The fact that Rajasthan, the land of kings, has long been one of the greatest tourist attractions of the country, is undoubted. The princely states of Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur, and Bikaner in Rajasthan transport tourists into an era of royalty and magnificence now forgotten. Amongst these doyens of cities is the ancient township of Alwar, which houses many historical treasures.
Alwar lies in the northeastern part of Rajasthan and is carved out of the rocky Aravalli hills. One of the oldest in Rajasthan, it has cradled many civilizations. It is a treasure trove of ancient temples, medieval forts, palaces, gardens and wildlife, where the Pandavas—the heroes of the great Indian epic Mahabharata, spent the last year of their 13-year exile. Alwar lies equidistant from Delhi and Jaipur, on the Delhi-Jaipur road, 170 Km south of Delhi.
Situated on the western railways from Jaipur to Delhi and 36 km south of Alwar is Rajgarh. Rajgarh, now a sub-division of Alwar district, was formerly a seat of the chief of Alwar state. The town is surrounded by hills, surmounted by fortification and some fine buildings.
A school friend of mine, whose husband was posted at the military station in Alwar, wrote to me about places of historical interest there. She was especially eloquent in her praise of the Neelkanth temples, which she and her family had recently visited. Knowing that I have a special interest in historical places, Rima had chosen the right time to inform me about Neelkanth. I was musing over my vacation plans when I received Rima’s letter. “Perfect,” I said on reading the letter, “then Alwar it will be.”
The best season to be in Alwar is between September and February. I planned on taking this holiday during the Christmas break. One can reach Alwar by air, road, as well as rail. The nearest airport, Jaipur, is 148 km away. The broad gauge between Delhi and Jaipur runs through Alwar and numerous trains run throughout the day. Bus services are regular and frequent from Delhi.
I chose to travel by car as I live in New Delhi and Alwar is a short distance from the capital. Between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15, often there is fog that settles in and is a big deterrent to all forms of travel. But as the day progresses the fog begins diminishing. I planned to begin my journey around 1:30 p.m., when the fog would have completely disappeared and I would be comfortably at my destination in three-and-a-half hours.
Armed with a road map, Rima’s instructions and good cheer, I started out on my journey. I made good progress three- fourths of the way until I entered Rajasthan. Then began a battle with the dusty, bumpy roads, and I eventually arrived in Alwar around 5:15 p.m.
Even though Alwar does not have as impressive an inflow of tourists as other cities of the state, it surprisingly has two dozen hotels where one can stay. The quietude of the place, due to the absence of the noisy hustle-bustle of a large tourist crowd and a pollution-population outburst suited me well.
The R.T.D.C (Rajasthan Tourist Development Co-operation)
runs three hotels—Meenal, Tiger Den, and Lake Palace. Besides these there are over a dozen private hotels like Mayur, Alankar, Ankur, Atlantic, Imperial, Aravalli, and Alwar to name a few. Visitors coming to Alwar have a choice of staying in palaces, havelis (mansions) and other heritage properties converted into hotels. It would have been interesting to stay at one of these locations but my friends would not hear of me staying anyplace but their home. So I headed for the army cantonment at Itarana.
The first night at Alwar was extremely cold and freezing. But I’d come prepared for the desert. I was told that during the winters there is a vast difference in the day and night temperature (31 degrees Celcius in the daytime and 9 degrees Celcius at night).
The next morning was unfortunately shrouded in thick, impenetrable fog. As we huddled under the quilts, sipping hot tea, I wondered if we could go for the picnic that we’d planned. Luckily the fog began clearing around 10.30 a.m., revealing a bright and cheerful sun in a clear sky. With high spirits and hampers packed with mouth-watering goodies—kids, adults, et al set out for Neelkanth.
Once out of the cantonment precincts, we took the Rajgarh highway. A 37 km potholed stretch brought us to the famous tiger sanctuary at Siriska. The sanctuary is nestled in the picturesque ranges of the Aravallis and pulses a beat of its own. It was established in 1955 and taken over under Project Tiger in 1979. The best chance of spotting a tiger here is in the early mornings but we’d missed the chance due to the fog. We decided to come back on a clear morning some other day. We drove hurriedly through it since Neelkanth was still 29 km away and the road conditions harsh.
An arduous bumpy drive of 8 km from Tehela village within the sanctuary brought us to Neelkanth. However the rather tiresome drive over an un-metaled, dusty stretch is very well compensated by an overwhelming view of the temples of Neelkanth.
Amongst the greatest treasures in Alwar are perhaps the ruins of the several ten centuries old, fabulously carved temples at Neelkanth, which stand on a hillock surrounded on all sides by forest-covered hills. According to history, once the plateau of these hills was a considerable town and statuary. Its old name was Rajor or Rajorgarh. It was the old capital of the Bargujar tribe of the Rajputs. There are a total of 360 of these gems carved in stone but only a few of them stand today. Their ruinous state is attributed to the destruction unleashed upon them by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb but the state government and the archaeological departments are equally blameworthy.
Neelkanth, like many other historical places falls under the reserve forest or park area of 492 sq km. Among the 360 temples, the largest and particularly remarkable is the highly venerated Shiva temple where worship is done even today. The large pyramidal domed temple is richly decorated with figures of men, women, gods, and goddesses. The columns are beautifully sculptured in the style of the columns at Baroli in Mewar. It was probably erected in the 10th century. S. 1010 is clearly legible on a figure of Ganesha in the large temple.
We were lucky to meet Gangadhar, the priest of Neelkanth, who sat in the temple complex. Gangadhar carries on the 200-year-old tradition of his ancestors of performing the daily puja at the Shiva temple. From Gangadhar we learnt that the Pandavas built this temple when they passed through this region during the last year of their exile.
Initially it was an open temple, having three domes supported by pillars but no walls. Later when Alwar fell into the hands of Rajah Jaisingh of Amer (Jaipur), he constructed the walls. The three domes are dedicated to lords Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh. The central and largest dome is Lord Shiva’s (Mahesh) and beneath it is a large Shiva Linga in black stone. Aurangzeb destroyed the other two domes dedicated to Brahma and Vishnu. The entry to these two domes has been closed as beneath them stand only the memories of a terrible destruction.
The Neelkanth temples were declared to be of national importance under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958. From a total of 360 temples, only about 20 to 25 have been excavated so far, but the archaeological department is making efforts to restore them. The wonderfully sculptured statues unearthed here have been kept in a recently constructed museum, which has not been opened for public viewing yet.
According to folklore, Lord Shiva stopped Rajah Jaisingh’s army during his conquest of the region. The king then performed puja and promised Lord Shiva that he would establish yogis (priests) at the temple who would perform daily prayers there and he vowed to burn an eternal lamp. According to several villagers Bhartrihari was the first yogi of Neelkanth. The yogis lie buried in front of the temple at the foot of the stairs and small, hollow, oval shaped structures have been built over their graves. The foremost samadhi or grave is of Bhartrihari and it is entombed in the largest of the oval shaped structures. The eternal lamp is kept burning even to this day, the duty having come down as a legacy to the present priest Gangadhar. During the major events at Neelkanth, the Shiv puja during monsoons and the Mahashivratri mela, Gangadhar plays a major role.
Two hundred yards away from the Shiva temple is another stony wonder. This is a single stone giant structure of the 23rd Jain Tirthankar, locally known as Nogaza. The monument attendant Ramsaran, from the Archaeological Department, did not have a clue about the era of its construction. But whatever the era and whoever the person responsible for its construction, it is a masterpiece in solid stone.
Photography is prohibited at these ancient treasures. Five police guards and a staff of about 25 people from the archaeological department are responsible for the security and maintenance of these monuments. These less known and much less photographed monuments of Alwar are perhaps the oldest in Rajasthan. Probably by the time the archaeological department is done with the excavation and restoration of these monuments, India will have something more to boast of.
In our curiosity and awe of the beauty of Neelkanth,
we’d forgotten our hunger but not the kids. They’d started clamoring for refreshments. We unanimously decided to picnic beneath the shade of a cluster of tall bamboos, away from the village adjoining the temple. As we were eating, we noticed a band of scarcely clad kids that had followed us. They stood closely together and watched us with wide eyes. On much cajoling they took the food that we offered them and ran away with smiles.
Amongst the goodies kachories and gulab jamuns from Jodhpur Sweet House and the famous Alwar milk cake were particularly delicious. Replete we lay down on durrees (hand woven rugs) to ease our stiff limbs. The kids took a short nap while we drifted into a conversation about the sights we had seen.
Before leaving, we decided to visit the adjoining village. We got a taste of the well-known hospitality of rural India. The villagers straightened the cots and spread out their best sheets for us to sit on. Then we were handed tall glasses of salted lassi sprinkled with roasted and coarsely ground cumin seeds. Due to language differences, our conversation was carried out in broken sentences and gestures, punctuated by giggles and wholehearted laughter.
Finally it was time to part with both, our rural friends and the day well spent at Neelkanth. Off we sped to Alwar, carrying the flavor of the affection of our rustic mates and the beauty of Neelkanth which would be remembered till long after.