Asia » India » Rajasthan » Khandela - 31st January to 1st February 2018
31.01.2018 - 01.02.2018 30 °C
Now here's somewhere for those who want to see the real Rajasthan, where time seems to have almost stood still since tourism gentrified most of this regal state's cities, forts and palaces.
It was a breath of fresh air to enter an ancient town that was noticeably quieter and cleaner than most other small towns we'd visited, one that wasn't overflowing with shops devoted to tourist tat or fancy restaurants with international menus. Here we found people who were a little shy in the presence of camera-wielding visitors, who spoke only a few words of a language other than their own, who welcomed everyone with genuine curiosity, courtesy and smiles.
So why had we come to this seemingly idyllic outpost 100 kilometres (62 miles) north of Jaipur?
Well, we'd come to visit the father of our friend Girdhar - and to spend a night at his castle of course!
These final days of our month in India would see us journeying by road from Jaipur, first north, then westwards in stages to Jaisalmer, a distance of about 1,000 kilometres (620 miles). I'd followed this route, more or less, by car and by train on a couple of previous occasions, but I wanted to introduce my brother David to some of the splendid sights and wildlife to be found in this lesser-visited part of Rajasthan and to discover some new ones for myself at the same time.
The ever-helpful Monty, Lajpal's brother-in-law, had organised a comfortable car for us, together with a very able driver named Santosh. He was familiar with most of the roads on our proposed route, but he didn't know the way to Khandela. Like us, Santosh had never been there before. (What was more, I'd never actually met the man we were going there to see.)
Early this morning, we'd headed north on National Highway 52, passing through rural villages and arid countryside dotted with tall chimneys of brickworks that are a feature of the landscape here. After about an hour and a half, we turned off onto the road we thought should take us to our destination. Santosh stopped at a petrol station to ask for directions. Yes, we were on the right road - the petrol station, it transpired, was owned by Girdhar's family!
A short while later we drew up outside Castle Khandela, an imposing three-storey, cream and white building with pretty, arched windows and an elephant-sized wooden door - more a palace than a 400-year-old castle really.
Awaiting our arrival was the owner of this stately home: Maharaja Dr Raisal Singh Khandela, Girdhar's father and a man whose upright stance, distinguished features and venerable bearing confirmed his direct descendancy from the former rulers of this region of Shekhawati. Although we'd only previously met digitally, it was if we'd known each other for years and we were royally welcomed with scented marigold garlands before being escorted across the courtyard with its flowering shrubs and canopied ceremonial carriage to our spacious heritage room.
The royal coat of arms
But time was short. Raisal, both erstwhile royalty and a practising medical doctor, had patients to attend to. We too had a lot to fit into this day in our ever-hectic schedule. So, Raisal asked one of his staff to take us for a walk around the town while he went to his clinic within the castle grounds to offer treatment to the town's sick and needy.
It's not often that we'd been the only tourists in a town before. And what a pleasure it was to stroll through the town's arched entrance into narrow, almost traffic-free streets and to be greeted with only polite smiles.
Here, in this town of around 25,000 people, we found little shops selling everyday goods - groceries, clothes, bangles, fabrics. The relaxed boss of a tiny tailor's shop, where two men worked on sewing machines in the open-air, offered to produce made-to-measure shirts, if we had a day or two to spare. A cobbler sitting cross-legged outside his hole-in-the-wall workshop proudly showed us how he cut and sewed leather to make beautiful, traditional footwear.
In one street, there was a line of stalls with rudimentary covers to provide shade to impressive displays of fruit and vegetables, among them green and orange tomatoes, deep-red carrots, cabbages, cauliflowers, shiny purple aubergines, piles of beans and peas, giant bunches of fresh herbs, bags of onions, chillies, ginger, turmeric and garlic - indeed everything you could ever need for a delicious vegetarian curry. A white-haired man stood behind one of these stalls demonstrating how much he enjoyed his hash pipe, emitting clouds of smoke to match the colour of his impressive moustache.
Metal bowls containing dried pulses and the brightest coloured pasta I'd ever seen spilled out onto the foot-way from a cupboard-like shop while its owner read his daily newspaper oblivious to our presence. A white donkey pulled a cart laden with used, flattened cardboard boxes on their way to be recycled. A shoe-repair man seated on the floor beside the road, observed by a small audience of a boy, an old man with a magnificent beard and an orange wooly hat, and a woman in a black burqa on a motorbike, mended a sandal with a piece of an old car tyre - and gave my dusty shoes a long-overdue and very thorough polish too.
Wandering down a street of small houses owned by artisans, with their handmade pots outside the doors, we bumped into a crowd of children coming in the opposite direction. It seemed that the local school had just broken for lunch. A small street-food stall with the grand name of 'Ramsingh Chat Center' did good business selling puri - puffy, deep-fried pastry shells broken on top and filled with curried vegetables.
The schoolgirls shyly disappeared from view, but soon we were being noisily greeted by 30 adventurous boys of all ages trying out their English skills with the usual 'Which country, sir?', 'How are you?', 'I'm fine sir'. They then watched curiously as we left them in our search for other interesting things. A brown-headed white goat snoozing on someone's doorstep feigned indifference.
We continued our walk to see some ancient havelis (beautiful former merchants' homes), along the way passing numerous houses with fabulous doorways, most of which I felt compelled to photograph.
My favourite of the wonderful doorways
There was a little cinema too - one of the posters declared it was showing 'Pad Man', a film about a social activist who revolutionized rural India by creating a low-cost sanitary towel machine. I'm guessing that this blockbuster must have had its fair share of Bollywood dancing somewhere among the plot.
Khandela was the sort of place you could wander around for days, something new, interesting or unusual constantly catching your eye as you did so. Everywhere - well, almost everywhere - was spick and span; this was a town taking pride in its appearance. Of course, this being India, there were still one or two outlying places in need of a little attention, but we were told that those were mainly in private hands rather than under the control of the municipality.
Alas, we had only a few hours of daylight remaining on this one day. So, waving farewell to another group of happy children standing in a doorway, every one of whom smiled broadly and waved in return, we boarded the castle's jeep and headed a short way out of town.
There, we discovered a cluster of slightly neglected, honey-coloured, stone chhatris, memorials erected where the bodies of past rulers of the region were cremated. These beautiful monuments, with their onion-domed canopies ('chhatri' translates as 'canopy' or 'umbrella') characterfully adorned with cacti and thorny shrubs, carried descriptive carvings and were a fitting reminder of this town's glorious past, of its rulers and their traditions. The weather today was perfect - warm but not hot, sunny with a light breeze, pale cerulean skies with wispy clouds - all combining to make these distinctive chhatris particularly photogenic.
We continued to Raisal's organic farm, where very few crops were in cultivation because of the dry conditions following last year's poor monsoon rains. The ancient baori there, a many-tiered, very deep, stone step-well, was dry. Where water was once collected by hand after descending a few feet to its surface, many dozens of dry steps led down into the bowels of the earth and a generator-driven pump now drew up the scarce liquid.
From the bare branches of a tree close by, a tiny brown and white Spotted Owlet contorted its head to watch our every move with disproportionately large eyes. A small troop of grey Langur monkeys used their long rear legs to scurry, dance-like, across the dusty fields as we approached.
I briefly sheltered from the midday sun beneath a small green tree - it was a rare Bael (pronounced 'Bill') with young fruit that would eventually grow to the size of a grapefruit and, when ripened, would be so hard that it would have to be cracked with a hammer. I learnt from our guide that the yellow pulp inside smelt like roses but tasted like marmalade. I'll have to come back at harvest time to try it! The leaves are used in the worship of the god Shiva, who's said to be particularly fond of the Bael tree (as we saw inside Varanasi's Shiva Temple - 'The name may have changed, but little else had...').
We returned to the castle through scenery of dry thorn scrub with a backdrop of tall, dark, jagged hills. Raisal had hurried to complete his benevolent medical duties and, after a very pleasant lunch, we set forth again, this time enjoying his company on a bird-watching foray.
The area around Khandela was rural, green and fertile in places where water was available, barren where it wasn't. The whole area was home to a wide array of resident and migratory birds. Raisal, a knowledgeable ornithologist and a keen photographer to boot, had the eyes of an eagle. We were in good hands as he scanned the fields and trees around us as we drove, stopping frequently to identify unfamiliar species.
Although many birds were too small to capture satisfactorily on camera, a few highlights accompany this blog. I particularly enjoyed seeing a woodpecker, a Lesser Goldenback - such a colourful little bird. We thought we'd seen a particularly unusual type of tree-creeper too but, on closer examination, it seems it was another type of woodpecker - Yellow-Crowned, not as rare but certainly a 'first' for me. More familiar sightings included Black Redstart, Black-winged Kite, Common Kestrel, Indian Pond Heron, Indian Silverbill, Oriental Magpie Robin and a plethora of 'little brown jobs'. It was a delight to see so many birds in such unspoilt countryside.
Above: Lesser Goldenback (Female)
Above: Yellow-crowned Woodpecker and Black Redstart
Above: Black-winged Kite (aka Black-shouldered Kite) and Indian Pond Heron In non-breeding plumage
Above: Oriental Magpie Robin (Juvenile) and Indian Silverbill
Above: Common Kestrel
Our day culminated in a vibrant orange sun illuminating a sky of thin cirrus clouds before it dipped rapidly below the horizon, leaving an inky darkness.
We were sad to leave Raisal and his lovely town next morning, but it had been a memorable experience and, above all, it had been great to meet the man I'd only corresponded with for the past two years.
A Forest Officer and some Blackbuck were waiting for us at the next stop on our lightning visit to Rajasthan. So, bidding farewell to Raisal with gratitude for his wonderful hospitality and a promise of a return visit in the not-too-distant future, we boarded Santosh's comfortable car once again and headed west to the Tal Chhapar Blackbuck Sanctuary and onwards to Bikaner.
Castle Khandela, Khandela, Dist. Sikar, Rajasthan.
Tel: +91 01575 261227 Email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
This is a charming restoration of part of a huge castle complex. Marble floors and scalloped archways abound, as do family heirlooms, photographs, ancient coin collections and objets d'art from days gone by.
Each of the 15 bedrooms has been designed with attention to detail, cool colours and sympathetic furnishings in keeping with their heritage. Bathrooms are clean and modern and everywhere was clean and tidy. Service, as you would expect, was discreet and efficient.
Expect to pay up to about 6000 Rupees (approx. £67/US$90/€76) a night for a good double room, including breakfast. It's a bargain!