I was draped in shimmering scarves. A colorful turban perched atop Bob’s head. We boarded an oxcart, sat regally on pillows, and set off, bumping along a dusty road, en route to “ a mesmerizing, surreal dinner.”
Soon it would be dark, but it was still light enough to admire distant mountains, lonely cows foraging for food and the occasional villager checking on his sheep. We were headed to a 16th century step well in the hills surrounding Rawla Narlai, an ancient hunting manor turned hotel/resort deep in Rajasthan, India.
Step wells are just that – subterranean Indian architectural structures, wells accessed by a series of steps down to a pool of water.
Dinner at the edge of this ancient well was good, but it was the ambience that deserves the stars. Magic and mystical. Seven hundred oil lamps flickered all around the deep hole. Hypnotic sounds echoed from the eerie darkness. Costumed waiters mysteriously appeared offering us all manner of delicacies on silver trays.
OK. It is all very touristy and not the kind of experience we usually opt for during our travels. But, we were the only tourists. Just us, the waiters, and a few musicians in the midst of this wild and weird setting. When there are more participants (almost always), more entertainment accompanies the spectacle. We had it all to ourselves, and it was indeed “mesmerizing,”as promised in the literature.
Not many tourists visit Rajasthan, India’s best-loved region, in May when temperatures reach 45 C°, (113 F°) – even above. But, after attending Alok and Ankita’s April 2018 Wedding (see previous post June 21, 2018), we wanted to see more of India. It was hot, very hot, but we survived. We did all on the itinerary except the ride on the legendary Kipling Train, “only 3rdclass.” We were told the train was not running, but I suspect the tour operator felt two old geezers would likely succumb on the two-hour “rudimentary” journey in that heat. He may have been right.
It was a disappointment, but we feasted on so much during our fascinating Rajasthan journey — and I do not mean food. There was plenty of that, but, for the most part, a bit too fiery for us. Palaces, temples, forts, gardens, crafts, folk art, bustling cities, varied landscape — Rajasthan has all.
The idyllic “holy” village of Narlai sits at the base of an imposing rock hill topped with a colossal elephant statue. We, and an Indian family, were the only guests at Rawla, our 32-room abode that originally belonged the King of Jodhpur and served as a retreat for the royal family.
We followed a hotel employee for a guided village walk, were invited inside a few houses, and marveled at a newly reconstructed Jain temple. We witnessed the daily religious fire ceremony.
Jainism is an ancient Indian religion which preaches non-injury to living creatures and re-incarnation. Many Jains from Narlai, as well as Hindis, have gone off to work in big cities, but own property in the village and contribute generously to its temples (300 in the village of 10,000).
For me the crème de la crème of the Indian trip waited up in the hills – a sighting of the secretive and seldom-seen leopard. See previous post: “India’s Big Cats.”
Narlai may not be on the average Rajasthan itinerary for foreigners. Our “morning walk through the pink city,” offered by the Samode Haveli in Jaipur was also off the beaten tourist track. This, like the other hotels where we stayed in Rajasthan, is a heritage hotel, a lavish palace still owned by maharajas but converted into a hotel.
We left the hotel at 6 a.m. and followed the hotel manager to places not on the tourist circuit . Most guided tours offer nothing “out of the box,” he said, so the hotel came up with this tour to show visitors more of Jaipur than the city’s top sights, the Amber Fort and city palace museum.
We visited the market, stopped for tastings of street food specials, and we learned, about garbage collection, street sweepers, religion and more.
Hindis believe that all living things have souls and cannot be killed. As an animal lover, I am intrigued with the sacred, ubiquitous cows, stray dogs, and monkeys. The cows that wander freely everywhere usually belong to someone, he said.
The owners tie up the calves and let the mothers roam, knowing they will come back to their babies. The dogs, he said, usually have homes of sort too. “Everyone makes so much food so they give leftovers to the dogs.” The dogs return and “guard the house.” Beware of monkeys. We noticed a group of the rascals on our walk. “That one is especially bad,” he said, pointing to the “dominant male…. He sends his troops out to scout houses. If the coast is clear, they return and raid the place. They know how to open refrigerators. They are very intelligent.”
Visiting Rajasthan’s magnificent palaces and forts is impressive, awesome. We also especially enjoyed a visit to a tiny enclave of Bishnoi, a tribe known for love of wild animals. The tribal leader, a jovial character, showed us how he wraps 15 meters of cloth around his head to form his turban. He insisted we taste Bhang, a very potent brew which “can make you crazy.” Alcohol is supposedly forbidden, but “Lord Shiva likes Bhang so much we offer it to him,” – and have a healthy shot in the process.
Rajasthan is all about color: vibrant saris wrapped around women; towering vivid, turbans crowning men’s heads; markets bursting with colorful vegetables, fabric and jewelry. Even towns are associated with color, Jaipur, “the pink city;” and Jodhpur, “the blue town.”
“A picture is worth a thousand words” Enough of my words. Scroll down for more picture highlights of Rajasthan.
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Our fascinating 11-day tour of Rajasthan was organized by Wild Frontiers. Accommodations in the gorgeous maharaja palace hotels were fabulous. www.wildfrontiers.co.uk
By popular request following a Facebook photo, Today’s Taste features a decadent and delicious recipe. Click on photo above right for details.