The 2009 edition of Outlook Traveler spoke of the Mumbai to Goa drive enjoying cult status. The NH17, fondly remembered as NH66, ran along the western coast of India. At a few places, it came at a stone’s throw distance from the Arabian Sea. It sounded exciting.
So, for our 2017 annual domestic trip, we chose the Western Ghats & the Indian west coast. It was in line with our lets-see-the-country-at-least-before-we-die plan. When we started studying about the NH66, we found that it ran from Panvel to Kanyakumari. We were thrilled! We had ~10 days to spare. We could do a longer stretch than just Mumbai to Goa.
After extensive research & iterations, we narrowed down to a return trip of ~2,100 kilometers: Mumbai- Ganpati Phule- Gokarna- Kannur- Karwar- Panchgani- Mumbai.
The only reason we could not go till Kanyakumari: we had to return to Mumbai to drop off the rented self-drive car. Self-drive car rentals in India do not have the feature of different pick & drop points yet. & 10 days were inadequate to go till Kanyakumari AND return to Mumbai. So, the remaining stretch in maybe another trip!
Most of our road trip was on the NH66. Here & there, we touched SH92 (in Maharashtra), SH34 (Karnataka), NH48 (Maharashtra), & the Mumbai- Pune Expressway (Maharashtra). SH92 connects the NH48 to the NH66, traversing through villages to give you a view of rural Maharashtra. SH34 is a beautiful, well-maintained hilly stretch running through the Kali Tiger Reserve & Dandeli, the river rafting paradise of west India. NH48 & Mumbai- Pune Expressway are typical highways: wide roads, straight-line driving & limited scenery.
But this post is about the NH66. On our first stretch (Mumbai to Ganpati Phule), the highway zigzagged through the Western Ghats. It being the monsoon season, the Ghats were lush. We saw more shades of green than we thought existed. So much so, that after a while, our eyes sought colors other than green.
Once we started from Ganpati Phule (till Kannur), we encountered the reason NH66 is considered so highly. We drove parallel to the Indian west coast. We felt the sea breeze.
At places, the Arabian Sea was right beside us. One such place was Maravanthe: to our right was the Arabian Sea & to our left, the Suparnika River. Essentially, we drove on a thin strip of land.
All along the highway were fishing hamlets. We halted just about anywhere & asked for the day’s catch to be cooked for us.
Also pleasing to the eye were the intricately carved & colorfully painted temples. The gopuram of each of them carried gods & goddesses of all kinds, & of more colors than found in a child’s box of crayons.
There cannot be words better than photographs. So, leaving you with our captures of NH66.
For us, a holiday is not about rest and rejuvenation alone. At different points in time, it is about adventure, luxury, new experiences, new cultures, new food and discovering each other. One such place which gave a new experience was Kishangarh, Rajasthan, India.
Kishangarh is a big town divided into an old and a new segment. The new segment houses large marble companies with their factories, offices, and lots of small marble product retailers. This is the not-so-interesting side.
The real charm is in the old town of Kishangarh, which houses the Kishangarh fort and the Phool Mahal palace. It is about an hour before Pushkar when traveling from Delhi. Both Ajmer and Pushkar are at easy accessible distances.
We came to know about Kishangarh from the 2012 edition of Outlook Traveler. But when we mentioned it to people, they either did not know about it or dismissed it saying it has nothing.
It left us skeptical but not disheartened; skeptical because we were taking our parents along too. Nonetheless, we were determined to find out for ourselves. And, we are glad we did.
We started from Delhi fairly late, at about 9 AM. We got all the city traffic possible. The road from Gurgaon to Jaipur was quite bad too; there was construction going on. Diversions marked our route, making the roads even more congested.
Once we turned onto the Ajmer- Pushkar road, it was smooth sailing. Phool Mahal palace is available accurately on GPS. Within Kishangarh, we crossed the market to get to the palace. This added to our skepticism as the market was narrow, with a fair degree of hustle and bustle. One of the roads branched to take us to the palace.
Once we reached there, all our skepticism went flying out of the window. Located on one side of the Gond Talav (pond), made of yellow stone, and having the fort as its backdrop, the Phool Mahal is not your typical luxury heritage hotel. It is more of a budget heritage hotel, but with all the old-world charm intact.
Kishor, the caretaker, showed us our rooms, which were on the first floor and were pond-facing. Our parents’ room was in a theme of blue with large bay windows overlooking the lake. It had a bathroom the size of a flat in most metros.
Our room had a pastel shade, and was circular & small. But it got its beauty from the paintings done on the wall. These were the Kishangarh style of miniature paintings. We also had a small verandah which opened to the lake.
The fort and the palace are retained by the royal family of Kishangarh. The current king is His Highness Maharaja Brajraj Singh. He is the 20th king. Kishangarh was set up when the second son of the Jodhpur Maharaja came here and established his own kingdom. His name was Maharaja Kishen Singh, from which the town takes its name. And true to its name, the town follows Lord Krishna.
The Royal Kishangarh has two more heritage properties – Roopangarh about 25 kms away from Phool Mahal, and Kishangarh House in Mount Abu. The lounge on the ground floor had a wall full of portraits of the 20 kings to have ruled Kishangarh. The dining hall had the photographs of the current king and his family.
The staff was skeletal but hugely courteous. The Rajasthani hospitality was quite evident. Kishor was not just our go-to person; he was also our guide to the history of the palace and fort. He accommodated all our requests. Along with him, we had a server dedicated to us.
The palace grounds are quite big with a large parking, the main palace, gardens and smaller standalone structures. When we reached, the Gond Talav was covered with water hyacinths.
The story goes-the pond was used for water chestnut farming. Once, along with the seeds of the water chestnut plant, came a few branches and leaves of the water hyacinth plant. These took over the pond as Alexander had taken over the world. Efforts were made to remove these but given their stubbornness and parasitic nature, it had been futile.
The hyacinths were killing the pond. The lack of oxygen made the fish come to the surface. The pond had a dirty brown-grey color. But, but, but, we got a pleasant surprise when a gentle current made all the hyacinths drift into a corner of the pond. The pond then got a blue shimmer color. That was the sight that kept us company for almost a day and a half.
We hope the municipality took corrective action. It was just a matter of will, was it not? And not every pond would have catfish as large as an eagle’s wingspan.
Next in line for us was the visit to the fort. The entry fee was INR 200 per person. The tickets were available at the Phool Mahal reception. A guide escorted us and explained the doors, the spikes, the horse-drawn carriages, the treasury, the weapon storage area etc.
He then handed us over to ‘Mukhiya ji’ who was the priest in the temple inside the fort. The temple was dedicated to an avatar of Lord Krishna, Sri Nath ji but it could not be accessed by the public.
Mukhiya ji took us on a tour of the fort interior, which included many palaces. We just managed to cover the queen’s chambers after which we were exhausted. There is quite of bit of climbing that one needs to do, and it being Rajasthan, the Sun can be pretty strong. So try to go during the evening hours and do carry water with you.
It was heartwarming to see an intact fort which gave a glimpse of how the royalty lived many years ago. The fort also housed Studio Kishangarh which was the art initiative by the princess of Kishangarh. The Studio was striving to revive the old Kishangarh painting style. Worth a dekko!
Maintaining the fort would not be easy on the wallet, especially without a private/ public funding; a fort without a regular tourist inflow, it must be the pride of the royal family, and their memories that have kept this going.
His Highness was doing a pretty good job. Our only regrets – (1) We could not explore the fort in full due to its size and our paucity of time; and (2) We could not pick up a souvenir from the Studio Kishangarh outlet.
As we completed the fort visit, we were greeted by the sight of His Highness sitting in the veranda of Phool Mahal. We struck a conversation where he told us about the history, the efforts to clean the pond, the privacy of the Srinathji temple, and his other properties in Roopangarh and Mount Abu.
His Highness came across as a learned man; we later came to know he was an author and a lecturer on the Kishangarh art. There is something royal about royalty, isn’t there?
This brought our trip to an end. The day we left was the day of Holi, the festival of colors. We found the roads and highways devoid of traffic. On our onward journey, we had taken almost eight hours to reach. While returning, it took us six hours.
We took away nuggets of learning from the trip: (1) Never write off a place without experiencing it; (2) Hit the roads on major festival days.
Lastly, for the ease of fellow travelers, we suggest the following itinerary ex-Delhi: Delhi – Kishangarh- Ajmer- Pushkar- Roopangarh- Delhi. Five days, four nights would be sufficient.
Day 1: Leave from Delhi in the morning. Reach Kishangarh by evening. Spend the night at Phool Mahal.
Day 2: Start early and explore the fort in the first half. Head to Ajmer after lunch and offer a ‘chaadar’ at the ‘dargah’. Return to Phool Mahal for the night.
Day 3: Start late and head to Pushkar. Visit the Brahma temple and others, if you wish. Or shop at the bazaar and eat delicacies at the German bakeries. Head to the lake towards evening and be a part of the ‘aarti’. Back to Phool Mahal for the night.
Day 4: Head to Roopangarh. Explore the fort by day and rest there at night
Day 5: Leave for Delhi
Recommended time to visit: October-March
Recommended eats: Laal Maas (a very spicy mutton dish)
Recommended buys: A souvenir from Studio Kishangarh, lac bangles