Rajasthan Rediscovering royal heritage

A road trip that revealed many other places to visit in Rajasthan than the famous fort cities of Jaipur, Udaipur and many more.
Rajasthan Rediscovering royal heritage

What can you say about a driving holiday where you have to practically claw yourself away from your starting point In retrospect, I&rsquod say it was a propitious beginning. My journey into the secret heart of Rajasthan, beyond the veil of big-ticket destinations and turban-toting maharajas, began at Castle Kanota, a mere 20 minutes from the hurly burly of Jaipur&mdashyet it could have been worlds away for the tranquil oasis it was.

Leaving Jaipur, I turned on to the Agra road and swept through the Ghat ki Guni tunnel. A few minutes later, I swung my jalopy into the crowded lanes of Kanota, went past the formidable castle gates and parked myself at the edge of an impeccably maintained lawn. To my left sat the pleasing confection of a haveli, to the right a walkway over a moat led to the family temple. Across the courtyard lay the former Durbar Hall and what must now be one of the grandest living rooms in Rajasthan&mdashand which some will recognise as the setting of the Viceroy Club in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (the property also does a cameo in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). Cannons purchased from the British navy stood sentinel over the pacific scene. The unremarkable world outside had ceased to exist. The guest rooms, their walls painted with delicate frescoes to soften any residual martial vibe, were ranged round the perimeter walls. After I had checked into my spacious suite, complete with claw-footed bathtub, and rung for lunch, it was in the Durbar Hall that I settled down, right at home among the portraits, antique cameras, hand-swung pankah and three-way love seats, the brocade and the velvet.

Lunch was excellent Indian fare, but this did not surprise me in the least. Kanota has always kept a fine table. The thikana was established in 1872 by Thakur Zorawar Singh of Peelwa, who had joined the Jaipur administrative service in 1869 and subsequently became a close confidante of Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh. Kanota&rsquos most famous scion was his grandson Major-General Amar Singh, who served in both the British and Indian armies. He was a man of many interests and talents, which he somehow found the leisure to pursue through several wars. These included a passion for cooking and collecting recipes from all over the world. Meals at Kanota draw from this seemingly endless trove of recipes. Thakur Man Singh, the current scion, who resides here with wife Sandhya, is an accomplished cook himself and I can personally vouch for this. He may have cooked cabbages for kings but is unapologetic about his preference for creations of the flesh. At my insistence, this ferocious-looking gentleman rustled up two delicate renditions of maas (mutton) over a coal-fired twin angeethi. Both were safed (white), yet they could not have tasted more different. I just couldn&rsquot decide which was more sublime. The Singhs also run Narain Niwas in Jaipur which is noted for its legendary&mdashand authentic&mdashroyal Rajasthani thali. &ldquoYou won&rsquot find any lal maas or ker sangri in our thali,&rdquo Man Singh assured me. Their thalis are also served with Chandrahaas, a heritage brew made with a blend of 80 herbs, spices and dry fruits, and distilled and matured in wooden casks.

The Singhs are not the only residents at Castle Kanota. A virtual menagerie will accost you here roosters and hens and chicks, geese and horses, ponies and parakeets, and dogs (including a Daschund and a Basset Hound, two of the cutest breeds to have befriended man). A rainwater harvesting system ensures that the wood apple and pomelo trees bear fruit through the year. Castle Kanota also houses a museum chronicling the life and times of Thakur Amar Singh. In invoking diarist envy, Amar Singh yields to none. He kept a journal for 44 years, without missing a single day, barring one when he fell off a horse and was rendered unconscious, making it possibly the longest dairy in the world. Today, his diary, which runs into 89 volumes, massive collection of books, maps, personal effects and artifacts are on display in a museum in the castle which will soon expand to display rare miniatures. Over the excited chatter of an American tour group which dropped in for tea (and whose guide explained to them that &ldquoall Sikhs are Singh but all Singhs are not Sikh&rdquo), I took in the history of this august house, inspected the fine collection of guns and garments, and read a bit from the diary, a page or two from which is always on display.

After a calm night under a starry sky, morning stole upon me quietly. I demolished my breakfast of oats khichdi and country eggs under the dappled shade of a mango tree. The family matriarch ceremonially swept the temple with a peacock feather broom. The roosters crowed and the dogs came to snuggle. That&rsquos when I had my cow. Well, no, not literally. Wouldn&rsquot it be nice to lord over Kanota a bit longer, I fervently hoped

But the open road beckoned and I turned on my phone navigation and set a course due south. I was heading to Bhainsrorgarh, a fort-stay in Chittaurgarh district, not far from Kota. A brand-new four-lane highway takes you from Jaipur to Kota in a few hours flat. The thing to do would have been to head back to Jaipur and clamber on to this highway. Confident in my phone&rsquos omniscience, I got on to the road to Nayla instead.

The next two hours and 20 kilometres turned out to be most bone rattling of my life. Wise men have made much of going off the beaten track. From first-hand experience, I can tell you, you&rsquod be wise not to take aforementioned wise men literally. On certain stretches, the road simply ceased to exist. Where it existed, it was a veritable obstacle course. I drove through sleepy villages and sent the residents skittering for cover. It was rather an adventure&mdashthe sort that road-trippers actively seek out&mdashbut I&rsquod rather not repeat it. I finally hit the blessed Kota highway at Chaksu and did the next 200 kilometres in two hours. It was a featureless expanse, but one can&rsquot sniff at comfort. Once past the clamour of Kota, the drive to Rawatbhata compensated, taking me on some hairpin bends through the hills and passing through the leafy expanse of the Mukundara tiger reserve and sanctuary. I took a right at Rawatbhata, where an atomic energy reactor was set up in the 1960s with Canadian collaboration (their other noteworthy export is singer Shreya Ghoshal), and revved my engine for the last, short stretch of the day&rsquos drive.

I was greeted by Hemendra Singh, quintessentially Rajput down to the twirl of his moustache and the pearl studs adorning his ears. He plied me with sublime ghar ka khana until, sated, I stopped rattling and peeked over the ramparts to drink in the scene. Perched on a 200-feet-high cliff above a bend in the Chambal river, Bhainsrorgarh is all about the views. What must have once been strategic is now scenic. It is said that Col. James Tod, of the Annals & Antiquities of Rajasthan, after seeing Bhainsrorgarh, expectedly being rather enamoured, declared that if he were offered a jagir anywhere in Rajasthan, this is the one he would choose. Over the next few days, I came to be in such deep agreement with him that I concluded we must be soulmates.

This sleepy nook of the woods offers several gentle excursions for the restless traveller not content with staying put and watching the swifts fly about in the cow-dung paved courtyard over a cup of Lady Grey tea. One of them is to the spectacular 10-11th century temples of Badoli, complete with grumpy caretaker. One late afternoon, I went boating on the Chambal. A path dropped steeply from the fort to the river below. At the water&rsquos edge, there were ancient cenotaphs. We pushed the boat out and bobbed in the gentle flow. The Chambal is a birder&rsquos paradise and this particular stretch offers a rich haul. I saw cormorants and moorhens, bitterns and storks, lapwings and swifts. There were islands in the river, great for picnics I was told. A crocodile flipped its tail coyly and retreated to the depths. As the sun mellowed, the warm day made way for a pleasant evening. A French press appeared and freshly brewed coffee followed.

Another evening, Rajveer, Hemendra&rsquos soft-spoken brother who co-manages the property, took us on a &lsquovillage safari&rsquo in his jeep. After about eight kilometres of driving through some rugged terrain, we stopped at a small village. It was a stunning setting. Children were skipping stones quite expertly on the still waters of a creek bathed in the golden light of the dying sun. One of them was beating the water with a large staff (rural pastimes, I tell you). In the backdrop, a hill range loomed dramatically. Under the shelter of a small temple we stopped for tea. On the way back, in the gloaming, we caught a jackal in the headlights.

Food is centrestage in the Bhainsrorgarh experience. The family, Hemendra confided in me, is simply obsessed with food. &ldquoAs soon as we finish lunch, we start wondering what we&rsquoll have for dinner,&rdquo he said. With sumptuous portions, this is Rajasthani hospitality at its best. One of their culinary highlights is dadariya, a dessert made with fresh, green wheat, only available for 20 days around March. I sampled batiya, a local flatbread, as well as rabodi ki subzi. Hemendra waxed lyrical about makke ke kan, a dish made with grated fresh corn, which grows plentifully here. I did go on a culinary picnic, under the ample shade of an ancient tree overlooking a reservoir in the village of Bhawanipura the waters teeming with carp species like rui and mrigal destined for the wet markets of Kota. Monitor lizards were sunning themselves on the rocks as I tucked into some keema, sookhi dal and a divine lauki ki sabzi.

While I enjoyed all of this, my favourite memory at Bhainsrorgarh was something else entirely Get up in the dead of night. Steal my way up to the terrace. And gawp at the tent roof we call the sky. I have never seen so many stars in my life. The Milky Way, well, milky and clear. Jupiter an incandescent plum ripe for picking. Since the Chambal is dammed up ahead, the water flows rather gently here in fact, so gently that you can see the reflections of the stars in the waters. That&rsquos a sight to remember. An irrigation pump purrs somewhere. Folk music wafts in on a cool breeze. I return to the warm embrace of the fort.

From Bhainsrorgarh, I retraced my steps to Kota (that lovely drive again), then turned right on to the Lalsot &lsquomega-highway&rsquo. The drive, past Indargarh, was a breeze all the way to Sawai Madhopur. I stopped for lunch and some cat chat at the well-appointed Sawai Madhopur Lodge. From here, I should have retraced my steps slightly and rejoined the Lalsot highway for my onward journey. Instead, I hit something called MDR 111 which took me past the entrance to the Ranthambhore National Park. With a name like that, how could I resist No complaints about the drive. There was a harsh beauty to the land, as I drove deeper and deeper into raw, untamed terrain. Occasionally, the road cut through villages where tractors had carved deep furrows in the mud and, sans SUV, I had to ride the crests to avoid getting banged up. It was evening by the time I reached the dusty town of Sapotara, and rode up a pebble-strewn path to Ramathra fort.

Being a battle fort, Ramathra&rsquos plain exterior belies its luxurious rooms. Where Bhainsrorgarh sports an au naturel vibe, Ramathra&rsquos interiors are modern and chic. There was a fresh coat of paint and a textured accent wall. A traditional lime plaster finish had been used in the bathrooms but the space looked contemporary and refreshing. Indeed, the finish recalled the adobe dwellings of New Mexico to me. The owners are in the carpet export business, and their tasteful creations were strewn everywhere. Few tourists find their way to this forgotten corner of Rajasthan, bypassing it on their way from Ranthambhore to Bharatpur and Agra. Although, Lord Ram is said to have stopped here on his way to Lanka, which is why the name (Ram thehera or Ram stopped). A jagir of Karauli, in rercent times, the fort was shut for decades with the family staying in Jaipur. Then the current custodians, Ravi and Gitanjali, did up the place and opened for business.

We should be grateful to them for opening up this absolutely untouched part of Rajasthan to the world. The fort sits on the topologically fascinating Daangs plateau, which makes for great excursions by jeep. One of them leads to a leafy gorge where a perennial stream flows next to a cave temple. There&rsquos boating and birding on the Kalisil lake, created by the damming up of the Kalisil river. My boatman kept me entertained with sightings of &lsquoheroines&rsquo and &lsquocrepes&rsquo. The region falls in the buffer zone of two of the greatest wildlife sanctuaries in the world&mdashRanthambhore and Bharatpur and, in the morning, I espied spotted deer grazing below the fort walls.

From Ramathra, I headed to Bharatpur, past thousands of pilgrims making the journey by foot to the Kailadevi shrine. In Bharatpur, I stopped at a charming haveli in the village of Paharsar, which Sher Shah Suri had captured in just a pahar (three hours). From here, it was a smooth drive to Mathura, to the accompaniment of roadsides lush with blossoms of kans (Saccharum spontaneum) and babul (Vachellia nilotica). And then on to the Taj Expressway to Noida, quite simply the most civilised road in the country.

I looked back on my week in Rajasthan, and at my once cherry-red car. With its fine patina of mud it could have easily passed off as a camel&mdashand was probably as resilient. I had had a heritage holiday, a wildlife holiday, a culinary holiday, an experiential holiday, a rural holiday, an astronomy holiday, an adventure, and, obviously, a driving holiday. Who could have imagined that the road less travelled would offer so many rewards

The information

The route Ideally, this trip should be done by SUV. The route can be broken up into these sections

1. Delhi-Neemrana-Jaipur-Kanota (280km/5hrs)

2. Kanota-Jaipur-Kota-Rawatbhata-Bhainsrorgarh (290km/5hrs)

3. Bhainsrorgarh-Rawatbhata-Kota-Sawai Madhopur-Ramathra (245km/5hrs)

4. Ramathra-Bharatpur (145km/3hrs)

5. Bharatpur-Mathura-Noida-Delhi (200km/3.5hrs)

Where to stay Most travellers will drive from Delhi to Jaipur straight but I made camp at Neemrana to set a more relaxing pace to my trip. Your first choice here will, of course, be the atmospheric Neemrana Fort-Palace (from Rs 4,000 www.neemranahotels.com). But I stayed at the very comfortable and great value Ramada Neemrana, which is right on the highway (from around Rs 3,500 www.ramadaneemrana.com).

For my stays at Kanota, Bhainsrorgarh and Ramathra, we partnered with Rare India (www.rareindia.com). They market a number of properties across Rajasthan (13 properties and 1 experience, to be exact) and several offbeat circuits can be woven around them. Promising contenders include Chanoud Garh, Patan Mahal and Malji ka Kamra. Tariffs for the properties I stayed in are as follows

CASTLE KANOTA Rs 8,500, incl. Breakfast and lunch/dinner, taxes extra www.hotelnarainniwas.com/castle-hotels.html

BHAINSRORGARH FORT Rs 15,000, incl. breakfast and taxes www.bhainsrorgarh.com

RAMATHRA FORT Rs 16,000, includes all meals, taxes extra www.ramathrafort.com

En route I stopped for lunch at the Taj Group&rsquos Sawai Madhopur Lodge (call ahead and reserve Rs 1,600 per person for the buffet stay if you like from Rs 14,000, taxes extra www.vivantabytaj.com). At Bharatpur, I stayed at the lovely Chandra Mahal Haveli (from Rs 8,500, includes breakfast, taxes extra www.amritara.co.in). Once the residence of Benazir Bhutto&rsquos grandfather, it was owned and operated by the Bharatpur royal family as a heritage hotel before being taken over by Amritara Hotels a few years ago. They&rsquove spruced up the rooms and added a pool. The menu leans towards comfort food and is very well executed. Camel and tractor rides through the village as well as pottery demonstrations are on offer.

What to see & do Kanota is a great, and tranquil base, from which to explore Jaipur. Bhainsrorgarh similarly is great for forays into Kota and Bundi as well as Chittaurgarh. Closer home, there are the temples of Badoli and Minal, boat rides on the Chambal, picnics on riverine islands and in the surrounding countryside, sunset safaris into nearby villages, Hinglajgarh Fort and the Mukundara Wildlife Sanctuary. Things to do at Ramathra include temple and farm visits, village walks, boating at sunset, jeep safaris over the Daangs plateau, and a visit to the historic town of Karauli. Note that some activities at Ramathra are not suitable for very young children.

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