The relatively short drive from Jodhpur to Kherjala… our next fort… along a highway under construction was elucidating about the seeming improbabilities of this huge nation becoming modern… in our sense. Still, it seems to be happening in the small & short increments demonstrated as we alternate between stretches of some dozens of miles of good new construction before we are detoured onto the older parts of the highway.
After first missing the turn off that construction our sweetly dedicated driver Mr. Singh, returned to what was little more than a once-paved mostly single lane, mostly dirt “track”… where is he taking us? After 20 km of bouncing & pitching, we entered into the village of Fort Khejarla. Still wondering where we were, he parked in front of a rather nondescript gate, indicating that we had arrived. Walking rough stone paving we were greeted by who was the owner’s brother, who then introduced us to a generosity of stately presence sporting a fine large white moustache… the Maharaja of Khejarla! We are invited to join him at his farmhouse for dinner our second evening, as we had been told was on our schedule.
As we pass under the scalloped arch to the reception a surprising shower of rose petals delights & a woman greets us with red paste to touch our third eyes give us the blessing of a bindi. A turbaned man with a tray presents goblets of blue colored soda, complicating the finding & presentation of our passports to register, while my eyes are being drawn to the intriguing glimpse of a bubbling fountain in a circle of verdant grass lawn edged with a contrasting deep purple herb. As I sip the electric elixir I begin to peruse the fine gardens & upper verandas in more contemporary construction yet honoring a gentile rustic style to harmonize with the ancient bulk of a weathered mass of white stone towers which are the small old Fort. That mass is penultimately capped by a chocolate wedding cake of upper layers of highly carved brown sandstone which are the domestic floors topped finally with handsome white-washed Mogul-style pointed domes. Flocks of pigeons wove the mood even more intriguing as they circled around delicate finials above it all… this seems a small, out of the way, set for a historical novel chronicling many rich stories!
We are shown to our room above a steep narrow walled stairway with no handrails which opens onto a long broad veranda overlooking the forecourt & fountain, fulsome plantings soften the vertical thrust with a stepping bank of variously trimmed hedges… seriously manicured steps of topiary some suggesting crenelations & others mimicking huge overstuffed armchairs from which the spirits of this place might be watching over the theatre of centuries…
The room has two more of those columns, centering while dividing the large space closely enough to demonstrate that it is roofed with stone slabs in the traditional manner of construction. These columns have a pocked complexion blotched with white, seemingly sanded to leave only the slightest memory of once having been whitewashed. The bath is almost as large as the room, with two sinks & a rather grand shower, a tile surrounding with a shallow sunken center & a plumber’s puzzle of valves marked “hot” in several places but none seemed to actually supply what we have no real right to expect.
We also find amusement at the flat screen television, which I assiduously ignore at home, but here seem almost as ubiquitous as the cell phones which have so recently connected this immense population & vast territory with important functions from family chats to business & banking. A remarkable leap! We don’t turn it on here either.
I was immediately drawn to sit & journal both before dinner & next morning with coffee the next morning in the the pleasant seating arrangements out on the veranda near each door of the generously-spaced rooms. Ours is held in the first elbow of handsomely patterned iron railing between columns of rustically dressed red sandstone, traversing along & above another grassy courtyard surrounded by a loosely nesting complexity of rooms, each with its own personality of lounging spaces clambering up & down connecting steps & short stairways, which we discover as we pass along on our way to the dining room down in the far corner, with a generous terrace with arches enclosing both a lovely space for entertaining large groups
It was a pleasant surprise to have a magician waiting as we left the dining room… giving us a private show including producing pigeons from under his kurta! Another way the hotel supports the local population.
The next morning was scheduled a wildlife safari, in the Maharajah’s jeep, with his driver, to see Springbok & Blue Antelope in a forest of Acacia trees. Groups of students were walking to schools, of which there are more than a dozen in the district, both private & government. Here we saw a family of owls in a Tamarind tree & turtles in the pond… simple wildlife, while flocks of Siberian Cranes seemed more exotic, reminding s of the Sand Hill Cranes we explored passing through Nebraska a couple years ago.
The driver explains as he finds an antlered skull that the local tribe does not sanction any killing of animals… When he takes us to one of their family compounds we are served a ceremony involving cocain, which it is explained is a part of many local celebrations. The patriarch, proving obviously to be a friend as they chat, brews a tea which is strained through a long woolen funnel shape & served into our cupped hands to taste. Not much to taste, & to not much effect, other than that now we can say we’ve done that. Several parts of the extended family are present, with four children enjoying what seems a small special event around our exotic presence. We are invited to see their simple home, mostly hearth, as there are several other buildings presumably sleeping quarters. We play a bit with the happy children & are introduced to the baby water buffalo. We follow the suggestion that we tip the matriarch with her large gold nose ring. Once again we are participating in the local economy. We will hear more about how the Maharajah takes care of his population.
We are taken to a local, very simple temple complex with a pond of turtles & owls in its trees as part of the wildlife. The contiguous presence of both Hindu & Muslim shrines was proudly described with the explanation which we have heard several times before, that there is no animosity between the two belief systems, which obviously usually co-exist in peaceful relationship.
We had expressed interest in visiting a factory making block printed fabric, which indeed became a fascinating tour to watch the technique of using a mixture of mud, jaggery sugar & powdered lime to make a thick paste into which intricately carved wooden blocks were dipped to print a pattern onto white cotton as a resist to prevent the color from penetrating in the dye bath, Repeating the process several times creates multi-colored print yardage which then can be sewn into clothing or tablecloths.
We enthused that they were making use of the gorgeous Indigo dyes which we’ve long appreciated… ascertaining that this was our kind of place! It was explained that the contents of the vats of indigo have not been replaced for many decades but only refreshed with new plant material… a ripening of the rich color. There was a very deep vat with a series of rollers lifting the length of fabric up through a wringer to save the precious soup made from a plant, about which we have learned from another SAM exhibit, where we also learned that a farmer in one of the Indiana states has begun to grow it as a crop, bringing ancient aesthetics closer to home… where sheep’s wool & southern cotton can be enhanced with its lovely blue.
We made a third significant purchase of fabric, after vowing we do not need to bring home more of such goods. Much of what we brought home last time did not harmonise with our NW light, climate,& life style, but how or why can we say no to what are the best, most seductive Indian handcrafts when we find ourselves in this climate & place… opining that this might well be our last trip of such significant distance?! We can easily rationalize that we are supporting the local economy!
Along the way we stop to see a tool extracting sesame oil. This one was electrified, but I did not manage to get a photo later of another with a cow bearing a yolk, walking ’round in circles to do the same work…The jeep took us for a final excursion to the vegetable market filled with the exuberance even this desert can produce: bales of perfectly formed very long scallions; aubergine
The morning’s safari stretched into a fulsome day. Back at the Fort we welcomed having good Ayurvedic massages & some pool time before getting back in the jeep to be driven with the Maharaja to the family farm just outside town for dinner, which began with sturdy pours of an Indian whiskey, while an old retainer quietly & skillfully tended a small fire in a brasier which provided the ambient light & slightly smokey insect protection while we chatted about life in the community he “rules”, if only by titular & benevolent power.
We are entertained by a trio of musicians, a village family who have worked exclusively for the Fort for generations, until they are now encouraged to work outside festivals & weddings to enlarge their employment from being the Maharajah’s retainers… another indication of socio-economic change. Again, as in the desert/camel ride show, the elder singer plays the harmonium, with his nephew being the stronger voice & drummer, while the nine year old grandson enhanced with a good rhythm on a tambourine & sang in a descant voice promising well toward its maturity. They were seated on a blanket in the dark , so that we could see only their silhouettes. We had been encouraged by our agent to tip generously as we became moved, because this is their family income, which is true of all services since the tourist trade is being newly developed around our hotel inside the walls of the fort.
His brother Aisagn lives in the family home & runs the farm while he runs the hotel, which seems to be his major investment toward income. Anjana & Deepa have explained that the British taxed the royalty nearly out of existence to lessen local power & maintain colonial control. At the same time it seems that part of what remains is a certain benevolent consideration for the local population around the village, which ultimately support the hierarchical historic system. Daliv Singh seems conscientious albeit a bit weary as he accepts Stephen’s compliment about the tidiness of the village, which we understand is part of his honorably accepted civic requirement. There was an obvious undertow of pride when he mentioned the number of both private & government schools. We sensed a bit wistfulness when he mentioned that he had been the mayor… a young female relative is now the current administration. That seems to bode well for some age & gender balance, even though it might still be weighted toward familial power. He allowed that he may run again.
The Maharajah explains that he is the fourth generation of adopted sons… without clearly elucidating the reason… but as he talks a young man appears unexpectedly into the firelight, taking the chair of the Maharajah’s brother, introducing himself as Shivaj in perfect English… the brother’s son. The conversation becomes much easier as we learn much more of the family structure. He has been educated in business & in fact, he too has been adopted by his never married uncle to thus become his heir as the next Maharajah. He seems nicely fit for the title, being intelligent, charming & handsome… I wonder, if in his later life, he will also adopt the look of a large white moustache!
He describes the plans he is making to remodel this large farmhouse to host guests, adjunct to the hotel in the Fort… about a mile away. This is reminiscent of the system of Agro-tourismo in Tuscany, which offers smartly renovated antique venues with rural ambience which we have enjoyed… I sense a small empire in the making!
We are introduced to his sister?/wife?
This proved to become one of our favorite destinations… a small off-the-beaten track venue gifting us a bite — no, a full meal to savor! — of truly genuine experiences of country life. Now back onto the rutted road, a