Noble horse

Ravla Khempur, where the Marwari war horse still gallops. Meet this beautiful animal, bred by the Rajputs to be passionate, showy and quick-tempered - and heroic like the legendary stallion Chetak
Noble horse

Ten years ago, when local villagers dragged Thakur Hemant Singh Deval back from the big city life of Udaipur to take over as sarpanch and head of the one-time jagir of Ravla Khempur, he wasn&rsquot sure what to make of his new life as a country gentleman. But today, it&rsquos clear from the unspoiled metalled roads and well-equipped school that the villagers knew what they were doing. And for visitors, Thakur Hemant&rsquos skill as host and hotelier shines through in the homely atmosphere and casual efficiency of Ravla Khempur, today an eight-room heritage hotel that caters to horse lovers.

A long-time resident of Delhi, I travelled to Ravla Khempur to rid myself of the black mood that had crept over me through the long, hot summer in the crowded capital and to recapture the love for Rajasthan that I had cultivated during my first year in India. The key to both, I knew, was Rajasthan&rsquos beautiful and spirited Marwari horse, the subject of my first &lsquobig&rsquo story as a freelance writer in India and an enduring fascination for a grown-up boy who&rsquod spent many an hour fancying himself a character in Riders of the Purple Sage. On this trip, I&rsquod leave books and breeders&rsquo conferences behind and ride. I wasn&rsquot disappointed by Thakur Hemant&rsquos horses or by his hotel, which provides a window into authentic Rajasthani culture and an escape from the state&rsquos turban-and-camel clich&eacutes.

Ravla Khempur is set amid the sarson and jowar fields like an antique gemstone &mdash slightly faded and nicked, but all the more enchanting for its wear. The climate here is not as dry as it is further north and west as you approach the Thar Desert, so the landscape is touched everywhere with a subtle pastel beauty. The cactus, which grows thick across the untilled land and which villagers cultivate for the hedgerows around their fields, is the pale blue of an old knife. The drying jowar that Thakur Hemant feeds his horses is tinged with salmon and rose. And here and there bougainvillea blooms like a burst of flame.

Ravla Khempur itself is a grand, two-storey haveli, pale yellow in colour, with arched windows trimmed with ornate white carvings that reminded me of the sugary frosting on a wedding cake. Hemant has allowed the building&rsquos age to show through, so the exterior walls are streaked with mossy water patterns that set off the frilly balconies and give the estate a dignified air that harkens back to the origin of the jagir &mdash which was awarded to Thakur Hemant&rsquos great-greatgrandfather when he killed two assassins to save the life of Jagat Singh II, future Rana of Udaipur and builder of the Palace on the Lake. Having seen havelis before, though, the first things that struck me were the fine, arched stables alongside the haveli&rsquos iron-spiked doors. Originally used to stable the horses of travellers visiting Ravla Khempur, today the four stalls house Thakur Hemant&rsquos four Marwari broodmares, all of which were in various stages of pregnancy when I visited. 

Their nickering and snorting and earthy smells are the perfect introduction to the hotel, I soon found, as I began to explore the property. Though Thakur Hemant only took up horse-breeding a decade back, he is now thoroughly obsessed with the Marwari, and his obsession is reflected everywhere at Ravla Khempur. Nearly every wall features a painting or photograph of one of the prime specimens of the breed, and at every turn Thakur Hemant&rsquos love for horses reveals itself in some unexpected form &mdash in a glass-topped table supported by wooden horses, or coat hooks in the shape of horses heads.

Thakur Hemant can arrange riding lessons, excursions for experienced riders and day trips to Chittaurgarh, Udaipur and Kumbhalgarh. But Khempur is a quiet, clean place, without babbling televisions or whining air-conditioners, best suited to travellers who have learned how to relax and understand the merits of doing nothing. There is no menu card or dreaded multi-cuisine restaurant. Instead, visitors are treated to traditional Rajasthani dishes prepared with local vegetables under the supervision of Thakur Hemant&rsquos mother. I&rsquove never stayed in a hotel in India with better food. &ldquoWe don&rsquot want to be too commercial,&rdquo Thakur Hemant is fond of saying, along with, &ldquoWe don&rsquot have to operate on a schedule.&rdquo

Relaxation is one area in which my expertise is unsurpassed, so the pace of life in Khempur suited me. I spent my first day sitting in one of the window seats on the verandah and watching the grooms work with Bazigar, Hemant&rsquos prize stallion, next to the small temple in the courtyard below, every so often turning my attention to a flock of green parrots. Later, I took a stroll through the village with Hemant, stopping by the temple steps where old men congregated to smoke chillums and discuss the problems with the &ldquoyoung people of today&rdquo. After that, I took a nap on the window seat in my room, lounging in the coloured sun that filtered through the stained glass. There&rsquod be plenty of time for Hemant&rsquos Marwaris in the morning.

Every school kid in India knows the story of Chetak, the grey Marwari stallion that carried Rana Pratap safely away from his battle against the Mughals at Haldighati on three legs after one of his hind legs was hacked off. But few know much else about this indigenous horse breed &mdash or even that it has only recently begun a return from the brink of extinction. 

Bred as a battle mount by the Rathore clan (of Jodhpur/Marwar), the Marwari is a hot-blooded horse with a thick, arched neck, long-lashed eyes and flaring nostrils. The Rajputs bred the Marwari to be passionate, showy and quick-tempered and nurtured the breed&rsquos most distinctive characteristic ears that curve inward to a sharp point, meeting at the tips to form an almost perfect arch. Today, every carthorse in India has some form of these arching ears, so most non-experts are stunned to discover that pure Marwaris number only in the low thousands and there are only a few hundred truly excellent specimens. Sadly, though, the same Rajput pride that created the Marwari has nearly proved its undoing in the post-Independence era. Because in feudal times, only Rajput nobles had been permitted to ride them, the Marwari became a symbol of casteism and oppression following the incorporation of the princely states into independent India. And after India stripped the jagirs of their fiefdoms in 1956, thousands of Marwaris were shot, castrated or turned over to the peasant farmers to use as draft animals.

Though there was little demand for Marwaris then, except for use in wedding ceremonies, the Mirasi caste of horse breeders, who had once supplied the Rajputs with their mounts, kept the breed alive until the 1980s, when Rajasthan&rsquos nobles began to regain some of their former wealth through heritage tourism and the Marwari began its comeback. But over the years, the breeding stock was diluted and essential information about the lineage of the top horses &mdash once kept by the bards the noblemen employed to sing (and perhaps embellish) their exploits &mdash was lost.

That&rsquos why Thakur Hemant thinks of himself as a horse breeder as much as a hotelier, even though hospitality rather than horses is his roti-sabzi. &ldquoI bought my first Marwari in 1990 for Rs 8,000,&rdquo he told me. &ldquoAt that time, I didn&rsquot know the first thing about horses. After some time passed, my father explained why this wasn&rsquot a good horse for breeding, showing me all the points that one should look for in a Marwari.&rdquo A few months later, Hemant sold that colt for Rs 15,000. He bought and sold another horse, and another, and another, learning more about the business as he went along. &ldquoHorse breeding isn&rsquot rocket science,&rdquo he said. &ldquoAnybody can learn it if he takes the time and he has the passion.&rdquo Today he breeds some eight foals a year, some of which later sell for a lakh or more. The frequent presence of &lsquobaby horses&rsquo at Ravla Khempur adds to its attraction for families with small children.

That morning was bright and cool, and Hemant had consented to put the stallion, Bazigar, through his paces for me and the other hotel guests. Ravla Khempur generally accepts only one group at a time, so visitors feel that they are guests in a Rajput house rather than patrons of a hotel. But he&rsquod made an exception so that I could see how the hotel operated when it was full. Bazigar, too, had an equine visitor &mdash a dapple-grey mare belonging to the local MLA that was to be &lsquocovered&rsquo or bred over the next few days &mdash so the stallion was more than happy to preen and strut for us. &ldquoSee, this is the true Marwari,&rdquo Hemant said,&nbspproviding an apt description of himself as he squared his shoulders and thrust out his chest. &ldquoHe&rsquos like the hero in a movie. Here you see him in a jacket. Later he wears a hat. He&rsquos always looking good.&rdquo Hemant was dead-on. Bazigar was as big a ham as Salman Khan.

That afternoon, I climbed aboard Rajroop, Hemant&rsquos most obedient mare, which he uses for displays of the traditional art of horse dancing popular at Rajasthani weddings, for a ride through the village and the local fields. Finally, I was riding a Marwari. A beautiful, chestnut-coloured animal with four white socks and an auspicious white &lsquotilak&rsquo on her forehead, Rajroop was more responsive than most tourist horses, perhaps because she has not been spoiled by legions of inexperienced trail riders. But though she was always ready for a gallop, a gentle tug on the reins was enough to keep her in check-even when another of the ladies, Kalyani, decided to take a vicious kick at her.

On the way back to the stable, I hatched schemes to delay my return to the car horns and shoving matches of Delhi. All I could think was, &ldquoAll this, and all you had to do to get it was hack off a couple guys&rsquo heads&rdquo What can I say I&rsquove always been a sucker for hot-tempered girls.

The information

By air Indian Airlines and Jet Airways offer daily flights from Delhi and Mumbai to Udaipur, which is about an hour&rsquos drive from Ravla Khempur.

By train&nbspTake the Mewar Express from Delhi, which leaves Nizamuddin at 7pm and arrives at Mavli, one stop before Udaipur, at 6am. From there, it&rsquos 8km to Ravla Khempur.

By road from Delhi take NH8 to Jaipur, and push on to overnight at Pushkar (6hr). Then take NH79 to Chittaurgarh and Khempur (4hr).

The hotel

The Ravla Khempur ( offers well-appointed en suite rooms. Contact&nbspTel 91 2955-37154 / 9982122266 /7568272852,,

The main attractions at Ravla Khempur are the haveli, village life and Hemant&rsquos Marwari horses. Riding lessons, trail rides and horse safaris are all available. Safaris of five to eight nights can be arranged for experienced riders, with accommodation in neighboring ravlas and havelis, as well as at comfortably equipped tents. One six-night/seven-day itinerary carries riders from Khempur to Kumbhalgarh Fort and Ranakpur, with rides of around 20km-30km per day.

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