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When i Drove on a Lake

We were blessed with a lovely daughter, Reyvika, on October 25, 2003. Gearing up ourselves for her first winter we preferred to remain in the comfy confines of our home. The little angel amused us with her pranks, antics, smiles and cries. In the morning of January 23 Vandana and me were discussing about Reyvika completing three months of her angelic existence on January 25. While I was preparing for going to the Office, Vandana came up with an idea of a short trip. The extended weekend due to the National holiday on January 26 seemed perfect and by the evening we had our itinerary ready. Rajasthan was the obvious choice being relatively less cold than Delhi and remaining fairly sunny throughout the day.

Rajasthan is a big state with many popular tourist destinations. Our fondness for water-bodies is next only to the hills and thus we decided for the Sambhar Lake. Sambhar Lake is the largest wetland in the state and also the largest saline-lake (190 sq. km) in the country. We read in the travel-related literature that the lake is the winter abode of the Flamingos. They visit the lake in numbers second only to Rann of Kutch in the state of Gujarat. This is mainly due to the Lake being shallow as the water level generally remains between the depths of 0.4 and 1 m. In fact, even after the monsoon the water level never exceeds the depth of 3m. Nearby Sambhar is the town of Kuchaman, which has a majestic fort. Salasar Shrine dedicated to Sri Hanuman is little farther from Kuchaman. Then finally we thought of doing the return journey to delhi via Shekhavati region, famous for the painted ‘havelis’ and ‘chattris’, and Haryana.

The Jaipur Highway
The NH-8 is very scenic, well built & maintained and very busy as compared to NH-2 to Agra. Till little further to Gurgaon two guys on a ‘Lightning 535’ gave us an envious company. Then they took a turn and we proceeded further. One has to pay Rs. 55/- and Rs. 40/- as toll tax at two points before reaching Jaipur. We did not enter the city (preferred the by-pass) and kept driving on the NH-8. Highway reconstruction is underway near Jaipur to make travel a lot smoother. We had to even stop for a ‘blast’ and then we passed over the rubble it created.

The Unmarked Turn & The Stranger
There are three roads leading to Sambhar initiating from NH-8 towards right side after Jaipur. First one is from ‘Mahlan’, a small township. The locals did not encourage us to go by this route. They suggested the second road instead which emanates from a very small village, Savarda. We could have easily passed the road without recognizing it. Since we kept asking the locals so we could arrive dot at the turn. Actually, there is no right turn. One has to drive on the wrong side for a few meters to turn at the evasive road. Just before taking the turn we confirmed with a man standing there. He gave a positive nod but jutted along a request to be lugged upto Naraina, a small village enroute Sambhar town.

Somehow I could not deny him though I knew it’s a huge risk nowadays. His name was Vijay Dutt Sharma and he was a government school teacher at Naraina. He had five brothers and one of them was Deputy Director with…….. :-) Interestingly, he divulged all these details about himself without being asked or questioned. This perhaps was done to allay our fears and/or to prove his genuineness. It does not harm to know a bit more about the risk, you see. :-) We reached Naraina village in about 20 minutes time where we dropped our guest. He was very courteous to invite us to his residence. We responded equally by thanking him for the invitation and bidding a warm and relieved goodbye. What about the third road? Well, keep reading!

The Show Begins
The Naraina village is actually a junction for the third road to Sambhar, which starts at a small town ‘Dudu’ on NH-8 a little farther from Savarda. We saved going upto Dudu and coming to Naraina anyway. After passing Naraina village, the scenery began to change. There were no roadside fields, only fallow land. Suddenly, the railway tracks joined us on the journey.

The sun was about to set and we were driving northwards to Sambhar having the sun-setting scenery on our left and whole ambience being yellowish, becoming reddish, progressively. By the time we reached Sambhar, it was dark. We quickly searched for an accommodation and got settled for the day. It is important to mention here that only three places exist here for staying. One is the Salt lake resort, other is PWD Rest house and the last one is ‘Apna Hotel’. We preferred the last one and it actually is a motel with a moderate tariff of Rs. 150/- for a double-bed room with an attached bath & toilet.

Sambhar - No! Not the deer!
Early in the morning, after taking a couple of photographs of the rising sun, we had a breakfast of Milk and Parathas. Then we asked the locals to show us the way to the lake. The locals were amused by our query as if we asked about something not worth-viewing.

Sambhar is an elliptically shaped lake which stretches for around 22 kms in length while breadth varies between 3 to 11 kms. Along the breadth, the lake is divided by a stone dam into an eastern and a western section. The latter acts as a reservoir of water while the water is pumped to the eastern section through sluice gates for salt extraction. Mainly, two rivers, Mendha and Rupangarh, among the several freshwater streams feed the lake. The lake has an extensive and indigenously developed system of Railways. The tracks were laid by british and are still used for running trolleys catering to even far-flung points in the salt works.

The locals suggested us to visit a local deity Shakambhari Devi. We thought, this would serve us the dual purpose. We not only will see a very less visited part of the lake but also one of the most worshipped deities of the region The locals warned us not to leave the pucca road and try kuchha road as we were traveling by a tiny M800 and few days back it rained there. Obediently, we followed the road. ROAD! It was no road. Only remnants. There was no possibility for a scamper and we had to travel as if going on a camel ride with ups and downs provided by the ditches and holes. Driving on hopelessly, (I must call it a butchered road) we sighted some beautiful scenery with great desert-like views. We came across few railway tracks, here, on the same line the tracks for both small and medium gauge have been laid. We snapped few ducklings near the railway tracks.

We encountered several places with glittering frost of salt. It was fluffy like snow (may be because of water evaporation or little downpour) and was spread endlessly. View from Shakambhari Devi was mesmerizing. The temple is at the base of a small hillock edging the lake. The locals informed us that around 20 years back the lake-water used to be upto the base of the temple. For now, even after the monsoon the water remains invisibly far. Silt & gravel are all that remains to decorate the whole landscape.

Drive on the Lake

At the temple we discovered that even our tiny M800 can venture into the lake-bed. So after doing our puja, we drove on Sambhar lake :-) Believe me, that was one of my best drives. Truly spiritual. Absolutely nobody around. Just our car in the whole place. Vision blurs before the eyes could spot the horizon. “No buddy! This is not Kutch”, I always kept reminding myself. The lake-bed is so smooth that we drove the vehicle even at 80kph for a while without a hitch. After the earlier arduous stretch of butchered ‘pucca’ road, this ‘kuchha’ road felt like heaven. Miles and miles away seemed the mainland. We took care to avoid the moist ground. What we missed dearly were the wild asses of kutch :-)

Whither Flamingos?
We traveled the major part of the lake but could not spot even one member of the species. All we could spot was a Stork curled-up and sitting lonely. We came back to the town and had lunch. Then we decided to catch some views of the beautiful gregarious water-bird. So we headed towards the other side of the lake. This time we reached the Salt-lake resort, which is situated at the Devyani gate. We were informed that it is very very difficult to spot the birds at this time of the day. They can only be spotted very early in the morning and that too at only one area - ‘jhapok bund’. We had to leave the place and the waders were successful to evade us. As we drove towards Kuchaman, the fact pinched us that we could not sight even one of them, not even flying.

Among Rajasthan’s several such inhabitations, Kuchaman is not just another fort township. It can offer a traveler a lot to see, experience and enjoy apart from comfort. The majestic fort built atop a steep hill is an architectural beauty and most famous for its water management provisions. How the fort taps the wind-power for cooling purposes is also worth viewing. It was built by the kings of Gurjar Pratihar dynasty for the Kuchaman’s strategic position near Sambhar salt lake. They controlled the salt trade for almost as much as 200 years and became rich until they were vanquished by Chauhans. Then came Gaurs followed by Rathores who are still powerful there. We could not do justice with the place, though. But if you are there, don’t forget to taste the stuffed Kachoris. Beware! Don’t forget to keep a glass of water ready even if you are a pepper aficionado.

The sun was going down. This gave us some beautiful views of fort to snap. Town in the shade and fort alight with sunlight. We drove hurriedly towards Didwana. It was already dark by the time we started from didwana for Salasar. Night travel particularly becomes interesting if you don’t find a bulb alight or a lantern for miles. All we had was headlight of the car; we turned it off just to see how dark it was :-) Believe me! We both never saw such a starry and moony night. Even the farthest of the farthest stars were peeping out from up there. It was breathtaking. Sand and bushes celebrated the moon and star shine in perfect harmony.

Salasar Balaji - Sri Hanuman Bhakts Listening?
If you find a ‘hanuman bhakt’, tell him not to miss Salasar balaji. What do you gain out of it? Well….you will be treated for your suggestion. This is the place to be at not only for a hanuman bhakta but also for any forlorn soul or for that matter any fatigued traveler. I bet you won’t find the same number of Dharamshalas anywhere in the country as in such a small township as Salasar. And they are no less than a good hotel. Without paying even a penny you get a clean four-six bedded room with an attached bath, though toilet is common. We stayed in ‘Sirsa Dharamshala’ and donated 50 bucks. If you cough-out 200 bucks then you can even get all-in-one room. We were baffled by the hospitality and facilities.

Bhojnalayas offer Rajasthani cuisine with lots of pepper. We relished the preparation. And guess what? Just for 15 bucks. What you get? Dal, roti, sabzi, chawal, papar, salad, achar…..whoosh! That too unlimited! Eat till your stomach screams. Amazing.

The whole town has shops offering ‘boondi’, ‘laddu’ and ‘pedas’. The Shops of bhajan audio galore. And for those religious minded souls, the shrine offers one of the finest sanctum sanctorums in the country. The riches of Salasar balaji cannot be fathomed. People come here with a wish in their heart. When it is fulfilled they come back here and share the fulfilled wish with Balaji. As they say, Beware! Don’t come with a wish in your MIND. Let it be in your HEART :-) Interestingly, the idol of the deity is depicted with black eyebrows, moustaches and beard - probably to symbolize the ageing Sri Hanuman. The story goes that a peasant family found the idol in the Asota village near Nagaur. The thakur of Asota and Mean Das of Salasar saw the diety in a dream on the same night. The idol was brought to Salasar and a temple was built there. As the shrine became famous a big township sprung up there. At present, the town receives the pilgrims from all over the country and even abroad, though we could not spot any foreigners roaming. There is no restriction for entering in the temple, based on caste/creed.

Shekhavati Frescoes - Open-air Art Gallery
We left for Delhi from Salasar at around 12.30 pm after having ‘darshan’ and lunch. Routing to Delhi offers some choice and we chose it to be via the Shekhavati. Tourists comparatively less exploit the shekhavati region of Rajasthan, which is spread over the Churu, Jhunjhnun and Sikar districts. But I bet, it will be a feast to your eyes once you enter into this semi-desert region. It unfolds like a colorful fantasy. Each town in the region is an open-air art gallery with plethora of painted havelis standing as the live testimony to its rich and colorful past. The wall paintings, known as frescoes, draw inspirations from ‘Krishna’, Hindu mythological gods & goddesses & related stories, rural life, hunting & wrestling scenes, etc. We even spotted the depictions as simple as the duel between two bulls or two elephants. We could also spot some portraits of Haveli owners.

These frescoes include whole array of colours, dominated by blue, maroon, green and yellow. Initially, vegetable pigments were used but with the advent of synthetic dyes, fresco painters had more freedom to do intricate work. The fresco painters were called ‘chiteras’ and belonged to the ‘kumhar/potter’ families. Havelis have exquisitely carved porches and wooden doors opening into small courtyards from which open many doors into the rooms depending upon the size of the mansion. Few of them even have ‘chattris’ at the corners and at the main gate. The unique architectural style caters to the privacy and safety of women folk and also keeps the buildings cool in the extremely hot summers. The ones built by Makrana marble (Sangmarmar) belong to erstwhile very rich merchants. By the way, ‘shekhavati’ - a land of shekhs - derives its name from ‘Rao Shekha’ of the Kachhwaha family of Jaipur. We passed through Lachmangarh, Fatehpur, Mandawa, Jhunjhnun, Chirawa & Pilani out of which we could see only a little bit of Fatehpur and Mandawa. At Pilani, we entered BITS campus and saw an architectural beauty, Saraswati Temple. Evenings are particularly nice here as the students, teachers and locals congregate here for the Aarti. Whatever we saw in our limited time was enough to invite us again to enjoy the cultural and architectural grandiose of the region.

If you like rustic settings with good roads and would also like to ride on the lake, do this. You’ll love it.

Paraj Shukla


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