Roughly midway between Jaipur and Delhi, two of the most visited cities in India lies Alwar in Rajasthan, close to the state’s border with Haryana. Its forts are not as grand as Amer Fort in Jaipur and its monuments aren’t lovingly restored like Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi. Yet, it has a rich heritage and a long history. Alwar was one of Rajasthan’s oldest kingdoms and Bala Quila one of the state’s oldest forts. Now, that says something in this land of abundant forts, palaces, and havelis.
Nestled between folds of the Aravalli Hills, Alwar has been governed by both Hindu and Muslim rulers. Hemchandra Vikramaditya or Hemu, the only Hindu king to occupy the throne in Delhi for a short while after Mughal forces had overrun medieval India, was born here.
Under the British, it had special status as a princely state of the Kachwaha Rajput dynasty. Kings were permitted to retain their titles and collect taxes from subjects, amassing a great deal of wealth. One of the rulers of Alwar, Maharaja Jai Singh, is believed to have once used Rolls Royce cars to collect city garbage as payback for insulting him and not recognizing his standing when he visited the company’s showroom in London minus royal trappings.
Today, Alwar is a modern city, with more coaching classes, educational institutes, and hospitals than I could count during my visit.
Its inheritance, in the form of monuments constructed by various kings, lives on in the older parts of the city, though – the City Palace also known as Vinay Vilas Mahal, Bala Quila, Siliserh Lake, Bhangarh Fort, Vijay Mandir Palace and Moti Doongri. Sariska Tiger Reserve is an added attraction for wildlife enthusiasts.
The City Palace, a sprawling two-storeyed marble, and sandstone structure, was once the residence of King Vinay Singh. Imposing gates, with names like Jai Pol and Kishan Pol, must have been built keeping the movement of elephants in mind, which were still in use during his reign (1815-1857). In the middle of the central courtyard is a raised platform, steps leading up to it and marble chhatris (domed pavilions) atop enormous bases. In the right wing are beautifully carved lattice sandstone screens on jharokhas (balconies) while the left wing is rather unremarkable.
Move to the Sagar reservoir behind the palace and your imagination will recreate scenes from a royal past – the queen walking down steps to the water, anklets tinkling, as the sun reflects off the gold and silver embroidery on her lehenga (skirt). Exiled Mughal Prince Salim (later Emperor Jahangir) looking down from the fort Bala Quila, wondering when he would return to Agra. King Vinay Singh galloping on a horse, making his way to a hunting retreat at Siliserh Lake Palace….
For those who don’t believe in flights of fancy, the Government Museum at the City Palace (Vinay Vilas Mahal) holds real relics (photography not allowed). The collection divided into three sections, features war equipment belonging to warriors like Maharana Pratap, Muhammad Ghori, Akbar and their armies in the last one; Expansive armour so heavy that it seems impossible that the wearer could move, let alone fight battles in it; Beautifully crafted swords with ivory inlays and deadly edges; Tortoiseshell shields; Pistols and guns with jade butts; Daggers concealed in harmless looking objects and other combat accoutrements that make your stomach churn thinking of the havoc they might have wreaked. Whether you agree with the use of such equipment or not, their sheer size and variety impress upon you the immense strength and dexterity they must have demanded of their owners. Little wonder arms training used to begin young and stretched over several hours each day.
There are other reminders of an imperial life, ranging from a once mechanised silver dining table to an imported bicycle and ivory slippers. The eclectic collection also has handwritten, rare Persian, Arabic, Urdu and Sanskrit manuscripts including a biography of Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire in India and an illustrated form of the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. Gulistan of S’adi, a Persian prose masterpiece and works of Faizi, a celebrated poet, and scholar in Mughal Emperor Akbar’s court also find pride of place. A display of miniature paintings of the Alwar school, which combines Hindu and Muslim elements, goes beyond aesthetics, educating visitors about various ragas of Hindustani classical music.
Step out and walk to the back of the building. The water reservoir Sagar reveals itself, a step well design and temples at the periphery giving the impression of a river ghat. Perhaps that was the intention of King Vinay Singh, who is said to have built the tank in 1815. In a state which has a lone perennial river named Chambal, Rajput rulers came up with intricately designed step wells, tanks and even artificial lakes like the Jaisamand Lake in Udaipur, to compensate for the water deficit.
On one side of the reservoir stands a sandstone and marble cenotaph called ‘Moosi Maharani ki Chattri’. The mortal remains of King Bakhtawar Singh, the man who built the City Palace in 1793, and his wife Queen Moosi rest here. It’s rather poignant that the Queen burnt herself on the pyre of her dead husband, a brutal practice known as ‘Sati’, banned by the British in 1829 after social reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy led a movement against it.
Royal affairs are no longer on the minds of people today as they go in and out of City Palace, busy with government and legal business as offices have taken over the place. Ugly, thick wires for air conditioning and lighting mar the beauty of the structure. Pigeons feel at home, their gurgling sounds heard from crumbling balconies and windows. Cows, mouths full of cud, laze around while motorcycles are lined up against the lotus shaped bases of the grand Chhatris in the central courtyard. In the background stand the Aravali Hills, one of the oldest hill ranges in the world, witnessing yet another year in history go by.
TRAVEL TIPS FOR ALWAR GOVERNMENT MUSEUM
- The Museum is open from 9.45 am- 5.15 pm on all days except Mondays, when it is shut. (Most websites wrongly mention that the museum is shut on Fridays). Best day to visit is Sunday when the government offices are closed and crowds are thin.
- Photography is prohibited. Don’t try to sneak around and take pictures when no one is noticing – it’s against the law
- It takes around 1.5-2 hours to see the museum and there is no place to sit and take a break
- Lighting is not that great, so get there early to make use of natural light
- Be prepared for a steep climb – there are sections of stairs and ramps
- Rajasthan is hot most of the time. Carry water, especially if you are accompanied by kids
- There is a toilet/washroom on the property which can be used in case of an emergency, but is best avoided otherwise
TRAVEL GUIDE FOR ALWAR CITY
How to get to Alwar
By flight – Jaipur or Sanganer Airport (Code – JAI). Given its importance on the tourist circuit, there are enough flights to Jaipur from major airports.
By train – The closest railway station is Alwar Junction (Station code – AWR)
From Mumbai, at the moment, the only train is no. 12216 Garibrath, which leaves Bandra Terminus at 12.45 pm and reaches at 9.16 am. The journey time is 20.5 hours.
From New Delhi, you have several train options and it takes 2.5-4 hours. From Jaipur, it is only a 2-2.5 hour journey by train.
By Road – Jaipur to Alwar by road is 143-160 km on Google Maps (from Hawa Mahal to City Palace, Ladiya Mohalla and it takes 3-3.5 hours to get there. With a break and normal traffic, it should take 4-4.5 hours.
Where to stay in Alwar
The best option would be Dadhikar Fort, around 8 km from City Palace as it gives you a feel of staying in a fort, not just visiting one. Oyo Rooms and Ankur Hotel offer economical options in Alwar. For a more luxurious stay, go for Neemrana Fort-Palace (72 km away).
Use any of the hotel booking sites like Cleartrip, MakeMyTrip or Yatra or price comparison sites like Trivago or Tripadvisor to book a room.
Where and what to eat in Alwar
Prem Pavitra Bhojnalaya, near the old bus stand, offers good Indian food at reasonable prices. If you have the stomach for it, street side vendors serve items like Chhole Bhature and snacks like samosas and chat.
Though authentic Rajasthani fare is items like Ker Sangri and Gatte ki sabzi, all food joints don’t have them. Lassi (sweet, sometimes a little too sweet) or chaach (salted) are diluted forms of curd and are advised to beat the heat.
MGB Hotels offers a variety of cuisines at its restaurant, which is open to outsiders. The food is tasty, but the prices are a bit steep and sometimes you can only have the fixed price buffet, not what is on the menu (a la carte).