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Published: February 2nd 2019
Return to India 8 (click on 'previous' below the panoramas for earlier blogs)
1st February 2018 The Ancient Castle at Khandela, and Blackbuck Continuing the travels of two somewhat elderly brothers, David (of ‘the grey haired nomads’) and the younger, Mike, (aka, ‘keep smiling’).
Today we're travelling by car from the Pink City of Jaipur to the town of Khandela, in the Sikar District of Rajasthan, about 100 miles to the north. It's a little off the tourist trail and we're rather looking forward to meeting our host, Dr Raisal Singh Khandela, at his hotel, a Heritage Hotel of considerable charm, fashioned from a minor part of his ancient castle complex.
Our arrival beyond the huge gates of this grand Mogul palace is greeted in traditional fashion with garlands of marigolds, our foreheads daubed with orange saffron and soft drinks to refresh us from our journey. Our spacious room faces the neatly trimmed garden courtyard across to an ornate stone staircase.
Dr Raisal Singh Khandela is a quiet, unassuming gentleman: greying-hair above a contented smiling face, with a little more than seventy years of life in the service of his people, those
Our hotel in Khandela - view from our room
22,000 souls who, by good fortune, chance to live under his wing. "I am the medical doctor to the town and respected by my people," he tells me rather modestly, and that indeed is the true measure of his ambition in life. Until quite recently, his practice included a hospital for the poor, but a new hospital exists in the town now and his surgery serves as the front line in health care. What an admirable gentleman. My life is wasted by comparison. What I haven't told you is that Raisal is Girdhar's father (you'll remember we stayed with Girdhar in Jaipur). The family line goes back to Raja Raisal, who reigned here from 1584 to 1614, a bit before my time.
His surgery takes him away from us after lunch in the hotel restaurant, but he leaves us in the caring hands of a member of his staff for a walking tour of the town. Can you imagine a town where you are known to everyone and greeted as a long-lost friend at every turn: the vegetable stallholder, the leather merchant, the barber, the tailor, the shoemaker, the shoe-cleaner who polished Mike's dusty shoes to a mirror shine,
Haveli in Khandela
They did not return...
the family in the hardware shop - it was as though we had known them all since our school days. The streets are spotless and proof of what can be achieved with the right leadership, an observation I mentioned to Raisal. "I think the people here are proud of their town," he said.
Many of the fine old merchants' homes, the Havelis, in Khandela, have remained empty since partition in 1947. That I find most sad. Today 40% of Kandela's people are muslim. Some of those who left at the time of partition have since returned, their families living harmoniously and surely happily here in this lovely town. The Havelis are truly beautiful buildings and many are still well cared for, whilst others are showing signs of decay. But life goes on here just the same, a simple life. Teenage school-kids join us on our walk, a crowd of thirty or more lads, laughing and jostling around us along the street and up the steps. Two white-haired gents, game for a little English practice: 'Where you from mister? How are you?" The handsome one with a broad grin is the lad with the Liverpool shirt.
Few tourists come
Teenage school kids
All eager to speak English to two grey-haired gentlemen
to Khandela. They all miss the delightful flat-topped houses in pastel blue, lime green, yellow, white and pink, the hum of life and the kaleidoscope of colour in the market, fresh fruit and gleaming vegetables on hand-pulled stalls, and all those friendly people offering smiles in exchange. My guess is, it's a great place to live. A few cows and families of pigs seek out their daily needs beside the road; goats sleep on doorsteps, opening one eye in greeting as we pass; donkey-carts and camel-carts laden with wares weave between the busy shoppers; honking mopeds and rickety cycles wobble by, and everywhere is that riot of colour and sound to blast your ears and dazzle your eyes. It's Bollywood live!
A long row of portaloos lines the roadside as we drive through a small village on the outskirts of the town, like beach-huts on the sea-front. Our guide shrugs his shoulders. "We put the toilets there for them to use, but the social structure determines it is considered beneath them to clean them, so they remain unused." There's an ancient step-well on the family farm a short way along the road, somewhat depleted of water right now from
Chhatri of Bhura Bajiya
There is a Sati here, a memorial to 13 Royal wives
last year's lack of monsoon rain, and birds on the fields we recognised from earlier trips: Spotted Owlet, Indian Silver bill. Spotted Creeper and Black-rumped Flameback. Across to our right there are numerous dome-shaped pavilions on stone pillars, built some 350 years back, now rather neglected and within a few years of total dereliction. Wild flowers and scrub now adorn these crumbling buildings; Chhatris, memorials demarcating past Royal cremations. There are Satis here too, in memory of 13 wives who committed suicide by fire on the funeral pyres of theirl husbands - a tradition long gone I'm delighted to add. But such is belief here in India - we will surely meet our loved ones again in another world. I'm a believer, too.
Raisal returns from his mid-day surgery and after lunch he takes us out into the countryside in his jeep looking for more birds; ornithology is one of his many interests it seems. He's good at it too: Grey-backed Shrike, Lesser Kestrel, Hoopoe, Stonechat and Black-shouldered Kite amongst the many birds we'll see today. We get to talk about the effects of a modern society in the region, so steeped in tradition and faith, bombarded now with
education at the forefront of change. "There are signs of a growing conflict between mother and daughter today as village life clashes with western society in cities; a far cry from the kerosene lamps and wood for cooking that was the every-day way of life for many in quite recent times," he tells me. I'm sure we'll discover more of modern-day impact on society as we travel into the desert region of Rajasthan in a few days time. Meanwhile, we'll leave our host here with some genuine sadness, for his generous hospitality and social wisdom from which we learn and grow.
It's a three-hour drive next morning, out past the towering chimneys of brickworks providing material for tomorrow's India, rusting tractors with workers packed tightly in trailers off to work in the fields, overladen camel carts full of bricks, private school and government school busses full of bleary-eyed students, motorbikes laden with pots and pans off to the villages, green irrigated fields of wheat and mustard, flat parched fields dotted with acacia pruned for fodder, flanked to the west by pink sandstone hills.
By mid-day we're at the Tal Chhapar Blackbuck Sanctuary on the fringe of
Strutting their stuff to impress the ladies
the Great Indian Desert in Northwestern Rajasthan. Brother Mike has been talking excitedly about this visit for several days now and I'm looking forward to seeing these somewhat rare and endangered animals. The reserve covers more than 800 hectares of parched grassland and scrub where we are fortunate to meet with Surat Singh Poonia on arrival. Surat, a Wildlife photographer of some repute, is also Deputy Conservator of Forest, Churu District. He is expecting us, offering us chai as a prelude to accompanying us on a tour of the reserve. "Their natural habitat is under great pressure in recent times, so this reserve offers them their preferred grassland diet, the sweet Mothiya, or pearl grass," he says. "There are no predators here, the buck can roam freely and they're breeding well."
Before long we sight our first Blackbuck, a small group of plain, rust-brown females, contentedly feeding on the sweet grass, pricking their ears at the sound of our jeep. A flock of common cranes takes off, wide winged in a long line of grey across the horizon and a Steppe Eagle watches us from a stunted tree. A family of wild boar enjoy shade from the mid-day sun
At the Blackbuck Sanctuary
under a tree and Booted and Imperial Eagles pass overhead as we drive. There's a cloud of dust across the plain - there, a hundred metres off, a buck lec on a patch of open ground, a dozen or more male Blackbucks watching intently as one pair lock horns, hind legs straining, pushing, heads down, back and forth, angry eyed, dirt and dust rising from beneath their feet. Riveting! We too are breathless! These magnificent animals have long, sharp-pointed, spiral horns the length of their legs. You would not want to get caught up your backside on the end of one of these! But it's the dramatic colours: black and white, the beautiful wide dark eyes and their proud stature that endears them to the wildlife-lover in us. It's rutting-time right now and all the males are gathered together, preening, honing their skills to impress the ladies, who for the time-being are happily gathered elsewhere ignoring them, in true Indian fashion.
I must consider myself fortunate to have a young brother, Mike, who has given much through his passion for this vast continent to have earned their trust. I didn't really know Mike as a child; he is nine
The ancient step well
years my junior, but we have found much in common through these journeys into this vibrant and colourful part of India as we grow old(er) together.
Later today we'll be in Bikaner, a further 130km on the road. We'll be there for two nights at the Maharaja Ganga Mahal Hotel, bracing ourselves for a visit to the Karni Mata Temple - also known as the Rat Temple. It's tuck your trousers into your socks time folks!
The rear end of The Grey Haired Nomads
Scroll down for more pictures and up to the top for the panorama show!
For brother Mike's take on the trip, click Keep Smiling
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