Kesroli diaries: My stay at Neemrana Hill-Fort and the 6 people I met in Alwar

It is perfectly legal to go on holidays with the objective to ‘do nothing’ and let life figure itself out on its own as the mind wanders off and gets lost in a beautiful place!

Sacrificing my quest for activity oriented challenging vacations strictly budgeted around youth hostels or budget accommodations, this time I indulged and chose a quaint yet luxurious heritage property as my get away from Delhi, a city that is home to me, but maddens me so much that given a choice, I could leave it any day for a small and quieter city.

When one is going through challenging times or the head is in a muddle, then taking a break to somewhere new and different, away from the familiar and the mundane, often helps provide the thought clarity that’s required to steer ahead in this journey called ‘life’.

Located just about 150kms off Delhi, a 3 day trip to Hill Fort Kesroli (located in Alwar District of Rajasthan) coinciding over a Valentine’s Day weekend, was my chosen haunt this time around.

My companions on this journey were, me, my camera, a diary, a pen and a book titled, “What happens to good people when bad things happen to them?

From Delhi to Alwar to Kesroli, and back

Smitten by wanderlust, I have usually travelled solo. But, hard as I tried, I could not convince my mother to let me drive on my own to my chosen destination, so the ‘Ajmer Shatabdi’ that leaves every morning at the stroke of 6:05am from New Delhi Railway Station was my chosen train to reach Alwar Railway Station, 20kms off Kesroli.

Breakfast is served on the train, post Rewari station and soon after I had had my fill, I reached Alwar by 8.50am, a short 10 minute delay from my scheduled arrival time.

Though Neemrana offers a cab service to pick you up from Alwar to Kesroli, but it is priced at an exorbitant Rs.1100 plus taxes, which I saved and spent on shopping for Knick knacks from Alwar and chose to make the commute through the local bus that cost me just Rs.10, much to my delight.

I need to say a thank you here – The bus driver and the 2 conductors on this state transport run bus service were very helpful, at first at the bus terminal where I was lost and trying to figure out from the enquiry counters on buses to Kesroli and then in ensuring that they remembered to ask me to get down at the right bus stand when Kesroli village arrived.

Hill Fort Kesroli is a 2km walk from the Kesroli Village bus stop on the Alwar-Delhi highway. As I got down at the bus stop, it was a 5 Rs ride in a shared tuktuk till the Hill Fort gate, I ended up paying a touristy sum of Rs.50 as the driver wanted me to, and I gladly obliged.

On my way back two days later, I chose to walk the distance from the HillFort uptil the main road and then hopped onto an ‘Alwar Vahini‘ for a 30 Rs. journey, back to Alwar (Rs.15 was for my seat and Rs.15 was something I paid to reserve a seat for my back-pack as well, lest it is stomped on the vehicle floor by other passengers).

Lunch on my last day in Alwar was to be had in the famous Vegetarian restaurant, recommended by almost all travel sites named “Prem Pavitra Bhojanalaya” near Hope Circus and then I proceeded to take my train, back from Alwar Railway Station onwards to Delhi.

 

Rewind—-Day 1: What did I do in half a day at Alwar?

As the check-in time at Hill Fort Kesroli was 2pm, with a backpack and a camera as my mates, I hopped onto a Cycle Rikshaw to take me to Court Road or the main City Centre in Alwar. I could have also taken an Auto or the shared vehicle commonly referred to in this city as the ‘Alwar Vahini’, but the slow-paced Cycle Rikshaw was my choice, for the walk was a bit too long I was told by the friendly owner of the Railway cafeteria I stopped at to taste the rose flavoured-lassi by Amul for the first time, which didn’t please my taste buds, I like the Amul spiced buttermilk better.

Slow down. Relax. Breathe.

Taking a Rikshaw in the morning hours on a Sunday helped me get familiar with the streets of the town I was visiting for the first time. Armed with my photographic memory, the route to the Court Road was also imprinted in my memory to fall back on later during the day and the trip.

It was hard to spot a person on the roads there at that time that day, which was a welcome relief for an introvert seeking away time from ‘people’ to refill herself!

Riding past Hope Circle, through the Choodi (Bangle) Bazaar and Saraafa (Jeweller) Bazaar, I reached the City Palace, only to amusingly visualise that the Palace Courtyards now play host to multiple gully cricket matches, not only on Sundays as that day was, but on most days, as shared by the ‘players’ I spoke to. The Palace, shabbily maintained, is now more of a Government Office building (comprising of Collectorate and the Court), with notaries and legal document typists occupying the back courtyard. The fountain had run dry! I enjoyed the gully cricket on display and soaked in the winter sun on this pleasant Sunday morning. There was never a dull moment!

The City Palace courtyards get converted into a Cricket ground every weekend.
The City Palace courtyards get converted into a Cricket ground every weekend.

But nonetheless, this building houses on its topmost floor, the Government Museum which is open from 9:45am till 5pm on all days, except Monday. It was a Sunday the day I visited. It has a reasonably priced Rs.20 ticket that lets you have a peak into armaments, scriptures, paintings, cutlery, dresses and jewellery and all things of eras bygone. Before you step into the museum, I suggest you spend some time admiring the Bala Quila/the military fort from the rooftop of the City Palace, which is otherwise a 15km uphill journey from that point.

I tagged along with young kids from the neighbourhood and sponsored a part of their tickets so that they too could enjoy the visit while also keeping me engaged with their cherubic company. These kids had come visiting thinking the entry to the museum is free on Sundays, it is not and it wasn’t. The museum staff gave them the reprieve too and just took money for three tickets for this group of 7 kids from me – so another thank you is due here!

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The staff at the museum was nice but I could not help but think that this small museum employs more staff than necessary. If at all, they want to employ so many of them, then they should perhaps consider training a few of them as guides to the museum who could narrate the story behind the collections inside to those not that fond of reading signages.

After the visit to the Museum, I walked downhill from the City Palace courtyards and engaged myself with sights and sounds on the streets, which by now seemed familiar.

My first encounter was with three sets of mom and kid – belonging to the cow, donkey and dog family.

Walking past a few abandoned houses, I met Kailash Saini and DK Gupta, two entrepreneurs who run a ‘paint’ shop and were busy with their current assignment of getting 2000 kalash (pots) ready over the next two days i.e. by 16th February 2016 for a ‘Kalash Yatra‘ (A procession in which devotees would carry these painted pots with coconut over their heads) scheduled to be held on 18th February 2016,  from the Temple located opposite to their shop to another temple. Though, this Kalash Yatra is an annual affair, I learnt that what is special this time around is that a ‘Murti‘ (Idol) of Lord Venkatesh will be taken to from this temple to the other in a procession.

The pots were painted yellow, followed by painting the ‘Lord Venkatesh/Vishnu/Tirupati’ sign in white on them as the yellow base dried. And lastly, stencils in Hindi reading ‘Venkatesh Pratishthaan‘ (i.e installation of the idol of Lord Venkatesh) were pressed and painted on the ‘kalash‘ in Red.

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Moving ahead, I saw the local vegetable and fruit market and then to satiate my taste buds, I gorged on a pyaaz kachori at a local sweet shop, in which the shopkeeper was sitting on a wooden stool over a table, instead of a chair. I had noticed this distinctly small wooden stool with legs just an inch or two long even in the vegetable market, in which sellers were sitting on it, over their carts…curious I enquired what this stool was called, and the shopkeeper willingly answered, that this was, “Shivji ka thada” i.e a stool which gets its name from the fact that Lord Shiva used to sit on this in his meditative pose. Why does he sit on it, I further asked the shopkeeper and to that he answered, “People who sit on chairs for longer duration, often complain of spinal problems and arthritis, sitting on this thada keeps my spine straight and the knees are good as well“.

The flat wooden stool that this shopkeeper is seen sitting on is the one referred to as 'Shiv ji ka Thada'
The flat wooden stool that this shopkeeper is seen sitting on is the one referred to as ‘Shiv ji ka Thada’

Thereafter, a 45-year old Bangle shop caught my attention. Seated upfront, were Nisha and her middle-aged son named Gulzar. They are both, manufacturers and wholesale dealers of Lac/Lakh bangles, worn by Rajasthani women since the era of Empress Mumtaz. Lac is a resin that has been and is popular due to it being the oldest source of colour, its pliability, its advantage of adding other colours or embellishments to it.

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A short film below describes the process of making Lac bangles

This is all Nisha has known since she was born, she confides in me, her family used to make lac bangles and when she got married, she joined her husband’s business. The Lac bangles are normally embellished with pearls, semi-precious stones, mirrors, beads etc. For applying the stones, and that’s what Nisha keeps doing all day, the stones are heated over a tin plate kept on a small burner. The base of the stones gets heated and easily melts the lac / lakh surface on which they are placed and stick there after cooling. They are picked up one at a time and stuck on the bangle. The process requires great precision and I could just admire Nisha’s patience with awe and wonder, before finally giving into my temptations and buying a few sets of lac bangles to adorn my wrists as well from her ‘fixed-price’ shop. And my learning, good lac bangles are lighter, while the cheap ones are heavier!

As I walked past the Saraafa Bazaar shops, it was my turn next to meet Ashok Bhatia and his son, Ashish, who is the 7th generation of this family running a 240+ year old brand of ‘Kaajal’, called ‘Moti Kaajal’, made from traditional ayurvedic recipe of herbs that has been passed down from one generation to the other secretly. Their brand’s trademark is a ‘Horse’. They also make eye drops and ‘soorma’ and their biggest clientele is in Assam, West Bengal and in states down south, where women wear Kaajal religiously.

Ashok ji shares, “Our first shop was in a place which is now in Pakistan and then post-partition, my father moved to Alwar and started this shop here. Though we have a home and our Wholesale and Marketing agency in Delhi, I like the quietness of this small city of Alwar and thus chose to stay here with my wife and son.Someone has to take forward this old family business of ours and thus I made Ashish, my son drop out of his CA exams.

As I indulged again and bought myself a set of each product they sold, I also learnt a golden tip for healthy eyes from the father-son duo, “eat 4 peppercorns every morning, followed by lukewarm water“.

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About Hill Fort Kesroli and my stay in there

Hill Fort Kesroli is a 14th Century property maintained and developed into a heritage hotel by the Neemrana Group. Since it was a Sunday to Tuesday trip I had booked myself on, keeping the weekend in mind and the rush that this property expects from people, note couples residing in urban areas of Delhi and Gurgaon, I did my bookings through Neemrana’s Delhi Office the week prior. Since some hotels/guesthouses/resorts in various cities of India are hesitant in lending out their rooms to a single woman travelling alone, I made sure I checked on this with the Neemrana team at the time of the booking. They confirmed that ‘I am indeed, welcomed’.

The Neemrana website offers you an option to virtually check out the room you want to book yourself in at each of their properties (they call them all ‘Mahals’ – meaning ‘Palaces’). My chosen option, keeping in mind my budget and expectations, was the ‘Swagat Mahal’ from amongst the rooms available. It was a room that could have hosted three residents, but I had the luxury of having it all to myself and feel cossetted for those days spent there. Remember that the check in time into this property is 2pm, so plan to reach here accordingly. In case you reach early and opt to check in, you may be asked to pay a 50% extra room rent for that day.

History of Hill-Fort Kesroli:

In 14th Century, this fort was under Yaduvanshi Rajput Dynasty, who were descendants of Lord Krishna. When Ferozshah Tughlaq came to India, he won this fort and forcefully changed the religion of people nearby this fort, prefixing ‘Khan’ before ‘Jadon’, making their surnames ‘Khanjadon’. The Tughlaqs remained the ruler of this place till the mighty and the rich synasty of Mughals took it over under Emperor Babar, who arrived in Alwar after killing Rana Sanga.

At the time of Emperor Aurangzeb, the Mughals started to loose control over India and this Fort was taken over by the ‘Jats’ of Alwar, who were then superseded by the ‘Rajputs’ in the year 1775.

In 1831, this fort was under Maharaja Gulab Singh, and then under Maharaja Vinay Singh, who is also credited with constructing the City Palace Museum. Maharaja Vinay Singh married Rajmata Roop Kamal, who was the daughter of Maharaja of Kesroli.

Maharaja Vinay Singh, passed on the Fort to Maharaja Bhawani Singh and then it went to Maharaja Narendra Singh (1912-1972). Maharaja Narendra Singh had just one daughter, so after his demise, the Fort now belongs to his son-in-law ( or ‘beti-daamaad‘, as referred to by locals in Kesroli) Retired Wing Commander Mangal Singh, who stays in Alwar along with his wife and daughter.

Retired Wing commander Mangal Singh, the owner of Hill Fort at Kesroli
Retired Wing commander Mangal Singh, the owner of Hill Fort at Kesroli

The Neemrana Group has taken this Fort on lease since 1992 and refurbished it into this heritage hotel, where people like you and me can come over and indulge in royalty for a few days!

I checked in at 3:30pm on that day and chose to indulge myself to a massage in their Spa, followed by an evening snack served complimentary by the Neemrana group for all their guests in the courtyard. I had to use my stare effectively to scare and stop an urban couple, who was smoking cigarettes shamelessly thus far, while the rest of us were enjoying our tea! You are not allowed to smoke at public spaces in India. Period.

Whilst in the Spa, I learnt about and met the only two female staff members working at Hill-Fort Kesroli. They were both from the beautiful state of Sikkim and just a word of caution here, since our accents differ, just listen to what they are asking of you carefully before you go into the Spa rooms, for I misunderstood and then understood in time, that they were asking if I was comfortable with a male-therapist, which I heard as ‘milk-therapy’ 🙂

The dinner was served at the Restaurant located by the side of the beautifully-lit up pool.

My second day here was spent walking around the village, reading the book I carried with me, admiring the views of the fields, the village homes and the rising and setting sun from the tastefully done up open-air seating areas on the Fort towers/Burjs and watching the Parakeets fluttering by.

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For solo travellers like me, the staff at the properties where we choose to stay in on our travels often become our companions to talk to at the end of the day, and it was during these random conversations, that I learnt that Neemrana is a good employer and most of their staff here has been with the group for more than 15-20 years. One amongst those was Mahesh from their Housekeeping Team, who proudly shared with me the names of all Neemrana properties he has had the honour of being posted thus far. Hill-Fort Kesroli was his home posting, did he like it, I asked? “It is better to work away from home, for distance makes the heart grow fonder“, he chuckles away.

The long working hours deter most villagers from seeking employment here at Hill-Fort, while the perks of their Child’s education being sponsored, Provident Fund etc. attracted the 4-5 villagers, like Mahesh, who work here diligently.

As I took my last walk around the Kesroli Village, I saw a very old woman with a curved spine and a wooden walking stick, making her way out of the fields…hesitantly, I walked upto her and asked her what did she go into the fields for, her moist eyes answered me back, she had gone into the fields to defecate. “I am over 80 years old, my name is Kishori. I am a Brahmin, we are a much superior caste as compared to these Jogi women who are surrounding you”, she replied back.

My husband died 20 years back and I hope so do I die fast. I can’t see properly, I have fever too. I have 4 sons, none of whom care enough to either build a toilet at home or get my eyes treated“, cried Kishori.

I could do nothing for her, except offer her some words of consolation…hearing which a woman passing by us belonging to the ‘Jogi’ community of the village shouted back pointing skywards, “she will only get well when she goes to the heavens“.

Kishori at Village Kesroli - she is over 80 years old, a mother of 4 boys, a widow with a curved spine, walking with the support of a walking stick and she has cataract in both her eyes. Here she walks back dejected after defecating in the open fields.
Kishori at Village Kesroli – she is over 80 years old, a mother of 4 boys, a widow with a curved spine, walking with the support of a walking stick and she has cataract in both her eyes. Here she walks back dejected after defecating in the open fields.

I didn’t know what to say further, speechless I moved on.

What do you think?