Passages in India

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 April, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 April, 2001, 12:00am

If you've ever wanted to live like a king, rub shoulders with princes and make small talk with maharanis, Rajasthan is the place for you. Dripping with history and culture, its frescoed palaces and forts have been converted into hotels offering olde-worlde hospitality and an inspiring trip back in time. Fionnuala McHugh drifts stylishly through Jodhpur, Rohetgarh and Jaipur, discovering some of the Indian state's best-kept secrets.

In spring 1986, the writer Bruce Chatwin spent two months in a fort called Rohet in the Indian desert state of Rajasthan. There, he worked on the first draft of what would become The Songlines. He described this paradise to his father: ' ... a building going back to the 16th century, around a courtyard with neem trees and a lawn, its outer walls lapped by a lake with little islands, temples on them ...'

That letter is quoted in Nicholas Shakespeare's piercing biography of Chatwin. It makes Rohetgarh (garh means fort) sound like Arcadia, a spiritual place beyond the experience of the rest of us. When William Dalrymple decided to write his wonderful book on Delhi, City Of Djinns, he was so convinced of Rohetgarh's spell he began it at Chatwin's desk 'in a desperate bid for inspiration'.

The good news is anyone can stay at Rohetgarh. The even better news is that Rajasthan is filled with establishments under the umbrella Heritage Hotels: not quite five-star luxury (if your idea of a holiday is room service, groaning mini-bars, lift music and satellite television, then Heritage is not for you), but many circles of existence and delight higher than the run-of-the-mill hostelries that put up package tours in, say, Goa.

If you are an imaginative sort, you can spend your days in a Heritage Hotel, gazing at museum displays of palatial life, your evenings sipping cocktails, pretending you're part of a romantic, gilded past, and your nights under twinkling mosaics and erotic carvings. You can make small talk with polo-playing, tiger-shooting aristocrats and expansive (but not expensive) forays out into the countryside to see rare, protected beasts. And, if you still have a secret hankering for Goa, you can also indulge in a little cultural-exchange drug-taking - of which more later.

I happen to know this because I spent a splendid time last Christmas in a number of Heritage Hotels with several friends, including two children, aged seven and nine. The children had never been to India before and, in answer to your first question, no one suffered a moment's sickness.

We booked our journey through an agent in London, although independent travellers can roll up at the hotels and take potluck. Christmas, of course, is a peak time, and Indian tourists like to travel in February, but apart from that, you should be able to dream - or write - in peace. Don't make the classic mistake of doing an exhausting gallop all over Rajasthan: it's depressing to hear other travellers arguing about the palace they think they saw in Jaipur. Or was it Jodhpur? Or, no, hang on, maybe it was Jaisalmer. One of the joys of having children with us was that we paced ourselves.

The first gem we stayed at was the Samode Haveli in Jaipur, an easy trip of about five hours, on a good road, from Delhi. Hong Kong residents run a serious risk of agoraphobia here because the bedrooms are enormous (my bathroom-cum-dressing room alone was the size of my flat); the corkscrew staircases, on the other hand, are minute. This is a classic feature of Rajasthani architecture: while the hotels' hospitality is faultless, earlier invaders weren't always welcome and many rooms are tucked away in crevices only accessible via narrow, slippery stairs. At the top, there's usually a terrace with a view over neighbouring trees, every one of which glitters with strange fruit - forlorn kites, vanquished during evening battle at the hour of cow dust.

The Samode Haveli has lovely gardens, a frescoed entrance and the most regal dining room I've ever eaten in. When you visit the nearby fort at Amber (usually on elephant-back, but they were all on strike the day we went and had packed their trunks in disgust), the guide ushers you into a tiny, mirrored room, closes the door, strikes a match and begs you, in the flickering, magical darkness, to imagine romantic liaisions between princes and courtesans.

This is what it's like to have breakfast in the Samode Haveli dining room, and if the buffet lacks a certain passion (and ethnicity, consisting, as it does, of scrambled eggs, baked beans and toast), the jewel-like decor and the handsome waiters, dressed in white with red turbans more than compensate. So taken were we by their headgear, we had dinner one night in Jaipur's Surabhi Food Culture Turban Museum, home to one of the world's largest collection of turbans - a rather spooky gathering of dusty heads - and a lone musician, who parked himself sociably next to us in the open courtyard. (Despite fulsome recommendations in the menu from 'Dimple Kapadia (film person)' and that other film person, 'Jeremy Ions' (sic), we had the place entirely to ourselves.)

Rohetgarh is a six-hour journey, by train and car, from Jaipur. As we arrived in the middle of the night, the gardens, the pool and the peacocks were a complete surprise the next morning. So was the cushioned swing in my room which encouraged the mild fantasy - very Heritage Hotel - that one was but a breath away from being the type of tiny woman who playfully disports herself, amid rustic pavilions and borders of Urdu script, in Indian miniature paintings.

Manvendra Singh, the man who invited Chatwin to Rohetgarh when they met at the birthday party of the Maharaja of Jodhpur ('Bapji'), is a charming presence at the fort. He likes to greet his guests as they loll on his beautiful lawns in the morning, will join them for afternoon tea (served on the lawn by turbanned waiters) and courteously enquire after their day while they eat dinner beside his pool. This must be a tiringly thankless business because nobody seemed to stay longer than a night at Rohetgarh, and some of the small groups we saw arrived after dark from Jaipur (or was it Jaisalmer?) and were off, they scarcely knew where, after breakfast.

This seemed the definition of daft: Rohetgarh is one of the loveliest, most tranquil spots you could wish to loiter in. Jodhpur - with Bapji's huge palace (a memorable cross between St Peter's in Rome, St Paul's in London and our own Legco building) and its stupendous fort, like a rocky pelmet on a cliff overhanging an ocean of blue-washed houses - is 45 minutes away by car. You can spend a decent number of hours exploring that fascinating town and still be back in time for tea on the lawn.

Or you can go and try some opium. One of Rohetgarh's unexpected offerings is a tour of nearby Bishnoi country, climaxing in the taking of illict substances with local farmers. You may have heard of the Bishnoi people - they came to prominence two years ago when an Indian film star shot a deer illegally on their land, not far from Rohetgarh. The Bishnoi community has a great reverence for life and, if necessary, Bishnoi women will suckle orphaned deer, a fact that received much publicity at the time.

Late one afternoon, two of us went to visit a Bishnoi village in the company of a local schoolteacher. We could have been traversing the African veldt, so over-arching was the sky, so dry and acacia-dotted the land, except Rajasthan has more spangles and tinsel than Africa. Every now and then, a slender villager in fluorescent clothing came gliding down the road, like a sudden exclamation mark sketched on the landscape with a highlighter pen. Sometimes a blue bull (a strange, faintly prehistoric creature, like a cow crossed with a horse) or a black buck went springing merrily down the sandy track in front of us.

In the village, really a family compound, we drank tea, perched on a charpoy - one of those string beds you see everywhere in rural India - and heard about the Bishnoi way of life. Bishnoi means '29' and the people follow 29 rules of conduct as laid down in 1484, including strict vegetarianism and care of animals. Their way of life has not changed in half a millennium, which is why the collision between Bollywood and Bishnoi garnered so much attention. (Bollywood, as you might imagine, is holding its own: the case is still pending.)

As the sun dawdled in the sky, the village women grinned at us, and we grinned back, admiring each other's adornments (they had beautiful silver wristcuffs and toe-rings), but for sheer jollity and hospitality, the opium-imbibing farmers in an adjoining village were undisputed winners. As we arrived, about half a dozen of them had gathered in an enclosed, bright blue courtyard, and were clustered round a small contraption dedicated to Lord Shiva: it had a camelhair cone attached to each side through which powdered opium was being filtered. This daily ceremony is legal. The Indian government apparently allows the farmers the use of opium on a semi-medicinal basis (as an energy-booster and a sedative, confusingly enough). There is a distinct protocol to proceedings - an initial pious flicking of the liquid around the room, a lengthy slurp from the host's palm, the polite washing of the palm afterwards. And the farmers encourage their guests to join in.

Although my companion wasn't keen ('I have to put the children to bed,' she explained, not something you hear every day in an opium den), I was sufficiently prodded by visions of Coleridge and de Quincy to have four slurps-worth. It tasted bitter, like aspirin; we all ate pale yellow, crumbly chunks of jaggery (coarse sugar) to sweeten the aftertaste. The men lit bidis (local cigarettes), the blue walls darkened as the sun set, the smell of ash and dust rose from the earth, and although I wouldn't say opium had a discernible effect on me - or my capacity to write fevered verse - it did feel like a singularly happy, and unexpected, moment in a travelling life.

A few days later, we drove for several hours to Deogarh Mahal, a palace built in 1670 and converted into a hotel in 1996. As we arrived, a shower of rose-petals and marigolds was sprinkled on our heads from the terrace above. That moment set the deliberate otherworldly tone of the place. A huge genealogical chart of the Rawats (a title equivalent to Raja) of Deogarh hangs in the entrance, and the current Rawat and his two sons run the hotel with grace and style. Here you can choose from a variety of exotic, and indeed eccentric, chambers. Room two, for instance, honours a former Rawat of Deogarh who loved trains so much he installed old British railway-style sash windows and washbasins. The honeymoon suite has a gokhara (a sitting area with stained-glass windows and cushions), tiny, jewelled lamps and athletic couples cavorting ecstatically in frescoes around the ceiling. There is a room that recalls the last elephant of Deogarh, which died in 1960, rooms with private terraces overlooking the walled garden, and rooms with mirrors, mosaics and swings.

Every evening, the family gathers to greet its guests. Because it was winter, and chilly at night, we had drinks around huge fires on the terrace; in the summer, these social occasions take place in the upstairs drawing room. One night, the Rani told us about her life and the gradual diminishment of purdah: taking down the curtains from her car, moving to the front seat in order to be seen by local people, eventually driving the car herself and, now, as I happened to witness one morning, speeding along at the wheel of an old army jeep.

In between these increments of modesty, she had once shot a panther; its tail decorated one son's turban, the other son had ripped its skin apart accidentally with his tricycle. 'It became eaten by worms,' said the Rani, and that, she added, was the end of that. We nodded thoughtfully and proceeded in to dinner (delicious).

The aristocrats of Deogarh might have gone the way of the panther had they not thought of converting what was once a mouldering ruin (the renovation photos are in an album in the frescoed reception area) into a dream of the past. Now the hotel is on every in-the-know traveller's list; in 1999, British magazine Tatler awarded it the title of Best Hotel Under #100 (HK$1,150) a night, and its guestbook is full of fragrant names and addresses. Those who go there have discovered the truths about stylish travel: that it doesn't have to be expensive and should never be predictable.

Incidentally, I went to pay homage to Chatwin's room. If you ever stay at Rohetgarh, it's room 15: enclosed, faintly mysterious, with unexpected splashes of brilliance (from the reflection of the stained-glass windows), and altogether rather like the man himself. No wonder he wrote simply of that desert fort: 'I adore it here.'

Useful information

Getting there

Cathay Pacific flies to Delhi on Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays for $3,820; Indian Airlines flies from Delhi to Jaipur daily for $870, both economy return. Information supplied by DHL Travel, tel: 2527-1616. Prices subject to change

without notice.

When to go

November to March, when daytime temperatures are in the 20-30 degrees Celsius range.

Where to stay



5 rupees: about HK$1.