A long, bumpy road leads to dusty Jhalawar in the Hadoti region of southeastern Rajasthan. At first, the remote town seems largely nondescript, a highway-pit stop at the most. But beneath the dust that blankets this region are rare architectural and cultural gems. Its monuments aren’t in the best condition, but their heritage value is undeniable. There are eighth-century sculptures, a hill fort that is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and medieval, rock-cut Buddhist caves, the only ones in the state. To the traveller, these are clues to deciphering the many communities that have lived here.
Jhalawar town was named after the Jhalas, a clan of Rajput Chauhan warriors. Founded in 1791 it was initially part of the kingdom of Kota. The Jhalas also built the trading village of Jhalrapatan on Jhalawar’s outskirts. This walled village rose atop the ruins of the medieval city of Chandravati, which was destroyed in the 18th century, save for a few seventh-century temples.
An English officer who visited Jhalrapatan in December 1821 noted in his travel journal, that it had 108 temples. Even today, the few travellers that make it here encounter carefully tended to vermilion-smeared deities at every corner. In winter, the countryside between Jhalawar and the nearby city of Bhawani Mandi is flush with orange-laden orchards and fields of dancing poppies, perfect for leisurely walks.
History apart, Jhalawar yields a rich experience of Rajasthani culture. Untarnished, its restaurants still serve traditional food, rather than generic North Indian fare. Its monuments and bazaars are free of camera-toting travellers. This is its biggest draw: In a world where nearly every place has been visited and extensively documented, Jhalwar still feels like a discovery.
Sprawling Garh Palace is at the centre of Jhalawar. Built between 1838 and 1864, the resplendent cream and terracotta palace is currently undergoing renovation so some sections are closed to tourists. I enjoyed strolling through its endless corridors, walking in its peaceful grounds, and visiting the museum located on the first floor.
At first glance the museum doesn’t seem like much, but it houses a spectacular collection of sculptures excavated from the lost city of Chandravati, over which the present-day village of Jhalrapatan stands (7 kilometres south). They date from the 8th to the 18th centuries. For me the most striking among them were the frightening representations of goddess Chamunda brandishing skulls and decapitated heads. Glass cases display antiquated artillery, illustrated leaf-based manuscripts, and miniature horses and elephants dressed for battle. One of the delightful curiosities I saw was a vintage penny-farthing, the wobbly bicycle that was all the rage in Europe in the 1870s. It has a comically large front wheel and a tiny back one (museum open 10 a.m.- 4.30 p.m., closed Monday; entry ₹10).
Don’t miss Bhawani Natya Shala, a theatre located on the palace grounds, that is an eccentric indulgence built by Maharaja Bhawani Singh in A.D. 1921. It’s patterned on grand European opera houses and though it has fallen into disrepair, visitors can wander through its cavernous hall. The grand opera hall with its arched galleries and private balconies is a rather odd sight in the middle of rural Rajasthan.
Gagron Fort (14 km/20 min north of Jhalawar) is one of Rajasthan’s six hill forts that together form a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fort is surrounded by the Ahu and Kalisindh rivers on three sides, and guarded by a deep moat on the fourth. To reach it, we cross a narrow bridge. It’s a rare example of a jal-van durg, a fort protected by both water and forest. An astounding feature of the fort is that it has no foundation: It is simply seated on a hillock of the Aravalli range without any roots to tether it to the ground. A fringe benefit is the blue-green panorama visible from the ramparts.
Spread over three square kilometres, the fort is enclosed within triple fortification walls. The innermost boundary is built in the form of a labyrinth. Successive occupiers between the 8th and 18th centuries added to its fortifications. But even so, Gagron was not impregnable. As a result, it was the site of two grim incidents of the practice of jauhar, in which the women of the palace immolated themselves to avoid capture by enemy armies. Visitors can see the macabre jauhar kund (tank) right next to the palaces and pavilions of the deserted citadel.
Jhalarapatan (7 km/10 min south) is an ancient village that was built in 1792 by Jhalawar’s founder, Jhala Zalim Singh. It was an important junction on a caravan route and he was keen to turn it into a flourishing centre of trade. To protect the village’s residents from pindaris or local dacoits who haunted the trade route, it was enclosed within walls.
Walking through a giant arched gateway to enter the village I can see temples everywhere. It’s easy to see why a visiting British colonel nicknamed it the “city of bells”. The evening air reverberates with the peal of bells from scores of temples.
It is impossible to walk even 10 metres without passing a shrine. Few are very old and date to the city of Chandravati which existed at this spot before. Some of the temples are big, while others are small corner shrines or a single statue under a tree. Regardless of size, each one is attended to and looked after, decorated with silver foil and surrounded by diyas.
High up on a hill east of Jhalrapatan is Navlakha Fort, built in 1860 by Jhalawar’s second ruler, Jhala Prithvi Singh. It is one of the last forts constructed in Rajasthan and is now abandoned save for the pretty, white Anand Dham temple with saffron banners fluttering in the wind. Though little remains of the once handsome fort, visitors can still see and admire the lovely floral motifs and detailed, if damaged, elephant carvings on a gate that still stands.
At dusk, when the sky is shot with burnt orange and mauve streaks, take a boat ride on Gomti Sagar Lake, with the sound of chiming bells carrying on the rippling surface (opp. Herbal Garden; ₹50 a head for a 15-min ride; 10 a.m.-6 p.m.).
One of Jhalrapatan’s most striking sights is the Padmanabh Mandir or sun temple, a spot of serenity in a busy square choc-a-bloc with flower sellers and shops selling religious paraphernalia. It has a spire that’s 97 feet high, and astonishingly detailed carvings of celestial beings and floral patterns adorn the façade, interiors, steps, and 52 ornamental pillars. Its three side entrances have carved torans—decorative gateways distinctive of Hindu and Buddhist architecture. Long stemmed bells carved in stone snake down walls, and at the back of the temple is a statue of Lord Padmanabh donning knee-high boots.
Nearby is another heavyweight, the Chandrabhag or Chandravati temple, located on the bank of the seasonal Chandrabhag River. The seventh-century structure, which is located in a garden near a huge banyan tree, is nearly in ruins, yet it commands an impressive following. Five shivalingsstand in a row at the front. Locals come here for walks or to sit on benches and soak in the peaceful atmosphere.
In contrast, the entrance to Sri Shantinath Digambar Jain temple is painted in bright pink and turquoise colours. Built in A.D. 1046, it is located on a narrow road in the heart of the village and has a towering 92-foot-tall spire. Fine murals decorate the walls and two life-size elephant statues stand guard at the sanctum sanctorum, their glazed, white trunks raised in salute.
Appeared in the December 2015 issue as “Forgotten Land”.
Jhalawar is located on the edge of the Malwa Plateau, near Rajasthan’s border with Madhya Pradesh. It is 233 km north of Indore, 330 km south of Jaipur, and 608 km from Delhi.
By Air The closest airport is at Indore, which has daily connections with major cities. Taxis charge ₹3,500 one-way for the 233 km/4.5 hr journey to Jhalawar.
By Rail Trains from Delhi, Mumbai, and Jaipur travel through Jhalawar Road, a small railhead 27 km/40 min from Jhalawar (taxis charge ₹1,000 one-way; buses leave every hour).
By Road Jhalawar is 608 km/11 hr south of Delhi on NH8 and NH12, via Jaipur and Kota.
Unmetered autos are a convenient way to travel from Jhalawar to Jhalrapatan (₹100 one-way) and within the town. There are local buses from Jhalawar to Jhalrapatan every half hour (₹10 one-way).
The weather in Jhalawar is most pleasant between September and March. In the winter (Oct-Feb) days are comfortable though nights are chilly at 1°C. Summer (Mar-Jun) is scorching with average highs of 45°C. From July to September the area gets about 95 cm of rain, which is more than most of Rajasthan, turning the countryside green.
Prithvi Vilas Palace is the magnificent residence of Jhalawar’s erstwhile royal family who are the hosts. The mansion is over a century old and located in a quiet corner of Jhalawar, about a kilometre from Garh Palace (Civil Lines; 98913 49555; email@example.com; doubles from ₹8,500, including meals).
Dwarika Hotel is conveniently located in the heart of the city on NH12. Rooms are basic but clean, and the staff is hospitable (NH12, near Medical College; 07432-232626; firstname.lastname@example.org; doubles from ₹990.)
Jhalawar has only a few restaurants, but they dish out authentic Rajasthani meals of dal bhati churma and sev tamatar. The rooftop restaurant at Prithvi Vilas Palace offers a wonderful dining experience. Try their ameen ki dal, a variation of moong dal named after its “inventor” chef Ameen (₹1,000 for a meal for two).
is a former corporate lawyer who left her cubicle to go see places. So far, it has been quite a journey, often bumpy but always entertaining.
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