Friday, February 05, 2010


fort terrace and garden

Sunrise in Dhariyawad. The Congress Party has swept the board. The spoils must be divided - small groups of male activists gather on the lawn below the hotel terrace. I watch the not-Maharaja mingle, affable, contented. Seeking greater privacy, a couple drift away. The elder gives instructions. The younger nods. Victory music blares from loud speakers in the bazaar. Later starts the victory procession. The not-Maharaja leads in his jeep. Small hatchbacks follow, motorcyclists two abreast. A tight group of women in sari glad-rags smile respectful support from beyond the arches - so much for equality of the sexes. The procession moves away through the bazaar and market square. The music stops. I am in search of an ATM. The majordomo leads, murmuring greetings left and right - a semi-semi royal progress. I follow in his footsteps – traditionally the woman's place. The ATM won't pay. Bloody Hell... Back to the Fort and back to work.
Firecrackers and drum beat herald Congress foot-soldiers. The brave spill through the archway into the Fort's parking lot. A fresh fire-cracker volley and drum roll encourages the timid. They have come to pay homage only to find the not-Maharaja absent. More fire crackers, more rattle of drums, then off they troop, supporters of no importance now the vote is in.


There is no logical reason for visiting Dhariyawad. To get there you take National Highway 79 east from Udaipur and turn south after Bhatewar down a crumbling single track road for fifty Ks – not a comforting experience for the nervous. The road passes through a forest, mostly teak. Teak, when shedding its leaves, looks more dead than alive. The forest is a wild-life sanctuary. Langur monkeys are common – as they are elsewhere. The fortunate may spot four-horned antelope, niglai, possibly a jackal or hyena. The miraculously fortunate (or imaginative) may even spot a panther stalk the shadows – though I doubt that even the evening flight of giant flying squirrels warrants the drive. So let me offer a very different experience: a rest from sight-seeing, escape from the tourist route.
Dhariyawad is an Indian country market town at the confluence of the Jakham and Karmoi rivers. No havelis here tarted up as guest houses, no restaurants promising veg and non-veg, Chinese, Italian, Continental (all of which taste the same), no tiresome tourist touts. Drive through the market and through the bazaar. At the T-junction turn right through the pointed key-hole arches emblazoned with a radiant sun smiling over a Rajput moustache - the massive wooden doors should be open - and you enter a 16th century mini Paradise. This is the domain of the eldest living son of the eldest son of the last Maharaja of Dhariyawad. The sixteen spacious rooms and suites offer total peace, comfortable beds, comfortable easy chairs and always a desk. Bathrooms are huge, water hot, proper towels. Dine outdoors on the terrace or upstairs in the dinning room. I am here for full moon. What could be more romantic?
Only at breakfast do I realise why I feel so at home. The Fort has the feel of a small manor house in an English village or off a Cathedral Close, though too small to be a Bishop's palace. Arches are a different shape, servants more numerous, home-made marmalade marginally less chunky. But the feel is there, peaceful, unpretentious, timeless, embedded in the community. What joy to be able to stay a month, ride horse-back, bird watch, explore tribal villages, wander the bazaar without being nagged with buy buy buy. Yes, and tell tall tales later of the panther seen while following a forest guide...


bazaar on election day

The owner of the Fort Dhariyawad hotel would be the Maharaja if such titles had not been abolished by India's post Independence dictator, Indira Ghandi. He is also President of the local branch of Congress, India's ruling and dominant political Party. This is election day for mayors and District assemblies - the village gatherings are explained. The not-Maharaja has been out marshaling his men (no women) to get the vote in. A moment to greet me, then back to oversee the count!

Thursday, February 04, 2010


Following eleven days of imprisonment in Jaipur, the ride to Bundi was a confidence builder. Today I follow a minor road south west through dark emerald wheat fields and small villages. The oncoming traffic is mostly bikers delivering milk to town – presumably to a dairy to be transformed into cheese and curd. Four churns is the standard load. A few men manage six. The churns are copper and bell bottomed.
Here, way off the highway, riding through villages demands extra caution. The tarmac is already sun-warmed and the street is extra living space. A cow dozes in the sun; a woman combs out her hair; men gather round a spectacled reader of a newspaper. Men and women are dressed in Sunday best. The only people working are the milk delivery men and bus drivers. Is today one more of India's innumerable holidays?
An egret pretends to be a heron on the borders of a shallow reed-rimmed lake. The road zigzags up and crosses a barren plateau cratered with stone quarries, then down to more wheat fields and finally meets the four-lane Highway 76.
The highway is almost deserted. The concrete surface is excellent and the Honda cruises happily at 90 KPH (yes, I'm a real speed freak). Then follows 100 Ks of dilatory meandering down mostly single track tar. Men have gathered in every village. Serious faced, they squat and talk quietly in the shade of flat topped thorn or mango trees, few women visible, and most shops closed as I ride through the narrow main street of the bazar in the small market town of Dhariyawad. I turn in through the key-hole entrance arches to the Fort and my day is done. I have ridden 368 kilometers ending with 40 Ks of tinder-dry forest. My butt is numb but what a totally joyous ride.


I go in search of breakfast at a cafe across the street. A male toddler in a yellow bed cap tied under the chin, no pants, points at me. I point back. He giggles coyly. His dad sweeps him up and tells him to shake my hand. He whimpers. His mum grabs him and ducks back through a low doorway.
The teenage help at the cafe says there's no fresh orange juice because there's no electricity.
However, not all men are useless. Proof is a bearded Muslim grandfather in a white skull cap, knee-length white shirt and loose white cotton trousers riding four children to infants school on a older model Honda 125 – three on the pillion, one straddling the gas tank. I follow in his wake. Farewell to Bundi.


Sunday: January 31.
I love this room. Out of bed at 7 am. The Buddhist nuclear engineer is meditating. Eyes closed, he sits facing the morning sun in the lotus position. A josh stick has replaced the herbal. I pack and hump my bag and backpack downstairs and load the bike then return to an upper courtyard in search of a bill. The owner is a small kindly man of my generation. The haveli was built by his great grandfather, Prime Minister of the State in the days of the Maharajas. He his helped in running the guest house by family members. There is so much that could be done to improve the place: fix the lavatory cistern in my room, freshen paintwork, tidy the lake-side garden - simple tasks that, were this our home, Bernadette and I would enjoy. The owners are the wrong cast. They don't do manual and they can't afford the lovely building crumbles.


The roof is a way station for monkeys on their evening trek home to the fort. One picks up a torn black T shirt from the parapet and shakes it aloft. The shirt envelops his head. Blinded, he chatters with fear and tears at the cotton. The shirt catches on a water pipe and drags loose. Off he scampers. I go in search of a shave and dinner.


I share a stone bench on the terrace with the Austrian Buddhist and gaze with joy across the roof tops at the palace cascading down the hillside. Ancient walls glow in the misty evening sunlight – so does the herbal cigarette the Buddhist offers. I decline politely and wonder that a Buddhist smoker should earn his bread as a technical engineer at a Swiss nuclear power station. Easy there, don't panic but do remember to say your prayers.


Jaipur south to Bundi is a 220K doddle through flat farmland on a good road. Indian Bundi is an industrial city. Tourist Bundi is a thin strip of 17th and 18th century havelis converted into hotels and guest houses with roof top restaurants. For tourists the attractions are the 13th century fort and decaying palace. Both Footprint and Lonely Planet recommend Lake View Paying Guest House. The lake is a square tank half full with green scum. A kindly Austrian Buddhist hikes my camel bag up three flights of steep stone stairs and across the flat roof to my 400 Rupee room. I follow slowly with backpack and helmet and collapse on a king-size bed. Survive the climb and the room is heaven, sofa, easy chair and upholstered lolling space beneath arched windows that filter sunlight through stained glass. Murals of painted flowers and garden greenery surround the windows. The ceiling border is gold and blue. A mural of a smiling young woman livens the wall beside the bathroom door. So the bathroom is basic. Big deal...