like The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro in Mumbai. They look after each guest personally, one reason they want to keep the place small with just 18 rooms. For they want to “run it like home”.
Evening falls beautifully on Daspan House. Mellow lights twinkle in quaint corners, jazz music plays in common spaces, small fountains gurgle in the central courtyard and a heady scent of mogra (jasmine) hangs in the air. I choose to sit in the swanky in-house bar, Old Loco. “Apart from the house specials, we aim to celebrate the forgotten classics...,” says Jalan. I decide to try the signature Himalayan Negroni with house-infused pepper vermouth and settle in a grandfather chair in a corner, reflecting on my day.
Anubhuti Krishna writes on food, travel, culture and design.
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