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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?

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*


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)

A man's home is his castle - yes, really!

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Khandela - 31st January to 1st February 2018

sunny 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.

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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.

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The royal coat of arms

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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...').

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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.

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Above: Lesser Goldenback (Female)
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Above: Yellow-crowned Woodpecker and Black Redstart
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Above: Black-winged Kite (aka Black-shouldered Kite) and Indian Pond Heron In non-breeding plumage
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Above: Oriental Magpie Robin (Juvenile) and Indian Silverbill
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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.

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*

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.

Accommodation:
Castle Khandela, Khandela, Dist. Sikar, Rajasthan.
Tel: +91 01575 261227 Email: info@castlekhandela.com or raisal@castlekhandela.com

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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!

Posted by Keep Smiling 11:11 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan khandela Comments (0)

Thar and ta-ra!

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jaisalmer - 4th to 7th February 2018

sunny 30 °C

Dry heat and bright sunshine at this time of year, when it's dark, cold and damp at home in Hertfordshire, do wonders for body and soul.

My three-score-years-and-ten-plus-a-few drop away and I become a recycled teenager. I explore anew with a spring in my step, bounce in my friendly hotelier's jeep on long, straight military roads that lead to the Pakistan border, visit oases and simple settlements among desert sands, and search for ever-elusive Great Indian Bustards.

Of course, I make time too for relaxation on my hotel's terrace with a glass of chilled Kingfisher, cool fresh lime soda or hot lemon tea while admiring views across flat rooftops and temple domes to a vast living fort that dominates the skyline beyond. I also meet my favourite family in a nearby musician's colony and take rice, bananas and oranges to children at their little school on the hill.

This sand-coloured town in the Thar Desert calls me back time and again. It's become something of a routine visit for me over the past few winters.

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Perhaps the only difference this year was that I was with David, my four-score-years-and-more-than-a-few brother. So, although there was plenty of sitting doing precious little with a glass of something by our sides, we both recycled ourselves and did more than we should to fill our short three days here.

As the sun began to lose its heat, we took an afternoon walk to the fort that beckoned us from afar. Unlike on my first visit to Jaisalmer in 2016 ('Into the Thar'), we found it without getting too lost along the way. It continues to be an interesting stroll, however - through dusty streets, down narrow alleyways and past colourful markets, beautiful mansions built by traders in days gone by, and hole-in-the-wall shops crammed with anything and everything.

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Inside, the fort was as alive as always, with stalls selling colourful puppets and beaded bags and brollies, cafés with coffee and cake, and lots of little shops with invitations to 'come in, look, no need to buy'. This massive edifice from the days of camel trains on the 'Silk Route', a UNESCO World Heritage Site, remains a vibrant, living monument with more than a quarter of this sprawling city’s population housed within it.

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Not much grows in a region where the average annual temperature is 33oC and rainfall at this time of year is less than a single millimetre, so the main source of income hereabouts will always be tourism. There are over a thousand hotels in and around the town, but I always find a warm welcome at the same little one right beside the musician's colony. But more about that later; for now, let me tell you about how we spent our time here.

On one day, it was off in that bouncing jeep belonging to Dileep, the hotel owner, to visit an oasis at Jaseri (aka Jessari) and some of the villages in the sand. I always enjoy the tranquillity surrounding the pond at Jaseri and it's here that I've previously encountered an abundance of birdlife, including a seldom-seen bright blue Kingfisher that I managed to photograph last year ('Once more unto the Thar, dear friends, once more...'). Disappointingly, it was rather devoid of life today - just a few common birds, a man with a camel, and a feral dog breakfasting on the remains of a deceased one (a camel that is, not a man!).

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Instead, this pond in the desert became a stepping stone to other new discoveries for David, like the deserted villages around Kuldhara - now more stones than houses and inhabited only by flocks of goats. The ancient fort at Khabha too, currently being a little over-restored, continued to provide interest and great views over a desert landscape that disappears into infinity.

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We stopped to buy milk from, bizarrely, a dairy in the desert so that we could enjoy a cup of tea with Dileep's uncle at his bare, straw-roofed home in the sand.

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Afterwards, we continued to one of the villages inhabited by former nomads who'd been encouraged to settle here in this barren place. I'd asked to stop at this one in particular, despite having been here several times before and still not knowing its name (if indeed it actually had one). Today, it was partly to give some sweets to the usual throng of excited girls and boys, but mainly to deliver photos taken of them at around the same time last year, something that always seems to surprise and delight them.

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One particularly important reason for bringing my brother here to the Thar was to seek out a huge and very endangered bird. David's a keen ornithologist and, while he'd seen bustards in other countries, he'd never encountered a Great Indian Bustard. So, on another day, out into the desert we went again.

Along the way, we collected Kundan Singh, a friend from previous visits who lives in the desert and knows it like his hand. We'd get hopelessly lost or stuck in sand drifts without him as our driver. Sadly, his mother had recently died and, although he was still officially in mourning, he agreed to accompany us.

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Kundan Singh

First though, he introduced us to relatives and friends, elders of nearby homes and settlements, who were gathering here for 13 days, tradition requiring them to do so as a mark of respect for Kundan's late mother. They invited us to join them where they sat cross-legged on blankets spread on hard, dry earth in the shade of Kundan's square, stone-built house. Here, they would smoke, talk and drink tea or water from little china or steel mugs throughout the days. While conversation in anything other than sign language was awkward for us, I was pleased to leave them with some photos of their younger relatives that I'd taken at this very place last year and to take new photographs of some of the characterful, weather-worn faces which were before me here today.

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Then it was off in search of the legendary great bird, twisting and turning on and off tracks of loose sand around the perimeter of the Desert National Park. I'd drawn a blank on this terrain in previous years, but been lucky once inside the park itself. And so it would prove this time too.

Around and around we went for what seemed like hours, skidding along dusty tracks bordering the fences which surround the Park. We spotted a lone juvenile Egyptian Vulture, a Common Buzzard that took flight as we approached, a Desert Fox scurrying away as fast as his little white feet could take him, an occasional tiny Prinia, and small flocks of birds known as Silverbills (technically White-throated Munias) on account of their conical silver-grey bills. There was little else - and regrettably none of our hoped-for Bustards.

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Drawing a blank outside the Park itself, we diverted to its official entrance at Sudasari, hoping to meet the Officer in charge at his office there. Alas, although he'd been alerted to our arrival by Dashrath, he wasn't able to be there in person. Instead, he instructed his staff by telephone to accompany us in our jeep to tour inside the many square miles of fenced area. And, of course, they knew where to find the subject of our quest!

Within a matter of half an hour, there they were - not one, not two or even three, but four Great Indian Bustards. They were quite a distance away and, each time we approached within reach of our longest camera lenses, they moved farther away, walking very fast on their long, stocky legs rather than flying. Unfortunately, the distance and heat haze made these elusive birds almost impossible to photograph, but there's a picture below, just for the record. Eventually, they all disappeared into the distant shrubby desert, where we couldn't hope to follow. However, it was certainly a fitting end to our outing into the desert and another great 'first' for David to tick off in his bird-spotter's diary.

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The Silk Route Hotel* at which we were staying was built within the Kalakar Colony, home to many of Jaisalmer's musicians, ostensibly to support this group of hitherto wandering artists.

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Above: The Silk Route Hotel visible from the path leading up through the Kalakar Colony to Sunset Point
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Above: The Silk Route Hotel's rooftop terrace and a typical bedroom

I've come to know one family of musicians in particular ('In Tune with Jaisalmer') and, during our stay, I was pleased to renew my acquaintance with the lovely Fuli, a traditional singer and player of the morchang (a type of mouth instrument). Mysteriously, her husband, Dungara, had gone away, leaving her alone to fend for their four girls and two boys. They all seemed happy enough nonetheless and were pleased to chat, for Suman, the oldest child, to demonstrate that she could play the morchang just like mum, to pose for photos and to show us the mehndi (henna designs) that they'd put on their hands for a friend's recent wedding ceremony.

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With the hotel's help, a small school had been established at Sunset Point, the colony's west-facing hilltop. It's run on a shoestring under the guidance of model turned social worker Tamara, aided by a small team of volunteer teachers and known as the Sunflower Learning Centre. All of Fuli's children attend, as do others from the colony, enticed by free education and a daily meal provided after the morning's lessons.

Over dinner at the hotel one evening, we mentioned our proposed visit to the school next day to a young Parisian couple, who expressed an interest in joining us and in sharing the cost of a small gift I'd asked Guman, the hotel's manager, to help organise for us.

So it was that early on our final morning, our little group went to the local markets with their mountains of vegetables, fruit and spices like ginger and fresh turmeric. There, Guman bargained on our behalf for a huge 25kg (55lbs) bag of rice - enough to provide the basis of pupils' lunches for quite a few days, plus 15kg (33lbs) of bananas and 13kg (29lbs) of oranges - probably enough to feed the entire colony! The four of us shared the cost - the princely sum of 1600 Rupees (under GBP 20) for the lot!

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The fruit was all distributed to the bright-eyed children at a convenient interval in their studies. together with one or two photos taken here last year. It brought many memorable smiles to their faces, together with big thank yous and waves as we reluctantly left them an hour or so later.

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*

Alas, all good things must come to an end and, after strolling back to the hotel, our taxi awaited to take us to Jaisalmer's little airport for our SpiceJet flight back to Jaipur.

But this was not yet farewell to India.

*

Once again, we met our good friend Girdhar, who made us most welcome at his superb Khandela Haveli hotel in Jaipur.

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We also met our friend Manish, with whom we'd spent an enjoyable morning walking around Man Sagar a week or so ago (A journey measured in friends).

Manish wanted to swap some photos with me, so invited us to the modest home of his in-laws, where he'd left his laptop.

I'd previously met Manish's wife, Krishna, and two of their young sons, Yashordan and Tvarit. I was now introduced to their eldest son, 15-year-old Vishesh. To my surprise, it transpired that he lived here with Krishna's parents, which explained why we hadn't met on my previous visits. In reply to my enquiry about why he didn't live at home with his parents and brothers, Manish told us that Krishna was her parents' only child and, after her marriage, her mum and dad had no-one to care for them in their old age nor, eventually, to inherit their property. Consequently, they had formally and legally adopted Vishesh as their son.

And how did Vishesh feel about this? Well, it was a family responsibility he was pleased, as his parents' eldest son, to have accepted as his duty. What greater example could there be of India's proud culture and the respect given to elders and families?

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Left to right: Krishna, Tvarit, Vishesh, Manish, Yashordan & Krishna's father

Later, it was our turn to give the family a wildlife treat. Although Manish had taken his family to the Jhalana Forest several times in the past, none of them had ever seen a leopard in the wild there - fortunately, perhaps, as they'd previously been there on foot! So, we took the opportunity to take all of them - Manish, Krishna and all three boys - on a little safari. The officer in charge of Jhalana, having been forewarned by Dashrath, put an exclusive jeep at our disposal and we piled in to search for that elusive beast.

The hours passed quickly as we scoured the winding, dusty routes through sparse forest. Chital, one of a leopard's favourite foods, calmly grazed. Grey Langur monkeys, unfazed by our approach, posed comically for our cameras. India's national bird, the peacock, wandered sedately past, as did an occasional Grey Francolin that, strangely, is brown not grey. The remains of a deer carcass, possibly a leopard's meal at sometime in the past, hung from a tree, being picked clean by a Rufous Treepie. But not a single alarm call signalled the presence of a predator.

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Then, as the sun began its inevitable descent, our driver spotted movement among distant trees. Yes, it was a leopard - or, at least, it was a leopard's head and even that was largely obscured by branches! We waited to see if it would move to give us a clearer view. And we waited, and we waited - but clearly our presence wasn't welcomed by the leopard and this was never likely to be a sighting worth writing home about, so we moved on.

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Although we were with the man in charge of the forest, we were aware that the reserve's closing time was fast approaching and, in any case, the light was now fading too. We were about to give up on a better sighting when the driver's mobile phone sprang into life - another guide had found a leopard. The jeep was pushed into gear and we sped through the forest on a thrilling helter-skelter ride, twisting, turning, skidding, throwing up dust, all much to the delight and amusement of Manish's sons.

Somewhat late to the party, we finally reached a group of three other vehicles parked beneath a tree with binoculars and cameras focussed on the top of a hill. Through the dim light of dusk, we could just make out two leopards on rocks far above us. It looked like a female with her sub-adult cub. At first, they crouched uneasily among the scrubby outcrop. Then one clambered slowly down to a ledge, where it posed inquisitively, relaxed and impervious to the noise of excited observers and boost-mode clicking of cameras.

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What a terrific end to the final day of our Indian adventure!

*

*The Silk Route Hotel in Jaisalmer can be booked through Booking.com. For the best rates, however, contact the hotel direct by email (mail@hotelthesilkroute.com ) or telephone +91 9414478125 - and haggle for a better price!

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Over the past four weeks, I've been fortunate to enjoy the company of my big brother and to have had the privilege of sharing with him my love of this vast, ancient and diverse country. We've visited so many fascinating places, seen and photographed some amazing sights, eaten innumerable spicy meals together, put the world to rights, made new friends, and learnt and laughed such a lot.

I know that, after this and his two previous visits with Janice, India has now been well and truly ticked off David's bucket-list. On the contrary, my own list still includes some bits of my beloved India that are worthy of a visit, and I'm sure to be back in the not-too-distant future.

So, I'll just say phira milenge, see you soon, adios, à bientôt, auf wiedersehen, ciao, cheerio, ta-ra...

Posted by Keep Smiling 08:39 Archived in India Tagged india jaipur rajasthan jaisalmer thar_desert Comments (0)

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