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Published: March 10th 2016
March 9 we leave Khimsar and head off for the short drive to Nagaur. A largely uneventful drive through the usual arid countryside. The occasional toll booth is manned here by Border Security Force. We are about 160 miles from Pakistan so security is noticeable especially as there is intelligence that ten terrorists crossed into Indai from Pakistan a few days ago.. From time to time policemen can be seen lolling around under umbrellas, guns propped against their chairs, alongside the road.
We reach Nagaur and are amused to be at the front of the queue at a level crossing. The barrier is a red pole lowered by a long rope. However clearly it is considered merely advisory rather than mandatory to stay behind the barrier when it is down. Families, old women and all sorts merely duck under and saunter across the tracks, looking neither left nor right, relying on the toot toot of the train to tell them to get off the track. Men lay their motorbikes flat and pull them under the barrier and ride them across. “India people all busy busy no stop” declares our driver. Eventually the train approaches and this does stem the flow
across. When the barrier lifts, motorbikes are lined up six deep across the entire roadwidth in both directions and charge each other like medieval knights in combat. No one seems to fall off.
We are staying in Nagaur Fort (more correctly the Ahhichatragarh Fort, or the Fort of the Hooded Cobra), in the most extraordinary hotel we have encountered all holiday. The old fort walls are 1.8km long and thirty or forty feet high. Nestled within is a huge 17th
century palace, within which the queens’ quarters have been turned into a hotel so discreet you would hardly know it was a hotel. Ten havelis, each of which was once the palace for one of the maharajah’s queens, have been turned into hotel rooms. When we arrived we were given a ground floor room which was spacious and luxurious. But then after a couple of hours the youthful front desk manager appeared looking slightly anxious. He explains that a VIP contingent of government ministers and their entourage were due to arrive on Friday 10th, and in order to avoid us being disturbed by them (or maybe to keep us out of their way) he wondered if we would accept
a free upgrade to a first floor suite. Trying to keep the delight out of our voices we graciously agree to this request, and are now ensconced in a much bigger room with a dressing room, bathroom and two private balconies facing in opposite directions so there is always somewhere to sit in the shade. This is extremely important as the temperature has suddenly soared. The heat is really zapping now between about 11 and 3. We are in the Thar desert, after all! The havelis have all been very sympathetically restored and converted for modern use, so we have the extraordinary privilege of staying in a room where you can still imagine the queen living. All we are missing is the punkahwallah to fan us but I suppose ceiling fans and AC compensate for that.
In the medieval era Nagaur sat astride trade routes crossing north-south and east-west. With a dead flat plain all around, the defence of the fort depended on the military and economic power of its rulers. Nagaur Fort (Ahhichatragarh or Fort of the Hooded Cobra) was one of the first Muslim strongholds in northern India and one of the finest examples of Rajput-Mughal architecture.
Built in the early 12th century and repeatedly altered over subsequent centuries, it witnessed many battles and changes of control. Moghul Emperor Akbar used it has his operational base in Rajasthan. The fort came to the Maharajas of Jodhpur in the 18th
century. In 1752 the then Maharajah gave the fort to his brother Bakhat Singh, who built the current palace as a pleasure palace for his queens. He then appears to have lead a sybaritic existence with his queens while his brother got on with running the princely state of Marwar from Jodhpur. The Maharajah knew how to keep his brother occupied and out of his way!
The palace had fallen into a dreadful state of disrepair from the late 1940s onwards when it had been occupied by the government and the military. They had bricked up lots of the beautiful arches and doorways and generally abused and neglected the place. However from 1993 it has been subject to a programme of renovation largely funded by the Getty Foundation and the Maharajah of Jodhpur. A team from the Courtauld Institute in London are still working on restoring the delicate wall paintings, most of which were whitewashed over when
the Border Security Force used the palace as its base.
In the late afternoon on the 9th
we were shown round the palace, after it had closed to normal visitors. If it were not for the book in our room showing the before and after pictures, it would be impossible to visualize how derelict and overgrown the place was before the conservation work began. The palace is huge, with numerous courtyards that once held pools and fountains, now only filled for special occasions such as the Sufi dance festival which we missed by a few days.
Next morning we rise early to walk a portion of the walls before it gets too hot, and to go round the palace again to take photos in a different light. We savour the pleasure of being completely alone and not spending ages waiting for someone to move away so we can take a photo without people in it. By the time we’ve had breakfast the temperature has risen and we hide in the shade of our balcony till mid afternoon, when we take a stroll through town. There are police swarming round the entrance to the fort ahead of the VIP
meeting between the Chief Minister of Rajasthan and the President of the BJP, the ruling party in India. By the time we return, the number of police has tripled, and the traffic is held up for a massive convoy of official vehicles including an ambulance, just in case. Just as the convoy approaches the gate, a disabled, bearded Muslim riding a tricycle which he propels using his arms crosses the square at relatively high speed. Much yelling from policeman, waving of lathis, and the guy brings himself to a halt before he gets belted by one of the officers. Once the convoy has gone in, we approach the gate. There are about thirty policeman standing around and one of them demands to see our documents, which of course are locked in the room safe. We show him our room key and he laughs and we realise he really just wants an excuse to talk to us. Further in, another group of police call to us “We Rajasthan police” and pull themselves to attention. They are excited to have their photo taken, and to view it on the camera – just like adolescent boys. Much handshaking and salutes and off we
go. We walk round another section of the outer wall to get back to the hotel entrance, where we see the full hierarchy of security – policemen with sticks, police with rifles, police with pistols and half a dozen sharp looking soldiers with Uzis whose eyes flit everywhere. The soldiers look cool but we decide it’s best not to ask them for a photo. As we reach reception, the front desk manager, now attired in a natty red turban with one end flowing loose, politely invites us to one side to let the BJP president Amit Singh and his entourage go past. “He is fatty one” he whispers to us.
We take dinner at the open pillared baradari, just us and a couple of Frenchies as the "VIPs" are not dining yet. After dinner we decide to take a small promenade around the far end of the hotel around the garden. A hotel employee follows us nervously. Men in fatigues and carrying the Uzis pop out of the bushes! Guess these are the havelis where the VIPs are staying then........
More photos below
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