But what happens when terror meets travel? We're talking about a visit to a ghost town that is one of India's spookiest places. At the edge of the Sariska forest in Rajasthan lies the town of Bhangarh whose haunted status is attracting scores of tourists these days. Definitely day, mind you, since the town is out of bounds after dark. A signboard displayed prominently by the ASI warns visitors: "Entering the borders of Bhangarh after sunset is strictly prohibited".
Such is the town's reputation that even the Archeological Survey of India doesn't have an office here though government rules state that every historical site must have an office of the ASI. The nearest one is a kilometre away — enough distance between officials and the spooks.
The haunted ruins of Bhangarh are now expected to be a big tourist draw during the Commonwealth Games. The Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation (RTDC)
has included Bhangarh in a tour package especially designed for the games. "We chose this ‘ghost city' to boost tourism to the area," says Manjit Singh, chairman and MD, RTDC. But he smiles and adds, "We, of course, don't promise any paranormal activity."
So how did the ghosts get here? The story goes that this sixteenth century town, 80 km from Alwar in eastern Rajasthan, was home to a tantrik (a magician well-versed in the occult) named Singhia. The tantrik fell desperately in love with the kingdom's beautiful princess, Rani Ratnawati. Knowing that he would never be allowed to go near her, Singhia decided to use his dark powers to seduce her. He spotted the princess's maid buying oil and cast a spell on the oil. If the spell worked, on touching the oil, the princes would surrender herself to him.
According to K L Saini, who was the director of the Sariska Tiger Reserve for 18 years, this entire belt used to be a thick forest.
Even the Ramayana is said to talk of the Pandavas staying here while in exile. Yogiraj Hiranath, a sage during the reign of Maharaja Jai Singh of Jaipur, corroborates the fact that Bhangarh did have a princess called Rani Ratnawati who was adept in the art of wizardry.
According to the locals, the town, protected by two inner fortifications and separated from the plains by ramparts, came to life only at night. There were bustling bazaars where beautifully adorned women ran shops. Besides the royals, common citizens could also eat, drink and make merry here. Everyone was expected to dress in finery with the king's treasury picking up the tab. In Yogiraj's account, wearing old clothes was a punishable crime as was eve-teasing.
That might be more legend than fact, but Bhangarh is still a charming ruin to visit. Even today, a walk to the palace through the remains of what once used to be a bustling town is a fragrant affair with the aroma of kevda wafting in from a nearby grove. Bhangarh was also a well-laid out town and could serve as an excellent model for present-day town planners.
Each shop along the route still has a vacant space for an idol. But what is strange is that there are no roofs on the houses, shops and even the palace. Locals say that whenever a house is built in the vicinity, its roof collapses! And in the village closest to Bhangarh, people have made roofs over their heads — but only those made of straw!
Large banyan trees and several temples dot the landscape. The beautifully carved temples of Gopinath, Shiva (Someshwar), Mangla Devi and Keshava Rai have survived the passage of time and are a must-see for visitors. There is also the dancer's haveli, the ruins of homes and scattered boulders with carvings. On a nearby hilltop stands a chhatri that is believed to have been inhabited by the tantrik.
Despite the passage of time, the Rani Ratnawati myth continues to fascinate everyone. Many claim to have witnessed paranormal activities in the area; some have "heard" sounds of music and the tinkling of anklets. Saini maintains that many tourists who take photographs inside the ruins find weird colour spots in the pictures. Is all this imagined or a ploy to draw in tourists? Whatever the truth, a visit to Bhangarh isn't for the faint-hearted.
BY ROAD | Bhangarh is a 47-km drive from the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Alwar, Rajasthan. From Delhi, visitors need to first get to Alwar, which is about 150 km away, and then drive 34 km to Sariska. There are no luxury buses on the route, so the best option is a taxi
BY RAIL | Shatabdi runs from Delhi to Alwar every morning. From there, visitors can take a taxi upto Sariska
THE RTDC PACKAGE | Delhi-Sariska-Bhangarh-Siliserh-Alwar-Delhi 3 Nights/4 Days: Rs 19,000 Own transport: Rs 12,000