Ra­jasthan’s royal hide­aways

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - FRONT PAGE - AMAR GROVER

Lead­ing up the faint trail to­wards the crum­bling bas­tions of Ud­gir Fort, I pause to re­gard our party: two For­est Depart­ment rangers, our driver, the lo­cal vil­lage head­man plus friend, and a pair of palace “guards”. Their at­ten­tion is fo­cused on my twenty-some­thing com­pan­ion Vi­vas­vat Pal, scion of the house of Ka­rauli, a for­mer princely state in south­east Ra­jasthan.

Perched on a spur at the edge of the Daang Plateau, over­look­ing the Cham­bal val­ley, Ud­gir is a re­mote spot. From its lofty ram­parts, seem­ingly end­less bul­lock-tilled fields of mus­tard, wheat and lentils wrap time-for­got­ten ham­lets. The sil­very sheen of the Cham­bal River — the bound­ary be­tween the states of Ra­jasthan and Mad­hya Pradesh — coils east­wards into a hazy hori­zon. Few out­siders ven­ture here, in part be­cause the Cham­bal and its dis­tinc­tive ravines were un­til re­cently the haunt of folkhero ban­dits and out­laws.

As far as many lo­cal vil­lagers are con­cerned, most out­siders clam­ber­ing up to Ud­gir are prob­a­bly af­ter one thing — loot. Pass­ing through a pair of open ma­sonry gate­ways, Pal laments the van­dal­ism and pil­fer­ing wrought by trea­sure-seek­ers whose ig­no­rance and des­per­a­tion has prompted the vi­o­la­tion of Ud­gir’s an­cient long-aban­doned tem­ples, palaces and bar­racks built by his fore­bears.

Our posse reaches a huge rec­tan­gu­lar pool hewn from solid rock — a neat source of ma­sonry for Ud­gir’s en­cir­cling walls and build­ings. We fan­ta­sise how it might be­come Ra­jasthan’s largest and most mag­nif­i­cent swim­ming pool in the state’s wildest and most ex­clu­sive heritage prop­erty. The bril­liant iri­des­cent-blue flash of a dart­ing king­fisher brings us back to earth and na­ture.

Pal and I pa­trol some bat­tle­ments; it’s only his sec­ond visit and he’s thrilled to be here, con­nect­ing with the fam­ily’s con­vo­luted half-for­got­ten heritage. Then, af­ter a pic­nic lunch, while I scam­per off to ex­plore the ru­ins, he kneels be­fore a rudi­men­tary shrine to pay re­spects to the an­ces­tors.

This is off­beat Ra­jasthan and I’m stay­ing mainly in smaller, lesser-known prop­er­ties in which the state’s roy­alty and aris­to­crats still re­side or are ac­tively in­volved. The idea is quite sim­ply to en­joy a more in­ti­mate and per­son­able ex­pe­ri­ence in this so-called Land of Kings.

Back in Ka­rauli town that evening, we set­tle down in the im­pos­ing court­yard of Bhan­war Vi­las Palace for Scotch and a chat. Built in 1938 as a mod­ern al­ter­na­tive to the fam­ily’s me­dieval City Palace that still dom­i­nates the town, it is home to Pal, his wife and par­ents; his fa­ther, the tit­u­lar Ma­haraja of Ka­rauli, is of a Ra­jput clan claim­ing di­rect des­cent from the Hindu god Kr­ishna.

It’s a charm­ing man­sion-like prop­erty with the feel of a re­laxed com­fort­able home­s­tay rather than slick lux­ury, and no one pre­tends other­wise.

Like many such roy­als, the fam­ily is in­volved in pol­i­tics. “Con­se­quently,” con­tin­ues Pal, “we oc­ca­sion­ally open Bhan­war so the towns­peo­ple can visit. It’s amaz­ing how many still want to be­lieve in se­cret gold, hid­den jewels ... I’ve over­heard peo­ple claim­ing to friends that suc­hand-such is buried just over there or over here.”

Later I meet his mother — the Ma­ha­rani and a for­mer mem­ber of par­lia­ment — in their pri­vate lounge un­der the glass-eyed gaze of tiger and an­te­lope heads. City Palace, she ex­plains, was pil­laged for years un­til they beefed up se­cu­rity, bricked up sub­ter­ranean pas­sages and, frankly, took more in­ter­est in it. To­day, guests can en­joy an ex- clu­sive tour of its var­i­ous sec­tions span­ning centuries of build­ing and quaint indulgence.

I men­tion Ti­man­garh, an an­cient nearby fort I’d heard of in the con­text of ram­pant an­tiq­ui­ties smug­gling. “Yes,” she con­tin­ues dole­fully, “in past times we ac­tu­ally saw plenty of sculp­tures ly­ing ev­ery­where or half-buried in the ground … but now hardly any­thing re­mains.”

In this far-flung cor­ner of Ra­jasthan, who could blame im­pov­er­ished vil­lagers for mak­ing a quick buck? It is from ob­scure and of­ten un­guarded sites like this that dealer Va­man Ghiya was ac­cused of sourc­ing stat­ues for turn-a-blind-eye West­ern art col­lec­tors and auc­tion houses in the late 1970s and 80s. Jailed for a decade, he was ac­quit­ted of the charges in 2014.

One par­tic­u­larly brazen theft was in 1998 at the Baroli tem­ple com­plex near Bhain­sror­garh. From an up­per al­cove in one of these beau­ti­ful 10th-cen­tury tem­ples, thieves prised askew its jambs to steal a Shiva statue

which found its way to a Lon­don dealer. “It’s easy to spot the al­cove,” says He­men­dra Singh, the younger son of Rawat (or Lord) Shiv Cha­ran Singh of Bhain­sror­garh, “be­cause its jambs re­main open at an odd an­gle. Those ASI [Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey of In­dia] peo­ple never re­paired it … but it’s still well worth vis­it­ing.”

He­men­dra and I sit in a rooftop pav­il­ion at Bhain­sror­garh Fort Ho­tel hav­ing break­fast. I’m in no mood to go any­where. The serene Cham­bal River 60m be­low us de­scribes a gen­tle arc through coun­try­side that al­most re­sem­bles the Dor­dogne. It’s joined by an equally tran­quil trib­u­tary and on the high­est cliff be­tween the two is the small palace.

As in Ka­rauli, Bhain­sror­garh is a com­fort­able, at­mo­spheric home­s­tay with sweet, oblig­ing staff, five-star views that are ar­guably the best in Ra­jasthan and with rel­a­tively few vis­i­tors. He­men­dra ar­ranges a row­ing boat for me to en­joy the Cham­bal and ob­serve its croc­o­diles for a few hours. Later I stroll into the pretty coun­try­side where peo­ple’s lives are lit­tle changed from when his an­ces­tors as­sumed con­trol of their fief­dom in 1741.

He­men­dra grew up here just as the fam­ily re­sisted the first over­tures from in­ter­na­tional hote­liers in the early 1990s, when In­dia opened its econ­omy. Bhain­sror­garh even­tu­ally be­gan re­ceiv­ing guests in late 2006 and to­day just four gue­strooms com­ple­ment the orig­i­nal five suites.

“My fam­ily took some per­suad­ing to go it alone,” he re­calls, “but I was pas­sion­ate. In 1991 I’d vis­ited Samode Palace [near Jaipur] and it made such an im­pact to see how a heritage prop­erty could work.”

Samode is among Ra­jasthan’s most fa­mous palace ho­tels. Still owned and man­aged by landown­ing no­bles re­lated to Jaipur’s roy­als, the palace’s im­pec­ca­ble staff, 43 gue­strooms and suites, two pools and restau­rants of­fer a pol­ished rather than homely ex­pe­ri­ence in an alluring 19th-cen­tury con­fec­tion of Ra­jput-Mughal ar­chi­tec­ture. I’m barely through the first mus­cu­lar gate­way when I glimpse the car col­lec­tion — in­clud­ing a Mor­gan Plus 4, a vin­tage Chevro­let sedan and a 1950s Mercedes Pon­ton — housed in open-fronted garages. Samode’s ac­com­mo­da­tion is ranged around a pair of deep court­yards while the main pool with its arabesque tile­work dom­i­nates a sun-drenched ter­race.

The jewel in the ho­tel’s crown is its pris­tine Dur­bar Hall with walls, pil­lars and ceil­ing form­ing a kind of gi­ant ta­pes­try adorned with myr­iad painted im­ages and mo­tifs in­spired by In­dian mythol­ogy and Hindu be­liefs. “The palace was our pri­vate home un­til 1987,” says co-owner Rawal Ya­dav­en­dra Singh, “and we as a fam­ily con­stantly main­tained it. There were even spe­cial cloth cov­ers to pro­tect the hall’s paint­ings from the sun­light.”

What might have be­come a post-in­de­pen­dence money pit evolved into an ex­tremely suc­cess­ful busi­ness, draw­ing on the old-fash­ioned ro­mance and glamour of Ra­jasthan’s princely states.

At Ravla Bhenswara, a mod­est prop­erty hid­den amid a tight knot of lanes in Bhenswara vil­lage in south­west Ra­jasthan, Kun­war Shiv Pratap Singh tells how he and his wife first wel­comed guests in 1993.

“Many homes like this just didn’t sur­vive; ours was in pretty poor con­di­tion, we had many rooms full of half­for­got­ten uten­sils and trin­kets … but ne­ces­sity is the mother of in­ven­tion.” So af­ter work­ing out what ar­chi­tec­turally could be sal­vaged and tap­ping into his wife’s in­ter­est in in­te­rior de­sign, they set about restor­ing the man­sion and lend­ing quirky touches, such as wall pat­terns out­lined by stud­ded one-ru­pee coins and old wooden cart­wheels used as gar­den ta­bles.

Shiv­dutt, the Singhs’ son, takes me out one af­ter­noon in a Mahin­dra jeep. We cross the bone-dry Jawai River past scat­tered ham­lets and head to­wards the sur­round­ing hills. Sandy tracks skirt the heels of boul­dery gran­ite out­crops and we pause for snacks and sun­down­ers at a van­tage point at their base. “We bring horses here for rid­ing and camp­ing sa­faris,” he says, wav­ing his hand into the dis­tance at more brood­ing hills, “but another at­trac­tion is leop­ard.”

As dark­ness falls, Mheda, our as­sis­tant, turns on the spotlight and we de­scend to a more forested area of gnarled trees, gul­lies and ledges. Mheda launches into a vol­ley of alarm calls, first mim­ick­ing the throaty honk of a lan­gur mon­key be­fore switch­ing to the plain­tive bleat­ing of a lost kid. Within min­utes our beam picks up the pin­prick gleam of eyes up amid the rocks, but the wary leop­ard re­fuses to budge. “We used to have more sight­ings,” says Shiv­dutt, “plus hyena and jackal. But de­spite their hide­outs, poi­soned car­casses and habi­tat en­croach­ment are mak­ing life tough for all meat-eat­ing an­i­mals here.”

Days later in Jha­lawar’s Prithvi Vi­las Palace, I’m re­minded of the even tougher old days for In­dia’s wildlife. Built in 1921 on the edge of town, as a hunt­ing lodge for the royal fam­ily, it has a dimly lit en­trance hall that is ar­guably its most mem­o­rable fea­ture. Along with a few dis­play cab­i­nets, its walls erupt with mounted deer, an­te­lope, tiger and leop­ard heads. The front por­tion of an enor­mous tiger stands by the front door, though I’m told this spec­i­men was found dead rather than hunted. “Yes, some guests are a bit un­com­fort­able with the heads,” ad­mits Ma­haraj Rana Chan­dra­jit Singh, “but most don’t seem to mind. You can’t change the past; the an­ces­tors en­joyed hunt­ing.” To­day he rel­ishes the var­ied com­pany drawn to his prop­erty. Be­ing some­thing of a back­wa­ter, Jha­lawar sees just a steady trickle of vis­i­tors even though nearby Ga­gron Fort, skirted by two rivers, is among Ra­jasthan’s most pic­turesque.

Af­ter drinks in the draw­ing room, where there is an au­to­graphed pho­to­graph of Mus­solini, we dine to­gether, mat­ter-of-factly us­ing the fam­ily sil­ver. Uni­formed staff pad about like cats. Our con­ver­sa­tion turns to heritage lost and faded. Jha­lawar’s main 19th-cen­tury garh, or city palace, is now mostly used as gov­ern­ment of­fices but there’s a mildly di­vert­ing lit­tle mu­seum of an­cient sculp­tures, hand­writ­ten manuscripts and an ar­moury.

The real odd­ity of the com­plex is the Natya Shala, a 1920s theatre built by his ur­bane great-great-grand­fa­ther. Com­plete with stage ramps for props and horses, the dis­used and de­te­ri­o­rat­ing theatre has be­come an im­promptu badminton court for the care­taker and his pals.

Singh sighs at its men­tion. “Some years ago we heard that work­men mod­i­fy­ing a dwelling abut­ting the city palace found some trea­sure [and] jewellery items hid­den in its walls.” As they ar­gued over the spoils, the po­lice were alerted. When they turned up, things qui­etened, but that was the last anyone heard of the loot. “Maybe,” he grins broadly, “I should have put in my own claim.”

Bhain­sror­garh Fort Ho­tel in Ra­jasthan, above

Samode Palace Ho­tel near Jaipur, top; an­tique mo­tor­ing at Bhan­war Vi­las Palace Ho­tel, Ka­rauli, above; the Royal Fam­ily, Bhan­war Vi­las Palace, above right; a gar­landed statue at Bhan­war Vi­las Palace, be­low

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