By the rivers of Kota
A look at the two strikingly different worlds of Kota, Rajasthan's fifth largest city.
THE Chambal river canyon was ablaze with colour. Towering cliffs of flaming red-orange rock surged vertically out of the water and clawed at puffs of cloud floating in the blue sky above. We cruised though this dramatic corridor in a motorboat, our eyes peeled for signs of life along the riverbanks flush with green vegetation.
Monkeys were easy to spot: the rustle of branches as they skipped from one tree to another betrayed their presence. The white droppings of birds served as location pointers for eagles and vultures nesting in the craggy reaches. In one nest, two chicks exercised their wings in preparation for their maiden flight. Ahead of us, a flock of wild ducks created an illusion of a floating land mass upon the rippling water. And then, in a flutter of wings, the island seemed to take flight and soar through the sky above.
We almost missed the ultimate prize when at first we dismissed it as a log floating in the shallows along the banks of the river. And then it moved, revealing that it was indeed an enormous gharial. As our boat purred closer, the pre-historic creature opened its disproportionately slender snout, tipped with a bulbous wart-like growth. I gazed at the two rows of razor sharp teeth that lined its mouth and could not help but marvel: the beast was beautifully ugly.
After two more sightings of giant reptiles, both crocodiles, we pulled into a small cove. The chimes of a temple bell at the summit of the vertical cliff floated down and mingled with the lapping of water, the rustling of the wind through leaves and the splash of sapphire-blue kingfishers that dived for fish from branches hanging over the river.
Kota, some 12 kilometres downstream, was another world. The fifth largest city in Rajasthan, often referred to as the industrial capital of the State, suffers from both bad press and an appalling skyline that is spooked with chimney stacks. As a result, Kota is associated with the fact that it has Asia's largest fertilizer plant, both thermal and nuclear power stations, as well as chemical, synthetic fibre, textile, sophisticated instruments and a number of industrial units. More recently, it is associated with its renowned coaching classes for students seeking admission into medical and engineering institutes across the country.
Yet, scattered around this bustling modern town are quiet recesses grand palaces, forts, monuments, artistic treasures where one can slip into the past and revel in the ancient glory and rich cultural heritage of the Rajput kingdom.
Kota Fort on the banks of Chambal river and its ramparts, one of the highest in Rajasthan, goes back some 800 years ago when a Kotya Bhil warrior first established his stronghold along a strategic height overlooking the river. In 1579, the young prince Rao Madho Singh fortified the structure, when Kota was carved out of Bundi and presented to him in appreciation of his exploits in the thick of battle at the tender age of 14.
The martial tradition continued and five of the new ruler's sons died on the battlefield fighting on behalf of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan against his son, the usurper prince Aurangzeb. The sixth survived, reportedly with no less than 50 wounds on his body, to keep the lineage alive. Over the following centuries, the rulers of Kota found themselves fighting to retain their kingdom from waves of invaders, Mughal rulers, the maharajas of Jaipur and Mewar, their cousins from Bundi, the Marathas and eventually the British.
Over these tumultuous years they took time out to stud the kingdom with architectural gems: palaces, temples and the little pendant-like Jag Mandir that seems to float in the middle of Kishore Sagar Lake in the middle of the city. The history of the kingdom is retold in vivid colour at the Maharao Madho Singh Palace Museum. I walked through the ground level Darbar Hall a little overwhelmed by the images of kings, gods and legendary heroes and beautiful women that sprang out of the murals that surrounded me.
... with a touch of culture.
On the upper levels of the palace, the private residential quarters of the royal family, there were more wall paintings. The curator of the museum was not exaggerating when he observed that the Kota school of art represented the pinnacle of miniature paintings in Rajasthan. Sadly, he added, the ancient art is all but lost in the city's headlong rush towards industrialisation.
One tradition that has survived, however, is the famous Kota saris. We set out for the neighbouring village of Kethan, where simple weavers wove the delicate fabric of cotton and silk embroidered with gold and silver. The narrow streets of the settlement, hemmed in by rough and tumble huts was a living handicrafts museum. Entire families worked together, weaving their magic on spinning wheels and looms. Occasionally we passed small units that moulded colourful Rajasthani lacquer bangles.
On the way back to Kota, we took a small detour to visit the Shiv temple at Kansua. We drove past quintessential Rajasthani hamlets where women in colourful garb drew water from village wells. One lass, balancing one shining brass container on her head and cradling another under her arm, covered her head coyly at the sight of my camera. At Kansua temple, where Lord Shiv manifested himself a thousand times over as small lingams carved out into a larger one, I had better luck when a typical Rajasthani beauty smiled willing into my lens.
That evening we stopped by at Keshoraipatan temple, a riverfront shrine soaring up to the heavens behind protective fortress-like walls. As the gold-orange sun slid off the sky, a herd of buffalo emerged from the water and set off for their stables. A wild peacock climbed a little mound in the distance and surveyed the scene. We hired a local boat to ferry us across the river; the reflection of the temple shrinking away from us as we approached.
In the gathering dusk, a full moon hovered over the eastern sky. Small cooking fires lit up the ghats leading down to the water. A sadhu in matted locks who had renounced the material world demanded Rs. 100 for the privilege of taking his photo. Stall owners, eking out a living, happily pose for nothing more than a thank you.
At the edge of the ghats, women floated lighted diyas on the dark waters. Leaving the flaming river upon which a thousand flames flickered with devotion, we headed back to Kota.
However, one of the most enduring images of Kota were its milkmen. Sporting imposing handlebar moustaches and bright turbans, they rode around the streets of the city on modern motorcycles to which were chained shining copper milk vessels. Indeed, they captured the spirit of the city: striving to be modern without compromising its rich traditions.
The closest airport is at Jaipur, 246 km, via Bundi.
All trains, including the Rajdhani, stop at Kota which is linked to Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur and Agra.
Located on NH 12, Kota is connected to Bundi (35 km), Jaipur (246 km), Udaipur (310 km), Agra (371 km), Delhi (501 km), Mumbai (901 km) and most major cities.
Kota has a wide selection of accommodation two palace hotels: Brijraj Bhawan Palace and Umaid Bhawan Palace; Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation's Hotel Chambal; four-star Menaal Residency on the Jaipur highway; railway retiring rooms, a Circuit House, a Dak Bungalow and a number of other properties.
Cygnus Adventure Tours plies three motorboats on the Chambal river: 20-minute circuits in front of Chambal Gardens and a longer cruise, including overnight camping and trekking excursions.
For more information contact Tanishq Holidays, Mumbai: Tel: (022) 2242 8277/8279/5224 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Cygnus Adventure Tours, Kota Tel: (0744) 502832, 364348 E-mail: email@example.com or Rajasthan Tourism, Kota Tel: (0744) 327695.
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