Many people travel to experience something new, and India is certainly a place to do that. The problem I ran into was that there was never a break from the new, no way to find the familiar, if even for a second. When seeking to find a taste of home through a coffee shop cappuccino I might get a milkshake to drink on a broken chair while staring out a dusty window. If I wanted to retreat to a warm bed I might discover crusty stains on the hotel linens and a previous guest’s takeaway container under my bed. Yes, I was in India without pause, both physically and mentally, for the duration of my three week trip
The madness started as soon as my cab dropped me off in Old Delhi from the airport. Baggage in hand, I found myself dodging NASCAR-minded rickshaws and honking motorbikes, the fact I’d barely slept on the plane completely out the window with my heightened anxiety. The cows (and their cow pies), the aggressive touts, the beggars, the red beetle nut spit on restaurant walls, seeing a woman sh*t on the train platform, being given “free” gestures of karma from locals who then demanded money, a pollution-induced fever; it was chaos and culture shock that welcomed me into India.
Chaos in Varanasi
Throughout the pandemonium traveling through Delhi, Varanasi, Agra and Jaipur, I was amazed by what I saw — one of the largest Hindu temples in India (Akshardham), the Taj Mahal, the burning of bodies and the washing away of sins on the Ganges River in Varanasi; it was all so incredible. Beyond the trash and decay, if you can just peel back some of the layers, there is an immense beauty to be seen.
But it’s certainly not an easy trip, and I found myself longing for any type of respite; for something that allowed me to breathe.
And just when I thought I might lose my mind, there came Bundi.
I can’t take all — or really any of — the credit for discovering this surprising chill and non-touristy Bundi. The credit goes to my friend Derek of Wandering Earl Tours, who promised me a true Indian oasis. As soon as I entered Dev Niwas Heritage Hotel, tucked quietly off Bundi’s main road, my entire energy changed. The property is one of India’s historic “havelis” or “mansions” turned into a hotel, and features a fountain and flora-laced courtyard surrounded by three balcony-lined floors of guest rooms and a 4th-floor rooftop restaurant with gorgeous aerial Bundi views. The streets were uncrowded enough that I could move my arms, shop owners invited me to peruse their wares with a smile, and there was cow dung only every 100 feet (as opposed to one). I was ready to explore.Have you heard of #Bundi? It's a great place to find #peace on an #India #trip! Click To Tweet
A Royal Town
A bit about Bundi. This used to be a royal town, which is interestingly why many of these buildings are painted a calming royal blue hue. Home to palaces, forts, step-wells and remnants of past splendor, Chauhan rulers took over what we know today as Bundi in the 12th century, when it became the capital of their kingdom (called Hadoti). Bundi was loyal to the Mughals for most of the late 16th century and after, though they eventually pressured local rulers to split Bundi into Bundi and Kota, the start of Bundi’s decline, at least in terms of prestige.
I feel like Bundi has almost been forgotten, as many Indians and tourists alike have never heard of it, though there is currently a push by the tourism board to make it popular. There’s even a new “real” highway (National Highway 12)— with smooth roadway and cars driving the correct direction (most of the time) — connecting Jaipur and Bundi. While it used to take over seven hours to get between these two cities, it now takes about two.
By this point in the trip I’m craving some outdoor adventure, and Bundi, luckily, has a steep but rewarding hike to the top of Taragarh Fortress. From my hotel I can see it snaking its way up from the town through the hillside like a stone spine, the golden domed Shiva Temple pagoda glimmering in the sunlight. Despite being in a state of decay with lots of overgrown vegetation, the structure is the gem of the town with a rich history. Constructed in the 14th century, the site offers a beautiful — albeit weathering — example of Rajasthani architecture.
After my group and I pay the admission and enter through a large gate, the trek up begins — literally; it’s a steep and slippery climb ascending smooth cobbled stones. The adjacent palace greets us with another gate, a grand elephant-carved entryway, as we make our way up what would be considered a switchback trail in the wilderness. As we get higher the view of Bundi becomes more impressive, with lots of old fort windows through which to frame photos, as well as smaller holes through which I assume shots would have been fired.
I’m amazed by the size of the town, which feel so small when enveloped in its welcoming walls. It’s also beautiful the way the hillside slopes down to meet Bundi town, wrapping a large embrace around the buildings and large lake.
After about 20 minutes we come to another entryway, with a spiked door to the right that reminds me of something from medieval times. The door has a small square opening to crawl through, behind which an Indian man carrying walking sticks greets us. Funny enough this man is actually the ticket seller for the fort; however, in India it’s common for locals to become on-the-spot entrepreneurs, and he begins walking with us as if we’d hired him to be our tour guide. We politely decline a few times before he goes away, knowing that if we used his unwanted services we would have been expected to pay a random price at the end.
Tip: if you see this man tell him no thank you (or get the price up front), but do ask him for one of his walking sticks. These double as a device to shoo the many monkeys you’ll encounter away and are free to use.
And there are a lot of monkeys! They apparently generally don’t bother you unless you have food, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Also if one hisses at you or bares its teeth, walk quickly away. Oh, and don’t leave your phone or camera sitting anywhere. Monkeys can be cheeky and steal your stuff!When visiting #Bundi in #India, historic #hiking is a must. Here's why. Click To Tweet
From there it’s another 15 or so minutes until we’re at the walls, which we climb up for absolutely amazing 360-degree views. These walls wrap around the entire hilltop, featuring various shrines and discoveries to be made. Note that while hiking you don’t need to be too concerned with which path you take to get to the top, as they all generally lead the same way and it’s pretty straightforward. Basically follow the wall. You can also head toward the tall striking TV tower if you need another reference point.
My favorite attraction of the hike is the Lord Shiva Temple, a yellow structure with a sort of golden dome on top. The views from here are great, and it would be a lovely spot to come with a book to just let India’s magic wash over you.
While the view of Bundi is lovely, it’s also important to look the other way, toward Jait Sagar Lake. If you have good eyesight you may be able to make out waterfalls in the distance, as well as the small Sukh Mahal palace, where Rudyard Kipling apparently stayed to do some work on Kim. I guess I’m not the only one who realized the calm inspiration of this place.
As I went near sunset I don’t get to explore the step-wells of the Bundi Fort; all guests need to be out by 5:30pm; however, this post by Thinking Particle gives some great information on these.
Refueling With Homemade Chai
After the hike I go to what is by far the best chai place of the entire trip, Krishna’s Chai. The owner Krishna, a smiling Indian man born in Bundi, sits crossed legged as he pours milk into a pot to boil. Red flames dance as he individually breaks up the Masala Chai ingredients — ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and black pepper — before adding them to the pot. The entire drink is sprinkled — okay, doused — with sugar and served hot. As I happily sip, holding the glass delicately as to not burn my fingers, I feel all the effects of Delhi’s pollution slipping away.
I take in the walls of murals made by global artists who have visited Bundi. There are books of old postcards and government documents adorned with Indian visuals and positive messages.
Honestly, the chai shop is worth the trip to Bundi in itself. Mix in the relaxing pace, scenic fort hike and lovely mansion hotel, and you’ve got what became my favorite destination along my route through Northern India. And as the tourism board is working to make this a big tourist destination, I’d recommend visiting before the secret is out.
What are your favorite things to do in Bundi? Please share in the comments below!
Stay:Dev Niwas Heritage Hotel. This is a lovely hotel that’s clean, spacious, air conditioned and comfortable, even by Western standards. It’s one of India’s historic “haveli” mansions converted into hotels, this one dating back to 1684 and once inhabited by royalty. The staff were super sweet, and the 4th floor rooftop restaurant features tables as well as comfortable cushioned benches for chillin’ out and taking in views of Bundi’s iconic palace and fort. On the ground floor is a fountain and flora-laced courtyard that’s also peaceful for relaxing. A standard room is 1,200 Rupees per night (~$18 USD).
Getting There: I was traveling with Wandering Earl Tours (highly recommended!) so we had wonderful drivers hired from Truly India Travel. If not on a tour it’s recommended to take a train to Kota, then travel an hour to Bundi. You can ask your hotel if pickup is available, take a local bus (they run almost every hour but check the local schedule) or pay about $8-$10 USD for a taxi (according to Rome2Rio).
Currency: Indian Rupees. As of December 2016 1 USD = about 67.94 Rupees.
Language: Hindi, though many speak English, too. The best way to communicate with locals in English is to speak simply. For example, instead of saying “What is your name?” say “Your name?” or instead of saying “I really love this song!” say “Good song!” You’ll have a much easier time with communicating.
Fort Hike Admission: 100 Rupees (~$1.50 USD) per person; 50 Rupees (~$0.75 USD) per camera; 100 Rupees (~$1.50 USD) per old school video camera
Krishna’s Chai: 30 Rupees ($~0.45) for a tall glass of chai. Way better than any $5 coffee or tea I’ve had back in NYC! The shop is located on the main thoroughfare of old Bundi, Sadar Baazar Road, near to Maharajah’s City Palace. You can miss the smile shop, both due to Krishna’s beaming smile and the colorful murals inside the open air shop.
Things To Do: Along with the Taragarh Fort hike and Krishna’s Chai Shop a few other recommendations:
- Get a henna tattoo at Shivam Tourist Guesthouse. There are a lot of places in India that offer henna, but are using chemicals. This guest house/restaurant/henna shop uses natural dye and is the real deal. The cost is 250 Rupees (~$3.75 USD), and you’ll get to sip chai with their family, meet their roaming indoor turtle Krishna, and learn all about the culture around henna.
- Visit Bundi Palace.Built during Rao Raja Ratan Ji Heruled’s reign (1607–31) and added to later on, the weathered murals and works of art inside are beautiful. Sadly due to the fact the palace hasn’t been kept up with many of the rooms are off limits, but it’s still worth the trip back in history. Entry price is the same as the fort.
- Have a rooftop meal at Morgan’s Place. The Indian and Italian food at this rooftop eatery is amazing, as was ambiance with fans for a breeze and chill lounge music. I ordered a Greek salad and eggplant Parmesan, so good! I know I sound like a stuck up tourist, but after a week of Indian food where I couldn’t eat the fresh veggies it was very necessary. Don’t forget to head upstairs and see the view of the palace lit up at night, so close it feels like you can touch it.
- Wander, Shop & Interact. Bundi is a great place to simply wander, with little crowds and even less to worry about (you won’t really experience pickpocketing or scams here like elsewhere in India). The shops have interesting local handicrafts and art worth perusing, and the locals here are happy to chat about how they make each item.
- Clever Travel Companion Pickpocket-Proof Garments will come in handy when wandering India’s many crowded markets and streets.
- A Vigilant Personal Alarm is essential for both home and away. Wear it as a a bracelet and, if you feel danger approaching, pull the pin to have it blare as loud as a firetruck. The idea is to scare off whoever is approaching.
- Always carry your hotel’s business card. India’s streets aren’t always labeled, so if you need to get back you can easily hand it to a took took driver.