The sun is still a few breaths away from stretching its arms while the night jostles to linger. A six hour drive from Agra had brought me to Sambhar, in hopes of spending time in the dusty lake that appears to be a dried up bed of prickly desert soil mixed with salt, which gives it its distinct white look. A two hour drive from Jaipur, and roughly 300 kms from Delhi, Sambhar Lake is India’s largest inland salt lake, spread over 90 sq kms, and touches three districts of Rajasthan with its shores - Jaipur, Ajmer and Nagaur. It hardly has water enough to be called a lake, but come monsoon, I’m told, the lake turns into a pink wetland, with flamingos finding their way here in search of the elusive sun.
While there are no flamingos to spot, there are many migratory birds that will stay in the dry bed till March. Sambhar also offers many things for travellers to explore. . The lake was designated a Ramsar Site in 1990, and is one of the sites for conservation action under the Indian Wetland Conservation Programme. It is one of the two Ramsar sites in Rajasthan – the other one is the Keoladeo National Bird Sanctuary at Bharatpur. The town, steeped in antiquity, seems to be asleep, allowing visitors to travel in quiet, away from the din of loud cities.
Things to do in Sambhar
If you are an avid avian enthusiast, Sambhar lake is best visited between October and February — the time when most migratory birds are soaring towards the sky in unison, lending colours to this arid region before the sun dries up the wetland, leaving behind the famed Sambhar salt. We had driven in our own car, so we could chase pockets of water with birds around it. But if you’re on your own, it would do well to hire a local car from the town, with a detailed map from Sambhar Salts Limited, to whom a large part of the area has been leased.
Shakambari Devi Temple
For a divine experience, or simply a clearer view of the salt flats, you can make the hike to Shakambari Devi Temple, believed to be 2,500 years old, and one of the three Shaktipeeths dedicated to Goddess Shakambhari. Legend has it that Shakambari Devi has converted the region into a saline lake to keep it away from the greedy eyes of adjoining states. On a full moon night like ours, the area, from the top of the cenotaph, glimmers like silver in the moonlight.
Devyani Temple & Kund
Also called ‘Little Pushkar’, Devyani temple is believed to be the site of the wedding of Devayani (daughter of sage Shukracharya — guru of the demons) with King Yayati. It is here, we are told, that Mughal emperor Akbar married Rani Jodha. On the sides of Devyani Kund, one of the four ancient Shiva temples is Baba Jageshwar temple, where it is believed that no one has yet been able to find out the depth of the lingam. We are grateful to have reached the right time to attend an aarti before departing on the next leg of our trip.
Trace the footsteps of Bollywood
The otherworldly expanse of Sambhar has attracted many filmmakers to Rajasthan. From Ram Leela to Jodhaa Akbar and parts of Highway were shot here. You can visit the popular filming spots in the area, and also take a ride on the train run by Sambhar Salts Limited.
A visit to the Circuit House
Situated in a peaceful part of town is the circuit house, which was the first that the British built in 1880. Run by a private firm now, locals tell us that the house is popular with Bollywood celebrities who come and shoot here. Surprisingly, the Circuit House still has a functional dumb-waiter - a trolley used to carry transport food from the ground floor to the first floor.