February 16, 2018

Further East
5 -min. read

Rajasthan is what happens to India when the hand brake comes off. Careening through its own romantic clichés – castles brooding over remote kingdoms; camel caravans swaying across the desert; domed pavilions in lotus-studded lakes – the region is a runaway exotic. Everything in Rajasthan tends to excess: landscapes, colours, love affairs, moustaches.

So naturally the horses were glamorous types. Here, horses too have a caste system – and the Marwari horses of Rajasthan are Kshatriya (warrior horses): the most noble rank. They are slim and sleek-coated. Their curved ears almost meet at the tips. They have long eyelashes, and a certain louche charm. Noted for their speed, their endurance and their courage, Marwaris prance through Rajasthani mythology as heroic figures. I was setting off on a ride across northern Rajasthan and I was riding a legend.

Our leader and guide was almost as regal as his horses. Kanwar Raghuvendra Singh, known to everyone as Bonnie, was a son of the ruling house of Dundlod, and every inch the dashing Rajput prince. With his handsome features and his elegant moustache, he might have stepped from an 18th century miniature, where he would almost certainly have been dispatching enemies in a silk frock and pearls.

We began in Kaku, a desert village some miles to the south of Bikaner, in Rajasthan. Under a cloudless sky, the morning smelt of dry grass and dung fires. Much of Rajasthan is a marginal landscape poised uneasily between arid wastes of scrub and tenuous irrigated fields, fenced with ramparts of thorn bush. Sand blew away beneath our hooves. Peacocks wandered about, showing off their tails, while goats trailed through the shade looking for lunch. In the middle distance chinkara antelope bounded away.

The women of these regions wore layered lehanga skirts so brightly coloured they were danger of frightening the horses. Their jewellery was the family pension: heavy silver bracelets and anklets, necklaces and earrings like Christmas ornaments, rings on their fingers and toes. When they moved they clanged like old-fashioned cash registers.

#udaipur #rajasthan #India #dancer #dancingqueen #wedding #bliss #celebration #welcome

A post shared by Stanley Stewart (@stanleystewart.writer) on

Compared to their wives, the husbands looked like family servants. Having blown all their money on their wives’ jewellery, most of them couldn’t run to a decent shirt. Fortunately their turbans rescued their dignity.

Turbans are to Rajasthanis what cars are to Americans: they are big, they are brash, and they say a lot about their owners. In the world of turbans, size matters. 120 square feet of cloth is barely average; some of the better endowed are rumoured to be over 80 foot long. Huge, bulbous, gravity-defying creations, they tend to dwarf their occupants. Like their wives’ skirts, the colours were outrageous. In these beige landscapes, the turbans were like beacons, shining across the vast expanses long before the wearer himself hoves into view.

The first day’s ride brought us to Khari, where the villagers seemed to have mistaken us for visiting royalty. Crowds had gathered for our arrival. A band played, massed ranks of school children cheered and waved and a row of dignitaries lined the entranceway into the walled yard where our tents were pitched beneath coloured banners.

Camp-life was full of unexpected luxuries. Cocktails were served with a military punctuality, meals came in three courses, and our tents were the sort of thing Alexander the Great might have pitched on the banks of the Indus – spacious, decorative, and hinting at regal grandeur. The greatest luxury was a small trailer, parked discreetly apart from the tents. Fitted out with a hot shower and a flush toilet, it banished any illusions that we were roughing it. Every morning we rode out of camp, leaving tents, luggage and breakfast dishes to the staff; and every evening we arrived at the new site to find the camp magically transported and afternoon tea ready. At some shady spot between the two, a jeep met us with cool drinks and a hot lunch.

In the evenings, Bonnie regaled us with stories of the adventures of his youth, of Rajasthani traditions and customs, of episodes from its tall-tale history. Under a sky of tremulous stars, we entered a very Indian conspiracy in which the line between history and legend was happily blurred.

For five days we rode through spacious Rajasthani landscape. In this monochrome country the only colours were the caryatid figures of women carrying water jugs home from the wells, drifting back and forth across the dry prairie like distant sails of pink and blue and yellow. In the villages women and children watched us pass from the flat rooftops. The children called after us, “Ta-ta” – the only English phrase to have survived here from the distant days of the Raj.

At Sinod we were invited to lunch by the local member of parliament. He was an elderly gentleman with a blue woolly cap, a silk waistcoat and a riotous case of nasal hair. He told us the history of his family, who had ruled these regions long before elections were necessary, while the entire village filled his courtyard for the excellent entertainment of Watching Foreigners Eat.

In late afternoon, we reached the narrow lanes of Khimsar – a world of shabby houses, veiled women, grubby urchins and braying donkeys. Then suddenly we turned through an imposing gateway, trotted up a gravelled drive between trimmed hedges and beds of roses, and dismounted in front of the saffron-coloured walls of the old fort. A moment later we were being ushered into a long, marbled room with cushioned divans, latticed windows and a bath big enough for an afternoon nap. This was our only night under a solid roof.

Sunset at Khimsar Fort. #travel #khimsar #india #sunset #birds #2014

A post shared by Noel David (@noeldavidraj) on

Beyond Khimsar the landscapes grew wilder and more arid. Convoys of sand dunes marched through the fields, their sensual slopes in contrast to the rough textures of the surrounding scrub. The horses padded silently through the soft waves of sand. The dunes were another country, elevated, empty, pristine, surreal. From their heights we had long views over the country we had crossed, strewn with thorn trees, deranged camels and the distant, coloured marks of women in their bright skirts. At night in the lee of the dunes our camps were canopied by stars. In the mornings passing musicians wandered into camp to serenade us.

On the sixth morning a minibus, as welcome as a prison van, arrived to take us away. We said goodbye to Bonnie, to the staff who had kept us in regal quantities of food and drink, and to the horses we had come to love. Three hours later we were in Jaisalmer, a medieval walled town in the heart of the desert. Tourist brochures called it the most romantic place in Rajasthan. But among the tour buses and the hectoring guides, its glamour was lost on us. We had already experienced the most romantic place in romantic Rajasthan – the saddle of a Marwari horse.

untitledStanley Stewart is the author of three highly acclaimed travel books and several-hundred articles based on journeys across five continents, for which he has won numerous journalism awards. He is a contributing editor of Condé Nast Traveller and his work appears regularly in the Sunday Times. He has also contributed to the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times. He writes for the National Geographic Traveler in the US, the Sunday Times in South Africa and the Australian.