Alwar finds itself in a fairly unusual position, located only 37 kilometres away from Delhi and yet still sharing many of the characteristics typical to Rajasthan. With its roots back in 1500 BC and heavily associated with the Hindu religoious texts the Mahabharata, Alwar is more than just the town itself - a picturesque area sitting at the foot of the Aravalli Mountains and benefits from green valleys and forests. In over 800 kilometres of forest you will find the Sariska Tiger Reserve, home to the animal considered as the national symbol of India. Sometimes elusive, these big cats are totally awe inspiring and a jeep safari is certainly the best (and safest) way to get up close with this endangered species.
Dating from around 1500, Alwar also has its fair share of historical sites, including: the 18th century City Palace complex, the Bala Quila (fort), the tomb of Fateh Jung (minister to Emperor Shah), the Moosi Maharani ki Chhatri and the Tripolia – tomb of 17th century Sultan Tarang.
Art lovers should definitely make a stop at the Alwar School of Arts, previously renowned for turning out the finest miniature paintings and as a centre of literature. Some of the most exquisite examples are held in the collection at the Government Musuem.
More form Alwar
Sariska Tiger ReserveSariska is currently home to three tigers with another two due to be moved from Ranthambore during the 2010 monsoon season. Whilst official figures seem to vary wildly between 15 and 40, Ranthambore is certainly home to more tigers than Sariska at present despite the core reserve being a third larger at Sariska. In 2005 the government was finally forced to admit that poaching had wiped out the tiger population and that said, on our last visit to Sariska we did see langur and rhesus macaque monkeys (including one riding a Sambar deer like a jockey), peacocks, sand grouse (with funny little sand grouse chicks) and nilgai all within the space of about 45 minutes. Sariska is also less commercial than Ranthambore so whilst your chances of seeing a tiger might be less by sheer dint of numbers, your chances of spotting other tourists are also reduced.
Deeg - the water palaceThe Water Palace at Deeg once was the playground of the Raja Suraj Mal, with pavillions laid out around neat gardens, fountains and two large water tanks, all designed to keep the royal family cool in the hot summer months. Whilst the fountains and water tanks are still in existence and apparently operational, the bad monsoons of the last couple of years have taken toll and the water palace is now all but dry bar a small puddle of water left next to the Jal Mahal and the tank that supports the village. The reason being that the Agra Canal that fed the water palace has completely dried out and officials state nothing can be done in the current climate. The water line is clearly visible above the lower two floors of the Jal Mahal, originally designed that way in order to keep the rooms cooler and the gardens are now regularly watered in order to maintain their lush green appearance and are quite pretty, even in high summer. The buildings themselves are now all abandoned except for the roosts of bats but are interesting to explore at your own pace and imagine what the palace once looked like. From the water palace there is a picturesque view across the tank to the fort and whilst the buildings and gardens are pretty enough, without the fountains and canals flowing with water the water palace has lost its unique selling point for visitors.
Bharatpur - the Lohagarh FortThe Lohagarh (Iron) Fort in Bharatpur was built by Maharaja Suraj Mal in the 18th Century and stands on an artificial island, separated from the surrounding town by a deep moat. The fort withstood attacks by the Mughals and several by the British but now has basically been left to decay. Inside the once sturdy looking fort are three palaces, gently falling apart and although one now contains a government museum, this too feels like its been abandoned to its fate with a sad and dusty collection of hunting trophies, weapons and family photographs upstairs. The Jain sculpture gallery and the original hammam with some of the original carvings and frescos are reasonably interesting and at Rs.3 entrance, its hardly breaking the bank! Overall, if you're not interested in birds, then Bharatpur's historical sites alone aren't really worth detouring to see.
Bharatpur and BirdsThe main reason to go to Bharatpur is the Keoladeo National Park, previously know as the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, so if you're not into birds in a big way, this might be a location to skip! The park itself is 29 km2 so although you can only drive through it at certain times of the day, it is possible to take a cycle rickshaw, hire a bicycle or walk through the park easily and take your time bird-spotting. It's also worth noting that the map you're given as part of the entrance fee isn't all that comprehensive but keep going and you'll find your way soon enough. There are 230 known species of birds in the park, ranging from kingfishers and flamingos to the rare Siberian Crane, but, like tigers, there's no guarantee you'll see one. There are other animals in the park such as Sambar Deer and Indian Pythons too but birds are the main focus. The park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985 thanks to the number rare species of birds seen throughout the years, many of which are now sadly extinct. Most of the birds are migratory from much colder climes including China and Siberia so the best time to see them is during the winter months. You'll definitely need binoculars and make sure to pack mosquito repellent due to the marshy areas! In Keoladeo National Park, its worth mentioning that without a good monsoon, the number of birds there, even during the winter months drops as many of the migratory birds are aquatic. Since 2007 Bharatpur has had minimal monsoons and at present the park is much drier than it was, meaning both animal and bird numbers have dropped, making rarer bird sightings even less likely.
Alwar and the Baila Quila FortAlwar itself may not be the prettiest of towns but Bala Quila, Alwar's fort, sitting 1000 feet above the town on a steep cliff has a certain appeal. The charming drive up the back of the hill takes you through some of the elaborate gateways that once kept the fort secure from marauders and provides some stunning views down into the valley and beyond. Looking along the ramparts you can also spot extremely steep stairways leading from the valley up to the fort and some of the 446 loopholes for muskets below the typical ornate crenallations. The whole of the hill is also a wildlife park and on our last visit we saw Macaque monkeys, chau singha four horned antelope, peacocks, red whiskered bulbuls and green bee eaters as we leisurely drove up. While the fort itself is currently being renovated, there are both modern temples and ruins that are interesting to explore at the summit and for me the spectacular views and wildlife alone make Alwar worth a visit.