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Thursday, January 30, 2014

The City of Ghosts

A lot has been written and said about Bhangarh, the legendary ghost town of India. It is supposedly one of the most haunted places in the world. Located in Rajasthan’s Alwar district, it is one of the few destinations in India that adventure lovers and ghost hunters like to visit. I had heard and read a lot about this place and had always wanted to check it out for myself. So finally when I quit my last soul sucking job, I decided to travel and included Bhangarh in my list.

Going to Bhangarh from Delhi is no tough affair. You can take a road trip by either a car or bus; or take a train as I did. While most people make it a two day trip to Bhangarh, it turned out to be just a day long affair for me. Take the Ajmer Shatabdi early morning at 5:45 am from New Delhi and you will reach Alwar town in a couple of hours. From there you can take a local taxi upto Bhangarh. Now a taxi is the best option from Alwar as there is no bus service till Bhangarh. Buses run to Bhangarh’s neighbouring village of Ajabgarh, but from there onwards you have to be on your own. It’s an over two hours ride from Alwar to Bhangarh via taxi as the roads are quite rough in certain places. But the journey is also a major highlight of the entire trip as you pass by some really interesting spots.

First obviously while traveling through Alwar you notice the famous city fort which would rather take an entire day to cover up. So I had to skip that one. Then, while going out of Alwar in the outskirts, is the beautiful Silliped Lake, which is really a peaceful spot given the majestic rugged Aravallis on its backdrop. Then we arrive at Natani Ka Bada. This is a picturesque spot on the way which is literally a small valley between two hills and a small stream flowing in between. Legend has it that a female acrobat (Natani) had died while trying to cross the lake on a tightrope and so a temple is built on the side of the stream in her honour. Another noteworthy point is that the stream is filled with tortoises, some of which are pretty large. It is quite a sight, trust me.

Deers and wild boars at the Sariska Park periphery area on the way to Bhangarh.

One of the major highlights of the journey is that you pass by the peripheral area of the Sariska Tiger Reserve. You don’t get to see tigers, but you get to quite a lot of monkeys, peacocks and also deers and wild boars on the way. They all make interesting sights as you pass by. The two hour ride may get tedious at some points but then again the entire landscape is dotted by the Aravallis and so you get some of the most magnificent sights that the mountain range can offer. The landscape is dotted by numerous small villages at intervals and also small abandoned forts which belonged to erstwhile landlords.

Though it is no desert country here, the landscape is all rugged terrain and beautiful rocky mountains as you pass by small villages on your way. The area is dominated mostly by people from the Gujjar, Meena and Meo Muslim communities. My taxi driver, Fakhruddin, himself a Meo, was a jolly fellow who happily explained to me all the important spots as we passed by. For him, the most important fact is that the SRK-Salman starrer Karan Arjun was shot extensively at several places in the area and we passed by many spots which served as locations for the film.

The weather was quite hot inspite of the fact that I had made the trip in December and soon I fell asleep in the car. My driver woke me up as we reached Ajabgarh, which is the nearest village to Bhangarh. As we passed by the village, I noticed that were ramparts of an old fort surrounding the village and there was an old gateway on the main village road. Ajabgarh was formerly a small kingdom during the Mughal era and had a role in the history of Bhangarh. We shall come to that later.

We had started from Alwar at around 9:30 am in the morning and we finally reached Bhangarh at around 12:00 in the noon. As our car neared the main gate of the fort, I realised that the last human settlement was atleast a kilometer away from the place. Such was the terror of the place among the locals that nobody wanted to be near it in any manner. The area outside the fort walls in dotted with small chatris or such monuments, reminding you of the fact that you are standing right outside an old piece of history. Entry is free and so as I passed the main gate into the city of Bhangarh quite eagerly.

Visitors make their way through the main market area of Bhangarh.

Before reaching the main palace complex of the city, you pass through the main market area of the city. Stone structures which earlier comprised the main market dot a large area upto the main palace complex gates. Many of them are standing structures while the rest are plain debris. One interesting point is that none of the structures in the main market have roofs. Legend has it that a curse forbids the structures here from having roofs and so there are none. A main road in between the market leads to the main palace complex as you walk past the structures admiring the lonely beauty that is scattered around the place. I also realized that there is no lighting arrangement at the entire place, which means that after evening, the place would be pitch dark and really creepy.

As you enter the main palace complex, you are greeted by a beautiful garden which is really well maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The first building that greets you is a Gopinath Temple dedicated to Lord Krishna. There is also another temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and a small tank near it that gets its water supply from a stream which flows from the nearby hill. Visitors were already there roaming in the garden and exploring the structures that were scattered around. Most of them were couples and lovebirds, whom I found peacefully hidden behind rocks and pillars as I explored the place. The temples are built in classic Rajput architecture style and have the same ornamental beauty that are found in the structures of the Chittorgarh fort. The city is surrounded on one side by hills from the Aravalli range and is wide open with fields lying on the other way. Hordes of Langurs and monkeys roam around in the area with care abandon. You really have no reason to fear them at all.

Bhangarh was built by Raja Bhagwan Das of Amer in the 16th century. Later, Raja Madho Singh, brother of the famous Raja Man Singh from Emperor Akbar’s court, made it the capital of his small vassal state that was under Amer.

The main gates leading to the palace building.

After passing the garden, I made way to the main palace building for which I crossed the main palace entrance gate and then climbed the steps to the palace as it is built on the slopes of a hill. A beautiful structure lying desolate for so many centuries, one look at it and you can’t help but admire its beauty. But then suddenly you also remember that this is supposedly one of the most spookiest places of the world. I climbed up the stairs to the main palace and passed by a few women who were brooming the path. As I entered the main corridor I realized that I was the only person inside the palace at that very moment, as the rest of the visitors were out in the garden. I passed by a few dark corridors and realized that most of the passages and ways to the interiors of the palace have been blocked. What was most amazing was that at a certain spot I found swastika symbols made from vermillion on the wall and the floor beneath was burnt. Somebody had lit a religious sacrificial fire recently. Why? Perhaps to appease the spirits inhabiting the palace. The palace had once been a six-storeyed building but now only four storeys remain as the upper two storeys cease to exist.

The view from the top of the palace building.

I climbed up to the roof of the palace and lo! What a view it gave me of the entire area! I stood there among the debris of the erstwhile top two floors for a long time admiring the beauty of the entire place and imagining what a lovely place it must have used to be. Suddenly a gust of wind struck me from behind which almost threw me off balance. It wasn’t a regular gust of wind. For by then, I had come to realize that the wind blowing within the palace building made a low pitch whistle as they pass by. It sounds really creepy and would scare the hell out of a person who goes there after dark. By then, the remaining visitors had started appearing within the palace building and so I was assured that there should be no ghost making appearances in the broad daylight.

Right to the palace is a large hillock on top of which stands a chatri like structure. The structure is supposedly the living embodiment of the evil that haunts Bhangarh. Now we come to the point as to how Bhangarh came to be a ghost city. Legend has it that Bhangarh was ruled by the beautiful princess Ratnavati. She was very popular among the masses and tales of her beauty were famous in all the kingdoms of Rajputana back then. Her beauty had also caught the fancy of a wicked Tantrik, living at his small Ashram on top of the very hillock, who was well versed in the practice of the occult. Driven by lust, the Tantrik devised a plan to make her fell for him. He sent a bottle of perfume to be mixed in her bath, the scent of which would make her fell in love with him. Now what our villain didn’t know here was that the princess herself well versed in black magic. She got the scent of the plot and threw away the perfume bottle. The bottle then assumed the form of a giant boulder and started rolling towards the Tantrik. Knowing that his end was approaching, the Tantrik quickly cursed the entire city and its inhabitants that nobody would be able to be reborn after dying there and their souls would be trapped there forever. The boulder ultimately killed him. Soon afterwards, Bhangarh got into a quarrel with the neighbouring kingdom of Ajabgarh and was badly defeated in the ensuing battle. The city was ransacked and the local population was massacred. And ever since then, Bhangarh has remained a desolate place.

The corridors in the palace building.

Though the ASI started reviving the place during the 1950s, its fame as a haunted spot was well known in the entire region. Nobody is allowed to remain after dark and the gates of the city are locked up after 6 pm. The main ASI office for the place is located about a kilometer away and a few guards remain back inside a Hanuman Temple built near the outermost gate and they never venture out till the break of dawn. While the rest of the city is available to visitors during the day time, the hillock where the Tantrik’s chatri is built is always off limits. It is rumoured to be the site of unspeakable evil and there is no proper road or way that can lead a person up to the chatri on the hillock. Reportedly, the orders for the place to be cordoned off after dark was issued years ago after people were found dead inside the palace complex area after they spent a night there.

There have been some shows on TV where they have showed televised footage of the area after dark. I sincerely doubt they are true after my visit to the place. There is also a Karni Mata temple near Bhangarh but we decided not to go there as it is on the other side of the hills and the way around was too messed up. I was done exploring the place by afternoon and so by 4 in the evening, me and my cab driver Fakhruddin began our journey back to Alwar. While going back, right outside Alwar, we stopped at the Bhartri Baba temple which is a highly revered site by the local people there. It is dedicated to a local saint who had his Ashram there and I felt after visiting a haunted place, it was good to bow down before something religious.

I reached Alwar by 6:30 pm in the evening, explored the city a little, tasted its famous Kalakand sweet and finally boarded the next Ajmer Shatabdi to Delhi at 7:30 pm. It was a day well spent.

Now what did I take back from this trip? Do I think that the place is haunted? Well, first of all I made the trip in broad daylight and so didn’t really hope for any ghost spotting. And I don’t think the ASI would allow anyone to stay there after dark. The place is hauntingly beautiful and quite well maintained by the ASI. There were certain parts of the palace that were dark and creepy, and yes, every time the wind passed by, it whispered mysteries into my ears. The place would be definitely scary after dark. But I guess I would not be finding out the truth of the place too soon. Only one thing, this won’t be my only trip to Bhangarh. This place is great for a day long getaway from the humdrum of city life and for people who seek a little adventure now and then.

Atleast I am happy that I made a trip to a place that is on the global ghost map. 


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