Passage to India

Walk with Katrina Holden through this journey into the culture and heritage of India

I’m in a village called Rohet, 40km south of Jodhpur in Rajasthan, India, and the gentleman of the house is wearing a white turban and clothing to signify peace. This 82-year-old member of the Bishnoi tribe, father of four sons, sits serenely in the shade of a khejri tree. With his circular-framed spectacles, he bears a distinct resemblance to Mahatma Gandhi. His wife and grand-daughter lean against the walls of their dhani, a circular house constructed of mudbrick and cow dung, while his daughter-in-law prepares food. His sons are out working the land.

The Bishnoi people were the first ecologists or eco-warriors,” explains our guide. True “greenies”, the all-vegetarian tribe live a simple and sustainable life. Bishnoi pray to the trees and won’t even kill an insect. Lentils bubble in a pot on an open fire, as we examine a sesame plant from which the seeds are extracted. On a single-string clothesline, women’s traditional red dotted skirts are curling dry in the heat.

We are invited by a tribal elder to observe the tradition of an opium ceremony where the opium seeds are ground and brewed into tea, imparting a medicinal effect. We sip the drink, which tastes like aniseed, from our cupped palms.

Children wave and shout as we pass by in our jeep. Later, we see shepherds in colourful clothing. We encounter leaping blackbuck antelope, camels drinking from waterholes and a baby goat just a few hours old.

Lunch is served at a luxurious desert oasis. Secure within its fort-like walls and towers, Mihir Garh is a nine-suite Relais & Chateaux property with complete privacy. It has plunge pools, relaxing lounge areas, quality dining and one of the finest equestrian programs in the country.

It’s this mixture of experiences that captivate me during my eight-day visit to the north-western state of Rajasthan on India’s border with Pakistan. I am a guest of Pure India Collection, a Sydney-based luxury travel specialist agent, which is challenging the perceptions many travellers have about India. My own prone-to-worry mother even asks if I have an updated will before departure! What I do have is a conveniently obtained evisa, applied for online just days before leaving.

A visit to Rajasthan is packed with colour, character and contradictions – a mix of maharajahs and meditation; humble homes and princely palaces; manicured gardens and manic market places; bright-purple, sequinned saris and the lavender hues of a rugged landscape at sunset; marigold flowers and martinis; and the aromas of curry and jasmine.

The beautifully preserved Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, built in 1459, is perched on a hill overlooking the old town. Our guide leads us past indigo-washed houses, the homes of priests distinguished by colourful flags. Auto-rickshaws squeeze through the narrow streets they share with freely roaming cows.

That evening, we are treated to a private performance of a 14th-century dance ceremony before dining at the 18th-century Pal Haveli – gazing at the illuminated fort while we eat. On our way back to our designer digs – the Raas Hotel in the heart of the old town, which also has views of the fort (you can see it while soaking in your bathtub) – our guide shows us the base of a tree where hundreds of delicate swallows sleep blissfully on soft pillows of leaves.

The capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur, is often called the Pink City because of the pink-walls of its buildings. We ride on the back of an elephant to Amber Fort, built in the 16th century, to see how the maharajahs once lived. We watch a snake charmer entice a cobra from its rattan basket. Monkeys scale the terracotta-pink walls of the City Palace in the old town. Our guide, Ummed Singh, had been on the personal staff of the Maharaja of Jaipur, Bhawani “Bubbles” Singh (1970-2011) for 33 years. Ummed had escorted state guests including Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and Bill Clinton through these same quarters.

That afternoon, Ummed becomes my personal market shopper, to help me bargain my way through the old town markets. I finally leave, satisfied with camel leather sandals, hand-stitched throws and wall hangings, embroidered bags, cotton kaftans, glass bangles and peacock-feathered fans.

I feel like a 1950s maharani during my stay at the refurbished but still decadent and flamboyant Rajmahal Palace Hotel. The former palace, part of the Sujan Collection, has been restored with the help of renowned Delhi-based designer, Adil Ahmad. It’s a flirtatious but tasteful fusion of Palm Springs and Jaipur. Suites include the Queen Elizabeth II Suite, built for Her Highness and the Duke of Edinburgh for their state visit in 1961; and the Jackie Kennedy Suite where the First Lady stayed for almost three months in 1962. I would recommend: tea on the lawn – sitting on fuschia cushions while a gentleman in a pink turban pours from fine bone china; martinis in the Polo Bar; afternoon tea in The Colonnade; dinner in the vibrant 51 Shades of Pink dining room, designed as an homage to a famous 1952 Vogue magazine cover photographed by Norman Parkinson; or a simple wander through the palace to try to spot the 37 different styles of wallpaper used throughout the hotel.

A more traditional place to stay is the Rambagh Palace, former home of “Bubbles”. Now run by the Taj Hotels group, the romantic palace has flawless grounds and gardens, grand dining rooms, and an internal pool once famously filled with champagne by Bhawani Singh’s father when “Bubbles” was born (hence the nickname). Don’t leave without trying a signature Jaipore Martini in the art deco Polo Bar – the former palace nursery now arguably the most well-known bar in Jaipur.

Leaving the Pink City behind, I am soon mingling with monkeys at lush Amanbagh (“peaceful garden”), an Aman resort in the Aravalli Hills. We travel by car, but it’s only a 15-minute helicopter ride from Jaipur. Greeted with a song, cool towel and welcome drinks, I am escorted to my pool pavilion room. It has a statuesque, Moghul-themed marble bedhead, and an enormous green bath made from a single piece of Udaipur marble. I have my own outdoor pool and garden – and a monkey stick in case I need to chase them from my path. They clamber up trees outside my room, but I have no need for the stick. As dusk approaches, we take the Cow Dust tour, an open-top jeep ride through nearby villages.

The sun is setting behind the mountains and a mist is rolling in low between the hills. Before a roadside stop with villagers for masala tea, we pause, taking in the tranquillity and setting sun. As the sun fades for the day, I savour the realisation that I’m in rural Rajasthan, with trusted local guides in peach-coloured turbans who know this land intimately and are loving the opportunity to show it off at its dusky, quiet best. Before long, I will be back floating in my plunge pool beneath the moonlight, with only the monkeys as my witness. Now that’s the luxury of travel in India.

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