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A journey measured in friends

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jaipur - 28th to 31st January 2018

sunny 30 °C

The sun had barely risen above the horizon as we bid 'Namaste' to Raju and boarded the car he'd borrowed to take us to Varanasi's little airport.

Our fascinating, intensive, exhausting three-week tour along the Ganges had come to an end. We'd been to remarkable places, seen amazing things and travelled a lot of miles - more than 2,000 of them since leaving Delhi.

But what did we remember most?

A tough question - there were so many wonderful things to remember!

However, above all, I think it had to be the people, particularly the new friends we'd made: people like the Saigal family in Haridwar, who'd made us so welcome at the start of our Ganges adventure; like Gagan, who had devoted his time to ensuring we saw at least one tiger a day in Bandhavgarh; and Raju, whose kindness and knowledge had opened our eyes to the spirit and reality of sacred Varanasi.

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The American travel writer Tim Cahill once wrote:

'A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles'.

And I agree, wholeheartedly!

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Wise words!
(Oriental Scops Owl, Jhalana Forest, Jaipur)

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Now we were on our way to a final week in Rajasthan, where the emphasis would be on wildlife more than the divine.

I already had many good friends there. My brother David knew a few of them too, but he - and we - would soon be making more new ones.

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A few Jaipuri friends
Clockwise from left: Dashrath, Girdhar and Manish

Some terrific treats and a few surprises awaited us, but we feared that to enjoy them all in just one week could prove as energetic as the last three put together. With a combined age of 155 years, were we still young enough to survive the challenge?

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Fortunately, it was only a two-hour SpiceJet flight from Varanasi's modern airport to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan.

We'd seen most of Jaipur's familiar tourist sights together five years ago (The Pink City) and I'd been here so many times, before and since, that I'd seen most of the unfamiliar and un-touristy ones too.

One unfamiliar place owned by a familiar face still awaited us though.

Our taxi took us as speedily as Jaipur's chaotic traffic would allow from the airport in the south of the city to Bani Park, a desirable neighbourhood in the north, close to the old 'Pink City'. Here we would be spending the next three nights at the Khandela Haveli, a lovely heritage hotel owned by the respected royal family of Khandela, of which my friend Girdhar was a part. I'd stayed in Bani Park several times before, but never at his hotel - and what a treat it was. It was a great pleasure to meet up with Girdhar, his wife Mittu and their eldest son Yashoraj once again. They're such a happy and hospitable family.

We'd be spending more time with Girdhar later but, as we had no fixed plans for this afternoon, he suggested we visit the Rajasthan Polo Club.

Now, polo's something that David and I knew precious little about and we'd certainly never seen it played in the flesh before - it's a game for the wealthy and, well, we're not.

But this was to be the final match of the season, between Jaipur and Mumbai, and entry was open to all, free of charge.

The atmosphere at the Club was electric as the callithumpian 3rd Battalion, The Grenadiers paraded onto the wide expanse of green grass, bagpipes wailing, bass drum banging, tartan plaids swinging in time to the noise (I hesitate to call bagpipes 'music'!). Women in colourful saris scattered sand from shallow baskets into divots left by horses' hooves.

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Then came the riders, four in each team, with heavily-armoured knees and shins and peaked helmets of various colours. They were dressed in white trousers and coloured short-sleeved shirts, Jaipur in blue, Mumbai in green and umpires in black and white stripes. Among them, wearing the number two shirt, was the renowned polo player Sawai Padmanabh Singh (Pacho to his friends), the 19-year-old Maharaja of Jaipur. Did I mention this was a game for the wealthy?

Their immaculately-groomed ponies with bright eyes and ears pricked seemed anxious to get going.

The excited crowd of men, women and children seated in the grandstand and standing all around the ground - within a few feet of where all the action would be - applauded and cheered.

A hard white ball was ceremoniously tossed onto the pitch by the Club President - and they were off...

The sleek thoroughbred ponies raced up and down the ground faster than racehorses, stopping abruptly, turning on a sixpence. The riders stooped down and swung their mallets in an arc, sometimes making contact with the ball with a resounding 'crack', then chasing after it at a rate of knots, vigorously bumping opponents from time to time in their hurry to reach goals at either end of the ground.

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To this day, I've been unable to entirely figure out the rules, but I do know that there were five sessions known as 'chukkas' and that horses, quickly tiring from their exertions, were changed between each.

At the end of the fifth chukka, the teams were drawn six goals each. An exciting extra chukka resulted in a 'golden goal' for the home team, making Jaipur this year's champions.

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What a thrilling experience!

Alas, we couldn't stay for the presentation of trophies as we had to return to our hotel in time to change - for tonight was party time for these two oldies.

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The only way to meet up with the 30 or so friends and relatives of my 'Indian son' Lajpal who were living in Jaipur was for them to gather en masse for drinks and dinner, just like they'd done on my previous visits to the city. (Those not familiar with the story of Lajpal, should read Life is like an ice-cream! and subsequent entries.)

What a joy it was to see them all again - just a fraction of Lajpal's many relations: his sister and her husband, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, in-laws, friends - all of them my friends too after so many years.

I was pleased to introduce David to those he didn't already know and, in particular, to Dashrath, Lajpal's father-in-law (who, apart from being the father of Lajpal's wife Rajshri and a good friend of mine, just happened to be Private Secretary to the Minister responsible for all of Rajasthan's wildlife parks. He would mention us to the rangers in charge of the many sanctuaries we'd be visiting later in the week).

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There was also a very welcome surprise guest: Harshvardhan, a young man I hadn't seen since he and his brother Jaivardhan had steered me around the multitude of ceremonies at an important Rajput wedding 11 years ago (It's a long way to go for a wedding!) - they'd grown a bit, as the 'before' and 'after' photos below will confirm.

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Much chatting, drinking and eating ensued, together with the inevitable dancing to happy, hands-in-the-air, hip-gyrating Bollywood music. Even David couldn't resist joining in with the younger generation and learning a few new 'moves'.

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David joins in the dancing (l to r: Lajpal, Harshvardhan, David)

At previous parties, the celebrations had continued into the not-so-small hours of the following morning, but we were already weary - not surprising after our early-morning flight, the excitement of the polo match and all that dancing - plus the fact that we were both at least twice the age of nearly everyone else here! We'd also committed to meeting up with another friend very early next day. Whatever were we thinking? Who planned this chockablock itinerary?

So, we had to take our leave before midnight, bidding farewell with much hugging and waving, allowing the throng to continue partying into the night without us.

*

It's strange that, no matter how fatigued we'd been most days, we had always managed to raise our heads off the pillows when the alarm clocks (we needed more than one!) madly rang at stupid o'clock. I guess we still had that old-fashioned work ethic of years gone by - if we said we'd be there, we needed to be there on time!

And so it was that, before dawn next day, we waited at the hotel reception for the taxi we'd arranged to take us to meet my good friend Manish at the lake called Man Sagar, home to the Jal Mahal, the 'Water Palace'. Unfortunately, much to our chagrin, the taxi worked on Indian Time and, despite several phone calls to the driver, dawn had turned to day before it arrived!

However, Manish was waiting patiently when we eventually reached the pedestrian boulevard beside the lake.

Man Sagar's on the road out of the Pink City heading towards Amber Fort, one of Jaipur's tourist hotspots. Coachloads of visitors always made a quick photo stop at the lake on the way. It's very picturesque - a calm expanse of water, a palace in the middle, birds in the foreground, hills in the background - you know the sort of thing. However, for those with a little more time on their hands and those in the know - like us and Manish, who lives nearby - the lake offered a tranquil walk well away from the camera-clicking hoards and was great for bird-watching.

I was here with Manish last year (Spring is sprung. I wish the mattress was!), but David hadn't met him before. Both keen ornithologists and photographers, however, they seemed to enjoy each other's company and we certainly saw a lot of birds on and around the lake.

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For other bird-lovers among you, just some of the wondrous sights revealed on this morning's walk were: Bay-backed Shrikes, Little Cormorants, Great Cormorants, Egrets - Cattle, Little and Great, Common Teal, Red-vented Bulbul, Spot-billed Ducks, Pond Heron, Mynahs of various types, Treepie, Collared Doves, Prinias, Indian Robins, Pied Kingfishers, Black-winged Stilts, Purple Swamphens, Painted Storks, Knob-billed Ducks, Grey Herons, plus, of course, the occasional Palm Squirrel and lots of colourful shrubs and flowers.

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We returned to the hotel having had a most enjoyable morning with Manish and in the knowledge that we'd be meeting him again, together with his family, when we came back to Jaipur in a week's time. Meanwhile, lunch followed, along with a farewell visit from Lajpal, Rajshri and shy four-year-old daughter Devanshi (aka Dhruvi), who were heading home to Nathdwara, a six-hour drive away.

We needed the few remaining hours of the day for recuperation as tomorrow would be yet another very full day. Were we gluttons for punishment, or what?

*

Girdhar's hospitality would bear no bounds next day. First, he would transport us to Chandlai, an ancient water body about 30 kilometres (18 miles) to the south of the city. I'd been here with him and his son Yashoraj last year, but the monsoon rains had not been good this year and, despite much toing and froing across parched ground in Girdhar's 4x4, we found that many of the smaller ponds had now dried up. Fortunately, some of the larger ponds and the lake itself still held sufficient water to attract an array of ducks, geese, waders and other birds, both resident and migratory.

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We approached the feeding birds on foot, carefully and quietly - except when stumbling down ditches (me) and falling over, drawing blood, among some vicious thorn trees (David). Birds with which we were not familiar were identified for us by Girdhar - at least those which hadn't flown off in alarm at our less-than-stealthy approach, that is.

Today's tally of sightings included, among many others: Snipe, Pipit (uncertain type - there are lots that all look the same!), Common Teal, Little Cormorant, Bar-headed Geese, Northern Shoveller, Painted Storks in trees and in-flight, Steppe Gulls, White Wagtail, Long-tailed and Bay-backed Shrike, Eurasian Spoonbill, Grey Heron, Little Grebe and Little Ringed Plover, many of these in significant numbers.

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It had been a superb excursion, made even better by being in the company of Girdhar, who I'm sure would not mind me describing him as a knowledgeable birder, photographer, businessman, recreational marksman and all-round aristocratic good friend.

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Then it was back to the hotel for lunch and off with Girdhar again to meet Dashrath at the entrance to the Jhalana Forest Leopard Sanctuary on the city's outskirts.

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Jhalana Forest. The city of Jaipur can just be seen on the horizon


I'd had good sightings of leopards here on previous visits and was anxious for David to see his first wild one too. The Forest Officer himself, Surendra Sharma, was waiting for us and, after a customary glass of hot, sweet chai, we boarded one of the park's new Gypsy jeeps and headed off in search of ever-elusive leopards.

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Surendra Sharma (left) and Girdhar Pratap Singh Khandela (right)

Since converting the area last year from a public park into an official wildlife sanctuary - with associated entry fees, work had begun to improve accessibility and pipelines to waterholes in this otherwise arid land; for this work, Surendra Sharma must be complimented. Rightly or wrongly, however, it had also been decided to commence erecting a fence around the entire 24 square kilometre forest area, intentionally to keep out the public, but potentially restricting movement of animals and resulting in a decline of the leopards' food sources. Meanwhile, it remained one of the few places where there was a good likelihood of seeing wild leopards that, despite growing human intrusion, had not become habituated and remained notoriously shy.

Into the forest we went, following the sandy tracks which enabled vehicles to drive on several circuits, each one controlled by an entrance gate. Perhaps I should mention here that this was not a forest like those in Europe, but mainly dry scrub with stunted trees, rocky outcrops and hills on either side of a flat valley. White orchid-like flowers of a few beautiful Drumstick trees, known here as Shobhanjana (Moringa pterygosperma), punctuated an otherwise brown and green landscape. There was even a temple inside the park and people walked there to worship (despite leopards being seen nearby from time to time!).

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One of the advantages of being with the man in charge was that we could access all areas, paths through locked gates being opened by a man on a motorbike just as we approached. An ancient hilltop fort, normally out-of-bounds to visitors, was put at our disposal for a tea-and-biscuits stop.

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Of course, leopards were not the only wildlife within the forest area. As we drove, we encountered a Grey Mongoose clambering along the wall of an entrance gate, an Oriental Scops Owl high in a leafless tree, a Eurasian Sparrowhawk paddling at a waterhole, Grey Francolin, Nilgai (aka Blue Bull Antelope) and countless Peafowl, whose alarm calls often heralded a roaming leopard. We enjoyed the sight of many peahens launching themselves from a roost near the fort down into the valley while we sipped our cuppa.

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As the sun began to drop from the sky, we had still not spotted a leopard and were losing hope of one gracing us with its presence. The park was due to close its doors in less than half-a-hour. A mobile phone rang into life. It was the driver of another vehicle with news of a sighting. We accelerated, throwing up clouds of dust in our wake and arriving just in time for a fleeting glimpse of a female leopard strolling through the scrub. She glanced our way before moving off and using her remarkable camouflage to disappear into the dry grass.

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What a fitting conclusion to the beginning of our week's wildlife adventure!

We were tired but elated and pleased to have survived these first few days. Tomorrow, we hoped, might be a slightly more relaxed day.

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Accommodation:

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Khandela Haveli, D219A Bhaskar Marg, Bani Park, Jaipur 302016, Rajasthan.
Tel: +91 141 403 6060 Email: info@khandelahaveli.com or girdharpratap@khandelahaveli.com [/i]

I've stayed at heritage hotels and in Bani Park before, but I can confidently say that nowhere has been quite as fantastic as this. Accommodation, food and service were all exemplary, and the understated decor and carefully-placed pieces of ancient memorabilia provided just the right amount of heritage atmosphere to complement the well-maintained modern facilities.

Every member of staff at the hotel reception was efficient and always willing to help with taxi bookings, information or advice. On each floor were pleasant sitting areas. On the rooftop was an attractive swimming pool. The spacious air-conditioned bedrooms and bathrooms, and indeed the entire hotel, were immaculately clean and tidy - a sign of good supervision of the cleaning staff by a conscientious housekeeper.

The restaurant on the ground-floor struck a balance of tasty, well-cooked food with friendly, efficient service under the ever-watchful eye of its manager Pooran. On the rare occasion that it was a bit busy with a group booking, there were tables in the open-air courtyard just outside.

Rates varied from 4500 to 6500 Rupees (£50 to £71 approx/US$67 to US$96) plus taxes for a double or twin-bedded room or suite.

Lest I should be accused of bias in this complimentary review of Girdhar's hotel, I should add that, while we did receive a generous discount, every other paying guest was treated just as well as we were.

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Just a few footnotes to clarify some of the things mentioned above:

• Tim Cahill is the renowned author of books with great titles - like: 'A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg', 'Pecked To Death By Ducks' and 'Jaguars Ripped My Flesh'!

• Read about our new friends the Saigals, Gagan and Raju in my previous blogs: A mistreated goddess; 'Tyger, Tyger, burning bright...'; The name may have changed, but little else had...)

• ...and about a previous leopard sighting in Jhalana Forest in: Spotted! Leopards!

• On 24 June 1970, all titles, privileges and privy purses associated with princely states, and thus Maharajas and the like, were abolished by the 26th Amendment to the Constitution of India. The royal families still remain highly respected and continue to maintain their traditions and their heritage. Many, like Girdhar's family have opened their palaces, castles and mansions as hotels.

Posted by Keep Smiling 10:03 Archived in India Tagged india jaipur rajasthan jhalana chandlai Comments (1)

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