Kota: More than Saris and Stone

Mention the name of Kota, and most Indians will immediately think of stone or wispy saris. This well-known yet not terribly touristy city is famous for the fine building stone quarried from its hills, and for the gorgeous cotton saris woven by its all-women weavers. But there’s more to Kota.

Living like a Maharaja – Somewhat

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 11, 2011

In 1902, the renowned colonial architect Swinton Jacob was called in to design a palace for the Maharaja of Kotah, Umed Singh II. What he created is what is today known as the Umed Bhawan Palace Hotel. This is today a part of the WelcomHeritage chain of hotels, heritage hotels that have been made by restoring and rejuvenating historical buildings such as mansions, palaces and forts. Umed Bhawan is an extensive (and expensive) property. Part of the huge palace is reserved as a private section – the Dowager Maharani of Kota lives here. Her son, Maharaja Brijraj Singh, lives at Raj Bhawan in the city.

We arrived at Umed Bhawan after an eventful 14-hour drive from Delhi, reaching just after 11 PM. The driveway’s a long, majestic one (the next morning, we got a better view of the grounds surrounding the palace: full of trees and plants, with peafowl calling early in the morning). The lobby’s large and rather ornate, with plush carpets, velvet-covered love seats and gleaming brass – a sort of Art Deco-colonial-Rajasthani combination that didn’t quite appeal to me; it was just too showy.

Our room was a delight. What I really liked here was the huge amount of space: high ceiling (with typically colonial ceiling fans with very long handles dangling from it!) and loads of room: enough for a large double bed, bedside tables, desk and chair, coat stand, shoe rack, large TV console (with tea and coffee fixings next to the TV), a large coffee table with big comfy sofas next to it – and still plenty of space left over to stroll around the room. There were three large frosted glass windows, two of them fitted with window air-conditioners. The linen was clean and fresh, the pillows not too high, and the furniture a tasteful, understated style that’s modern, but with touches of the colonial. Lovely reproductions of the beautiful miniature paintings of the justly famous Kota school dotted the walls.

The bathroom was preceded by a (also large) dressing room, with luggage rack, wardrobe and dressing table. The bathroom itself was an impressive size (again a typical feature of colonial palaces and mansions) – but the amenities – the towels, the basket of supplies, the bathtub-cum-shower with its many gleaming rails and its shower curtains – are all modern and minimalist. Also beautifully clean.

The hotel has a restaurant (called Aarogan – more on this in a separate review), a bar and room service. The restaurant serves dinner till 11 PM, but with the last order at 10.30. Since we’d got delayed so much, we’d phoned them while we were driving up to Kota, and had placed our order for dinner. Dinner – buttery daal makhani, naans and chicken saagwala (with a spinach-based gravy) were served up, piping hot and tasty, in our room, even though the staff were ready to serve us in the restaurant. More than half an hour after the restaurant had ‘officially’ closed. Sweet!

Like many other medieval mansions and forts in north India, Umed Bhawan too has its full complement of courtyards (which were originally a means of providing open but still secluded space for the ladies of the household). Here, the courtyards range from tiny quaint ones centred round a tree, to large ones with lawns, fringed by ‘cloisters’ oh hotel rooms, overlooked by balconies and rows of beautiful cusped arches. Very pretty. There are photos on the walls of the hotel, too, ranging from black-and-white photos of the maharajas of Kota (to whom the Umed Bhawan Palace once belonged), to photos of them alongside hunting trophies – a leopard, for instance, or a huge many-antlered stag.

The hotel also has a fitness centre; billiards room; laundry; and valet facilities. They do not offer car hire facilities of their own, but the front office staff is knowledgeable about the city and its tourist attractions, and can put you in touch with a travel agency from which you can hire a car for the day – which is what we did.

Our room had very iffy plug points; half of them didn’t work, so you couldn’t power more than about three devices at a time. But, other than that (and the pretty inadequate F&B facilities), this was a pleasant, comfortable place to stay.

Umed Bhawan Palace
Palace Road
Kota, Rajasthan, 324001

Not Our Cup of Tea

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 11, 2011

One glimpse of our room at Umed Bhawan, and my husband and I were pretty sure we’d enjoy staying at the hotel. That conviction, unfortunately, was shaken by our meals at Aarogan, the restaurant at Umed Bhawan. Our first meal here – ordered through room service, and consisting of lentils, a chicken curry and naan – was one of those fairly standard North Indian meals which most Indian chefs manage to pull off. We were looking forward to actually getting into the restaurant and seeing what other delicacies the menu had to offer.

Aarogan is in the form of a mid-sized dining room, overlooking one of the enclosed courtyards of the palace. The ceiling and sections of the walls are painted in pretty floral designs, reminiscent of traditional Rajasthani paintings. But the overall look – heavy crimson drapes that block out all natural light; crimson-and-cream patterned upholstery; and tablecloths with a red-white-grey check pattern – is stifling and florid.

We’d have forgiven that if the food had been worth it. But Aarogan’s menu is vapid and too predictable to be at all interesting. This is a place that believes in the dictum that as long as you provide the usual tikkas, kababs, daal and butter-laden curries (with a few so-called ‘continental’ dishes – chicken sandwiches and fries, for instance) – all is well. Even that would’ve been tolerable, if the food was well-cooked. But it wasn’t; a lot of what we ended up eating was too spicy, greasy, or otherwise just plain ol’ ‘not done’.

Some examples. At every meal, once we’d sat down and placed our order, a waiter would come by to place a small bowlful of spicy mixed pickle and a basket of roasted papads on the table. At every single meal, we found the papads soft – they’d obviously been roasted a while back, and had been sitting around soaking up moisture. At every meal, too, the pickle had the dull and dreary look of something that had been spooned into a series of bowls at the start of the shift. For goodness’ sakes, how long does it take to tip a couple of spoons of pickle from a bottle into a bowl?!

Also, for a restaurant in a hotel that prides itself on being representative of Rajasthani hospitality, Aarogan’s sadly bereft of Rajasthani dishes. True, the menu offers gatte ki curry (a curry with fritters made from gram flour), but it’s greasy and gave us a bout of acidity. The safed maas (literally, ‘white meat’ – mutton cooked in a creamy gravy) was a trifle too rich, but worse, the meat was all bone and tough sinew. And – what I found unforgivable in a place supposedly so highbrow – the kulfi is a mass-market one (the brand is Vadilal’s, not even one of India’s best brands). Not that the menu mentions the fact, mind you – if we’d known the kulfi wasn’t made at the hotel, we’d never have ordered it: it had that decidedly synthetic flavour of mass-produced food, and the texture was of ice cream, not of kulfi.

More? Breakfast. A buffet consisting of muffins (small and greasy), eggs made to order, toast (soft on one side), cereal (Kellogg’s Chocos and cornflakes), two types of juice – out of cartons – and a few Indian dishes, such as poha (puffed rice cooked with onions, peas, and a few mild spices); idlis with saambhar and coconut chutney ("It tastes like coconut grated with water and salt," said my disgusted husband. "No other flavour"); and – this wasn’t bad, thank heaven – potato-stuffed parathas with yoghurt, butter and pickle on the side.

After we’d had a couple of meals at Aarogan, we came to the conclusion that the safest thing to order here is aloo-zeera (potatoes cooked dry with cumin seeds, turmeric and a sprinkle of red chilli), with naan and some lentils. Get more adventurous than that, and you’re headed for trouble. Boring.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the service is abysmal. The entire restaurant staff disappears now and then, leaving you to your own devices, and frequent reminders are needed to get stuff you’ve ordered.

Frankly, Aarogan was the one reason I wouldn’t stay at Umed Bhawan again.

Umed Bhawan Palace, Palace Road
Kota, India

A Museum – and a Maharaja’s Apartments

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 11, 2011

Kota’s biggest attraction is its City Palace Museum. Almost all major Rajasthan towns have a city palace, the main citadel where the Maharaja would live and where the state would have its epicentre. Kota is no different. The City Palace – a walled fortress consisting of a number of scattered palaces and similar structures – dominates Kota’s skyline. Nearly all of the City Palace has now been given over to other uses – there’s a school in part of the area, a hostel in another, and so on – but there’s also a small museum that showcases the past grandeur of the Maharajas of Kota.

The foundation stone of the fortress at Kota was laid in 1264 AD by Maharaja Jait Singh of Bundi (Bundi, by the way, lies across the Chambal river). Before this, Kota had been under the power of the Bhil tribals; Jait Singh wrested it from them and founded Kota as we now know it. Since the 13th century, the fort has seen a lot of additions – especially in the 17th century.

We bought our tickets to the City Palace Museum at the ticket counter outside (Rs 100 per foreigner, and Rs 70 per Indian visitor, for entry to the museum and Bada Mahal; a further charge of Rs 50 is levied for a still camera, and Rs 100 for a video camera). To the left of the ticket counter, a doorway leads into the central courtyard of the palace complex that forms the museum. The courtyard walls are painted over with vivid murals; in the centre is a square sunken water tank where the maharaja would, once upon a time, take a ritual bath on festive occasions.

A lady docent beckoned to us to enter the first gallery – its doorway faces the gateway of the palace. This one, though rather badly lit, turned to be an interesting mix of odds and ends – dusty palanquins and carriages; chessmen and chaupar sets made of silver and ivory; enamelled and jewelled silver chairs and cribs; astronomical and astrological instruments such as an armillary instrument, a sundial and a water clock; massive old locks; medieval manuscripts; the seals of the state of Kota, and quaint ‘modern’ conveniences – an early 20th century ice cream maker, a washing machine, an old table fan, and so on.

At right angles to this hall is another maze-like series of corridors and rooms that form the rest of the museum. The first gallery is a weapons and armoury section, replete with swords, daggers, guns, shields, armour and an assortment of other weapons – including, interestingly, a lot of concealed arms: for instance, a pistol hidden in a horsewhip or an elephant goad. Also included in this display is an odd exhibit known as a Mahi Marathib, a regal insignia that was awarded to the maharajas of Kota by the Mughal emperor as a mark of favour for Kota’s loyalty and valour. It’s a strange-looking piece, a massive gilt-headed fish with a body made out of drapes of deep orange silk. The Mahi Marathib would be carried along during ceremonial processions.

Beyond the weapons gallery are a series of galleries containing old black and white photographs of the maharajas of Kota: on hunts, posing with their British friends and associates; in stiff studio poses; playing polo, and posing for photos with the Kota cricket team after it defeated the Mayo College cricket team (this was one of my favourite photos – though they’re wearing regulation cricket gear, boots and all, the men also wear turbans and flaunt impressive moustaches – typical Rajasthan style!)

Also part of this section is a small gallery devoted to the Kota School of miniature painting; they’re mostly very fine, highly detailed paintings of the maharajas of Kota or their Mughal associates, but every now and then, you come across something different – we, for example, saw a delightful painting of a sadhu getting drunk amidst a group of women in a zenana.In the basement is a small, sad and moth-eaten collection of stuffed animals – tigers, leopards, gharial, deer and so on – shot by the maharajas over their many years of hunting.

Next to these galleries, on the ground floor, is the Sheesh Mahal (literally, the ‘palace of glass’), its walls and ceiling beautifully embellished with murals, niches, and lots of glass – in the form of tiny mirrors and coloured glass inlay. The Sheesh Mahal was also known as the Raj Mahal, since this is where the raj tilak – the traditional coronation of a maharaja – would take place. Off to the left of the Sheesh Mahal is a locked door which leads upstairs to the Bada Mahal, the private chambers of the maharaja. You may or may not wish to see this (I’d suggest you do; it’s worth a look). Tickets for the Bada Mahal are separate from the tickets for just the museum.

A docent at the Sheesh Mahal verified our Bada Mahal tickets, then unlocked the door and led us upstairs to the royal apartments, through a wonderfully cool baradari (a pillared pavilion) and past a vestibule decorated with mirrorwork and paint, its white marble dadoes covered with carving. (If you’ve been to the Taj Mahal and noticed the lovely carving there, this might seem, at least at first glance, very similar. Interestingly, though, there’s a big difference: the Taj, since it is a Muslim tomb – and Islam forbids the depiction of living creatures – only has flowering plants and some clouds in its motifs. Here, because the maharajas were Hindus, the plants and flowers are interspersed with birds, butterflies, even riders on horses!)

Right at the top is the room in which the maharaja stayed. This room surprised me, because it was so dark and dingy – this might be an effect of the fact that the large windows are now kept permanently closed. Almost every square inch of wall and ceiling is painted with vivid scenes from mythology and the history of Kota. A few of the personal effects of Umed Singh, the penultimate ruling maharaja (he died in 1940), still lie in this room. Most striking is the bedstead, with its solid silver legs, on which he used to sleep; and the silk quilt that he covered.

Our docent, before showing us out of the maharaja’s room, pointed out a couple of other interesting details: the wooden door to the room is inlaid with ivory; and the floor of the ‘vestibule’ leading into the room is plastered with ground cowrie shells mixed with lime.

City Palace Museum
City Palace
Kota, India

Lotuses, Dragon Flies and a Quiet Garden

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 11, 2011

We hadn’t heard of Abheda Mahal – even our (otherwise dependable) guidebook didn’t have a mention of it. But the driver of the car we’d hired said it was a nice place to visit, and since we had time to kill, we decided we’d go and check out Abheda Mahal. The mahal (palace) stands about 8 km from Kota city, past the Chambal river, with the road meandering between fields and brush.

Abheda Mahal, according to the (only in Hindi) sign outside, is named "after abheda, a corruption of the word abhyaaranya" (park). Prior to the founding of the Kota dynasty, this area was jungle; in 1346 AD, however, the Maharaja Dheer Deh had it cleared and got an artificial watertank created. Several centuries later, probably in the 18th century, a small palace was built on the bank of the watertank. During the 1800s, the watertank was home to a large number of crocodiles that had been trained to come out of the water on to the bank and ‘entertain’ visitors. (I’m quoting this from the sign – it didn’t explain how the crocs entertained people!)

We bought our entry tickets (Rs 10 per person, and Rs 30 for a camera) at the small gateway, and were shown the way in. You step in from the gateway, and you’re in a walled garden, divided into plot of lawn, bordered with flowering shrubs and with large trees dotting the garden. All very pretty. Off to our left, the wall was decorated with huge colourful murals depicting Rajasthani warriors in procession, with horses and elephants and whatnot. Through the wall, a couple of doorways led into an adjacent plot of land, on which stands the three-storied pavilion that overlooks the watertank. The pavilion is painted cream, with cusped arches and red sandstone railings. On the land side, it overlooks a strip of grass and a small medieval well that is now home to some (very shy!) turtles. On the water side, it is bounded by a square pool, with paved walkways and benches enclosing a section of the tank. Beyond, separated from this enclosed pool, lies the main stretch of water – lots of fish here, and dragonflies buzzing about, iridescent in the sunshine. The enclosed section was, despite the lotuses flowering in it, rather dirty and scummy.

There’s not much to see at Abheda Mahal. You can admire the turtles and the dragonflies and any lotuses in bloom; or you can have a little picnic in the garden. You can, if you want, climb up to the top of the pavilion – we found it offered a good view over the surrounding area. But the pavilion, though freshly painted and in surprisingly good condition, turned out to be a little boring. If you come here expecting vivid paintings and carving and mirrorwork like that which you’ve seen at the City Palace, you’re going to be disappointed. Come here to relax and get a breath of cool river air, and you might like it.

Abheda Mahal
8 Km From Kota
Kota, India

Kaithoon: A Village of Weavers

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 11, 2011

I have a friend who is a collector of saris. Though her wardrobe has its fair share of trousers and fashionable blouses, T-shirts and jeans and salwar-kurtas, it’s her sari collection she’s proudest of. Because, as any self-respecting Indian woman knows, this country has an amazing range of traditional saris – special patterns and weaves, distinctive designs and fabrics, that have been made for centuries, and still continue to be made, in tiny handlooms by weavers, embroiderers and gold-and-silver thread workers all across India. Most women will know that a light-as-air, part-silk, part-cotton chanderi from Madhya Pradesh is completely different from a heavily embroidered silken kaantha from West Bengal – or that there’s a world of difference between a pochampalli and a jamdani, a jaamawar, a baluchari, a Garhwal cotton, a chikan… or a kota.

Kotas happen to be among my favourite saris. They’re made of very light, summery cotton – almost as wispy as candy floss – and are perfect for Delhi’s blazing Mays and Junes. So, when we were planning our itinerary for this trip, I decided I wanted to include a brief trip out of Kota to the neighbouring village of Kaithoon, where the kota sari is traditionally woven.

Kaithoon is about half an hour’s drive – past fields, the Chambal river, and stretches of village land – from the centre of Kota. This is a small, sleepy village, its only claim to fame the fact that for several centuries now, this has been the place where kota or kotadoria saris are woven, typically by the women and girls of the Muslim community of Kaithoon.

Getting out of our car at Kaithoon came as a bit of a shock. While Kota is used to tourists, and a woman in jeans (me!) doesn’t merit a second glance, Kaithoon is still pretty much a backwater. There were children running about in the narrow lanes, men lounging or playing cards (this was a Sunday) in verandas fronting their houses, goats and cows wandering around the streets – and a girl weaving a pale blue sari on a loom. I peeked in and asked her where we should go to buy kota saris, and she said, "Walk straight on. You’ll come to the main bazaar. They’re sold there."

The main bazaar of Kaithoon is rural India at its busy, bustling best: we wended our way very carefully between vendors selling fruit and vegetables (the unmistakable aroma of fat green chillies seemed to dominate the area), past more goats, all of them obviously on the lookout for a stray spinach leaf or some forgotten okra. It was here, in the bazaar, that we met a middle-aged man who guessed that we were looking for kotas, and took us to his tiny home to show us the wares his family produced.

My husband, who knows next to nothing about saris, sat on the sidelines and watched, but what was turned out for my inspection was a wide range of kotas: traditional cottons, cotton-and-silk blends, saris with gold thread woven into large, florid patterns. Orange saris with gold and mauve designs; bright pink saris with blue motifs, even a black with tiny gold motifs sprinkled across it. When I asked for something more subdued, I was told that these – the ones I had seen so far – were the ones in demand down south, where a lot of the saris end up.

Some more needling, and an elderly gentleman – who seemed to have a better understanding of what I wanted – brought forth more saris, along with cloth for salwar-kurtas, and dupattas (the long scarves worn with salwar-kurtas). I finally settled on something that I liked: a plain greeny-yellow sari for myself; a plain two-toned peachy-pink for my sister, and a white-and-pale pink salwar-kurta fabric for my sister-in-law.

Looking back, I’d not say it was a great bargain. We’d almost certainly get much lovelier saris in one of the FabIndia stores, kotas with more elegant block print patterns and weaves, in colours more chic. (I already have several of them). But to actually visit Kaithoon – to talk to a smiling old lady who tells me that she, her son, and her daughter-in-law, all weave at home. That the saris I’ve bought are the ones "that get made fast – just about 8 or 9 days," while the jazzy gold-weave ones take up to a month… to navigate one’s way past the goats and the chilli-fragrant bazaar; to admire the beautiful old domes that crown a forgotten building in one lane; to actually see one genuine kota sari after another: that experience was worth it.

History and Wildlife along the Chambal

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 11, 2011

Kota’s pride and joy is – no, not the City Palace, not the Abheda Mahal, not the kotadoria saris of Kaithoon. It is, instead, the Chambal River. This is the only perennial river in the largely desert state of Rajasthan, and the fact that Kota stands on the bank of the Chambal makes this one of Rajasthan’s greener cities. No wonder, then, that for a lot of local tourists – especially people from other parts of Rajasthan – the Kota Barrage is a major attraction. (Just watch those sluice gates open and release oh-so-much water!) Or, the Chambal Gardens. Several people – the hotel receptionist, the travel agent from whom we hired a car, and the driver of the car – recommended the Chambal Gardens.

The gardens themselves (entered after you’ve bought a 5-rupee ticket) turned out to be unimpressive. The lawns are pleasant, and the flowering bushes of jasmine and hibiscus are pretty, but the path-side `drinking water’ taps, the benches and playpens and slides and crowds of chattering families out for a picnic detract from what might’ve made for a pretty riverside area.

Fortunately, though, the Chambal Gardens offer one more attraction: a boat cruise down the Chambal. We’d thought this was basically just a joyride – seeing the city from the river, so to say (and we were willing to even do that, just for the experience of it) – but we were pleasantly surprised to discover that there’s more to the boat cruise. At the ‘boat cruise ticket counter’ down at the riverside, we learnt that there are two separate tours: if you pay Rs 50 per person, you get a seat on a shared motorboat (with about 8-9 other people) and are taken on a quick ten minute cruise down the river. A joyride, really. But if you pay Rs 1,200, you get a small motorboat of your own, in which a boatman-cum-guide takes you on an hour-long cruise, well into the Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary area.

We didn’t have to think; of course, we’d take the ride where we could go at least a little way into the wild. While we waited for our boat to be readied and our guide to call for us, we read the brochure we’d been given. These cruises are operated by Cygnus Adventure Tours; they also offer bird-watching tours, treks, jeep safaris, camping, boat cruises and a host of other adventure activities all across Rajasthan, besides customised tours.

When we were called (after having waited only about five minutes), we were given life jackets to put on, and helped into the boat. Less than a minute later, we were off, cruising down the river. We soon discovered that our guide was friendly and knowledgeable without being obtrusive. As we drew away from the Chambal Gardens and went past an old three-storied palace, more rugged than pretty, he told us that it was a hunting lodge built by Maharaja Umed Singh. In the 19th century, this stretch beside the Chambal had such a high population of tigers that the maharajas and their honoured guests would go out on hunting parties in boats, shooting at the tigers from boats. Next to the hunting is a large rock that slopes down to the river; Queen Mary once shot and killed a tiger here.

Within less than ten minutes, we’d left the modern city of Kota behind; we’d see the occasional medieval chhatri or pavilion, but that was about all (much later, close to where he turned the boat around, our guide pointed out the remains of a 12th century fort wall, high up on a cliff). This fort had been built by the original Hadoti Bhil tribals who ruled Kota until they were defeated and displaced by the Rajputs, who held power until Kota became part of the Republic of India.

Along the way, the gently sloping banks of the river had changed to cliffs – cliffs that, as our guide told us, steadily rise higher and higher as you go along the river. They aren’t thickly forested, but there are occasional trees, and plenty of scrub that still harbours animals like monkeys, chinkara gazelle, blackbuck, blue bulls, porcupines, civet cats, hyenas, and even sloth bears and panthers. As may be expected, you’d be lucky to spot bears, panthers, hyenas and other rare species on such a short trip. But we did see a few Rhesus macaques and langurs (yes, both species very common in Rajasthan, even in towns!), and some of the many bird species that the riverside is known for – darters, for instance, lapwings, and river terns.

Later, after the sun had set, the air was filled with darting house swifts whose nests dot the sides of the cliffs. Looking up, we also saw huge bats – "Fruit bats," our guide explained. He turned the boat round shortly after we’d crossed a huge bridge that’s being constructed across the Chambal, and started back towards the Chambal Gardens jetty. He seemed genuinely regretful that we hadn’t seen much in the way of wildlife, even though we’d been excited by what we did see, and hadn’t uttered a word of complaint. "Come in the winter," he said. "Then take a cruise in the morning, or at evening – say, about 4.30 PM. We do a two-hour cruise – we’ll even provide tea and coffee for you – and you can be almost sure to see some interesting birds, turtles, and gharial." So, on that happy note, and making promises to ourselves to return in winter, we headed back. We may not have seen much wildlife, but we’d had a very enjoyable, relaxed trip; we’d had a glimpse of history and of nature, and we’d been away from the city for a brief while. That was, to us at least, money well spent.

Chambal River Safari
Opposite 2nd Battalion Rac, Amar Niwas, Rawatbhata Road
Kota, India


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